Best GPS Watches for Hiking and Running
Choosing a new GPS watch for your hiking or running adventures is not an easy task with so many watches available on the market. Not to mention the many different features they do or do not offer.
With hiking slowly becoming an increasingly popular pastime, the demand for watches with hiking specific features is also growing.
We have done the research and have created a shortlist of 4 of the best GPS watches for hiking and running, based on features, durability, ease of use, price and more.
What to Look for in a GPS Watch
How good a GPS watch is depends on the essential features it includes and how well these features are implemented.
The following is a list of some of these essential features plus other factors to consider when looking for a new GPS watch for hiking and running.
While some hikers prefer a watch without GPS for various reasons, this article is specifically about watches that do offer GPS functionality. A hiking watch without GPS typically has a better battery life and doesn’t cost as much.
But let’s get technical. GPS stands for Global Positioning System and is a satellite-based radio-navigation system that provides users with positioning, navigation and timing services.
A watch with GPS functionality lets you get the coordinates of your current location. It can also show useful data such as current speed, distance, ascent and more.
A good GPS watch is also able to track and export data related to your activities, such as distance covered, average speed, duration, total ascent/descent, etc.
Some watches also include maps, breadcrumb routes and waypoints. If you’re serious about hiking (or running), this type of data is very interesting.
An altimeter tells you at any given point how high above sea level you are. In other words, it measures elevation. This is useful when climbing as it gives you a good indication of how much further you need to climb to reach the summit or milestone.
Some watches have a GPS based altimeter while other models have a barometric altimeter. A GPS altimeter generally provides more accurate results. Also, because of pressure changes, a barometric altimeter often needs to be calibrated.
A barometer measures atmospheric pressure which is one of the most effective ways to forecast short term weather changes. If pressure is on the rise, the weather will typically improve. If pressure is decreasing, you can expect more clouds and rain.
If you’re going for a long all-day hike and the weather is a bit unpredictable, a barometer is an excellent tool to inform you of any upcoming weather changes. Knowing what the weather will do is crucial as it allows you to find shelter on time or perhaps abort the hike.
One of the most basic features in a GPS watch is the compass, an instrument used for navigation and orientation purposes. It shows the direction relative to the geographic cardinal directions, north, east, south and west.
Some GPS watches have an electric compass which doesn’t require you to move around in order for it to function.
If during your hike you don’t need the GPS, you can turn it off and use the compass for navigation purposes. It will help save the battery.
Altimeter, barometer and compass are also known as the ABC sensors. They are standard features every decent GPS hiking watch should have.
5. Heart Rate Monitor
Some GPS watches also include a heart rate monitor that measures heart rate, either via wrist or chest. This is an interesting feature if you treat hiking as a sport.
Often overlooked, it’s important to consider the materials used for a GPS watch, in particular for the cases, straps and lenses.
Some types of lenses for example are more prone to scratches. Especially when hiking or running, watches can easily get damaged.
7. Battery Life
A GPS watch typically has a shorter battery life than a normal hiking watch does. This makes sense because GPS by definition requires a lot of resources.
Batteries in GPS watches are rechargeable though so it shouldn’t be a major issue, unless you’re out and about for a long all-day or overnight hike.
The descriptions of GPS watches you can find online should mention battery life so be sure to take note of that. The battery in a good quality watch with GPS turned on should last at least 10 hours at the very least.
This is a bit of a no-brainer, but a GPS watch should be waterproof. If you’re a passionate hiker or bushwalker, there are times when you need to deal with rain or creek crossings.
The last thing you want to worry about in these scenarios is your expensive hiking watch to get damaged.
A higher price doesn’t always correspond to better quality. You should go for a watch that has the features you really need. The more features, the higher the price.
Also, big brand watches are typically more expensive than smaller brands, but they aren’t necessarily better. Read the reviews carefully and choose a GPS watch that meets your criteria and quality standards.
A good GPS watch is one that has the perfect balance between design and technology. We also recommend to go for a brand that specializes in creating watches over a brand that creates all kinds of different sports related products.
The below GPS watches are offered by Garmin and Suunto, two very reputable manufacturers of sports and GPS watches.
4 Best GPS Watches for Hiking
Here are our 4 favorite GPS watches suitable for hiking and running, ranging in price from around 400 to 800 Australian dollars.
