A Hiker’s Guide to GPS Watches - AdventureTripr

A Hiker’s Guide to GPS Watches

Marjorie Geling · May 5, 2022
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Today's GPS watches can do a lot more than just tell the time; they can measure your location, height, route, and even your heart rate and calories burned. Though there are many bells and whistles that can be fun additions, GPS watches can also serve as a safety tool for navigating remote terrain. This guide covers what features to look out for, and what to consider when buying a GPS watch.   

What is a GPS watch?

GPS allows these watches to track your exact location on the planet
GPS allows these watches to track your exact location on the planet

The Global Positioning System (GPS) allows these watches to track your exact location on the planet. They can also be programmed to track your body's rhythms and log data such as steps taken, heart rate, and calories burned. Many of these watches also sync with an app on your phone or computer, allowing you to keep track of hikes, runs, and other logged activities.  

Why GPS watches are helpful

1. Activity monitoring

The advanced activity monitoring of these watches can be helpful for those trying to increase their personal fitness, or train for specific goals. Having a database of your logged activities can be both motivating and useful metrics!

2. Navigation

The primary role of GPS technology is navigation. While GPS watches and other wearables lack the screen size and capability of their handheld equivalents, they are nonetheless extremely useful for charting your journey, establishing waypoints, and other critical benchmarks for finding your way in the wild.  

3. Safety

While navigation might be useful for training, it can also be a crucial safety tool.

In addition to GPS being useful for preventing getting lost, many watches also feature an SOS button which will automatically call 911 and send a text message to the emergency contacts you previously selected and stored within the watch. It also reveals the wearer's exact location and serves as a speakerphone, allowing the user to communicate with a 911 operator or emergency contacts.


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What to look for when buying a GPS watch?

The following are some of the useful features to look for in a GPS watch:

  • Altimeter, Barometer, and Compass - GPS watches often have an altimeter, barometer, and compass as key features. These are more commonly referred to as ABC watches; any additional features will typically cost more.

The barometer detects changes in atmospheric pressure and thus allows you to easily predict the weather. A rapid drop in the atmospheric pressure normally indicates a storm rising.

An altimeter shows you how high above sea level you are and is based on barometric pressure or GPS data. It is easier to find your location on a map if you know how high above the sea level you are.

A compass shows you the four cardinal directions (North, East, South and West) and is crucial for navigation. With the compass feature and a proper map, you can easily do triangulation to determine your current location.

  • GPS - GLONASS and GPS satellites are supported by most watches today, with a few supporting BDS. GLONASS is a Russian satellite-based navigation system and BDS is a Chinese satellite navigation system - both systems work alongside GPS (Global Positioning System). These will pinpoint a location more quickly and precisely.  The GPS also displays other data such as distance, speed, and duration.

  • Thermometer - This isn't a standard feature on GPS watches, but it can be a useful addition. It allows you to take body temperature readings, so you can adjust your layers accordingly and prevent hypothermia or heat stroke. Be aware that thermometers are not always accurate because they are worn on the wrist and may read your body temperature correctly.

  • Durability - The best hiking GPS watch should be built in a way that is both sturdy and comfortable. Features such as strong, double straps and a scratch-resistant sapphire lens help to limit the effect of wear and tear. However, added features typically mean added bulk to your watch. Watches that are more basic in function are lighter and are more suited for day hikes.

  • Battery life - A GPS watch with long battery life is crucial if you plan on heading out on multi-day hikes.

If you have a watch with a lot of smart functions such as Bluetooth, WiFi, a backlight, and so on, using these all together will deplete your battery life. Conserve your watch's battery life by using these extra features sparingly.l

  • WiFi connectivity - WiFi compatibility is available in newer GPS watches, which allows you to connect your watch to your phone and download hiking information.

  • Bluetooth - Bluetooth-enabled GPS watches allow you to couple your watch with devices that don't have built-in WiFi, such as a smartphone or a computer. It's a good alternative to WiFi connectivity because it's significantly less expensive and provides the same functionality as most WiFi-enabled devices.

  • Water Resistance - Water resistance is critical when hiking in areas that commonly experience rain, or for activities that involve exposure to water. 

However, "water resistant" should not be confused with "waterproof"; swimming with or submerging the watch in water may damage it, even if it is “water-resistant.” If you plan to do activities such as swimming or kayaking with your watch, consider purchasing a watch that is waterproof.

  • Heart rate monitor - Some watches can also show the heart rate of the user, which is useful for those interested in specific cardio training. This feature can also give you a better sense of if you are over or under training, and allow you to adjust accordingly.

  • Maps - Many watches include a pre-downloaded topographic map that can be used for navigation. Although they are not a replacement for a GPS, they can be beneficial when you lose signal or want to conserve battery power.

  • Affordability - A decent GPS watch with a built-in heart-rate monitor, accelerometer and sophisticated training features typically costs between $150 and $300. Watches under $150 often provide the necessities (GPS, distance, and speed monitoring) but lack sophisticated capabilities. 

If you want all of the latest features that multisport watches have to offer, the $300+price range will likely be more suitable. However, price tags can be deceiving, so always read the features before purchasing a GPS watch!

Helpful tips

Before each activity, calibrate the compass, altimeter, and barometer
Before each activity, calibrate the compass, altimeter, and barometer

Here are some quick tips for how to get the most out of your watch:


1. Double check that your device's settings are correct.

2. Check to see if your battery is fully charged.

3. Update the watch's satellite data and software by syncing it with the watch's accompanying smartphone app.

4. Before each activity, calibrate the compass, altimeter, and barometer.

5. When tracking, wait for an additional two minutes after the device reads GPS ready. 

Our recommendations



Bezel: stainless steel

Weight: 96g

Water resistance: 100m

Battery: up to 28 days / 37 days with solar; Battery Saver Watch Mode: up to 90 days / 1+ year with solar

Solar option: yes

The Fenix 7 series offers one of the best mapping experiences available. It also has other helpful features, such as the ability to track blood oxygen levels, heart rate, breathing, stamina, sleep, and stress levels. On the outdoor front, safety and tracking features like automatic incident detection and manually activated assistance alerts, both of which send a message to emergency contacts with your current location, are a welcome addition. If you choose the 7X model, you will additionally receive a built-in flashlight.



Bezel: stainless steel

Weight: 62g

Water resistance: 100m

Battery: 14 days time only; GPS: 25h / 50h / 120h / 170h

Solar option: no

The Suunto 9 Peak is one of the best lightweight, slimline outdoor watches currently on the market. This multisport GPS watch is the thinnest, smallest, and hardest watch Suunto has ever manufactured. The watch is equipped with GPS, altimeter, barometer, thermometer and compass. Navigating trails with the watch is very easy as the waypoints and GPS routes can simply be imported to the watch from the Suunto app which also allows you to easily plan routes before your hike.




Bezel: stainless steel

Weight: 64g

Water resistance: WR100

Battery: up to 40h in training mode, or 7 days in watch mode

Solar option: no

Polar Grit X provides a lot of bang for your buck in the mid-range. This outdoor watch, part of Polar's new adventure watch focus, offers a wide range of monitoring, training, and recuperation functions specifically built for use on trails and mountains.

As you can see, GPS tracking watches have many uses in many different situations. Investing in a good GPS watch that will match your hiking needs is a must!

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