When it comes to hiking, there are plenty of lists out there of what you need to take with you on a trail. Most will include boots, backpacks, and water bottles. Few are likely to include watches. Yet, thanks to advances in technology, watches are one of the best things you can carry because they no longer just tell the time. This article will go into detail regarding the best hiking watches to buy if you’re going on a hiking trip.
Now, they’re compasses, altimeters, barometers, and your GPS. They can tell you how far and how fast you’ve walked and how many calories you burned in the process, making them a must-have for anyone heading out on a hike along the Walker’s Haute Route or a holiday to the Manjuyod Sandbar.
Here we look at five of our favorite hiking watches, helping you take the guesswork out of which to buy (if you don’t already have one). First, though, we’re looking at what makes a watch a hiking watch and what you should look for before you make a purchase.
What is a hiking watch?
A hiking watch is designed to provide hikers with the information they need when they’re on the trail including their location, altitude, and air pressure as well as when the sun will rise and set and what to expect from the weather.
Which means that, while a hiking watch can’t guarantee you won’t get caught in a sudden downpour, they do mean you’re more likely to have come prepared with the right equipment.
One of the big pluses when it comes to hiking watches is they allow you to travel lighter than you might otherwise. Why take a compass with you, for example, when your watch serves the same purpose? The downsides are the cost (hiking watches aren’t cheap) and the battery life (they don’t always last as long as you’d like or expect).
We’ve looked at both the cost and the battery life as part of our review of the best hiking watches, along with the features on offer and whether they can genuinely make your hike a more comfortable and more enjoyable experience.
Different types of hiking watches
Unlike other types of hiking gear (backpack stoves, for example), when it comes to hiking watches the main difference is the way the watch looks (and, even then, most watchmakers have gone for ‘chunky’ designs). This makes it easier in many ways when it comes to comparing models and deciding which is best.
Saying that you will need to keep an eye out for whether the watch includes GPS as not all do. Though this might seem like the obvious choice as to what makes a hiking watch, it is also the most power-hungry, meaning those who favor longer hikes often choose to go without so they can make use of the other features such as altimeters, which could end up being more important in the long-run.
Alternatives to hiking watches
Depending on why you want a hiking watch, there may be better options out there for you, ones that are more affordable or serve more than one purpose. Many of these are described as sports watches and will allow you to track distance traveled, walking speed and heart rate.
The Suunto Ambit3 watch for example, which we look at in more detail below, works well for hikers as well as fitness enthusiasts while other watches have features that those who enjoy hunting or fishing will appreciate. So, if hiking isn’t your only (or primary) hobby, you’ll want to look for multi-purpose watches.
What to look for when choosing the best hiking watches
One of the nice things when it comes to looking for a hiking watch is the number of standardized features you’ll find, making it easier to make comparisons between them and, ultimately, decide on which one to buy. These features include:
While the majority non-analog watches have GPS, this isn’t necessarily the case when it comes to hiking watches because they can drain your battery, which you’ll struggle to charge if you plan to go on a multi-day hike.
As a result, watchmakers make hiking watches with and without GPS, so you’ll need to check before you make a purchase. If you do choose to go for GPS, you can use it to work out just where you are on your journey, meaning you’re less likely to get lost. You might also be able to sync your watch to your smartphone so you can map your route once you get home.
While GPS allows you to track your route, accelerometers let you record how far you’ve traveled, how fast you’ve walked, and how many steps you’ve made. Accelerometers are pretty much standard in all hiking watches but are found in fitness trackers too so if tracking your distance and steps is your primary goal, these might be a more affordable option than a hiking watch.
Heart Rate Monitor
You can find heart rate monitors in many fitness trackers too. These are generally more useful for those taking part in more strenuous exercise than hiking (think running, cycling and swimming) but will help you track longer-term improvements in your overall fitness levels if you’re new to hiking or are taking on more challenging routes.
You won’t find altimeters in fitness trackers, though these are something you’ll want to see in a hiking watch because they let you know your elevation, which is essential given the impact hiking at higher altitudes can have on your mind and body.
Barometers are another feature you’ll mainly find in hiking watches. They measure the air pressure, helping you predict the weather more accurately.; increased air pressure, for example, is usually a sign that there’s a storm system approaching, letting you get your raincoat out before the first raindrops fall.
