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The Best GPS Watch for Hiking Reviewed
Smartphones have enriched our lives in many ways, but if you enjoy the outdoor life as much as I do, you should consider investing in the most durable smartwatch you can find. If you buy the right model, it can serve you well across many miles, no matter how intense the terrain.
In order to find the best rugged smartwatch on the market, you’ll need to keep a specific list of criteria in mind. Here are a few of the most important features to consider:
The watch should be made of quality materials with the ability to withstand the elements
Look for a watch with an IPX rating of 4 or higher
You shouldn’t have to squint to make out the display
The last thing you want is for your battery to go dead while you’re on the trail
When you’re wearing the watch, you want it to be so unobtrusive that you barely notice it’s there
The best rugged smartwatch will offer GPS and fitness trackers to help you make the most of your workout
Best Durable Smartwatches on the Market
Are there any watches out there that cover all the bases? Let’s take a look at some of the leading durable smartwatches to find out the answer.
Top Pick: Garmin Instinct
Our roundup winner combines the best of all worlds: It’s affordable, it’s attractive, and it comes with a ton of features that are designed to deliver the best possible trail experience.
The Garmin Instinct is constructed to US military standard, so you know that the company meant business when they designed this watch. In addition to being water-resistant at depths up to 100 meters, it’s also shock-resistant, so you can feel confident about bringing it along on your most intense adventures.
The 3-axis compass and barometric altimeter help you keep track of both your direction and the upcoming weather patterns. Meanwhile, the watch uses no fewer than three global navigation systems to help you forge your path. (In case you were wondering, here are the systems that it uses: GPS, Glonass, and Galileo.)
The navigation aid doesn’t end there. This unit is also equipped with a trackback feature, enabling you to retrace your steps and return to your starting point. In addition, the Garmin website gives you the opportunity to scope out terrain and plan your adventures in advance.
You can connect the Instinct to your smartphone (provided that your device is compatible) so that your data will be automatically uploaded to the Garmin online fitness community. That way, you’ll remain connected even when you’re at one with nature. Speaking of which, this model can also be used to monitor your activity, heart rate, and stress levels.
When the watch is in Ultratrac battery saver mode, its battery can last for up to 40 hours. If you’re using it in GPS mode, you’ll get about 16 hours, while the basic smartwatch mode will run out of juice in roughly 14 hours.
If it’s eye appeal you’re after, you’re in luck. The Garmin Instinct is available in a multitude of colors, enough so that you could choose one to match every outfit in your closet if you wished.
This rugged, reliable outdoor GPS watch is built to the U.S. military standard 810G for thermal, shock and water resistance (rated to 100 meters).
- Lightweight and comfortable to wear
- Quick responses and load times
- Recessed buttons help avoid accidental pressing
- Impressive battery life
- Takes a while to unlock the keys
- Display screen is black and white
Reasons To Buy
- It’s so comfortable, you might not even notice you’re wearing it
- The watch is set at an affordable price point
- It’s outfitted with every feature you could possibly want from a rugged fitness tracker
Best Apple Smartwatch: Apple Watch Series 6
No list of durable smartwatches would be complete without an offering from Apple.The Watch Series 6 is the best rugged smartwatch we could find from this pioneering company.
While this unit doesn’t come cheaply, it’s not the priciest model on the market either. It’s available in several color combinations, with options for either 40-millimeter or 44-millimeter bands. Whichever style you choose, the fit is both comfortable and secure, with a sturdy band that’s equipped to handle life on the trail.
With the GPS model, you can take calls and answer texts from your smartwatch. While you might expect an Apple device to offer something like this, it’s a welcome benefit when you’re engaging in intense exercise.
The display is designed to be more than two times brighter outdoors, so the screen is easy to read. Apple has designed the system to be 20 percent faster than the watches in its 5 series, making the response time feel lighting-quick. When you download the Fitness app to your iPhone, you can track your daily activity and fitness trends, helping to keep you on track at all times.
Although we appreciate the Apple Watch Series 6 for all that it has to offer trail hikers, it can come in handy for sedentary users as well. When it’s connected to the ECG app, it allows you to check your heart rhythm, which can be useful even when you’re not in motion. You can also measure your blood oxygen levels, even as you sleep.
