Traditionally, tracking fitness or time involved the use of stopwatches, charting progress on a graph paper, and for the devoted, it meant walking around with a pedometer.
Nowadays, however, you pretty much have to ask your smartphone not to track your steps. According to a recent study, nearly 27 million smart watches will be shipped by the end of 2022 and that will only increase in the next decade
We’ve an array of devices that will keep you informed of your position, distance traveled, track all your movements, and do much more.
A reliable GPS watch can offer top navigational features and long battery life set for multi-day adventures for people who love hiking, trail running, and other great outdoor activities.
I know a GPS watch might not be the first tracking device of your mind, especially when your smartphone or fitness tracker is at beck and call.
But here is the thing with GPS Watches; they’re ultra-niche navigational devices, suited for those who care much about accuracy for pace and distance.
A GPS watch will provide you with the most accurate look at how far you’ve wandered into the bush while backpacking and how fast you’re going, both while you’re running and after.
Of course, GPS watches aren’t the do-it-all devices as they also have their flaws. For instance, they may not excel at tracking like fitness trackers or provide notification interactions as smartwatches do.
But who needs notification while hiking or running?
I mean, for the needs of hikers and runners, having a GPS watch can help you enjoy your off-piste adventures in many ways than other GPS devices.
A good GPS watch has features handy on the trail. Many of these watches tend to overlap what hiking and trail watches have in common.
In particular, the navigation and elevation functions on these watches are just as useful in running as they’re on hiking.
Now, whether you’re all about trail running, hiking, or any other endurance sports, here’s a review of the best GPS watches for running and hiking.
Table of Contents
The Best GPS Watches for Running and Hiking For The Money
#1 Garmin Fenix 5 Sapphire - EDITOR'S CHOICE
The Garmin Fenix 5 is one of the most powerful multi-sport watches, blending some of the detailed metrics in a single device.
It’s superseded by the Fenix 5 Plus, but hikers and trail runners don’t need the upgrade yet because it still has a lot to offer.
It still maintains its predecessor’s performance, Fenix 3 HR, with a few tweaks here and there.
Size and design are the main areas addressed. The Fenix 5 makes better use of Garmin Connect IQ for a more personalized experience.
It costs a bomb, though, dwarfing most of its rivals, such as the TomTom Adventure and the new Garmin Vivoactive 3.
But how does it stack up?
Features and Benefits
I was worried the Fenix 5 wouldn’t fit my small wrists, but thanks to the gods of miniaturization that allowed the folks at Garmin to succeed in shrinking the watch from the previous iteration.
The Fenix 5 is smaller, lighter, and indeed more pleasant to wear.
At 47mm, it’s still massive but not as unwieldy as most GPS watches, and I find it easy to turn the watch into all-day wear.
And as you might have guessed from the design, Fenix 5 is designed for use in the deep wilderness and trail hikes. It’s super rugged and will take on a few dings, hits, and even submersion into the water at a depth of 100 m without compromising its integrity.
There’s a color screen, and the resolution looks a tad sharper than what we saw on its predecessor.
However, the screen could be a bit more reflective, especially in low light conditions. But generally, the 240 by 240 pixels resolution is good as is.
Like its step down, Fenix 3 HR, this option still has five buttons to control the menu but can feel confusing.
The greatest drawback, though, is the placement of the start/stop buttons, which easily snag on your sleeve, which might cause you to pause your hikes/runs unwittingly.
GPS watches don’t come more feature-packed than the Fenix 5, but it’s the sports track that steals the show.
It’s tough to find an activity you can’t monitor with the Fenix 5. The options range from the obvious such as running, cycling, swimming, to other activities such as golf, skiing, and- get this-even parachuting.
As a running watch, things don’t get any complete as with the Fenix 5, as running is arguably Fenix 5’s strongest suit.
Beyond the standard pace, splits, heart rate, and distance, Fenix 5 also provides live readouts and heart rate training. It allows you to set your zones and receive alarms if you drop them.
Recovery is also a big part of the running metrics. The Fenix 5 will advise on how much rest you need after every training session.
When you set off on your hike, Fenix 5 lets you access an array of handy metrics starting from pace, distance, time, elevation, and even live compass and mapping.
Overall, the watch offers a complete set of hiking features and even lets you add GPX route uploads.
In addition to sport and fitness tracking, the Fenix 5 does a fantastic smartwatch impression.
