The best GPS watch is an invaluable tool when you're hiking, running, cycling, or swimming in open water. You should always carry a compass and map when you're exploring somewhere new (satellite positioning isn't infallible), but these watches are fantastic training tools that can help you navigate new route and gather a huge variety of data as you move.
Whether it’s tracking your pace, calculating your elevation or guiding you through a workout, a GPS watch can be an essential training tool or a way of logging your outdoor experiences. The best GPS watches can typically be synced with apps like komoot or Strava (see our best navigational apps), where information about hiking, biking, running and other adventures can be stored.
In addition to all this, many of the best GPS watches will also let you receive smartphone notifications, allow you to check emails and even pay for things like a cup of coffee if you stop off at a café mid hike or bike. Many models can even connect to the best running headphones to let you rock your tunes while you’re on the move.
They are a serious investment, though, so the key is to find the best GPS watch that’s most appropriate for the escapades you most commonly enjoy.
The best GPS watches
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
The Garmin Fenix 7, released in early 2022, makes several big improvements on its predecessor and is the best all-round GPS watch we've tested. For starters, this new version comes in three case sizes to suit different sized wrists (42mm, 47mm and 51mm), the largest of which gives you a bigger battery for even better longevity between charges. In fact, we found that the Fenix 7 exceeded Garmin's quoted battery figures considerably, which is a real boon when you're going to be exploring the backcountry for several days.
The biggest new addition for 2022 is a touchscreen display, which you can use in addition to the five physical buttons positioned around the watch face. We still prefer the buttons while we're on the move (they're easy to use with wet hands or while wearing gloves), but the touch-sensitive screen makes panning across maps a breeze.
You also get a full array of fitness tracking features, including dedicated modes for hiking, road running, trail running, indoor training, and lots more. Another great addition for the Fenix 7 is a real-time stamina meter, which shows how much energy you have remaining during your hike or run, so you can adjust your effort or tweak your route accordingly to avoid bonking. Once you're done, the watch will estimate your recovery time, and show the effects of your efforts on your fitness.
There are three Fenix 7 models available: standard, solar, and solar sapphire. The latter gives the best performance in terms of toughness and battery life, with solar charging and a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal lens, if you can stretch to the higher price tag. It's certainly a big investment, and more expensive than the Fenix 6, but if you want the very best GPS watch around, this is the one for you.
Read our full Garmin Fenix 7 review
2. Polar Grit X Pro
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
The Polar Grit X Pro is one of the toughest GPS watches we've tested, with a sapphire crystal lens and a rugged case that will shrug off scrapes and knocks when you're scrambling or bouldering. It has the navigation chops you'll need when exploring the backcountry too, and is a solid option if you want to try out some new trails on your next run.
Unlike the Garmin Fenix 7, there are no topographic maps to download, which is a shame, but there are new route and elevation profiles, and in our tests it secured a GPS lock particularly quickly.
Polar started life as a company specializing in heart rate monitors, so it's no surprise that the Grit X Pro has excellent biometric tracking. In our tests, it proved almost as responsive as a chest strap heart rate monitor, and its sleep tracking and recovery metrics are hard to beat. We also appreciated the Fuelwise tool. which helps you plan your food and hydration strategy during long endurance runs.
If you want something even lighter and tougher, you can opt for the special Titan edition which (as the name suggests) has a case that uses titanium in place of stainless steel. There's no solar option to extend battery life though, so you might prefer to check out one of Garmin's watches if you're planning to be off-grid for a long time.
3. Garmin Instinct 2 Solar
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
The Garmin Instinct 2 Solar offers the best battery life of any GPS smartwatch we've tested. If you activate all its power-saving tools and give it enough sunlight every day, Garmin claims you might never need to recharge it at all. Of course, you're very unlikely to get that sort of performance in real life, but during our tests it lasted well over a week between charges, even with sleep tracking enabled and one daily GPS-tracked activity.
Unlike the original Garmin Instinct, the Instinct 2 is available in two sizes – 45mm and 40mm – to cater for different wrist sizes. It's also a little slimmer than its predecessor, but not at the expense of features. You get a wealth of activity tracking modes (including road, track and trail running), plus a race time predictor, training load analysis, and recovery time estimate. We particularly appreciated its workout suggestions, which help balance your training even if you're not following a set plan.
The biggest downside of the Instinct 2 Solar is that its monochrome memory-in-pixel display isn't great for navigation. While you can upload maps to the watch through the Garmin Connect mobile app, there's very little detail visible on-screen due to its low resolution, and the lack of color means there's no way to differentiate between types of terrain. However, for tracking your walks and runs off-grid, the Instinct 2 Solar is tough to beat.
4. Coros Vertix 2
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
The Coros Vertix 2 is a seriously tough GPS watch built for life outdoors. In fact, you may find it too bulky for some activities, which is why Coros also sells a carabiner so you can keep it out of the way while climbing.
