Best boat GPS: 6 handheld options for navigation at sea

We take a look at 6 of the best boat GPS options available right now, from handheld devices to tablet apps


‘Lost at Sea’ might be a great name for a video game, but in real life the prospect of losing one’s bearings on the ocean can be pretty scary indeed.

Chartplotters can – and sometimes do – fail, (it’s happened to this writer), leaving you alone with a compass and, if you’ve prepared, a set of charts to guide you to a safe haven – assuming you know, or can remember, how to navigate manually, that is…

And that, in a nutshell, is why many mariners today choose not to leave port without a backup or secondary system aboard.

Happily, reserve navigation aids no longer need to be big to be beautiful as now there’s a range of powerful pocket sized devices available which put GPS technology in the palm of your hand – literally.

What’s more, these devices come in a variety of forms and formats, such as purpose-built handheld boat GPS units, GPS-equipped VHF radios and smartphone/tablet-based app setups.

Incidentally, just a note on those phones and tablets: If you’re planning to use one as your primary navigation tool, do bear in mind battery time is sure to be compromised by any power-hungry application.

While handheld GPS systems are intended more to complement chartplotters rather than replace them, there are certain tasks where they leave fixed units standing.

Consider, for example, overnighting at anchor. If the boat’s chartplotter is helm-mounted there’s a good chance the cabins will be out of earshot of its anchor-drag alarm.

A handheld, however, can join you at bedtime and, should the need arise, will disturb your slumber with an alarm that will send you dashing up to the deck at the double to see what’s going on. And that alone could be a factor to persuade many boaters to consider investing in a handheld GPS system.

Here’s our selection of six of the best boat GPS systems on offer today.

Best boat GPS systems available right now


Garmin GPSMAP86i

Garmin dominates the purpose-built handheld boat GPS market and its GPSMAP 86i unit very much represents the state-of-the-art. Bristling with features, including a 3″ display which is bright enough to be readable in sunlight, the 86i has an IPX7 rating meaning it can withstand exposure to 1 metre of water for up to 30 minutes.

This boat GPS unit supports Garmin’s BlueChart g3 charts and is capable of streaming boat data from compatible plotters and instruments to place important information in your hand no matter where on the boat you happen to be. The 86i also doubles up as a satellite phone via the inReach network, for which a separate subscription is required.

Price: £480.00

Garmin GPSMAP86i deals

Buy it now on

Buy it now on Amazon (US)

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