Notifications from your phone are pinged to your wrist, though you can’t read them in full.
But the good news is unlike FitBit GPS watches, Fenix 5 isn’t fussy about what it displays.
And when your phone is paired, you can also get updates such as weather and calendar events synced to the watch.
Fenix’s 5 shrink in size hasn’t affected the battery performance in any way.
The watch has a great battery life, which can last long to two weeks with the GPS turned off. So, for a day out and trips that won’t last more than a week, you can take the watch without a charger.
With GPS usage, the Garmin claims the watch has 24 hours, but we sadly can’t vouch for this as many users managed 14 hours.
#2 Garmin Fenix 3 HR - Best for Heart Rate Monitoring
The Garmin Fenix 3 HR is yet another impressive sports watch from Garmin, coming with everything you need for a GPS watch.
It has a look and feel of its predecessor, but with a heart rate, the monitor added… which is where the “HR” moniker comes from.
As with the Fenix 5 Sapphire, Fenix 3 HR is something of an all-rounder, perfect for different sports tracking activities such as running, swimming, hiking, cycling, and much more.
It also has data downloading settings for other activities such as paddling, golfing, and snowboarding.
Features and Benefits
The Garmin Fenix 3 HR is rugged and will stand up to accidental falls, knock, and dings.
Though chunky, it’s still an attractive GPS watch, and many users have no problem using it as a day-to-day wear as it straddles the line between geeky and large.
The only issue is you’ll have a job of trying to tuck it under a sleeve, so be sure to show it off before you strap the monster.
Another thing you won’t have to worry about is comfort. It’s an ideal GPS watch when training. The light silicone strap fits perfectly, granting you the best position for the heart rate monitor to work out effectively, without constricting your hand.
The only falter we found with this GPS watch lies in its weight. When looking to run a marathon or backpacking for long-distance, it may even be a factor for carrying extra weight.
There’s a rounded 218 by 218 pixels transflective color display, which is good enough at best.
It’s a bit dim and is hard to read in less illuminated environments. Only in bright direct sunlight is the display readable.
Nonetheless, it still does a decent job of displaying your performance metrics and is less prone to scratching.
When it comes to multi-sport tracking, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a watch with more on offer, the Fenix 3 HR.
The GPS watch works for various activities, starting from running, swimming, cycling, skiing, golfing, hiking to the gym, and more.
And if the list isn’t exhaustive for you, the watch allows you to make up your own by picking the data screens you want.
Fenix 3 HR also packs features such as a compass, barometer, accelerometer, and much more.
Overall, it will provide you with an all-inclusive tracking of your activities and provide you with even more accurate performance metrics.
Heart Rate Monitor
Wrist-based heart rate monitoring has always been a point of contention.
If you want super-accurate tracking, you can always connect your monitor to your chest.
But if you need a general guide for heart rate training everywhere you go, a wrist-based feature, such as the one on Garmin 3 HR, is what you need.
One benefit of the 3 HR’s heart rate monitor is I can go for a run and ride without carrying on strapping any cumbersome kit on my body.
I can also train within heart zones for active improvements, and while bpm may not be exact, it gives me a rough estimate.
Fenix 3 HR matches the tough look with rugged performance, living up to what you would expect.
The folks at Garmin say it can go for two weeks in smartwatch mode, 16 hours on GPS, and 40 hours in UltraTrac training.
User experiences can’t argue with the numbers, and even with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and heart rate all left on, the watch still keeps on going strong.
#3 Suunto Traverse - Easy to Use
Suunto Traverse is the most often recommended fitness watch with GPS capability.
It’s stylish, lightweight, and modern, so you can use it as all-day wear even when not trail hiking or running.
It’s tailored for outdoor use, so it can perfectly satisfy all the requirements of hikers and outdoor adventuring.
Feature and Benefits
Traverse is the first watch from Suunto, designed explicitly for outdoor use.
It’s the perfect pick for those who need a high-quality and reliable timepiece to wear during their adventure.
We love the watch for its incredible durability; it’s resistant to breakage, damage and will stand up to most of the outdoor abuses.
It’s also waterproof up to 100 meters, so you don’t have to worry about wearing it in the rain or even taking a swim with it.
The watch is easy to wear for most people, but if you’ve small wrists, you may find it a bit challenging to wear it for extended periods because of its bulk.
Accurate Satellite Navigation
Great navigation is key to keeping safe and ensuring enjoyable treks and hikes.
