Best GPS Watches For Hiking
GPS technology has allowed people the opportunity to explore even more of our world without the danger of going in completely blind. More and more people are taking advantage of this technology to help them safely navigate the trail (or lack thereof) and adventure to their heart’s content. In the deepest portion of the woods, it is convenient to have a device to turn to for navigation.
However, GPS watches are so much more than that. When you use one for hiking, they offer you additional functionalities to make them an all-purpose device. In order to help you sort through the best possible options for a GPS watch to keep you oriented, we've reviewed our top ten picks to help you with your buying decision.
In a Hurry? The test winner after 11 hrs of research
Water rated for up to 100 meters; making it ideal for swimming
Outside is constructed with a stainless steel bezel
Features a Chroma display with a high-resolution and visibility in sunlight
Top 10 Picks
1. Garmin Fenix 3
Water rated for up to 100 meters; making it ideal for swimming
Outside is constructed with a stainless steel bezel
Features a Chroma display with a high-resolution and visibility in sunlight
Notifications from a smartphone will only work sometimes
The screen scratches rather easily
Good luck finding a better company that makes GPS devices than Garmin. They consistently create superb GPS technology and when it comes to hiking. Not only is this a terrific hiking GPS watch, but it is also a terrific watch period. The Fenix 3 can assist you in route navigation while hiking, provides you with several training features and has superb battery life.Read more
It depends on how you utilize the watch, but in GPS/training mode you should get up to 20 hours of battery life. Using it as a regular watch, however, should permit you with up to six weeks of battery life.
Outside of outdoor navigation capabilities, there are a full set of fitness training features for hiking, running, biking, swimming, skiing, and any other recreational activity that you can think of.
Equipped with an omnidirectional steel EXO antenna with GLONASS and EPO, the GPS technology integrated into this watch is ultra-fast and reliable.
When you are in the range of a Wi-Fi hotspot, you can sync your data with Garmin Connect. This could be used for multiple purposes, but this will allow you to update the software wherever you can find a hot spot.
The design and colorization are phenomenal and there is no need for any other options.
2. Garmin Foretrex 401
Supports dual-position readout to enable view of your current location in multiple formats
The TracBack feature retraces your steps and displays them on the screen
Features an electronic compass and barometric altimeter
Battery life is not that great
Can be a little bulky for some
Simplicity is not always a bad thing and quite frankly, sometimes the simplest of gadgets are the most sufficient. The Foretrex 401 Hiking GPS from Garmin represents that notion perfectly as it may not blow you away with technology, but is as good as it gets with GPS.Read more
Being simple in nature, this will require two AAA batteries. Depending on the brand you use, the battery life may vary but expect up to eight hours of battery life.
Featuring a high-sensitivity GPS receiver, you can expect a precise and fast satellite connection. In addition, this high-sensitivity provides an improved reception when under heavy tree cover. It will also keep track of routes and waypoints for navigation.
For extra convenience, there is a TracBack feature that will retrace your path on the LCD display. This will ensure you know exactly where you came from at all times. Plus, you can see sunrise and sunset times and hunting and fishing information.
It does have Bluetooth support and if you connect to your computer and on the internet, you can receive a detailed analysis of your activities.
Again, there is only one option available but most should not take an issue with the lone color.
3. Suunto Ambit 3 Peak HR
Water resistance rating of 100 meters
With the Movescount app, you can enhance the experience
Includes a trackback feature
Movescount can be buggy at times
The strap is not very durable and the holes can be ripped rather easily
Garmin is not the only manufacturer that is competent when it comes to GPS technology, Suunto also knows a thing or two. Their Ambit3 Peak GPS unit provides stable and accurate GPS information, while also giving you extra functionalities.Read more
You choose how long the battery life lasts. For five second GPS accuracy (updating every five seconds), expect up to 30 hours. However, bring that down to one minute and you can expect up to 200 hours.
The Ambit3 features a compass, barometer, altimeter and a GPS. With this, it is able to provide accurate and consistent navigation at all times. No need to worry about getting lost with this strapped on your wrist.
With the Movescount training programs on the watch, you can discover new routes and heat maps. Bare metrics, such as speed, pace, and distance, are also tracked if you feel like going for a run with it on. The reliance on Movescount may be good or bad, depending on your perspective, at times the software can be buggy and unreliable. But, even without Movescount, you can still bank on excellent navigation.
