Best Trail Running Watches in 2018
A good trail running watch isn’t too different from a road running watch. Stats like pace, time, and distance are just as important trail running as they are on the road.
But the best trail running watches have features especially useful on the trail. Many of these watches overlap with our top picks for a hiking watch. The navigation and elevation functions on these watches are just as useful trail running as they are for hiking.
To pick our top trail running watches in 2018, we looked at watches that included functions to help you navigate, were rugged enough to handle the occasional tumble, and had strong battery power. We spent 10+ hours studying more than twenty different watches.
To see how we choose the best trail running watches, keep reading here.
These are our top picks:
Best overall – Trail Running and Ultramarathons
Garmin fenix 5 series
Our top choice – while the best out there – is not cheap. But we think it’s worth it. It’s got a ton of trail running features, long battery-life, and looks stylish enough to wear for any occasion.
In addition to tracking running metrics like pace, distance, time, and cadence, the fenix 5 provides a breadcrumb route map to help navigate. The map displays a dotted line showing the route you just ran.
Routes can be uploaded to the watch. The breadcrumb map won’t provide directions, but it will help guide you at intersections and will let you know if you’ve strayed off the route.
For added navigation help, waypoints can be added. Waypoints are specific locations you can place pretty much anywhere. These can be trail heads, summits, camp sites, or other landmarks.
The fenix tracks elevation with a barometer for the most accurate altitude reading. It also measures vertical speed (how fast you are climbing or descending). And with auto-climb, the fenix changes the screen automatically to show more elevation-related data when the it detects you’re climbing uphill.
There are three size options (and each version has different band colors to choose from): the 5S, the smallest of the three, the fenix 5, similar in size and function to the fenix 3, and the 5X, which is the largest and most expensive but is the only fenix with real topo and street maps.
The fenix 5 is rugged and durable. Quick-fit watch bands easily swap out so you can change from a synthetic rubber band for trail running to a more casual metal band.
The fenix 5 also excels at other activities like mountain biking, skiing, swimming, and paddle sports (like kayaking or canoeing). So if you do more than just trail running, the fenix has you covered. And it looks just as good in non-sports situations as it does on the trail.
Best overall – Honorable Mention
Garmin Forerunner 935
If the fenix 5 price seems too daunting, the Forerunner 935 is a great option. It’s $100 less than the fenix, but has almost all the same features. Basic mapping, uploadable routes, elevation tracking, and a strong battery life make this a great trail running watch. It also weighs less then the fenix 5, but comes in a plastic casing, making it more susceptible to damage.
Best Ultrarunning Watch – Best Battery Life
Suunto Ambit3 Peak
Like the fenix 5, the Ambit3 Peak includes many of the features we like for trail running. But it tops the fenix 5 in overall battery life with a whopping 30 hour battery.
Besides battery life, the Ambit3 Peak excels at creating routes and mapping. Create routes with Movescount – Suunto’s phone and computer app – and upload them to the watch. Unique to Suunto are its heat maps. These are routes other Suunto users have followed or created. Their popularity is shown in varying degrees of brightness – brighter equals a more popular route (hence, heat map).
And Suunto goes one step farther with their mapping by displaying an elevation profile. While trail running, you can see where exactly you are on the elevation profile of the uploaded route. The watch doesn’t display a full map – just a breadcrumb line map – but you can see where on the route you are and whether you’ve veered off course.
The Ambit3 Peak also has barometric elevation and combines it with GPS elevation to provide what they call FusedAlti, a combination of both for the most accurate elevation readings. It also measures climbing and descending speed.
The Ambit3 Peak is a rugged, durable watch. The 30 hour battery combined with mapping and accurate elevation make this a great watch for trail running.
Top Lightweight Watch with Wrist Heart Rate
Garmin Forerunner 35
If you’re looking for a simple, easy-to-use watch and don’t necessarily care about key trail running features like mapping and elevation, the Garmin Forerunner 35 is a nice option. While it doesn’t have barometric elevation and a super-long battery – it doesn’t cost as much as most of these other watches.
But it still has a nice 13 hour battery and does a great job tracking pace, distance, and cadence. It comes with wrist heart rate and acts as activity tracker when not running by counting steps, monitoring goals, and creating daily step goals. All in a light-weight design with a large, high resolution screen.
When synced with the Garmin Connect app on a phone, it wirelessly uploads your runs. It’s here you can see key data like routes, elevation, pace, distance, and heart rate.
The Forerunner 35 is ideal if you want a lightweight, simple to use watch that can track your trails runs and provide nice data post-run to analyze where you ran.
Top Budget Watch with Long Battery
Epson Runsense SF-710
The Epson series of GPS watches were short-lived – they’ve all been discontinued – but they are the best simple GPS watch with an insanely long battery life. Our favorite model, the SF-710, has an awesome 30 hour battery in a lightweight package. Beyond pace, distance, and time, it doesn’t have that many additional features – it’s just basic GPS watch. But you can program intervals on the watch and there are vibration alerts.
Mostly, this is the watch if you just want basic info and a way to track your trail runs. The long battery life is the main selling point of the watch.