While a map and GPS are a good start when it comes to figuring out where you are, every hiker needs a compass to help them if they get lost. Of everything you’ll find on a hiking watch, the compass is probably the most important and, if there isn’t one, it isn’t a hiking watch. Many watches have started to use 3D compasses, which are easy to use and don’t need to be level to be accurate.
Because hiking takes you off the beaten path and across rough terrain, it isn’t always that easy to stay standing. Anyone who’s been on a hike has probably had to grab onto something quickly to keep them upright or suddenly found themselves sitting down rather than standing up because they’ve lost their footing (even with the best hiking boots). Which is why it’s essential to consider how durable your hiking watch is and whether it can survive the inevitable bangs and bumps that could come with hiking.
It’s rare you’ll find a hiking watch that isn’t water resistant, which is a good thing because, while you may not be planning a swim during your hike, you could find yourself caught in a downpour. Knowing your watch will still be working if it gets wet is important, therefore, so check that, even if it isn’t waterproof, it’s water resistant.
Look and feel
Look and feel aren’t a feature of hiking watches as such, but they are important, especially when you’re spending a considerable amount of money on them. Most, as we already said, tend to be on the chunky side. In part, this is to make room for the technology they’re holding, but it also helps make them sturdier, which means they’re more durable and going to last longer.
This type of design can make watches heavier, and uncomfortable to wear, so checking they won’t feel too heavy on your wrist is important. We’ve already said they should be water resistant, but they shouldn’t make you sweat, which can lead to them rubbing while you walk.
Our pick for the five best hiking watches
As we’ve seen, there are plenty of similarities when it comes to the key features of hiking watches, which might lead you to ask isn’t one as good as the other. The answer here is no; when it comes to performance and price, some differences mean some hiking watches stand head and shoulders above some others. We’ve picked five of these and are going to look at them now before making a final decision on which one we’d buy.
1. Suunto Ambit3 Peak HR Running GPS Unit
Suunto is a leader when it comes to hiking watches. Their range offers a variety of styles, including one that can easily take you from the hiking trail to your desk, and prices, meaning there is probably one for every budget.
The Fenix 3 comes in two colors, Black and Sapphire. Made of Polyamide, it’s exceptionally durable as well as being sweatproof and water resistant to 100 meters. The watch offers all the features you might look for in a hiking watch.
It has what are probably the three most important for serious hikers – altimeter, barometer, and compass – as well as GPS. You can buy versions of the Abmit3 with or without a heart rate monitor.
Tests on the Fenix 3 show that the barometric readings are accurate, and you can store data on the Movescout App that links to your phone (it also helps you find new routes and create training programs for sports such as swimming and cycling). The compass works well in tests too; it’s 3D, so you don’t need to be level to take a reading.
One of the things we like most about the Fenix 3 is the battery life; you get around 20 hours with the GPS turned on and almost a month if it’s turned off (showing just how much battery life the GPS uses!). The fact that you can use it to take photos and movies and synchronize them to your smartphone so you can relive your hike when you get back home is nice too. The downside of this, though, is that you need to keep your phone with you as the watch continuously syncs.
- Designed for hiking and sports such as cycling and swimming
- 30 hours of battery life with five second GPS accuracy
- Navigation/mapping, so you can find your way wherever you’re going and back again
- Compass, so you always know which direction you’re heading
- Altimeter, so you know the elevation
- There’s a barometer, so you know if there is a storm coming
- Optional heart rate monitor
- Accelerometer to track your distance, speed, and steps
- Bluetooth enabled for bike power support
- Takes photos and videos, which can you can upload to your smartphone
- Links to your smartphone so you can share your hikes on social media
- Suunto Movescount App to help you find new routes and track your exercise
- Works in a range of languages including English, French, German and Spanish
- Looks good
- Made of durable materials that are UPV and water resistant
- Long battery life
- Features include Altimeter, Barometer, and Compass as well as GPS
- Bluetooth enabled
- Links to smartphone and has a good App to help you map routes
- Can take photos and movies to upload to your phone.