It has a slightly bigger, higher resolution display than the original Vertix, and is easier to read at a glance – a real advantage when it comes to navigation. In fact, one of the Vertix 2's best features is offline mapping, and unlike some manufacturers, Coros doesn't charge you to download extra maps.
The watch is compatible with both topographic and landscape maps, and you get a pretty impressive 32GB space to store them. Just make sure you have a strong Wi-Fi signal when you want to download them, and check that the battery is fully charged. Once you're outside, GPS locks on extremely quickly, and we found the location tracking impressive, even in sheltered areas where watches sometimes struggle.
Battery life might not match that of the Garmin Inspire 2 Solar, but it's impressive nonetheless, and in our real world tests the Coros Vertix 2 kept running far longer than the quoted 140 hours in GPS mode. That's an impressive feat for a watch without any solar charging capability.
Like the Garmin Forerunner 55 below, there's no way to make contactless payments, but you can tether your running headphones to to Vertix 2 to enjoy your favorite tunes on the move without messing about with your phone.
5. Garmin Forerunner 55
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
The Garmin Forerunner 55 might be an entry-level GPS watch, but it gives you an awful lot for your money. Not only do you get Garmin's signature location tracking, it also provides an array of training tools you'd expect to find in a much more expensive watch, such as estimated recovery times, workout suggestions, and training load guidance.
Biometrics are impressive too, and in our tests we were pleasantly surprised to find that heart rate readings from the Forerunner 55 were almost perfectly in sync with those from the chest strap heart rate monitor we used as our benchmark. If you're interested in interval training, it's a real
You don't get Garmin Pay (the company's contactless payment system) so you can't use it to pay for a post-hike chunk of cake, and its monochrome display isn't great for plotting and navigating new routes, but the Forerunner 55 is otherwise a super little GPS watch. Shop around and you might be surprised just how cheaply you can find it as well; it only launched last year, but its price has already dropped significantly.
How to choose a GPS watch
All of the best GPS watches share some common, basic features, including time, pace, distance and workout tracking. But that’s where the similarities end. Every GPS watch is slightly different based on its feature package, battery life and intended end-use, so it’s important to understand the features you want and need in order to maximize a watch and get the most out of it.
The first thing to consider when buying a GPS watch for trail running, hiking or general outdoor adventures is the price range of watches and your budget. There are generally three price ranges that watches fall into: basic ($150 and below), mid-range ($200-$350) and high-end ($350 and higher). Many mid-range and high-end watches have accessories that are sold separately, but for the purposes of understanding your own budget and what you’re willing to spend, those three categories are good guidelines. How much should you spend? Only you can decide that, but without trying to sound cliché, you get what you pay for. In other words, a basic-level watch will offer limited overall functionality, while a high-end watch will offer a lot more sports-specific features.
While almost any GPS watch will provide you with real-time pace, distance and elapsed time data, mid-range and high-end watches will also offer features like heart rate monitors, built-in workouts, touch-screen interfaces, waterproof construction (instead of just water-resistant), mapping features, elevation data, auto-pause function, temperature, barometric pressure, calorie burning and a variety of training functions. Some watches have very good music-playing capabilities, but most have no music functions at all. Battery life is another one of the key factors to consider as it can vary greatly among watches. Other key features to be aware of include the ability to upload data and cross-analyze it with previous workouts or adventures, download and interface with other apps, and sport-specific workouts.
Do you want a GPS watch for one sport or one activity? Some watches offer functionality for one main end-use, but have limited features for other sports. For example, a GPS watch built for road and track running might not have as many specific features for trail running. Some watches that excel as hiking or adventure watches will suffice for trail running but not as well for runners who are primarily focused on marathon training. Some watches are touted as “multisport” watches with triathlon-oriented features for swimming, biking and running, including workouts and special bike-mounting accessories. While some basic functions can overlap to other activities, the more specific your needs are, the more you have to look for those features when you’re shopping for a watch.
How we test GPS watches
We test each GPS watch for at least two weeks so the watch and its companion app have time to build up a full picture of our health and fitness. We wear each watch day and night so we can assess its sleep and recovery tools, and compare its results against those from a Withings Sleep Analyzer sleep tracker.
To test each watch's GPS, we take it for several runs and walks in a variety of locations, including built-up areas, open fields, and wooded areas that present a challenge of satellite navigation. We also take each watch on a pre-measured route to see how accurately it records distance.
To test the accuracy of each GPS watch's heart rate monitor, we put it to the test in a series of intense interval training sessions and compare its results to those from a chest strap heart rate monitor, which serves ass a benchmark.
Cat is the editor of Advnture, She’s been a journalist for 13 years, and was fitness and wellbeing editor on TechRadar before joining the Advnture team in 2022. She’s a UK Athletics qualified run leader, and in her spare time enjoys nothing more than lacing up her shoes and hitting the roads and trails (the muddier, the better).
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