Track your daily activity on Apple Watch and see your trends in the Fitness app on iPhone. Measure workouts like running, walking, cycling, yoga, swimming, and dance.
- Attractive display
- Designed to monitor overall health as well as fitness
- Battery holds its charge well
- Product may not be compatible with older iPhones
- Some shipping issues reported
Reasons To Buy
- Apple has a long-standing reputation for quality and longevity
- Encourages healthier eating and exercise habits
- Built-in microphone increases the unit’s versatility
Best Waterproof Smartwatch: Garmin Fenix 6 Pro
This is another offering from Garmin, albeit one that’s set at a much higher price point than the Instinct. However, if it’s a water resistant/waterproof GPS watch you’re after, this is the one that you should consider.
The watch’s durable, rugged design makes it a great companion on the trail. The display is 18 percent larger than those of previous Fenix units, and it can be read easily in bright sunlight. For the bezel set, you can choose from either titanium, stainless steel, or DLC (diamond-like carbon) coating. Like the Instinct, the Fenix 6 is available in many different colors, so it’s easy to find one that will suit your individual style.
The “Pulse Ox” feature measures your heart rate at high elevations, reminding you when it’s time to take it easy. It also doubles as a sleep monitor, although Garmin is quick to point out that it shouldn’t be used as a medical device. For athletes looking to track their resting heart rate, though, this is a great feature.
Use the PacePro option to guide you in your training, particularly if you engage in speedwork. The watch can even estimate your training status and make adjustments for the environmental conditions–something that helps set the Fenix line apart. You can even log your daily fluid intake to make sure you’re staying fully hydrated for your workouts.
Speaking of water, this unit can also be used in conjunction with Surfline Sessions. When you catch a wave in front of a Surfline camera, the app will send the video back to your Fenix 6 to let you know whether your form was on point. The fact that the watch is waterproof up to 100 meters comes in especially handy here.
If you’re going on an extended hike, the Fenix can help you out with its bevy of preloaded topographical maps. Like the Instinct, this watch uses GPS, Glonass, and Galileo satellite systems to provide accurate navigational support. Skiers will appreciate the mapping feature that provides details for over 2,000 ski resorts worldwide, as well as the barometric altimeter sensor.
The battery-saver mode provides a whopping 48 days of battery life, while the regular smartwatch mode offers about two weeks of use. When the Fenix 6 is in GPS or music modes, the battery will last for about 10 hours. Meanwhile, the expedition GPS activity mode (the one we’re most interested in) offers battery life for up to 28 days.
Fit for performance with rugged, sophisticated design that features an always-on 1.3” (18% larger than previous fēnix models) sunlight-readable display with bezels in stainless steel, titanium or diamond-like carbon (DLC) coating.
- Plenty of appealing features
- Eye-catching design
- Accurate sleep tracking monitor
- Excellent battery life
- High price point
- Music player doesn't work well with some earbuds
Reasons To Buy
- Great navigation system makes it virtually impossible to get lost
- Includes pre-loaded topographical maps, including maps of ski resorts
- Waterproof down to 100 meters
Best Budget: Amazfit T-Rex Smartwatch
Let’s say you’re looking for the best rugged smartwatch you can afford, but you’re working with a limited budget. Take a look at the T-Rex Smartwatch from Amazfit, a bargain option that’s military standard certified, despite its low price tag.
The T-Rex is designed to face the toughest terrain, not to mention the most extreme temperatures. It can withstand temps ranging from a scorching 150 degrees Fahrenheit to 40 degrees below zero, and works even when the weather is particularly humid.
When it’s used in its regular capacity, the T-Rex offers 20 hours of battery life. The Sony GPS chip helps keep the power consumption low, so that the GPS use remains functional for up to 40 hours.
The 1.3-inch screen is easy to read from a distance, and it features an “always-on” display so that you never have to wait to receive your stats. The strap is available in five different colors, all of which blend in well with the great outdoors. Note that the watch also offers Bluetooth support.