- Has to be paired with your smartphone for the features to work
- Some people found it too bulky for everyday use
- There are so many features it can be hard to set up when you first buy it
- Not easy to use if you have to wear gloves
2. Garmin Fenix 5
The Garmin Fenix 5 is the newest version in the Garmin Fenix range, replacing the previous versions, the Fenix 3. Not only is it a really good hiking watch, but it’s also good looking too, available in a range of options that include different colored wrist straps (black, grey, sapphire blue, white, silver and yellow), watch faces, and glass, meaning there will be a style to suit everyone.
There are three sizes for the Fenix 5 too, meaning if you don’t like chunky watches, you should be o.k. We should point out, though, that not all models have all the features we’ve listed below, so it’s important to check before you make a final decision if you think this is the watch for you.
The Fenix 5X Sapphire, for example, is the only one that includes preloaded cycling maps; it’s also the most expensive, costing around $400 more than the standard model.
All models, however, offer an altimeter, barometer, compass, heart rate monitor and GPS that works with a range of sports including hiking, swimming, cycling and running. The three-axis compass includes a gyroscope, the barometer you can connect to the Garmin Tempe external sensor for more accurate readings and, as well as the GPS; you can use GLONASS satellite reception to track your route.
The Fenix 5 is made of reinforced polymers and stainless steel, making it durable and sturdy and ideal for using outdoors. The high-resolution screen makes it easy to read when you’re outside, even in the harshest weather or brightest sunshine.
Finally, to stop you getting bored, you can swap out the watch strap for others in the Fenix range and the watch face by connected to Garmin’s Connect IQ store (where you can also purchase apps – it’s no wonder reviewers describe this phone as a smartphone versus a hiking watch). Swapping the watch strap can also make it easier to go from the trail to the office.
- Comes in three sizes and offers a range of colors for watch straps, faces, and glass
- GPS that lets you track multiple sports including swimming, cycling and running
- Made of durable materials that are scratch and water resistant
- Offers a range of workout models and pre-loaded maps
- Wi-Fi enabled, allowing you to connect to the online store and download Garmin Apps and new watch faces
- Includes altimeter, barometer, three-axis compass and GLONASS satellite reception (in addition to GPS)
- Water resistant
- Easy to read display that can you can change through the Garmin App Store
- A range of features including preloaded maps (some models) and the ability to link to other equipment such as the Garmin Tempe external temperature gauge
- Everything you need for going on a hike including an altimeter, barometer, compass, and GPS
- Not all models offer all features
3. Casio Men’s Pathfinder Triple Sensor Multi-Function Sport Watch
Unlike the watches we’ve looked at so far, Casio’s Pathfinder doesn’t feature a GPS, which means it might not appeal to everyone. However, it does mean that it has great battery life, which isn’t something to be ignored, and neither are the features that Casio pack into this rather standard looking watch.
The one we like the most is that it’s solar-powered. You don’t, however, need to be out in the sunshine to charge it; it will power up under any type of light. Moreover, once you charge it fully, the battery will last for up to six months before you need to recharge it.
Beyond that, and the lack of GPS, the watch has everything we’ve come to expect from a hiking watch including an incredibly accurate thermometer that works up to -10oc. Add to that the fact that it’s waterproof to 100 meters and works in 31 time zones and you have a watch that is pretty much ready to take you anywhere and will help you do anything remotely active.
- Solar-powered that you can charge under any light source
- Six-month battery life
- Water resistant to 100 meters
- Works at temperatures as low as -10oc
- Includes altimeter, barometer, digital compass, thermometer
- Pre-programmed for 31 times zones
- More affordable than most other hiking watches we’ve looked at
- Solar-powered, meaning you can charge it on the go
- Incredibly long battery life (six-months)
- Can be charged through multiple light sources
- Resistant to low temperatures and water up to 100 meters
- Doesn’t have a GPS
- Doesn’t offer some of the technology that other hiking watches do, e.g., links to smartphones
4. Lad Weather Altimeter Barometer Compass Watch
When it comes to affordable watches, you can’t go far wrong with the Casio Pathfinder, you can, however, get quite a bit cheaper in the form of the Lad Weather Altimeter Barometer Compass watch.
