Best GPS for Kayaking – Buying Guide and Reviews for 2018

When you're out kayaking on a large body of water, like a lake or sea, navigation can be tricky. It's easy to lose sight of landmarks and get turned around. This is especially true if adverse conditions such as poor light, choppy seas, or fog make you lose sight of the horizon.

It's in precisely this situation that a reliable GPS is the most crucial piece of kit. A good GPS system allows you to navigate with confidence and, depending on the model, provide you with weather updates, satellite imagery maps, or even a camera.

The vast majority of GPS products are designed for trekkers, so finding one that is ideal for kayaking takes research. There’s no point in buying an expensive model if it dies the first time it’s splashed with water. To help you pick the GPS that is right for you, we’ve put together an informative buying guide complete with reviews of the best kayaking-friendly GPS systems on the market.

  • Global Positioning System (GPS) - GPS is a space-based radionavigation system owned by the United States government. A GPS receiver uses the positions of multiple satellites and the ultra-accurate time of an atomic clock to determine the exact location of the person holding the receiver.
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    GLONASS - Similar to GPS, GLONASS is a radio-navigation satellite service run by the Russian Federal Space Agency. Some modern GPS systems use both GPS and GLONASS satellites to achieve a more accurate position fix.
  • WAAS -  The Wide Area Augmentation System is an update of the US GPS systems, with the goal of improving its accuracy, integrity, and availability.
  • Transflective - Transflective displays are backlit. They can be seen in low-light conditions while simultaneously reflecting ambient light so the display is visible in direct sunlight.
  • Geocaching - Geocaching is an outdoor recreational activity. Participants use a GPS receiver, mobile device, and other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers, called "geocaches" or "caches," at specific locations marked by coordinates all over the world.
  • Geotagging - Geotagging involves the embedding of GPS information into photos or video so that you or others can navigate back to the exact spot it was taken. This data usually consists of latitude and longitude coordinates.
  • Topography - Topography is the three-dimensional arrangement of physical attributes (such as shape, height, and depth) of land in a place or region. Physical features that make up the topography of an area include mountains, valleys, plains, and bodies of water.
  • IP Code - The International Protection Marking, commonly called the IP code, indicates to what extent the case of an electronic device is resistant to intrusion by dust and water. The rating systems runs from one to eight with the second digit of the IP rating representing water resistance. For example, a device with an IP rating of IPX4 (sometimes written as IP04) is resistant to "water splashing against the enclosure from any direction."
  • Gyroscope - A gyroscope is a device used for measuring or maintaining orientation and angular velocity. In a GPS system, a gyroscope is used to detect sudden changes in direction and angle.
  • Barometric Meter - Also called a barometer, this instrument is used to measure atmospheric pressure. It can be used to track changes in altitude. Some can even predict weather changes.

Buying Guide - What Features to Consider

Water Resistance and Durability

If you're taking a GPS out on your kayak, it's safe to assume that it is going to get wet. It might be a little splash-back from your paddle, or it might be a full-blown capsize. As most GPS systems aren't explicitly designed for paddle sports, it's always best to check to what level your GPS is water resistant. Most GPS manufacturers use the IP code system to signify the water resistance.

It can also get a little rough out on the water, especially in choppy seas or on whitewater rivers. You'll want your GPS to be able to take a few knocks, even if this is just you accidentally dropping it. Look for GPS systems that have toughened glass screens, which have been chemically treated to resist damage, and rubberized cases for maximum durability.

Screen Size

Depending on how you choose to carry your GPS, screen size may be a deciding factor. If you are carrying it in a hatch or pocket and plan to hold it as you use it, then having a smaller screen isn't an issue. However, many high-end GPS systems come with an option to mount them on the front of your kayak cockpit. If you plan on doing this, then you'll need to be able to comfortably read the display without changing your paddling position or straining your eyes. Meaning, you’ll want a larger screen size. Screen size is measured diagonally across the screen face, from corner to corner.  

Mapping

Different GPS models come with different maps loaded onto them. Some might only have the country in which you bought it as their default map, but most include a basic world map. In the vast majority of cases, more detailed maps can be purchased as downloads or on a Micro SD card. On smaller GPS models that only display GPS data, routes and waypoints can be planned out beforehand using compatible computer software, then transferred to the handset using a USB or Bluetooth connection.

Some manufacturers also provide “bluemaps” which contain detailed marine cartography, fishing contours, tidal graphs, current arrows, and even the location of marine services such as the Coastguard. These are even available on some gps watch models too.

