THE BEST HIKING WATCHES OF 2019
It was tricky, but we ended up plumping for the Suunto Traverse as our top pick for best hiking watch. With it's sleek design, reasonable pricing yet easy to navigate range of features it was always going finish on the podium. It wins our top award though for getting it's full range of features on point across the board.
We found the FusedAlti/barometer and compass functions a delight to use, and incredibly accurate. Just what you need from a watch out on the trail. The GPS function narrowly loses out to the Garmin Fenix, but it's not far behind, and allows you to plan/create routes, locate your position, track your route and sync it all wirelessly via Bluetooth.
The bottom line is that if you want a great allrounder, then top pick for best hiking watch has to be the Suunto Traverse.
If you're a serious hiker or backpacker, then you may want a little more bang on your wrist than just the current time and a counter remind you it's Saturday. While timekeeping is important out on the trail, knowing your bearing, altitude, upcoming storms with an ABC (Altimeter, Barometer, Compass) watch is the next step up. Beyond that, fancy a GPS displaying color topographic maps on your wrist?
We've done the grunt work for you and have tested a range of watches & settled on 7 of the best, covering a range of price points and which particular activities are best suited for each.
With an incredible array of makes and models to choose from, narrowing down to the perfect hiking smartwatch for you can be a tricky undertaking. To help you make a decision, we recommend you familiarise yourself with the common features below, and from there decide:
Mentally running through these questions should help you to quickly whittle down through the chaff until you find the perfect hiking watch for you.
To state the blindingly obvious, you're looking for a watch that goes beyond a need to simply tell the time. The “enhanced” functionality of hiking or backpacking watches gives you a wider breadth of data to allow you to make decisions which will hopefully make your trip into the backcountry safer and more enjoyable.
Here is a rundown of the common enhanced functions and what you use them for.
Altitude, derived from the Latin for “height” (altitudo), is a measure of your absolute position vertically above sea level.
Knowing your elevation is an extremely useful way of determining (or double-checking) your position in combination with a map. This is particularly valuable in areas where taking sightings with a compass for triangulation is tricky e.g. in dense forest or barren wilderness with few discernable landmarks.
A hiking watch with altimeter will determine this in one of two ways:
A barometric altimeter uses the atmospheric pressure of your surroundings to calculate your approximate location above sea level. This based on a simple observation of the natural world - that atmospheric pressure decreases as altitude increases.
Barometric altimeters will only give you an approximate elevation however, temperature variations and local weather conditions also influence atmospheric pressure, resulting in some uncertainty on your precise altitude.
To ensure accurate readings, barometric altimeters need to be calibrated often, with some of the more advanced models doing this automatically. Although, we would caution that you should also learn to do this manually, as technology can (and does) fail.
Most everyone is familiar with the Global Positioning System (GPS) as it has gradually been incorporated into more and more ‘everyday’ devices over the last 20 years. GPS based altimeters use the same principles to identify your height as your lateral (x/y) position i.e. multiple satellites are used to pinpoint your location on the earth's surface.
GPS altimeters suffer from the fact that you need to inline of sight of at least 4 geo-orbiting satellites to gain an accurate location, which can be problematic if you are in the mountains, canyons or valleys of the backcountry.
As a result, for use in the backcountry, we would recommend picking a barometric altimeter over a GPS altimeter due to their (typically) greater accuracy in the surrounds we outdoorsfolk normally find ourselves. However, if you want something that doesn’t require calibration and you can live with the uncertainty, then don’t rule out a watch with a GPS altimeter.
Lastly, a cute feature of some watches is the ability to download the altitude data to your computer or web application and make a topographic profile of your hike.
Your watches barometer function measures the atmospheric pressure and tracks how it is changing over time. It is this variation over time (typically the previous few hours) it is interested in, as is this a means of predicting the upcoming weather conditions.
Increasing atmospheric pressure means that weather conditions are improving and conversely decreasing atmospheric pressure suggests that less than stellar hiking conditions are on the way (think precipitation: rain, fog, snow). A sharp decrease in pressure usually indicates a storm is on its way, and many of the hiking smartwatches below will alert you with an alarm, thus giving you time to get your rain gear on, or to seek shelter.
