Etrex 32x Review 2

In-Depth Garmin eTrex 32x Review & How-To Guide

In This Guide
  • eTrex 32x/22x Highs and Lows
  • Is the eTrex 32x Right for Me?
  • Guide to Navigating With and Using the eTrex 32x
  • GPS, Battery, and Map Performance

The Garmin eTrex 32x (and 22x) is a mixed bag. Most importantly, it’s a solid, rugged and reliable handheld GPS that simply works well. There’s not a ton of bells and whistles, and there are some downsides to consider, but if you’re looking for a purpose-built GPS that can keep you on the trail or help you navigate, the eTrex 32x might be for you.

If you find this guide helpful, you can help support this site by buying your eTrex with this link to REI or Amazon. If you buy atr REI, you get a discount of up to 10% with an inexpensive REI membership and free shipping. It usually ends up being cheaper than buying from Amazon, there are benefits to buying from REI, and you help support my free hiking guides for everyone.

I was not paid by Garmin to do this review. All reviews on this site and independent and unsponsored.

Highs and Lows of the eTrex 32x and eTrex 22x

No device is perfect and the eTrex 32x/22x is no exception. After using this eTrex for hundreds of miles out on the trails, here’s what I’ve come to learn. I’ll go into detail on the performance and usage in the sections following this one.


Needs Improvement

FYI – the eTrex does not have InReach functionality.

How is the eTrex 32x Different Than the Other eTrex Units?

Etrex 20 And Etrex 32x
What’s the difference between the eTrex 20/30 series (left) and the eTrex 22x/32x series? Not much. One note here, the eTrex 20 has free Open Street Maps (OSM) loaded and the eTrex 32x has the preloaded Garmin Topoactive maps, which are based on OSM maps.

There are a bunch of different models of eTrex and it can get confusing. Here’s the lowdown.

As I mentioned earlier, if you want to save money, just get a eTrex 20/30 or eTrex 30x. The units are almost identical. The cases are exactly the same except for the color, but the guts are different.

Here’s what the 22x/32x series offers over the regular 20/30 series.

Here’s the difference between the 22x/32x and the 30x.

If you can afford the 22x/32x and just want a reliable GPS for the longer term, it’s worth getting it. The product will be supported longer and you get a better screen, which is nice. If you want to save money and are okay with the GPS becoming obsolete (e.g. not supported) quicker, than the 20/30 and 30xseries with free maps are fine.

What About the eTrex Touch?

There’s a series of GPS called the eTrex Touch, which has similar guts to this eTrex, but with a touchscreen. I’ve used Garmin touchscreens in the past and have had trouble when it’s very wet or when I have gloves on, so that makes the eTrex Touch non-starter for me. If you’ve had a different experience, please let me know.

Should I Get the eTrex 32x / 22x?

Etrex 32x With Other Options
Here are some the leading outdoor GPS contenders side by side. An iPhone 11 with Gaia GPS, an eTrex 20 with free OSM maps, eTrex 32x, and a GPSMAP 66i.

I’d say that even though the eTrex 32x/22x is a solid GPS unit, it’s probably not for everyone. Here’s where I see the eTrex being a good buy, when it’s not, and when you should go with something else.

eTrex 32x Review & How-To Video

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Device Overview

Etrex 32x Buttons
The buttons on the eTrex 32x are dead simple and follow the same layout as most Garmin GPS units. If you’ve used a Garmin GPS in the past, the 32x’s interface will feel familiar.

Using the eTrex 32x is straightforward and once you spend a few minutes getting used to it, it become second nature.

If the eTrex 32x looks similar to the old eTrex 30 that came out in 2011, it’s because the case is the same (as far as I can tell). What’s different is the guts inside.

Etrex 32x Side View
The unit is wrapped in a (slightly softer) plastic that is easy to grip. The buttons provide a subtle tactile click when pressed.
Etrex 32x Ergonomics
The eTrex fits nicely in the palm of your hand. Your fingers rest on the “back” and power buttons, and your thumb can easily reach the joystick and left-side buttons.
Etrex 32x Batteries
The back of the unit has a standard Garmin spine mount. Turning the d-ring on the spine 90 degrees opens the battery compartment. The eTrex takes 2 AA batteries. Underneath the batteries you can see the microSD card slot.
Etrex 32 Mini Usb Connector
The eTrex 32x/22x has the older-style mini-USB port, which you use to connect it to your computer. You cannot charge (rechargeable) batteries through the USB port.
Etrex 32x Map Screen
The improved screen resolution on the 32x offers good detail and is easy to read.

eTrex Software

Etrex 32x Interface
Like most Garmin interfaces, the eTrex feels dated. It’s not a big deal in relation to everyday use, and the simplicity becomes a blessing when the conditions are adverse or your are fatigued.

The software functions on the eTrex 32x will be very familiar if you’ve used an older eTrex, and that’s because they are basically the same. Here’s what you get.

