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Trying to pick the best GPS watch for walking can be quite a tricky process. With umpteen different brands and styles for sale you can very quickly get mired in a never-ending struggle to wade through long lists of must-have features.
At its core a GPS watch for hiking and walking needs to do two things – it needs to have a full suite of navigation tools (such as altimeter, GPX waypoints, and compass) and have a battery life that will see you through your longest planned hikes. Some of the newer models are now starting to include mapping tools – which is amazing to see in a piece of wearable tech this compact.
Some of the fanciest GPS watches even tell the time. Which I love. But maybe that’s just me being old skool…
I’ve been researching GPS watches recently to find the best of the best amongst the different brands and versions available. Because I hate to keep all this research to myself, I thought I’d write it all up for everyone to read. I’ll be taking you through the list of features that I think are the most useful in a GPS walking watch, so you can narrow down the range to the one that’s best for you. Along the way I’ll also show you some of my favourites.
There’s no time to waste! So, let’s take a look.
How to choose a GPS watch for walking and hiking
If you’re asking yourself, “What should I look for in a GPS watch?”. Then you’ve come to the right place! If you’ve spent time looking at GPS watches already then you’ll have seen that this wearable tech comes with all sorts of features. Many of these features are great for sports and activities that you might not take part in and there’s no point in spending money on buying a watch that has these features if you won’t use them. Only spend your cash on features that you’ll use.
So, with that in mind, what the main features that you should look out for when you’re choosing a GPS watch for walks and hikes? Let’s look over them now.
The Global Positioning System or GPS is a utility that is owned by the US government and maintained by the US Air Force, who are responsible for the network of satellites that orbit the earth and the tracking and monitoring of the data that comes from these satellites. Manufacturers then make receiving equipment (such as smartwatches) that take the information from these satellites and use it to calculate the real-time location and time of the unit.
GPS watches will generally be able to give you data including distance travelled, current speed, ascent and descent.
Some GPS watches now give real-time mapping as well. This is incredibly useful and can often be paired with a phone so that you can see where you’re going. I always take an OS map and compass with me when I’m out for a hike in the countryside, but when the weather closes in and the landmarks disappear, it can be very useful to have a watch with navigation features like this.
Also known as the ABC Sensors, GPS watches will normally have an altimeter, barometer and digital compass.
The altimeter gives your elevation or how high you are above sea level. Useful when you’re trying to work out what distance you still have to climb up a mountain.
The barometer gives information on atmospheric pressure, a useful indicator of short-term weather variation. In general terms, if the pressure is rising, the weather is likely to improve. But, if it’s going down, then you’re likely to get clouds rolling in and rain starting to fall.
One of the more self-explanatory features, the digital compass is handy when determining which direction you’re facing and orienteering yourself on map.
Back in the early days of GPS watches, I had a premium model (naming no names as they were all much of a muchness back then). I really like the watch, but there were two major issues with it. Firstly, the strap broke and there was no way to replace it, so it had to be thrown out. I’ll talk more about this in a moment.
Secondly, the battery life with GPS enabled was only a couple of hours. This was fine for what I used it for at the time (which was 10k distance running) but would have been of little use for a day’s walking. Thankfully, today’s watches have far superior battery life. Even with all the GPS nav turned on, most watches now have sufficient juice to last for eight hours or more. Long enough for a good hike. Some of the top-end watches have sufficient battery power to last for a multi-day hike.
One point worth noting here is that you can get solar-chargeable GPS watches. Most GPS watches need to be plugged into a mains power socket to charge them up and so a solar watch can sound like a great idea. And it is. Just not in the UK. Whilst the sun does occasionally make an appearance here it’s not reliable enough to spend the extra cash on buying a watch that can be topped up in this way.
GPS watches aren’t cheap and so it’s worth looking out for a watch that is durable. A tough watch will continue to work and provide the data you need on demanding hikes. I’ve had watches before where the screens scratched very easily and this sometimes made it difficult to see the information on the display.
I also mentioned above about watch straps. Even with the best will in the world, watch straps will get damaged and will tend to break before the watch unit itself has stopped working. So it’s worth looking for a watch model where you can buy replacement straps. Many of the more recognisable brands (such as Fitbit and Garmin) have replacements available. In the case of brands like Fitbit, a number of manufacturers also supply compatible straps that are durable and cost-effective.
Even though you might not plan to wear your watch for swimming or showering, it’s a good idea to get a model that is water-resistant to 3ATM – 5ATM or more. This should give protection from the sort of rain showers that we tend to get in the UK. It will also mean that your watch should survive being dropped in a puddle or slipping and falling whilst crossing a stream. Both of which I’ve done…
Buying a GPS watch can be a confusing experience as there are so many different makes and models to choose from. Hopefully this guide has helped to explain the features that are useful and give you some recommendations for excellent watches for walking and hiking.
Buy your new watch and then take it on a test drive with a circular walk in the English countryside.