GPS watches can add an extra perspective on mountain navigation – and help to keep you fit. Alex Roddie tests eight of the top devices.
Why spend more to get a watch with GPS in it when a £5 digital watch will tell the time? Or, for those used to smartphone navigation, what can GPS watches do better? If you want to record your walk for future analysis, this is the best way to do it. Ever tried to record a walk on your phone, only to curse when it runs out of battery after a few hours? GPS watches offer much better battery life than your phone in GPS mode. And yes, they even tell the time!
Handheld GPS devices have existed for many years, and the cheapest model will record your walk, navigate a saved route, give a grid reference and elevation. Where they differ is that a GPS watch will easily communicate with your phone (most handhelds don’t), can be used for fitness tracking, and has a built-in rechargeable battery (most handhelds still run on AAs). This makes some models ideal as a navigation sidekick for mountain walking.
Where I think GPS watches excel is in the quick check: how far have I walked? Is this the summit? Am I on course? Where’s the next steep gradient? How far back to the car? Although you can do this with a smartphone – or by pacing/timing with a map and compass – having all this info glanceable on your watch can be very convenient.
GPS watches need skill and experience to use safely. While some are capable of replacing a traditional GPS, others are best thought of as basic walk trackers to use alongside other techniques. Never rely solely on one for navigation.
Comfort and fit
Some watches are big and chunky. If you have a small wrist, a smaller case size may be better. Look for a comfortable strap too.
A watch for mountain use must be waterproof and built to take knocks and scrapes.
Two figures are usually quoted for battery life: time in ‘smartwatch mode’, and time with GPS active. Look for at least 12 hours with GPS, or more for multi-day walking. Some devices have battery-saving modes that will extend battery life at the cost of accuracy.
Bigger watches tend to have bigger screens, but screen tech is important too. AMOLED looks good indoors but is less good outside. Look for an always-on, transflective, sunlight-readable display that can be used without the backlight.
Every device can track your walk or run and save it to a smartphone app. Look for the ability to share the route as a GPX file for viewing in your mapping app of choice.
Every device tested has a heart-rate sensor and can be used to track basic fitness metrics such as steps, distance, and calories.
These can help pinpoint your location, predict bad weather, and keep you on track. Elevation and pressure can be surprisingly accurate if frequently calibrated; compass is best used for general guidance only.
OS grid reference
The best GPS watches can give an OS grid reference, but this is not a common feature.
Some watches can navigate a saved route, either on a graphical breadcrumb screen or a map.
Only a few models offer maps. Included mapping may be basic, but there are often alternatives with more detail. Ask yourself if you really need it; devices with usable outdoor maps are very expensive.
Some watches can connect to services such as Strava, Komoot, Apple Health, MyFitnessPal and more. Every watch tested offers smartphone notifications.
GPS watches reviewed
BEST BUY: Garmin Instinct Solar (RRP: £319.99)
Likes: Rugged; excellent battery life; effective solar charging; good for navigation; customisable
Dislikes: Steep learning curve; altimeter accuracy
Weight: 53g | Case size: 45 x 45 x 15.3 mm | Screen: 0.9 ” transflective monochrome, always-on | Battery life (GPS on): 30-45 hours, or 24-54 days in smartwatch mode; unlimited in power-save mode | OS grid ref? Yes | Mapping: No, but usable breadcrumb navigation | Operation: Buttons
Best thought of as a mini fenix, the Instinct Solar adds much better battery life and solar charging to the original Instinct, making it a top choice for UK walkers. It has a chunky design and feels good on the wrist. Despite a smaller display, it’s crisp and highly readable in all conditions.
Read more: Garmin Instinct Solar review
Amazfit T-Rex Pro (RRP: £139)
Likes: Excellent value; good battery life; does the basics; tough
Dislikes: No GPS navigation; limited integration with other services; magnetic charging cable easily dislodged
Weight: 60g | Case size: 7 mm | Screen: 1.3 ” AMOLED colour, tap to wake | Battery life (GPS on): 20-30 hours, or 7-14 days in smartwatch mode | OS grid ref? No | Mapping: None, and no breadcrumb navigation | Operation: Touchscreen and buttons
If you are looking for a relatively inexpensive device for tracking your walks and handling lightweight smartwatch duties, the Amazfit T-Rex Pro will handle most of the basics. It’s a compact, lightweight watch made from plastic, with a rugged look and a simple, comfortable rubber strap.