Fortunately, the Suunto Traverse has an integrated GPS/GLONASS navigation system that accurately pinpoints your location in all terrains.
As its name suggests, the watch helps you traverse the different hiking routes without the fear of getting lost.
Besides helping you orientate yourself quickly when in unknown territory, it lets you navigate a planned route and follow your progress in distance and altitude.
Like all our previously reviewed items, there’s a wealth of features integrated into this outdoor fitness tracker watch.
The watch makes a great purchase for anyone eyeing improving their fitness level in the outdoor environment while keeping an eye on their progress.
Some of the different settings available on the Suunto include altimeter, barometer, and compass.
The watch also has an in-build sensor capable of continuously measuring the air pressure and tracking your height inclination.
There’s also a weather trend indicator with a storm alarm function that keeps you aware of an impending storm when you’re out alone in the wild.
The final feature that rounds up all the awesome traits of this watch is a countdown timer or stopwatch that proves handy for runners.
Easy to Use
There’re numerous reasons we recommend the Suunto Traverse, but the ease of use steals the show.
While memorizing the five buttons’ functions requires some practice, I found operating the Traverse quite simple.
The instructions are bare bone, just enough to get the beginners started.
#4 Suunto 9 GPS Sports Watch - Best for Long Battery Life
Suunto launched its fifth-generation GPS watch series with the Suunto 9 in June 2018.
The Suunto 9 is a legitimate flagship product, improving and rivaling previous generations’ performance and features such as the Spartan and Ambit3.
It’s an accurate and richly featured watch, but its battery life steals the show. The watch has an awesome battery life and is perfect for those 100-mile races and other long-distance endurance events.
Features and Benefits
The Suunto 9 is a chunky beast, but it doesn’t feel ungainly or uncomfortable.
While the strap buckle occasionally digs into my wrist a little, it works well for most of the activities, including running, hiking, or mountaineering.
The watch is durable and rugged, so it’s also useful for cyclocross, mountain riding, or gravel riding, where the watch is prone to end up covered in dirt.
The 320 by 320 pixels display is easy to read even in low-light conditions. It has a backlit feature, handy when operating the watch in the dark.
The display can be set to go to sleep to conserve the battery when you’re not actively using the watch.
Suunto’s navigation ability isn’t the best in the market. You only get a breadcrumb trail of your planned route, with no base map.
However, you also get off-route notifications.
I found it easy enough to follow a route on the watch, despite the lack of turn-by-turn guidance. In case you stray off route, you can see the trace diverge from the planned direction, and once you’re on track, an arrowed prompt appears, ensuring you don’t double back.
The number of sports tracked by Suunto isn’t quite up to what we saw on the Fenix, but still incredible.
It can track most common sports such as running, cycling, triathlon, and pool swims. It also tracks weight training, circuit training, and several ski modes.
Our favorite tracking feature is the FusedSpeed, which algorithmically works out your speed when GPS data is unreliable.
It combines GPS and accelerometer data, which helps in offering a more accurate and reliable data experience.
In terms of breadth of data, this watch is super impressive. For instance, when you head out for a run, expect insights on distance, pace, cadence, and calories burned.
The watch is also big on ascent and descent, so it might be a great pick for those on hiking.
Keeping a smartwatch running can be a fly in the ointment.
Fortunately, Suunto has an impressive battery management technology promising a remarkable battery life of 25 to 125 hours depending on the battery mode you choose.
#5 Coros APEX - Best Value
Soros doesn’t come with many features, such as the Fenix 5 or Suunto Traverse, but it has the core GPS features you’ll need for trail running and hiking.
Along with fantastic battery life, accurate GPS, and elevation tracking, this watch is a great watch for the outdoor adventure.
Features and Benefits
Coros has a minimal, unfussy design that is smart enough for everyday wear.
Despite the small size, it feels like a premium Garmin watch, and more importantly, it doesn’t sacrifice the integrated features.
It’s lightweight, comfortable, and is pleasant to wear.
Many users, including the beginners, can fasten the supplied strap snugly on the notch, and the watch doesn’t dig into my wrist.
While the screen certainly won’t blow you away with brightness, it’s still easy to read the display in most lighting conditions.
The Coros APEX doesn’t perform any less good than the premium options for tracking performance.
It tracks all the usuals, including speed, time, pace, elevation gain/loss, cadence, heart rate, and weather.
