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Best GPS Watches for Hiking in 2023


After reviewing dozens of watches, we’ve found the best GPS watches for hiking available on the market.

A good GPS watch for hiking should offer navigation tools like ABC sensors (altimeter, barometer, compass), and an onscreen map to provide a quick reference for your location and distance to your next stop.

Typically, watches with these advanced features are more expensive than budget GPS watches (see our list of budget GPS watches here).

If you’re only interested in basic GPS functions that provide pace, distance, and how long you’ve traveled, a budget GPS watch will be fine.

The GPS hiking watches we like cost a bit more. We think it’s worth the extra money to get navigation features, a more durable, rugged watch, and a longer-lasting battery.

The Garmin Fenix 7X Solar Edition is our top choice. It has exceptional battery life, full-color downloadable maps, and an easy-to-see-in-all-conditions screen.

Find the right GPS watch to accompany you on your hikes on this list!

Top 3 Best and Favorites


Garmin Fenix 7X – Solar Edition


  • Exceptional battery life
  • Rugged, sophisticated design
  • High-resolution color display
Check Price


Timex Ironman R300 GPS


  • Intuitive touchscreen
  • Waterproof up to 50 meters
  • Onboard GPS and GLONASS
Check Price


Garmin Foretrex 601


  • Toughest hiking GPS watch
  • GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo
  • Impressive battery life
Check Price

Best Overall

1. Garmin Fenix 7X – Solar Edition

The Fenix is one of Garmin’s premier watches. If you’re looking for a top-of-the-line GPS watch that you don’t mind paying for, the 7X Solar Edition is an excellent choice.

What We Like

We love the fact that you’re not likely to run out of battery on your hike thanks to the solar charging capabilities of this watch. This is particularly handy, as nobody wants to find themself with a dead battery on a long hike!

This watch already has a great battery life, lasting for up to 28 days on a single charge in normal smartwatch mode. Depending on the mode you choose, here’s what you can expect per charge:

GPS only: 89 hours
All Satellite Systems: 63 hours
All Systems + Music: 16 hours
Max Battery GPS: 213 hours
Expedition GPS: 62 days

The Fenix 7X Solar is a rugged watch that looks equally good with a suit as it does on a mountain. It’s built from tough materials that are able to withstand outdoor conditions easily; plus, it has a waterproof rating of 10 ATM.

Despite its rough-and-tumble exterior, it has a high-resolution color display that can easily be viewed in most conditions. You can also download full-color TopoActive maps that you can pull up whenever you need.

Another convenient feature for hiking is the new flashlight. Choose from multiple brightness levels depending on your needs. It also has an excellent safety red light that can be set to strobe, blitz, or pulse settings.

The watch has a wide range of profiles for non-hiking activities. You can track detailed metrics in the accompanying Garmin Connect app.

Why We Like It

You’ll never run out of battery with this watch on your wrist, even if you do use the GPS features consistently! The battery life and addition of solar charging is excellent for long hikes. We also like the full-color downloadable maps.

What to Consider

This Garmin watch is more expensive than most, so it may not be accessible to some people, regardless of how serious you are about hiking.

Also, take note that the Fenix 7X Solar is a chunky watch. Its bulky design may not suit those who have small wrists and hands.

What’s New

One of the most useful updates is an increase in the solar charging panel, which is now 54% larger and can hold more charge. The result is an increase in battery life, anywhere from 33% to almost 70% from the previous version.

You can now get free downloadable TopoActive maps for locations across the world. Upgraded features include the GPS-Only mode and the glass-covered optical HR sensor.

New features include Map Manager, an “Up Ahead” feature, a “Real-Time Stamina” feature, new Sleep Manager settings, and the ability to change your activity profiles and data display from your phone.

There’s also a new flashlight and support for Garmin Pay, WiFi, and music.


  • Exceptional battery life, can be extended by solar charging on backcountry trips
  • Rugged, sophisticated design is suitable for everyday wear and outdoor conditions
  • High-resolution color display is easy to see while on the go
  • Downloadable full-color Topo maps of your route


  • This watch is expensive and may not be an option for some people
  • The bulky style of this watch may not suit those who have small wrists

Top Value

2. Timex Ironman R300 GPS

A surprisingly feature-rich GPS watch that’s affordable for almost everyone. This watch is best if you like a square watch face as opposed to a round one, but the price makes it worthwhile even if you’ve never used a square watch before.