Read more: Amazfit T-Rex Pro review
Casio G-SHOCK GBD-H1000-1ER (RRP: £379)
Likes: Long standby time; extremely durable; effective solar charging
Dislikes: Bulky and heavy; confusing menus
Weight: 101g | Case size: 63 x 55 x 20.4 mm | Screen: 1 ” transflective monochrome, always-on | Battery life (GPS on): 14-18 hours, or several weeks in smartwatch mode | OS grid ref? No | Mapping: None | Operation: Buttons
Those who love the classic G-SHOCK line will find plenty to like here. It’s almost indestructible – but I found it uncomfortable to wear due to its size. It’s mainly pitched at runners, although it can also be used to track hikes thanks to its integration with the G-SHOCK MOVE app, which is functional but a bit buggy. You can’t export GPX files, but it will sync with Strava.
Read more: Casio G-SHOCK GBD-H1000-1ER review
RECOMMENDED: Coros APEX 46mm (RRP: £299.99)
Likes: Superb battery life; compact; lightweight; easy to use; good phone app
Dislikes: Screen a little dim indoors; no OS grid ref
Weight: 57g | Case size: 46 x 46 x 12 mm | Screen: 1.2 ” transflective colour, always-on | Battery life (GPS on): 35-40 hours; 20-30 days in smartwatch mode | OS grid ref? No | Mapping: None, but good breadcrumb navigation screen | Operation: Buttons and rotating crown
This watch has a slim, lightweight case and a comfortable strap. It’s the most compact watch tested, with an always-on colour display that’s readable in direct sunlight without a backlight, but a bit dim indoors. It has a simple hardware interface: just two buttons, one of which is also a rotating crown.
Read more: Coros APEX 46mm review
RECOMMENDED: Garmin fenix 6 Pro Solar (RRP: £729.99)
Likes: Maps on your wrist; excellent battery life; high level of customisation
Dislikes: Very expensive; learning curve; built-in maps not very good; solar adds little to battery life
Weight: 84g | Case size: 47 x 47 x 14.7 mm | Screen: 1.3 ” transflective colour, always-on | Battery life (GPS on): 35-40 hours, or 2 weeks in smartwatch mode | OS grid ref? Yes | Mapping: Yes, with option to install additional maps | Operation: Buttons
This is the most full-featured watch tested, with superb build quality, comprehensive tools for mountain navigation, and colour mapping. The watch itself is fairly compact but chunky, and incredibly durable. I found the plastic strap uncomfortable to wear.
Read more: Garmin fenix 6 Pro Solar review
Garmin Enduro (RRP: £799)
Likes: Mega battery life; excellent strap; lightweight; customisable
Dislikes: Very expensive; no maps; solar adds little to battery life
Weight: 57g | Case size: 51 x 51 x 14.9 mm | Screen: 1.4 ” transflective colour, always-on | Battery life (GPS on): 65-80 hours, or 40-55 days in smartwatch mode | OS grid ref? Yes | Mapping: None | Operation: Buttons
This is a serious watch for serious athletes, and for the steep price you will get phenomenal battery life and stellar build quality. Even with daily hikes and runs I couldn’t drain its battery in less than two weeks. The watch is big and chunky but made from lightweight and durable materials.
Read more: Garmin Enduro review
Suunto 7 Titanium (RRP: £429)
Likes: Smartwatch functionality; third-party app support; OS mapping possible; very light; well made
Dislikes: Poor battery life; inconsistent user interface; bulky; expensive
Weight: 51.9g | Case size: 50 x 50 x 15.3 mm | Screen: 1.39 ” AMOLED colour, tap/raise to wake | Battery life (GPS on): 6-12 hours depending on app used, or 1-2 days in smartwatch mode | OS grid ref? Yes, with third-party app | Mapping: Yes | Operation: Touchscreen and buttons
This smartwatch runs Google’s Wear OS, which means that a wide variety of apps can be installed, including outdoor apps such as Outdooractive (which supports OS mapping and grid references). This watch is more like a smartphone than others tested, with Google Assistant support and many other built-in apps.
Read more: Suunto 7 Titanium review
Suunto 9 Baro Titaniumn (RRP: £539)
Likes: Great build quality; good strap; fairly easy to use; Komoot integration
Dislikes: Expensive; bulky; dim screen; slow response; battery life could be better
Weight: 66.9g | Case size: 50 x 50 x 16.5 mm | Screen: 1.3 ” transflective colour, always-on | Battery life (GPS on): 25-40 hours, or 7-10 days in smartwatch mode | OS grid ref? Yes | Mapping: No, but good breadcrumb navigation | Operation: Touchscreen and buttons
The Suunto 9 Baro first came out in 2018, but has been reissued with a titanium shell and new strap. It remains a quality watch, durable and suitable for mountain use, but is still thick and bulky on the wrist. The screen is dim in anything less than full sun. It comes with a very good nylon strap, including an optional extension strap.
Read more: Suunto 9 Baro Titanium review