GPS units for Kayaking?

Can anyone answer a question about GPS units for a person who has never owned or used one? What features should I look for? I no the obvious reason of exact location but what about knowing how fast you are paddling? Do they have a compass or is it coordinates only? Also, weather info would be helpful, and of course cost is a factor!

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

I bought a used map76 gps for use in areas where there are many small islands that mostly look the same. It has many features, but really what i find most helpful is to use it along with a chart or map of the area.

It allows me to pinpoint my location on the map. It has a compass. It shows speed, time, distance to any point, etc.

I dont rely on it solely for anything other than checking day paddle distance covered, but on week long trips its invaluable as a tool with a chart. Keep in mind that you will likely need to buy mapping downloads separately for the areas you will paddle.

It helps me improve my navigation by showing my path during the day and could be helpful by showing a “breadcrumb” trail back to where i put in if fog where to become an issue.

I get about 4 full days use out of a set of rechargeable batteries. I could benefit from a compass navigation course.




Thanks for the information, especially the “breadcrumb” trail back feature. This gives me some idea of what to search for in regards to brand, features, etc,.

Happy paddling,


On my GPS map76Cx
I’ve had the same set of batteries (lithium) for nearly a year and have logged 612 paddling miles on them.

I don’t know where you paddle or exactly what you want out of a gps but if you own a smartphone you should really check into using that. I only use my iPhone now. I use a gps app called MotionX. It cost about two bucks. It shows your position on a map or nautical chart, satellite image, topo map etc. If gives current speed, average speed, distance traveled etc. and more. I keep the phone in a Lifeproof water/shock proof case and am good to go. Good luck.

I never thought of my smart phone being able to provide marine GPS duties! I have a Droid Razr that should have an app for that. The Razr is waterproof or at least water resistant. I didn’t believe it but a co-worker ran his under a faucet for several minutes, even wetting the speaker, microphone, and camera with no damage at all. Thanks for the info!

yeah, check your app store. I don’t think Motion x has a droid version but someone must. plus with the phone you weather and live radar. I use that all the time guiding and teaching in the summer. the live radar has saved me many times. both getting me off the water before a storm and, just as important, allowing me to stay on the water when less informed discretion would have gotten me off the water unnecessarily. have fun

If you have never owned or used one…
you might want to start with a low end model the way most paddlers start. One like the Garmin Etrex.

It will give you all of what you need and is much simpler and cheaper than a higher end model.

I started with the Etrex, and then went on to a Map-76, and then from there to a Map76Cx.

read the manual and learn it, and then go from there.


Be sure
you can navigate your way out of every situation without the gps. Great tool, but they can and do fail now and again and its not a happy time when that occurs if you don’t know how to get home without it.

You might want to go to
the Garmin and/or Magellan websites and see if they have downloadable or viewable manuals for various models. You can learn a lot by reading what is in the manual and even learn what questions you really need to get answered.

Start with manuals for the cheaper units and then compare that to one for a higher end model to see what additional features you can get and how much you have to pay for them.


I have an old Garmin GPSMap76S (B&W model) that I might have to try that lithium battery trick in, once I find the cable so I can update the maps in it. But hopefully I’ll pick up a newer Garmin Montana 650T in a few months instead.

I have an iPhone, and a waterproof case (Lifeproof) but you have to have bare fingertips to use the phone, and it’s hard to read in direct sunlight. Add to that the fact that the battery goes quick especially when using it as a GPS, so unless you plan to carry some other power source with you or have access to A/C power to recharge, the best you’ll do is maybe one day of paddling.

I’ve read in various places that salt water kills GPSes. Is that really the case, even the ones that are advertised as waterproof?


We use Delorme…
I’m sure Garmin is a great product, but I like Delorme for the software included in the purchase, combined with the option to overlay aerial photos on the topo maps. Sometimes the photos show the oyster bars and channels between the islands in the Gulf better than the maps.

Between the wife and I, we have the PN20 , PN40, and PN60. A good product with good tech support.

We often paddle salt water with these on the deck, or the occasional dunking, with no ill effect.

A useful tool.


