If you’re in a rush, I recommend the Garmin Fenix 3 as the best hiking watch available today.
Since the advent of the Apple Watch, smart watches have been booming. Specifically in the outdoors world, these tools have become quite the staple with tech-savvy hikers. They can help you track how far you hiked, how high up you are, and which direction you’re facing.
Hiking watches are clearly useful, but they can come with a hefty price tag. So, to make sure you don’t throw your money away, today I’ll give a comprehensive breakdown on my 5 favorite hiking watches.
Top 5 Hiking Watches
Garmin Fenix 3
Let’s start with my daily driver, the Fenix 3 from Garmin. One reason I chose it in the first place is its 100-meter waterproof capabilities. Whenever I go camping near a lake, I like to make the most out of the swimming opportunity — and even after four years, this watch is still alive.
Its Chroma display also ensures that everything is clearly legible even under harsh sunlight. Further, the omnidirectional steel antenna makes its GPS both faster and more accurate. The watch automatically syncs my data whenever connected to WiFi, which is very handy when monitoring hike data.
If there’s one thing I’d change on this watch, it’s the battery, since it only lasts 20 hours while the GPS is running. That’s barely two days if you make a one-night camping trip. That said, Garmin isn’t precisely known for market-leading battery life, and this unit can last six weeks if you set it to watch mode, so it’s not a dealbreaker.
- Sunlight-ready Chroma display
- Omnidirectional steel antenna boosts GPS accuracy and speed
- Autosync (requires WiFi)
- TracBack helps you retrace your steps if you get lost
- 20-hour battery life on GPS mode (above average for Garmin)
Best for: Outdoorsmen who want a well-priced, feature-packed watch that can handle all the elements.
Pro-tip: Suunto’s Movescout app puts GPS accuracy on the highest setting by default, so lower it to conserve battery.
This watch excels in daily use since it packs functionality needed for everyday urban tasks. Its push notifications keep me updated even when I don’t have my phone on me. The flashlight helps me find items in dark spots, and the step+calorie counter keeps me accountable. Love it!
One thing that really makes this model stand out for me is its barometric trend feature. This essentially predicts the weather and warns you when a storm is coming. No lie – this feature has saved me from getting drenched more than once.
- 100-hour battery life
- Push notification functionality when paired with a smartphone
- Daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly tracking for steps + calories
- Storm warnings
- The uncolored display is hard to read in the sun and looks dated
Best for: Those looking for a watch that’s just as useful at home as it is in the wild.
Those who want even more out of their battery will be deeply satisfied with the Pathfinder’s six-month capacity. It can also go for much longer than that when you remember it’s solar-powered. Of course, this comes with the tradeoff of not having GPS capabilities constantly pinging the satellite.
Still, for those who carry their phone along anyway, it might not be too big of an issue. The watch has four sensors: an altimeter, a barometer, a thermometer, and a digital compass. This ensures you still get essential info even without GPS capabilities.
While the display might look a little dated, readability isn’t an issue. The LED backlight makes the screen super easy to read even during the darkest nights.
- Six-month maximum battery life
- Solar-powered charging makes it nearly impossible to drain this watch
- LED backlight for low-light hikes
Best for: Battery life enthusiasts who don’t need a GPS or who use their smartphone for navigation.
Whenever I go on a trip that includes some rock climbing, this is usually the watch I’ll take with me just for its sheer durability. Its shock resistance is built to U.S. military standard, so you know it can take a beating.
I also have to give it extra points for the stunning design. Despite not having a Chroma display, the interface still feels modern. The way the physical accents on the watch match the digital interface on the screen keeps the look super stylish.
This Garmin model comes in 20 different colors, so you don’t have to worry about a lack of choice. Again, the main drawback is its 16-hour battery life on GPS mode, but that’s a given when you go with this manufacturer. A solar-powered variant does exist, though, so consider that for thru-hikes.
- Military-grade durability
- Great design
- Color variety
- Solar-powered (on Instinct Solar variant)
- 16-hour battery life on GPS mode
Best for: Campers who want the most rugged hiking watch money can buy.
Garmin Foretrex 401
Pragmatists who don’t mind going retro may want the Foretrex 401 from Garmin. Despite being released in 2004, this model is still an old favorite for many hikers. The nostalgia and functionality have really held up through the years (unlike countless other devices.)
The GPS receiver is definitely up to par, operating in deep canyons and under dense tree cover. It even has hunting and fishing information, which could be useful to survivalists — though Google has taken away from that benefit a bit.
Seeing as this isn’t exactly a new model, it should come as no surprise that it runs on two AAA batteries rather than the sun or a charging cable. This isn’t the end of the world, but be sure to bring spare batteries and keep them dry as they aren’t as waterproof as the watch.
