9 Best Hiking Watches for Every Budget | The 2020 Buying Guide - Greenbelly Meals

9 Best Hiking Watches


This post is your ultimate guide to choosing a watch to wear on your hiking, mountaineering or trail running adventures. We're going to show you exactly what look for when going through the selection process. We'll talk functions, but also pricing, design and much more. Let's start right away with specific situations in which a hiking watch may be particularly handy. 

In a hurry? Jump straight to the reviews


Introduction


There are watches for telling time, watches for tracking fitness, and then they're watches that'll help you when you hike. They are not your typical fitness band that is designed for people who like to count their steps and workout in the gym. They more closely resemble a smartwatch in looks, but they are designed from the inside and out for the outdoors.

Hiking watches are built to handle the elements. Most have an altimeter to measure elevation, a barometer for weather changes, and a digital compass to keep you going in the right direction. That's why you'll often hear people refer to hiking watches as ABC watches (stands for Altimeter, Barometer, and Compass). Some also have maps for on-road and off-road navigation. And, a few even connect to an InReach satellite messenger for sending messages and initiating an SOS. These hiking watches indeed are a unique breed.


3 Reasons to Use a Hiking Watch


A hiking watch does more than count your steps, and that's why hikers choose to wear them.


1. FINDING DIRECTIONS

Their primary function is navigation allowing you to find both your position and direction of travel using either GPS, the altimeter, or the on-board digital compass. Want to know how high and how far you've walked? These same ABC sensors and GPS can be used to track the distance and elevation of your trek.


2. ANTICIPATING THE WEATHER

Keeping track of the weather conditions is another reason hikers decide to add a watch to their kit. Many of these watches are equipped with a barometer or temperature sensor, which can detect whether changes in your immediate vicinity. Those that connect to a phone can show the full weather forecast. Many also display the sunrise and sunset times, which is helpful if a trip is taking longer than expected, and you need to get out of the woods before dark.


3. TRACKING HEALTH, FITNESS AND PERFORMANCE

Last but not least, hiking watches are great for tracking your fitness and health. Though designed for outdoor pursuits, most hiking watches have the same fitness features as a smartwatch. They will count your daily steps, monitor your heart rate 24/7, and track your sleep. They even calculate the calories burned throughout the day so you can make sure you are eating enough. Best of all, many hiking watches will sync to your phone, so you can receive notifications, check your calendar, and more right on your wrist.


Considerations


Price: dIFFERENCES BETWEEN $100 AND $700+ WATCHES

Pricing for a hiking watch ranges from $100 for a basic non-GPS model to over $600 for a GPS watch that is packed to the brim with features. A cheap watch may not have the breadth of features found in their higher-end counterparts, but it is simple to use and are easily replaceable if they break. A $700 watch is costly, but you get what you pay for. These watches tend to made from lightweight, durable materials and have sapphire glass displays that won't scratch very easily. They will take a licking and keep on ticking. High-end watches also are packed with sensors that'll measure elevation, weather, and even the oxygen level in your blood. They will do everything you want and more.


Ease-of-Use: BUTTONS VS. TOUCH SCREEN

Another consideration is the interface. Does the watch use a touchscreen or buttons for navigation? A touchscreen-based interface may seem more intuitive, especially if you are accustomed to using a phone or tablet. The biggest problem with touchscreens is that you need to touch the screen for it to work physically. Gloves or wetness on your fingers makes it impossible to select things on the screen. Buttons may be easier to operate, but this type of interface is not as easy to navigate as a touchscreen. You have to press the buttons in a specific order.


Battery Life: WATCH OUT FOR FUNCTIONS THAT'LL DRAIN YOUR BATTERY

Battery life is an essential consideration when purchasing a watch. You want a watch that you can go the distance and won't die before you can charge it again. The time between charges is highly dependent on how you use your watch. If you use GPS every day to track your hikes, all day then you will need to charge every night or every other night. If you only use GPS occasionally, then you can squeeze between five to seven days out of a full charge. Some watches, like the Suunto 9, have unique power-saving modes that cut down on GPS usage in exchange for longer battery life. If battery life is an issue, then you should consider a non-GPS watch that lasts weeks and even months without charging. Some of the models we review use solar power, which extends their battery life.


Wristband: COMFORTABLE, DURABLE AND/OR REPLACEABLE

Most wristbands are made with a soft, flexible material like silicone. They often have vents that allow airflow, so sweat doesn't build up between the band and your wrist. Higher-end watches have bands that are replaceable, so you can swap them out if they break or you don't like it.


