Garmin eTrex 20 Review

Garmin eTrex 20 GPS...

Garmin eTrex 20 GPS…

What is it?

The Garmin eTrex 20 is a low cost backpacking GPS device.

Garmin eTrex 20 Spew

Size: 9.8 x 5.5 x 2.8cm

Weight: 142g

“The Garmin eTrex 20 GPS features an full-color display, expandable memory and geochaching to offer a fun and easy GPS experience for outdoor enthusiasts.

  • Comes with a built-in worldwide basemap with shaded relief that helps you navigate with ease
  • Features a 2.2 in., 65k color display can be viewed in bright sunlight;
  • WAAS-enabled? receiver locates your position quickly and maintains reception under heavy cover
  • Compatibility with Russian Glonass system allows about 20% faster and more reliable satellite acquisition, helpful in challenging spots such as deep canyons or tall buildings
  • 1.7 gigabytes of memory make it easy to add maps; choose from Garmin TOPO U.S. 24k maps, BlueChart® g2 marine maps and City Navigator® road maps (sold separately)
  • Supports geocaching GPX files for downloading geocache locations and details straight to the unit using the high-speed USB connection
  • Stores and displays geocache location, terrain, difficulty, hints and descriptions—no more manually entering coordinates or toting around paper printouts!
  • MicroSD™ card slot for storing additional data
  • Operational buttons are located along the sides of the device for easy 1-hand operation
  • 2 AA batteries (sold separately) provide up to 25 hrs. of use of the Garmin eTrex 20 GPS
  • Waterproof design meets IEC 60529 lPX7 standards (can be submerged to 1m for up to 30 min.)”
eTrex 20 mounted on my Krampus...

eTrex 20 mounted on my Krampus…

How was it tested? 

I’ve been using this GPS unit on my bikepacking and mountain bike trips since March 2013.

I should point out that I am not a GPS power user. I use a few features of this unit a lot, but really don’t care about most of what the device can do. However, I do care a great deal about the few features I use regularly.

All the angles...

All the angles…

GPS Reception

My previous GPS experience has been with a series of other Garmin backpacking devices. What’s been really great about the eTrex 20 compared to previous GPS units is that it rarely if ever loses satellite lock – despite being under thick tree canopy or in steep sided valleys. I’m trying to recall if I can think of even a single time I had an issue and nothing is coming to mind. That’s amazing both because it means you never have to wait for your GPS to figure out where you are before making your next navigation move and the track that is collected is very accurate without a bunch of “crazy” positions collected that you know are wrong and need to be cleaned up.

Part of the credit for this goes to updates in GPS receiver technology and part of it is due to the fact this GPS unit not only communicates with the GPS satellite constellation the US government maintains, but also the Russian GLONASS satellites. By using both systems this GPS has a much better chance of having the minimum satellites it needs at any given time to determine your position.

The eTrex 20 seems to boot up when you hit the power button quite quickly compared to previous GPS units I’ve owned. This isn’t critical to me, but it is nice to not have to wait long for a position solution.

I’m very pleased by how the eTrex 20 tracks satellites and keeps working even under challenging conditions.

Size comparison...

Size comparison…


When it comes to accuracy what I about is having a GPS position close enough to my true position that I can make useful navigation decisions. I also care about recording a GPS track that is accurate enough it can be used later to re-trace the same route effectively. On both these counts the eTrex 20 delivers. Based on my interaction with landmarks on the ground the eTrex 20 seems to deliver single digit metre accuracy most of the time.

I run the eTrex 20 with WAAS [Wide Area Augmentation System] corrections enabled. This is a network of ground stations that are used to correct a non-DGPS [Differential GPS] position solution. I also run the eTrex 20 setup so it uses both GPS and GLONASS satellites. Having more satellites means better solution geometry and a more accurate result.

A less critical data requirement for me is the collection of speed, evaluation and distance data such as distance travelled and average speed. I use these mostly for story telling purposes once I am back home. When I have had the opportunity to compare the eTrex to an external info source with regards to these data I’ve noticed some significant variations. If accurate distance and speed were really important to me I would use a conventional bike computer which is very accurate when properly calibrated . For really accurate elevation data I would use a barometric altimeter.

For my needs the positional accuracy is excellent and the performance data is sufficient.

Main menu...

Main menu…

User Interface

The eTrex has a 4 x 3.5 cm 220 x 176 pixel colour backlit screen. The display is pretty easy to see and use, but the resolution and quality of the display is a step backwards from my 5yr old Garmins Vista Cx [my previous GPS]. The display is hard to read in direct sunlight, but that’s a problem with every electronic device I own so I can live with that issue.

There is a small 4-way joystick which you can press in to act as a button on the top right of the screen. On the plus side this is easier to use with bike gloves on than a touch screen or small buttons, but unfortunately it’s still not very easy to press the button and access the function you want. Frequently when you try to press the button you end up moving the cursor instead and get a function you didn’t intend. Often enough I have to stop riding and switch screens then resume riding again. Not the end of the world, but reliable on the fly controls would be lovely.