Having some advanced warning of the likely weather conditions can be a massive help in staying dry(er) and more comfortable, and in extreme cases, staying safe by seeking shelter.
Any hiking watch without this feature isn’t really a hiking watch in our opinion. A compass is your principal means of finding your way and will show you the four cardinal directions (North, South, East, and West) in addition to your current bearing (which way you are facing). A compass works by measuring the earth's magnetic field, allowing it to accurately determine which way is north.
While a compass on your hiking watch is useful for getting a sense of general direction, we would again caution that it should not entirely replace your traditional compass for two simple reasons. The first, you’ll quickly find sighting and triangulation with a map much easier with your handheld compass, and secondly, and more importantly, technology can fail.
A feature of more advanced (and expensive) hiking watches is GPS, as mentioned above GPS uses orbiting satellites to pinpoint your location on earth. This information allows you to instantly access your current coordinates, speed, distance traveled (from the previous waymark), ascent/descent and where you are relative to various landmarks on the GPS map system.
Probably, most usefully, GPS watches can import your chosen route, allowing you to see your current position relative to where you should be. In addition, subsequent to making it safely home again, you can download all this data to relive your trip in digital form.
The biggest downside to having a GPS watch for hiking is they all suffer from short battery lives - I’ve yet to see a model that can survive more than a day or two with the GPS turned on. Thus, if you are going on a longer trip, your options are likely restricted to only having the GPS turned on for limited periods and/or to bring along some form of charging, either a battery pack or solar charger.
Thermometers are a feature that pops up on some models, giving you an idea of how hot (or cold) the air temperature is. We’ve yet to be convinced as to how useful such a feature is, as your own internal sense of the external temperature will let you know if it’s time to throw on your jacket or peel off a layer. Additionally, these thermometers readings tend to be skewed a bit by your own body heat.
As far as we are concerned, a nice to have, but certainly not a must-have feature.
A large number of hiking watches can also record and show your heart rate. As with the thermometer, this isn’t a particularly necessary feature but does allow you to keep an eye on how well you are pacing yourself and gives you an overview of your fitness levels.
This feature is most useful for those who are using hiking to improve their fitness (as you’ll be able to monitor your improvement over time) or those “metric geeks” (such as myself) who love nothing more than poring over data/trends.
Heart rate monitors work by measuring your bodies electrical pulses (generated by your heart pumping), either through a transmitter/receiver built into your watch (measuring through the wrist) or by using a transmitter chest strap and a receiver built into your watch.
A word of caution - even the most sophisticated wearable heart rate monitors aren’t particularly accurate.
Trips, slips, and falls. Everyone who’s spent sufficient time hiking or backpacking knows that their body will take the occasional beating due to a wet rock or misplaced foot. As such, your equipment needs to be sturdy enough to survive such misadventures also.
Many of the good hiking watches are protected with sapphire glass lenses, which offers increased protection from scratches compared to the traditional mineral crystal glasses you’ll find on regular watches. Expect to find a higher price tag for that protection though.
While getting wet is generally something to be avoided while out in the wilderness, it’s often something that isn’t feasible. To that end, all (good) hiking watches are water-resistant, often marked up to 100m (10 ATM), which seems like a little bit of overkill (even if you’re trekking through the Amazon and decide to go for a dip every evening). Suffice to say, anything above roughly water-resistant to 30m should be sufficient to weather even extreme downpours and the occasional bit of skinny dipping along the route.
Oft overlooked, but as they may be the only item you will wear continuously for days on end (we hope you change your underwear occasionally), shouldn’t it be comfortable to wear?
Durability and features may result in bulk that makes it awkward, particularly for those of us blessed with slender wrists. Does it fit snuggly, or does it chafe like hell after only 2km?
Don’t underestimate how important comfort is, and ultimately, if you forget you are wearing your watch, then comfort wise, you have chosen well.
As someone who has often heard the question “are you really wearing that?” pass my wife's lips, this is an area that isn’t a priority for me. However, I am keenly aware that for others, you may want something that looks stylish, particularly if you plan to wear it around town, as well as the trail.