GPS Accuracy

Etrex 32x In Canyon
I took the eTrex 32x, eTrex 20, GPSMAP 66i, iPhone 11, and Fenix 6x Pro to a hike that had some tree coverage, moderate canyon walls, and open areas to make a side-by-side comparison of the GPS performance.

GPS is always a touchy subject and people have strong opinions here, and there are many variables. I have used the eTrex 32x for many hours over a few months, and the results of the test I did align with my actual experiences using it.  In a nutshell:

The eTrex uses a small patch antenna, while bigger units like the GPSMAP use a quadhelix antenna, which generally gets better results.

The eTrex 32x offers both GPS and the Russian version, GLONASS, but does not offer Galileo (European GPS). You can turn GLONASS off or on. The basic theory is that the more satellites that you can potentially get a fix on, the better your (triangulated) GPS fix will be. So theoretically having GLONASS on will give you better results. In practice the results with GLONASS were slightly more precise.

You can set the GPX track recording interval in 5 preset settings from “most often” to “least often,”

eTrex 32x GPS Test

I took the GPS units on the Red Rock hike at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park hike to do the test, and you can browse the tracks and details on my shared Caltopo map here.

eTrex 32x – green / eTrex 20 – dark blue / iPhone 11 Pro Max – yellow / Fenix 6 Pro Solar – light blue / GPSMAP 66i – purple

Etrex 32x Gps Test 1
In a section with some cliff walls and tree cover, the dark blue eTrex 20 and yellow iPhone are struggling with the eTrex 32x, and others are doing well.
Etrex 32x Gps Test 2
When the green eTrex 32x has GPS and GLONASS on, the fix seems to be more precise.
Etrex 32x Gps Test 3
For whatever reason the green eTrex 32x struggled along these canyon walls while the 66i and Fenix 6 were spot on.
Etrex 32x Gps Test 4
And at some points the green eTrex 32x had hiccups when the yellow iPhone 11 did too.

See the whole GPS test map on Caltopo.

Battery Life

Etrex32 Battery Screen
The battery meter is only available as this little image with 25% notches. Why don’t they give us a numeric percentage?

The nice thing about the eTrex is that it takes AA that you can get anywhere. It’s simple to carry spares, and you can get them almost anywhere, including gas stations at 4am when you’re driving to your hike and suddenly remember that your batteries are dead.

Garmin advertises 25 hours of life out of a set of batteries, which in general I found accurate. And like my eTrex 20, using lithium batteries allowed me to use the eTrex for about 40 hours.

Here’s what I do to maximize my battery life.

And if you don’t care about recording your track and just want to get a GPS fix once and a while, just turn the unit off until you need it. It’s relatively quick to power on. You can usually power up, get a position fix, and power down in less than 2 minutes.

When the joystick gets nudged, the unit wakes. If it’s in your pocket and rubbing around, it will wake often. With the eTrex 20 you could put the compass or trip computer on and it would not wake with the joystick, but that trick doesn’t work on the 32x. Your best bet is to clip it onto something so that the joystick doesn’t get nudged or just power it down when not using it. Hopefully Garmin will address with a firmware update.

eTrex 32x Maps

Etrex 32x Maps
The preloaded Garmin topo maps have the majority of trails listed and provide good topographic information. Here you can see we have trail name listed as well as labeled topographic contours.

One of the attractive features of the eTrex 32x is that it comes bundled with Garmin topographic maps. That means you can buy it, put two AA batteries in it, power up, and get going.  The onboard maps are Garmin TopoActive, which are based on Open Street Maps (OSM). The amount of coverage depends on the region and what the Garmin map team decided to take or leave from the OSM maps. In general you get about 24k in popular areas (like national parks, urban centers, etc.) and in more remote spots somewhere between 50k and 250k.

I used the eTrex 32x to navigate in Yosemite NP, Angeles NF, Cleveland NF, and sections of the AT, and all the official trails were on the device (and routable). However it doesn’t have most (unofficial) use trails, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Don’t forget to update the device with Garmin Express to get the latest map updates.

Loading Free OSM Maps

Etrex 32x Mapinstall
You can install free OSM maps onto the eTrex 32x, but you might be surprised by how little of the 8gb internal memory you have to work with (see the red bar at the bottom of the picture here).

If you’d like to load your custom maps or more detailed free OSM maps (that include use trails), there’s a bit of a hiccup. The unit is advertised as having 8gb of memory, which it does. But the preloaded Garmin TopoActive maps take up the majority of that space, leaving you with about 100mb for your own maps, tracks, and info.

If you want to load your own custom maps I highly recommend buying an inexpensive microSD card which you can get off Amazon for less than $10. The eTrex 32x takes up to a 32gb Class 4 through 10 card.


Navigating With Etrex 32x
Good news – navigating with the eTrex is relatively easy.

The eTrex 32x is a powerful backcountry navigation device. You can get navigation instructions on the fly, routed by the device, or you can preplan your trip, load it on the eTrex, and make sure you’re following the path your planned. I’ll show you some of the more important screens for navigation and then walk you through some real-world examples of using the device.