What We Like

For its price, the Timex Ironman R300 is worth it. This unassuming-looking watch features an excellent onboard GPS and GLONASS that will last up to 20 hours.

In normal smartwatch mode, you should get 25 days out of the battery.

If you decide that you want to cool off in a stream on your hike, the watch is water-resistant up to 50 meters.

You can use the Guided Coaching Activity Tracking for non-hiking exercises you may want to do. You’ll also get fairly accurate continuous heart rate monitoring, as well as all the metrics you need to monitor your performance.

We also really like that the touchscreen can be disabled if you prefer not to take the chance of accidentally cutting a workout short.

Like most smartwatches, you can also receive your notifications right on your wrist, so you can keep up with the outside world while you’re hiking.

Why We Like It

This is one of the most feature-rich watches you’ll find at this price point. It’s accessible to almost everyone, and for most hikers, it will be more than enough.

What to Consider

The company has calibrated the watch screen for the outdoors, meaning that it’s not the best quality indoors. This could be frustrating for some. Also, the band is not replaceable.


  • Intuitive touchscreen delivers a great user experience and can be disabled
  • Waterproof up to 50 meters so you can cross streams confidently
  • Onboard GPS and GLONASS helps you navigate your way along a trail
  • Feature-packed considering its price point


  • The screen may be hard to see indoors
  • The watch band is not replaceable

Most Durable

3. Garmin Foretrex 601

Wherever you may wander and whatever you may encounter, the Garmin Foretrex 601 can handle it. Made to last, no matter what you put it through!

What We Like

This is a true GPS device, rather than a smartwatch. You’ll immediately notice the unusual shape, which is actually like a little GPS unit on your wrist, quite different from the shape of a watch.

The Foretrex uses three different navigation systems—GPS, Galileo, and GLONASS. This helps to increase the accuracy of your location.

It’s built to withstand harsh conditions and impact, thanks to its military-grade construction. Constructed to military standards for heat, water exposure, and shock, it’s likely this little device will outlast you on a hike.

It runs on two AAA batteries, so ensure you take spares along if you’re going on a long hike. In GPS mode, this device can last for up to 48 hours, plenty of time for shorter hikes. In UltraTrac or normal Watch mode, it can last for up to 7 days.

The 4-color, 2-inch grayscale display screen is surprisingly easy to read in most conditions. It has a decent resolution, twice that of the previous version.

You won’t be able to track your fitness activities or anything like that on this device. It has one purpose and it serves it well—to be an on-wrist GPS device.

You can, however, track your routes, share your location, mark your location on the map, and connect to a variety of other Garmin monitors if necessary.

Also, despite its chunky size, it weighs just 3.1 oz, so it’s not going to weigh you down while you’re wearing it. You can also customize the menus so you see all the settings you like on your wrist.

Why We Like It

This wrist-based GPS unit handles rain, snow, heat, cold, bumps, and drops. You most likely won’t need to buy a new one for many years! The battery life is excellent as well.

What to Consider

This device is bulky. If you aren’t a fan of chunky watches, you may find that even though it’s light, this GPS unit feels uncomfortable on your wrist. Things like getting a hoodie sleeve over it could be tricky.

What’s New

The 601 is an upgrade from the 401, and there have been some noticeable changes. Its durability standards have increased, with a more waterproof design.

The screen has increased in resolution—by 2x—and is notated as one of the biggest improvements over the previous version. It now has a blue backlight as opposed to the 401’s orange.

Battery life is also extended to offer more time than the previous version. The wrist strap design has also changed slightly, now being fed through the back of the device and you can buy a new strap if necessary.


  • Robust design can withstand harsh activity and repeated blunt force impacts
  • 4-color grayscale display is easy to read in a variety of conditions
  • Lets you share your location via cellular coverage with your loved ones
  • Easy to access and replace AAA batteries


  • Some may not like the bulkiness of this device on their wrist

Best With Music

4. Garmin Fenix 7

Love to hike with music? The Garmin Fenix 7 is a great choice. Although it comes in a solar option (see above), the regular 7 is a more affordable option if you aren’t planning on doing long hikes.

