The Best GPS for Your Boat: From Basics to Bells and Whistles

Without GPS, traveling the oceans of the world would much more dangerous.

But what are the best GPS units for your dollars?

Before I look in detail at the best GPS units for your boat, I thought I’d take a moment to discuss the merits of a good GPS unit.

So, what does GPS stand for? Global Positioning System. It consists of around thirty satellites that circle the earth. Your receiver has to connect with at least three of these satellites to provide positioning accuracy of about 50ft.

The U.S. military developed it, and with all these military innovations, there is always a commercial use.

Before GPS, most ocean-going ships used Long Range Navigation, or LORANS for short, but that only had an accuracy measured in the tens of miles.

Now, it’s hard to understate just how important GPS is to today’s sailors. In short, it’s as vital as a buoyancy aid or a life raft. Without GPS, countless people would have sailed off course and become lost at sea. Before technology, sailors would navigate using the stars, or charts, or visible land. Learning these old skills is a dying art, so what does that modern boater rely on? Technology, that’s what.

But using GPS in the middle of the ocean is far different from the GPS units that have become common-place in our cars. Oceans don’t have signposts or junctions.

So Why Do You Need GPS?

It’s important to distinguish what type of boater you are. Are you an inland waterways user, happy to cruise up and down the lakes and rivers? If so, a GPS is useful, but not essential. If you get lost on the lake, keep pointing the boat in one direction, and you’ll hit land. However, the sonar facility on the GPS unit will come in handy for shallow waters.

The GPS unit has a use when you moor up and explore the rugged terrain. I think it’s fair to say that boaters are outdoor types, eager to get out into nature and see some of our beautiful lakeside islands and forests. Then a hand-held GPS will prove invaluable. It will allow yo to explore the wild in the knowledge that technology has your back.

However, on ocean-going yachts, the scenario is entirely different. A good GPS unit is a life-saver. It helps you plot your journey, even in the deepest and most remote seas. All because the umbrella of satellites is protecting you.

NEVER leave the shore without a GPS unit, not unless you can read the stars, or read a map of the oceans via charts.

An excellent rule of thumb is this: If you’re surrounded by water, and you don’t have the first clue where to go, you probably should have packed a GPS unit.

What Can GPS Do?

It’s probably better to ask: What can’t GPS do? Okay, so I get that there are limitations, and depending on budget, some have more advanced features than others. But in essence, a good basic GPS unit should:

  • Act as a Compass:

    It should give you a bearing to your destination based on your current position.

  • Mark Waypoints:

    This is important because the GPS will remember the waypoints for future reference; very smart to have if you’re making the same return journey.

  • Plot your Position:

    It’s vital to know exactly where you are in the ocean, especially if you are trying to determine the distance and bearing of the final leg of the journey. It also acts as a marker to rescue vessels should you need help. Your position is charted using Longitude and Latitude positions. Imagine the earth with invisible circles running North to South and East to West.

  • Constantly Updates your Position:

    Like all good GPS systems, it will tell you when you’re off course via a series of alarm sounds, and more importantly, re-calculate to help you steer back in the right direction.

What About GPS Apps for Your Smartphone?

With the advent of smartphone technology, there are loads of boating apps and especially GPS apps. But just how good are they?

Well, as much as I embrace tech stuff, I don’t want my life to be placed in the hands of an app, especially if I’m in the middle of an ocean. For one thing, your smartphone needs a signal, and I’m just not sure the signal is going to be that great way out in the middle of nowhere. And two: you just can’t beat the real thing.

GPS apps are excellent options for inland waters like lakes and rivers. You can almost always ensure that you’ll get signal coverage and you’ll never be in the same state of isolation as when your sailing the oceans of the world, so the chances of you experiencing grave danger are somewhat less.

So a GPS unit it is then.

The first thing I need to talk about is:

GPS Budget Considerations

Some GPS systems can set you back thousands of dollars, like this Raymarine (Available on Amazon), and if you have an infinite amount of money, then it could be tens of thousands of dollars. What I wanted to look at, however, were the GPS units across the price spectrum, but still within the budget of the everyday boater.

So what do the higher priced GPS do differently to the cheaper units? Okay, they’ll tell you everything you need to know, even down to the terrain beneath your boat, and where the fish are, but some of the cheaper hand-held units could do that too.

Most expensive units have preloaded maps of the oceans, while the cheaper ones concentrate their mapping on the coasts around the U.S. So if you want more maps, you have to buy them, in much the same way that you do for your in-car GPS unit.

And speaking of budget, if you want updated, continuous mapping of the seas, it’s worth subscribing and paying a yearly fee for the information. Most manufacturers offer that service. Sure, it’s an additional cost, but it could be a valuable investment.

There’s no point having an outdated GPS unit. That defeats the whole point of having one to start with.

So What Are the Best GPS Units for Your Boat?

Let’s start with the most expensive and then descend in price order.

