How to choose a smartwatch for hiking

Smartwatch and hiking: two words that cause chaos in our heads!
 
I know how you feel. When I first started digging around I had no idea how to choose a smartwatch for hiking. Or running. Or cycling!
 
The number of choices were, and still are, huge.
 
Did I need a hiking watch with GPS, or should I buy one with an altimeter? Should I buy a trail watch? Had I even heard of a trail watch? (The answer is ‘no’. It’s another name for a multisport watch.
 
Over the years I’ve owned quite a few watches and can say with confidence that I have a good idea what to look for. So, without further ado, let’s get down and discover what a real hiking watch should look like.

 

GPS. GPS. GPS!

If the smartwatch you’re drooling over doesn’t have a GPS function, walk away.
 
To be honest it’s pretty hard to find a ‘real’ hiking watch that doesn’t have CPS capabilities. But there are a few out there. Like this…
 
sundial watch
Sundial watch: a real budget GPS watch!
You really can buy gear like this, checkout Etsy.
 
Why do you need GPS built into your watch?
 
You don’t ‘need’ global positioning, but it’s useful as a fallback. What’s more, in some extreme environments there’s less risk to you when you don’t have to expose your hands and fingers to biting winds to get a bearing.
 
Taking off your gloves to operate a GPS unit leaves you at the mercy of Mother Nature’s vicious bite. And frost injuries.
 
I like to set up my homescreen with all the necessary settings, like a bearing readout. When I need to check my direction of travel I peel back my mitten and read the display. Easy and risk free.
 
And a having a fallback in case my primary navigation aid fails is invaluable. Good fortune has smiled upon me – my Garmin eTrex 10 has only let me down once (because I forgot to replace the batteries, so my own fault).
 

Takeaways:

  • A GPS watch is useful back up device should your primary navigation tool fail.
  • Pick a watch that supports both GPS and GLOSNASS (the Russian Global Positioning Satellite system).

Choose A Rugged Watch

garmin tactix delta
They don’t come more rugged than the Garmin Tactix Delta.

Square-jawed, heroic and able to shrug off even the hardest of knocks. That’s how tough any hiking watch should be.

 
Here are some key considerations about the build quality:
 
  • The screen should be bulletproof. What I mean is tough enough to take some pretty hard knocks. It would be awesome if it could deflect actual bullets, but that’s not a high priority.
  • A metal bezel will resist the hard knocks more and look less worn than one made of plastic. If you see dents and scuff marks as symbol of your arduous adventures, go plastic.
  • Choose a watch with heavy duty spring bars – the pins that hold the straps in place. Thicker is better. Marine grade 316L stainless steel are amongst the most durable available.
  • Watch keeper strap will prevent your watch from falling off if a clasp snaps.
  • Unless you have a fetish for touching your watch every 5 seconds, avoid a touchscreen. It’s one more component that can go wrong.
  • If you’re going to extremes choose a watch with the best operating temperature.
  • Avoid prominent buttons, the big sticky-type type. They are easy to damage if you take tumble or scuff the watch against hard surfaces. Like mountains.
  • Check the strap rating. The figure will be in Newtons, the higher the better.
You get the idea.
 
The more rugged the watch, the higher the price. If you’re short on cash, find a middle ground you can afford.
For a seriously tough watch, check out the Tactix Delta and and it’s smaller sibling, the Fenix 6, both made by Garmin.

Takeaway:

  • You’re a hiker and you’ll be out in the extremes, places where an ordindary watch won’t cut it. Choose a hiking watch that will stand up to the hard knocks that come with your advenures.

Battery Life

My very first multisports watch was a Garmin Forerunner 410. It ticked all the boxes I had at the time: rugged, builtin GPS and could upload my data to the Garmin website.
 
But the battery life was more terrible than Ivan!
 
I still own that same watch and take it running, for old time’s sake. After about 4 hours, the battery is dead.
 
