GPS choice for Performance Paddling

GPS Question
Recently I was asked for a suggestion for choice of GPS unit.  It’s a tricky one to answer.

I’m not too keen to suggest a specific model, I think it is so much down to personal preference and paddling style. In my reply I try to highlight the thoughts behind my choice. You need to bear in mind that I’m an old-fashioned bloke who just likes things to to work (for me), rather than to be cool, fashionable or the latest model.


I use 2 kinds of GPS:

1) Training

The ‘Sportwatch’ type. This is used in my daily training sessions.

It provides me with a speed readout which is useful for training purposes, and also to give tidal info. The watch also also provides a Heart Rate readout, which is used to structure training sessions.

An added and important feature, is the automatic record of a ‘diary’ of each training session.

2) For ‘Biggies’

The GPS ‘handheld’ type. This is used for my record attempts/long paddles/multi-day expeditions etc.

  • It gives a ‘nav plan’ for my pre-planned ‘optimum route’ during records.
  • It provides a speed readout in order to give tidal/flow info.
  • It is useful for ETA/Distance Covered etc on records, especially later on when I’m tired and mental arithmetic becomes a little fuzzy.
  • It’s sometimes used for present position, but I figure I have got something fairly wrong when I need to resort to that.

This is the GPS criteria I use for my style of paddling/GPS use:
  • It needs to have a memory large enough to record ~ 15hrs paddling. i.e. a min of 10,000 data points – to handle my benchmark of an Anglesey circumnav or an Irish Sea Crossing.
  • It needs to have a ‘Highway Screen’ (Garmin specific?) – I use this extensively when paddling to the pre-set route for records etc. The lack of Highway Screen/Highway Mode is a deal-breaker for me.
  • It needs to lie-flat on my spraydeck and be mode-changeable/controllable with just one finger in rough water (not one hand – i.e. it needs big buttons on the face of the unit, not the side).
  • No touch screens – they don’t work so well with water or protective cases
  • I have a preference for AA batteries – for me it’s not that unusual to change batteries afloat (though Li-Ion batteries are getting better and are now useable for single day use. My 310XT will manage 12 hrs +. Newer Li-Ion units claim much longer battery life now.)
  • I want as large as screen as possible.
  • I want customisable Data Fields on each screen.
  • I want an option for units in Kts and Nautical Miles.

For me:

  • I don’t need a digital compass – nature provides a battery free version.
  • I don’t need an altimeter (though a barometer/altimeter may be useful on multi-day for weather forecasting.)
  • I don’t need mapping. I use a paper map always. Though GPS mapping is a useful double check when you enter waypoints.
  • I’m not too fussed by Bluetooth or Wi-Fi either, I’m happy to plug a cable in. Though some people say they find these features useful. If you can turn them off (to save battery life) there is no disadvantage to having them I reckon.

I know the Garmin GPS 73 has a Highway Mode, AA batteries and is fairly inexpensive. Though I find the screen a little too small.

Versions of the Garmin GPS 66 seem popular with some paddlers, but it is a little more expensive. I’m not sure if it has Highway Mode.

I bought a GPS 78 a while back, which is the updated GPS76 that I currently use. However I returned it because it didn’t have the Highway Mode I like to use. This may not be important to you, but I use it extensively.


So really I guess I look for a reasonably no-frills unit that is easy to use and to read, even in rough water or when I am fatigued.

The units I currently use are both old versions, and are now out of production. I still choose to use them because I know them inside out, and they have proven reliable and easy to use. They work for me.

Recently I bought a couple of GPS 76S on eBay as backups.  As I said they do it for me, though I am aware they are regarded as old and out of date by most now. It is possible to find very reasonably priced second-hand units for sale online. They might be seen as out-dated but the world is still the same shape.

As I said at the start, the choice of GPS, like so many areas, is a very personal choice. Everyone will have an opinion. My choices are made on the back of 15 years or more of GPS paddling and use on various expeds and records. However you need to make your choice based on your paddling style and needs.