My take is, that if it’s solely for the trail, then function always beats fashion. If it’s for wearing off the trail also, then function still beats fashion...but that’s not to say that you can’t find something that pulls off both.
Depending on the duration of your typical trip into the backcountry this may (or may not) be an important consideration. All the watches reviewed here should see you through a one (or two) day adventure without the need to look for your nearest electrical socket.
However, for those of us who expect to be out for multiple days, weeks or even months, then longevity from your watches battery is something you may wish to prioritize. Certainly, hauling a spare battery pack is a possibility, but that's extra weight on your back.
Generally, there are two broad-brush correlations here, 1) more features = less battery life and 2) higher price (for a similar number of features) = better battery life. Which is why we would typically recommend a simpler watch for those more advanced backpackers who expect to be out for weeks on end.
Purchasing a new hiking watch doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor dependent on what features you feel are a ‘must-have’ versus ‘nice-to-have’. Unsurprisingly, the increase in cost comes with more features, greater durability and sleeker, more stylish designs. It’s possible to break the market into three rough price ranges.
Less than $200 will get you a simple, yet functional ABC hiking watch. If you are on a budget or want to spend your money on other pieces of kit and/or don’t require enhanced functionality like GPS then this may well be the range for you.
Between $200-$500 will see more stylish, sleek designs with enhanced functionality - particularly features such as thermometers, atomic time-keeping, HRM, and GPS (in some models).
Greater than $500, and you are into the high-end models that will do practically everything bar cook your food upon reaching camp. These watches are for serious outdoorsfolks and are often designed as multi-use, such as ski touring, thru-hiking, triathletes, among others.
In an effort to save money, it’s wise, to be honest with yourself and figure out which features you really need. Do this prior to falling in love with the Garmin Fenix 5X Plus to save yourself some cash.
The Suunto Traverse picks up our best watch for hiking award thanks to its sleek design, advanced yet easy to navigate range of features, and all coming in at a reasonable price.
Any hiking watch needs to get its ABCs on point, and the Suunto Traverse nails this. We found the FusedAlti/barometer and compass functions to consistently be very accurate, and in our opinion, out in front of its competitors.
The GPS combined with the Movescount phone app, creates a seamless one, two – allowing you to plan and create routes, easily locate your position, track your route and sync it all wirelessly via Bluetooth.
Constructed with scratch-resistant sapphire crystal glass, stainless steel bezel and a nylon textile strap, the Traverse is hardy as it is sleek and stylish. Having passed no less than 19 tests, and meeting military standards in the process, it won’t let you down in the wilderness.
Bottom line: If you are looking for the best smartwatch for hiking, then the Suunto Traverse deserves your undivided attention.
The Garmin Fenix 5X Plus is next up on our list and is our pick for the best GPS hiking watch. With the capability to connect to GPS, GLONASS and Galileo satellites systems, plus full-color topographic maps it is (in our opinion) the best GPS watch currently on the market.
Thanks to hundreds of thousands of user data points, the Fenix 5X is able to select the best route to take when you sync it with Garmin Connect. Great for finding new hiking, cycling or running routes.
In addition to its superb navigational functions, it has all the usual features you would expect in a high-end smartwatch, with compass, barometer, HRM, etc, along with a couple of more unusual ones. Connect to your bank, and you can now pay contactlessly with the Fenix, while also simultaneously listening to your favorite tracks on Spotify.
It narrowly failed to take our overall top spot, losing out to the Suunto Traverse in its ease of use (a tad clunky), it’s design (again a tad clunky) and it’s price (expect to pay roughly double). However, we feel the full-color maps makes it the better watch purely looking at the GPS function in isolation.
Bottom line: If you are looking for the best hiking GPS watch on the market, you’ll be hard pressed to do better than the Garmin Fenix 5X Plus
Having been on the market for the best part of a decade, the Casio Pathfinder PAG240-1 shows no sign of going out of fashion. Some may find the design a little clunky, but it’s big buttons and a straightforward menu structure make it a cinch to use.
