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How to choose the right GPS for mountain biking?

Choosing the right GPS for mountain biking is more difficult than it may first sound. All devices are compromises in terms of their features (size, weight, display, battery time, usability etc). Therefore there is no such a thing as the universally best GPS. In order to find the right GPS you need to think twice what features you want to prioritize.

There is no such a thing as the perfect GPS for mountain biking.
For the past several years I have been using Garmin GPSMap276C (a real work horse, modified by the German Touratech to take abuse on my KTM dirt bike) and Zümo 660 (both on my street bike and a van). As good as they are, neither is suitable for the MTB use. In the following, I discuss some potential alternatives.
What features should I look for?
I would be happy with a device with following features:

  • Light and small enough to make mounting on handlebars easy
  • Display with good resolution and readability even in direct sunlight
  • Powerful CPU that makes panning the map a pleasure
  • Long battery time and removable standard AA or AAA batteries for those epic rides when charging from external power source is impossible
  • Physical buttons (possibly accompanying a touchscreen) that work under bad conditions

In my case, sport functions like hear rate monitoring or cadence are not necessary. I am using Polar RS800CX for that when needed.

There is decent amount of opinions on the web concerning what units are worth considering for mountain bike purposes. The search also supports my prior belief that there is no single unit universally beating the competition and that there is no such a thing as the perfect GPS. In fact, many (if not most) devices have one or several features that make them less than optimal company for a MTB. For that matter, I found an article on TakeAdventure a quite useful starting point in my search of an optimal GPS.

Based on available reviews and building on my own list of desirable features (see the list above), I found following units being the most interesting for my purposes:

  • Garmin Montana 600
  • Garmin Edge 800
  • Garmin GPSMAP 62
  • Garmin Oregon 450
  • Garmin eTrex 30

Next I summarize pros and cons of these devices, again based on many reviews and user opinions, again evaluated from the perspective of my demands. I found, for example, GPSTrackLog being one of the more useful information sources. Note that it completely unintentional that the following list contains only units from Garmin. I considered several other brands as well but didn't find anything that appeared more suitable to meet my needs than those listed below.

Garmin Montana 600
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One of the latest offerings from Garmin

  • Large display with good resolution and readability in sunlight
  • Faster than average map rendering
  • Nice battery life with an option to use also standard batteries
  • Big like a brick and therefore nasty to mount on handlebars
  • Only touchscreen, no physical buttons
My conclusion
While this unit has many desirable properties, the big size may be a problem or even a show stopper. The size may be less of a concern in MTB touring but makes the handlebar mounting questionable for rougher riding. There are speculations that a smaller Montana may be in the making. But how would it be different from Garmin Oregon?

Garmin Edge 800
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Flagship of the biking-specific Edge series

  • Extensive sport and cycling features
  • Quite good battery time
  • No replaceable batteries
  • Touchscreen only
My conclusion
An attractive offering in terms of its size and cycling specific set of sport features. Lack of user replaceable batteries is a problem for multi-day rides. Touchscreen-only is a minus in MTB applications.

Garmin GPSMAP 62
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Classic outdoor offering from Garmin

  • Good old buttons
  • Slightly faster map rendering than, for example, eTrex30
  • Display is good also in bright sunlight
  • Good battery life and replaceable standard batteries
  • Quite small display and relatively low resolution of the screen
My conclusion
One of the more attractive units for mountain biking. If it only came with a slightly larger screen with somewhat better resolution.

Garmin Oregon 450
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Touchscreen-only "baby-Oregon"

  • Almost optimal screen size and nice resolution
  • Not too bulky for handlebar mounting
  • Good battery life and replaceable batteries
  • Touchscreen-only, no physical buttons
My conclusion
Quite attractive unit even for a use with a MTB. The main drag is the touchscreen-only operation.

Garmin eTrex 30
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Relatively small and cheap, recently updated device

  • Handy size, easy to mount
  • Display works well even in direct sunlight
  • Very good battery life, uses standard battery size
  • Joystick and physical buttons
  • Small display, low resolution
  • Slow or very slow map rendering
My conclusion
The main problem with this unit is its slow map rendering. Several testers seems to consider it almost unacceptably slow. Looking at some YouTube clips makes me think that they may very well be right.

What to make of it?
That was my short list. At the moment, I find GPSMAP62 and Oregon 450 the most attractive alternatives but I am still undecided. Feel free to comment, especially you have experience with one or several of these devices or if you have other good suggestions!

I will make my decision some time over coming weeks and intend to report about my experiences later.

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