Glass: sAPPHIRE, gORILLA AND CHEMICALLY-STRENGTHENED GLASS

One factor that influences price is the material that covers the display on the watch. High-end hiking watches like the Fenix 5X Plus use sapphire glass which can handle the rigors of the outdoors because it is highly scratch-resistant. Sapphire is quite expensive, which is one reason a lot of watches built for the outdoors use Gorilla Glass instead, which is similar to sapphire but tends to be slightly less expensive. Mid-tiers watches cut costs by using chemically strengthened glass, which offers better protection than plastic, but isn't nearly as durable as sapphire or gorilla glass.


Weight: 50 GRAMS AS A SWEETSPOT

Weight is essential when you are packing a backpack. It's also crucial when choosing a watch to slap on your wrist. You want to aim for around 50 grams or less. Any heavier and you will feel the weight on your wrist. When you get up to 70 or 80 grams, you have to decide if the extra features are worth the excess weight.


Style/Design: A WATCH THAT'LL GO BEYOND THE TRAIL

Many hiking watches have a rugged design that looks best in the woods. They often are bulky and don't have the style you would want for a night on the town. Some do have replaceable watch bands that can help dress them up. That's something to consider if you want to be able to wear your watch when you're not hiking.


WATER RESISTANCE: SHOULD YOU WORRY GETTING YOUR WATCH WET?

Most hiking and mountaineering watches nowadays are water resistant, meaning you don't have to worry about it getting damaged when doing the dishes, washing your hands or hiking in pouring rain. When it comes to showering or swimming with your watch, however, you need to be a little more careful. Each watch comes with a different degree of water resistance. As a general rule of thumb, you don't want to bathe with a watch that has less than 50 m of water resistance. If you're looking for a watch to take swimming, go with something that is water resistant to 100 meters or more.

© David


Common Features


Navigation system

GPS is an acronym for the global positioning system, which is a satellite-based navigation system owned and operated by the United States. The US-made GPS isn't the only satellite navigation technology in operation. Many watches also support competing satellite systems such as Russia's GLONASS or Europe's Galileo system. Inside a GPS-equipped watch is a small receiver that can connect to one or all of these satellite systems. Ideally, you want a watch that can connect to more than one satellite system to ensure you'll get a signal even in challenging situations.

When you have a strong signal, GPS is accurate down to 3 meters or 10 feet. Getting a strong signal is not always easy as your physical location can affect the watch's connection to the navigation satellites. Hiking in a thick forest canopy or deep in a ravine can make it difficult for your watch to connect to GPS. Ideally, you want to be out in the open with an unobscured view of the sky, so your watch can get a strong signal and connect to as many satellites as possible.

Having a strong GPS signal is critical for tracking and orienteering (finding your direction) in real-time as you hike. You want to be able to see which trail you are on and where you need to go. GPS is not only useful for real-time data, but it also can be used to record the position data for an entire hike. You can start recording at the beginning of a hike and then save the completed GPS track when you are done. This GPS track contains useful information such as the distance you hiked, how long it took you to hike, and the elevation change. These previously recorded tracks, then, can be uploaded to the watch for future use, or analyzed on your computer when you get home.


Altimeter

The altimeter in a watch is used to measure the altitude as you climb. Knowing your elevation can help you pinpoint your location on a map. Some altimeter watches have a barometric altimeter that can measure atmospheric pressure. The lower the atmospheric pressure, the higher you are in elevation. These barometers can measure between -2,000 to 30,000 feet and are accurate within +/- 50 feet.

Watches that don't have a barometric altimeter can estimate the altitude using the elevation information that it gleans from the current GPS data. The measurements provided by the altimeter sensor, however, tend to be more accurate than the estimations supplied from the GPS coordinate data. GPS accuracy is based on the signal strength, and anything that interferes with GPS signal also affects the barometer. 


Barometer

A barometer on a watch is there for one thing - to measure changes in air pressure. These fluctuations not only can be used to estimate elevation, but they also can be used to detect incoming storms. Basic barometers take atmospheric readings that you can view, while more advanced watches allow you to see a graph of the changes in air pressure. Some even come with a storm alarm that will alert you when significant changes occur. When the pressure drops rapidly, you better get yourself out of the woods or batten down the hatches to ride out the storm.


Compass

Nearly all GPS watches nowadays have a digital compass that you can use to get your general sense of direction. Some will have a 2D compass that requires you to hold it horizontally, while most will have a 3D compass that works in any orientation. A watch-based compass can help you walk according to a bearing, but it is not as accurate and does not work with a map as well as a baseplate compass.


