We’re all about blazing our own trail, and we know that getting lost can be fun sometimes—as long as the weather is decent and there’s plenty of fuel on hand. But if there isn’t, getting lost can turn from an unplanned adventure into a nightmare pretty quickly.
There are a few precautions you can take to make sure you don’t get lost in the wilderness while doing what you love. Having an accurate and reliable GPS for your ATV or UTV is one of those things.
But what are your options when it comes to these tools? Would you benefit from something high tech, or would you be better off with an old-school trail map? Let’s take a look at what’s out there so you can find something that will keep you safe and help you get the most out of your next adventure.
GPS stands for Global Positioning System. It’s made up of a network of approximately 30 satellites orbiting the Earth. GPS was originally designed for US Military use but has evolved into an everyday tool used by people all over the world, military or not.
No matter where you are, you’re within range of a handful of those orbiting satellites. The satellites send out signals that are picked up by your GPS and then your location is calculated based on how long it takes for the GPS to receive those messages.
Your GPS then determines your location on a map through the process of trilateration. This basically means your GPS receives signals from at least three satellites and each of those satellites creates an oval showing your general location. Your exact location is then determined based on where those ovals intersect.
It might sound a little confusing, but don’t worry. Modern-day GPS systems are extremely user friendly and easy to use. But are they worth the investment?
If you regularly venture to new ride spots that are out of your familiarity zone, the answer is easy. Yes, you should be traveling with some sort of GPS for ATVs or UTVs. Even if you don’t use it every time you’re behind the wheel, it only makes sense to have a back-up plan in case you lose your way or find yourself in the middle of an emergency.
But what about riders who stick to their own property, or the same familiar ride spot? Don’t pass on a GPS just because the chances of you getting lost are slim to none! Tracking your location isn’t the only perk of a GPS. Modern systems are pre-loaded with trails and can help you find new places to explore or scenic overlooks that you may never discover otherwise.
A GPS system can also be used as a communication tool, which can come in handy if you ride in a group. Some systems come with built-in communication functionality, allowing you to communicate with other riders nearby. There are some that even show you where your buddies are located on a map.
Off-road GPS systems aren’t your average navigational tools. They differ from the Garmin you may use in your car or truck.
So what makes an off-road GPS different than a standard one? For one, they’re designed for outdoor use, meaning they’re going to be more rugged. These pieces of equipment are typically waterproof, weather resistant, shock resistant, and all that other good stuff that protects them from off-road hazards.
A GPS system for off-road use comes pre-loaded with topographical data and popular trails, rather than just a network of roads and highways. It might also have greater accuracy when picking up your location and offer a stronger signal for when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, far away from cell service.
Aside from knowing you need a system that’s specifically designed for off-roading, there are lots of other features you get to choose from when shopping for a GPS.
The first decision that will help you narrow down your choices is whether you want something handheld or dash mounted. Off-road GPS systems come in many forms, giving you the option to get one that’s portable or permanent. Opting for a dash-mounted one will require a bit of installation, but we’ll talk more about that later.
If you’re looking at a system that is touch screen (and most modern units are), consider getting one that’s compatible with gloves. Many GPS touch screens will work with gloved hands, which is a plus when riding. Nobody wants to stop and remove their gloves just to use their GPS.
As far as screen size goes, that depends on your preference and machine size. GPS screen sizes range from smaller than 3” in handheld models to 7” or larger.
If you have a quad or smaller side-by-side, you might want to look at systems with a smaller screen for the simple fact that they take up less space. If you do choose a smaller GPS for your ATV, make sure it has a high screen resolution. Having to squint or lean over just to make out what’s on the screen is no fun, and also not very safe when driving.
Once you’ve determined the type and size of system you want, take a look at your mounting options. Some units come with a mount but if yours doesn’t, it’s not hard to find one.
If you have a side-by-side, you can buy a mount that either secures to your dash or attaches to the cage. And for quad riders, it’s as simple as buying a handlebar mount to keep your GPS screen front and center.
If you’re in the market for a mount, Ram Mounts has tons of universal options to choose from. It doesn’t matter what kind of device you’re mounting (handheld unit, touch screen unit, tablet, or cell phone) or where you’re mounting it—Ram Mounts has plenty of heavy-duty options, ranging from $40 to $75.
Some GPS models feature built-in cameras. Why would you want a camera when riding, you might ask? There are a couple of reasons why this could come in handy.
You’ll see that certain systems come with a back-up camera, which are just plain practical. Being able to see what’s behind you is nice, especially when navigating unfamiliar territory.
In addition to a back-up camera, your GPS might also have a camera installed in the tablet itself. These cameras can record what’s up ahead, from standard photos to panoramic shots to full-length videos. It’s a super convenient way to record your adventures and document your trip for others to see.
When comparing different models, battery life is something you want to look at—especially if you frequently go on long rides. Many GPS systems are powered by a lithium ion battery but can also be charged in a standard wall outlet while you’re not riding.
The number of pre-loaded trail maps you’ll find on a GPS will vary. Some questions to ask when narrowing down your options are: How many trail routes does it come with? How do you update it? Does it use an external memory card?
We suggest getting a GPS whose maps don’t only show trails. Being able to find nearby campsites, fuel stations, restaurants, and restrooms can be invaluable when exploring new ride spots.
Last but definitely not least, take a look at each GPS system’s emergency capabilities. Most models offer some type of communication and/or rescue capabilities. Make sure the GPS you have will allow you to call for help if things should turn south. It would also be helpful to get something that gives weather updates.
