Are GPS Watches Worth It?

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  • This topic has 25 replies, 18 voices, and was last updated 1 day ago by Joey G.
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    Joey G
    BPL Member


    I’ve been curious if anyone actually uses GPS watches in the field? If so, what value do you get at of them besides just using your phone?

    BPL Member


    I use a garmin instinct solar for hiking. I’m not sure if mine can do it, but I could see the utility in loading a route and having it notify you if you deviate. I use mine for simple metrics – mostly distance traveled, time traveled, and local sunset. Being able to watch distance is pretty handy for finding landmarks xx miles up the trail.

    I don’t like being tethered to charging something daily on a battery bank, the solar version of this watch has definitely helped with that. I don’t have a ton of miles on it yet, but I have been able to go a couple/few days with regular GPS use (with some regular/intermittent solar charging).

    Mark Verber
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    I find my phone + software much more user friendly for mapping / route planning / etc plus has a larger display.

    I have owned a number  Garmin GPS watch (9×5) – wife just gifted me with a 955! I primarily use these to tracking sports metrics (running, swimming, cycling). Since it’s always on my wrist it comes into the backcountry. I typically load my planned route as a backup in case phone dies but it’s never been needed.

    When I am trying to go fast, especially in low light I will sometimes activate route following on the watch. The combination of the “arrow” and the “off track” alert (which is overly sensitive) it keeps me from taking too much of a detour.

    Yesterday I had a confirmation that the body battery is reasonable accurate.  A bit over training (cycling), 2 bad nights of sleep, and 18 miles in 90+ heat I found myself needing to pause every few minutes on the uphills sections.  I normally could have run up those section.  Body battery said “3” our of “100”.

    Christopher Yi
    BPL Member


    Locale: Cen Cal

    Similarly to Jason and Mark, I use a Garmin 945 for metrics, recording my route, and a redundancy GPS to my phone. I previously only used my phone, and it would only last a single day of hiking while recording in airplane mode, whereas the 945 can last 2-4 days of backpacking. It’s also nice being able to quickly glance at your wrist versus digging a phone out of a pocket.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Virgo Supercluster

    I’ve used GPS sparingly, altitude regularly, and fitness tracking daily.  Active GPS tracking is a nice feature for a backup, but for me it’s just that: a backup.  It’s far more useful as a way to look over my recorded tracks and see exactly where I was when certain things were taking place: rests, pushing too hard, etc.

    Brad W
    BPL Member


    To navigate? No way. Screen is too small. As a health/data recorder yep. I have used Garmin Instinct paired with Polar chest strap heart monitor. The only flaw with that watch was the poor altitude measurements. Required constant calibration before the hike and often would glitch when the barometric pressure port filled with sweat or moisture. I was gifted an Apple Watch and while it doesn’t have the metrics of the Instinct, it’s good for tracking heart rate, elevation gain, mileage, total time at a glance. My iPhone records other stats using Gaia at the same time. Those together give me all the info I need for now. Most important for me is accurate heart rate. Your needs may vary.

    BPL Member


    The answer depends on what you mean by ‘in the field’.

    I just returned from backpacking the John Muir Trail and used my Garmin Fenix 6. The daily routes were all downloaded to the watch before we left and thus I could easily answer most questions my friends had.

    – Are we there yet? — Almost, we have just 7.6 more miles to go.
    – Will the pass ever come into sight? — Yes, it is another 1.2 miles and 976 ft of climb to the top.
    – How much do we have to climb today? — 3,487 ft.
    – There is no sign here. Where do we go? — Left.
    – I was pretty cold at night, do you know how cold it got? — 44F
    – Man, my heart is racing on this climb. How are you doing? — 127 bpm
    – Coming from sea level the air seems so thin up here at 12,000 ft. Have you acclimated during the last couple of days? — Yes, I’m so far acclimated to 9,150 ft.
    – How far did we hike today? — 12.4 miles
    – How far would it be to VVR if we go over Goodale Pass instead of Silver Pass and save the $20/person for the ferry? — 10.9 miles
    – How much time do we have left until sunset? — 2 hours and 23 minutes
    – Can I see what my blood oxygen level is? – Sure, here take a measurement. It is 94%
    – How high up are we now? — 11,745 ft

    The battery life of the  Garmin Fenix 6 is good for several days while my phone would barely last a day if I did the same on it.

    Whenever I hike on trails, I use my Garmin Fenix 6 for navigation and recording. It’s ‘Off course’ warnings keep me on track when my mind wanders off and I keep going straight when I should have turned.

    For off-trail adventures I prefer papermaps and my smartphone with Gaia or CalTop apps and use my watch mainly for recording as the map on its screen is pretty small.



