Gadgets and the outdoors do not really go that well together. Water, heat, dust, and mud can all wreak havoc on anything hi-tech. But hiking watches are a different breed altogether. They have been designed specifically to withstand the rigors of nature. And they are also capable of handling multiple tasks. The best hiking smartwatch is one that combines the job of a timekeeper with a compass, an altimeter and many other things.
In this article we will review the following smartwatches for hiking:
- Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire
- Suunto Traverse
- Garmin Fenix 5
- Sunnto Ambit3 Peak HR
- Casio Men’s PAG240-1CR Pathfinder
Top 5 Best Hiking Watches
If you want a truckload of features at a slightly reduced price-point, the Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire might be a sound choice. Released in 2015, it has been replaced by the newer Garmin 5, but still packs some serious punch in terms of features. The Fenix 3 is an all-rounder, with sensors that make it a great sports watch as well as a hiking/outdoors watch.
After Garmin, Suunto is another big name in the field of smartwatches. The Traverse collection was originally released in 2015 for outdoor enthusiasts, and has all the bells and whistles you would expect from a premium model. But if anything can be said against this watch, it is just that it doesn’t really have any stand out feature. If you want a really solid smartwatch for outdoor use with GPS/GLONASS at a lower price, the Suunto might be a better choice than Garmin.
If you want the absolute latest GPS enabled smartwatch from a major brand, the Fenix 5 might be a great choice for you. It is quite expensive, but it features a lot of improvements over its predecessor, the Garmin 3. There are a lot of options to choose from, with three different sizes, each with its own variants. In total, you can choose from at least 14 different variants of the Fenix 5. It is one of the few watches we have reviewed that comes with a dedicated “Hiking Mode.”
The Ambit3 Peak is another great GPS watch from Suunto. It has all the smart features that you can expect from a watch in this class. It has been around for a few years now, and so you can expect to get it at a reduced price, which is always a good thing. It lacks a color display and dedicated maps function, but it has got its basics right. You get all the navigation sensors in addition to the GPS, along with other activity trackers/sensors as well.
The Pathfinder from Casio is a bit of an odd one out in this list. It does not have a fully “smart” feature list, and is more of an advanced digital watch with a bunch of useful navigation features. It is also the most affordable watches in our shortlist. If you don’t care about apps, connectivity, and activity tracking sensors, the Pathfinder may be the best hiking watch for you.
Hiking watch buying guide
To qualify for outdoor duty, a smartphone watch needs to have several key features. These days, smart watches come bundled with so many different features, it is very easy to get overwhelmed! But the basics are what matters the most, and these include durability, good battery life, an optimal mix of useful sensors, and lest we forget, accurate timekeeping as well! Here is a short overview of some of the features (core and optional) too look for in a hiking watch.
Primary Concern – Durability
An outdoors watch isn’t worth buying unless it is designed to survive in harsh conditions. When it comes to hiking watches, durability pertains mainly to two things:
- How rugged its construction is
- How impervious its innards are to the elements, like water and dust
Rugged watches will have a very tough and durable strap, and a scratch/shatter-proof lens on its face. The more expensive premium models these days come with special Sapphire glass, like the latest iPhones. Waterproof or at least some level of water-resistant build is essential in hiking and outdoor watches.
Core Sensors – The “B-A-C”
The core functions of a good hiking watch can be be described by the simple acronym B-A-C. It stands for Barometer, Altimeter, and Compass. This trio of gadgets can be considered the holy trinity of outdoor survival and exploration. Any modern hiking smartwatch worth it’s salt will carry these three features without fail.
Having this sensor on your watch helps you keep an eye on the atmospheric pressure. This will help you keep on top of local weather conditions and give you an early indication of any abrupt change in weather.
High atmospheric pressure is usually associated with clear skies and sunny weather. Lower atmospheric pressure on the other hand, is more common during overcast and rainy situations. And any sudden drops in temperature is usually a sign of an approaching storm or stormy weather.
Smartwatches with this sensor will give live readings as well as graphs that track the changes in pressure over time. Almost all of them also include a “storm warning” alarm feature, programmed to trigger in situations where extreme drops ins atmospheric pressure happens. A timely alert can help you find shelter before the storms hit.
When you are out in the hills, this sensor will help you know your exact altitude, or height above sea level. An altimeter is a handy device that can help you figure out your position on a map. Smartwatches use two different methods to calculate this, depending on the presence or absence of a GPS function.
In watches without GPS, the traditional method uses atmospheric pressure readings from the barometer to calculate the altitude. But modern GPS-based altimeters are more accurate and reliable than the traditional ones. And unlike barometric altimeters, these are also easier to use, since they don’t require any calibration to function accurately.
This probably does not require any explanation. A compass help you get your bearings out in the wild. If all else fails, you can always depend on your compass and a map to help triangulate your current location.
Helpful Extras – Secondary Features
These days, a GPS/GLONASS based systems are preferred as they are very easy to use and provide accurate real time data. But when it comes to smartwatches, GPS comes with its own unique challenges and unavoidable trade-offs.
The feature requires a lot of power to operate, and a watch with GPS will drain its batteries much faster than a watch without it. As a result, many manufacturers opt out of including this feature in their models in order to improve the battery life. Generally, the more expensive, feature packed watches will sport this feature.
Though not a necessity as such, having an accurate grip on the temperature conditions doesn’t hurt, especially when you are doing strenuous activity. When you are out camping in places with extreme variations in temperature, you can use a thermometer to decide the level of protection you need when inside a tent.
Apps, Software, Advanced Connectivity
These are some of the features that you can expect from a smartwatch. The ability to connect to your smartphone or PC can come in handy, during the preparation stage of your hike/trip. You can upload/share route maps, and other important data between your devices. But once you are far away from modern amenities like WiFi or cell phone networks, these features become of secondary importance!
Handy Tips and Hints
- Always keep a fallback option, a “Plan B” if you will. Gadgets can die, and if your smartwatch fails or runs out of juice in the middle of a hike, you need to have backup options, like a real compass.
- Don’t depend too much on the GPS. There are always dead-zones out there, where the GPS facility is unable to link to a satellite. This is why it is always better to bring along some actual maps.
- Keep the batteries fully charged and bring along charging options or extra batteries if you have a GPS function on your watch.
In conclusion, treat your smartwatch as a handy tool that you can use on the go, without having to reach for a map or compass. You should never depend entirely on the features of your hiking watch, no matter how good or expensive a model it is. They are useful, but they may not provide the same level of accuracy/reliability as say, a handheld GPS device, compass or barometer.