The watch can also calculate other performance metrics such as V02Max and aerobic training efficiency to lactate threshold.
The heart rate monitoring is also effective, though not like the chest-strapped monitors. Nonetheless, it gives pretty accurate performance metrics without the discomfort that comes with the heart strapped monitors.
The battery life of the Coros is a big differentiator for Coros.
It has an excellent battery life, promising up to 25 hours of normal GPS mode and 80 hours of UltraMax GPS mode.
The watch can deliver up to 24 days for regular use. I find the watch doubling as the ideal timepiece for regular daily use.
Best GPS Watches for Running and Hiking Buying Guide
Buying the best GPS watch for running and hiking is mostly about not getting sucked into purchasing features you don’t need.
The modern-day devices come with an array of features, some of which you may never even use for a lifetime. Yet, you paid heavily for them.
To help you avoid costly purchase mistakes, we’ve compiled a detailed guide. We outline everything you need to know about buying the best GPS watch for your backpacking and running needs.
What to Consider When Selecting a GPS Watch for Running and Hiking
It’s often a pain to take out a physical map while trailing, so navigational features can be handy to keep you from getting lost.
While a watch can never replace the traditional map, some of the watches come with basic mapping features that should keep you along the right path.
When hiking, it’s easy to get stuck in bad weather or even get tripped up.
Your GPS watch should be tough, durable, and should survive the abuses of Mother Nature.
Apart from taking a few hits without breaking, it should also take submersion into the water without compromising its integrity.
Maps and Uploadable Routes
Besides the navigational abilities, the ideal GPS watch should also have maps uploaded on the watch.
High-end maps have color topo maps, and others simply have basic line maps, also known as breadcrumb maps.
Either way, these maps show where you are and where you need to go along a route. This way, it’s easier for runners and hikers to find and make turns easier.
In addition to the full routes, waypoints can also be added. These are predetermined locations like trailheads, landmarks, summits, lean-to, and pretty much anything else you want to designate.
*Pro-tip: Create waypoints at intersections as a visual reminder of when you need to make a turn.
Battery lie is a big deal when it comes to GPS watches.
Because many people rely on their watches to help with navigation, we want a watch with enough battery power to last through your entire run or hike.
Most of the watches will go for around a couple of weeks when GPS tracking isn’t in use.
But when in use, the battery life reduces drastically and may vary from as few as 8 hours to as high as 100 hours.
For ultra-runners, doing long 50 to 100 hours, it’s advisable to get a watch with extended battery power to last you through the entire race.
You can also carry a battery-pack charger to recharge on the fly during a race.
It’s all very well collecting data on your watch, but then what will you do with it?
This is where the need for apps comes into play.
While some watches are only compatible with their apps, others allow third-party connectivity.
A GPS is as useful as the apps it can pair with so that you can use the information gathered in a meaningful way.
If your priorities lie with running and not with all the latest smartwatch features, you can save a lot of money by choosing a watch with only the features you need.
Lifestyle features may include being able to purchase with your watch storing and playing music, and receiving smart notifications from your phone.
When choosing a GPS watch, you should consider how easy it is to use when running when your brain gets tired, or your fingers get a little stiff.
The interface of your watch will make a huge difference to how much you enjoy using your watch.
Also, consider whether you need buttons or a touchscreen for your screen. Both have their pros and con.
Some prefer touch screens, but they can be more temperamental once your fingers get a little sweaty or it rains.
GPS Watches come with different tracking features, and you should pick a watch that suits your tracking needs.
Some of the basic trackings features runners and hikers should look out for in their GPS watches include:
While runners are least partially concerned with elevation, hikers would benefit from a watch that measures altitude.
The trackback function guides you to where you started, following the same route you came from.
It’s an awesome feature, especially if you’ve lost your sense of direction and need to find your way back,
The feature uses directional arrows to point your way, along with your location on the breadcrumb map.
This feature is tied closely with elevation and helps track your vertical speed for ascents and descents.
It’s a meaningful way of tracking how fast you’re moving up or downhill.
Wrap Up: Our Choice
Our list of the best GPS watches for running and hiking has some pretty amazing watches. Still, you would be hard-pressed to find anything better than the Garmin Fenix 5 Sapphire.
It’s our recommended choice because it comes with everything users would need for a fulfilling tracking experience.
From the tracking performance, ease of use, to reliability in the wild, the Garmin Fenix 5 Sapphire is an all-rounder, ideal for any activity.