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I hiked with Garmin's 'unlimited battery' GPS tracker and it made life so much easier

Garmin's new eTrex Solar GPS device offers worry-free battery life at a relatively affordable price.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer
Matthew Miller/ZDNET

ZDNET's key takeaways

  • The Garmin eTrex Solar is available now for $249.99. The eTrex SE without solar is available for $149.99.
  • Potential for unlimited battery life, extensive GNSS support, rugged build, and affordable.
  • Small monochrome display, no turn-by-turn directions of TopoActive maps.

My brother and I grew up in the woods of the Pacific Northwest and being outside in the forest is my happy place. I have a good sense of direction, even in nature, but the farther out I explore the more I need GPS navigation to help me get to and from remote locations.

Also: Casio made a mud-resistant, mustard-colored GPS sports watch that I'd actually use

All smartphones have GPS receivers, but battery life is important to preserve for communications and pictures. My watches also have GPS, but the displays are too small for recreational navigation as they are optimized for specific fitness activities. Handheld GPS units are designed and built for outdoor activities --  hiking, fishing, geocaching, camping, and more -- with large displays, long battery life, and durable construction that can survive in various environments and keep going if you accidentally drop or bump them while exploring.

View at Garmin

For the past couple of months, I have been using the Garmin eTrex Solar for hiking, trail riding, and geocaching activities. This GPS handheld provides up to 200 hours of GPS navigation with no solar charging; in an area with 75,000 lux sun -- bright sunlight -- the battery is advertised as providing unlimited GPS navigation support. I haven't been in an area with that much sun so haven't been able to test unlimited life, but I never had to charge up the unit during my testing either so you can count on this device to last longer than most of your adventures do. I also regularly saw the solar intensity appear in the 70-80% range so the device is great at collecting minimal sun too.

Matthew Miller/ZDNET

The eTrex Solar is intuitive to use with five large buttons covered in soft touch material and a 2.2-inch monochrome display. A lanyard opening is positioned on the bottom so that you can carry the handheld around your neck. An integrated belt loop clip on the back is useful for clipping to your backpack. USB-C is used to charge the device with the port positioned on the back above the belt clip and covered with a rubber gasket to prevent water ingress with the handheld sporting an IPX7 water-resistant rating.

The home screen provides quick access to tracking, navigation, solar status, satellite status, and settings. Elevation, a trip odometer, speed, moving time, and other metrics are provided on the display in the tracking widget. Similar to the customization found in Garmin GPS sports watches, you can also select which metrics you want to appear on the display. You can navigate to waypoints, courses, geocaches, and more.

Matthew Miller/ZDNET

The Garmin eTrex Solar is a fairly inexpensive device that excels at obtaining a GPS signal and navigation. It is also fairly barebones when it comes to navigation with no support for turn-by-turn directions, customs maps, or TopoActive maps. It shows your routes and position to guide you to your destination. You can easily import GPX files to the handset; refer to my Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 Pro article for details on how to find and save GPX files.

A thousand waypoints and locations can be loaded on the handheld with support for 50 courses and 200 activities. GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, QZSS, IRNSS, and Beidou global navigation satellite systems are supported by the eTrex Solar. A three-axis compass is also inside the device so you should never get lost with this handheld unit.

Also: The best Garmin watches you can buy

To fully enjoy the benefits of the Garmin eTrex Solar, connect it to your phone using the Garmin Explore app. With this connection, full details of geocaching can be unlocked and explored and your current weather can be viewed right on the eTrex Solar. The Garmin Explore app also is used for software updates, cloud storage syncing, trip planning, smart notifications, and additional mapping capability.

Matthew Miller/ZDNET

At just $249.99, the Garmin eTrex Solaris perfect for anyone who participates in outdoor adventures and doesn't want to get lost. (The eTrex SE without solar is available for $149.99.) It has been decades since I geocached and that was one of the most enjoyable experiences with this handheld GPS. That capability is great at helping you figure out how to navigate to specific destinations and will also familiarize you with the device so I recommend you try it out when you buy the handset.

ZDNET's buying advice

If you are looking for a dedicated GPS device that will help you navigate and explore new areas, the Garmin eTrex Solar is worth your consideration. The lack of maps may be an issue for some, but Garmin has plenty of other more expensive options with maps and color displays. The eTrex Solar is designed to have an extremely long battery life and provide you with accurate and simple route tracking. Geocaching is well-supported and a fun family activity. 

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