A GPS watch is an irreplaceable companion for any more or less serious hiker or athlete. Aside from timekeeping, GPS watches allow you to track your performance stats, become better at what you are doing, as well as help you stay on track while out in the wild!
If you think that a GPS watch is what you are missing for a spectacular outdoor experience, then let us introduce you to our Top 10 of the best GPS watches for hiking and running!
Below are 10 GPS watches that we think will work wonderfully for hiking and running. We’ve included GPS watches from various price ranges to make sure that most of our readers have something to look forward to.
GPS watches offer a wide range of complex features – to keep things simple, we’ve focused only on major functions that make our picks stand out. As for more minor details, we leave that part to you.
The Garmin Fēnix 5X Plus is the ultimate GPS sport watch for physically active people. Aside from running, this thing comes with features & profiles for swimming, cycling, and even for golfing!
And when it comes to navigation, it’s hard to beat this GPS watch thanks to advanced features such as topographic maps, downloadable cartography, Tracback, and not only.
The Fēnix 5X Plus is exceptionally rugged as well – its lens is scratch-resistant, while the housing will withstand heavy use and is made with water activities such as swimming or snorkeling in mind.
The Garmin Instinct is a far more reasonably priced alternative to the 5X Plus watch. Of course, this GPS watch lacks some of 5X Plus’s key features, but it retains many of the basics.
Instinct is still water-resistant enough to be used for water activities such as snorkeling or swimming. And although this GPS watch lacks topographic maps and advanced sports features like vertical oscillation measurement, it has convenient things like waypoints, Tracback, and breadcrumb trails.
Forerunner 945 GPS is a slightly cheaper multi-sport alternative to Fēnix 5X Plus. It’s not as tough and durable – especially when it comes to water activities – but its feature set is largely similar.
Forerunner 945 again boasts smart functionality along with dedicated profiles for swimming, running, and golfing. Running and performance tracking capabilities are largely identical, and the same applies to navigation. So if you liked Fēnix 5X Plus but think its pricing is too steep, Forerunner might be just right.
The Coros APEX GMS smartwatch offers an exceptional feature set for the price. This especially applies to running features – you are getting advanced things like VO2 Max measurement, stride height & length tracking, cadence, and more!
What’s also super-impressive in this watch is the battery life – it’s among the longest on our top!
If your budget is very limited, then something like the Pro Trek PRG-270-1 from Casio may work wonderfully for you. This sport watch doesn’t have the advanced running or navigation features of pricier models, but it has the very essentials like stopwatch, alarm, or whatnot.
Despite its simplicity, the PRG-270-1 sport watch has one unique feature – it’s solar-powered! Not only that, but its battery life is a whopping 9 months – without any exposure to the sun!
Garmin’s Foretrex 601 is more of a GPS unit than a watch, though it does have watch functionality. It’s rather inexpensive as well, so it’s a good pick if your needs are mostly centered around navigation.
Our favorite thing about this GPS unit is that it has a very long battery life in navigation mode – up to 48 hours! It has enough charge to run for 1 month in watch mode too, while the power-saving UltraTrac allows for up to a week of use.
The Polar Grit X GPS watch is a solid pick for not that much money. Although this model isn’t quite as advanced as top-of-the-line Garmin watches, it still offers solid navigation and training functionality, including VO2 Max estimation, distance measurement, progress tracking, and offline maps.
The battery life in training mode (with the GPS and HR monitor on) is pretty nice too, though the runtime in watch mode is relatively short – just 7 days.
SUUNTO Traverse Alpha is a GPS watch with a focus on hunting and fishing. Among the cool hunting & fishing features Traverse Alpha offers are the weather trend indicator, sea level pressure graph, storm alarms, moonrise alerts, moon phase calendars, and more.
oTraverse Alpha boasts a nice set of features for navigation and running too. The functionality in this GPS watch is basic compared to what you are getting with high-end Garmin models, but it’s solid for the money.
The SUUNTO Core watch is an interesting inexpensive option that has a strong focus on weather features. Most notably, Core can predict storms based on changes in air pressure. This feature isn’t 100% accurate, but it seems to work well enough.
SUUNTO Core can also gather weather data over the course of several days and conveniently display weather trends. All in all, if weather is key for your trips, Core is quite a nice pick for limited budgets.
And as our final pick, we’ve got Casio’s PAG-240 watch. This sport watch is similar to Casio PRG-270-1 we reviewed a little earlier. However, it’s a little pricier and offers a slightly larger, more convenient display. Made of stainless steel, PAG-240 should be tougher as well.