I highly recommend watching the video earlier in the article to see these navigation concepts in action.

Trip Computer

Etrex 32x Trip Computer
Unlike Garmin smartwatches where you start and stop an activity, the eTrex 32x works like a car odometer.

You record your trip and track on the “trip computer” screen. When you want to start a new trip, you reset it, and then go. The trip computer will continue to record your track while the GPS is awake or in “battery saver” (screen off) mode.

Etrex 32x Trip Computer Options
When on the “trip computer” page, hit the “menu” button to bring up this menu. You can reset the trip from here, and you can also customize the data on the screen.
Etrex 32x Track Manager
When you’re finished your trip, go to the “track manager” button on the main menu to save the track in the unit’s internal memory.


Etrex 32x Compass
The compass screen is straightforward.

If you are navigating a route, the compass screen will include an indicator to point you in the right direction. The 32x has the 3-axis internal compass, and will work when you are standing still. If you have the 22x without the internal compass, the unit will calculate your direction based on your last few GPS fixes.

Elevation Plot

Etrex 32x Elevation
You can open the elevation plot up from the main menu.

The elevation data on the eTrex 32x was marginally helpful. First off, you should calibrate it to a known elevation often, which is not always possible, especially when starting a hike. If you calibrate to a know elevation, you can get an accuracy of +/- 50 feet. If you calibrate it based on your GPS fix, it’s +/- 400 feet. That’s not so great.

Garmin’s outdoor devices are designed as recreational GPS devices, as an aid to navigation. They should not be used for any activity requiring precise measurements. – Garmin Support

The altimeter will measure your progress up and down regardless if it’s calibrated or not, so it’s helpful to measure your total ascent.

You can also look at the elevation plot of a saved track which I found helpful too.


Etrex 32x Waypoints
Marking a waypoint is as easy as hitting the “mark waypoint” tile on the main menu.

If you mark a waypoint you can customize things like the name and even tweak its position. You can also scroll around the map page with the cursor, press in the joystick, and create a waypoint from there.

With waypoints you can:

The eTrex map also comes with thousands of waypoints that are called “points of interest” or POIs. POIs include things like public buildings, restaurants, geographic features, and towns. You can navigate to any of these just as you could a waypoint. It’s important to update your device (more later) so that the maps and POIs are up to date.

There is a maximum of 2000 waypoints on the eTrex units.


Etrex 32x Route Calculation
You can use the eTrex 32x to calculate routes on the fly, without any preplanning on the computer.

You can think of routes as a direction from point A to B, just like when you use something like Google Maps. The eTrex can take a waypoint or POI, or a series of them, and dynamically calculate a route between them all. The route can be straight lines, but it can also be on trails and roads (you choose on the device).

Once you are following a route, the eTrex will give you a bearing, ETA, and distance to the next point on the route. If you come to a junction or waypoint on the route, the eTrex will wake and give you a little alarm.

While routing is cool to have in a pinch, the reality is that I pre-plan most of my hikes and don’t need to create a trip on the fly using a device. So for me, routes are a “nice to have” in case my plans change and I quickly need to get to civilization or a hospital.

The eTrex supports saving 200 routes with 250 points per route.


Etrex 32x Track
Tracks are the most useful method for me to navigate, and it’s dead easy on the eTrex.

You can think of tracks like a series of breadcrumbs that you follow. On the eTrex, when you are moving, the Trip Computer is creating a track of your movement which you can save for later. You can also load other tracks onto the device and follow them. The eTrex has a screen called “track manager” that lists them all out. Just select one, navigate it, and you’ll get a nice purple line overlaid on the map. The idea is simple; just stay on the purple line. If you are in doubt at an intersection, just consult the purple line and map. For me this type of navigation “second opinion” is more enjoyable than a turn-by-turn notification.

The maximum number of points per track on the eTrex is 10,000. If you have bigger tracks (like for a thru-hike) you’ll have to break it up into sections.

Loading External GPX Files

Copy Gpx Etrex 32x 2

If you download a GPX file from a website (like mine) you can easily load it onto the eTrex 32x without any fuss. Just take the actual GPX file and copy it into the folder (of the plugged-in eTrex) GARMIN > GPX.

Note that you CANNOT transfer data wirelessly to the eTrex from a phone. You need to connect it to a computer or transfer on the microSD card. If you want to transfer wirelessly from the phone, take a look at the GPSMAP 66i.


Basecamp Planning
Using the free Garmin Basecamp program in conjunction with your eTrex is a good way to plan your trips.

You can connect your eTrex to a computer with the free Garmin Basecamp program to plan navigation and transfer data between the unit and computer.


Etrex 32x Plugged Into Mac
The nice thing about the eTrex 32x is that you can just pop a couple of AAs into it and hit the trail, but I recommend updating the firmware and maps before you start.

Here’s what I recommend doing when you first get your eTrex 32x or 22x.