    BPL Member


    I make sure my camera clock is set correctly, then I use the GPX file from the watch to location stamp my photos using a great little program called Geosetter.  It helps me 3 years later to remember where the picture was taken. I remove the location meta data before I publish any shots. I used to do that with a GPS unit, but the watch is much lighter and uses a lot less power.

    matthew k


    Yes, I’m so far acclimated to 9,150 ft.

    I didn’t know a watch (or any device) could quantify acclimatization.

    Just in case anyone is interested, Garmin’s website says:

    Heat and Altitude Performance Acclimation
    Environmental factors such as high temperature and altitude impact your training and performance. For example, high altitude training can have a positive impact on your fitness, but you may notice a temporary VO2 max. decline while exposed to high altitudes. Your fēnix® device provides acclimation notifications and corrections to your VO2 max. estimate and training status when the temperature is above 22ºC (72ºF) and when the altitude is above 800 m (2625 ft.). You can keep track of your heat and altitude acclimation in the training status widget.

    NOTE: The heat acclimation feature is available only for GPS activities and requires weather data from your connected smartphone.

    BPL Member


    Here is the photo of my watch after summitting Mt Whitney at the end of the JMT. You can the gray graph with the elevation profile of our hike during the last 7 days -and you can see the green graph that shows how my body slowly acclimated to the altitude.

    Murali C
    BPL Member


    On the JMT recently – for two days, my phone GPS stopped working (Pixel 5, android). This has happened to me before on Washington section of PCT as well (Pixel 2). I am not sure if this is android only or Pixel only. But, it does happen. However, I had the JMT route from Caltopo downloaded onto my phone – so, I could check to see if I am on the right track. JMT is not that difficult to navigate…but, nevertheless it helps.

    Also the battery on watches last a long time – easily 4 to 5 days with heart rate monitoring etc. It is a great tool to see how much ascent, descent, miles travelled, average speed, max heart rate, average heart rate was.

    I remember on the SHR, 3 of us set up camps and then started looking for water and pretty soon, we were all lost as to where we had set up camp. Using my watch, I can easily track back to where we had camped. I do this all the time. Sometimes set up camp and then go for a quick side trip and then track back to where I had set up camp easily.

    For me, it is a invaluable tool.

    Christopher S
    BPL Member


    Personally I think they have a ton of potential but since they are improving so much year after year I am going to wait – probably awhile. Technology always works like that – it improves a lot at first and then eventually gets very good and starts to level off. Once we get a watch that can last a long time on its own between charges AND also has the inreach technology (independent of another device) they will get a lot more interesting.

    My personal method is to use Gaia or Caltopo mobile on my phone with downloaded map layers which has a much bigger screen than any watch. I then also make nice huge maps in caltopo to print out. I download and print out multiple layers for each map (sentinel imagery, false IR, and of course regular topo) at the same view so I can compare easily. I then also always print either GPS coordinate lines or UTM. This way I can keep GPS completely turned off on my phone or inreach and when needed I can do a manual GPS ping on either if I want to get the exact coordinates for where I am and also to set a marker. With thsoe coordinates I can then just look at my paper maps with the lines drawn on and mark or see exactly where I am on the paper map  using extremely minimal battery. You get the best of all worlds this way and can navigate completely phoneless or using your phone as much as you want. And if your phone completely dies (or your gaia downloaded maps corrupt – which has happened to me before) you still have the paper maps as a backup and the second GPS device (inreach) for emergency communication and also to ping GPS if needed. I also attach a tiny suunto clipper compass (which has declination even though its tiny) to my trekking pole strap so I can use dead reckoning style navigation most of the time and only need to pull out a real compass sparingly.

    For watches I use a Casio Protrek which will never need battery recharges – also solar – is not a smart watch but does have some useful functions. I find altitude most useful (theoretically you should quickly calibrate it at the start of each trip) and of course the time telling function. They also function very well in super cold environments that other watches have failed me in. Since time is so important to navigation I bring a tiny Casio F84 JDM version as a backup which weighs next to nothing and is dirt cheap. Sometimes I even attach the casio to my trekking pole strap next to the compass or just leave it in my pack. Nav is one of the few things I bring backups of since it is so critical especially off trail.

    Kevin S.
    BPL Member


    Thanks for the post – I have been wanting to see one of these in action.  The solar option looks cool on the fenix too, but a little pricey.  Just curious if you have paired with the inreach mini?

    Brad Rogers
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southeast Tennessee

    I’ve used a Garmin Forerunner 935 for the past five years and find it very useful in day to day life.  I use it to track my running, I track my resting HR, my sleep, and my stress levels (Heart Rate Variability) .  I’ve also used it to track my cycling, though I typically use a dedicated Garmin Edge cycling computer for that.

    On the trail, it’s not super useful for navigating, though on off trail trips I do generally use it to put down a GPS track to see my exact route compared to my original plan – as sometimes it varies some due to route finding.

