In this guide we’ll look at the best GPS watches for hiking & trail running.
We’ve compared design, build quality, features and cost
to give you our top recommendations.

What Is The Best GPS Watch For Hiking?

More Detailed GPS Hiking Watch Reviews

GPS Watch Buyer's Guide

Modern GPS devices come with an array of advanced features, many of which you won’t know what to do with! The more advanced the features, the more expensive your GPS watch will be. Here’s the 411 on what features you should be looking for.

Altimeter

Basic GPS watches will have an altimeter, barometer and compass. These are known as ABC watches and any extra features on top of these will cost you more. Altimeters measure the air pressure and use this to track your altitude. While not 100% accurate, they can be useful especially if you are using a topographic map or hiking around mountainous areas. Altimeters can be more accurate than GPS devices as they don’t require a signal. While GPS signal can be lost up mountains, altimeters simply rely on the air pressure.

Barometer

A barometer is a nifty feature that does more than just give you a weather forecast on your wrist. These measure the atmospheric pressure and can tell you when there’s a storm on its way. If you’re out on a long hike, knowing whether rain or a storm is expected is extremely useful, and a built-in barometer can go a long way towards keeping you safe.

Compass

Ah, the trusty compass. Nearly all GPS watches will have a built-in compass, some more advanced than others. 2D compasses only work if you hold the watch totally horizontal, while 3D will work no matter how your compass is held. While many hikers think a compass is unimportant if you have a GPS, remember that having your GPS on all the time can drain your battery life. Likewise, if you are unable to get a GPS signal, a compass and map is a great alternative.

Thermometer

Not all GPS watches have a thermometer, although I personally like it as an extra feature. However, as they are worn on your wrist, they can be difficult to keep accurate as they may adjust to the temperature of your body. Thermometers are good for measuring the temperature and adjusting your layers accordingly. For best accuracy, take it off your wrist while you measure the temperature.

GPS

Perhaps it goes without saying that your GPS watch should have a GPS. The level of advancement however, will depend on the price you’re willing to pay for your watch.   If you are hiking alone, you will want a GPS that pinpoints your location quickly and accurately. Most watches now support GPS and GLONASS satellites, and a few also support BDS. All three satellites will mean greater accuracy and speed at picking up your location. Other information your GPS can show is speed, duration, distance and total ascent - great if you are tracking your progress.

Maps

Many GPS devices will come with pre-downloaded topographic maps and, while these are no substitute for a GPS, they can keep you on track if you lose signal or you don’t want to waste your battery. Extra maps can be downloaded at a cost (or if you’re particularly computer-savvy you will can them for free). Knowing how to use a map and a compass is an essential life skill, and many hikers enjoy knowing they have a GPS to back them up if need be.

WiFi Connectivity

Modern GPS watches usually have a Wifi connectivity, a feature that is prioritized by many and totally lost on others! Connecting your watch to your smartphone has its perks. You can download hiking data to your phone, plot your heart rate on a graph via an app and connect with other like-minded people. For others, Wifi connectivity is an unnecessary extra. If you want to get away from it all and you’re not bothered about using your smartphone, opt for a watch without it to save money and battery.

Water Resistance

If you take one thing from this guide, it’s that water resistant should not be confused with waterproof. Most watches are water resistant, but not all are waterproof. While your water resistant watch will withstand a downpour, that doesn’t mean you can go swimming wearing it! If you want to go underwater with your GPS watch, it’s essential you buy one that is waterproof. Even then, be careful you don’t go deeper underwater than the watch can handle - watches can be purchased for a range of different depths. Keen swimmers will want to take advantage of waterproof fitness watches. These can track your time, speed and heart rate while underwater and are invaluable when it comes to monitoring your progress.

Heart-Rate Monitor

Many GPS watches can record and show your heart rate. This feature is fantastic if you are working on your fitness, trying to lose weight or want to track your activities. Noticing your resting heart rate slowing can be a great motivator and encourage you to push harder for longer. They will also help you maintain a steady pace on hikes and runs. While some GPS watches track your heart rate through your wrist, others require a chest strap which can be a little fiddly and uncomfortable. However, chest straps are far more accurate than wrist-based heart monitors, and users are constantly having issues with inaccurate wrist monitors.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth connectivity allows you to connect your watch to your phone or computer without needing built-in Wifi. This is a great alternative to Wifi connectivity as watches with bluetooth functionality are often cheaper, but offer the same features as Wifi-connected devices. With bluetooth connectivity, you can sync your watch to your smartphone, allowing you to download and analyse your workouts to an app on your phone. You may also receive notifications straight to your wrist.

Design

Industrial-sized watches packed full of features are all well and good if you only want to wear it for hiking. If however, you want a watch that not only keeps you company on hikes but also looks good day-to-day, design will be a consideration. GPS watches that can be worn out and about (while still looking good!) will have a low-key design and are less bulky. The specific survival watches look like something that might have been used in the 30s so are best avoided if you want something you can wear day to day! Essentially, a smaller face and less bulky is good for day to day. Large faces with lots of plastic are great for hikes, but won’t get you many style points.

Durability

A GPS watch for hiking is generally robust and comfortable, preferably with a thick and durable strap. Many GPS watches have a sapphire glass lens to resist scratches, although this does make them more expensive. Very durable and tough watches might feel bulky on smaller wrists, and they may also be heavier. Lighter, more minimalist watches that are designed for running or day-to-day use could be less durable and resistant to scratches or cracks. However, these will be more comfortable on smaller wrists.

Things to Consider at Different Price Points

The price of the cheapest GPS hiking watch on the market versus the most expensive can be enormous. Cheaper devices will have less features but, like your trusted Nokia phone, they may be more durable and will have a longer battery life. High-end watches will be more intuitive, with larger, brighter screens, and they will most likely be touchscreen. They will be packed full of features, but bear in mind this will mean a shorter battery life. You may also find they are less durable and sturdy, like wearing an iPad or smartphone on your wrist! Mid-range devices are more stylish than the low-end options, with a sleeker look. They won’t have as many smart features as the expensive devices, but the battery will last longer and the device will be simple to use, with the design practical for everyday wear.

Strap Quality

The quality of the strap doesn’t cross many hikers’ minds, but it is important. Your watch should be comfortable and a rough or itchy strap is only going to annoy you, especially as you get sweaty. The strap should also be sturdy and tough. If you’re spending hundreds of dollars on a watch, you want it to stay on your wrist!

Weight

While you may think a few extra grams won’t make much of a difference, if you’re on a week-long hike or running a marathon, they can. A bulky watch can be irritating, and the more advanced, modern watches will have a sleeker, more lightweight design. Cheaper GPS watches with less advanced features are often bigger and heavier; not ideal for long runs.

Battery Life

Another essential consideration is battery life. Just as your brick-resembling Nokia has a better battery life than your smartphone, advanced watches with bundles of features won’t last as long as their more basic counterparts. Watches that have bluetooth, Wifi connectivity and a backlight will struggle more when it comes to battery. However, these will still last longer than your smartphone, so either way they are a good investment. Ensure you turn off the GPS, Wifi, backlight and bluetooth when you’re not using it and, if you don’t need it, then turn off notifications and alerts. Running all the features at the same time will drain the battery faster than you might think.   GPS watches are a fantastic investment and, provided you take care of them properly, will last you a long time. Whether you are using one to track your hiking progress, or you simply want a little extra backup next time you’re lost in the woods, GPS watches can be found to suit a range of styles, needs and budgets - you just need to know what you’re looking for!

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