GPS Hiking Watch Reviews
When you’re out in the woods or in the mountains, it can be easy to get lost. Fortunately for you, numerous options exist that can help make that less likely. In addition to map and compass skills, as well as an understanding of how to read topographical maps and the terrain around you, a hiking GPS watch can help keep you safe. Whether on a short day hike of a half-day or less or a multi-day backcountry trip, watches equipped with a hiking GPS tracker or hiking GPS locator can help keep you on trail and aware of your location.
Similarly, you may also want to consider whether or not a watch includes the ABCs of mountaineering: Altimeter, Barometer, and Compass, each of which has distinct value when hiking in the mountains. Many GPS hiking watches include those features, but not all do. Other features to consider include time and date, a stop watch, storm alarms, temperature, heart rate monitor connectivity, and wifi accessibility, each of which have their own appeal depending on how you will most use your watch.
Of course, depending on where you hike and the length of your trips, different features may take priority for you. If you primarily backpack, for instance, battery life may be more important. Let’s take a closer look at the 7 best GPS Hiking watches of 2020 so you can best determine which model is the best fit for you and your hiking needs!
One caveat in the interest of transparency: There are far more Garmin GPS devices on this list than any other brand. That’s simply because in most cases Garmin is head-and-shoulders above other GPS brands.
1. Garmin Fenix 3 HR
When it comes to GPS watches, Garmin is the brand to beat—and the Fenix 3 HR is their top-of-the-line model of choice. Not only does it offer great color schemes and screen resolution, but the display and layout are intuitive and quite user-friendly. A wrist-based heart rate function additionally provides real-time data you can use to help ensure you aren’t overdoing it on a hike or run, and the altimeter, barometer, and compass are all top-notch, too. One of the best features for most users, however, is the GPS navigation capability, especially if you’ve preloaded a route against which to compare your track. Additionally, you can download new watch layouts and can readily pair your watch with your smartphone for notifications, and the battery life of roughly 2 weeks (in smartwatch mode; 40 hours in battery saver mode and 16 hours in GPS mode) makes it great for even long trips. GPS and GLONASS satellite recognition means you always know where you are, and you can sync and save your data using Garmin Connect. Lastly, Garmin’s “TracBack” feature means you can always turn a hike into an out-and-back.
2. Garmin Foretrex 401
What the Foretrex 401 lacks in style when compared to the Fenix 3 HR it makes up in functionality. For starters, it isn’t just a hiking GPS watch. Instead, think of it as a tool you can mount on your watch—or bike or kayak or other play toy. Like the Fenix 3, it offers Garmin’s “TracBack” feature so you can always follow your route back to where you started, and Garmin Connect access means you can save and sync your data for later review.
The Foretrex 401 also offers one of the most sensitive GPS receivers, meaning you’ll almost always have a signal, and it comes with barometric altimeter and compass as well as the ability to save waypoints. This comes in handy for saving favorite spots, whether viewpoints, great campsites, or fishing holes. The 17-hour battery life can be extended by simply popping in fresh AAA batteries, too, meaning it’s battery life is as long as you’re willing to keep swapping out AAAs.
3. Garmin Fenix 5 Plus
If you could somehow combine the two watches above, you’d have something similar to the Fenix 5 Plus. Like the Fenix 3 HR, it offers simple clean lines, meaning this is a watch you could wear all the time. It also expands heavily on the features available, even if that comes with a hefty price tag.
For instance, the Fenix 5 Plus uses Garmin Connect history to help you stay on the trail by noting where previous users have gone. Additionally, the Fenix 5 Plus includes Bluetooth and smartphone connectivity (meaning you can literally get emails, notifications, texts, and other reminders—all on your hiking GPS watch), altimeter, barometer, and compass, and even the capacity to interface with your Spotify account so you have music on the go. Battery life is up to 10 days on a single charge (in smartwatch mode; up to 8 hours with all features activated), and because the Fenix 5 Plus uses the GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo satellites, you might never be out of range of a good signal. Garmin Pay means you can even pay for items on the run, advanced performance metrics mean you can train smarter (whether hiking or running), and the emergency safety and tracking features mean that if something happens, you can always get a signal out for help.
