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The Best GPS Devices for International Travel

Written by Jessica on December 12, 2012

As the official navigator of team Life Remotely, I’m in charge of getting us where we need to go as painlessly as possible. There are two very important tools for this task: a GPS device, and a decent digital map. The two are inseparable. A map does no good without satellite reception, and an excellent GPS isn't worth squat without a navigable map.

This is part one about how to pick the best GPS unit for international travel. In part two I discuss the best maps for navigating the Pan-American Highway.

garmin-logoWhy Garmin?

There is only one brand you need to look at if you’re traveling internationally, and that’s Garmin. No, we aren’t sponsored by them, nor am I being paid to write this post. Not that DeLorme, TomTom and Magellan fail to make good devices. Actually, they are quite comparable to Garmin. However, there is one huge deciding factor that puts Garmin miles above the rest, summed up in two words: open source.

Garmin accepts third party maps. You can make your own, trade with other travelers, download OpenStreetMaps or any of the other FREE open source map from non-profits around the globe. Trust me, the amount you could spend on maps far exceeds the cost of a GPS unit. Take advantage of the free (and often superior) maps available and buy a Garmin.


Device Options

At this time Garmin lists more than 150 GPS devices for sale on their website. The selection is daunting. Even more daunting is the thought of trying to find an intelligent salesperson to explain the difference. Thankfully you have me, Jessica, GPS nerd-extraordinaire to break it down for you.

First, we’re going to cut out all the very specialized devices. I’m writing for overlanders and backpackers, not for mountaineering athletes, mariners, pilots or dog trackers. We’re going to stick to devices in the “on the trail” and “on the road” categories.

Note: Garmin makes an awesome series of GPS devise for motorcycles. Check out the options here if you happen to be traveling with a bike.

On the Trail Handheld Devices

Garmin OregonGarmin’s "on the trail" series is by far their largest. But, don’t think that these devices are only good for hiking, quite the contrary. They all accept road maps and can route turn by turn just like a normal dash-mounted device.

Pros of “on the trail" devices:

  • They work on the road AND on the trail, plus they tend to be more accurate while navigating city blocks
  • The GPS reception is reliably better
  • They are built tough and most are waterproof
  • Most include a compass and altimeter

Cons of “on the trail” devices:

  • The most rugged models do not have touch screens
  • The screens are often smaller and thus are are harder to use if you are driving without a navigator
  • Kits to mount to your vehicle cost extra
  • They are more expensive

Which trail device to buy?

Yeah, I know, again we run into the issue of having 23 options. Well I’ll make it easy for you. Here are the top two models.

GPSMAP 62s ($375-450)

gpsmap62sGarmin describes it as “top-of-the-line”. And it is! The GPSMAP models runs between $349-600. Don’t freak out, you don’t need the $600 model, unless you consider a 5-megapixel camera essential to your GPS. Also, these are list prices.

Model number note: Every few years the model number goes up and so does the price, usually with very few new features worth paying for. If you can find the GPSMAP 60 model then buy it! It’s just as good, and will undoubtedly be cheaper. If the 64 has been released by the time you read this, then start looking for cheap 62s to take home. 

Pros of this device:

  • You can run it on AA batteries or power through your car with an additional adapter kit
  • Reception is epic – works in canyons, big cities, and the middle of nowhere
  • It routes for driving but also is accurate enough for hiking
  • It has an altimeter and a compass
  • It is waterproof
  • You can beat the living crap out of it. Drop it on asphalt, slam it in the glove box, cram it in a backpack and hike through torrential downpours, and it will keep on chugging. (I’m speaking from experience here.)

Cons of this device:

  • The automotive navigation kit needed to mount the GPS to your dash and to charge through your cigarette lighter costs $30-50
  • It’s not touch screen
  • It takes a while to get used to which buttons to push
  • The screen is relatively small

You’ll notice there are several other GPSMAP 62 sub-models available. What’s the difference between them?

