In theory, to go hiking all you need is a pair of sturdy hiking boots, a pack and some warm layers. But talk to an expert, and they’ll gently remind you that it’s best to have snacks, a tried and true pair of socks, water, a trail map and some sort of GPS tracking device — you know, just in case. Our Outdoors and Fitness team recently had to plan (and pack) for a hike in upstate New York. We set out to hike the highest peak in the state, Mount Marcy. We figured it would be the perfect time to test out some of the top-rated GPS tracking watches out there.
While there are tons of GPS tracking watches out there, we looked for ones that had an impressive battery life, accurate GPS tracking, heart rate monitoring and a sleek profile.
Best for Long Distance Hikes: Garmin Fenix 5S
Garmin’s highly accurate GPS status holds true here. With a battery life that lasts up to a week (without GPS), this watch is a game-changer. The official count is 11 hours with GPS, but typically the 5S will last at least a week, even while logging runs up to five times a week. We had to do some laps in the parking lot of the Adirondak Loj to get it to sync with the satellites, but after that, we had zero issues. Our tester was able to see exactly how long we had left during our hike thanks to a breadcrumb method. After six-plus hours out in the mountains, we were able to use the sunrise calculator to plan our next day’s sunrise hike. It was extremely accurate.
Battery Life: up to 11 hours with GPS
Connectivity: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi
Key Features: wrist-based HR, barometric altimeter, accelerometer and gyroscope, thermometer, Garmin Connect app, compass, multisport, waypoints
Best for Short Day Hikes: Apple Watch 4
As a ‘superuser’ of sorts, I’ve toyed around with the Apple watch since its inception in 2016. Series 4 is by far the most advanced, thanks to its built-in EKG sensor (rolling out later this year). For GPS tracking purposes, I was most excited about the new hiking fitness option. The watch has always provided me with active minutes and calories, heart rate in beats per minute, distance traveled and elevation gained (thanks to a built-in altimeter). On our 14+ mile hike, which started at 6:30 AM and ended somewhere around 3 PM, the watch tracked every step — surviving for six hours and eight minutes until I shut it off to save the last few percentage points of my battery. I appreciated that it nudged me almost everytime we stopped to ask if I was still working out. No data point left untracked here. While this watch wouldn’t be able to provide you with an entire day’s worth of hiking, it works exceptionally well for hikes up to six hours long.
Battery Life: up to 18 hours
Connectivity: Bluetooth, 4G LTE, Wi-Fi
Key Features: built-in GPS, GLONASS, Galileo and QZSS, barometric altimeter, optical HR, accelerometer and gyroscope, full suite of apps, custom faces, cellular service (optional)
Best All-Around: Suunto 9
Our Suunto 9 tester found this watch to be the most intuitive of the bunch. It was easy to use when he first put it on, and the battery life got the stamp of approval. The most impressive feature of this watch is the intelligent battery mode. The FusedTrack algorithm works with GPS and motion sensor data to track where you are and extend your battery life by lowering GPS power, without sacrificing accuracy. Since it was designed with ultrarunners in mind, the watch is a natural fit for a day-long hike. Right from the start, the watch band was comfortable, and the face looked good. It wasn’t bulky and was comfortable on the wrist.
Battery Life: up to 120 hours
Key Features: GPS navigation, intelligent battery mode, 80+ sport modes, barometric altitude, wrist HR, sleep tracking, thermometer
Apple, Garmin and Suunto provided us with product for testing.
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