4. Garmin Forerunner 935
Among trail runners, the Forerunner 935 is already well-known as one of the best possible GPS watches, especially given its light weight: only 49 grams. Like the Fenix line, the Forerunner 935 offers simple, clean lines and a compact design as well, meaning it also works as an everyday watch should you so choose. It includes altimeter, barometer, and compass, and with both GPS and GLONASS connectivity, it has great satellite service no matter where you go.
Like other Garmin GPS watches, it utilizes Garmin Connect to help you determine how you are training, as well as offers smart notifications, music, and more, and Strava connectivity allows you to track your leaderboard status in real-time. Just as important, it offers dynamic statistics for running, cycling, and swimming, including optimum training techniques based on your ground contact time and stride length, making this far more than just a hiking watch.
This watch is equipped with a barometer, altimeter, electronic compass, and GPS/GLONASS connectivity; but it’s the advanced running features give it that extra special something.
The Garmin Forerunner 935 evaluates your training status, letting you know if you’re underdoing it or overdoing it.
It provides a range of dynamics and statistics for running, cycling and swimming – as well as ground contact time and stride length to help prevent injuries. It’ll give you optimum training recommendations, and will analyze your technique whether you are swimming, biking, sprinting or running.
Smart notifications are delivered to your wrist, and connecting with Garmin Connect will give you audio prompts, music controls and let your friends follow your runs. It also connects with Strava for live feedback during your activities. Battery life is equally impressive, with a baseline of up to 2 weeks in normal watch mode and up to 24 hours in GPS mode.
5. Suunto Ambit 3 Peak
While Garmin has generally dominated the hiking GPS watch market, Suunto and a few other companies have in recent years been making inroads, and the Ambit 3 Peak is one of the best reasons why. While the Ambit 3 Peak contains roughly equivalent features to Garmin’s Fenix 3, it generally runs $100 less or so. Suunto’s platform Movescout works similarly to Garmin Connect, allowing users to track and save their data as well as upload routes.
Similarly, the Ambit 3 Peak offers an altimeter, barometer, and compass, but goes a step further in creating real-time topographical profiles of your route. You can also save waypoints, and like Garmin’s TracBack feature, the Ambit 3 Peak offers a FindBack feature that can help you find your way back to your starting point. Battery life is up to a month with GPS functionality turned off or roughly 20 hours with it on.
You can also sync it so that you receive alerts on your watch via your smartphone and other great features include weather information and activity-based recovery times. It does, however, only use the GPS satellite system, unlike some of the other hiking GPS watch options examined here which also use the GLONASS and/or Galileo systems.
6. Garmin Forerunner 235
Though from the same family of hiking GPS watch options as the Forerunner 935, the Forerunner 235 is a more approachable option at more budget-friendly price—despite offering nearly all of the same features as the 935.
For instance, the Forerunner 235 offers many of the same training features, including wrist-enabled heart rate monitoring and activity tracking, as well as Garmin Connect and VO2 max estimates for runners. For hikers, the Forerunner 235 will track daily steps, distance, pace, time, and calories burned, as well as sleep, if you want.
Smartphone connectivity means you can get notifications on your watch, and the weather function can give you the real-time forecast. If worn as an everyday watch, the move setting can give you periodic reminders to get up when you’ve been sitting for long periods of time. The watch face can also be customized. Battery life is up to 12 weeks in normal watch mode or 12 hours in training mode.
7. Suunto Traverse Alpha
Like the Suunto Ambit 3 Peak, the Traverse Alpha comes loaded with features, including the same easy connecting to Movescount, a similar altimeter, barometer, and compass, and even similar route features. Unlike the Ambit 3 Peak, however, the Traverse is aimed less at athletes and more at general outdoors people. As a result, it adds GLONASS compatibility for better GPS functionality, a flashlight backlight, and a step counter, as well as a generally more elegant and clean design.
Additional hunting and fishing tools (like automatic shot detection and fishing waypoints) make this great for later review, and tools like sunrise, sunset, and moon phase alerts help you be smarter outdoors, and the barometric pressure graphs can help you be smart when it comes to the weather.
Between one of those seven watches, you’re almost guaranteed to find the watch that best fits your lifestyle and hiking needs. You may also end up deciding on a combination of options, such as a hiking watch that may not include GPS (but includes other features that are important to you) in combination with a hiking GPS tracker or hiking GPS locator. If that’s something you’re interested in, consider our other guides.