In terms of features, the PAG-240 watch is rather simple and doesn’t differ from PRG-270-1 much. With that in mind, this sports watch is a good option if your needs aren’t too advanced.
In this section, let’s try to understand how to pick the best GPS watch.
As you could’ve already noticed from our reviews, GPS watches are exceptionally diverse when it comes to features. It’s actually amazing how versatile GPS watches can get to meet the needs of even the most demanding athletes and hikers!
But on the other hand, this makes shopping for the best hiking & running GPS watch rather difficult. You may need to wrap your head around many details and features to make the right choice. And when dealing with GPS watches, you do want to be careful since making an expensive mistake is very easy.
In this post, we cannot cover absolutely every single feature that you can find in a GPS watch – there are too many things to talk about. However, we can provide you with a brief overview of major GPS watch features. As for smaller details, you might need to research them on your own.
With that, let’s get started with our buyer’s guide!
Durability is not as important for running as for hiking, but you should still get a tough watch. This especially applies if you are going to traverse rough terrain.
A durable watch would ideally have the following features:
Vibration and shock resistance.
Corrosion resistance (if there are any metal components in the watch).
GPS watch manufacturers often use proprietary technology to make their watches tougher. You should check out the product description of the desired watch to see what kind of durability features it has.
You won’t necessarily take your GPS watch near water, but we think it’s still important to understand what water resistance means in watches.
For example, when a watch is advertised to be water-resistant to 100 feet, then it usually only means that the watch will survive a temporary submersion to the claimed depth. The watch will not survive swimming.
We wouldn’t consider this a huge problem though. For most buyers, this is more than enough because only a few people need a completely waterproof watch that can survive prolonged submersion.
If you just so happen to be intending to take your GPS watch swimming, then absolutely make sure that it is designed for that. Even the toughest water-resistant watch will not survive swimming if it’s not built with that in mind. So don’t make an expensive mistake!
Workout data collection is more useful for running than hiking, though if you view hiking as exercise, it can be helpful as well. Data tracking allows you to assess your performance in the long term and make adjustments to your form or routine as necessary.
GPS watches can track a wide range of stats to help you monitor your training progress. The most basic watches will be able to track distance, time, and real-time speed. As for higher-end models, their feature set includes but is not limited to the following:
Calorie consumption. This feature is based on an algorithm that calculates calorie expenditure based on your weight, age, height, etc. It’s thus not very accurate, but it’s better than nothing, and it provides you with some ground for making dietary decisions.
Personal records. GPS watches with this feature are able to track your PRs. How functional PR recording is depends on the watch – some watches might allow you to customize what to track and may save your progress across multiple devices, while others will only offer simple distance tracking.
Cadence measurement. Cadence is the rate at which your legs turnover while running. Usually, cadence is measured in steps per minute. This feature isn’t a must-have, but it might be useful if the turnover rate is important to you.
Heart rate monitor. Many GPS watches have integrated optical heart rate monitors. These monitors aren’t always accurate, but they could work for you if you need an easy way to measure your heart rate. More advanced GPS watches might also be compatible with third-party chest strap heart rate monitors.
VO2 Max estimator. Found on high-end GPS watches, VO2 Max measurement allows you to measure your aerobic performance without having to go to a laboratory. Of course, the accuracy of watch-measured VO2 Max may not be too great, but it can still give you some insight into your fitness level.
Ground contact. This feature is common in some Garmin watches. Basically, it measures how long your feet stay in contact with the ground during each stride while running.
Vertical oscillation. This feature is exclusive to high-end Garmin models. It measures how much you bounce up and down when running. Vertical oscillation measurement is useful in that it allows you to track your form and minimize the bouncing, thus improving your energy efficiency.
Activity tracking. Most watches are capable of tracking general fitness activity Fitbit-style. That is, they allow you to set fitness goals, track your step count, and monitor your rest. Pretty convenient stuff!
Unlike data tracking features, training aids are aimed at making your individual workouts more convenient.
Here are the most common training aid features you will see in GPS watches:
Auto lap. This feature marks a lap at a set distance automatically. Usually, the distance at which a lap is marked can be adjusted by the user.
Auto pause. Auto pause automatically pauses the workout timer when it senses that you’ve stopped running. More advanced watches may allow you to set the auto pause to trigger at low speeds. This may be useful, for example, if your running route is filled with stoplights.