To fully utilize this watch, you can wirelessly connect it to a compatible smartphone to access the Suunto Movescount App. Here, you can adjust your watch on the go and enrich the adventure.
You have three choices to select from, black, sapphire, and sapphire blue. In addition, you can opt to purchase this with or without a heart rate monitor.
4. Garmin Fenix 5X
Has a high-resolution Chroma Display with LED backlighting
Features a stainless steel bezel
Water-resistant to up to 100 meters
Again, the display contrast in bright light is less than stellar
The watch band is a little short
Did not take too long for Garmin to make another appearance and their Fenix 5X is another reason why they are the go-to for GPS devices. While the display is not without its flaws, everything else is about as good as you could ask.Read more
Overall, the battery life is very impressive. Expect it to last you through multiple hikes and runs without needing a charge (depending on the length of your trips).
Garmin features all their best training data with a performance widget that displays your current training status. You can track your cadence, stride length, performance condition, and the lactate threshold.
Additionally, the Fenix 5X includes full-color TOPO U.S. mapping and full navigation features. With the addition of GLONASS, the GPS will have more satellites to lock onto leaving less lag time for you. Plus, it will lock in with greater efficiency in heavy tree cover.
To use this as a smart device, you can connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth. Through this, this watch can display you your smartphone’s notifications, incoming calls, texts, and emails.
Even the pickiest of individuals should be able to find a color choice for them. Some options include a slate gray base with a yellow band, straight black, silver base, and turquoise band, and champagne base and gray band.
Everything is nearly perfect here, but it is worth addressing that the display’s contrast is below-average in bright lighting; making it difficult to see in sunlight. However, this is one small gripe on the otherwise impeccable Fenix 5X.
5. Suunto Core Outdoor
Backed up by a two-year warranty
Built-in barometer and altimeter
Can predict and warn you of incoming storms
No distractions from incoming messages or calls
Some have had issues with faulty batteries
Difficult to read in direct sunlight
No wifi or Bluetooth connectivity
If you are looking for a great outdoors watch that only provides you with the tools that you need to explore the mountains without distractions, this is a great option for you. Some people may be disappointed by the lack of WiFi and Bluetooth, but others will see it as a better way to enjoy nature.Read more
This watch uses a Lithium metal battery that should last about 12-18 months, depending on use. Unfortunately, it is not rechargeable but replacing it once a year doesn’t seem like such a bad deal. After you’ve been alerted of the low battery warning, you have about 36 hours to change it out before the watch dies.
This watch is full of features and nothing unnecessary that will distract you from your outdoor adventures. It features a built-in barometer and Storm Alarm technology which will provide you with information about approaching storms. The alert is activated by the changing of the air pressure within three hours. There is also a built-in altimeter that can help you track your ascent and descent to stay on track.
A few other features that this watch possesses is the ability to show the time in 12 or 24 hours, predicted sunrise/sunset times, a depth meter up to 30-feet, temperature readings, a stopwatch function, and water resistance up to 100-feet.
Whether you see it as a good or a bad thing, this watch does not feature wifi nor Bluetooth. This means that you will not be able to see any messages or missed calls from this watch, but there are plenty of other technical features that will keep you safe and informed outdoors.
As sold, the watch is black on black. There are different bands available for purchase to change the style and overall look of the watch. It has been agreed that the military style of the watch is low-key and fits most people’s style.
6. Suunto Traverse
Keeps you informed of available daylight hours for sunrise and sunset times
The barometric trend predicts weather changes and provides storm alerts
It is water-resistant for up to 100 meters
The battery life is much shorter than anticipated
This far down on the list, the Traverse from Suunto does not necessarily bring anything new to the table but it manages to stay relevant thanks to its quality. However, be aware of the advertised battery life, as it is shorter than you think.Read more
Suunto claims up to 100 hours in battery life and while they are technically not wrong (due to the way they word it), expect around 10 hours of battery life when using the GPS mode.
With the assistance of both GPS and GLONASS satellite navigation systems, you can explore new terrains at the glance of your wrist. The integration of GLONASS technology enhances route and navigation capabilities.
Using the breadcrumb trail, you can conveniently retrace your steps to your initial location. You can also follow your progress with altitude and distance statistics. In addition, the barometric trend will help predicts weather changes and provide storm alerts.