Some GPS links and my pick
I have used a handheld GPS for about 15 years now. My old unit died and I recently purchased a Garmin eTrex20. Lots of other good units even one that floats, but the eTrex20 was about the best for the least for my use at about $160.It allows aerial and satellite overlays. I have also downloaded free topo maps that have good coastal marsh maps for my new GPS.

I have added four links. The first link is to a GPS site that has reviews of GPS units. It is the eTrex20 review on the link. The second link is for a free downloadable map site. The last two links are for GPS android apps. I have yet to download any smart phone apps so I can’t tell you much about that.

No thanks!
Garmin now offers the ability to include aerial and satellite photos.

I have a Delorme PN40SE. It’s one of the biggest pieces of CRAP I’ve ever owned and it was a waste of a ton of money. The POS locks up constantly when trying to use it. Been doing that for the past two years, of course now that it’s out of warranty. It’s utterly useless.

Their so-called support is a joke. If you post to their web forum, one of their moderators, based up in Washington, will EDIT YOUR POST if he doesn’t like how you phrase stuff because he’s very easily offended.

On top of that, they STILL do not support the Mac and apparently have no plans to do so. Even Garmin has started providing Mac-compatible software.

DeLorme’s “Topo USA” software has the worst UI of any program I have ever used. It doesn’t follow any UI standards and is just painful and frustrating. It’s powerful, but the learning curve is just too steep, and I’m a techie!


Trying to decide myself
Garmins map76Cx which is a discontinued model or the Etrex 20. Both about $160. The map76Cx floats Etrex 20 doesnt. They both seem very close in specs but more saved routes on the etrex.

Waterproof, humm there all rated to IPX7 30 minutes rating, no idea what my Delorme PN-20 was but it died after I failed a roll and had to re-enter kayak (cowboy scramble). It wasnt long maybe 60 seconds in water but that killed it.Screen fogged up and I shut it down let it dry out with desacant stuff in bag, still dead.

So not sure if Etrex 20 or the Map76Cx would be best for kayaking. Iam thinking since the Map76Cx floats it might be a bit better sealed. Any thoughts? Which would you buy between the two?

Oh what map software I see Garmin has Blue Charts , Garmin Lakes, US inland Lakes. Topo USA. Thinking the Blue Chart would cover the most??

Good Links
I agree with above recos. is a good site for learning about handheld GPS, maps, and product reviews. They do seem to like the Garmin units more than others. If you are willing to spend the time on that site you should come out with a better idea what you might want.

My Oregon 450 is currently loaded up with a number of free topos from GPSFileDepot for the PA, NJ, and Del area. I have also found some nice POIs, trails, and rail trail maps on there.

My Thoughts
If you just want a general idea where you are, a rough approximation of speed, distance, etc then just using apps on your Android phone are fine. Google Maps just added terrain visualizations and the ability to see sat imagery where you are is always nice. Google MyTracks adds more GPS handheld type functionality. There are probably other apps out there now but just starting out with the free Google apps is good way to start. The cell phones apps are nice that as long as you have wireless coverage you can have the most recent maps and info that you need.

The downside is unless you preload some maps, you can easily loose wireless coverage in the boonies, which can map the app useless or reduced. If you want speed, distance, etc then the GPS needs to be on all the time which will burn down your batteries. The phone really needs to be in a waterproof bag or box. My phone really gets hot when inside one of the Aquapac cell bags with the GPS on. Probably not the best for the longevity of your phone. Overall, the phone isn’t bad --you usually have it around and it is nice and easy to use but I found it best to leave off and only use it on occasion. I would never count on it working in an emergency but nice to have for backup or for fun.

The handheld GPS units are build more for the trail. Pretty much all of them claim to be waterproof, rugged, battery life is better plus you can take along extra batteries if needed. The maps are pre-loaded and they have better hardware/software for dealing with poor GPS signals they are better for more rural areas or water where you may be far enough from cell towers. You can depend more on the handhelds then the phone versions. Still would want a map and compass as backup.

