|In This Guide|
The good news is that if you own a Garmin GPS device, there’s a way to get free Garmin GPS maps. And in most cases, the free maps are much better than the expensive Garmin maps. I’m a big fan of Garmin GPS devices, but I always found it disappointing that they charged extra for maps. Garmin doesn’t publicize it, but most of their GPS units are setup to take any maps in the correct format. Here’s how to get and install these free hiking maps in an easy, step-by-step process.
In retrospect, I think the price for Garmin maps is too high. There are some as good, or better, alternatives available at no cost online. This product is overpriced for what it is. I would recommend other software. – Garmin Map Review on Amazon
Why These Free Maps?
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ETrex 20/30 (Webupdater) software version 4.90. As of February 19, 2019. Use Garmin Express to install this file. (9.53 MB) View system requirements. Notes: WARNING: If this software is uploaded to a device other than that for which it is designed, you will not be able to operate that device. The device comes preloaded with Garmin TopoActive Europe maps for 46 countries - just switch the device on, connect to GPS and start your next cycling trip. The eTrex 35 is the perfect navigator for mountain bikers as he uses a barometric altimeter to get more accurate altitude, elevation and climb information.
So let me start by saying there are a lot of ways to get free Garmin GPS maps, and a lot of different methods to install them. You could create whole websites devoted to the subject, and people have (see below). This article focuses on installing my favorite free Garmin GPS maps for hiking in the USA, using OpenStreetMaps. If these don’t work for you, try exploring the other map services that I have listed below.
You can also create your own highly-customized maps and download them to your Garmin device.
OpenStreetMaps are the Wikipedia of maps. The public contributes to, confirms, and edits the data on the map. This curation goes for hiking trails too. The maps are regularly updated, and over the last few years have seemed the most accurate in my experience. You can even become a contributor if you like.
The free hiking maps that I’m recommending are great because:
- They are good topographic maps with elevation contours.
- They have a large number of hiking trails on them.
- They are “routable,” which means that you can use free tools like Garmin Basecamp to automatically create routes and tracks that you can follow (without having to plot each point of the trail yourself).
- The colors and detail work well for me. That is, they look good on the device.
- USA regions are packaged together.
If you have a newer GPS device like a Garmin Fenix 5x Plus or are on Windows, there are some special instructions below.
New Guide Notifications
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Which Garmin GPS devices do the maps work with?
First off, the Garmin unit you have might have maps already. You probably know this, but if you’re shopping for a GPS, go to the Garmin website page for the unit. If it maps come with the unit, it will say it has “preloaded topo maps.”
If you already have a unit and want to find out if these free maps work, go to the unit’s page on the Garmin website, and then check out the “specs” section. There is a line for “ability to add maps,” if you have a check there, you’re good to go.
Downloading the Free Garmin GPS Maps
The first thing you’re going to want to do is visit the GMapTool website, specifically the USA OSM Topo Routable page.
Then pick the region you want, and download the appropriate map package (link way at the bottom of the page). The files are pretty big. The download might take a while.
Installing the Free Maps on Your Computer
The instructions are different for Mac and PC. The map website has a link for installation instructions, click on that. My instructions cover the installation on a Mac, but I have some general that fill in the gaps for installing on Windows below .
For the Mac, you’ll need three (free) programs to install the maps. You can download and install these programs while you wait for your maps to download.
That’s it. The maps are on your computer. If you’re not already using the free Garmin Basecamp tool, I highly recommend getting it. It will allow you to browse maps, create tracks, and is invaluable in planning hikes.
Installing the Free Maps on Your Garmin GPS
Once your map is downloaded and installed, you’re all set to install them on your GPS unit.
Installing on Newer Garmin Devices From Mac
So Garmin changed the way that the GPS devices communicate with computers. If you have Windows, you should be all good (see below). If you have Mac, there’s a wrinkle.
Garmin switched to the MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) to transfer files, which makes the Garmin appear as a “media device.” And of course, Apple doesn’t support it. But I’ve found a solution. It’s not the most graceful one in the world, but it works (confirmed on a Fenix 5x Plus).
- Get your maps from here: http://garmin.openstreetmap.nl
- The site will send you an email with a download link.
- Download the ZIP file that is described as “Compressed file that contains a single image that can be placed directly onto the SD-card of the GPS.”