Directly from your Bluetooth-enabled smartphone, you can utilize the Traverse as a smartwatch receiving notification alerts, texts, and upcoming calls.
A strong amount of color options feature graphite, white, amber, black and sapphire black.
7. Suunto Ambit 2
Includes a trackback feature to triangulate your starting position
You can receive incoming storm alerts
It does include a chest strap for real-time heart rate information
Does not contain Bluetooth technology
Before Suunto made their Ambit3 GPS watch, they were soaking in the glory of their Ambit2. It still holds up to this day, but the lack of Bluetooth functionality does make it a tad outdated.Read more
The Ambit2 works on a special system, in which it records data every five seconds. What this provides for you is a stellar battery life of 24 hours, although know it will not update every second.
This watch sports a full-featured GPS that will get you where you need to go. It also features multiple coordinate systems, waypoints, points of interest and creation route planning.
In correlation with the Suunto app, you can enjoy features such as sunrise and sunset times, alerts for upcoming storms in your current area, speed, pace, and distance in real-time, and even heart-rate information.
Unfortunately, there is no Bluetooth functionality here as it has not been integrated into the core of the watch. While this does not negatively affect the watch in any way, it is less of a convenience.
There are a few color options at your disposal including black, silver, and sapphire.
8. Garmin Tactix Bravo
Includes a worldwide base map
Can be used as a stopwatch, world clock or timer
Has a built-in altimeter to keep track of relevant and precise elevation information
The battery life is not the greatest
The Fenix from Garmin is another great example of a GPS watch that maybe a tad bit outdated by today’s standards, but one that remains highly effective and efficient. Besides a slight design flaw, it will make a terrific accomplice on your next hiking trip.Read more
In over an hour, around 10 percent of your battery will be drained in GPS mode. If you do the math, this would round off to approximately 8 to 10 hours of battery life.
Fenix does a stellar job of directing you to the location you want to go, but also giving you the means to travel to a destination you have already been to. The power of its GPS navigation makes this possible.
To keep track of your ascent and descent, there is a built-in altimeter that will keep track of accurate elevation information. Plus, you can mark up to 1000 waypoints and store up to 10,000 waypoints. Also, it can function as a clock, stopwatch, or timer.
Every feature on this watch is above-average, besides the battery life, but there is a design flaw present on the display. For whatever reason, if the watch is in a cool environment, condensation will begin to build up inside. Thus, making it nearly impossible to read. Not a total hindrance, but something to take note of.
With a compatible Garmin GPS unit or smartphone, you can wirelessly share data between the multiple devices.
Just the lone, basic model is available. Being a jet-black design, it should adapt to multiple people.
9. Polar M430
Has a built-in heart rate monitor
Battery life could be improved
Ease of use learning curve
Whether you prefer to run in the neighborhood or on the roads less traveled, the Polar M430 would be a great sidekick. It acquires GPS positions quickly and accurately, with three different recording settings. It is available in multiple colors that should please everyone.Read more
The Polar M430 features a rechargeable battery. Depending on the recording settings of the GPS, the battery will last you somewhere between eight and thirty hours continuously. We would have liked to see longer battery life, but with all of the features built-in to this watch, it’s always working hard.
This watch is mostly geared towards runners but is a great option for the health conscious hiker as well. The GPS connects quickly and has proven to be very accurate. At the same time, this watch also monitors your heart rate, speed, distance, pace, route, number of steps, and calories burned.
In addition to being your guide on the trails, this watch also features a sleep tracker. In conjunction with the desktop and mobile app, you can see how your daily choices are affecting your sleep. Additionally, you can also view your training records and the app will let you know how long you should rest before engaging in further exercise.
You can connect this watch to your computer using a USB cord or Bluetooth. Once connected, you can use the Polar Flow app to track your movements, fitness journey, and routes.
There are many color options to choose from with the Polar M430. You can choose from white, orange, green, blue, or black. The exaggerated number of holes in the wristband allows for better breathability and overall comfort. Some users have said that the face of the watch is quite large for small wrists.
