Part of being a safe hiker is understanding your environment and make predictions – such as changes in the weather. This is where an ABC watch (Altimeter, Barometer, Compass) can be helpful.
With the advances in technology, you now can have GPS mapping technology on your wrist with the durability to go anywhere, even underwater.
Hikers now have many tools for jobs like this but for the active outdoor adventurer very few are as concise and useful as the hiking watches now available.
First lets take a look at the best hiking watches, then we’ll talk about how to choose the right one for your needs.
- Garmin Fenix 3 Gray HR
- Suunto Ambit3 Peak GPS Watch
- Casio Protrek PRW-3000
- Suunto Core Outdoor Matrix Watch
- Garmin Foretrex 401 Hiking GPS (Not a true watch but can be wrist worn)
Here is a feature overview of the hiking watches with full reviews and our buying guide below.
The 3 Best Hiking Watches
Hiking Watch Reviews
This great looking watch features a nice dark color scheme, sleek design, and some classic touches.
Screen resolution, graph display, colors, and layout are all superb which is nice considering the hefty price tag. Garmin has been making technical devices for years and their watches have definitely refined so we’re pretty confident in the long term function of this hiking watch.
The one down side? – the watch doesn’t have weather prediction capability but we’re pretty confident the other features off set this for the right users and many of you can look at the sky and make your predictions and decisions that way.
The bonus? This watch can even provide GPS navigation in the backcountry and the watch can be update with downloaded screens.
Yeah, that’s right, you can just download a new watch layout – just like that. This is by far the best hiking watch with GPS capability, you will never need to worry about getting lost again.
Pair this awesome watch wirelessly with your smart phone for notifications, even on the trail.
2-week long battery life is a serious improvement over early model
Garmin watches and we think this awesome watch has all the capabilities to track, analyze, and display any information you need from climbing, skiing, or running even to golfing!
If you can afford the extra money, the Garmin Fenix is your best bet with its unmatched features.
Here is a good feature overview of the Fenix 3 from Garmin
The Suunto Ambit3 Peak, like the Garmin Fenix 3 is a true ABC (Altimeter, Barometer, Compass) hiking watch that also includes a GPS function. This watch has similar functions to the better known Garmin Fenix 3 but comes in about $100 less!
With the edition of Suunto’s Movescout.com website and apps available for download the Ambit 3 is in a class by itself. The watch is equally useful for the backcountry hiker or the jogger wanting to keep track of their runs.
The Movescout.com allows you to upload your trips, routes and all your fitness data while allowing you to download apps that either you can create or other people have created, all for free.
This is where the Ambit3 shines, it provides a very accurate altimeter that records data points every 15 minutes and with the push of a button will show the last 24 hours in a profile graph format. Pretty cool.
The same is available with barometric data and all data can be uploaded to Movescout.com for safekeeping.
The compass works at almost any angle, so unlike a magnetic compass your wrist does not need to be level to get an accurate reading.
The heading of the compass shows in a clearly visible degrees format with an arrow that shows north. You will need to set declination manually however.
You can use the Movescout.com to load points of interest into the watch and use the GPS to navigate to the points. The FindBack feature will help you navigate back to where you started from.
Nice, now you never need to worry about getting lost! The Ambit3 also shows a digital map showing your path. If you like, you can log your speed, distance and route to Movescout.com. A great feature for runners or bikers!
Battery life of the Ambit3 is good at roughly 20 hours with the GPS function turned on, its significantly more with it off, up to a month! When you first take it out of the box you are prompted to set it up, just like the Garmin Fenix. Unless you have used a GPS hiking watch before you will probably have to consult the user’s manual or online help to configure the menus.
Unlike many ABC watches the Alimeter is accurate but even still will need to be frequently calibrated. The FusedAlti function that works with GPS can be used for the calibration. The large, easy to use function buttons can be easily used to toggle between screens even with gloves on.
The display is clear and easy to read and has a backlight for use at night.The Ambit3 is somewhat bulky when compared to the Garmin Fenix but it is still comfortable to wear all day.
No matter what you need GPS for, hiking, biking, kayaking or marathons, the Ambit3 is a great option. The watch is also rated for over 300 feet (100m) for you could even use it for snorkeling or diving.
This is a good looking watch, suitable for everyday wearing, even when you’re not in the woods. Hard to go wrong with the Suunto Ambit3 hiking watch. This is the best hiking watch for the money.
Here is good feature overview Suunto on the Ambit
At a reasonable price point and bristling with features like a hedgehog with quills, this watch might be the sweet spot for budget outdoor travelers.
Packing five alarms, solar power supplement, altimeter, compass, barometer, thermometer, and sunrise and set tables it’s hard to argue with this beast.
Battery life is reported to be off-the-chain good, rated at 7 months on a single charge. Keep in mind the solar charging feature means you can easily extend that battery life almost indefinitely.
Storm alarm is a great feature for any watch with a barometer and the Casio Protek doesn’t disappoint. It is one of the best backpacking watches on the market.
Easy to navigate one-touch menu system is great for quick access to critical and often used features like the compass, barometer, and temperature.