Heart-Rate Monitor

Almost all watches ship with a heart rate monitor that tracks your heart rate 24/7. This data can be used to gauge your exertion level. A higher heart rate means you are working harder. Some hikers will carefully watch their heart rate so they can walk at a low exertion level. This HR data allows them to walk slower and longer instead of pushing themselves to exhaustion early in a hike. Heart rate also reflects your overall health - an unexpected spike may be a sign that you are starting to get sick.


Other common functions

Other features you may find on a watch include a thermometer that'll measure the outside temperature. It's a handy measurement to know, but it can be inaccurate. The sensor may mistakenly read the temperature of your body instead of your surroundings. Some watches also sync with your phone sending over weather data, sunrise/sunset times, and event notifications. Music is another common feature on some hiking watches. You can download your favorite tunes onto the watch and use Bluetooth to connect to your headphones.


Best Hiking Watches Under $100


Casio SGW-1000-1ACR

Price: $70

Navigation System: None

Altimeter/Barometer/Compass: Yes

Water Resistance: 100m

Others: Stopwatch, alarm calendar

If you want an ABC watch without all the complicated features and the hefty price tag of a smartwatch, then you'll want to look closely at the Casio SGW-1000-1ACR. The Casio SGW-1000-1ACR is a triple sensor ABC watch that lives up to Casio's reputation for rugged and dependable watches. Not only does it have an altimeter, barometer, and a compass, but it also has a temperature sensor. Just remember to take the watch off your wrist, so you are measuring ambient temperature and not your skin temperature. One drawback to the triple sensor design is that you need to calibrate the sensors regularly to maintain their accuracy. It's a multi-step process that takes some time and practice to master. Once you get it down, you'll be able to calibrate like a champ before each hike. With a construction that’ll take a beating and a price tag of $70, the SGW-1000-1ACR is a steal.

View at Amazon


Casio Pro Trek PRG-270-1

Price: $95

Navigation System: None

Altimeter/Barometer/Compass: Yes

Water Resistance: 100m

Others: Storm alarm, stopwatch, alarm calendar

The Pro Trek PRG-270-1 is another great under-$100 option from Casio. Like many other more expensive GPS watches, the Pro Trek is water resistant up to 100m, meaning you can take it swimming. Besides providing accurate ABC readings, this no-fuss hiking watch can accurately predict sunrise and sunset times, which is convenient if you like to start hiking at dawn. We found the small size of this watch to be a pro as well as con. On one end, it makes it discreet and light; on the other, its display felt a little too crowded to our taste. Lastly, this is not a watch which design would impress any date. But, for $95 and given its functions, that's a trade-off we're more than happy to make.

View at Amazon


Casio F91W-1

Price: under $20

Navigation System: None

Altimeter/Barometer/Compass: No

Water Resistance: 5m

Others: Stopwatch, alarm

The Casio F91W-1 is a no-fuss, bulletproof hiking watch. There are no fancy functions or complicated user interfaces. The F91W-1 is all about keeping track of one thing - time. You can glance at the watch to check the date and time. There's even an alarm to wake you up in the morning and a built-in stopwatch to keep track of your hiking time. The Casio F91W-1 is a plasticky watch, but it costs under $20, so you don't have to worry about scratching it or losing it. What more could you want for the price of a large pizza?

View at Amazon


Mid-Range ($100-$500)


Garmin Instinct

Price: $199

Navigation System: GPS, GLONASS, GALILEO

Altimeter/Barometer/Compass: Yes

Water Resistance: 100m

Others: Heart rate monitor, Bluetooth, notifications

Garmin's Instinct watch hits the sweet spot for outdoor adventurers. It has all the core hiking features you need - ABC sensors, support for multiple global navigation satellite systems, and breadcrumb navigation. The best part is that it is priced affordably at $300.

The Garmin Instinct is a perfect size - not too small and not too big. It ships with a silicone strap that fits snugly on your wrist and is replaceable if it happens to break. Like most hiking watches, the Instinct has a rugged design with a hard polymer casing and chemically strengthened glass. The housing comes up over the display creating bezel that protects the glass from scratching. It's not as durable as the Fenix series, but it'll hold its own in the field. The only let down is the monochrome display. It works to display your data, but it won't impress you. Some people may be turned off by the plasticky feel of the polymer casing, even though the polymer is what makes the watch so lightweight and comfortable to wear.

View at Amazon


Suunto Ambit3 Peak

Price: $399

Navigation System: GPS only

Altimeter/Barometer/Compass: Yes

Water Resistance: 100m

Others: Bluetooth, notifications

Suunto has a reputation for delivering rock-solid watches with outstanding battery life, and the Ambit 3 Peak doesn't disappoint. The outdoors-focused watch has incredible battery life providing up to 200 hours of tracking in low power mode. The Suunto Ambit 3 Peak is on the large size - it's about as big and bulky as the Baro 9. That's because the watch has a similar steel and glass construction. It's a rugged hiking watch that feels solid on your wrist. Similar to the Garmin Instinct, the Ambit 3 Peak has a monochrome display, which is underwhelming.

