It’s very easy to go off grid when kayaking.
Arguably the best craft to choose for exploring the waterways of the world, a kayak can go where other vessels can’t.
From lazy rivers to coastal inlets, labyrinthine archipelagos, to prime fishing lakes; the possibilities are near limitless.
But it’s also very easy to get lost!
That’s why, if you enjoy kayak touring, fishing in larger bodies of water, offshore exploration, or paddling anywhere your cell signal doesn’t reach – you need to have a dedicated kayak GPS device.
And to point you in the right direction, you can locate the best GPS for kayaking somewhere in this review!
Table of Contents
- The Best Kayak GPS Devices – A Short Overview
- TOP 6 Best GPS for Kayaking 2023
- How to Choose a GPS Device for Kayaking
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The Best Kayak GPS Devices – A Short Overview
Before we get stuck into the reviews, here are a few pointers for what you need to be looking out for – including our personal recommendations for a good kayak GPS device.
Important things to consider include:
- The size of the GPS device.
- Screen size.
- Memory size.
- Features included.
A good kayak GPS is going to tick all the boxes when it comes to features and durability, as well as the maps and software it’s capable of accessing/downloading.
Bear these factors in mind when you’re choosing the right kayak GPS for your needs. For my pick, I think the Garmin GPSMAP 78sc is the best all-round kayak GPS on the market.
TOP 6 Best GPS for Kayaking 2023
How to Choose a GPS Device for Kayaking
Below, you’ll find a more detailed buyer’s guide to help you navigate the waters of purchasing a good kayak GPS.
FAQs are included – as this is a topic that often comes with much confusion!
Read on for some jargon-busting advice.
I have a Smartphone – Why do I Need a GPS for Kayaking?
From a certain point onwards, just about every smartphone released comes with GPS built in. I have an older phone model, and I can still make use of that little blue dot when I’m exploring a city for the first time.
But if I don’t have access to a cell phone network coverage, or a decent Wi-Fi connection, then it becomes frustratingly inoperable.
Which is what happens when I’m out hiking in the backwoods, mountain biking remote trails, and – of course – kayaking waterways far from civilization. (Which is absolute bliss!)
In spite of all the things a smartphone can do – in the wild – it becomes as useless as a knitted condom.
And for safety and peace of mind, that’s the bottom line for why you need to have a dedicated kayak GPS device.
GPS vs a Map and Compass
For many of us, getting away from civilization means ditching everything to do with it – and that includes technology.
No matter what kind of outdoor activity I’m doing – if I’m going off grid, I never leave without a real map and compass.
As good as GPS systems are, they can never truly replace the “old ways.” as you never know when a GPS unit will fail, get damaged, run out of battery, or become inoperable in some way.
Therefore, it’s always best to have backup in the form of a map hard copy of the region or area you’re exploring.
Unit Size vs Screen Size
When shopping for the best kayak GPS unit, you need to bear in mind the size of the device, in relation to the size of the screen.
For most kayakers – particularly if you’re fishing – onboard space is at a premium, and/or you don’t want to be overloaded with overly large tech.
That’s why I’ve tried to include more compact kayak GPS units in this review.
Just remember that the larger the screen size, the larger and heavier the device is going to be overall. As such, you should figure out what’s more important to you – as there’s always going to be a trade-off.
And when it comes to the units themselves, GPS devices are available in three, main types:
- Handheld – compact GPS devices you can carry. While portable, you still need to have a mount if you want to use them for hands-free paddling and angling.
- Console – the largest option, console GPS devices offer the best screen size and display, but they will also take up the most space on board, and you’ll need a dedicated mount to hold them.
- Wearable – Smartwatches are increasing in popularity, capable of doing everything from counting steps to pinpointing exactly where you are on the planet.
For portability, it doesn’t get better than this, but the major downside is the small screen size and display, and they’re not as powerful as dedicated kayak GPS units.
If you’re anything like me, you need your technology to be easy-to-read, use, setup, operate, and follow. I’ll admit to being something of a technophobe, so simplicity is essential for me.
If that’s also high on your criteria priority list, then the best kayak GPS is going to have an intuitive interface system, straightforward menus, and be ready-to-go right out of the box.
Is having a touchscreen important to you? Remember, if you like to kayak in colder temperatures, it’s probably best that you choose a button-only kayak GPS, which is more suitable for use with gloves.
If you’re using any kind of electrical device near water, then it stands to reason it should be as waterproof as possible.
All kayak GPS devices, or devices that are suitable for outdoor use, come with an ‘IP’ rating.
Basically, the higher these numbers, the more effective a device is capable of repelling such elements.
Most good kayaking GPS products should have a rating of at least IPX7. The ‘X’ here indicates no data for the solids, but the ‘7’ tells us the unit can withstand temporary immersion in up to three feet of water.
This link will tell you more about IP ratings.
Just remember that all such technology will have its limitations, and rarely is anything ever 100% waterproof.
Even products with the highest IP rating will be compromised eventually – especially if they’re ever submerged for any length of time – and at greater depths.
Aside from the waterproof/water-resistance level of a device, the best kayak GPS unit is also going to be able to take a beating.
Look for GPS units with rugged, durable housing that is capable of surviving the rigors of outdoor activity.
Probably one of the most important aspects of a good GPS unit, is how long the battery is going to last, and the type of battery it contains.
The best GPS devices will have a long battery life – but remember that this will be impacted if you’re using a lot of power, and the unit is operating at peak performance.