- Unzip the file. You should have a file with a “.img” extension.
- Now we need to connect the Garmin to the computer. Download the free Android File Transfer program from Google. Install it on your machine as per the instructions.
- If you have Garmin Express running, make sure it’s not running and you have disabled any “automatically launch when device is connected” settings.
- Plug in your Garmin to the computer and launch the Android File Transfer program. You should see a screen like this:
- Simply drag the “.img” file that you downloaded into the Garmin folder. You might want to rename the “.img” file to make sure it doesn’t whack any maps already on there.
That’s it. Go to your map settings and turn the OSM map on and off.
If you work at Garmin, please update MapInstall to support MTP! They’re too big-time to listen to my feedback, so if you know anyone at Garmin, please bug them.
Tips for Windows Installation
The directions on GMapTool site aren’t very descriptive for Windows. Here are some tips from fellow hiker Dave T. on how to install the free maps on Windows.
- Run the “bat” file as described on the GMapTool site.
- Open Garmin Basecamp to ensure that the maps have been installed.
- Use the free Garmin MapInstall program to send the maps to your device. OR you can also install them directly from Basecamp. Right click on the internal storage and selected install maps (thanks to John S for the tip).
- Or use the maps at garmin.openstreetmap.nl, Download your map first. This will create a single “img” file for each map you download. Then copy that map file to your Garmin (the drive if you have a micro SD card, not the device) in the “Garmin” folder (which you must create first if it doesn’t already exist).
If These Free Garmin GPS Maps Don’t Work For You
There are other free maps for your Garmin GPS, and again, they might have different instructions for installation. Check the website where the maps are offered for directions on how to install them.
- GPSFileDepot is a great resource that’s frequently updated. I recommend trying this site before any others.
- OpenStreetMap.nl is good if you want to grab.a smaller, more specific map.
- OpenSeaMap offers nautical charts.
If you’re having trouble finding the GMAP folder, this tip has helped some folks (thanks to Liz S!).
Some Final Thoughts
I recommend planning your hike and creating a GPX file beforehand. Most Garmin GPS units are too small for anything more than impromptu navigation planning. I have a tutorial on how to plan a hiking route for your Garmin GPS here.
And I could use your help. I don’t download these maps every day, so if these directions don’t seem up to date, please contact me and let me know. I’ll update the directions here accordingly.
Lastly, a note if you’re having tech issues. Unfortunately, I can’t help everyone who emails me. I recommend posting your question online in the Garmin Reddit, the Garmin Forums, or in a Garmin group on Facebook. That’s probably you’re quickest path to success.
|In This Guide|
The Garmin eTrex 20x is your best bet for an inexpensive, dedicated, outdoor ready hiking GPS. There are more expensive models, and smartphone alternatives, but for a lot of hikers, the eTrex 20x will give you the best bang for the buck. Here’s why I recommend it.
If you find this guide helpful, you can help support this site by buying the eTrex 20x with this link to REI. You get a discount up to 10% with an inexpensive REI membership and free shipping. It ends up being cheaper than buying from Amazon, there are benefits to buying from REI, and you help support free hiking guides for everyone.
Be sure to check out my review of the newer eTrex 32x model too.
What the Garmin eTrex 20x Is and Is Not
The eTrex 20x is a small, outdoor ready mapping GPS unit. You can follow a pre-made track or route, or navigate to a waypoint. Or you can navigate by looking at the loaded maps on the small color screen. It’s waterproof, rugged, and outdoor ready (so unlike most phones, you can drop it without shattering the screen).
If you read the reviews for the eTrex 20x (especially on Amazon), you’ll see that many people give it low stars and complain about the maps. Garmin’s marketing makes it seem like you can start mapping hikes out of the box with this thing, and it’s not true.
Garmin includes a base map, which will basically tell you what city you’re in and what interstate is close to you. It’s pretty worthless, BUT BUT BUT you can get free topographic maps and load them on the unit very easily. No need to buy expensive Garmin maps. And Garmin provides a free program called Basecamp (Windows and Mac) that’s a great tool for planning routes and loading them onto the unit. I use it all the time.