The name of this tells you pretty much everything you need to know about what it offers, making it ideal for hiking, The compass works well, and the barometer is accurate up to 29,500 feet so you shouldn’t have any worries there. Plus, you can record your hike and look back over your stats when you’re home.
As well as an altimeter, compass, and barometer, the watch comes with an Accelerometer so you can track your steps, distance traveled, and calories burned whether you’re hiking or taking part in other sports such as running or swimming, and it’s water resistant up to 30 meters so you can use it snorkeling or diving.
The downside of a watch this price, however, is the durability, with some reviewers saying the strap isn’t that strong and is liable to break, which wouldn’t be great if you were out on a hike when it happened. The other, at least for some hikers, is the lack of a GPS.
- Comes in 8 colors, meaning there is a design to suit everyone
- Accelerometer to track activities including steps, distance and calories burnt
- Includes a heart rate monitor, which you can set for health, fat burning and aerobic exercise
- Has a built-in altimeter, barometer, and digital compass
- USB charging
- Lots of features considering the price
- Water resistant up to 30 meters meaning you can use it for swimming, snorkeling, and diving
- Works for hiking and other sporting activities including swimming, cycling and running
- Barometer and altimeter work well at high elevations
- Doesn’t come with GPS
- Some reviewers say that the band isn’t as strong as they might like and has been known to break
5. EZON Men’s Outdoor Climbing Hiking Digital Sports Watch
Another reasonably priced watched EZON Outdoor Climbing Hiking Digital Sports watch, which comes in at around $50. It’s on our list because it’s incredibly affordable. Also well-rated, meaning it’s good value for money and perfect for most people’s pockets.
One of the downsides of a watch this price is you don’t get the range of options when it comes to colors and design features; the EZON is black and pretty basic. However, you do get plenty of other features including a digital compass, altimeter, barometer, thermometer, sunrise, and sunset monitor.
Made of durable materials. It’s waterproof to 50 meters, meaning as well as using it for hiking, you can use it when swimming too. What it doesn’t have (and you probably can’t expect for the price) is an accelerometer or GPS.
- Includes a digital compass, altimeter, barometer, thermometer and sunrise/sunset monitor
- It’s waterproof to 50 meters, meaning it can be used for swimming and snorkeling. However you can’t use it for diving.
- Robust and durable strap and case
- One-year warranty
- Reasonably priced but still offers what most hikers need
- Sturdy, strong and durable
- Waterproof up to 50 meters
- Doesn’t offer all the features more expensive models do
- Doesn’t come with GPS
Final thoughts on the best hiking watches
While they aren’t the first thing that necessarily comes to mind when you think about hiking essentials, they’re are a must-have for serious hikers.
A good hiking watch is one that has some key features including an altimeter. An altimeter let’s you know your elevation, a barometer, which can help forewarn you about bad weather coming your way. A compass that let’s you know just which direction you’re heading is also vital.
A GPS can be helpful because you can use it as a map or track your route. The downside is you tend to drain your watches battery fairly quickly. This isn’t great if you’re on a multi-day hike and don’t have any way to charge it while you’re gone; at this point the features you really need, like the altimeter won’t be of any use.
An accelerator is nice to have but, again, non-essential unless you plan on using your watch for more than hiking. If you enjoy running, cycling or swimming, a hiking watch can replace the need for a fitness tracker.
Then there’s the price. Hiking watches, for the most part, aren’t cheap. The Garmin, for example, could cost you almost $1,000 if you went for the top of the line. This is probably too rich for most people’s pockets. Which is why we looked at more reasonably priced ones too at the end. Of course, the downside here is that you don’t get as many bells and whistles. Also the material isn’t of as high quality.
We’ve taken all this into account when thinking about which one we’d recommend. For us, the answer is the Casio Pathfinder. As long as you can live without a GPS and linking your watch to your smartphone. It offers a wide range of features.
If GPS is essential, and you have the budget, it would have to be the Garmin. We don’t like that the Suunto needs you to keep your phone with you when you use it). This watch offers more than enough to keep every hiker and outdoor enthusiastic happy and likely to last a lifetime.
Leaving little chance you’ll ever be left without access to them thanks to the rechargeable battery. Plus, it’s reasonably priced given how much you get for your hard-earned dollars.