Whether you love hitting the trails, climbing up mountains or getting on your bike for a big ride, an outdoor GPS sports watch is a great addition to your gear.
An outdoor watch can offer brilliant feedback on how far you've trekked, and offer navigation features as well. These can help you explore off the beaten path and prove a useful safety tool with features like "return to start", which you'll find on the latest Garmins.
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Fortunately, there’s also a whole host of wristy companions built for your outdoor pursuits that will let you do that and much more. These are the watches that will keep you safe on those solo runs, get you to your destination on time and serve up enough battery life to make sure they can go the distance you need them to.
For a guide to the key features to look out for in an outdoor watch scroll to the bottom of this article
Best all-round outdoor watch
Garmin Fenix 6X Pro
If you’re looking for the best, Garmin’s rugged beast is the one you want on your wrist. Its Fenix watches have been the go-to pick for adventurers for some time now and with its latest watch, it’s even better equipped for tracking your next trail run or trek.
The Fenix 6 Pro series comes in three core models; the 6, 6S and the 6X. If you’ve got smaller wrists, the slimmer 6S is the one for you. All three models feature stainless steel bodies and titanium buttons to add a much-needed layer of protection and make it easier to get to grips with when you have to throw on some gloves. If you want to spend a bit more you can opt for the Fenix 6X Pro Solar, which has a solar charger in the watch face to help prolong the battery life.
All models track the same activities including trail running, hiking, climbing and open water swimming, offering dedicated metrics for those outdoor pursuits.
The most recent iteration of Garmin's outdoor series upgrades a number of features across the range. The most noticeable of these is a frankly enormous range of sports and fitness tracking and analytics tools. The majority of these new features have been migrated from the previous Fenix 5X Plus model, but now come as standard across the 6 and 6 Pro models.
Those features include everything from PulseOx, Race Time Prediction, Performance Condition, Training Effect, Aerobic Training Effect, Anaerobic Training Effect, Body Battery, heat acclimation and altitude acclimation, as well as some tidy enhancements to things like race predictor and VO2 Max.
For outdoor fans, the inclusion of user-friendly maps across the Pro range is a key focus and a larger screen on the 6X Pro means they're easier to use. The mapping capabilities are by far one of, if not the best we've come across, which is impressive considering how difficult it is to incorporate useable mapping within a watch screen.
The other big positive to the 6X Pro is the battery life. Garmin claims that it will give 21 days' use as a smartwatch, up to 60 hours of GPS, up to 15 hours of GPS and music, 120 hours in max battery mode, 46 hours in expedition mode and 80 days in battery saver mode.
Best outdoor watch on a budget
Garmin Instinct 2
Garmin’s Fenix range is not cheap, so if you want something similar for a lot less, the Instinct 2 is worth considering. The Solar also adds the ability to charge the battery through sunlight, which may be worth a look if you're planning on some major outdoor adventures.
Available in a range of colours, the Instinct has military grade durability and can be submerged in water up to 100 metres. It also delivers battery life anywhere from 30 hours up to 48 hours depending on how long you’re expecting to be out on your adventures and if you opt for the solar version.
The Instinct 2 sees a number of big upgrades to the previous version, many of which have only been seen on Garmin's premium options like the Fenix range. That includes VO2 Max, built-in workouts, recovery time, Body Battery and stress tracking.
Although it lacks map features, you will find a limited but perfectly useable navigation system, with the ability to retrace your route to get you safely back to the start of your expedition.
Considering the sheer volume of premium features, activity options and the fantastic battery life, the Instinct 2 is one of the best options out there if you want it all but don't want to stump up the price of some of Garmin's pricier options.
Best outdoor smartwatch
Casio Pro Trek Smart WSD-F30
The Apple Watch isn’t really built for withstanding serious rough and tumble, so if you’re looking for a smartwatch designed for bouncing against rocks on your hikes and still operating in freezing cold conditions, Casio’s smartwatch is one to consider.