In recent years multisport watches have made an evoltionary leap. Some of the Garmin models boast weeks of uptime. And the Coros Apex spanks the competition with a massive 28 days of battery life.
 
And whilst we’re on the topic of battery life – always carry a means to charge whilst you’re hiking. Having a charged PowerMonkey in your rucksack will save you much misery.
 

Takeaways:

  • Go big on battery life, or go home. If you’re unable to charge your watch whilst hiking, don’t rely on it.
  • Carry a fully charge ‘brick’ such as a PowerMonkey.
  • Better still, pack a solar charging rig in your rucksack.
 

Connectivity

We hikers all have a dark secret: we like people to see our epic journeys (or is only me who thinks that way?)
 
And how to help our non-hiking friends to visualise our life or death expeditions? Through the dark magic of apps such as Strava and Garmin Connect.
 
If you want to compliment your photos of ‘me hanging from the edge of crevasse’ with an image of your heart racing, pick a watch supported by the major apps.
 
Before we move on, the likes of Garmin now provide the facility to upload music to their watches. Huge bonus! The iPod is dead; long live the multisport watch.
 
On a more serious note, not having to carry an MP3 player/iPod reduces your power demands.
 

Takeaways:

  • Having support for the mainstream apps is a real positive.
  • Even better, being able to store and listen to music on your watch reduces the amount of gear you carry.
 

To Map or Not To Map

hiking watch map
Do you need mapping on your hiking watch?

Not so many years ago being able to download maps to your GPS unit was a big deal. Now this funtionality is common to most devics (unless, like me, you prefer Garmin’s eTrex 10).

 
But do you need a full colour, topographical map on your watch? I say no.
 
To my mind, no matter how big a screen it’s not large enough to give you a good view of the terrain. It’s better to install mapping software on your smartphone and use it to view your route and location.
 
If you must have maps available then go simple. A black and white map showing spot heights and contours lines is more than adequate
to give you quick update on your location.
 

Takeaway

  • Ask yourself if you must have mapping on your watch. If the answer is no, save your pennies.
 

A Barometer Is Pretty Useful Too

Ever found yourself in the eye of the storm and wished you’d had advance notice? A barometer will answer your prayers.
 
This is one feature I recommend you look for when you want to choose a hiking watch.
 
A little story.
 
Last year I was hiking Dartmoor (one of the UK’s National Parks) and the weather seemed as if it was about to get rough. On one day in particular, I’d planned to hike well into the evening. A quick check of my watch’s barometer was enough to tell to pause and camp for the night. Sure enough, my watch was right – the storm was brutal.
 
This one simple function saved me from a drenching. And getting cold when the temperature dipped. Put wet and cold together and you have a dangerous situation.
 

Takeaway:

  • Always, always try to buy a watch with a barometer. Then learn how to understand the readgins.
 

A Heart Rate Monitor

Hikers don’t need an HRM! Seriously, your heart will tell you when the hill your climbing steep. A pounding in your chest and sweat pouring off your brow is a good sign you’re working hard.
 
But, if you’re like me and you run on a regular basis a HRM can is useful.
 
The key here is to decide if you’re choosing a hiking watch, or one for multisport activities.
 

Takeaway:

  • You don’t need an HRM on your hiking watch, but it is useful if you’re activity in other sports.
 

Comfort

This is a big deal. Your awesome new hiking watch might well tell the time in 37 different zones, place your position to pinpoint accuracy, brew a tea for you and let you watch YouTube on the move, but does it feel right?
 
If the fit doesn’t feel good, don’t buy. Nothing irritates like the constant need to adjust your strap because it chafes.
 
Comfort. Comfort. Comfort.
 

How To Really Choose A Hiking Watch

I can offer advice until the mountains crumble to dust (which would be very sad as there would be no peaks left to climb). What’s most important is that you’re happy with your choice. It’s your money and your needs that come first.
 
The real takeaway from this post is that you need to find what’s right for. But always, always ask yourself if you do need the very latest technology, or if simpler option will suffice.