Now that you know what you’re looking for in an off-road GPS unit, let’s take a look at some of the most popular systems on the market right now.
We’ll highlight both handheld and dash-mounted options, and we’ll also hit every price point. So whether you only want to drop a couple hundred bucks or you’re committed to buying a pricier model, we’ve got some recommendations for you.
Here are our top picks when it comes to a GPS for your UTV or ATV. We’ve put them in order from most affordable to most expensive:
This is one of the most affordable GPS systems on the market, so it doesn’t have many bells and whistles. But rest assured that Garmin packed plenty of navigational and safety features into such a compact device. The glare-resistant screen displays data from both GPS and GLONASS satellites. The device itself is rugged and water resistant and can last nearly 25 hours on one set of batteries.
This Garmin runs on AA batteries and lasts an average of 16 hours. In addition to navigating, it acts as an altimeter, barometer, and compass. It’s waterproof, making it perfect for ATV and UTV use, and has a GPS and GLONASS receiver. With great off-road coverage and over 100,000 topographical maps, this little unit will guide you through some big adventures.
The TRX7 CS comes with more than 160,000 off-road routes and user-generated tracks shared by riders all over the country. When using the route tracking feature, you’re able to make note of any obstacles or points of interest that you come across and then make those notes available to other riders. And thanks to the social sharing options, you can bring your Twitter and Instagram followers along for the ride.
The Voyager Pro shows route maps and topographic maps. It also tracks speed, elevation, temperature, engine RPM, and battery life. A group ride feature lets you track the location of up to 20 buddies, making it easy to tell if someone falls behind. Emergency capabilities make it possible to call for help, even if you don’t have cell reception.
The Overlander features both on-road and off-road navigation, so it’s just as useful in your daily driver as it is in your side-by-side. It’s built to US military standards for thermal and shock resistance, so you don’t have to be gentle with it when hitting the trails. This device can send SOS signals in case of an emergency, even if there’s no cell service.
Tread is one of the most rugged and reliable off-road navigation systems you can buy. It comes preloaded with thousands of topographic and street maps all over North America and also features a built-in altimeter, barometer, compass, gyroscope and pitch and roll gauge. An advanced Group Ride Radio feature lets you track and communicate with up to 20 buddies at a time.
*All prices are accurate as of March 2021.
There are two UTV manufacturers that offer a built-in GPS for UTVs. Here are the deets on Polaris and Yamaha’s navigation software.
Some newer Polaris machines come equipped with Ride Command, the manufacturer’s in-vehicle instrumentation and mapping system. Some features you’ll get with Ride Command (in addition to navigation) include on-screen gauges, a glove-touch weatherproof screen, and route planning.
Ride Command also has a Group Ride feature that allows you to communicate with other riders in your group and see their speed and location.
Certain Yamaha models come with the exclusive Adventure Pro system, powered by Magellan. You get all of the standard GPS functions along with online adventure planning, social sharing, and a front and rear camera.
One cool feature about Adventure Pro is that it’s integrated into a removable tablet. There’s also a Timing Mode feature that allows you to record courses and compare lap times—it’s maybe not the most helpful when exploring trails, but a pretty cool thing to have if you’re a racer.
Personally, we think a reliable GPS for your ATV or UTV is a must when riding. It’s convenient, it can help you find new trails, and it’s there in case of an emergency. But they might not be for everyone.
So if you’re not a GPS person, what are your off-road navigation options?
We get that it’s hard to invest in another piece of technology when you have a perfectly good cell phone or tablet sitting at home. The good news: there are off-road navigation systems that can be downloaded to your phone or iPad! The maps can be pre-loaded so they’ll work even in dead zones, and you can use that same device to control your music or GoPro while simultaneously using the maps.
There are downsides to this option, though. Remember when we talked about how off-road GPS systems are more rugged? They’re designed to take a beating, whether from rocky rides or bad weather. Your tablet or phone, on the other hand, are not.
Another thing to consider is emergency functionality. Your phone won’t be much use if you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere with zero cell service. Off-road GPS systems are designed to be used “off the grid,” so they’ll be way more helpful if you become stranded and need to call for help.
A roll chart is a small scroll of paper that gives detailed directions. It doesn’t show a drawn-out map, but rather a list of steps and directions. Roll charts are used a lot in racing or group rides to detail a specific course. They give information that you won’t find on a GPS, like “Slow down and watch for a big dip at mile 37.”
Roll charts are good to have for distinct events or courses (like the TransAmerica Trail) or as a backup, but we don’t recommend using one as your primary means of navigation. The step-by-step directions will probably get you to your destination with no problem, but a roll chart won’t be much help if you miss a step or become lost.
A third option is to use a good, old-fashioned paper trail map. Using a paper map requires a little more work—it’s not going to tell you how many miles you have to the next turn, and it won’t update in case of road or trail closures. But keeping a map of your area in your vehicle could come in handy if your GPS fails. After all, technology isn’t 100% reliable. If the battery dies or your unit stops working, knowing how to navigate with a paper map can help you find your way back home.
Off-road navigation isn’t a “one size fits all” deal. Handheld vs. dash mounted, modern-day technology vs. an old-fashioned map—what works for one rider won’t necessarily be everyone’s cup of tea.
The important thing is that you have something in your machine that will help you find your way home if you veer off course. If that something happens to be a reliable GPS system that can also take pictures, record your favorite routes, and help you call for help in case of an emergency, even better!
What are you doing to make sure your next ride goes as planned?