10. Garmin Epix
Features a stainless steel EXO antenna with GPS and GLONASS reception
To provide real-time information, it is equipped with auto-calibrating ABC sensors
Includes 8 GB of internal memory for storing maps
Not the best processing speed as when the maps are refreshed, it can be very slow
Why not end this list the same way it started, with a Garmin GPS? Truly noteworthy is both the GPS and mapping integration. However, it also implements a touchscreen interface. With a small screen, to begin with, this can either be a good or bad feature.Read more
The battery life is definitely a positive, as it should last you a couple of days on continual GPS. Of course, this depends on the length of your days as it will vary.
Featuring a stainless steel EXO antenna with both GPS and GLONASS reception, you can rest assured that it will pinpoint your position as quickly and accurately as possible. In addition, there are detailed maps displayed on the interface.
Connecting with the IQ app will allow you to customize the widgets, applications and data fields on your watch. Besides this, you do have quick access to multiple activities including hiking, mountaineering, and running.
With integrated Bluetooth functionality, you can wirelessly connect your smartphone to receive smart notifications directly from the watch itself. Also, you can automatically upload data wirelessly via Garmin Connect.
While there are no color options to select from, you can choose a model with either TOPO Canada maps or TOPO U.S. maps.
Criteria Used for Evaluation
This just in, GPS technology will suck the life out of your battery. As great as it is, it consumes a lot of juice making the battery life even more important. With the amount of convenience, they provide, it sure would be disastrous for the battery to die in a crucial situation. Unfortunately, this is typically the area that varies the most in GPS watches. Some can last over 10 hours on one charge, while others you will be lucky to get eight. However, with some watches, you can adequately prepare.
For example, Suunto programs some of their watches to work on an interval updating system. So, they will update and load data every five seconds (or ten seconds, one minute, etc.) to increase the battery life. Some will allow you to choose the interval speed and enhance battery life. With some DIY GPS watches or GPS devices that can be strapped on your wrist, they may take AAA batteries in which you could simply pack extra. But, you also have the variations that rely solely on one type of battery. As long as you have an idea of how long you would use a GPS watch on one charge, you should be able to make an accurate decision on adequate battery life for you.
At the heart of any technological device is its software. Without it, it would not be able to function and would be rendered useless. Ironically, most of the software that you see in these particular devices need to have GPS technology to work. In other words, the software works because it has a GPS to assist it. With watches, it typically revolves around training features and navigation capabilities. They, depending on the exact model, can track stats and metrics for hiking, running, swimming, skiing and various other activities.
For hiking, in specific, look for software features such as a TracBack feature. This will ensure that if you went the wrong way or need to go back to the start, the path is displayed on the screen. Also, a barometric trend that predicts weather changes and alerts you of upcoming storms can be convenient in the middle of the woods; as you never know when a storm can hit. Of course, other features, such as hunting and fishing information, sunrise and sunset times, or even a built-in music player can add functionality. The software is everything, so pay close attention as this can either make or break a specific watch.
Bluetooth is almost becoming mandatory for modern devices, as everyone is addicted to the idea of syncing devices to one another. Admittedly, Bluetooth is a very handy technology and you will see a good chunk of GPS watches integrate it. Thus, not only making them GPS watches but smartwatches, as well. This can be used for a multitude of reasons, including using a manufacturer’s application (Garmin Connect, Suunto Movescount, etc.) to access new features or updates.
But, people really love smartwatches as they can sync directly to their smartphone. With a simple glance at the wrist, you can then see all the notifications from your smartphone. This could include incoming calls and texts, emails, calendar alerts, and more. However, there probably is a generation of people that do not believe they will ever use Bluetooth technology. If so, you will have no quarrels if a GPS watch does not provide support for it.
Yes, this one is quite simple but it still plays a pivotal role for some people. As watches are accessories, design and visual appeal do play a factor and there is nothing wrong with that. GPS watches, in particular, generally do not have loads of choices. But, some will and sellers may give you the option of different colored bands. Personal preference dominates here, so just find a watch that is visually appealing to you and you are good to go.
Past colors, you may also run into sellers who will provide you with extra accessories. For example, a heart rate monitor or extra maps for U.S. or Canada.
Expert Interviews & Opinions
There may not be a more sufficient and convenient tool in the world for hiking than a GPS watch. Even if you are exploring terrains that you are familiar with, they provide you with software features directly tied to hiking (for example altitude information). It is also important to note if a GPS watch includes GLONASS technology. GLONASS is essentially Russia’s version of GPS. It is run by the Russian Military of Defense and uses over 20 MEO satellites. With a watch that utilizes both GPS and GLONASS reception, it will provide more satellites for a reception.