So with the free maps, and Basecamp for planning, the Garmin eTrex 20x is powerful tool. It’s small, rugged, and easily helps you navigate the trails. Whenever someone asks me for an inexpensive GPS recommendation, I tell them to get the eTrex 20x. I carry one myself and use it in addition for my Fenix and smartphone (because I’m a freak about having backups).
When I was younger I might’ve eschewed the use of something like this, but as I get older, I appreciate knowing exactly where I am at any given time. I wouldn’t hit the trail without it. – REI Reviewer
Garmin eTrex 20x Video Review
New Guide Notifications
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Why the eTrex 20x Is a Great Hiking GPS
It Has the Crucial Navigation Features
There are some basic functions that I look for in a hiking GPS, and the eTrex does all of them well. Here’s what it does:
- Allows you to follow a GPX tracks that you’ve downloaded off the internet
- Allows you to create your own hiking tracks and routes in (free) Garmin Basecamp and send them to the eTrex 20x
- Marks waypoints to save important places
- Navigates to a waypoint
- Tracks you progress, speed, time and distance
- Allows you to save your hikes to your computer or online on Garmin Connect
- Has map browsing and navigation capabilities
- Has 3.7gb of internal memory to hold plenty of maps
In addition to those basic functions, the eTrex 20x has some bells and whistles that I like.
- If you plan a route in Basecamp and send it to your eTrex 20x, the unit will alert you with a wake and chime when you need to turn or change your track (to stay on the route).
- It has a proximity alarm that will wake and chime the unit when you get close to a waypoint or coordinate.
- It can accept a wide variety of free topographic (and other) maps. I use these great (free) topographic maps.
The GPS Is Solid
A hiking GPS is really only as good as the signal it can get, and the eTrex is solid in that department. It picks up a signal very quickly (actually quicker than some of the more expensive units that I tested). In addition to standard GPS signals, it also has WAAS, which can improve accuracy. You can also enable GLONASS support, which is Russia’s version of GPS. Enabling GLONASS allegedly improves your accuracy by up to 20%. I enable GLONASS and WAAS and it works great. If you want to save battery, you can also turn those features off.
I didn’t have scientific way of testing the GPS versus other units, but I did do dozens of real world hike spot checks on the eTrex 20x, Fenix 3HR, iPhone 7 Plus, and Oregon 700. Every time I checked, the eTrex 20x was within 20 feet or so of all the other positions, which is good. And I confirmed that GLONASS improved accuracy a bit. And just a reminder, unless you’re geocaching, it’s not that crucial to know exactly where you are. I generally use it to see if I’m on the right trail, and that’s generally pretty obvious.
Garmin Etrex 20 Review
The Battery Works Well
First off, I love that it uses AA batteries. That means you can just carry extra batteries when you need more juice. They can be rechargeable batteries, or the same old AA you can get in any gas station. No need for USB chargers, solar panels, or anything else fancy. Carry some extra AA batteries in your pack and call it a day.
With normal alkaline AA batteries I get about 22-24 hours of batteries depending on my backlight brightness and how much I use it. When I used Lithium batteries I got between 40-50 hours of use. The lower number seemed to be when I was in canyons where it had to work more to lock onto a signal. The 50 hours were in my “normal” hiking with better line-of-sight.
To maximize your battery life, turn off GLONASS, WAAS, and minimize the backlight.
Our eTrex 20x used only one set of AA lithium batteries to complete 93 miles in 9 days on the Wonderland Trail – REI Reviewer
Other Notable Features
- It’s waterproof and durable. You can drop it and the screen won’t shatter like a phone.
- The software and buttons are simple and easy to use.
- You can customize the data fields.
- It has sunrise and moonrise.
- The buttons are big enough to use when you have gloves on.
- The screen is easy to see in bright daylight.
- It’s inexpensive. If you don’t want to spend a ton on a GPS but you still want a solid unit, the eTrex 20x is your move.
What Could Be Better
- If you’re used to an Android or iPhone, the software on this unit will feel like a step back to Windows 95. If you spend 5 minutes playing around with it, you’ll figure it out.
- I get that Garmin sells maps, but in this day and age, they should be free. Garmin would probably be served better by having free maps and focusing on building great hardware. That said, you can get plenty of free maps to load onto the unit here.
