The American frontiersman Daniel Boone once said (or so the tale goes) that he was never lost, but did once get a bit confused for several days. Even today, wayfinding can be challenging in remote areas where there are few road markers and no cell phone reception. But thanks to GPS navigation systems, it’s gotten a lot easier– and safer.
While it’s important to bring paper maps as a backup, GPS navigation systems have become an essential piece of gear for overlanding and off-roading enthusiasts. These systems use the Global Positioning System (GPS), a network of satellites that provide location and time information, to determine the user’s current location and provide directions to a destination.
Recommended GPS Navigation Devices and Apps
When you are considering what GPS navigation system to choose, you have two options: dedicated GPS navigation devices or GPS navigation apps that run on a smartphone or tablet.
GPS Navigation Apps for Smartphones and Tablets
Backcountry GPS navigation apps are software programs, such as Gaia GPS or OnX, that can be downloaded and run on a smartphone or tablet. These apps utilize the GPS receiver built into the device to determine the user’s location and provide navigation and routing information.I keep two GPS apps on my phone, OnX and Gaia GPS, which are both great navigation aids but have different strengths.
Gaia GPS, which was recently acquired by the company that publishes Outside Magazine, is my favorite all-around GPS navigation and mapping application. The app is very popular among hikers and backpackers, but plenty of off-roading and overlanding enthusiasts use it for backcountry travel as well.
Gaia has a variety of features that make it well-suited for off-road use, such as the ability to track your location and route, create and follow waypoints, and share your location with others.
While onX, highlighted next, is great for quickly finding established off-road trails, I find Gaia easier to use for more general backcountry trip planning and route finding. The interface for “rolling your own” routes and wayfinding is a bit more intuitive, in my humble opinion.
onX is a navigation and mapping application that was originally designed to help hunters find their way in the backcountry. More recently, the company also offers an off-road version of its GPS navigation app, which provides detailed topographical maps and routing options that are tailored for off-road conditions.
The onX app offers many of the features you’ll find in other GPS navigation software, but its real strength is that it provides easy to access and follow off-road and overland route information. This includes info on trailheads, campsites, obstacles and trail difficulty.
I like it because I can quickly find a named trail and follow it without having to map it myself. Another advantage of the app is that it offers detailed information on both public and private land, so you know when you are crossing onto someone’s property – important for avoiding encounters with angry landowners.
Dedicated GPS Navigation Devices
As I noted above, dedicated GPS navigator devices are designed specifically with backcountry navigation in mind and typically have proprietary software to operate them. Generally speaking, there are two types: handheld and vehicle-mounted devices. Handheld devices are portable and can be used on foot or in a vehicle, while vehicle-mounted devices are typically installed in a car or truck and are designed to be used while driving.
The Garmin Tread Overland Edition GPS navigation system is designed for off-road and overlanding use and incorporates Garmin's InReach technology for backcountry communications. It features preloaded topographic maps, a built-in compass, barometric altimeter, and a high-sensitivity GPS receiver, allowing users to navigate in remote areas without a cellular signal.
Garmin’s Tread line of GPS navigation devices stand out as an excellent option for overlanding, as they combine GPS navigation with Garmin’s inReach satellite communications. With an active subscription to the inReach service, you have a backup plan if you need assistance in the backcountry.
The Tread is designed for rugged use and is water-resistant (IP67-rated). It has a bright 8” touchscreen display that is easy to view in bright sunlight or pitch dark and can be mounted in portrait or landscape mode. The device provides turn-by-turn trail navigation for unpaved roads and trails using adventure roads and trails map content, including OSM and USFS Motor Vehicle Use Maps. The built-in inReach technology offers two-way text messaging, location sharing, and interactive SOS (with an active subscription).
The Tread comes preloaded with topographic maps with 3D terrain for North and South America and detailed street maps of North America with custom routing for the size and weight of your rig.
The Garmin Montana 700i is a handheld GPS device that is a good option for off-roaders looking for a more portable option. Like Garmin’s Tread device, the 700i incorporates the companies inReach technology, so it can be used as both a navigation device and a backcountry satellite communications device. Compared to other handheld models, the 700i has a larger screen, making it easier to see when it’s mounted in your vehicle.
The Garmin Montana 700i features a large, sunlight-readable 7-inch touchscreen display, making it easy to navigate and read maps even in bright sunlight. The device is preloaded with detailed topographic maps of the U.S. and Canada, and it has the ability to add additional maps and waypoints, making it perfect for overlanding and off-roading.
One of the standout features of the 700i is its built-in camera, which allows users to take geotagged photos and videos, making it easy to document and share your adventures. It also has a barometric altimeter and electronic compass, which can be useful for navigation when in remote areas. The device has a long battery life, and it is also water-resistant, making it durable enough to withstand harsh outdoor conditions.
In addition to its robust navigation and mapping capabilities, the Montana 700i also has built-in WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, allowing users to share their location and trip data with friends and family, and connect with other devices such as smartphones and tablets. Its GPS and GLONASS support provides satellite coverage over a wide geographic range. Overall, the Garmin Montana 700i is an excellent choice for anyone looking for a reliable and feature-rich handheld GPS device for overlanding and off-roading.
Choosing a GPS Navigation System
What type of vehicle are you using?
The first thing to consider when choosing an Overland GPS device is the type of vehicle it will be used in. If you plan on using it in a car, a device that is easy to install and use while driving is recommended. If you plan on using it in an RV or larger vehicle, a device that is more durable and can withstand the expensive models. However, if you plan on using it regularly, a device with all the features you need and that can withstand regular use is recommended.
What types of features do you need?
When considering features, think about how the device will be used. Do you need something basic that can give directions, or something more advanced that can track progress, store maps, and provide other information such as elevation changes? Consider which features are important to you before making a decision.
Where will you be traveling?
Make sure that the company that makes your GPS device offers maps that cover the region you’ll be visiting.
What is your budget?
Another important consideration is budget. There is a wide range of prices for Overland GPS devices, so set a budget before beginning your search. Keep in mind that the most expensive model isn’t necessarily the best, and there are plenty of high-quality devices available at more affordable prices.
How important is portability?
For some people, portability is an important consideration. If this is the case for you, choose a model that is easy to carry and doesn’t take up too much space in your vehicle.
Do you need hands-free operation?
If safety is a concern, choose an Overland GPS device that offers hands-free operation. This way, you can keep your eyes on the road while still getting directions from the device.
What type of display do you prefer?
One final consideration is the type of display you prefer. The most popular options are touchscreen displays, but there are also models available with traditional button interfaces. If you have trouble seeing small print, choose a model with a large and clear display.