Watches are one item you see less people wearing these days.For most of us, the clock on our phone has replaced the need – or want – to wear an old-fashioned wristwatch. But, for those of us who enjoy the outdoors, there’s still a great case to be made for wearing a watch.Smartwatches – or ‘wearable tech’ – are a huge area of investment and development for tech giants like Google, Apple and Samsung, (muscling in on a field pioneered by Garmin) and even some grand old names of watchmaking such as Tag Heuer and Tissot are incorporating smart features into their timepieces. Smartwatches might seem like the best outdoor watches and an ideal accessory for a keen hiker – offering a wealth of tools beyond basic time-keeping to help us track, monitor and record our activity alongside staying connected to the world around us, but it’s worth bearing in mind that for all their ingenuity, these miniature wonders have their limits too and we think there’s absolutely still a great case to be made that a ‘basic’ mechanical watch is still the best option when you head out onto the trail.
We can’t have a round up of Smartwatches without mentioning Garmin! They basically invented the category and still offer a wider range of well-respected products. Their range is massive and can be daunting to navigate. It starts with the relatively basic but keenly priced Vivofit and Forerunner and builds up to the ultra-premium MARQ which features luxury materials that would be at home in the ranges of the finest traditional high-end watch makers. Beyond this, their range incorporates many variants on the same product – not just in terms of colour and material variants, but also size variants and sport-specific variants of some models.Garmin now integrate solar charging into their range – most models have a variant with this available. This directly addresses one of the key criticisms levelled at Smartwatches and, whilst solar charging alone won’t keep the watch going indefinitely, it certainly can help prolong the life on a single charge. They also have a well-developed ecosystem around their products, including the Garmin Connect app and online marketplaces for new watch faces and apps.
The best starting point for hikers is the highly regarded Fenix 7 family. For many hikers, this may be the best choice, full stop! This offers a wealth of features include sport tracing tailored to a wider range of activities, several health tracking and workout features plus, integrated GNSS mapping and navigation and 16GB storage capacity for maps, music etc. Solar charging is an option – one that we think is worthwhile – and three variant models are offered with different case sizes: the 42mm Fenix 7S; the 47mm Fenix 7 and the 51mm Fenix 7X. The smaller version might be more comfortable for buyers with narrower wrists. Meanwhile the larger versions, whilst heavier, naturally come with a larger and slightly higher res screen but, more importantly, also have space for larger and much longer-lasting batteries: Garmin states 26hrs vs 40hrs vs 63hrs runtime (without Solar) when navigating on all GNSS networks for the three versions. That’s a significant difference and may well be a deciding factor for those who undertake multi-day hikes.
The Fenix 7 is no doubt an amazing Smartwatch – but it is expensive! At roughly half the price, the Garmin Instinct 2s Solar is not the same all-singing flagship model as the Fenix 7 is, but it is still feature-packed and will likely represents one of the best Garmin watches for many hikers (though we’ve got to say the styling may not be to everybody’s taste!). Relative to the Fenix 7, you lose the full colour screen and the advanced mapping features. However, the watch is built to US military ruggedness standards, and in terms of navigation, it’s still possible to make use of the watch’s Trackback Routing feature, to follow a ‘breadcrumb’ trail on the display to bring you back exactly the way you came. However, we think the standout feature of the Garmin Instinct Solar is how it uses its solar charging functionality. Thanks to solar charging, the watch boasts unlimited battery life in smartwatch mode with GNSS disabled, and it also offers limited GNSS modes offering either 370hrs or even unlimited usage in ‘Expedition mode’.This is truly remarkable, and the extended battery performance alone will likely make this model the go-to choice for those who undertake lengthy trips into the wilderness. The Instinct 2s is available in two different sizes – 40mm Small and 45mm Regular and in a range of different colours and sport-specific models.
Finnish company Suunto have emerged as a serious competitor to Garmin in recent years.They have a long heritage of building navigation aids including traditional compasses and dive computers, and have been producing hiking watches and more recently smartwatches for decades.Their watches connect to the Suunto app on your phone to allow customisation
The Suunto 7 is the stand-out model.We particularly like the minimalist industrial design – it’s less ‘in your face’ than many other hiking focussed Smartwatches and wouldn’t look out of place paired with formal wear in a business meeting – indeed there are premium options available with brushed titanium cases for those who really care about the appearance of the watch.Relative to the Garmin Fenix 7 discussed above, the Suunto is nowhere near as feature-packed, and does not have the solar charging feature that we think is the Garmin’s Ace, but none the less, it still offers many of the key features you’ll need or want on the trail. It’s based on Google’s Wear OS and can sync up with a range of third party apps – not just sports trackers, but also music apps. Beyond this, it is very keenly priced and did we mention we think it looks great too?
