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.
Top 3 Best and Favorites
Best Overall – Trail Running and Ultramarathons
1. Garmin fenix 5 Plus 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 Plus provides color topo maps to help navigate and find your way. Routes can be uploaded ahead of time. For trail runners, the watch syncs with Garmin Connect to find runs popular with other Garmin users.
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.
The fenix 5 Plus 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.
What separates the fenix 5 Plus from the original fenix 5 are contact-less payments. Like an Apple Watch, make payments directly with the fenix. You can also store and play music without carrying a phone. And unlike the original fenix 5 series, all 3 versions of the fenix 5 Plus include color topo maps (topo maps only came on the fenix 5X when first released).
Best Overall – Honorable Mention
2. Garmin Forerunner 935
If the fenix 5 price seems too daunting, the Forerunner 935 is a great option.
It’s much 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.
Longest Battery Life
3. Suunto 9 Baro
If battery life is a concern, Suunto has topped every GPS watch on the market with the Suunto 9 Baro. While this isn’t an inexpensive watch, it has by far the longest battery life at 25 to 125 hours. And this is with wrist heart rate monitoring, which notoriously chews up battery power. It’s perfect for those 100 mile races and other long distance endurance events.
The Suunto 9 has multiple tracking modes to save battery power. The more conservative battery modes lose a bit of tracking accuracy. But what’s neat is that you can change modes in the middle of your run. The watch provides an estimate of how much charge is left – if you think that won’t be enough to get you through your run, you can switch to a more conservative power mode mid-run.
Even better, the Suunto 9 uses your past activity history to estimate how much power you’ll need for your next run. If it thinks you won’t have enough, it gives you a charge reminder to make sure you plug your watch in before your next run.
The Suunto 9 also introduces a new feature called Fusedtrack. This function combines GPS data with motion sensing data to provide an accurate track while conserving battery power.
From a durability standpoint, the Suunto 9 is designed to last. It’s tough and can withstand the pounding it’s going to take out on the trail.
Like many other GPS watches, the Suunto 9 tracks traditional GPS information along with elevation, wrist heart rate, and with its built-in barometer can track weather changes. Also expect great navigation features like breadcrumb maps and an electronic compass.
For multisport athletes, it records open and pool swims and is compatible with bike accessories like a cadence sensor and power meter. But with over 80 types of sport modes, this watch is perfect for a variety of outdoor activities.
Top Polar Trail Running Watch
4. Polar Vantage 5
Polar changed athletic watches years ago with their heart rate monitoring technology. They continue that tradition with the Vantage 5, this time with the most accurate wrist heart rate monitor available. But they pack in enough extra features to make this a nice trail running watch.
While Polar has been a late adopter to the wrist heart rate trend, they’ve come out with a new way to track heart rate that’s more precise than other wrist heart rate monitors. They use skin contact to factor in movements that might otherwise provide a less accurate heart rate reading. The result? Less misreads and better data.
Running power – an alternative to heart rate for tracking intensity – is built-in to the Vantage 5. Other watches like Garmin’s fenix 5 and Forerunner 935 measure power. But only with a separate pod that must be worn on the waist. The Vantage 5 tracks running power without additional accessories.
For trail running, we like the battery life on the Vantage 5. It should last around 40 hours in GPS and heart rate mode. Right up there with the fenix 5 Plus. The Vantage 5 also includes a barometer for accurate elevation readings.
At the time of this writing, the Vantage 5 lacks route navigation found on Garmin’s and Suunto’s watches. However, a firmware update in early 2019 should fix that. Route uploads and waypoint navigation are set to be added in the near future.
The Vantage 5 has a clear display. Its thin design makes it lightweight. Though it may not be as durable as the fenix 5 or Suunto 9. And price-wise, it’s close to the cost of the fenix 5 or Suunto 9.
Top Lightweight Watch with Wrist Heart Rate
5. 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
6. Suunto Spartan Sport
Suunto’s Spartan Sport wins with its long battery life and rugged, durable features. The Spartan Sport was expensive when first released, but it has since been discontinued and can be found at nearly 50% off.
The Spartan Sport has a slim and lightweight design. It’s not only great for trail running, but it can track various other activities including pool and open water swimming, cycling, and hiking.
While the watch has a basic breadcrumb map to navigate on the trail, you can route or find other tracks using Suunto’s app: Movescount.
While there’s no barometers for accurate elevation, it still tracks ascents and descents with GPS elevation.
The Spartan Sport also has a large display that’s easy to read. Battery life lasts 10-80 hours depending on exact settings. More accurate GPS tracking results in a shorter battery life. But adjust the settings and you get a longer battery.
Basic GPS Watch with Extra Features and Long Battery
7. Garmin Forerunner 235
For a better basic GPS watch, the Garmin Forerunner 235 is a great option. It has a large, color display. Along with basic GPS data, you can upload customized workouts onto the watch.
Like the Forerunner 35, the 235 doesn’t track elevation or have 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 235 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.
For tracking heart rate, the 235 has wrist heart rate monitoring, like the Forerunner 35.
Overall, the Forerunner 235 is a pretty simple watch to use. And it has enough extra features to justify the higher price.
Best Non-GPS Trail Running Watch
8. 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, Durable
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.