Outdoor watches are becoming increasingly popular as they do not only show time but also provide valuable information (altitude, weather etc.) which makes activities in nature such as hiking, backpacking and mountaineering easier and safer. The term “outdoor watch” is indeed very ambiguous – across the internet you will find many different definitions of what an outdoor watch is. Some sources label basically every watch of a slightly more rugged design as an outdoor watch while others are more selective. In my opinion the term “outdoor watch” refers to a watch that has at least barometric altimeter, barometer and compass (these three features are often referred to as the ABC) packed inside a robust construction which provides the required durability for outdoor activities such as hiking, backpacking etc.
A Brief History of Outdoor Watches
The first outdoor watches were released in the 90s – in 1994 Casio released the Pro Trek ATC-1100 watch which was equipped with barometric altimeter, barometer and compass (Casio’s triple sensor technology). The watch was somewhat bulky due to the size of the barometer but it did establish the framework for further development of outdoor watches and in the following years Casio released several new Pro Trek models with triple sensor technology. In 1998 a new manufacturer entered the market of outdoor watches – Suunto with the release of the Vector watch which instantly became very popular among outdoor enthusiasts due to its useful features (ABC, thermometer, bearing lock etc.) and compact design. In fact the Suunto Vector watch was so popular that it was manufactured for no less than 17 years (discontinued in 2015). As a response to Suunto’s Vector watch, Casio launched the Pro Trek PRG-40 watch in 2000 which, unlike earlier Pro Trek watches, wasn’t bulky. In the following years there was very little development in the field of outdoor watches. Features like moon calendar, sunrise/sunset times and heart rate monitor (Suunto Vector HR for example) were included in the new models but nothing really significant happened until 2012.
In 2012 the first proper outdoor GPS watches were introduced; Suunto released the Ambit series while Garmin released the Fenix series. These watches offered GPS navigation and tracking, and have proven to be extremely useful for hiking, mountaineering and similar activities in nature. Both the Fenix and Ambit watches are still on the marked but have been redesigned since then. Casio didn’t immediately follow into the market of GPS watches and thus Suunto and Garmin have become the leading (meaning innovative) companies in the area of outdoor watches. Nevertheless, Casio is releasing the Pro Trek Smart WSD-F20 outdoor watch with built-in GPS in April 2017 which is designed to compete with Suunto Ambit 3 and Garmin Fenix 5 watches.
Thoughts on Features and Trends of Outdoor Watches
Since 2012 many new features were added to outdoor watches; GPS navigation, GPS tracking, wrist-based heart rate monitor, Bluetooth, Wi-FI, support for apps, vibration alerts, full-color displays, touchscreen displays etc. Web apps associated with watches (such as Suunto Movescount and Garmin Connect IQ) have also become very important as they allow you to analyze and plan your activities as well as tracking your progress.
In the following I will describe the various features of outdoor watches and explain why I find some to be useful and others superfluous. I’ll start with the most basic features (ABC) and then continue with the more advanced features such as wrist-based heart rate monitor, Bluetooth etc. Please note that I determine the usability of the respective features from the perspective of a hiker/mountaineer; some features which I consider to be excessive might be useful for other activities or for everyday tasks.
The barometric altimeter feature shows you the current elevation and is thus useful for navigation. For example if you don’t know your exact location on a map you can check out map’s contour lines and compare them with your current elevation. This doesn’t allow you to get a precise location on a map (you could be anywhere on a certain contour line) but when you figure out on which contour line you are, you can further determine your location on a map by interpreting how the map’s topographic features fit together in the landscape you are surrounded with.
Even though a GPS watch can determine your elevation via the GPS, it typically also includes a barometric altimeter. The main reason for this is that a barometric altimeter consumes much less battery than the GPS. The barometric altimeter, however, has to be regularly calibrated on non-GPS watches in order to show accurate elevation while it is calibrated automatically on GPS watches.