View at Amazon


Casio Pathfinder

Price:$250

Navigation System: None

Altimeter/Barometer/Compass: Yes

Water Resistance: 100m

Others: Solar charging

The Casio Pathfinder is all about the outdoors. The watch pairs the three core ABC sensors with sunrise/sunset times to create the ultimate watch for long-distance hikers. Because it is not a smartwatch, you can get up to 6 months on a full charge. The coolest feature is the solar charger that encircles the display. The charger can be used to keep the watch powered indefinitely. As long as you are outside and wearing the Pathfinder, it'll stay charged. With a bright backlight, the Pathfinder is easy to use during the day and at night. It has four buttons - one for the compass, one for the altimeter, one for the barometer, and one for modes. Each button is labeled clearly and easy to press, even with gloved hands. Just watch out for the upper left button; it's not a button at all. It's a sensor that looks like a button, and we guarantee you'll forget and press it at least once to see what it does.

View at Amazon


High-End ($500+)


Garmin Fenix 5X Plus

Price: $750

Navigation System: GPS, GLONASS, GALILEO

Altimeter/Barometer/Compass: Yes

Water Resistance: 100m

Others: Heart rate monitor, pulse oximeter, Bluetooth, apps, color topo maps

The Garmin Fenix 5X Plus is the Cadillac of hiking watches, and it has a big price tag to match. These models are built like a tank and have every feature you can imagine and then some. For the hiker, the Fenix uses full-color topo maps with summits, trails, and other natural features highlighted on the maps. There's also comprehensive point of information data so you can find a gas station to fill your car and a local restaurant to fill your belly after a long day of hiking. If the Fenix is too cost-prohibitive, the Fenix 3 is an excellent alternative. It has a suite of outdoors features but is less than half the cost of the Fenix 5X Plus.

View at Amazon


Suunto 9 Baro

Price: $750

Navigation System: GPS, GLONASS, GALILEO

Altimeter/Barometer/Compass: Yes

Water Resistance: 100m

Others: Heart rate monitor, pulse oximeter, Bluetooth,

Like the Fenix 5X Plus, the Suunto 9 Baro is a bulky GPS watch, but don't let the big size dissuade you. The GPS watch has a touchscreen interface that is bright, colorful and easy to use. It also has an outstanding battery life that can be extended even further, thanks to Suunto's smart battery management. The watch monitors your life and prompts you to switch to a battery-saving profile when your battery starts to drain. It also has a FusedTrack technology, which turns down GPS tracking and heart rate monitoring to minimize power consumption. FusedTrack more than dial down the sensors, it uses motion data to fill in the blanks between GPS data points. You get the best of both worlds - a GPS track and battery life that'll last up to 120 hours of continuous tracking. Our biggest gripe is the mapping. The watch does not have full topo maps and instead uses breadcrumbs to track your location.

View at Amazon


Garmin Tactix Bravo

Price: $600

Navigation System: GPS, GLONASS, GALILEO

Altimeter/Barometer/Compass: Yes

Water Resistance: 100m

Others: Heart rate monitor, pulse oximeter, Bluetooth, color topo maps

At its core, the Garmin Tactix Bravo is a Garmin Fenix 5X Plus that is rebranded for military and tactical use. It has all the things that we love about the Fenix and everything we don’t. It’s a bit more rugged, though, with a nylon band and bombproof design. For military operations, the Tactix has metrics to help with jumping from a plane and reading map data with different coordinate systems.

View at Amazon


FAQ


Can hiking watches be used offline?

Yes, all hiking watches can be used offline for navigation and counting your steps. The only thing you will miss is the mobile syncing that allows you to transfer your fitness data to your phone for long term safekeeping. You also won't be able to download updated weather, receive notifications, and similar features that require an internet connection.



greenbelly meals logo small square

By Katie Licavoli: Katie Licavoli is a content writer, author and outdoor enthusiast. When not reading or writing away, she's out running, hiking, backpacking, snowboarding, or sailing the great lakes in northern Michigan.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.

Affiliate disclosure: We aim to provide honest information to our readers. We do not do sponsored or paid posts. In exchange for referring sales, we may receive a small commission through affiliate links. This post may contain affiliate links. This comes at no extra cost to you.



the best backpacking meal - greenbelly