What We Like

With 16 GB of internal storage, you’ll never run out of space for your favorite music and podcasts on a hike. No need to take an extra device just to listen to music anymore!

The general battery life is excellent—up to 18 days in smartwatch mode, 56 days in battery saver mode, 57 hours with GPS, and 40 days with expedition GPS.

You can expect slightly less battery life if you’re playing your music consistently. However, Garmin PowerManage will help you make the most of your battery life.

It’s got top-of-the-line navigation features that can assist you on tricky technical terrain, it can withstand harsh conditions, and it looks good on your wrist.

You’ll also get a variety of fitness features, including a profile for almost every form of exercise you can think of. We love the “resume later” feature, in case you’re interrupted.

These come with advanced health-tracking stats, including sleep metrics, recovery status, and stress levels. Everything you need for hiking—complete with great tunes.

Why We Like It

With both excellent GPS and onboard music features, this watch is everything you need if you like to hike while listening to your favorite songs.

What to Consider

If you’re buying this watch specifically for the music, it’s a fine choice. But you should note that the songs you load onto the watch play in a predetermined order—either in the order in which you load them onto the watch or in a randomized order.

It seems that you’re unable to select a particular song to play. If you’re a fan of randomized playlists, you’ll love it. If not, you might find this feature annoying.


  • Onboard music lets you listen to songs and podcasts on the move
  • 16 GB of internal storage for music, fitness, and map fitness data
  • Battery-saving features help you extend your battery life
  • Excellent GPS navigation for venturing into technical terrain


  • Songs play in a predetermined order

Top Suunto

5. Suunto 9 Baro

Watch brands are as different as shoe brands. If you’re a fan of Suunto watches, we highly recommend the Suunto 9 Baro for hiking.

What We Like

The Suunto 9 Baro is packed with features that will make your hike easier and more enjoyable. It works with four satellite navigation systems—GPS, GLONASS, QZSS, and BEIDOU.

One of the best GPS-related features is the ability to choose between four different GPS recording rates—best, good, OK, and low.

Each of these records your GPS location at a different time interval—best is every second, good is every minute, and so on. Naturally, good, OK, and low are less accurate, but they have a huge impact on battery life.

As an example, “best” allows you 25 hours, while “good” allows you 50 hours. The remaining two give you even more battery life. If you’re in a pinch, changing this up could save your battery while still allowing you access to GPS.

You can create your own route maps in the smartphone app with turn-by-turn directions. But take note that you will have to do this before your hike, it helps if there’s a drop in GPS signal while you’re hiking.

Other useful hiking features include breadcrumb navigation, Snap to Route feature, point of interest navigation, storm alert notifications, and FusedAlti—which combines GPS and barometric pressure to tell you your altitude.

As well as excellent GPS functions, you’ll get over 80 preloaded sports profiles, music storage, and notifications from your phone.

If you find this watch to be too bulky for you, the Suunto 9 Peak is the smaller and lighter version.

Why We Like It

This watch offers all the features you need for a hike, including a brilliant battery life and a variety of GPS features.

What to Consider

The Suunto 9 Baro is a “top-heavy” watch, which may cause some bounce if you’re navigating over rough terrain. This can impact the accuracy of the heart rate monitor, so if you place a lot of emphasis on your HR, you may want to pair it with a chest strap for more accurate readings.

What’s New

The Suunto 9 is the upgraded version of the Suunto Spartan. One of the most appreciated new features of this watch is the universal strap. You can now replace the strap with any other of the same size.

You can now change your battery performance option mid-workout without needing to stop your activity. They have also added intelligent battery warnings that can notify you of potential low battery problems the day before a long workout.

Other welcomed upgrades include: an optical heart rate sensor, an increased battery life, and a new Sony GPS chipset.