The barometer feature is also very useful because it allows you to predict the weather. It shows the atmospheric pressure and typically also its tendency graph (how the atmospheric pressure has changed over the last hours). If the atmospheric pressure is increasing, the weather will improve – reversely if the atmospheric pressure is falling, the weather will worsen. A quick drop in the atmospheric pressure indicates formation of a storm and many modern outdoor watches have a storm alarm feature – the watch triggers an alarm if it detects a quick drop in the atmospheric pressure. This might seem irrelevant if you are hiking in flat open land, but can make a difference between life and death if you are not quick enough to seek shelter when mountaineering at high altitudes.
Needless to say, the compass feature is useful for navigation – it shows you the four cardinal directions and bearing. However, a watch with the compass feature shouldn’t be used instead of an actual compass because electronic compasses used by watches don’t have the same accuracy (margin of error is typically 5°). Furthermore, with a watch it’s usually hard to measure bearings accurately – it’s almost impossible to move the watch from eye-level after sighting to waist-level for reading the measurements without introducing an error into the measurement. Modern watches typically feature 3-axis compasses which work even when the watch is not completely leveled.
Outdoor watches can be divided into two categories; GPS watches and non-GPS watches. GPS watches have a built-in positioning system such as GPS, GLONASS and Michibiki. If a watch supports more than one positioning system it has a greater chance to get a satellite fix in dense woods, narrow valley etc. GPS watches have certain advantages in comparison to non-GPS watches. However, there are also disadvantages.
Advantages of GPS watches:
- They show the coordinates of your current location
- They provide you with real time GPS-based information such as distance, ascent, descent, current speed etc.
- They can show your current location in relation to a route (GPX, KML etc.)
- They can navigate you towards waypoints/points of interest
- They track/record your activities
Disadvantages of GPS watches:
- Battery life is rather short (around 20 hours in GPS mode and six weeks in time mode)
- On longer trips they require access to electricity (the battery is not replaceable and thus you have to recharge it – a power bank or solar charger can be used)
Note: The above listed advantages of GPS watches may vary from watch to watch but both Garmin’s and Suunto’s GPS outdoor watches offer such functionality.
There are three ways to use a GPS watch for navigation:
- The watch provides you with the coordinates of your current location so that you can easily determine where you are on the map. Afterwards you can navigate with a compass and map.
- You insert waypoints in the watch (typically through a web app such as Suunto Movescount or Garmin Connect IQ) and the watch shows you the direction and distance to the waypoints.
- You upload a GPX/KML route to the watch and the watch shows your current location and direction in relation to the breadcrumb trail you should follow. Web apps such as Suunto Movescount and Garmin Connect IQ allow you to create a route as an overlay on a map and then you can import it to the watch. Furthermore, you can also use routes from various websites (including Best Hiking – see our trails category) as long as they are in the right format (typically GPX or KML).
The majority of outdoor GPS watches don’t support maps (at the time of posting). However, the soon-to-be released Garmin Fenix 5 watches and Casio Pro Trek Smart watches will also support maps – meaning that the waypoints, routes and your location will be shown as an overlay on a map. Having maps at your wrist will probably be very useful because they will allow you to navigate through unknown terrain without using GPX/KML routes or waypoints (which you have to insert in the watch before the activity). However, it is not yet clear how much the maps feature will influence the battery life of the watch.
With a GPS watch you can record your activities (hiking trips, backpacking trips etc.) so that you can review them later on your computer or smartphone – in Suunto Movescount you can for example see the route of your trip drawn on a map as well as total distance, duration, heart rate, calorie consumption etc. Such information comes in handy for tracking your progress. Furthermore, in Suunto Movescount you can also export your trips as GPX routes. You can then share these routes with others – they can upload them to their devices for easier navigation.