1. Garmin Fenix 5X
The hugely popular Garmin Fenix 5 is the latest edition in the Fenix series and comes in three versions: the Fenix 5, the Fenix 5S and the Fenix 5X. While all three of these models are excellent GPS watches for hiking, the 5X is the most advanced model.
The most important feature in the Fenix 5X that the other two models don’t have is maps. The 5X comes with awesome full-color TOPO Lite Australia & New Zealand mapping, in addition to outdoor navigation features that take your hiking adventures to a new level.
Also the biggest of the three, the 5X has a case size of 51 mm with a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal lens. All three Fenix 5 models also have a convenient wrist-based heart rate monitor. In other words, no chest straps needed. It’s good to point out here though that the HR monitor also negatively impacts battery-life.
In general, the batteries in the Fenix 5 models last reasonably long. With normal use, the battery in the Fenix 5X will last for about 12 days and 20 hours in GPS mode. The bright and full-color Garmin Chroma Display with high resolution and LED backlighting ensure great readability in different conditions.
The Garmin Fenix 5X is a fantastic GPS watch that is packed with features. This is of course also reflected in the price. If you’re serious about hiking, running, cycling or even paddling or swimming, the 5X is definitely a great investment.
Lens material: sapphire crystal
Display resolution: 240 x 240 pixels
Battery life: up to 20 hours in full GPS mode
2. Suunto Traverse
With an attractive design and great set of features, the Finland-made Suunto Traverse is the perfect GPS watch for hikers and mountaineers. The Traverse has a classy look and is not so much aimed towards athletes such as long-distance runners and triathletes.
The set of features in the Suuno Travers is very similar to what the Fenix 5 models offer but the Traverse is noticeably cheaper. The Traverse has ABC (altimeter, barometer, compass) sensors + thermometer and allows for route planning with topographic maps and automatic breadcrumbs, just to name a few core features.
One drawback of the Suunto Traverse compared to the (more expensive) Fenix 5X is that the battery life is not as good. In GPS mode, the watch will run for 8-10 hours making this model suitable for one-day but not multi-day hikes.
Lens material: mineral crystal
Display resolution: 128 x 128 pixels
Battery life: up to 10 hours in GPS mode
3. Garmin Forerunner 935
With a weight of only 49 grams, the compact yet feature rich Garmin Forerunner 935 is a very comfortable GPS watch. The Forerunner 935 is a great multi-sport watch that you can essentially wear all day even when you’re not moving around in the great outdoors.
What makes the Forerunner 935 a popular GPS watch is its ability to monitor your performance, training and recovery so that you’re able to continuously improve yourself or better prepare yourself for an upcoming race event. It does this by evaluating recent exercise history, performance indicators and exercise volume.
As with most Garmin GPS watches, the Forerunner 935 has a built-in altimeter, barometer and electronic compass to help you with your navigation. The battery life is respectable too, ranging from up to 2 weeks in watch mode to 24 hours in GPS mode. The wrist HR monitor on this GPS watch is able to provide very accurate results.
Because the 935 is compatible with Garmin’s QuickFit bands, it’s worth noting that the band can be easily replaced with a different one. This is great as it makes the 935 suitable for any type of occasion by simply changing the band to a silicone, leather or a metal one.
The Garmin Forerunner 935 is a highly sophisticated GPS watch suitable for most outdoor sports such as cycling, running, swimming and triathlon. While it’s not a watch specifically designed for hiking, the Forerunner 935 is still a great companion to bring along on your hiking adventures.
Lens material: chemically strengthened glass
Display resolution: 240 x 240 pixels
Battery life: up to 24 hours in full GPS mode
4. Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR
Equipped with a color touch screen and a stainless-steel bezel, the Suunto Spartan Sport is a multisport GPS watch designed for outdoor athletes.
Just like the above mentioned GPS watches, the Spartan Sport comes with the standard hiking features such as altimeter, barometer, compass and also thermometer. It is also equipped with a wrist heart rate monitor providing reasonably accurate results.
Routes and waypoints can easily be imported with the Suunto Movescount app so you can plan ahead. It also allows you to import routes shared by other users. Battery life is similar to the Traverse, lasting up to 10 hours in GPS mode and 40 hours with normal use.
Lens material: mineral crystal
Display resolution: 360 x 360 pixels
Battery life: up to 10 hours in full GPS mode