Time/distance alert. This feature is exceptionally useful for interval workouts. After you cover the set distance or after the set time has elapsed, the watch will make an audio alert. Some watches might also vibrate once you pass the time/distance threshold.
Advanced workouts. This feature allows you to conveniently do more complex workouts. For example, you may create a program that involves a 10-minute warmup, 20-minute mild run, and 10-minute cooldown. Like with time/distance alerts, the watch will let you know when it’s time to proceed to the next portion of your routine.
Navigation is a key feature for hiking, though it can also be useful for running. Weather tracking may also be useful, especially for multi-day trips.
Among the navigation and weather features that we suggest you look for in a GPS watch are:
Memory. GPS watches can typically remember your activities, waypoints, and maps. Needless to say, cheap watches will have less memory for this kind of data. Generally, more memory is preferable, but you will obviously need to choose a watch within your budget.
Breadcrumb routes. Some watches draw a breadcrumb route as you travel. This is a very simple map that allows you to more or less easily find your way back. Breadcrumb maps usually aren’t too accurate, but they do provide some insight into where you are.
Waypoints. Mid- and high-end GPS watches typically allow you to program waypoints – locations of interest or landmarks for orientation. This is an excellent feature for navigation and, in our opinion, a must-have in a good GPS watch.
Track-back. Track-back is an alternative feature to breadcrumb routes. Watches with track-back can direct you to the point of your workout’s/hike’s beginning.
Note that track-back doesn’t work like a car GPS navigator in that it doesn’t provide you with turn-by-turn guidance. Instead, this feature gives you a general direction.
Elevation. Some GPS watches can measure your altitude as well. More advanced watches will base their measurements on the integrated barometer, while simpler ones rely on GPS. Barometer-based altimeters are more accurate, but they are typically found in costlier watches.
Temperature. A handful of GPS watches have temperature sensors. This feature can be useful, but it’s not always reliable, particularly because measurements may be skewed by your body heat. If you want accurate temperature measurements, then get a GPS watch that supports external temperature sensors.
Weather forecasts & prediction. This is an insanely useful feature if your trip’s success strongly depends on the weather.
Typically, GPS watches will just provide you with access to online forecasts, which is good enough for most people. Some advanced watches may even be able to predict storms based on barometer readings!
GPS watches require battery power to be able to run all their advanced features.
With running, battery life doesn’t matter much since even the cheapest watch will last for at least one workout. But when it comes to hiking, this spec becomes very important since hikes can last for days.
Most GPS watches are powered by rechargeable Li-Ion batteries that have enough charge for 10-12 hours of operation. This will probably be sufficient for most people’s needs. Some watches go much higher though – up to 20-24 hours!
If you are going on a multi-day hike, then your GPS watch should have long battery life. However, note that you probably won’t find a GPS watch that will hold battery charge for several days. So you’ll also need to think about investing in a compatible power bank for recharging or some spare batteries.
A convenient button layout & UI are nice to have, but they aren’t must-haves. Still, if you want an easy-to-use watch, then here are a couple of things that you could consider.
Touchscreen. Most GPS watches do fine without a touchscreen, but if you are looking for a very functional watch, a touchscreen may be preferable for usability. With that said, if you can, get a watch without a touchscreen – watch touch displays can be very sensitive and react to sweat or rain.
Customizable screens. If you are going to perform multiple types of fitness activities, then a watch with a customizable screen would be nice. Such a GPS watch would allow you to customize what data to display on the screen.
Note that with watches that don’t have many features, customizable screens are unnecessary.
Auto scrolling. Multi-screen watches highly benefit from auto scrolling. What this feature does is allow you to scroll through your screens with a push of a button – pretty convenient.
Finally, your watch should be able to help you in emergency situations.
A handful of GPS watches have an integrated personal locator beacon (PLB). When activated, this feature sends your location to the relevant authorities to let them know that you are in distress and guide them to your location.
We think that this feature is a must-have if you are hiking alone. It’s preferable if you are in a group too. But if your budget isn’t big enough to afford a watch with such a function, you should instead get yourself a standalone personal locator beacon.
Picking the best GPS watch for hiking and running can be tough because there are so many things to consider! To make the right choice, you will have to read through the massive spec sheets of available watches. Not only that, but you will need to determine what does and doesn’t matter to you.
In our buyer’s guide, we’ve covered the most important basics to help you get started. For getting your first GPS watch, this should be enough, but if you feel that anything’s lacking, be sure to do some additional research!