  • Create your own routes with turn-by-turn directions, even in areas where GPS signal may be challenging
  • Great battery life that can be extended with power-saving options
  • Storm alert notifications let you move to safe areas before weather conditions change
  • New interchangeable band lets you personalize your watch


  • The HR accuracy can be up and down, as the watch is quite heavy and may bounce

Best for Women

6. Garmin Instinct 2S

All the features of the Garmin Instinct, but in a more compact design. Perfect for a woman’s wrist!

What We Like

The Garmin Instinct 2S features a 40 mm diameter, one of the smaller watches available on the market.

It’s also just 13.3 mm thick and weighs just 42 grams, making it a lovely compact watch for those who have petite wrists or just like a watch that’s more compact-looking.

The Instinct 2S is made for rough outdoor use, boasting a sporty design and a robust build. It’s constructed to US military standards—water-resistant to 100 meters, shock-resistant, and able to withstand both heat and cold.

We also like the Incident Detection feature, a great safety feature that can alert your loved ones in the event that you fall or have an accident.

GPS accuracy is on point, within just a few meters. This is useful if you want to know where you are during a hike or share your location with a loved one to let them know you’re safe.

However, navigation features are basic at best on this watch. You can create your own routes in Garmin Connect, which then offer tracking and back-to-start features on the watch, but the actual turn-by-turn function is very basic.

The monochrome display may seem like an old-school choice, but it has some pros. Not only is it easy to see in all conditions, but it also helps to save battery life that would otherwise go towards color graphics.

You’ll also be able to take advantage of things like activity profiles, stress level tracking, and Garmin Body Battery for recovery.

Why We Like It

The Instinct 2S is thoughtfully designed to be as comfortable on a smaller wrist as a larger one. It’s still packed with features and stands up to harsh outdoor conditions.

What to Consider

While the GPS tracking on the watch is excellent and accurate, the navigation features are somewhat lacking. They’re there, but not extremely accurate.

Best for those who want GPS tracking but not turn-by-turn instructions!

What’s New

The Instinct 2S is slimmer than the original Instinct. There’s been an excellent upgrade to the display, which is now 176 x 176 pixels, as opposed to the previous version’s 128 x 128 pixels.

The newer version also comes in brighter colors and includes some dual-color watches as well.


  • Thoughtful and adventure-inspiring build that’s perfect for smaller wrists
  • Display is clearly visible in all lighting conditions
  • GPS is accurate to within a handful of meters
  • Body Battery measures your overall energy levels


  • GPS is great, but navigation features are very basic

Top Long-Lasting Battery

7. Coros Vertix 2

If battery life is what you’re after, then COROS is the brand you should be looking at. They’re leading the market with their long-lasting battery life and the Vertix 2 is an excellent choice for hikers.

What We Like

The COROS Vertix 2 offers more than twice the battery life of our top choice, the Garmin Fenix 7.

In regular GPS mode, you can get up to 140 hours out of a single charge. If you switch to Ultra tracking mode, you can extend that 240 hours.

Using the dual-GNSS function will allow you 50 hours of run time, while regular smartwatch mode can run for up to 2 months before needing a recharge.

Speaking of the dual-GNSS function, this feature helps you get the most accurate GPS tracking in challenging conditions, even when the GPS signal is questionable.

One of COROS’ best features is their easy-to-navigate interface and adjustability. You can set the watch so you can view up to 8 data fields in one screen, perfect for checking your metrics at a glance.

Why We Like It

The battery life of the Vertix 2 is exceptional. You’ll never have to worry about your battery draining on a hike, even if you head out with it only half-charged.

What to Consider

This device is not compatible with ANT+ sensors. This may not impact you if you’re not planning on connecting anything else, but if you’re also going to be using your watch for running or cycling, this is a big con.

If you already own ANT+ sensors, we advise choosing another watch, unless you’re willing to replace your sensors with new ones that are compatible with the watch.

Also, some people may feel that the 51 mm case is too big for their liking. It can also contribute to accidental button pressing due to its size when the wrist joint bends.

What’s New

This watch has many new features. You can now download maps for free directly onto the watch—you will need to do this on your computer and transfer them to the watch.

The addition of MP3 file support is new, with 32 GB of storage. Also new is the ability to control an Insta360 Action Cam from your watch.

