Boat GPS Systems Explained: What’s The Best?

Marine GPS systems are important for use on boats when you prefer not to rely on navigating with maps. These onboard electronic systems offer various capabilities and come from a wide range of manufacturers who focus on different features. For example, some GPS systems for boats offer electronic displays, while others work with your boat radar to show you where you are and how much progress you have made.

There are also GPS products that link with autopilot or fish finders for extra functionality. The right boat GPS for you will depend on what you tend to use your vessel for regularly. Many anglers use their GPS to navigate to their favorite fishing grounds and then switch on their fish finder to see what potential game is nearby.

Since boat location can be challenging to read at times, GPS systems for boats are a common sight. These are similar to the GPS systems in cars and some of them can actually be used both in automobiles and on water vessels. Regardless of where the GPS is used, it provides a simple way of determining your location.

Garmin GPS With Dual 24 Inch Displays

Above: A Garmin Navigation System with two flush-mounted, in-dash, 24″ Garmin displays onboard a 2020 Yellowfin 42 Offshore for sale on Boat Trader. Photo by USA Coastal Marine.

How GPS Systems for Boats Work

GPS is a navigational system based on satellite that offers an accurate position at all times of day or night on land, in water, or in the air. The weather does not affect GPS and there is no fee to access this information. The data is pulled from satellites orbiting more than 10,000 miles over the earth.

Timing signals are sent up to the satellites and a GPS receiver uses the satellite’s orbital location to determine where you are. GPS is accurate up to six meters and there are several types of boat GPS systems that make use of this location technology. These include fixed-mount displays, handheld or portable devices, and multifunctional displays.

Types of GPS Systems And Onboard Marine Navigational Systems

Many of the GPS systems for boats have extra features not found in simple smartphone apps. When choosing the right type of GPS for your vessel, the first step is deciding which version is right for your needs.

Fixed-Mount GPS Display

For boat owners, a fixed-mount GPS is an excellent choice that is easy to install. These displays are often waterproof and have full coverage of the United States. In addition, this type of GPS for boats often has a larger screen and can benefit from a constant supply of electricity from your boat’s power source.

Handheld & Portable Devices

Portable devices are often used in johnboats, kayaks, sailing dinghies, and paddleboards. They also work well as a backup on larger boats since they don’t rely on your boat’s power to function. This device will have a smaller screen and an internal antenna but can still provide a great deal of functionality.

Some portable receivers are designed to be mounted to the boat’s dashboard and typically come with a battery pack and power cord. Others have larger screens than typical handhelds and might include touchscreen capabilities.

Multifunctional GPS Displays

A multifunctional display (or MFD) lets you streamline several electronics so you can use them from one screen. For instance, you might have GPS, weather, radar, sonar, and video inputs. If your boat has limited space, this sort of display could be the best solution for having all the data you need while on the water.

Best Boat GPS Systems for 2021

With so many GPS systems available for boats, choosing the one that meets your needs can be a challenge. There are tons of companies manufacturing GPS devices and each of them will be different from the next. However, some brands and systems are more useful than others. We’ll be sharing a few of the top choices for the year below.

Garmin Striker 4

Garmin is the number one name in the world of GPS systems for boats and the Striker 4 is an impressive device. It’s compact and small with a 3.5-inch color display but allows you to navigate in open water, mark positions, and even find fish. This is ideal for anglers since it offers tons of information on what’s going on underwater. In addition, it can help you search and map fish with detailed information to help you bring in a big catch.

Lowrance Hook2 Fish Finder & GPS

Another trusted name with boat electronics is Lowrance, which offers the Hook2. It’s a chart plotter, GPS, and fish finder in a single device. This item has a reasonable price, a five-inch screen, and is simple to use. It uses auto-tuning sonar to get better visibility underwater to see what fish are around. It also has an intuitive interface so you can focus on fishing rather than pushing buttons and searching through menus.

Cobra COB-MR

For those who need a handheld option, this device from Cobra is sure to please. It comes at an affordable price and offers everything you need while out on a boat. It comes with a GPS receiver, VHF radio, NOAA weather channels, a distress button, and a digital selective calling function. It may be less impressive visually than other options, but it has the features you need. It’s even waterproof and designed to float in case you toss it overboard.

Humminbird Helix 5 G2

Another top device manufacturer for boats is Humminbird, and the GPS marine system contained in the Helix 5 keeps you on course while helping you track down the best fish. It works in saltwater and freshwater locations and is compatible with kayaks, SUPs, fishing boats, and more. In addition, the device has pre-loaded data and maps from NOAA and LakeMaster and notes hazards, marinas, buoys, markers, harbors, and other waypoints.

Wrapping Up

Knowing precisely where you are while out at sea is essential and the right GPS for boats will ensure you have that ability. You can choose a simple device with only the most necessary features or go big and get extras like detailed maps, contouring imagery, and sonar technology.

You can’t go wrong with any of the products above, but one might rise above the others based on your needs. So consider your priorities, look at your options, and get a boat GPS that offers everything you need for your next day on the water.

Written by: Valerie Mellema

Valerie Mellema is a writer, published author and avid bass angler who lives on the shores of Lake Fork in East Texas — the top bass lake in Texas and the fifth in the nation. For the past 10 years, she and her husband have enjoyed the pontoon boat lifestyle while fishing a lake that not only has bass but beautiful wildlife as well. She holds a BS in Agribusiness/Equine Business and regularly contributes articles to, YachtWorld and Boat Trader.


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