Huge improvements to hardware over previous model Casio altimeter watches means you’ve got a candidate for “most improved” (if we were giving awards). It’s hard to say what real tests would show but Casio claims as much as 90% power consumption reduction with new efficient hardware.
This is a feature overview for the 3500, only difference from 3000 it has solar recharging.
My biggest complaint? The black, sleek design and display can sometimes be difficult to read. However, the watch has a handy “illuminate when held up” setting where the watch will automatically light up when it thinks you’re trying to look at it. Nifty!
In my opinion it is the best hiking watch under $200 and my top pick.
Unlike the Garmin, this watch lacks a GPS but gains a great barometer. This means weather tracking and storm alarms.
Granted, you can’t pair it with your smart phone or get notifications. The Suunto Core is for the disconnect mountaineer where the Fenix might be for the plugged in active CEO.
Another cool feature is sunrise and sunset times around the world, why does it matter? Because with features like storm predictions and sunset tables, you’ll be able to plan your hike or climb in a safe manner.
The wrist mounted thermometer is temperature compensated to improve accuracy while the watch is on your wrist.
Even with compensation, I’ve never found watch thermometers to be very accurate unless you hang them from your tent overnight.
I think they could have included more than just a single alarm setting for the price, size, and tech included in this watch but that’s a minor complaint.
Overall the Core has been well loved in the industry for years – it’s hard to misstep with the Suunto Core. It is one the best outdoor watches and you won’t go wrong with one on your wrist.
While the Garmin Foretrex 401 is not a watch strictly speaking, you can wear it on your wrist like a watch. Unlike the previously reviewed hiking watches, the Foretrek and be easily mounted on your bike, kayak or quad etc.
Like the previously reviewed Garmin Fenix 3 it has GPS capability with Garmin’s “TracBack” feature so you never have to worry about getting lost in the woods. It will literally show the path you took. Hansel and Gretel would be jealous, much better then breadcrumbs….
The high-sensitivity GPS receiver will work in the thickest of woods, unlike many other cheaper GPS units.
Even at a bargain price Garmin has added features like a barometric altimeter giving you advance warning of a change in impending weather.
Plus it also functions as a compass when you’re just looking to figure out what direction is North.
I like the ability to save locations as waypoints allowing you to find your way back to important locations. If you’re a hunter or fisherman, this is a really nice feature when you find a good fishing spot!
Using standard replaceable AAA batteries with 17 hours of life is definitely a benefit in my book. When they get low, just pop in some new batteries and you’re good to go, no worrying about recharging or dead batteries.
While I wouldn’t wear the Garmin Foretrek 401 to work or out to dinner like I would the Fenix 3, it is an ideal hiking “watch” at a bargain price.
How To Evaluate Hiking Watches
Today watches are becoming more feature robust and you may find all sorts of crazy features. These include things like:
- Time / Date
- Stop Watch
- Storm Graphs
- Storm Alarms
- Computer Integration
We’ll look at which of these features are available in our watches we review and let you know the good, bad, and ugly.
Of course watches should tell time but you’d be surprised – some companies sell “wrist computers” which actually lack at time telling feature. Other things which fall in this category are countdown times, alarms, and stop watch features such as splits. Having a countdown timer is always nice for making sure you check on the pizza in the oven at the ski hut, too…
Even when you’ve got that topo out in front of you, it can be a great confirmation to know exactly what your current elevation is when you’re trying to locate your position. The altimeter can be fun to check out just for fun, for training data, or additional location information. Accuracy and adjustability is important in an altimeter.
Some watches have the ability to upload data to your computer – this can be fun for the gear junkie and number cruncher!
Barometers can be finicky and accuracy is even more critical here. These tools are very touchy and prone to needing adjustment regularly but improvements in the field have been made! Accurate barometers are critical to weather prediction for these watches so the more sensitive the barometer, the better for prediction. Trends and data retention are great for predicting upcoming movements.
Compasses in watches are an amazing feature! Of all the features available in hiking watches, the compass is my most used and favorite feature. 2D compasses means that you must hold the watch totally flat, 3d compasses are accurate no matter the angle of your wrist. When it comes to investing in a compass tool, finding a 3d compass is always best!
User interface is everything from the number of menus, number of screens, and customizable features. Some watches allow you to modify the display and change which data you want to see on your home screen. You may even find that some watches just don’t show you the information you want in a way that appeals to you. It’s important to find a layout you can read quickly and comfortably to gather all your data.
Many watches have low resolution and poor display view, the more refined watches feature great resolution which means more accurate graph displays and easier to read data. The better the resolution, the easier it will be to read smaller or tighter data and words on these small screens. It really does make a difference.
There are tons of watches in this niche and more every month. Determine your needs, such as length of battery life, type of features, and whether or not you think you’ll want to pair your watch with a phone.
Everyone has a different style and needs so take these into consideration before choosing a watch.
Out of all of our watches reviewed, I have to give the Casio Protek top marks for versatility and price, but I think the refined and trusted features of the Suunto Core are worth spending a few extra bucks.
For the high-spenders, it’s really hard to argue with the beautiful and robust Garmin Fenix 3 but the biggest drawback is the relatively shorter battery life which might be a problem for some serious backcountry travelers.
Enjoy the mountains and look for a watch that can keep up with your pace!