Expect to see a battery life of around 20-25 hours on most devices.
As for battery type, rechargeable devices are useful, but not if they run dry when you’re in the field.
Carrying a spare set of AA batteries for a compatible device is the workaround, and ensures your battery life lasts as long as you have replacements in your kit.
Console GPS devices can often be hooked up to a larger battery on board, which gives you the best possible battery life, but takes up more space at the same time.
Now we come to the technical part of things – all the features that a GPS receiver can potentially contain. Think about what’s important for your kayak adventure before making a choice.
GPS – GPS stands for Global Positioning System, a technology that’s owned by the US government, which dates back to 1973. It’s one of four, main global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) that also include:
- GLONASS – Russia’s GNSS system.
- BeiDou – China’s GNSS system.
- Galileo – The European Union’s GNSS system.
For more information, take a look at the video below, which explains how GPS works today.
WAAS – The Wide Angle Augmentation System covers US national airspace and parts of Canada and Mexico. It’s basically an updated GPS system for highly accurate navigational tracking and data.
HotFix Satellite Prediction – A feature available in some GPS devices that allows for faster acquisition of your location.
CHIRP Sonar – Compressed High-Intensity Radiated Pulse, CHIRP uses multiple sonar frequencies to provide a highly accurate underwater reading of topography, hazards, structures, and fish.
BirdsEye Satellite Imagery Subscription – A rival for Google Earth, this is Garmin’s own satellite imaging service. You will have to pay a subscription for it, unless it’s already included with the GPS system.
Geocaching – A super-fun recreational activity, geocaching involves using satellite navigation systems to locate canisters left by other people. Some GPS units have additional functions purely for this pastime.
Barometric Altimeter – A barometric altimeter is a great feature for giving you elevation and atmospheric pressure data. Reading the weather is essential for kayakers – particularly for coastal paddling.
Electronic Compass – A compass that tells you what direction you’re traveling in is standard for all GPS devices, but a compass that can tell you the direction you’re facing when static is awesome.
Wireless Data Transfer – share your trips, routes, and other data with compatible devices easily. Ideal if you’re kayaking in a group, for example, or you want to update your loved ones of your progress.
Maps and Software – One of the most important aspects of GPS devices, the maps and software it has access to should be accurate, up-to-date, and detailed. At least, if you want the best kayak GPS possible.
Digital Camera – Some devices come with a digital camera, which is awesome for pinpointing your location with a photograph. Just don’t expect it to be close to the quality of an actual digital camera.
Internal Memory – Just like a smartphone, the internal memory on a GPS device is needed for storing maps, data, photos, and other useful files.
SD Card Port – Even devices with high internal memory can fill up fast – especially if you’re loading it with custom maps and routes. An SD card slot allows you to increase the amount of data you can save.
Emergency Message Capabilities – From a safety perspective, the ability for a kayak GPS to send an emergency distress call is extremely useful – especially if you’re kayaking solo.
Such services are often only available via a subscription – so check with the device/provider for more information before you venture out.
This list is not exhaustive, and there might be other features contained within a GPS
The best kayak GPS devices can set you back a fair bit of coin, especially when we’re talking about feature-rich units that have all the bells and whistles.
If you take into consideration what you’re actually going to use it for, you can pinpoint the features you need – and none of the stuff you don’t.
That will help when it comes to keeping yourself under budget. And speaking of, check out this review of the best budget-friendly fishing kayaks, so you can get out on the water without breaking the bank.
What’s the best GPS app for kayaking?
Any one of the GPS receiver units in this article can be used for kayaking, but the best option for you might not be the best option for me.
I would say the main things to look out for when it specifically comes to kayak GPS units, is a waterproof, durable unit, detailed maps, fast, accurate coverage, and a good battery life (or field-replaceable batteries).
Do I need to get a GPS device if I have a fish finder?
It depends on if your fish finder has GPS built in. Some units do, and others don’t. Take a look at this review of the best kayak fish finders on the market, and you’ll see some examples.
If you’re a keen kayak angler, it’s probably better to get a unit that does everything, rather than carrying more units than necessary.
Do I need a dedicated GPS device if I have a smartphone?
If you’re exploring a city, you can easily get away with using the GPS receiver built into your smartphone.
But out in the wild, you won’t have the cellphone coverage, or Wi-Fi for it to connect.
That’s where a more powerful kayak GPS becomes invaluable.
Can a kayak GPS work in the dark?
Yes – most (if not all) GPS units will have a backlit display, or their screen will light up when activated.
However, the very best kayak GPS devices will be easier to read than others in low light conditions – so check the kayak GPS reviews if this is something that’s important to you.
I don’t particularly encourage kayaking in the dark, anyway! Not unless you’re in familiar waters, with at least one companion, and have appropriate, regulation lighting on your craft.
Which Garmin is best for kayaking?
There’s no doubt there’s plenty to choose from when it comes to Garmin GPS devices, but I would say the Garmin GPSMAP 78sc is up there with the best for kayaking.
Having said that, the Garmin eTrex is also a solid choice.
Exploring our planet’s waterways is an exhilarating pastime – especially when it’s done from a kayak.
And with the best GPS for kayaking, you’ll never be lost again!
Let me know which GPS unit you’ve gone for and why – or if I’ve missed an awesome device that you feel should be mentioned.
Stay safe out there, and happy kayaking!