Raymarine Axiom Touchscreen

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Raymarine is a trusted and well-known name in the marine industry, and their Axiom model is another in a long line of quality marine products. The 9-inch screen version retails at over $1000, and if you want the 12-inch version with 3D display, you could be shelling out closer to $3000.

So what do you get for all that money?

Well, as I mentioned, you get a 3D display (on some models), you also get 3D sonar, mapping the seabed in real clarity. And on the subject of sonar, the Axiom has side vision as well as down vision. It has a fish finder facility too, so if you’re a keen angler, this will become your new best friend.

The Axiom has a super-fast Quad processor, which the company claims gives “Blazing speeds.” It also should mean that the unit never slows down.

It makes mapping waypoints simple and has a “Dock to Dock” feature, designed to make your journeys easier.

It comes loaded with U.S. and Canadian coastal maps as well as 20,000 maps of inland ponds, lakes and rivers.

If I had the budget, I would definitely buy one of these units.

Simrad Go7 XSE Chartplotter

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This GPS unit retails just under $700.

It has a 7-inch touchscreen (also widescreen) and is user-friendly. It has a chart plotter, making journeys more manageable, and as with all the models featured, has a waypoint marker for future trips and that all important return journey.

The Simrad Go7 also comes with a CHIRP sonar (Compressed High-Intensity Radiated Pulse), with forward scan and structure scan facilities. It’ll also map your speed of travel, the depth and temperature of the water.

It’s worth noting that the Simrad only comes with pre-loaded maps when purchased in North America. If you pick one up in any other country, the maps have to be purchased separately.

Raymarine DragonFly 7 Pro

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The DragonFly retails at just under $500, although there are more expensive variations of the same model.

As with the other Raymarine product featured on this list, you know that you’re buying quality. It comes with CHIRP sonar technology, as well as a downward scan facility with a 600-foot (180m) depth capability for deep ocean scanning.

It also has a traditional sonar that makes tracking fish that much easier.

It’s chart compatible with all of the significant chart suppliers, like Navionics+, and it has the capability to mark 3,000 waypoints.

It also has a micro SD card (Available on Amazon), making the loading of maps and storing info that much more straightforward, and the GPS element has 50 channels, giving a high degree of accuracy. The screen is 7-inches and easy to use, and it comes pre-loaded with Navionics+ charts. You could also choose Lithium batteries to reduce power usage and prolong the battery life.

Garmin Echomap CHIRP 54 CV

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This unit retails for less than $300, which is in the same territory as in-car GPS units. And you’d think at such a low cost, it wouldn’t be as effective as the more expensive units. Not so!

For starters, it comes loaded with U.S. blue charts, something that some more expensive GPS units don’t have. That said, if you want Canadian and lake charts, you will have to pay for them.

The Echomap comes with CHIRP sonar, sweeping the ocean with a continuous frequency for greater information. Blue charts or lake charts can be loaded, depending on what type of boating you enjoy. The images it gives are almost photo quality too. If you want the next model in the range, the SV series also offers side view sonar scanning.

The Echomap also allows for easy waymarking, for the return journeys, and the GPS updates five times every second for complete accuracy.

Garmin Striker 4

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This is a fairly basic model, retailing at less than $100. And do you know what? If the basics are all you want, then this unit is fantastic value for money.

It’s easy to use, has a color display, can be upgraded and it’s hand-held. The Striker really is the entry-level GPS unit, for the novice boater, or those with a very tight budget.

Even though it can plot waypoints, and it will give you speed of travel reading on the screen, I would imagine that this little unit is best used in the relative safety of inland waters.

Like Raymarine, Garmin is a titan when it comes to GPS units. Most of us know Garmin for their in-car GPS (Available on Amazon) units, but they are equally at home providing marine devices to help boaters.

So What Have We Learned?

Well, the first thing to point out is there are numerous manufacturers of GPS units for the marine community. I wanted to feature the names and units that I felt were popular and spanned the affordable price bands.

In essence, whether you’re spending $100 or $1000, the aim is the same. You want a GPS unit that does the basics: Allows you to mark waypoints, acts as a compass and tells you your position on the ocean. The other features are nice to have, but having them often comes at an increased cost.

As with all of these things, you will ultimately decide what GPS unit is best for your boat, and you’ll decide how much you want to spend. It’ll be a decision based on the type of boating that you undertake. For inland waters and the rivers, you don’t need to pay big; you want a reliable device to keep you on course.

But for the sea, it’s a whole different ballgame: Safety is paramount, and those extra gadgets that the more expensive GPS units have will come in very handy indeed.

And that’s the main point: What you want to spend determines the quality of your GPS unit, but where you travel does too.

Mark Weir lives on a canal boat in the heart of England, with his wife, Julie, and his grumpy dog, Eric. Mark likes to travel the waterways in his wide-beam barge, filming his exploits as he travels. Julie paints the wildlife, and Eric likes to bark, mostly.