  • Built in memory (more memory more maps). This isn’t really important because all devices accept microSD cards that you can use to expand memory for super cheap.
  • Barometric altimeter- Only the lowest model (the straight 62) doesn’t have an altimeter. If you are headed into serious mountains, spend the extra cash. We’ve used this feature hundreds of times.
  • Some include maps, but usually only of the US and Canada. If there is a "t" on the end of the model name it comes with topo maps.
  • 5MP camera- Seriously? If you need a camera on your GPS stop reading now and just go buy the most expensive GPS Garmin sells, the Montana 650t.

Montana 600 ($475-600)

This is the perfect road meets trail device. It has all the perks of the GPSMAP device (above) only with a giant touch screen. If you want user friendly, great reception and have $500 to spend, this is your device. I may own (and love) the GPSMAP 60, but I want to own this device more than I want a solar powered espresso maker.

Garmin Montana 650tPros of this device:

  • It is touch screen!
  • All the pros of the GPSMAPS 62s
    • It runs on AA batteries or your car
    • Reception is epic
    • Works for driving and hiking (also on motorcycles!)
    • It has an altimeter and a compass
    • It's waterproof

Cons of this device:

  • Montana's are the most expensive "on the trail" devices Garmin sells
  • Accessories, like car mounting kits, cost extra

You’ll notice there are two other Montana models available. What’s the difference between them?

  • The 650 comes with a built in camera
  • The 650t comes with the camera and US topo maps

There are three other models of “on the trail” type GPS units. I’ve never used any of them, but I have done a pile of research. Here they are with a brief description of why you should or shouldn’t consider them:

  • Oregon ($330-400) – A handheld touchscreen device, almost as advanced as the Montana series, just without all the bells and whistles. If you want touch screen for driving and hiking for under $500, check these out.
  • Dakota ($200-280) – In short, one step above the eTrex and one step below the Oregon. Lower resolution, less waypoints, smaller screen, but also a nicer price.
  • eTrex ($99-300) - These are the most affordable devices, but comes with lots of restrictions. If you are tight on cash buy a GPS designed for on the road, like a Nuvi 50. The eTrex will only disappoint.

On the Road Flat Screen Devices

The second option is to buy a traditional road device. These are the most commonly used in cars around the world. They almost always come with kits to mount to your dash and power through your car’s cigarette lighter. Garmin makes several series of on the road, dash-mounted devices. Because new models are released constantly, I will simply refer to them as the 4-digit series and the 2-digit series. Here’s a quick rundown of the differences:

Nuvi two digit series (Currently Nuvi 30- Nuvi 50) $100-180     

  • Garmin Nuvi 2250LT3.5-5” touch screen
  • Software upgrades like “dual view” and “lane assist”
  • No altimeter or compass

Nuvi four digit series (Currently Nuvi 3450) $300-380

  • Supports multi-touch like pinch to zoom
  • Larger and higher resolution screens
  • Longer battery life
  • Traffic updates with a paid service
  • Software upgrades like “dual view” and “lane assist”

Which On the Road Flat Screen Device Should You Buy?

Honestly, neither. You should go buy a handheld GPSMAP device that I rambled on about above (or a Montana, if you want touch screen). Ok, ok. But if you really want a driver-friendly, touchscreen GPS that won’t break the bank, than buy the Nuvi 50.

Why? Because if you are going to spend the money for a four digit model (i.e. the Nuvi 3450LMT) than you might as well buy a trail model that you can beat up, throw in a backpack, run on AA batteries, that includes and altimeter and more accurate positioning and routing. The perks of the higher-end on the road models are only worth the cost if you are staying in the US and plan on doing serious commuting.