Other new features include dual-GNSS function, a makeshift ECG, heart rate variability capture, a new optical HR sensor, Widget Glances feature, Multi-Pitch Climbing Mode, and an increased battery life.


  • Excellent battery life with 140 hours in full GPS mode
  • 32 GB of onboard music storage
  • Can view up to 8 data fields at a glance without having to scroll
  • Dual-GNSS functionality delivers accurate GPS tracking in the most challenging environments


  • No ANT+ compatibility, so it may not be able to connect to some sensors
  • The 51 mm case might be too big for some people

Best for Hiking and Running

8. Garmin Forerunner 955

If hiking and running are your two main activities, the Garmin Forerunner 955 is a great choice. It offers excellent features for both activities.

What We Like

With multi-band GPS and a good battery life, the Forerunner 955 is a great choice for hiking. You can get up to 42 hours when using it in GPS-only mode, 80 hours in UltraTrac mode, and 8 ½ hours if you use all-systems GPS, multi-band, and music at the same time.

The watch also supports full-color maps, with turn-by-turn navigation for finding your way to any destination.

As well as the excellent tracking and navigation features, you’ll get an array of excellent running-related features with this watch.

Training Readiness is a training-specific function similar to Body Battery. It measures your readiness for a hard training session by analyzing your sleep, recent training load, recovery time, HRV, and other metrics. This allows the watch to offer suggestions on an appropriate workout for the day.

If you pair it with an external sensor, you can track your running power in real-time, which can be helpful for measuring progress.

The watch also uses training zones that can help you adjust your power to suit your goals. The Race Calendar and Race Predictor are also handy features for those who run competitively.

A nice touch is that the touchscreen locks automatically during activity, so you never have to worry about accidentally ending your run early and losing data.

Why We Like It

This watch has all the right features for people who both hike and run to track performance, progress, and GPS.

What to Consider

Unfortunately, the Native Running Power feature isn’t entirely native. You still need to be connected to an external power sensor for it to work, which may put some people off of getting this watch.

What’s New

Compared to the previous Forerunner 945, there have been many upgraded features. It now features a touchscreen and the option to choose a solar-powered watch.

Multi-band GPS support and a new Map Manager increase the effectiveness of the GPS features.

For running, there are many new features, including Native Running Power, training zones, Training Readiness, acute load, race calendar, race predictor, Up Ahead feature, and real-time stamina.

You will also get a Morning Report, which summarizes your sleep, your HRV throughout the night, the weather forecast for the day, a suggested workout, and a race day reminder.


  • Features Training Readiness which helps you guide your workouts
  • Lets you track your running power in real-time
  • Touchscreen is automatically disabled during tracked activities
  • Built-in maps and multi-band GPS function for accuracy


  • The Native Running Power feature needs an external sensor to work

Top Lightweight Watch

9. Polar Grit X Pro

When you’re on a hike, you want a lightweight, unobtrusive watch on your wrist, that also has dedicated hiking features. The Polar Grit X Pro is ideal.

What We Like

At 79 grams, the Polar Grit X Pro is a lightweight choice for a highly durable GPS watch. Although it’s light, the design is rugged and attractive, with a 47 mm case.

Despite its weight, it can handle tough conditions, with a sapphire glass display that can withstand bumps, is water-resistant down to 328 feet, and runs without hitch in temperatures between -4 and 122 ℉.

If you do need to use it in extreme conditions, the combination of a touchscreen and buttons makes it easy to use with or without gloves.

On a full charge, you can get 100 hours of GPS use. In standby mode, the watch can last for up to 7 days before needing to be recharged.

It makes use of 4 satellite systems to provide you with the most accurate tracking possible. A newly added feature is Back to Start navigation, which can be handy when hiking.

We also like the nutrition and drinking reminders. When on a hike, it can be easy to forget to stay hydrated and fueled, so this feature is appreciated.

Why We Like It

For a highly durable GPS watch, the Polar Grit X Pro is lightweight and easy to wear. It can withstand harsh conditions and has handy extras, like the hydration reminders.

What to Consider

The screen isn’t very easy to read in most conditions. You often need to turn on the backlight just to read it, which may be a deal-breaker for some.

Also, you’re unable to customize the watch faces, which is a standard feature on many other watches.