Apple entered the Smartwatch market back in 2015, and whilst the Apple Watch has been immensely popular, it was not really intended for use on the trail (not that this stopped a lot of people!). That changed in 2022 with the introduction of the Apple Watch Ultra alongside the regular Apple Watch Series 8. The Ultra is a ruggedised version of the regular Apple Watch with extended battery life and some new outdoor and sports specific features (it’s not completely relevant to this round up, but remarkably it incorporates a full dive computer). The Apple Watch Ultra is definitely one of the most expensive watches in this round up, but it offers an unrivalled user experience, ease of use and seamless integration if you already own or use other Apple products or services. Cellular connectivity is standard in this watch, so functionality is less reliant on having a paired phone in your back pocket. And, of course, it’s still an Apple Watch, so all the conveniences you associate with these products are right there. On the flip side, battery life is still certainly a concern for those doing multi-day activities where access to charging facilities could be problematic.The interface relies heavily on the touch screen and this can be problematic in harsh weather conditions such as snow or rain or when wearing gloves. Also, those who are not invested in the Apple eco-system – if you use an Android phone or Google Pay for instance – may not find the usage experience as seamless as it can be and you may well be better served by the Suunto 7 discussed above.
Apple are an industrial titan and they have the resources and vision to realise truly game-changing products. The iPhone 14 has introduced emergency satellite communication which allows you to communicate via SMS with emergency services if no cellular coverage is available – so far this is only available in the USA and Canada, but we’d imagine there will be a global roll-out and trickle-down to other devices over time. A future Apple Watch Ultra integrating a longer battery life and emergency satellite comms could truly be the ultimate outdoors wearable.
So far, we’ve concentrated on Smartwatches – really, wearable computers – but as we mentioned at the start, there’s still a great argument for choosing a much more simple watch for hiking.If this appeals to you, then Japanese watchmaker Seiko are a great place to start your search.They offer an enormous range of products ranging from very keenly priced entry level models all the way up to the Grand Seiko range that can easily cost more than a luxury car.What’s more, Seiko produce all of their own movements – that is, the mechanism that drives their watches – in-house and sell these on to other manufacturers too.So, many other brands of watch will have Seiko movements running ‘under the hood’.
The Seiko 5 Sports range is an excellent place to start looking. These regularly comes up in round-ups of affordable luxury watches and it’s not hard to see why: Put simply, they are a great choice and the build quality and features are generally way above anything else at this price point. They are a great value, rugged watch and a good choice for everyday use. These are all automatic watches – so they are fully mechanical with no watch battery to worry about. The 5 Sports range all feature clear display backs, so you can see the watch’s mechanism at work. There’s a huge range of colour and design options within the 5 Sports range – including a regular cycle of limited editions. We’ve singled out the diver style watches. The design of these is inspired by the iconic – and now discontinued – SKX diving watch and they are available in a range of different case and watch face colours and strap types. There’s also a very cool looking version with a ‘Skeleton’ semi-transparent face to better show the inner mechanism. This watch will be perfectly at home in the outdoors, is water resistant to 100m, offers a rugged stainless steel case and the winding crown is recessed to help prevent it from snagging.
Things to Consider
Manufacturers offer models with a wealth of features for outdoor activities, but the best watch for a long hike is not necessarily the best watch for a trail runner, open water swimmer or diver. When considering the best hiking watches, it’s worth bearing the following in mind:
- Basic Form and Function: Obviously a watch needs to be able to tell the time, but beyond this, consider how it fits and feels on your wrist.
- Advanced Features: Smartwatches offer a bewildering array of features from sport-specific tracking, to health features such as sleep and heart rate monitoring. Check that the features offered are relevant to what you do.
- GPS Functionality: The best GPS watches will be able to tap into multiple satellite (or GNSS) systems to give more accurate data and can use this in a variety of ways.
- Battery: Functions drain batteries and the more your watch does, the quicker they will deplete. Solar charging is appearing on some models and helps provide exceptional battery life.
- Cost: The highest end hiking watches are not cheap, but if you can make do with a more basic model, then some real bargains can be had.
