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Best GPS Watches for Hiking in 2020

 

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

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.

Top 3 Best and Favorites

 

Garmin fenix 6X Pro Solar

 

  • Pre-loaded topo maps
  • ABC sensors
  • Long battery life
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Suunto Traverse Alpha

 

  • Most accurate elevation reading possible
  • GLONASS and GPS
  • Mini-flashlight
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Garmin Foretrex 601

 

  • Toughest hiking GPS watch
  • GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo
  • Impressive battery life
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Best GPS Watch for Hiking

1. Garmin fenix 6X Pro Solar

The Garmin fenix 6X  Pro Solar is our top GPS hiking watch. 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 built into the watch. And it has a ton of other features that are incredibly useful for hiking.

Topo maps come pre-loaded on the fenix 6X. 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 6X 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 6X uses the barometer to provide storm alerts when there are sudden changes in pressure. It also tracks barometric trends to help monitor weather variation.

The fenix 6X has a long battery life and this version includes solar cells to increase battery while in use. It’ll get up to an amazing 66 hours in GPS mode. GPS uses up tons of battery power, so it’s important to have a long battery while hiking.

The battery life in the fenix 6X is one of the longest GPS watch batteries on the market. There are battery saving modes plus an Expedition mode that further increases battery duration (at the expense of GPS accuracy).

The fenix 6X includes alarms, sunrise/sunset times, and is waterproof to 100 meters, keeping it protected from rain or accidental water submersion.

Finally, the fenix 6X 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.


PROS:

  • Incredible battery life
  • Great map and navigation features
  • Works well for activities like running, swimming, skiing, and golf
  • Nice looking, stylish watch

CONS:

  • Expensive
  • Did we say it’s expensive (luckily, there are other versions of the fenix, keeping reading…)

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Runner-up Best GPS Hiking Watch

2. Garmin fenix 6 & 6S

If you like the battery life and mapping from the fenix 6X, there are less expensive versions in the 6 and 6S. These two versions are basically the same, but the 6S is a bit smaller and fits better on thin wrists.

The fenix 6 and 6S are almost as good as the fenix 6X. They have the topo and street maps found on the fenix 6X. They also have the altimeter, barometer, and compass; waypoints and routes that can be uploaded pre-hike; and a waterproof design and alarm features.

Battery life is the biggest difference between them. As you would expect, without solar power to extend the battery, it doesn’t last as long in these two watches. And because of its smaller size (i.e. less room to store a larger battery), the 6S has the weakest battery of the bunch.

But with that said, both the fenix 6 and 6S still have awesome batteries. The fenix 6 will get up to 36 hours in GPS mode while the 6S will get about 25 hours in GPS mode. Like the 6X, you can change modes to extend the battery.

Editor’s Note: The fenix 6 and 6S now come in Solar versions. So longer battery, more expensive – still not as expensive as the 6X Solar Pro.

Physically, the fenix 6S is smaller than the other two fenixs. Better for those with thin wrists. 

Like the fenix 6X, these GPS watches can be worn all the time or for other activities like running, cycling, paddle sports, and skiing. They look stylish and the bands can be swapped out easily.


PROS:

  • Great map and navigation features
  • Awesome battery life
  • Can be worn on trail or in office

CONS:

  • Expensive

Best Buy GPS Hiking Watch

3. Suunto Traverse Alpha

The Suunto Traverse Alpha 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 a lot less than any of the fenix watches.

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 measurements. There is even a feature to turn the backlight into a mini-flashlight.


PROS:

  • Nice looking watch
  • Good battery
  • Many color/style options

CONS:

  • Can be buggy

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Top Suunto Hiking Watch

4. Suunto 9 Baro

The Suunto 9 is a stylish, minimalistic watch. Although these are more than 80 sports modes, the Suunto 9 has some unique features making it a great choice to accompany you on your hikes as well as your exercising.

The 9 Baro comes with a built-in barometer for increased elevation accuracy.

The battery life is one of those features. It has intelligent battery mode, which will switch modes automatically to save power so you can get the most out of the battery. There are three different modes (Performance, Endurance and Ultra) and it can last up to 120 hours on a charge.

Suunto FusedTrack is their GPS technology, and they’ve made it much easier for hikers to use by making it available offline. They combine their GPS tracking with motion sensors to bring you a tracking experience unlike any other. The bonus is that you aren’t constantly using your GPS and spending battery power.

The weather tracker is another very useful feature for hikers to have. If you aren’t sure what to expect on a day of hiking, the Suunto will ease your mind and help you have a great day out, or maybe help you avoid getting stuck in a thunderstorm on a mountainside instead.

It measures your heart rate using the wrist pulse sensor, and it’s also waterproof up to 100 meters so if you need to jump in a mountain pool to cool off, you don’t even need to remove your watch.


PROS:

  • Intelligent battery mode
  • Waterproof up to 100 meters
  • Weather tracker and built-in barometer
  • Wrist HR monitor

CONS:

  • You may find it difficult to pair with some devices

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Most Durable Hiking GPS Watch

5. Foretrex 601

The 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 an impressive battery life. 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 traditional batteries rather than the lithium rechargeable batteries found in other GPS watches. This helps on long treks when you don’t want to hassle with using a power bank to recharge your watch.

Beyond batter-life, it includes ABC (altimeter, barometer, compass) sensors and breadcrumb mapping and waypoints. It’s also very budget-friendly, costing a fraction of the fenix 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 6X, 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.


PROS:

  • Long battery
  • Extremely durable
  • Accurate GPS
  • Large screen (but see the Cons…)

CONS:

  • Bulky
  • Low res screen

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Best Sportwatch for Hiking

6. Suunto 3

The Suunto 3 is a great-looking watch that you can wear to work or dinner as well as on the sports field or in the mountains. It comes in a variety of colors to suit every taste.

The battery life is noticeably less than the more recent models that feature FusedTrack, because this watch uses full GPS. You can get up to 30 hours of use in GPS mode, which is still impressive and more than enough for a full day of hiking. If you’re just using it in Active mode, you can get up to 5 days on a single charge.

If you connect to the Suunto mobile app you can also track the speed and distance of your hikes. The watch also allows you to create personal training plans in a wide range of sports, so you can reach your desired fitness level, which will help your hiking progress.

It has a color display with 5 buttons, is waterproof to 30 meters and tracks activity 24 hours a day.


PROS:

  • Stress and recovery tracking
  • Adaptive training guidance
  • Sleep quality and tracking
  • Connects to Suunto app

CONS:

  • Some may find that the screen is difficult to read in sunlight

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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.

Altimeter

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.

Barometer

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.

Compass

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.

Waterproof

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

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

GLONASS

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.

The Wired Runner