    I love mine and will buy another when this one dies, but I’m not sure if I would get one just for backpacking if I had no other use for it.

    If you want to look at detailed reviews, DC Rainmaker, has seriously in depth reviews of all the major players.

    BPL Member



    I have my Garmin Fenix 6 paired with my inReach mini. This Youtube video shows you what functionality you gain with that.

    BPL Member


    There are no words as to how much I love my Garmin Fenix 6x Sapphire. It’s so easy to just look down at your wrist and see where you are. Itsbalso peace of mind thatbI dont waste mybphone battery using it during the day, and that I have a redundant GPS. Now that the 7x Sapphire Solar is out I’ll be getting that. The 6x can be picked up for a steal these days.

    Christopher S
    BPL Member


    An inReach mini can also be your redundant GPS however – and has the huge advantage of also being a communicator. The tiny tiny map of the watch is not difficult to use? I am already frustrated by the size of my phone screen relative to paper maps for nav – what I really want is a super lightweight minimilist tablet for backcountry use that has an eInk or one of those new MIP screens that use very little battery life and would be perfect for full color topo maps.

    BPL Member


    I was referring to the watch as a redundancy to my inreach. I don’t consider my phone a navigation device personally. The GPS can be spotty and unreliable if using it alone. As far as the screen, it’s great for me. I usually load GPS tracks so I can get a plain indicator as to where I’m at, or if I want to go off trail, it has topo maps. The reason I’m getting the 7x Sapphire Solar is the infinite battery, and ability to touch and move the map like a phone, but the 6x is fine.

    Christopher S
    BPL Member


    Interesting – I have found my phones GPS to actually blow everything else out of the water in terms of accuracy and speed – it locks in very quickly. Also works quite well even when other devices fail due to tree cover. And does tons of different satellites. Other advantage is on Android you can install an app called GPS Test which give syou detailed info about exactly what GPS sats you are hitting, signal strength, etc etc which can be very useful. But most important Gaia GPS and Caltopo mobile just blow away (in my opinion) the mapping software made by Garmin – no comparison.

    Does the 7X Sapphire Solar really have infinite battery? If so that is actually super appealing – my biggest gripe with all of these was having another damn device to keep charged….

    BPL Member


    I was being hyperbolic by infinite, but it get 122 hours if constant gps use with solar, but if needed as long as you have sun, you eventually have battery. I obviously wouldn’t be tracking gps 24 hours a day. And sun is not a problem here in California.

    BPL Member


    Locale: NoCO

    I use the Instinct Solar for data logging, geotagging my photos with Geosetter (as someone mentioned above).  Caltopo Pro on an Android cellphone for navigation…functionally much better than the Oregon 700 that I’ve been using for years.

    Brian H
    BPL Member


    5 years ago I picked up a used/returned Fenix 3 saphire.  Had a tad of dirt around the bevel and I think I got it around $350.  At that time, being my first GPS watch, I thought it was a ton of money not really knowing how useful it would become.  How wrong I was1

    Now, I’m wearing that same Fenix 3 and putting it to use 3-4 times a week.  I can NEVER see myself not having that technology on my wrist and would gladly pay > $1k any day of the week when my Fenix 3 dies.

    I remind people that to me, an iphone watch is for social media.  If you are in the backcountry it is Garmin all the way as far as watches are concerned.  Tied to their app on my iphone is Garmin Earthmate, another Garmin app that provides sat, street, or topo view of terrain that you can download ahead of time.  All of this to me is indispensable when I’m hiking, trail running, or mtbr.  With my use of constant GPS tracking when I’m out and about, I get about 17 hours.  It is a simple charge nightly if using the GPS tracking, otherwise a charge last a few weeks at least.

    BPL Member


    I sold my Fenix 6x on here a few days ago and my Fenix 7x should be arriving soon. I’m pumped for the solar and touch screen for the maps.

    Philip Tschersich
    BPL Member


    Locale: Kodiak Alaska

    I’m not a watch user so don’t have much to offer in terms of advice, but I check into how far GPS watches have come along every now and then, and have never been very impressed. Mostly because of the terrible on-screen maps and clunky hardware.

    But this thread spurred me to take another breeze through the topic and for the first time I found something that actually looks interesting. Specifically, an Apple watch with the WorkOutDoors app. It allows you to cache vector maps without elevation features (Mapbox maps) or with topo lines and hillshading (Thunderforest maps). Even though I don’t have a watch I downloaded the app and looked at the 2 map options. Not too shabby, actually. This video gives a quick overview:

    YouTube video

    Kevin Babione
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pennsylvania

    Gaia has a nice Apple Watch interface…You create your planned route (I’m a route-following guy) and send it to your watch and then you can easily follow where you are by simply looking at your wrist versus pulling out your phone, unlocking it, and opening the app.  I just used it hiking in the White Mountains of NH this past weekend and it worked well.

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