Buying the Right Kayak GPS Unit: A Guide for New Users
Now that we have covered the 10 best kayak GPS units on the market, we need to turn our sights to something else. Namely, we need to explore the features, functionalities, and considerations you need to make before choosing a model. While all of the GPS units on our list offer reliable operation and accurate location tracking, they are not identical. In the guide below, we’ll walk you through some of the most important elements to consider before buying one.
Because we’re discussing kayak GPS technology, not general GPS use, we’re going to start not with mapping, but with waterproofing. It’s essential that the GPS unit you purchase is waterproof. Accept nothing less than IPX7 waterproofing – this is an international standard that means the device can be immersed in water without suffering harm. Ideally, your GPS will also float in water to help ensure it doesn’t sink to the bottom if it falls overboard.
The entire point of owning a GPS is so that you can track your location, and to reach your destination, whether that’s a new fishing area or the boat dock. Make sure that the GPS you choose offers excellent mapping, with included access to accurate maps of the areas where you’ll be kayaking.
All of the GPS units on our list are manufactured by respected industry leaders and come with accurate maps. This note is included in case you go off-list – not all GPS units on the market are reliable or accurate. Ideally, you will have access to more than a worldwide base map. You should also be able to download additional maps, particularly water-based maps. In a perfect scenario, you should also be able to create your own custom maps.
The size of the display on your GPS is important for visibility and usability. The larger the display, the better you’ll be able to see the map, and the more room there is for details. However, the larger the screen is, the larger the device will need to be.
If you go too large, the GPS will not be all that portable. We’ve included only one such device on our list – it’s our second pick, and while it offers excellent performance and lots of benefits, it’s not particularly portable. Look for a GPS with a decent screen size that offers good visibility, but does not compromise your ability to carry the unit easily.
The GPS unit you buy needs to have a screen designed for outdoor use. Generally, this means looking for a TFT display. These offer full visibility even in direct sunlight. This is more important with a kayak GPS than any other use, as you’ll be out on the water and chances are good that there will be no cover.
You’ll notice that all of the kayak GPS units included on our list offer GPS functionality, but several also mention GLONASS. The US GPS satellite network comprises 31 satellites orbiting the planet, but GLONASS connectivity allows you access to Russia’s network, which adds another 24 satellites to your available network. This can offer up to 20% better performance in terms of identifying your location.
Finally, you should ensure that your GPS unit is WAAS-enabled. This stands for Wide Area Augmentation System, and it was developed by the United States in order to help eliminate errors in GPS location tracking. Without WAAS-enabling, your GPS will not be as precise.
Your GPS needs to have a least some onboard memory. This is what stores the maps, tracks, custom points of interest, and other information. The more memory you have, the more data your device can store. Most of the kayak GPS units we’ve included offer a decent amount of onboard storage, and/or the ability to add more storage by inserting a microSD card. Note that if your GPS has a camera, you’ll need even more storage, and you should also consider investing in a high-capacity SD card to store your photos.
You will need to access your GPS from time to time. It might be to offload photos. It could be to share location or route information with another device. Really, there are many reasons why you’d need to do this. Make sure that the GPS you choose gives you that ability. There are three primary ways you can do this.
USB: With this connection type, you’ll need to be able to connect your GPS to a PC or laptop. It’s used for updating maps, and offloading data from the device.
Bluetooth: A growing number of GPS devices offer Bluetooth connectivity. This allows you to connect to some computers (those with Bluetooth) as well as to smartphones.
Wi-Fi: A select few GPS units today offer Wi-Fi connectivity. You’ll find this feature mostly with GPS units that include a camera. It allows you to share data from your device directly to web-connected devices and websites.
Size is an important consideration, and it’s something that every kayak owner will need to think about. How much space do you have in the kayak for mounting a GPS? How much room will the GPS unit take up in your pocket? The larger the device, the more it will weigh, and the more difficult it will be to transport. The smaller the device, the easier it will be, but the smaller screen may be less than ideal.
You will notice that none of the GPS units we’ve covered in our list look like the ones you mount in your car. Why is that? Simply put, those other units are not designed for use out in the wild. They need to be protected from the elements. That’s not really possible with a kayak, so you need to ensure that the unit you choose is built to be rugged. In addition to waterproofing, which we’ve already touched on, the unit you purchase should be able to hold up to slight bumps and drops that will occur in outdoor use. The more rugged the construction, the longer your GPS unit will last.
Handheld or Mounted?
Should you opt for a handheld kayak GPS? A mounted unit? Something in between? Most of the units we featured on our list are handheld, and for good reason – it leaves you free to mount other devices in your kayak.
Our recommendation is that you go with a handheld device unless your GPS also doubles as a fish finder. In that case, you would most likely want a mounted unit. If you do choose a mountable GPS unit, make sure you have a place for it in your kayak. Some models do not offer a center console, so you might need to get creative.
Battery life is a very important consideration. All of the units on our list with the exception of the Humminbird model use batteries. The longer the battery life, the more use you’ll get out of your unit. As a note, many of the Garmin models we reviewed use a dual battery system that allows you to utilize a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack, as well as 2 AA batteries.
In most cases, you’ll get at least 16 hours of use out of your batteries. However, 20 and 25 hours of usage is not unheard of with some models. Knowing how long your charge will last is important for planning your expedition, too. For instance, if you’re planning a multi-day trip, but only get 16 hours of use out of your batteries, you know that it would be smart to pack an extra set to make sure that you’re not left in the lurch.
Finally, you need to consider the additional features available. One of the most obviously useful such features is fish finder functionality. We’ve included a couple of those on our list. They’re particularly handy for kayakers interested in fishing while they’re on the water, but who don’t want to purchase a separate fish finder. As a note, fish finders generally need to be mounted on your kayak for accuracy, so make sure you have somewhere to put it.
Other additional features that you might find useful include geocaching, photo sharing, location sharing, route and map sharing, the creation of custom maps, and auto turn-by-turn navigation. Note that auto navigation is not available on the water – it’s only usable with road driving.
When it’s all said and done, the right kayak GPS will give you the peace of mind you need by providing you with accurate location information. However, you should look for more than just basic mapping. Choose a GPS that will help make your time on the water more enjoyable, whether you’re heading out to enjoy the beauty of nature, searching for that new fishing area, or you’re intent on reaching a remote geocaching location and exploring others.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer that will be right for everyone. Consider your kayak – where will you mount a GPS? Will you need a handheld model? Consider your goals – are you looking for basic fun and enjoyment? Will you need a fishing aid? Do you want to get involved in geocaching or are you more interested in adventure?
With the right GPS, you’ll have a powerful tool that ensures better safety and security on the water, while also giving you additional functionalities and features that make your time on the water more enjoyable.