Watch vs Activity Tracker vs Smartwatch
We all know the basic job of a watch is to tell the time – and if it can do it accurately, then all the better.The history of watch making is basically the history of trying to achieve accuracy. But there’s also a long history of adding extra functionality to watches: Day and date windows are self-explanatory; A GMT function allows the wearer to keep track of time across multiple time-zones; Bezels – either fixed or rotating – can be marked to act as count-down timers or even as mechanical calculators to estimate speed; Chronograph functionality (what many would call a ‘stop watch’) allows precise timing – often accurate to fractions of seconds. The list of ‘complications’ as manufacturers call them goes on and on and continues to grow! These are features you’ll find on both analogue and digital watches.
As the complexity of functionality watches offered increased, we pass into the realm of Activity Trackers – sometimes also called a Fitness Tracker – these are almost exclusively digital and add functionality particularly aimed at helping to meet fitness targets: tracking your step-count, recording your heart rate, maybe even incorporating GPS to allow the wearer to record the tracks they’ve walked/run/cycled.One key differentiation between a regular watch and an Activity Tracker is that the latter will usually have some sort of app or software integration to help make sense the data they record. As I’m sure many of you reading this already know, these can be great tools if you’re trying to train for a specific challenge.
Smartwatches take things one step further. At this stage, we’re basically dealing with a wearable computer and you’ll find deep app integration – these devices will almost certainly pair with your phone to display incoming texts, emails, take calls, control music, make contactless payment and critically for us, show maps. What’s more, Smartwatches have moved past the generally utilitarian, plasticky feel of Activity Trackers and can now be classed as luxury items – and you don’t have to look far to find the same luxury materials (and high price points) as you would in traditional fine watch making including gold, titanium, and carbon fibre in the watch case and scratch-resistant sapphire crystal covering the display. Indeed, some of the latest Smartwatches can be considered desirables pieces of luxury jewellery just as much as a high-end traditional watch.
Smartwatches or Wearable Tech belong to a relatively young and fast-developing area and we’re still at a stage where new generations of products can bring substantial new features (compare this to Smartphones where – let’s be honest – there don’t seem to have been any ground-breaking new devices from any manufacturer for a long time).Our first experience with a Smartwatch was close to ten years ago. The product showed a lot of promise, but the metrics it recorded were wildly inaccurate (for instance tracking the same route twice showed a variant of over 6km – that isn’t usable data!).Compare this to the latest offerings from Apple and Garmin and we can see how far these products have developed.But there’s still clearly room for improvement: in many cases, battery life is still a very real issue on these devices – it still measured in terms of hours rather than days. Even the most advanced Smartwatch still often acts as an accessory to a phone and indeed as of writing, some of the major third-party mapping apps still won’t offer full functionality on the watch on its own – you still need to have the phone with you to have everything working. Finally, there’s the issue of durability.Garmin have offered ruggedised Smartwatches for years, and Apple has recently joined in too, but compared to ruggedised traditional watches these high-tech offerings can still come across as ‘delicate’. This may well be a factor for those who are active in more extreme environments.
Finally, we should consider ergonomics. Some smartwatches are huge! If you’ve got smaller wrists, or are not used to wearing a watch at all, the first experience of wearing a large smartwatch can be quite jarring and even a watch that seems quite lightweight on paper can be feel very intrusive on the wrist. Many smartwatches are offered in different case sizes and it’s worth thinking carefully about which case size is best, not just for your activity tracking needs, but also for your body shape and size.
Features to Look Out For
Smartwatches and Activity Trackers offer a wealth of features, almost certainly more than you actually need, so it’s worth taking some time to run through the feature list to see how many of the features you might realistically use. Features like blood oxygen and heart rate tracking require extra physical sensors in the watch – these add to the cost – whereas other features such as sunset times or training specific tools like recovery time tracking are common features but may add extra complexity that you don’t need. Many models can act as music players when paired with Bluetooth headphones – that could be a real bonus to runners, but not useful at all to a hiker who values solitude – and of course, on board storage comes at a cost! Armed with this info, you can research to see if a model with more basic features might serve you better and save you some money.
Many reviews will state that an ‘ABC Watch’ is a basic requirement for hiking or backpacking. That A stands for Altimeter (sometimes called a ‘Barometric Altimeter’) to help assess elevation gain or elevation changes – essentially, how high up you are. B is for Barometer, to measure atmospheric pressure – sometimes called barometric pressure – to help determine how the weather might change. The Barometer can also feed data into the Altimeter. C is for Compass – to tell you which way is north.These are all helpful features, but do they replicate things you’ll already be carrying? Let’s be blunt, most day hikers walking on well-marked trails will not need this level of data – certainly, we have never wished we had access to a barometer on a hike!
