GPS tracking watches have long been a standard accessory for many road cyclist and long-distance runners. For hikers and casual athletes just starting out in the world of GPS watches, the choices may seem overwhelming. The first question to ask yourself is whether you would benefit from a GPS-enabled hiking watch. Hiking watches offer a combination of tracking capabilities you might expect from a handheld GPS with the convenience and monitoring of a fitness tracker or pedometer. Handheld GPS units are best for multi-day trips without power or a cellular signal. For everyday or weekend use, however, a hiking watch will often do everything you need without the bulk of carrying an extra piece of equipment.
Here’s a quick summary of our selection of the best hiking watches on offer in 2021. But for more information on each skip to either the selection of watches with phone notifications, or the selection without phone notifications, depending on your preference.
Not sure what you want? Then read on for a little help on what to look for.
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|Product||Features||Link to phone?||Touch screen?||Cost|
|Suunto Traverse||Long term tracking and rechargeable battery||Yes||No||$$$|
|Garmin Fenix 3 HR||Built in heart rate monitor||Yes||No||$$$|
|Suunto Spartan Ultra HR||Colour touch screen and good battery life||Yes||Yes||$$$|
|Garmin Fenix 5S Saphire||Built in heart rate monitor , very accurate||Yes||No||$$$$|
|TomTom Adventurer GPS||Good value, integrated music player||No||No||$$|
|Casio Pathfinder||Long-lasting solar battery||No||No||$|
|Casio Pro Trek Quartz||Performs well in low temperatures||No||No||$$$|
What to look for in the best hiking watches
When it comes to choosing a hiking watch, use the following questions to help you narrow down your choices:
Do you want a touch screen?
Touch screen faces are intuitive and versatile, but they are sometimes difficult to read in the sun. If a watch that looks and feels like a smart phone face sounds appealing to you, the Suunto Spartan Ultra HR has a bright, color screen that can be temporarily disabled if you want the freedom to move around without accidentally bumping the controls. If you prefer a watch that functions with traditional buttons around the edge, either Casio model might be more to your liking.
Do you want/need cellular notifications?
Some hiking watches double as smart watches – texts, emails, and other phone notifications are forwarded directly to your watch. We’ve organised our list of watches based on which styles can sync with your phone and which will not.
How often do you plan to wear your watch?
If you are looking for a watch that works for everyday use as well as outdoor treks, the Casio Pro Trek Quartz has the best battery life and recharges via solar power while the Garmin Fenix 5S Sapphire has ten different band and face combinations. On the other hand, if you only expect to use your watch on hikes and during exercise, a smaller but rechargeable option like the Suunto Traverse will meet your needs.
GPS and hiking watches with phone notifications
The Suunto Traverse combines the functionality of a smart watch and a handheld GPS. Calls, texts, and notifications from your smart phone are accessible on the Traverse, as well as sunrise and sunset times, GPS location, and a built-in compass. Battery life is a concern in GPS mode, but because the battery is rechargeable, you will not have to worry about buying replacement batteries. Where most hiking watches track distance and steps for each outing, the Traverse also records steps and calories expended by day, week, month, and year – a great option for tracking long-term fitness goals or total miles hiked over a year.
- Rechargeable battery
- Long-term distance tracking memory
- Short battery life
- Screen can be difficult to see in full sun
As one of the most popular brands for handheld GPS devices, it is no surprise that Garmin also makes a line of versatile hiking watches. The Garmin Fenix 3 HR has a heart rate monitor built into the flexible silicon wristband and a customizable face, leaving you plenty of options for how the watch will look on your wrist. Tracking up to four different statistics at a time is no problem for the Fenix, so you can keep up with the temperature, your heart rate, distance traveled, and stopwatch all at once. One potential drawback is that some of the features work via a link with a smart phone, so you must have a smart phone to make the most of this particular watch.
- Tracks heart rate without a separate device
- Displays four statistics at once
- Easily saves data to your phone
- Requires a smart phone for full capability
- Only two color options (black and grey)
Suunto’s Spartan Ultra HR offers many of the same phone connectivity features as the Traverse plus a full-color touch screen that promises maximum visibility even in full sun. If bumping the touch screen is a concern for you, simply toggle off the touch screen during your workout. Each of the 80 sport modes is customized to track specific metrics based on whichever sport you select. In addition to the sports modes, you can also use it to track steps taken, time elapsed, temperature, altitude, and more. The Spartan Ultra also has a slightly better battery life than the Traverse with over 24 hours of use between charges when you use it in full training mode.
- Bright touch screen with color digital display
- Better battery life than the other touch-screen options
- 80 specific sport modes
- Touch screen difficult to use while wearing gloves
The most expensive watch on our list, the Fenix 5S from Garmin, is also one of the most accurate when it comes to GPS location and altimeter. A built-in heart monitor is more convenient than a separate heart rate band for everyday use. For interval training or specialized workouts, however, the Fenix is compatible with a heart rate chest strap, swimming band, and other accessories. For complete maps and trail guides near your location, simply sync your Fenix with Garmin’s Base Camp database anywhere you have a wifi connection.
- Ten band and face color combinations
- Can upload maps and trail routes from the Base Camp database
- Compatible with sport-specific accessories
- The priciest watch on our list
- Metal parts on the watch scratch easily during rock climbing and other extreme sports.
GPS and hiking watches without phone notifications
If you don’t need (or want) text and email notifications on your hiking watch, something like the TomTom Adventurer GPS might be perfect for you. Part sport watch and part music player, the Adventurer includes a built-in heart rate monitor, barometer, and multiple sport modes. Although it does not sync with smart phones for notifications, it does pair well with the TomTom app when it comes to downloading data and setting preferences. You can even use the music player at the gym thanks to Bluetooth capability – you can keep your music to yourself without the hassle of earphone cords getting in your way.
- Least expensive option on the list
- Integrated music player
- Compatible with Bluetooth headphones
- Does not have maps or routes
- Heart rate monitor does not detect changes immediately
If replacing or charging your watch battery is an added step you could do without, the solar-powered battery in Casio’s Pathfinder is a major selling point. With a full charge, expect your watch battery to last up to six months! A built-in thermometer, calendar, compass, barometer, altimeter, and five daily alarms make the Pathfinder an extremely versatile watch. The band is great for big wrists and is interchangeable with many other Casio bands if you prefer another style or size.
- Long-lasting solar battery
- Easy to switch from metric to imperial systems
- Versatile for sports and everyday use both
- Too large for most women and men with small wrists
- Compass can be inaccurate depending on elevation
The Casio Pro Trek Quartz offers superb battery life thanks to a solar-charging battery and a power-saving mode for times that you are inside and out of the sun. Like the Pathfinder, on a full charge, the battery can last up to six months! The Pro Trek Quartz is a true multi-sport watch that is suitable for swimming, snorkeling and diving to depths of 100m or less. If you’ve ever taken your smart phone out on the trail in the middle of winter, you probably know that some electronics stop working when they are too cold. That is not a problem with the Pro Trek Quartz, which is specifically designed to withstand extremely low temperatures.
- Beautiful and lightweight design
- Works for swimming as well
- Designed to withstand cold winter activity
- Only two color options
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Hiking watches fill the gap between dedicated handheld GPS devices (which we discussed at length here) and more limited pedometers available on the market today. Whether you want a watch that will track your miles traveled over the course of the year or one you can sync with an online map database, a hiking watch can be a great addition to your arsenal of outdoor gear.