And because it’s discontinued, you can typically find the Epson watches for a good price online.
basic GPS with extra features and long battery
Like the Epson SF-710 and Forerunner 10, the 230 doesn’t track elevation or having maps. But it does work with GLONASS, the Russian verison of GPS, for more accurate GPS tracking.
It also wirelessly uploads workouts, provides phone notifications on the watch, and works as an activity tracker. If you do some road and treadmill running in addition to trail, the Forerunner 230 works well for non-dirt running. Interval workouts can be programmed directly on the watch (in addition to custom workouts we already mentioned). And it can track treadmill and indoor runs with its built in accelometer.
The one thing missing from the Forerunner 230 is a wrist-based heart rate monitor. If you’re interested in the Garmin 230 features with wrist heart rate, check out the Forerunner 235 – pretty much the exact watch but with an optical wrist heart rate monitor.
Overall, the Forerunner 230 is a pretty simple watch to use. And it has enough extra features to justify the higher price. Like the Epson SF-710, Garmin discontinued this watch, providing an opportunity to find a great deal online.
best non-GPS trail running watch
LAD Weather ABC Watch
The altimeter tells you altitude – good to know if you are climbing and curious how much more you need to ascend. It’s also a good way to find your position on a map. If you know your elevation and can find a trail or stream on a map, you can use the topo lines to pinpoint your location.
The barometer is what’s used to calculate altitude, but it also provides a basic weather forecast based off air pressure changes. The compass is very accurate and is yet another way to help navigate during your run.
Other functions include a timer, step counter, and a thermometer.
This watch is more of a hiking watch than a trail running watch, but if you don’t care about distance or pace and want something inexpensive to time your runs, the ABC sensors on this watch make it nice, low-cost option.
Key Features in Trail Running Watch
Stats like pace, time, and distance are as important for trail running as they are for road running. But because trail running and big climbs are intertwined, we looked at watches that accurately provided elevation with a few ways to track how fast you are moving up and down. We also like watches with strong navigation features. They also needed to be rugged and durable for the occasional fall. And long battery life was important for the ultra trail runners out there.
It’s often a pain to take out a physical map while trail running, so navigational features on the watch are helpful to keep you from getting lost. We’d never recommend using a watch in place of a map, but some watches have basic mapping features that will keep you along the right path.
Maps & Uploadable Routes
One of the newest Garmin GPS watches – the fenix 5X – has actual color topo maps loaded on the watch. But even older versions of the fenix and many of the Suuntos and TomTom have basic line maps – called breadcrumb maps – that can be uploaded on the watch. These simple maps show you were you are – and where you need to go – along a route. This makes finding turns and knowing when you’ve gotten off-course much easier.
On top of full routes, waypoints can be added. These are pre-determined locations like landmarks, trail heads, summits, lean-tos, and pretty much anything else you want to designate. While running, you’ll be able to see how far or near you are from each waypoint.
Because trail running often goes hand-in-hand with ultrarunning, we looked for watches with powerful batteries. Because many people rely on their watch to help with navigation, we want a watch with enough battery power to last through your entire run.
Typical battery life for most watches these days is about 10-15 hours per charge. That should enough for most people but the best watches have a strong enough battery to last 20 hours or more.
For ultrarunners doing long 50 and 100 mile runs, it’s ideal to have a watch with enough battery power to last the entire race. Some people bring battery-pack chargers to recharge on the fly during a race. This is a great workaround but not ideal. One, it’s annoying to run while the watch charges with a battery pack. And two, not every watch continues to track runs while charging.
And even for mortals who aren’t attempting those insanely long distances, a powerful battery reduces the number of times you need to charge it between runs.
Since most trail runners are at least partially concerned with elevation, we like watches that measure altitude with a barometer (as opposed to relying strictly on GPS). Barometric altimeters are more accurate and display a steady elevation. GPS elevation often bounces around showing a height that might vary plus or minus 30 or 40 feet.
The downside to a barometer is it does require recalibration to account for changes in air pressure due to storm and changing weather.
Which leads us to another useful feature. Watches with barometric altitude will often provide alerts when there are sudden changes in atmospheric pressure. This is often a signal of an incoming rain storm. Or – if you are running in the rain – will tell you that the storm is letting up.
While the name varies depending on the watch, the TrackBack function guides you back to where you started following the same route you came from. Directional arrows point your way, along with your location on the breadcrumb map. If you deviate from the route back, the GPS watch will point you back on the right course in as short of a distance as possible.
Tied in closely with elevation, watches that measure elevation can also track your vertical speed for ascents and descents. In addition to pace, this is a useful way to track how fast you are moving up and downhill.
Found on a couple of Garmin’s watches, auto-climb detects when you start ascending a hill and automatically changes the screen to display more climbing metrics. What it displays can be customized, but good stats might be elevation grade, vertical speed, and current altitude.
This isn’t a must-have but can be useful if you’ve lost your bearings and need basic N/S/E/W directions.
Rugged, Water-proof Durability
Finally, in case you get stuck in bad weather or get tripped up, we like watches that were tough and durable. A watch should be able to take a few hits without breaking.