Again, all of these models have various “sub models” specified by random letters appended to the model number. You decide what’s worth paying for. In my opinion, if you’re going cheap you might as well go all the way. In general the cheaper models (with less letters):

  • Have smaller screens
  • Are thicker, bulkier devices
  • Don’t have memory expansion slots  
  • Don’t have compass or altimeter
  • Don’t include maps
  • Can’t share data wirelessly
  • Lack some software enhancements

The Bottom Line

Always buy Garmin. Buy the GPSMAP 62s for best all-around performance while driving and on trails. If you want the same quality as the GPSMAP series, but with easier to use touchscreen, buy the Montana 600. If you can’t live without touchscreen, but can’t afford the Montana price tag, check out the Oregon 450. If you just want something cheap and functional buy the Nuvi 50, just be gentle with it, and don’t take it hiking.

Comments, Questions, Busted Links? Leave a comment below.

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#13 Jordan 2014-03-22 11:19
I am thinking of buying a Garmin Nuvi 50LM...I need something very cheap but that I can use internationally in obscure countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan so I need something that I can use with opensource 3rd party maps like OpenStreetMaps. Can anyone tell me if cheap Garmins like the Nuvi 50 still have this capability? Many thanks in advance!
Patrick Wallace
#12 Patrick Wallace 2014-01-17 21:13

For your Nile trip you will not only need good maps, especially paper maps; but you might also consider a good guide.

I’ve been using GPS internationally since the late ‘80’s. I have tested prototypes for Magellan, Lowrance, Trimble and Garmin, and used much of what I have tested for my work as a television cameraman. My current personal unit is a Garmin Colorado 400t, a discontinued model very similar to the Garmin GPSMAP 62s that Jessica recommends.

I have to agree with this article that Garmin is the way to go based on electronic maps, and I also agree that trail-type GPS units like the 62, Montana or ETrex are the best for travel of any kind. Hand-held trail units are compact, rugged, usually water proof, get excellent reception, and can be used in a vehicle whether you are the driver or passenger, on trains, plains, boats, four legged animals, or on foot.

Built in maps are great; however, they are not mandatory; and, don’t ever rely solely on your GPS. Always research your possible routes on paper maps well ahead of time and get to know the area’s layout. Besides, if you have a paper map in hand, it is much easier to read than a tiny map on your GPS screen.

Get a map ruler and learn how to use it. These are great for figuring out exact Lat/Lon coordinates on maps with Lat/Lon markings that can be manually entered in to your GPS unit.

Always travel with paper maps, and know where you are on those maps. It’s also a good idea to make marks and keep notes on these maps as you progress. You can use your GPS to quickly and simply figure out your position, but it’s more fun to do it manually. You can use your GPS to check yourself if you like.

When it’s time to go back you can use your GPS’ breadcrumb trail or reverse route feature. This works well even if your GPS doesn’t have accurate local map coverage.

And if your GPS were to ever fail, hopefully your pre-trip studying of the local area will give you enough knowledge to find your way back home with the help of a paper map alone.

And don’t forget to always carry a set of emergency batteries.

Oh! And did I forget to mention to also carry a magnetic compass?