This is Casio’s third iteration of its Pro Trek Smart range, which runs on Google’s smartwatch operating system letting you download apps to add on extra features. It does already come loaded with a bunch of apps designed to up your outdoor tracking game, including Viewranger (which features the amazing Ordnance Survey mapping) and Casio’s own apps – a mixed bag in terms of how useful they are.
There are dedicated tracking modes for the likes of hiking, surfing and even fishing with a nice bright touchscreen display to view your progress. The battery life can’t match some of the other watches on this list though, offering a day and a half of use when putting all of its features to the test.
If you're after a comprehensive outdoor watch but still want the features of a good smartwatch, the Pro Trek ticks a lot of boxes But the sacrifices in terms of battery life and size will put a lot of people off. If you're looking for top outdoor watch features you'd be better served by a Garmin or Suunto watch.
Best for going the distance
Suunto 9 Baro
Suunto’s watches are never going to win any style awards, but if you want something that’s built to last and has bags of battery life, this is the one you want on your wrist.
The Baro features a stainless steel bezel and sapphire crystal to protect the display and is waterproof up to 100 metres. All of those important outdoor sensors are on board including a digital compass, an altimeter to measure elevation and it can even identify sea level pressure and indicate sunset and sunrise times.
It’ll track over 80 sports including outdoor activities like cycling, trail running and open water swimming. If you’re an ultra runner, Suunto has included its FusedTrack software that enables you to use the onboard GPS and motion sensors to track your movements all while reducing the hit on the battery life.
That battery life is the killer feature here though, letting you track anything from 25 hours to a whopping 120 hours depending on your GPS mode.
You’ll also get smart battery reminders based on the battery you used on a similar activity to make sure you have enough power to get all of your data when you’re ready to go back home.
However, we found the interface to be pretty confusing and ran into some syncing issues with the app as well – and it's not up to the standard of Garmin when it comes to that aspect. So while battery life is second to none, if you feel you can get away with less than 120 hours of tracking, it's worth considering the importance of the ecosystem.
Coros Apex Pro
Coros has made some major waves in the outdoor watch market over the past couple of years, managing to compete with the big players when it comes to everything from tech and design to the all-important battery life.
The Apex Pro is the latest addition to the Coros roster, offering an upgrade to the previous surprise hit of the Apex and sitting below the higher spec Vertix (see below).
By far the most impressive aspect of the Apex Pro is battery life, offering up 30 days of normal usage – occasional runs, heart rate monitoring and day-to-day activities, 40 hours of full GPS tracking and a killer 100 days when you opt for the Ultra Max mode, a setting that takes less frequent readings but generally gives you the bulk of the features available.
Instead of replicating other watch models, Coros have taken a new approach to the design and interface of the Apex and Apex Pro. Instead of buttons, the majority of the controlling is done via a rotating crown dial on the watch, allowing you to quickly spin through menu options, dashboards and other features. It's a beautifully simple addition which makes navigating the various options incredibly simple, especially when you're out and about.
On top of that, there's an intuitive menu system that removes any clicking of buttons to come in and out of sub-menus, making finding and starting new runs and hikes a very quick process. A system simplicity that is mirrored in the clear and aesthetically impressive partner app.
In addition, the watch includes navigation tools which, although not as advanced as many of the other options on the list, cover the basics of route planning in a simple and useable format, allowing uploads of routes that are easily accessible whilst hiking, running or cycling.
The only downside is a lack of sports available, with Coros opting for just 15 trackable activities, including triathlon. The upshot of that is that you can't use it for things like paddleboarding or snow sports.
At $150 more expensive than the Apex, you do gain a few nice design features, like a more durable Titanium alloy bezel, a tough Sapphire glass screen, a touch screen for activities and navigation and the inclusion of an extra button to help operating, however the bulk of the features are also found in the Apex which comes in quite a bit cheaper.