Many of the watches we’ll speak about in this article feature some form of satellite connectivity. GPS, run by the US government is the key system here, and many people – even manufacturers too – will simply talk about ‘GPS mode’. However, the functionality is more accurately called GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Systems) as many devices are now capable of receiving date from a range of satellite systems including the EU’s Galileo, Russia’s GLONASS and China’s BeiDou to help improve accuracy.
Maps and Navigation
More advanced (and expensive!) Smartwatches can leverage satellite connectivity to provide on-wrist map-based navigation. Displaying topographic mapsand following a route on a small, relatively low-resolution screen is not ideal, and in our opinion is no substitute for a larger-screened navigation device or a paper map but it can still be a great feature – especially so for those who want to travel light (and it can be very useful on a trail run too!). More basic Smartwatches won’t offer on-screen mapping but can still make use of GNSS data to provide ultra-accurate time keeping, altitude date and to provide activity tracking, which can be sync’d up with maps and analysed when you’re back home.
Tracking and Incident Detection
Some devices also offer live tracking and incident detection features. These allow you to post your progress in real time whilst you’re outdoors and to initiate emergency communication should an incident be detected by the watch. These sound like great safety features – especially for solo hikers – but it’s important you understand the limits of these systems: In most cases, they will rely on the watch being paired to a phone that has signal. If you’re out of signal range, the feature will not work. We think these features are ‘nice to have’ but be in no doubt that they are no substitute for dedicated emergency communications devices like the Garmin inReach.
Water resistance is a given for every watch in this feature. Even if your outdoor adventures are firmly rooted on dry land, water resistance implies a level of durability, weather and dust resilience that’s essential. Every watch mentioned in this article has some degree of water resistance and will be more that suitable to keep on your wrist if you want to indulge in some wild or open water swimming. However, if you intend to spend serious time in the water – especially if you want to dive – it is well worth researching dive-specific models like the Garmin Descent Mk2.
Battery life is the elephant in the room with all smartwatches. Smart features – and especially GNSS – drain battery life and many watches will still quote their battery life when using this feature in terms of hours (though this is improving with each generation). Outwardly, many Smartwatches advertise an excellent battery life, but if you look closer, you’ll often see that the best battery life figure assumes that many of the watch’s features have been disabled – you might even have to switch out of a Smartwatch mode entirely. Garmin are pioneering the introduction solar power into their range. It’s not a standard feature, but a solar edition is offered for many of their watches and, whilst it doesn’t offer unlimited battery life, it does vastly improve it – so a long battery life is now possible with the help of solar energy! None the less, for multi-day hikes, some sort of USB power bank is a useful accessory if you can’t guarantee you’ll have access to mains power.
The Case for Going Back to Basics
Most watch round-ups for hikers concentrate on Smartwatches, and there is logic in this. However, we think there’s still a strong case to be made for wearing a much more traditional watch on the trail. A Smartwatch is another device you need to buy, keep updated, charged and learn how to use. Many of us enjoy time in nature as it gives a sense of solitude – a chance to forget about the daily grind for a while.Is a device on your wrist that’s essentially an extension of your phone conducive to that?Fundamentally, you wear a watch to tell the time, and this is vital on the trail for keeping track of your progress and making informed decisions about, say, carrying on after sunset. Does this basic tool need to be complicated with additional features? Many would argue that a watch is one device that does not need to be smart! However, just because a watch isn’t smart, doesn’t mean it can’t have extra utility! It’s possible to use an analogue watch as a compass during the day, for instance and other analogue ‘complications’ such as the countdown function on the bezel of a diver’s watch can also be brought into service on hikes.
For those who enjoy craftsmanship or the idea of a well-made object that could last a lifetime, analogue watches have a certain undeniable appeal. What’s more, a quartz watch may only need a new battery once every few years whilst a solar quartz or an automatic watch, powered by a spring that’s coiled by the movement of your body, won’t need a battery at all! Watches like this are not just good for outdoor recreation, but also for daily use – you don’t need to think about maintaining them, they are just there and they just work!
For those who can’t give up on smart features, some manufacturers produce hybrid watches that are a great option: The Seiko Astron, for instance, is absolutely a traditional analogue watch, but it can adjust its time automatically via GPS – very handy for travellers – and most remarkably of all, it’s solar powered so does not need a battery to do this.
As mentioned right at the start, wearable tech and smart watches are an increasingly competitive area.We’ve presented an overview of some of the key products from the key manufacturers (along side some more traditional alternatives), but this is far from an exhaustive write up and there are plenty of options that we have not had space to include. Choosing the hiking watch that’s right for you can be an exhaustive task, but if you consider the features you need alongside other factors such as your budget, compatibility with any other devices or services you may want to use it with and so forth, then the decision making process can become a lot easier.
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