Best Hiking GPS Watch Buying Guide
But what if you are considering a watch other than those 7? With as many options as there out there for hiking GPS watch choices, there are plenty of great models not listed here—and one of those options might be the best choice for you. Regardless of which watch you look at for your hiking and other outdoor needs, keep what you’ve learned here in mind.
Some watches are better for their long battery life. Others are more loaded with features for individuals who practice lots of sports. Other watches yet are best for their simple and clean lines that make them easy to use as an everyday watch in addition to a hiking and outdoor watch.
GPS Tracker for Hiking FAQs
What is a hiking GPS watch?
In short, exactly what it sounds like: A watch that includes GPS functions and that is made to fulfill your needs on a hike. Beyond that, there’s a great deal of variation from watch to watch. For instance, not all hiking watches include GPS; for our purposes here, however, we’ve only reviewed watches that do.
Some watches might include a heart rate monitoring function. Most hiking watches will include an altimeter, barometer, and compass (which is why they’re also sometimes referred to as ABC watches). The value of those three tools should be quite apparent when you are out in the woods or the mountains, as the altimeter can tell you your elevation, the barometer can help you see what the weather is doing, and the compass (in combination with a map, even if you don’t have GPS functions on your watch) can help you determine where you are. Some hiking watches even have built-in weather alerts.
Similarly, if you want to use your hiking watch for other sports, such as running, cycling, or swimming, you’ll want features that are applicable to those sports as well. If you want a watch that you can also use as an everyday watch, the design and style of the watch might be more important. If you hike in remote areas or heavily wooded areas that don’t get great GPS service, the ability to use more than one satellite system (such as GLONASS or Galileo or both) might also be a major plus.
How do hiking GPS watches work?
Hiking GPS watches work by using triangulation and satellite data to determine where on earth you are, as well as your precise elevation. They do this by capturing data from at least three (but preferably four) satellites on the GPS (which stands for Global Positioning System) network to determine how far you are from each of those satellites, then using that data to determine your precise location.
The beauty of consistently knowing your precise location at set intervals (determined by the watch’s settings, though many are set at 1-second to 15-second intervals) is that you can determine your speed, distance, and other data by using that data set. Some GPS watches can even display real-time graphs so you can see how your speed and distance and even elevation profile has changed over time, based on the data your watch keeps in relation to your GPS location. As a result, a hiking GPS watch can also be thought of as a hiking GPS locator or hiking GPS tracker because it also serves those functions.
Hiking GPS watch accuracy on trails
Of course, with any GPS device there will always be a question of accuracy, especially when in locations where you might not get a particularly good satellite signal, such as in heavily wooded areas or in canyons, for instance, where the signal can bounce off the canyon wall. That’s one of the reasons why some watches have started using multiple systems, relying not only on the GPS satellite network but also on the GLONASS network and or Galileo satellite system so that they can get a more precise lock on your location. In general, hiking GPS watch accuracy is within 5 meters or so—roughly 16 feet—though there’s always some variance.
The best way to determine how accurate your watch generally is might be to talk to other hikers in your area. For instance, in some areas a Garmin Forerunner 935 might consistently measure one hike as 16 miles whereas the Suunto Ambit 3 Peak might measure it as 15 miles. The more time you spend with your watch, too, the better sense you’ll get for which conditions it seems to fare best in, as well as how it compares to the quoted distance of various trails.
Which Garmin GPS watch is best for hiking?
Ultimately, this comes down to your personal preference as to which features are most important to you. We’re partial to the Fenix 5 Plus if you want a feature-laden watch, however, the Forerunner 935 if you want multisport functionality (particularly if you want to use your watch for swimming, too), the Foretrex 401 if you want the capability of putting your watch on your other outdoor toys (as it can be mounted on a kayak or bike), or, if you want a watch you can wear for everyday life, either the Fenix 3 HR or the Forerunner 235.
The truth is that Garmin makes a great line of hiking GPS watch choices, regardless of how you’re going to use your watch or where you are going to take it, and as long as you do your research to ensure that the watch you purchase will work for what you want to do with it, it’s hard to go wrong with any of these watches.
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