Kayak GPS Reviews

Our Pick

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Best Kayak GPS

Garmin Montana 650

- Screen size: 4"
- Water Resistance: IPX7 (Water resistant to a depth of up to 1 meter for 1 hour)
- Basic Mapping Package: Worldwide basemap with shaded relief, preloaded US topographic maps, additional maps available via microSD card (not included)

The Montana 650 is the nearest thing you'll get to GPS system designed purposefully for kayaking. With a rugged, rubberized shell and IPX7 waterproofing, it's well suited to use on the water. Its 4-inch color transflective display can be used even when you've got your kayaking gloves on. Its 3GB built-in memory will allow you to store 4,000 waypoints and up to 200 routes.

What makes the Montana 650 stand out from other models is the option to add BlueChart® g2 aquatics maps. The Bluechart maps have to be purchased separately, but when combined with Garmin’s Marine Mount, they can give you all the navigation information you need, mounted securely above your spray skirt. The Montana 650 also comes with a 5 megapixel, sunlight-readable, and autofocus camera. This camera also has a geotagging option so that you can show off your ‘yaking achievements.

PROS

  • plus
    16 hours of battery life with 3 AA lithium-ion rechargeable batteries
  • plus
    5 megapixel camera
  • plus
    Bl​​​​uechart compatible
  • plus
    Geotagging and geocaching support

CONS

  • minus
    Slightly on the heavy side at 10.2 oz
  • minus
    Requires the addition of optional extras for full utility
  • minus
    Not GLONASS compatible

Summary
The Montana 650 has all the functions a kayaker could want and, with its higher IP rating, Marine Mount and Bluechart compatibility, it's about as close as you'll get to a GPS built specifically for kayakers.

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Garmin Foretrex 401

-Screen Size: 1.6"
-Water Resistance: IPX7 (water resistant to a depth of up to 1 meter for 1 hour)
-Basic Mapping Package: Worldwide basemap

The Foretrex 401 is small, lightweight, and designed to be worn on your wrist. While it lacks the detailed visual maps available on larger options, it still contains all the navigational details you’ll need. The TracBack® feature allows you to retrace the path you’ve already taken, ideal if you paddle into a dead end. The Hotfix-assisted GPS receiver lets you receive signals even when you are under heavy cover.

The Fortrex has enough built-in memory to hold up to 500 waypoints and 20 routes. It can also be wirelessly paired with Garmin heart-rate monitors and cadence sensors for greater utility.

PROS

  • plus
    Small (2.9" x 1.7" x 0.9") and lightweight (3.1 oz with batteries)
  • plus
    Water resistant
  • plus
    Can be worn on the wrist
  • plus
    Strong GPS receiver
  • plus
    TracBack® feature

CONS

  • minus
    Small screen
  • minus
    Low internal memory and no memory expansion option
  • minus
    Not GLONASS compatible

Summary
The Foretrex 401 is lightweight, portable, and packs a lot of functions into its small case. The Hotfixing feature also makes it surprisingly accurate, even in heavy cover. The only downside is that its low internal memory means it can only store a small number of routes.

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Bad Elf 2200 GPS Pro

-Screen Size: 2.1"
-Water Resistance: IPX4 (water splashing against the enclosure from any direction will have no harmful effect)
-Basic Mapping Package: Data only

The main selling point of the Bad Elf 2200 Pro is that is can be connected to up to five Bluetooth compatible devices at once. This feature can potentially allow your entire kayaking group to make use of its GPS and data tracking functions. This does, however, mean your group must be using iPhones, as the connection software requires iOS 8. Other than that, the product

only provides basic GPS route tracking and data recording.

The GPS itself is lightweight at just 3.2 oz and fits snugly into the palm of your hand. The IPX4 water resistance makes it essentially splashproof, but it won't survive being dropped overboard.

PROS

  • plus
    Simple and easy to use
  • plus
    Can connect to up to five Bluetooth enabled devices
  • plus
    Light and compact
  • plus
    WAAS enabled

CONS

  • minus
    Limited functionality
  • minus
    No mounting options
  • minus
    Only IPX4 water resistant
  • minus
    Compatability issues with Android devices

Summary
The Bad Elf 2200 is ideal for those looking for a GPS that is simple and easy to use. If you want accurate navigation and nothing else, then this might be the GPS for you. If you want any other functions, you'll need to look elsewhere.

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Garmin GPSMAP 64

-Screen Size: 2.6"
-Water Resistance: IPX7 (water resistant to a depth of up to 1 meter for 1 hour)
-Basic Mapping Package: Worldwide basemap with shaded relief, preloaded US topographic maps, additional maps available by purchasing a separate microSD card

Compatible with both GLONASS and GPS, the GPSMAP 64 is probably the most accurate of the options on our list. It has a hard-wearing, rubberized case and is IPX7 water resistant, which means it won't fail the first time it gets splashed or dropped in the boat.