- Nostalgic, tried-and-tested design
- Robust GPS receiver
- Native hunting and fishing information
- The UI resembles video games, which could make this a fun unit for kids
- 17-hour battery life on GPS mode and requires AAA batteries
Best for: Hikers who yearn for nostalgia and prefer AAA batteries to the rechargeable kind
What to Consider Before Buying a Hiking Watch
You may be ready to pull the trigger on one of the watches above. However, those who are still on the fence will benefit from these four things they should consider before making their final buying decision. If you’re yet to make a choice, then see the categories below:
How Much Juice?
The first thing you should think about before you determine which hiking watch is right for you is your battery needs. If you generally go on short trips and charge your watch frequently, then there’s no reason not to go for something filled with features.
Sure, these extra bells and whistles may drain your battery faster. But in your case, that shouldn’t matter since you’ll always have enough juice left to make it back to a wall socket. This is even truer for those who keep their watches on low settings or bring a rechargeable battery pack with them.
On the contrary, long-distance backpackers who rarely have time to charge their watch might prefer a non-GPS model. GPS is a known battery drain, so keep that in mind. As we mentioned, you can always use a smartphone for navigation instead without sacrificing your watch’s battery life.
To Solar, or Not To Solar
It’s undeniable that solar-powered charging is a very cool feature to have on your wrist. Still, it’s not always the most practical path forward. I’m not saying it’s not useful, but if you’re the type of person who wears your watch indoors most of the time, paying more for a solar cell just doesn’t make sense.
The same applies to those who use their hiking watch at night since there won’t be any sunlight around to get your battery life replenished. On the other hand, explorers who don’t want to get lost while exploring underground might find this feature invaluable.
Even if there’s no outlet to charge your watch, solar-powered watches allow you to get back to civilization whenever the sun shines. This is a lifesaver in the most real sense of the word — and thus a worthy investment if you ask me.
Not All Bells & Whistles Chime Equally
It’s always nice to see more features, but you should also pay close attention to which ones actually work the way they’re intended to. The thermometer on most hiking watches is an excellent example since many of them give inaccurate readings.
Why? This is because it mistakenly measures the temperature of your body instead of the temperature of your environment. This is bound to be off by a noticeable margin since your core temperature keeps your body warm. How warm? Quite a lot higher than the actual climate you’re faced with.
The compass is another feature that doesn’t always work as intended either. However, this is usually due to human error. You see, holding the watch parallel to the ground is crucial when using the compass; otherwise, it’ll malfunction.
While the name itself tells us that hiking watches are built for outdoor use, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t live up to all your city-living needs. Paying hundreds of dollars for a watch is more justifiable when you get a product you can use in your day-to-day, too.
The Suunto we covered above is an excellent example of this since it manages to be as useful in a metropolis as it is in a rainforest. Its flashlight, fitness tracking, and smartphone-paired push notifications help in any backdrop.
If you already have a “daily driver” watch, then I’ll give you a pass on picking a watch dedicated to the wilderness. But even then, why not find something versatile to get more back for your buck?
Finally, consider the design of the watch you’re spending your hard-earned money on. Looks aren’t everything, but there’s no harm in getting a product that isn’t totally ugly when you’re shelling out a chunk of change that huge.
Find something that you can wear anywhere. Bulky aesthetics may look great in the woods, but they won’t exactly fit in with your tuxedo on formal occasions. Sometimes, a subtler but more flexible design may be the way to go, especially if you often go to fancy dinners.
The same applies to businessmen who don’t want to switch watches before each meeting. At the end of the day, looks are about as subjective as it gets, so buy whichever design makes you happiest. Don’t overthink it since you really can’t go wrong when you’re shopping for yourself.
I hope this buying guide has taught you a thing or two and helped you decide which watch to go for. If you ask me which one is the best value, I’d definitely recommend you go for the Fenix 3 model from Garmin.
Its design and feature set make it city-ready without compromising the core outdoor functionality. You also can’t find a more gorgeous display on the market. It really helps when trying to read your GPS in the middle of a blinding afternoon.
That being said, if you favor the Suunto due to its longer battery life and urban-oriented construction, then there’s no shame in that either. It’s hard to go wrong when looking at such great options.
As we discussed in the previous section, battery needs can vary wildly from one use to the next. If you don’t mind missing out on a few features and prefer having a watch that’ll never die, then there’s no beating the Casio Pathfinder.
All in all, any of these five choices are sure to help your hike be more enjoyable and productive.
Know someone awful at navigating? Share this article with them, so getting lost can become a thing of the past. Trust me; they’ll thank you later.
That’s all for now, folks. Stay healthy, and stay wild!