Best undercover outdoor watch
Alpina Alpiner X 2019
Most outdoor watches are big, bulky affairs, but if you want something that could comfortably pass as a traditional timepiece you can wear at work and on your next hike, the Alpiner X is a good fit.
The Swiss watchmaker has devised a watch that’s part traditional watch and part smartwatch, packing in a display on the bottom half of the watch face to show environmental data like temperature, altitude, pressure and UV index. You can also track your outdoor exploits, but it relies on your phone to help your track location.
That watch face is wrapped up in a tough fibreglass and stainless steel body that’s water resistant up to 100 metres and includes a twisty-compass bezel to add to that adventurer look.
It’s more expensive than something like the Fenix or the Instinct and offers less features, but if you need a balance of good looks and something that’s an excellent fit for your outdoor pursuits there’s still a lot to like about the Alpiner X 2019 edition.
Best for getting up high
Coros might not be as well known as Garmin or Suunto, but the newcomer is quickly growing a reputation for making solid sports watches – with the Vertix the latest to join the family.
With a design that feels very Fenix inspired, the Vertix is built from tough materials featuring a titanium frame and bezel and sapphire glass to give it that rugged extra layer of protection. It’s also been tested to work in freezing temperatures and should still function at -4 degrees fahrenheit (-20 degrees centigrade).
It’s designed to track a whole range of outdoor activities including trail running, hiking and biking, and is also built with mountain climbing in mind, adding in sensors to monitor altitude and letting you know when it’s safe to keep on climbing.
Battery life is solid too, offering up to 60 hours when in tracking mode and a whopping 45 days when you’re just using it in regular watch mode. As we said, it’s not a big name just yet, but the Vertix is an outdoor watch that really impresses.
Outdoor watch key features
Maps and navigation
For anyone on the hunt for a great outdoor watch, navigational capabilities are a core function. Whether you're trail running, hiking or even climbing, having easy access to a route-finding tool on your wrist can make life significantly easier as well as safer. It is, however, a feature that can vary enormously across devices with options ranging from a simple monochrome breadcrumb display to full-color downloadable maps.
Devices that utilize full-color maps like the Garmin Fenix 6 range or the Casio Pro Trek Smart WSD-F30 are more expensive and usage can have a noticeable effect on battery life. Choosing the right level of functionality for your specific activity will help you to gauge an expected price range.
How long a watch can operate is extremely important when used for outdoor activities due to the likelihood that being able to charge the device is significantly limited. For ultra runners and hikers this is a key focus, with only a few smartwatches able to deliver enough battery life for many extreme endurance activities.
Although the need for a waterproof smartwatch will vary based on activity, for the majority of outdoor uses a level of protection is likely to be required. Most outdoor smartwatches will have an ATM or Bar rating which will denote the pressure to which the watch can be taken in water. 1 ATM/Bar is equal to about 10 meters of water.
It's important to note that the ATM rating are not as simple as being able to swim to a certain depth. Manufacturers state that you'll need a 5ATM watch at a minimum to use a device for swimming.
Unlike smartwatches designed for everyday use and fitness tracking, outdoor watches are expected to have a significantly higher level of durability due to the nature of the activities being carried out. This will vary between devices and be dependent on a number of factors from material used and the thickness of the individual elements within the watch.
Some devices, like the Casio Pro Trek Smart WSD-F30, may use military classifications for durability (MIL-STD-810G) which will define things like water protection, shock resistance and operating temperature limits.
The range of activities available to track with an outdoor device is likely to vary depending on the device. The most advanced watches, like the Garmin Fenix range and the Suunto Baro will allow for customization of your own activities, which is often useful if you take part in multi-sport events or more less popular activities. Less advanced devices may have less sports modes and lack customization or the ability to track multi-sport activities like triathlon.
Customization will allow you to modify the sensors used, specific parameters like lapped activities as well as define the key data supplied via the watch interface.
Main image credit: Suunto