Have fun!
#11 Diego 2014-01-13 16:32
Is a Nuvi50 able to accept, downlaod and use OpenStreetMaps or other third party free maps? Like for example for Mexico and Central America. Thanks a lot.
#10 JessicaM 2013-11-11 05:45
Hi Jonathon,
Hopefully I can clarify. The section I wrote above on "why Garmin" explains why Garmin's are best for international travel. They accept Open Source Maps, most notably OpenStreetMaps, which are almost always the best maps to use worldwide. Almost all Garmin GPS devices accept these maps, and therefore are the best for international travel. For specific information on maps in South America, see this article: For information on OpenStreet Maps, check out this website, ( you can search for waypoints like accommodation and food and see what they are like in areas you plan to visit. You will also have this ability on all the Garmin devices I discuss above.
#9 jonathon 2013-11-09 12:10
You dont really touch on international travel, except to mention canada. Which I dont consider real international travel. You have any input on getting maps for garmin to travel in Europe or South America? I have had a huge issue with tom tom and garmin when renting cars. SO I want to get my own GPS that is more reliable and has updated maps.
Lastly I rented a Volvo and it had its own GPS system. But you could find hotels and food along your route. Garmin have this ability?
#8 Jessica_LifeRemotely 2013-04-02 13:03
Hi Dave,
My previous recommendation of the GPSMAP 62s still stands. It's waterproof and can deal with serious backwoods conditions. And it has an awesome antenna so it will pick up reception no matter how far off the beaten track you are. You can also change it to driving mode and it will give you turn by turn instructions. But if you want to prevent youself from going over waterfalls, you are going to need good maps. There are some free opensource maps for Brazil... see our other article, but I don't think they will be very detailed for terrain. Sorry I can't help you more with that.
dave newlands
#7 dave newlands 2013-04-01 17:00
i'm planning on doing some "off the trail" traveling starting this fall, namely in the nile river basin, and i'm looking to find the best device for that kind of thing. obviously i don't want to fall asleep in a boat and wake up to one of those funny-in-the-mo vies-not-so-fun ny-in-real-life moments where i've stumbled upon a rough rapid or waterfall, or hike for two days only to realize holy crap i don't know where the f--k i am. what devices would you suggest for this kind of off piste travel that could plot me on a broad or topo map, and do some basic "turn left in point two miles" stuff when i'm on trails/streets?
#6 Brenton 2012-12-18 15:46
Oops, forgot to mention that. Good point James. When using a mini-USB cord you have to start up the GPS first, let it get to the home screen, then plug it into power. Otherwise it will keep trying to connect to a computer.

Danni, I didn't realize an iPad was a form of old school navigation ;)
#5 James 2012-12-18 14:34
Its true, the Nuvi GPS mount is prone to failure, but like Brenton mentioned you can bypass the Mount-power adapter and just connect a regular mini-USB cable directly into the GPS to recharge.

The trick is you need to plug it in to mini-USB power source, let it load the screen with the USB->PC screen to completion, then unplug/replug it in quickly. This will trick the GPS into thinking its not plugged into the computer while still providing power.

Ask me how I know!
#4 Danni 2012-12-17 14:26
GPS? ShmeePS, we've been rockin old school paper maps since leaving the states! Well, all paper maps til the iPad met us in Panama thanks to Cesar's sister, now it's Galileo's Offline Map app. Maybe it's the challenge of old school navigation, or maybe I'm just too stubbornly cheap, but no high quality GPS here. Though we did have a Garmin once, but that was stolen way back when at our place outside DC (Cesar routinely refused to lock his car doors... His excuse, someone needed it more than him. Though that is entirely debated with his navigational skills.)
#3 Jessicam 2012-12-14 19:18
Hey Juan. Thanks for leaving a comment. We had an older Nuvi 30 (i think) for a few years and I thought the mini USB was a big plus. We replaced the cord several times. We seemed to have an issue slamming it in the car door. I thought the standard cord was a plus. But the weak connector is not a good deal. What GPS do you use now? And is it in the Nuvi 50 price range? Does it still use the mini USB port or something proprietary? Thanks for the info.
#2 Brenton 2012-12-13 20:33
Juan, you should try using other mini USB chargers. I brought a few that were backups for our GoPro and the GPS (to USB). An electrical short fried our Garmin charger somehow and I was able to charge it again using one of the short cords with a USB/cigarette-l ighter plug ...some of the chords worked, some didn't.
Juan Buhler
#1 Juan Buhler 2012-12-12 22:00
I agree that Garmin is the way to go, but several of them, including the Nuvi 50 are a bad recommendation for overlanders. The way they recharge while on the dash is via a mini USB port in the back. The connector is surface soldered to the board, and it is extremely weak. This is a known problem of these devices, and Garmin won't do anything about it.

My Nuvi (1640 I think, same connector as the 50) lasted all the way from San Francisco to La Paz. The connector broke, and now it won't take a charge, which means it is completely unusable.

Because of the open maps I went back and got a newer Garmin, this time one of the newer ones with a more solid charging connection.

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