Best GPS Watches for Hiking in 2018
After reviewing dozens of GPS hiking watches, we’ve found the top watches for 2018. A good GPS watch for hiking should offer navigation tools like ABC sensors (altimeter, barometer, compass) as well as 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 are only interested in basic GPS functions that provide pace, distance, and how long you’ve been hiking, a budget GPS watch will be fine.
But 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.
GPS Hiking Watch Comparison
Best GPS Watch for Hiking
Garmin fenix 5X
The Garmin fenix 5X is our top GPS hiking watch in 2018. It comes with great hiking features like an altimeter, barometer, and compass (ABC sensors). It’s one of the few GPS watches with real topo maps. And it has a ton of other features that are incredibly useful for hiking.
Topo maps come pre-loaded on the fenix 5X. While you’re hiking, the watch displays your exact spot on the map. You can load routes to the watch before you leave to see your path on the map. As you hike, you can see where you are along that route in real-time.
Like some of the other watches we’ll review, you can add waypoints. Waypoints are specific locations, usually points of interest. This could be a summit, landmark, camping spot, trail head, or where you parked your car. Once you specify a waypoint, the fenix 5X tells you where you are in relation to the waypoint, how far away it is, and an ETA of how long it will take to get there. Waypoints can be added ahead of time or on the fly.
ABC sensors (altimeter, barometer, compass) provide elevation data and directional information right on the watch. In addition to improving elevation accuracy, the fenix 5X uses the barometer to provide storm alerts when there are sudden changes in pressure. It also tracks barometric trends to help monitor weather.
The fenix 5X has a long battery life – up to 24 hours in GPS mode. GPS uses up tons of battery power, so it’s important to have a long battery while hikking. The battery life in the fenix 5X is one of the longest GPS watch batteries on the market. There is also an UltraTrac mode which extends battery life even more, though GPS accuracy takes a big hit in this mode.
The fenix 5X includes alarms, sunrise/sunset times, and is waterproof to 100 meters, keeping it protected from rain or accidental water submersion.
Finally, the fenix 5X is a nice looking watch. Suitable for everyday wear or hiking. And it can be used for a variety of other activities like running, cycling, paddling, skiing, and golf.
Runner-up Best GPS Hiking Watch
Garmin fenix 5S & 5, and Forerunner 935
Three watches come in as our runner-up GPS hiking watch. Why three? They are basically the same. Each has near identical features and functionality, there are just small differences in size, appearance, and price.
The fenix 5S, fenix 5, and Forerunner 935 are almost as good as the fenix 5X. But they lack topo and street maps found on the fenix 5X. Instead, they rely solely on the breadcrumb map. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as you can still get a ton of information about where you are from this type of map – it just doesn’t provide the same amount of detail and information as the topo maps on the fenix 5X.
But other navigational tools found on the fenix 5X are on these watches. This includes an altimeter, barometer, and compass; waypoints and routes that can be uploaded pre-hike; and a waterproof design and alarm features.
Battery-life is great for all 3 watches, although they vary a bit. The fenix 5S has up to 14 hours in GPS mode while the fenix 5 and 935 are on par with the fenix 5X and have up to 24 hours in GPS mode.
Physically, the fenix 5S is a bit smaller than the other two fenixs. Better for those with thin wrists. The 935 is thin and lightweight, but is made with a lighter plastic and isn’t as durable as the fenixs.
Like the fenix 5X, these GPS watches can be worn all the time or for other activities like running, cycling, paddle sports, and skiing.
Best Buy GPS Hiking Watch
The Suunto Traverse shares are lot of features found on Garmin’s fenix GPS watches. It helps with navigation, provides breadcrumb maps and routes, and has ABC sensors (altimeter, barometer, compass). And it costs about 40% less than the Garmin fenix 5.
Like Garmin, the Suunto Traverse can be used to plan routes and upload them to your watch. The app is called Movescount – you can plot routes and waypoints, then upload them to your watch. But Suunto also provides what they call a heat map – this is a map of common hiking trails compiled from other Suunto users. The brighter the lines, the more popular the trails. It’s a fun way to find new trails or routes in places you’re unfamiliar with.
Another feature unique to Suunto is FusedAlti. Elevation is measured by both GPS and barometric pressure and combined to provide the most accurate elevation reading possible. GPS elevation often fluctuates; and while the barometer is much more stable, it can change when the atmospheric pressure changes (like when a storm is coming). FusedAlti uses both to provide a stable and accurate elevation reading.
The Suunto Traverse checks off some of the other boxes we like in a hiking GPS watch. It’s got TrackBack to help you find your way back from where you started. It has a storm alarm alerting you to sudden weather changes. It’s water-resistant to 100 meters and has a long battery life (up to 15 hours in GPS mode).
And there are more basic alarms to wake you up on overnight trips. It also works with GLONASS and GPS for accurate position tracking and speed/distance measurments. There is even a feature to turn the backlight into a mini-flashlight.
Best for Listening to Music
Like the other watches we’ve covered, the Adventurer has ABC (altimeter, barometer, compass) sensors and uploadable routes to help you plan and navigate your hike. It’s water-resistant to 40 meters and has a decent battery life of 11 hours in GPS mode; up to 20 in hiking mode (which basically means less distance and pace accuracy, but longer battery life).
TomTom watches are known for their simple, one-button design and large, clear screen. The Adventurer also has a more durable casing than other TomTom watches.
And like all the watches we’ve covered, the Adventurer is suitable for other activities like running, cycling, and skiing. It also has an activity tracker to count steps and set daily step goals.
Most Durable Hiking GPS Watch
Garmin Foretrex 601
The brand-new Garmin Foretrex 601 has been constructed to be the toughest hiking GPS watch on the market. It’s built to military standards for heat, shock, and waterproof effectiveness. It also uses three satellite navigation systems (GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo) for the most accurate location tracking.
The Foretrex 601 has the most impressive battery life of all the watches we’ve looked at. It will last up to 48 hours in GPS mode and up to a week in the battery-conserving UltraTrac mode. Interestingly, the Foretrex 601 operates on tradition batteries rather than the lithium rechargeable batteries found in other GPS watches.
Beyond batter-life, it includes ABC (altimeter, barometer, compass) sensors and breadcrumb mapping and waypoints. It’s also very budget friendly, costing about half as much as the fenix 5 watches.
The biggest downside – and why it’s not our top hiking GPS watch – is that it’s bulky. The Foretrex 601 is nearly an inch thick. Contrast this to the fenix 5X, itself a big and bulky watch, which is just over a 1/2 inch thick. It’s not a watch you’d want to wear anywhere but outdoors.
Best Discontinued GPS Watch for Hiking
Suunto Ambit3 Vertical
For one, the battery-life is better. 30 hours in the Ambit3 vs 20 hours in the Traverse in GPS mode. The Ambit3 comes with ABC sensors and similar breadcrumb and route navigation like the Traverse.
You lose a couple nicer features in the Ambit3. There is no TrackBack function or real-time breadcrumb map. This makes it harder to navigate back to where you started if you haven’t pre-loaded a route onto the watch. The Ambit3 doesn’t have the backlight flashlight or vibration alerts. But we don’t consider those major losses.
When it was original introduced in 2014, the Ambit3 was a strong hiking and sport watch, capable of tracking and navigating both long and short trips. Three years later, it’s still a strong watch. And since it’s been discontinued, you can find it at a great price on Amazon.
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 a 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.
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.
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.
At the high-end of the spectrum, GPS watches like the fenix 5X 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.