GPS Watches: Which Are Best For Thru-Hiking?
I‘ve worn GPS watches on and off for almost a decade. When I was 19 I got a basic FitBit specifically to train for my first marathon, and since then, I’ve tried multiple iterations of the Garmin Forerunner series. Overall, I’ve been extremely happy with their functionality and utility.
Though I didn’t use a GPS watch when I thru-hiked the John Muir Trail, whenever I prep for my next long adventure it will absolutely be something I add to my kit. Not only can GPS watches track distance, pace, elevation gain/loss, and time, but they also have a variety of health-tracking features that help tremendously with training and performance.
With my current watch, the Garmin Forerunner 955, I’m able to see how well-acclimated I am to specific altitudes and heat, as well as assess how my training load is impacting my fitness. It’s been an extremely useful training tool as I’ve progressed in my ultra-running endeavors, and would absolutely be beneficial for thru-hiking.
So you want a new watch: What’s next?
Once you’ve decided to splurge on a watch, the tricky part is figuring out which one is best suited for your next adventure. There are so many options on the market, and a lot of the features and comparisons are incredibly dense. The purpose of this article is to sort through and simplify the features of the more popular watches. We can’t cover them all, of course, but this will get you prepped for the category as a whole. So here we go with a feature overview of my personal watch recommendations for long-distance backpacking.
Features to Consider
- Battery Life: If you’re planning to use GPS to track your hike every day, battery life may be your #1 consideration. Some of these watches come with a solar charging feature which extends battery life, but be careful not to overblow the usefulness of this feature. For consistency purposes, I talk about battery life in terms of GPS tracking hours. While not using GPS tracking, many of these watches will last for weeks or even months, but let’s use this active GPS statistic to simplify the comparison.
- Altimeter: A watch with a pressure-based altimeter will show you your current elevation, whether you’re using GPS or not. This is extremely helpful for route finding and knowing your total elevation gain/loss. Some watches will even give you an estimated altitude acclimation metric.
- Maps: A watch with maps preloaded can be incredibly helpful on less popular routes. With many models, you are able to design a route on your phone or computer and send it to your watch. This allows you to verify your course with a twist of the wrist and without pulling out a phone, paper map, or emergency GPS device.
- Price Point: The less expensive watches will still record step count, heart rate, sleep data, and many other baseline metrics even when not using GPS tracking. However, depending on how much you’re willing to invest, the fancier models come equipped with function-adding features like maps, altimeters, and much longer battery life.
The Big Three of GPS Watch Brands
There are three major players when it comes to fully functional GPS watches that are well-suited to backcountry use. Garmin, Coros, and Suunto round out what might be called, dare I say it, the Triple Crown of GPS watch brands. Each offers at least a few different models with varying feature sets.
Below I break down the differences between each brand’s flagship models. Which one is right for you will depend on why you want a watch in the first place. And keep in mind that all of these options are solid choices.
Garmin GPS Watches
Recommended Models: Fenix 7 Pro Series, Forerunner 965, Epix Pro, Instinct 2
- MSRP: $800-$1000
- Battery Life: Up to 89 hours, or 120 hours with solar, of GPS tracking
- Pros: Battery life, top-notch mapping features, different upgrades available.
- Cons: Pricey, bulky.
To be honest, if I had an extra grand lying around I would absolutely get the most expensive Fenix watch. The mapping is easy to use with up to 30 programmable routes of storage, and you can drop up to 1,000 waypoints. This is likely overkill for all but the most data-driven hiker, but there is nothing else that compares. The new “pro” upgrade to the Fenix 7 series also includes an LED light and brand-new endurance/hill strength scores to assess your fitness progress.
Clearly, there are a lot of different options in the series. Simply, there are three available upgrades in any combination:
- Size: The Fenix is available in three sizes, the 7s, 7, and 7X — small, standard, and large, respectively. The 7s and 7 have the same battery life. The 7X comes with boosted battery life and a corresponding price bump.
- Glass: Next, there’s the Sapphire upgrade. This is Garmin’s strongest glass, which offers enhanced durability for about $100 extra.
- Solar: Any of Garmin’s Fenix watches are available with a solar upgrade. Solar charging isn’t intended to be the primary power source, however, it will help to top off your watch during long days of hiking.
With all available upgrades, the Fenix 7X Pro Sapphire Solar comes in at $1,000 and has up to 120 hours of GPS tracking.
- MSRP: $600
- Battery Life: Up to 30 hours of GPS tracking.
- Pros: Mapping, advanced training analytics, updated LED display.
- Cons: Battery life.
I’ve been using the Forerunner 955 for over a year now, so I’m very familiar with this watch. The main difference between mine and the 965 model is an upgraded AMOLED touchscreen display that is both brighter and more aesthetically pleasing. You’re also able to program as many routes and waypoints as the Fenix series.
However, the main downside is the battery life, hands down. This model only survives about 30 hours of GPS tracking. The 955 does come in a solar version, which bumps it up to 40 hours or 80 hours in a power-saving mode.
- MSRP: $300-$450
- Battery Life: Up to 22-145 hours GPS tracking depending on model.
- Pros: Battery life, price point, altimeter.
- Cons: No preloaded maps or touchscreen.
Similar to the Fenix series, the Instinct comes in a range of sizes and the option for solar charging. It’s also available at a much more affordable price point. At just $300 for the base model, it’s one of the cheaper options on the market with an altimeter and limited mapping options.
It doesn’t include preloaded maps like the Fenix or Forerunner, but you can still program routes and add waypoints. If you upgrade to the 2X Solar, you get up to 60 hours of GPS battery life for half the price of the Fenix 7X Solar. This is also one of the most durable watches available, with a polymer casing and scratch-resistant glass. It’s a great option if you love sports like canyoneering, climbing, or scrambling and are consistently rough on gear.