The menu system itself isn’t bad to use. You can figure out most functions without resorting to reading the owner’s manual. Having said that the menu system in my Vista Cx seemed a step more refined and easier to use. I frequently find myself hunting around for stuff in the eTrex 20 that was dead easy to find in the Vista Cx.

All in all the user interface is acceptable without being awesome.

Battery compartment...

Battery compartment and micro-SD card…

Power Consumption

The eTrex 20 uses 2 AA batteries for power. It’s supposed to run 25hrs on a set, but I’ve never verified that. I tend to budget 1 set of 2000 mAh NiMH rechargeable batteries for every 2 days of bikepacking use and haven’t had any issues so far. The power consumptions seems quite good on this unit.

I tend to leave the backlight off most of the time and I don’t “play” with the unit anymore than I have to.

Opening the battery compartment and swapping batteries is quick and easy.

USB connector for data transfer and external power...

USB connector for data transfer and external power…


Living in Canada the included maps on any GPS are pretty much useless so I bought Garmin’s Topo Canada and Backroads Maps BC maps. The eTrex 20 has 1.7Gigs of onboard srtoarge for maps, tracks and other data. It also accepts maps preloaded onto a micro-SD card or you insert an empty memory card and load maps onto them. I’ll review these mapping packages separately, but keep in mind you’ll likely want to get some maps for your GPS to get the most out of it.

With your Garmin GPS you have access to Garmin’s Base Camp software which allows you to work with your maps and GPS data to prepare routes or export GPS data you want to share.

New mount is closer to camera with old mount on far side of bars...

New mount is closer to camera with old mount on far side of bars…

Form Factor

The shape of the device fits into my hand nicely. The rubberized band around the perimeter is grippy enough that I don’t drop it when using it. The construction and materials are pleasing to use and the quality seems high. The weight seems appropriate for its size and the batteries inside it.

One issue I have with the eTrex 20 compared to the previous Garmin GPS I used is the way it mounts to my bikes. The eTrex 20 uses a bulky mount that attaches to the bike via 2 zipties. There is a low profile clip on the bottom of the GPS that mates with the mount. The size of the mount means it’s quite ugly when you leave it on your bike without a GPS installed. The zipties do not allow for a uber secure attachment and the GPS is prone to move [tilting and side to side] – although it can be repositioned on the fly easily.

The Vista Cx used a small low profile bike mount that clamped to the bike using a hinge and a bolt. This setup was much more secure and was nearly invisible when the GPS wasn’t on the bike.

Because the eTrex 20 is an excellent GPS I put up with these issues, but they regularly make me unhappy. I hope Garmin comes up with a better bike mount for their backpacking GPS devices.

Zipties secure mount to bars...

Zipties secure mount to bars…

Weather Proofing/Ruggedness

The eTrex is supposed to be waterproof to 1m for up to 30mins. I haven’t tested this, but I have used this GPS in the rain and in cool/damp weather as well as it hot temperatures and direct sunlight for extended periods. Since the eTrex is attached to my bike’s bars it takes quite a pounding. So far I’ve had absolutely no problems with it. It seems well made and appropriately tough for an outdoors GPS.

The big picture...

The big picture…

Paper Maps

I carry paper maps on all my trips. A GPS is useful for telling you exactly where you are and what’s next to you. It’s fairly craptacular for overall planning of a trip, explaining stuff to people you meet or coming up with reroutes when the original route is not passable. Paper maps also do not rely on electronics or battery power to work for you so they are great as a back up to your GPS. With both a GPS and a paper map I know I’ll have easy and reliable navigation on my trip.

With high quality colour photocopying being so cheap these days I take disposable copies of the map areas I am riding through with me. I can fold them, write on them and cram them into a pocket without caring too much about them. In a pinch I can use them as fire starter!

Maybe I am showing my age, but even though I have a 30″ monitor at home I’d much rather spread a paper map out on my desk and plan a trip then program the route electronically into my GPS.


4 thoughts on “Garmin eTrex 20 Review

  1. Contact Kerry at He’s made some GPS mounts with his 3D printer. He should be able to knock something out for you with a better attachment.

  2. Hi Vik
    I am looking at the Garmin Etrex 20 or 30 for GPS backup in the woods. Just curious if you are still using your Etrex 20 and if you are, how you like it after a year or so of use.

    Cheers, from a fellow Canuck

  3. Great web site, Vik! We used the e20 on our last long tour (16 months) and it worked flawlessly. Totally waterproof in the worst kind of weather. I usually got 4 or 5 days out of it before having to change the batteries. I used eneloop rechargeables that I could charge with my Son28 hub and The Plug while cycling. Downloaded free maps from that were remarkable accurate and detailed. It’s a great little GPS for touring.

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