- The screen is a bit small. I wouldn’t use the eTrex 20x to plan all my routes, but you can use it to do that. It’s much easier to plan your routes in Basecamp and send them to the device.
- It doesn’t come with any mounts or a lanyard. Easy enough to buy for a few bucks. I carry mine in the side pocket of my daypack. It’s small enough to fit in your pocket.
Great if your a hiker of any sorts – easy to use, multifunctional, I like that you can update it and load files on for trips and change them out for other trips, great that you can load hikes from where you never been, nice having peace of mind of not getting lost, batteries last a good long while, not heavy and easily packable – Amazon Reviewer
Comparing the eTrex 20x To Other GPS Options
There are a lot of GPS options, which is a great thing for us hikers. Here’s how the eTrex 20x stacks up to the other GPS options on the market.
eTrex 20x or a Smartphone
Your smartphone is probably thousands of times more powerful than the eTrex 20x. The screen resolution probably leaves the eTrex 20x in the dust. But phones are only good if they work, and most phones aren’t as rugged as the eTrex 20x.
First, cell phones are notorious for going dead, especially in the backcountry. What typically happens is that you lose a cell signal, then your phone starts constantly searching for a signal, which quickly drains the battery. You can solve this problem by putting the phone in flight mode, but some phones don’t allow the GPS to work in flight mode. So it can get tricky. I typically use my iPhone in offline mode with Gaia GPS in addition to a dedicated GPS unit like the eTrex 20x. If you’re interested in a Gaia GPS premium membership, HikingGuy readers get 20-40% off with this link: https://www.gaiagps.com/discounts/#_r_hikingguy.
The other issue is the durability of a smartphone. If your phone isn’t waterproof, you need to protect it from moisture (easily solved with a plastic sandwich bag). The bigger issue for me is the screen. Most phones aren’t shatter-proof, and my sweaty hands have dropped a few phones, cracking the screen. I even tried rugged cases like the Otterbox, and still cracked them. The phone doesn’t have to hit the ground with force to crack, it just has to hit at a certain angle or spot and a crack or shatter.
eTrex 20x or a Bigger/Better Handheld GPS
The nice thing about the eTrex 20x is that it gives you the basic, most useful GPS functions in a small, inexpensive package. If you look at the more expensive models from Garmin, etc., they bundle in extra features that aren’t important for most hikers.
For example, take a look at the high end Garmin 750t, another handheld mapping GPS. For about $350 more than the eTrex 20x, you get: a bigger screen (maybe worth it), a camera (which you probably have anyway), topographic maps (which you can get for free), WiFi/Bluetooth connectivity (who cares on the trail), and some other minor features. Now maybe one of these features is important to you for whatever reason, in which case go for it. But if you just want a solid GPS for hikes, you don’t really need all the bells and whistles.
eTrex 20x or a GPS Watch
My main GPS device is a Garmin Fenix. I use it for basic navigation checks, and also as a powerful workout tracker (I use it for running, hiking, biking, swimming, etc.). I also use the eTrex 20x. The eTrex 20x has a bigger screen, and is easier read and navigate from. It’s also a fraction of the cost of a GPS watch. If you’re looking for a full featured device that lives on your wrist, the Garmin Fenix is the move. If you want a basic GPS for the trail, go with the eTrex 20x.
eTrex 20x or the eTrex 30x
These two units are almost identical. The difference is that the eTrex 30x has a built in compass and altimeter, and the eTrex 20x does not. The eTrex 20x uses the GPS and movement to determine your compass heading. If you’re standing still, you won’t get an accurate compass reading. And the eTrex 20x uses GPS map data to determine your altitude, while the 30x actually uses a built in barometric altimeter. If those features are important to you, spend the extra few bucks for the eTrex 30x. Otherwise the units are identical.
There are also eTrex Touch devices that have touch screens. I found the buttons on the eTrex 20x to work better for me than the touch screen, especially when my hands were cold or wet.
Buying The eTrex 20x
I highly recommend ordering your eTrex 20x from REI. You can probably get it for a few dollars cheaper on Amazon, but that comes with a risk. Usually the eTrex 20x is sold through a third party on Amazon, and it’s hard to return or get support on. With REI, there are no hassle returns, you can go to a store and get help using it, and you get the REI member dividend back.