The T-Rex is waterproof to 50 meters, making it suitable for water sports. It also offers 14 different sport modes, allowing you to choose the one that suits your workout. The available modes include outdoor running, trail running, indoor and outdoor cycling, walking, mountain climbing, trekking, treadmill use, elliptical trainer, pool and open water swimming, skiing, triathlon, and basic exercise.
Amazfit T-Rex smartwatch passed 12 military grade certifications, ensuring its robustness and resistance to harsh environments.
- Affordable price point
- Easy-to-read interface
- Offers 14 different sport modes
- Supports Bluetooth
- Has 12 military-grade certifications
- Doesn't offer many bonus features
- Battery life is not as impressive as some high-end models
Reasons To Buy
- It’s one of the best cheap waterproof smartwatches on the market
- The interface is user-friendly and efficient
- Always-on” display allows you to check your progress whenever you want
Things to Consider When Buying Your Smartwatch
Even the most durable smartwatch can have its drawbacks, and bargain offerings aren’t necessarily worse than their pricier counterparts. So how do you go about choosing the best rugged smartwatch on the market?
In addition to the basic criteria we’ve listed above, here are a few of the things you should bear in mind when you’re looking for a smartwatch.
If you want to use your smartwatch to make calls and receive texts, remember that not all of them are equipped to handle this. Only watches with built-in microphones and speakers are up to the task. Moreover, these usually need to be paired with a compatible smartphone in order to work properly, although some of the more advanced units allow you to make and receive calls directly from the watch itself. Make sure the device you’re considering has all the necessary components in place before you plunk down your hard-earned cash.
On the subject of smartphones, most smartwatches will require one in order to work. Check to see if the watch can be used as a standalone device. If it isn’t, you’ll need to make sure that it will work with your current platform. For example, if the watch is iOS-dependent, it will probably be useless with an Android phone. Others might be compatible with either platform, but you’ll need to install a companion app first.
How does a smartwatch calculate your heart rate? Simply put, it projects a special light onto your skin, which is then read back by the device. The technology is called PPG (photoplethysmography), and it works by using pulse detection to monitor the heart rate.
When the heart monitor is paired with GPS tracking, it can record how many steps you’ve taken or how many miles you’ve traveled. Any smartwatch that doesn’t have these features hasn’t earned the distinction, and is closer to a regular watch than a fitness tracker.
One final note: If you hope to use the smartwatch to track your swimming progress, be sure that it can be fully submerged for long periods of time. A watch that’s simply labeled “water-resistant” won’t do the trick.
The bottom line? Map out a budget in advance, then think about what you want your smartwatch to do for you. A trail runner isn’t going to have the same needs as a swimmer, while a triathlete will need a unit that’s capable of covering many bases.
Above all, you want a reliable smartwatch with a long battery life. Even if you aren’t planning on a multi-day adventure, the watch should be capable of holding its charge long enough to provide you with an accurate readout.
If you do plan on using the watch to navigate your way through a long hike, then make sure the unit is equipped with a strong navigation system. This isn’t as important if your workouts take place in a swimming pool, but when you’re hiking through the wilderness, it’s essential.
Best of luck, and happy trails!
Are Smartwatches really worth it?
If you’re serious about tracking your exercise habits, then a smartphone is essential. These devices do more than just time your progress–they’re full-service fitness centers that can be worn around your wrist.
With a smartwatch, you won’t need to unlock your phone just to read a text. In fact, you don’t have to lug your phone along during your workouts at all. All your information can be safely transferred to whatever fitness app you’re using, without you having to lift an extra finger.
Also, as we age, it becomes increasingly important to keep an eye on our heart rates and blood oxygen levels. Smartwatches take care of that for us, reminding us when we need to step it up or take it easy, allowing us can focus on the workout itself.
Are Smartwatches compatible with all phones?
No, not all smartwatches can be used with all phones. While some are compatible with multiple devices, you usually need to download an app beforehand. Other units are only compatible with either iPhones or Androids. That’s why it’s so important to read the specifications beforehand. It won’t do to spend money on a smartwatch that you can’t use–or be forced to switch phones just so the device will work.