What’s New

Sapphire glass has been added to the Grit X Pro to increase the durability. You can now use Galileo and QZSS satellite tracking systems as well as GPS and GLONASS.

There’s also a new route selection option, an elevation page, and a Back To Start routing option. Recovery Pro has also been added, as have a range of new fitness tests.

The Grit X Pro is also a little more expensive than the original Grit X.


  • Lightweight, rugged, and attractive design
  • Features Back To Start navigation function
  • Nutrition and fueling reminders throughout your activity
  • Both a touchscreen and dedicated buttons make it easy to use even with gloves


  • The screen isn’t the best quality and you need to turn on the backlight in many different conditions
  • Unable to customize watch faces

Senior couple hiking in natural landscape

What to Look for in a Hiking GPS Watch

Many GPS watches can be used for hiking, but the best watches have specific features that provide the biggest benefit when out on the trail.

GPS itself provides time (both current time and how long you’ve been hiking), pace, and how far you’ve hiked. A good hiking GPS watch should come equipped with an altimeter, barometer, and compass (also known as ABC sensors). These will help you navigate and alert you to potential weather changes.

The more advanced GPS watches will have maps and breadcrumb routes showing you the path where you’ve hiked. These watches also allow you to program waypoints (landmarks along your hiking route) on the watch.

In addition, a long battery life is key in case you are on an overnight camping trip or get lost. It should be waterproof in case of accidental submersion or rain. And alarms that can be set for reminders or waking you up on overnight camping trips.

Altimeter, Barometer, Compass (ABC)

These three features are key functions your hiking GPS watch should have. They’ll help you with finding your way, provide insight into shifting weather patterns and provide elevation information.


Altimeters measure elevation.

This is useful when hiking for two purposes: first, it’s another navigational tool. If you know your elevation, you can use a topographical map and a landmark (a trail, stream, or other spot on a map) to find your location. Just look at the topographical ridge that lines up with your elevation and match that to the stream or trail on the map.

Second, knowing your elevation provides guidance on how much further you need to climb or descend. If you’re trying to summit a peak, knowing your elevation tells you how far you’ve climbed and how much further you need to go before the top. It also helps to determine if you’ve reached a false summit or pass.

GPS watches measure elevation two ways. The first is with GPS alone. The satellites simply measure the distance between you and the center of the satellites orbiting above you. But due to certain mathematical limitations, it’s not unusual to see elevation readings fluctuate by 30-75 feet at any given time.

For this reason, better GPS watches measure altitude using a barometer. A barometer measures atmospheric pressure and uses that information to calculate elevation. What you get are steadier, more accurate readings.

One limitation is that air pressure can change, especially in shifting weather. It’s advised to re-calibrate the barometer at known locations like your starting point or other landmarks on your path.


Many people use a barometer and altimeter interchangeably as they are closely tied together to determine elevation. But for hiking and camping, a barometer also serves a separate function.

Because a barometer measures atmospheric pressure, it can be used to monitor weather changes. If the air pressure suddenly drops, it’s a clear sign that a storm or rain is moving in. Obviously, if you are aware of this, you can try to find someplace nearby to seek shelter. And if the barometric reading is steady or slowly climbing while you are stuck in the rain, it means the rain should be ending soon.


The third part of ABC, the compass, is used to find your direction and helps with navigating. The best GPS watches have an electric compass which acts in the same manner as a magnetic compass.

When you have GPS engaged, watches without an electric compass can still provide north/south/east/west direction; however, it only works if you are moving. The problem is that GPS needs two GPS data points to determine direction. If you are standing still, it doesn’t work. But an electric compass will – just like a magnetic compass.

We won’t get into the details of how to use a compass or why it’s important to carry one. But you might be wondering why you still need to navigate with a compass if you’ve got GPS. Isn’t that half the reason for using GPS? After all, as we’ll explore below, the best GPS watches show your position on a map and allow you to plot a route to follow – or show the route from where you’ve come.

But having GPS turned on all the time isn’t always practical. One downside to using GPS is it sucks up a lot of battery power. If you are going for an all-day hike or multi-day camping trip, you might not want GPS on all the time. In these cases, it’s more practical to use an old fashioned paper map and compass to find your way.

