What is the best smartwatch for hiking?

young woman hiker checking the altimeter on sports watch at mountain peak

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 smartwatch for hiking is one that combines the job of a timekeeper with a compass, an altimeter and many other things.

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.

Barometer

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.

Altimeter

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.

Compass

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

GPS

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.

Thermometer

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.

Best Smartwatch For Hiking Reviews

Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire

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.

PROS

  • It has a very durable build quality with metal bezel and Sapphire glass.
  • The GPS/GLONASS system is quick and easy to use.
  • Has all the important navigation features like compass, barometer, and altimeter.
  • ​The full color digital display is capable of showing a lot of data.
  • Despite the presence of the GPS, the battery life is excellent, with some great power-saving options.
  • The watch is waterproof and you can safely go swimming with it.
  • Has a lot of fitness training sensors and "activity tracker" features, including an optional heart rate monitor.
  • ​Can connect and sync to smartphones/PC with WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity.

CONS

  • The watch is quite big and heavy, especially with the default steel bezel.
  • There are a lot of settings are configuration options to take care of, with just five different buttons.
  • The screen is quite dark, with visibility issues.
  • The GPS has serious accuracy issues at times, so you may have to depend on other options for navigation.

Suunto Traverse

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.

PROS

  • The Traverse has a very understated and elegant design, with extremely sturdy build quality.
  • It has all the navigation features including GPS, compass, barometer and altimeter.
  • The display has good visibility under all lighting conditions and show a wealth of data in the form of routes, maps, and graphs.
  • It can connect to your smartphone using Bluetooth.
  • There are sensors that record vital signs and workout data, like heart rate, speed, ascent, etc.

CONS

  • Battery life in the Traverse is lower than the competition, especially with GPS turned on.
  • There are also occasional accuracy issues with the navigation sensors.
  • Does not have WiFi.
  • Not suitable for swimming.
  • It does not have a color display.

Garmin Fenix 5

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."

PROS

  • There is something for everybody, with a lot of variants to choose from.
  • Excellent multisports features, with activity trackers and specialized modes.
  • 100m waterproof, so you can go out swimming with it.
  • Excellent battery life.
  • Offers both WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity.
  • The GPS and GLONASS works quite well, with best in class performance.
  • Great display, with good color settings.
  • The navigation sensors all offer quite accurate readings.

CONS

  • The software does have a tendency to freeze up occasionally.
  • Since this is the latest premium model, the price is quite high.

Sunnto Ambit3 Peak HR

The Ambit3 Peak is another great GPS smartwatch 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.

PROS

  • GPS locking is fast and accurate.
  • Battery life is almost comparable to the newer Fenix 5, which is quite good.
  • Silicone band is very comfortable to wear and offers a snug fit.
  • Has dedicated modes for running, cycling, swimming, mountaineering and hiking, among others.
  • It can connect to your phone app using Bluetooth.

CONS

  • The watch is quite big and bulky, and might pose a problem for some people.
  • There are no advanced customization options, in terms of design, strap, etc.
  • The screen in black and white, and the space is quite limited and cannot show a lot of data.
  • Figuring out the button controls is not intuitive and can take some time to get used to.

Casio Men's PAG240-1CR Pathfinder

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.

PROS

  • It is solar powered, so you don't have to worry about charging as long as sunlight is available.
  • ​Has all the basic navigation features like digital compass, altimeter, barometer, and even a thermometer.
  • Rugged and tough build, with stainless steel bezel and mineral glass.
  • Outstanding value for money.
  • Very simple and straightforward device, very easy to use.
  • The display, though very limited, is quite crisp and easily readable.
  • It is water resistant, and can survive the occasional drops and splashes.

CONS

  • Does not have any advanced smartwatch features.
  • There are not connectivity options.
  • No GPS option.
  • The default strap is rather uncomfortable and might need changing.