Don’t expect a handheld to work like your auto GPS, which is fire it up and you are good to go. But for a handheld GPS often the basemaps are useless. You will need to spend sometime figuring out what maps you want to add and buying map packages can get expensive and you may have to buy maps again if you need updates. You can also be disappointed to find out that coverage in your area is spotty with say trails, points of interest, roads, lakes, fishing spots, etc, after spending a $100 on a map. There are free maps – gpsfiledepot but you need to spend time finding what maps you like and need.

I have yet to dunk my Garmin Oregon but even though it seems that most GPS are waterproof the word on the street is you should keep them in waterproof bag, even the GPSMAP76 or 78 which are some of the few that float.

Overall with the handheld you get a much more customizable unit but you will need to invest more time and money. If you expect to just turn it on and leave it at that then I would stick with the cell phone or a basic GPS.

I went for recently for kayaking, hiking and biking a Garmin Oregon 450. I have a number of free topos from GPSFileDepot and paid for the Garmin BirdsEye sat imagery subscription. I downloaded the sat imagery for the areas I bike, hike and kayak and use them with the topo maps. This seems to serve my needs for kayaking on streams and lakes around here. I don’t do open water so not sure what maps are best there.

I like my Garmin Oregon.
I had it for three years now replacing an older Etrex. I’ve been a member of SAR now for four years and use my GPS quite a bit. Most California/Oregon (CORSAR) units use the 60 series. Not saying they’re the best but they are a good unit. I like having a 1:24k map on the unit. I’ve been many searches where we didn’t have good maps or simply walked off the map and had to rely on the GPS map.

I frequently use the navigate-to-a-destination feature even when ground pounding out on a search. It works like the car units but doesn’t talk just beeps when coming to an intersection. It works great on a trail. I just set a way point and tell it to navigate on a trail. The GPS will tell me exactly how far I am from my destination and which way to go. You can also customize the data fields to give you whatever information you think is useful.

We wouldn’t send a SAR team out without at least one GPS. Incident Command keeps track of the teams by having them give their GPS location. Also tracks are downloaded to a computer by the Search Mangers to determine how well an area was covered. Knowing how to use tracks not only can keeps you from getting lost but also save you lots of money when you drop a radio or a trekking pole since you can backtrack to find whatever you lost. Been there, done that.

It doesn’t do you any good unless you know how to use the GPS. Learn about the different datums. The older maps use NAD27 and UTM so that’s what we used until recently. All CORSAR units now use WGS84/UTM. Air units still use Lat/Long as well as cellphone companies (ping coordinates) but in a different format. It helps to be on the same page when giving coordinates. You don’t want to find out that all that time trip planning was for naught when you used NAD27 instead of WGS84.

Use common sense with using the GPS and don’t disengage your brain from the navigation problem. The GPS is just a great tool but isn’t infallible. We have lots of call outs because people dumbly follow their GPS into remote logging roads and then can’t turn around or get stuck.

SAR is now into the lost-hunter season (5 call outs in two days), next, the lost-mushroom hunter season (last year a group was lost for six days – we started thinking alien abduction!) and after that is the lost-DIY-Christmas-tree-cutter season. We’ve been really busy with call outs lately plus quite a few evidence searches. We get called out on a lot of assists so you never know where you’ll end up searching. You could end up bushwhacking on the coast in the dense coastal forest or up on the PCT up by Crater Lake in the snow.

I like to use Google Earth to plan trips and then copy the way points into my GPS.

Give Geo-caching a try. Lots of fun. I did it on lakes using my canoe.

It doesn’t make sense to buy more than you need since the technology is constantly improving. There is a major upgrade coming in a couple of years using satellites having a stronger signal which will give an accuracy to a meter.

Check out some of the new units also have the Russian system on the GPS along with the US system.

Can’t find so good a Droid version yet.
Doesn’t look like MotionX does other than iPhone. So far the free or low cost GPS I’ve found for Droid doesn’t seem to have all the same features.

I’m sure I"m missing something …

Marine version if near the ocean, so you can load charts.

Ability to read the display in sunlight - take it outside of the store if you can and look at it there.

Those are the big ones. Then you learn to use maps and a compass and stick the thing in the day hatch…

If you are looking for something to primarily track speed and distance, you can get wristwatch sized units that do that quite nicely without the size of add-on chart costs of a larger one.