5 star. Works great. Accurate. Great price for value. – Amazon Reviewer
If you’re thinking about buying the Garmin eTrex 20x, there’s something important you can do to help support this site. Simply click on the link below to REI and purchase the unit from REI online. I get a small percentage of the sale, which helps me keep the website alive and produce unbiased reviews and free hiking guides.
Setting Up Your eTrex 20x
When you first get the eTrex, there’s not much to it, just a unit and a USB cable (it uses a mini-USB connector on the unit). If you want a manual, check out the online version which is easier to read than the miniature version they package with the unit.
Here’s how to get started.
- Head to Garmin Connect and setup an account if you don’t have one yet.
- Install the free Garmin Express software on your computer (Windows and Mac).
- Start Garmin Express, put batteries in the unit, and plug in the USB cable.
- Garmin Express should recognize the unit and ask you to register it.
- Garmin Express will check for updates and make sure your device is up to date. Go through all these steps to update the software (if prompted).
- Download Garmin Basecamp and install on your machine.
- Download free topographic maps from your region from GPSFileDepot (or jump ahead to the topographic maps I use at GMapTool).
- Follow the directions on those sites to install the maps onto your device. It’s different for Windows and Mac, and different for each map service.
- After you go through those steps to send the maps to your device, launch Basecamp, go to Setup > Maps and enable your new maps (and disable the default map if you don’t want to see it).
- Go through the eTrex 20x setup and customize other aspects of the device if you’d like. Here are some recommendations.
- Turn the Battery Saver on and set the screen timeout to 15 seconds.
- Turn off WAAS and GLONASS if you want to save your battery.
- Check that your units are set correctly (believe mine came as metric).
- Make sure your battery type is set correctly (alkaline, lithium, etc.)
- Customize the data fields.
- Disable the default map and enable your new (free) maps
Garmin Etrex Software Download
How to Use the eTrex 20x
Works great after it’s setup and you actually learn how to use it. – Amazon Reviewer
Not much to say here, aside that it’s pretty simple to use once you get used to the buttons and menu. You can customize things like the menu order and data fields shown. Here’s how it works.
Planning Your Route
I highly recommend planning your route on your computer before you start. It’s much easier than planning a route on the small screen of the eTrex 20x. I have a whole article on planning your hike here. Once you have your route or track, send it to your device.
It Works Like A Trip Computer
If you’re used to a fitness model of the Garmin, the eTrex 20x works differently. On a fitness model like a Fenix, you hit start, and it tracks your activity like a stopwatch until you hit stop. The eTrex 20x works more like a car odometer. When you want to start a new hike, you reset the trip computer and it starts recording while the unit is on. When you’re done, you save the track and reset the computer.
Following a Route
Garmin Etrex 20 Refurbished
In Garmin Basecamp you can create routes, which are similar to turn by turn directions on an automotive GPS. You simply create it, send it to the eTrex 20x, and then navigate using the route. When there’s a turn or change in the route, the unit will wake and chime to alert you. I wouldn’t rely on this as your sole way to navigate, but it’s handy.
Following a Track
You can also download GPX tracks (like the ones from this website) and view them on your device. Send the track to the device in Basecamp, and then simply bring it up on the device. If you’re on the purple line, you’re on the track. It’s handy when you come to an intersection and need to figure out which way to turn. And (obviously) nice if you’re navigating off trail as well.
You can set a proximity alarm for a waypoint. When you get close to the waypoint, the unit will wake and chime. This is helpful for important locations on the trail, for example, and unmarked turn.
Marking and Navigating to Waypoints
This is a basic function on most GPS units, and the eTrex 20x supports it too. You can mark a waypoint where you are, or use the joystick to scroll around the map to mark a waypoint. You can then navigate to any waypoint, with the unit’s compass pointing you in the right direction.
I have used by eTrex 20x for two hiking/hunting/fishing seasons. It has proved to be a very rugged and reliable GPS. I bought it to geocache and it also proved to be very accurate. For off-trail use in heavy PNW forest, it was indispensable. Got me back to the vehicle every time. – Amazon Reviewer
Getting Help With Your Garmin eTrex 20x
Unfortunately I’m not able to provide tech support for everyone who emails with an eTrex question. Here’s where to go for help:
- Post on the Garmin Forum
- Check out the Garmin Reddit page