Its transflective, 65-K color, thin-film transistor uses large rubberized buttons, mounted on the sides of the handset, for navigating the menus. This feature actually makes it more useful for kayakers as you won't need to remove your gloves to use it. Its internal memory can hold up to 5000 waypoints and 200 routes. Lastly, it’s geocaching friendly and comes preloaded with 250,000 geocaching.com caches.

PROS

  • plus
    Transflective screen
  • plus
    Large internal memory
  • plus
    Excellent GPS reception
  • plus
    IPX7 water resistant
  • plus
    GLONASS compatible
  • plus
    Bluechart compatible

CONS

  • minus
    No Marine Mount option
  • minus
    A little bulky at 2.4” x 6.2” x 1.5”
  • minus
    No glove-friendly touchscreen

Summary
The GPSMAP 64 is a very close second to the Montana 650. With its GPS and GLONASS compatibility, it is exceptionally accurate, even at high latitudes. The case is highly water resistant and durable. The lack of a touchscreen is less of an issue for kayakers as they will usually be wearing gloves.

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Garmin eTrex 10

-Screen Size: 2.2”
-Water Resistance: IPX7 (water resistant to a depth of up to 1 meter for 1 hour)
-Basic Mapping Package: Worldwide basemap

The eTrex range of GPS systems is one of Garmin's most popular ranges. They are inexpensive, durable, simple to use, and accurate. The 2.1" x 4.0" x 1.3" rubberized case is extremely durable and IPX7 water resistant. The 2.2” transflective, monochrome display is easy to read and backlit for low-light conditions.

The interface is simple and easy to master, although the navigation button may be challenging to use with gloves on. The eTrex is perfect for geocachers as it supports GPX files. You can download up to 2000 geocaches and details straight to your GPS. At 25 hours of battery life, you won't have to worry about it cutting out before you get to your cache.

PROS

  • plus
    Durable and water resistant
  • plus
    Great for geocaching
  • plus
    Easy to read in any lighting conditions
  • plus
    Excellent battery life

CONS

  • minus
    Limited functions
  • minus
    Small navigation button
  • minus
    Not GLONASS compatible
  • minus
    Not Bluechart compatible

Summary
The eTrex range is popular for a reason: They are simple, durable, and they work. If you want to combine kayaking with geocaching and trekking, the eTrex 10 is a fantastic choice.

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Garmin 72H

-Screen Size: 2.2”
-Water Resistance: IPX7 (water resistant to a depth of up to 1 meter for 1 hour)
-Basic Mapping Package: Worldwide basemap

The Garmin 72H is easily the most basic product on this list. But what it lacks in functions it more than makes up for in durability. It's IPX7 water resistant and, unlike any of the other GPS options on this list, it actually floats. Combined with its water resistance, this means you have an hour to fish it back out of the water before you have to worry about damage.

It might be low on functions, but the 72H has a high-sensitivity GPS receiver, which means it can still receive satellite communication even in challenging conditions, such as heavy tree cover or deep canyons. It also comes with a built-in hunting and fishing calendar and sun and moon information. However, its limited internal memory can only hold 500 waypoints and 50 routes.

PROS

  • plus
    Flotation
  • plus
    IPX7 water resistance
  • plus
    High-sensitivity GPS receiver
  • plus
    Large 2.2” screen
  • plus
    Hunting and fishing calendar
  • plus
    Sun and moon information

CONS

  • minus
    Limited functions
  • minus
    Low internal memory
  • minus
    No Marine Mount options
  • minus
    Not GLONASS compatible
  • minus
    Not Bluechart compatible

Summary
The 72H is the ideal GPS for kayakers who want high accuracy but don’t have a use for many additional functions. It’s also perfect for clumsy kayakers as it’s durable, highly water resistant, and it floats.

Our Pick: The Garmin Montana 650

All of the GPS products on this list would work in a kayak. They are all resistant to accidental damage and water. Additionally, they are extremely accurate, allowing you to navigate with confidence. The Montana 650 stands out from the rest because it couples those facets with a broad range of useful features. From a navigation standpoint, it is accurate, Bluechart compatible, and has geotagging and geocaching support. It comes preloaded with Garmin's worldwide basemap with US topographic maps. Additional maps, including marine maps, are available via microSD card or digital download.

In addition to this significant level of functionality, it also has a glove-friendly touchscreen and a 5-megapixel camera with automatic geotagging. Lastly, it can be mounted on your kayak using Garmin's Marine Mount. The Montana 650 really does have everything a kayaker needs.