The outstanding feature of the Pathfinder is its solar-powered battery, which once fully charged lasts an incredible 6 months. It may be a little stripped down compared to the some of the other models in this review, as it has no GPS, but it’s ABC functions are pretty accurate, making it a solid watch if you don’t need/want the GPS functionality.
Bottom line: It does the ABCs well, and as it can last a full AT thru-hike on one charge, the Casio Pathfinder wins our award as the best watch for backpacking.
Our overall top prize for the best altimeter watch has to go to the Suunto Core. The core’s altimeter is accurate up to 29,500ft and measures in 3ft increments (compared to 10-20ft for all other watches we’ve tested). As you’d expect, the core logs your altitude for up to 7 days meaning you can download and see all your stats once you’re off the trail (or ski slope).
A super cool feature is its ability to automatically switch between altimeter and barometer based on your movement - if you are ascending/descending it attributes barometric pressure changes to this. Whereas, if you are stationary, then it will associate barometric changes to weather fluctuations. To top it all off, it will sound a storm alarm when it notes a substantial pressure drop.
One of our favorite watches in terms of its design, and would be happy to wear it out on the town. It’s let down a little bit, however, when it comes to viewing the display in either low light or extremely bright conditions.
Bottom Line: If you're specifically after the best altimeter watch, then plump for the Suunto Core.
With its simple and straight-forward design, we put forward the Casio ProTrek PRW-2500 as our top pick for best mountaineering watch.
Like it’s cousin the Casio Pathfinder, the ProTrek has a solar-powered battery that will allow it to function for five to six months without the need for recharging. Although, I doubt you’ll let it sit in your drawer for six months at a time.
As you would expect, it has all the ABCs of a good hiking or mountaineering watch, but we feel it outperforms the other watches in our review when it comes to mountaineering due to its overall accuracy. Keeping track of your timings being hugely important, the ProTrek is auto-calibrated with atomic signals to keep your watch in perfect time. In addition, its altimeter is good to 32,800ft and will naturally track your total ascent/descent progress.
As with most Casio watches, they certainly ain’t the prettiest to look at, although the plastic look is almost synonymous with the brand now (at least in my head).
Bottom line: Summit safe in the knowledge that the Casio ProTrek won't let you down.
The best outdoor smart watch has to go to the Suunto Spartan Sport HR Baro, primarily for its impressive range of 80 sports and activities that the device has been preloaded with. It goes far beyond the features you would expect of a normal fitness watch with GPS, altimeter, barometer, and compass.
Like it’s cousin, the Suunto Traverse, you can download all your workout/trip data to the movescope app and relive your adventures, and/or set new goals.
The watch has a sleek, simple design which in our opinion makes it look very stylish. In addition, it’s pretty rugged and will survive the usual backcountry clattering that happens to all our equipment from time to time.
Bottom line: If you are looking for a fitness tracker that you can use for a wide variety of activities such as running, hiking, cycling, swimming, then the Suunto Spartan Sport HR Baro is our pick for the overall best outdoors watch.
Our pick for the best women's hiking watch is the Garmin Fenix 5S Plus, which with its various size options has a smaller 42mm screen which suits slimmer wrists. Despite it’s small(er) size it still packs an incredible amount of features.
With a full-color display, you can upload your favorite trails and follow them on GPS topo maps, alternatively, if you want to save the battery life, you can navigate using the compass/altimeter functions and stay on top of changing weather conditions with the barometer.
For use in town, the Fenix 5S also stores up to 500 songs and can be synced with your bank details to allow you to pay contactless while leaving your cards at home.
Bottom line: All the features you would expect from a high-end sports watch, with all the style and comfort of a dressware piece.
In an age when everyone seems to be locked to their small blue screens, I am vehemently passionate about getting more people outside to enjoy the wonder of nature. I grew up with the outdoors on my doorstep, and when I headed off to university I picked a degree in geology that allowed me to spend a lot of time outside on field trips! Over the last 30 years, I have camped or hiked through the wilderness on 5 continents. I hope my posts are informative for both the grizzled veteran and the complete novice alike.