Long Battery Life

As we just mentioned, GPS uses a lot of battery power. So while there may be times when you want to conserve the battery and turn off GPS – having a long battery life minimizes the frequency in which you might want to do so.

Most GPS watches last about 10-14 hours in GPS mode. This varies per watch and changes depending on the watch settings used. But some of the better watches on the market have a battery life of up to 24 hours in GPS mode. These watches are usually more expensive but do come loaded with tons of features.

A few of the GPS watches we reviewed also have a setting called Ultra-trac (or something similar). These limit the number of GPS readings the watch takes. This allows you to conserve battery power while still keeping GPS functions on. The downside is that you won’t get accurate distance or pace readings because the watch GPS isn’t tracking an accurate path on the trail.

Maps, Waypoints, and Breadcrumb Routes

The best hiking GPS watches include tools to help navigate beyond elevation readings and a compass.

Waypoint Example

Breadcrumb Map Example

The most common feature you’ll find are waypoints. These are specific locations you can mark on the watch map or route. They can be programmed directly on the watch when you are at known location, or set on a computer and uploaded to the watch.

When you are hiking, you can see how far you are from various waypoints and the direction you need to hike to get there. Usually, the distance and direction are calculated as if you could walk there in a straight line. So they are better used as general guidelines rather than true navigational features.

Breadcrumb Map on Suunto

There are some watches that also provide a breadcrumb map or route. These will show a simple, dotted line that represents where you’ve just hiked from. Some GPS watches allow you to upload a route on the watch, so you can not only see where you’ve hiked, but the route you need to follow. Additionally, these breadcrumb maps also display waypoints on the route.

Garmin and Suunto watches have a feature called TracBack that provides directions to retrace your steps back the way you came. When turned on, you’ll see a directional arrow pointing the way along the route. You’ll also see how far it is back with an ETA of how long it will take to arrive back at your starting point. If you make a wrong turn or take a different path back, the watch directs you back onto the route in the shortest way possible.

Color map on Garmin fenix 

At the high-end of the spectrum, GPS watches like the fenix have built-in color topo maps on the watch itself. You can easily see where you are on the map. A nice addition is that important information like distance and speed are overlaid on the map – so you don’t need to switch back and forth between different screens.


A good hiking GPS watch needs to be waterproof. If you get caught in a thunderstorm, you don’t want to worry about the watch malfunctioning because of water damage. At the same time, if you accidentally submerge it in a stream or lake, you want the peace of mind that it will continue to work correctly.


Alarms are useful for camping. They’ll ensure you don’t oversleep and keep you on track before your day begins.


The Russian satellite system, known as GLONASS, is very similar to the US-based GPS satellites originally launched into orbit. A good hiking watch will be compatible with GPS and GLONASS simultaneously for more accurate GPS tracking, ensuring your location, speed, and distance are as accurate as possible.


When Do I Need a GPS Watch?

A GPS watch is not an absolute necessity when it comes to general hiking day outings. However, it can be extremely useful in long, multi-day hikes or more technical hikes.

Are GPS Watches Good for Hiking?

GPS watches are an excellent piece of equipment for a hiker to have. They offer a variety of handy features, including a compass, a barometer, an altimeter, maps, and real-time tracking.

They also usually have other non-hiking features that you can use for your other fitness activities, as well as handy things like getting your notifications on your wrist.

Do You Need a GPS When Hiking?

If you prefer to hike the old-fashioned way, with a compass and a paper map, then you don’t need a GPS. In fact, having a paper map and compass with you when hiking is an excellent failsafe in case your GPS batteries die.

But a GPS device—watch or handheld—can provide additional information thanks to their satellite connections; such as your pace, your distance to your destination, and even sometimes approaching bad weather.

How Does a GPS Watch Work?

The GPS on your watch uses a satellite navigation system—known as Global Positioning System—to pinpoint your position. This constant exchange of signals between your watch and the satellite is how it tracks your movement.

Algorithms built into the watch can then use this data to work out your real-time speed, direction, and elevation, as well as other information that may be relevant on your hike.

Ben Drew

Ben Drew

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.

The Wired Runner