Keeping your GPS watch clean is important. You'll be wearing the watch through many adventures and it's bound to get foggy or dirty. However, the watch face isn't the only thing that needs to be cleaned. The band itself picks up a lot of grime and should be washed every couple of months. Additionally, the back of the watch face, where it touches your wrist, should also be cleaned, as well as the charging ports. A dirty charging port and either get totally blocked up over time and not charge or can slow down the charging process.
Other Factors to Consider
If nothing else, as long as a GPS watch has adequate to superb positioning capabilities it deserves consideration. As GPS devices need to access the satellites in the sky, the accuracy and precision of them mostly come down to their sensitivity. When you see a GPS that has a high-sensitivity receiver, you can be guaranteed that it will lock onto satellites with the utmost efficiency and speed. The reason for this is they use large banks of correlators and ultra-quick digital signal processing. In addition, this type of sensitivity will also play a helping hand when surrounded by an immense tree cover. Other types of sensitivity will still more than suffice, but they will not work as quickly.
Frequently Asked Questions
q: Will a GPS hiking watch work in Europe?
It is quite amazing at the number of times a question such as this presents itself. Most people are always looking for insight on whether or not GPS devices work outside of America, say Europe. No matter what GPS device you have, handheld, watch, mounting device, they will work anywhere in the world where they have access to the skies. GPS needs to receive signals from the satellites floating around in space in order to triangulate your position. However, if you do use them in a country such as Europe, you may find the satellite position time to be longer. This is also where GLONASS comes in handy as it provides more satellites to search for.
But, because most GPS watches do not rely on mapping (though some do) you also do not need to concern yourself with improper maps.
q: Does GPS work in the woods while you are hiking?
GPS is quite amazing, but it is not without its flaws. Unfortunately, it can sometimes be tricky to acquire signals from the satellites in the sky. Say, when you have immense tree cover on top of you. In these situations, if you do not have a proper GPS, it may not be able to receive any signals or may take a long time to do so. Either way, you are left with a GPS watch that is not serving its designed purpose. This is where high-sensitivity comes into play. As was already explained in detail, this type of sensitivity aids you when attempting to acquire a signal when you do not have direct access to the sky.
However, situations such as this make it vitally important to bring along a compass and appropriate maps. GPS devices are not foolproof and there may come a time where they will not be able to locate your position.
q: How do you charge a GPS watch in the woods?
Battery life is a very important feature when analyzing GPS watches, but it is even more so when you use them for hiking. When you go for a hike, you do not have the privilege of simply connecting your watch to energy supply in the middle of nowhere. If it does not take external batteries, you may end up in a pickle. If you know for certain that your watch will not hold up for the time you will be hiking in the woods, consider taking a portable battery pack alongside you.
Not only do they typically feature a rechargeable battery of their own but you can also plug a USB cable into one of the ports on the pack. Now, this will require your GPS watch to have the means to charge with a USB cable. If not, there are some tips you can take to prolong the battery life as long as possible. When you are not using the GPS on your watch, turn it off. Even if this is for short bursts, do not leave it on the entire time if you know the battery will not last.
q: How can you clean a GPS watch?
On the checklist for a GPS watch, you probably would not count on this being addressed. However, it is actually recommended to clean your watch if you use it frequently. This does not mean you have to scrub it down and throw it in the washing machine, it just implies that you should partake in a light cleaning. As most GPS watches are water-resistant, you can wipe them with a damp cloth. To remove any oils and dirt present on the screen, use a mild soap to remove them.
Even after swimming, you should rinse them under tap water (if they are water-resistant) and dry them with a soft cloth. However, under no circumstance should you ever apply chemicals such as alcohol, insect repellents, gasoline, or cleaning solvents. Doing so can deteriorate the seal and finish of the watch.
q: Why is GPS a free service?
It is interesting to ponder the thought that GPS technology is free to the public. Remember, the only fee you are providing is for the device itself. When you buy a GPS device, you can then use the satellites in the sky for free. Would it not make sense to charge a tax or monthly fee on the service? No one is complaining, but it is worth addressing. Basically, GPS technology is a public service as the country can analyze the use of the technology in hopes to discover new and creative uses for it. Besides this, the government will receive money through income tax from workers, business licenses and other taxes for shipping operations. They will make their money, in other words.
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