Heart Rate Monitor
The heart rate monitor feature comes in very handy as it allows you to maintain a steady strain throughout the hike. Many outdoor watches feature a heart rate monitor but only a handful of them are equipped with wrist-based heart rate monitors – others require a heart-rate belt. A wrist-based heart rate monitor is more comfortable than a heart-rate belt and thus watches featuring them are becoming increasingly popular. At first I was skeptical about the accuracy of wrist-based heart rate monitors but users claim that they are incredibly accurate. All things considered, a wrist-based heart rate monitor is definitely a feature I would like to see in my next outdoor watch.
Connectivity: Bluetooth and Wi-Fi
Bluetooth is another handy feature; it allows you to connect the watch to a smartphone and other devices such as cameras, heart-rate belts, external thermometers etc.
When the watch is connected to a smartphone you can see texts, emails and other notifications from the phone directly on the watch. Furthermore, if the smartphone has internet connection the watch also syncs with its web app (Suunto Movescount, Garmin Connect IQ etc.). While I don’t think that smartphone notifications on the watch are particularly useful (when hiking I typically try to use my smartphone as little as possible) I see the advantage of wireless synchronization with the web app. As a user of Suunto Ambit 2 watch (which doesn’t support Bluetooth) I’m often annoyed by synching the watch with Movescount as I have to connect the watch with a USB cable to my computer so that it transfers the data to the Movescount. Of course I only do this once per week or so and thus the summary of my workouts is always outdated in Movescount app.
Several outdoor GPS watches feature Wi-Fi in addition to Bluetooth. Wi-Fi watches sync with their web apps even when they are not paired (Bluetooth) with your smartphone – they simply transfer the data via your Wi-Fi network. I consider Wi-Fi as a handy feature but definitely not a necessary one.
Sapphire Glass Lens:
Sapphire glass lenses offer much better protection against scratches than the more common mineral crystal lenses. However, watches with Sapphire lenses are also more expensive. They are especially recommended for those who often do technical activities (climbing, technical mountaineering etc.) as it is very easy to scratch the lens on cliffs and rocks – I got the lens of my Suunto Ambit 2 watch scratched relatively fast even though I was always extra careful.
Some new outdoor watches such as Garmin Fenix 3 and Suunto Spartan feature full-color display. In my opinion, this is excessive (unless the watch supports maps) as the full-color display puts an extra strain on the battery and doesn’t show anything that a simple matrix display wouldn’t show. However, if the watch supports maps, it obviously also needs a color display.
Several outdoor watches such as Suunto Spartan and Casio Pro Trek Smart are equipped with touchscreen displays. Touchscreen display allows you to navigate through the menu faster but only in perfect conditions; for example it’s hard to use touchscreen display while wearing gloves or having very sweaty hands/fingers. Therefore, I don’t consider a touchcreen display as a super useful feature on an outdoor watch.
Vibration alerts were first introduced in the Garmin Fenix 2 watch and later also included in Suunto watches (Suunto Traverse was the first watch from Suunto to have this feature). They come in handy for activities where you might not hear a sound alert, like for example swimming. For outdoor activities such as hiking, trekking and backpacking I do not consider this feature as vital.
Nowadays, outdoor watches include a wide range of features. However, not every feature is super important for outdoor activities such as hiking, trekking and backpacking. In my opinion the useful features include barometric altimeter, barometer, compass, built-in GPS (for tracking and navigation), heart rate monitor, Sapphire glass lens (only for those who are doing technical hiking) and Bluetooth. Features which I find excessive are touchscreen display, color display (unless the watch supports maps) and vibration alerts. Wi-Fi is a nice-to-have feature but definitely not a necessary one.
The most important thing to consider when buying an outdoor watch is whether you want a watch with or without GPS. I my opinion, current GPS watches have too many advantages over non-GPS watches (tracking, navigation, planning etc.) to decide for the latter.
If you want to get an overview of the best outdoor watches on the market, check out our review of the Best Watches for Hiking which includes three GPS watches and two watches without GPS.