Coros GPS Watches
Recommended Models: Vertix 2, Apex 2 Pro, Pace 2
- MSRP: $700
- Battery Life: Up to 140 hours of full GPS tracking.
- Pros: Battery life, GPS accuracy, sapphire glass, music, and camera connection available.
- Cons: Bulky, less preloaded onto watch.
The Vertix 2 is Coros’ backcountry adventure-focused watch. The battery life is the big story here, and blows Garmin out of the water with up to 140 hours of full GPS tracking. This watch has the most storage available (32GB) for mapping in the Coros lineup as well and with its updated GPS system it will also have the most accurate tracking. Built with a rugged design that promises to survive the harshest conditions, the Vertix is as suited to outdoor adventures as any other watch available.
If there’s any reason to gripe about this über capable watch, then it’s likely the bulk factor. In fairness, it’s not huge, but the rugged styling is definitely a ‘look’.
- MSRP: $450
- Battery Life: Up to 150 hours of GPS tracking
- Pros: Battery life, sapphire glass, altimeter & maps, offline music, touchscreen and buttons.
- Cons: Not as many programmable routes/waypoints available as Garmin.
The Apex 2 Pro is comparable to either the Garmin Forerunner 955 or the Fenix 7 series. At $450, it’s a more affordable price point and has a much better battery life of up to 75 hours of full GPS tracking (double that with the power-saving UltraMax mode). While the Vertix 2 is a more capable and rugged option, the Apex offers all the features that a backpacker might enjoy in a streamlined package and at an affordable price point. If you’re looking for a fully capable GPS watch for your next thru-hike, then keep the Apex in mind. Even with GPS tracking, the battery will last for well over a week for most users.
There aren’t many downsides to this watch, and at safely under $500, the Apex 2 Pro offers great value for a watch with maps and awesome battery life.
- MSRP: $200
- Battery Life: Up to 60 hours of GPS tracking.
- Pros: Battery life, price point, lightweight, simple to use.
- Cons: No altimeter or maps.
The Coros Pace 2 is a great entry-level watch for tracking basic health data as well as GPS tracking activities. At only $200, it’s one of the more budget-friendly options included in this list. Additionally, the battery life is incredible for a watch at this price with up to 30 hours of GPS tracking or 60 hours in power saving mode. This is a wonderful option for a simple watch that will track activities and health statistics without breaking the bank.
Suunto GPS Watches
Recommended Models: Vertical Titanium Solar, 9 Peak Titanium, Core
- MSRP: $840
- Battery Life: Up to 85 hours of GPS tracking.
- Pros: Battery life, maps, full fitness tracking.
- Cons: Price, user interface.
Based on price alone, users should expect to get a lot out of the Suunto Vertical Titanium Solar watch. This is the brand’s flagship model, and so incorporates all the bells and whistles that one might imagine. The mapping feature is useful, as always, but it’s the amazing battery life, aided by solar charging, that really sets this watch apart from Suunto’s other models.
The main downside of the Vertical, an otherwise solid GPS watch, is the user interface. The watch face isn’t as flashy or customizable as the competition, and the associated app struggles to match the highly rated Coros and Garmin equivalents. Still, this watch is undoubtedly qualified to join you for the duration of your next backcountry adventure.
And if you like the look of this watch, but want to save some cash, the ‘regular’ Suunto Vertical is available for $630 and still boasts an impressive battery life of up to 60 hours of GPS tracking.
- MSRP: $470
- Battery Life: Up to 40 hours of GPS tracking.
- Pros: Maps, altimeter, updated display and durability.
- Cons: GPS data not as reliable as Garmin/Coros.
The Suunto 9 Peak Pro is comparable to the Apex Pro or Fenix/Forerunner watches. It has more programmable mapping routes available than the Coros watches and you can also drop waypoints. The battery life is average, with up to 40 hours of GPS tracking but it also has a power-saving mode. It includes health data, like estimated recovery time, VO2 max, etc. Coming in at a competitive price point, the main downside is the less sophisticated Suunto GPS system. However, in practice, this will be hard to notice.
READ NEXT — Suunto 7 GPS Smartwatch Review
- MSRP: $200
- Battery Life: Replaceable battery, lasts about 1 year.
- Pros: Navigation and weather features, battery life, price point.
- Cons: No GPS tracking or health data.
The Suunto Core is the only watch included in this list that doesn’t include GPS tracking or overall health data. However, it’s still incredibly useful and worth mentioning as a basic ABC (altimeter, barometer, compass) watch. Even without the features of GPS watches, these tools are helpful for navigating through the backcountry. The included battery is replaceable and is about as worry-free as they come. It should last about a year whereas all other watches on this list require regular recharging. At $199 it’s an excellent navigation tool, especially for off-trail adventures.
GPS Watches for Thru-Hiking: Worth the effort
If you’re looking to add a GPS watch to your thru-hiking kit, the number of available options can be daunting. However, the list thins out significantly once you narrow down which features you find most important.
Though watches are an extremely pricey investment, they are a worthy addition for many reasons. Not only do they help with physical data such as recovery and sleep metrics, but they can also serve as a useful tool for navigation and route finding. Sure, no one needed a GPS watch to thru-hike the AT in 1980, but the meteoric rise of navigation apps has shown us that non-essential conveniences are here to stay as we increasingly look for ways to augment our wilderness experiences with technology.
To reiterate, this list just scratches the surface of the deep pool of available watches. Even if your favorite brand or model isn’t included here, comparing features side-by-side with some of these most popular watches will help tremendously in understanding what these technological powerhouses are capable of. Features, brand — the choice is yours.
Featured Image: Graphic design by Chris Helm.
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