I can still remember getting my first outdoor watch in the mail. It was the early days of Amazon and I had found one that I could afford with my summer job pay.
In all reality, it was probably like $60 but that was a big deal for me at the time!
Today’s best outdoor watches have evolved on all levels. Aesthetically and functionally superior outdoor watches are hitting the market every day.
Fortunately, the basic functions of an adventure watch revolve around some core principles we can understand. Together we’ll take a look at some of the top outdoor watches on the market right now.
Quick Answer: The 5 Best Outdoor Watches For 2018
- Suunto Traverse Alpha
- Garmin epix Watch
- Casio Pro Trek Outdoor GPS Watch
- Garmin fenix 3 GPS Watch
- Suunto Core Watch
Best Outdoor Watches
|Suunto Traverse Alpha Watch||Garmin Epix Outdoor Watch||Casio Pro Trek Outdoor Watch|
|Water Resistance:||Yes, 300ft||Yes, 150ft||Yes, 165ft|
|Screen:||Black & White||Full Color, touchscreen||Full Color|
- GPS Mapping Functionality
- Scratch resistant sapphire crystal glass
- Moon phase calendar
- Automatic shot detection for hunters
- Weather alarms
Suunto has been making some of the best outdoor watches on the market for a very long time. Their established brand name is built on a reputation for delivering advanced and accurate features that help extreme outdoor athletes push the envelope.
Among the myriad of features on this watch is the unique shot detection capability. The Traverse Alpha is meant to accompany the outdoor sportsman on their hunting trips. When you fire your rifle or shotgun the watch drops a pin on the GPS map that you can track later.
One awesome little feature is the built in emergency flashlight. I’m always looking for smart additions to outdoor gear that make sense, and in an emergency this light could help you signal for rescue or see a critical detail to get you out of a pinch.
You can set POI locations, mark trails, and follow the breadcrumb style trail back to wherever you started with this GPS watch. Of course you can also pre-build a route on your home computer and upload it to the watch so you can follow it later in the field, too!
I love that you can adjust the GPS mode to save power: 10-100 hours of battery life depending on your choices!
Best For: The techy sportsman that spends time in the deep woods bagging game or fishing.
- Altimeter, Barometer and Compass
- Topo 24k maps on board
- 1.4” color touchscreen
- Special modes for hiking, running, mountaineering and more
If you want the best active watch that can balance smart watch, outdoor GPS, and timepiece all in one this might be your top pick. Garmin is well known for the ingenuity in GPS and their wearables are trusted by the most dedicated athletes.
Remember that 3-axis compass we were talking about? Whether you are moving or standing still, the Epix knows which way you’re facing with accuracy thanks to the internal 3-axis compass.
All of the onboard sensors are auto-calibrating which I love. Nothing is more frustrating than having inaccurate elevation or weather alerts because your watch has gotten off calibration.
Thanks to the full color touchscreen this watch definitely lives near the smart watch range of the spectrum. Honestly it’s a fantastic choice if you were thinking about a smart watch but spend a ton of time outdoor running, paddling, skiing or anything else.
I mean, you can get notifications and updates right on the watch as well as share all your stats and data with social media.
That’s a smart watch!
Of all the watches on our list the Epix is best for those who want a smartwatch but tend to spend more time outdoors than indoors.
- Water resistant to 50m
- Android Wear OS
- On board GPS
- Full color map display
- Altimeter, Barometer and Compass/checklist]
Casio has been making watches forever, but their GPS and smart tech has been a little late to the game. That doesn’t mean this outdoor navigation tool can’t keep up, though! It’s got a ton of features at a very reasonable price.
Running on Android Wear 2.0, this watch is ready to interface directly with your phone. Android Wear is a surprisingly versatile that works with nearly any device.
It has a handful of features that come in handy like offline data that can be saved to the device. This saves battery life in the field. Combine that with the integrated GPS, altimeter, and barometer to get accurate routes, location, navigation, and POIs.
Thanks to the Android OS you can also tweak the apps and programs. Fishing, golf, color maps, navigation, and more can be at your fingertips with the best adventure watch on the market!
Best For: A wide variety of outdoor sports with a flexible operating system that can be tailored to you.
- Altimeter, Barometer and Compass
- 2” round full color display
- 20 hour battery life in GPS mode
- Suitable for swimming & snorkeling
It’s not surprising that Garmin is on our list twice, is it? Their outdoor and GPS watches are just too damn good to be ignored.
Let me be clear on the waterproof statement – Garmin rates this watch as suitable for recreational swimming. Many other watches will say things like “occasional” or “short” when disclaiming their “swim rated” watches. This one is safe and ready to go swimming any time though it’s not dive rated.
There are several versions of this watch but they all track altitude, location, speed, GPS route, and more. The fenix HR has a wrist mounted heart rate tracker while the other models of this watch lack that feature.
I suspect this feature is probably most important to runners, but the HR monitor also improves the watch’s overall ability to measure things like calories burned.
You can mark locations with this watch on the fly so you can navigate later or pull them up on the map when you get home. You’ll also be able to reverse navigate using the breadcrumb style trail system that this watch tracks as you move.
As a timepiece this watch can last weeks at a time or up to 20 hours in GPS mode.
Best For: A full featured outdoor watch when topographic maps on the wrist aren’t needed.
- Water resistant up to 30m
- Suitable for swimming & snorkeling
- Weather trend graph and alarm
- Altimeter, barometer, compass
- Several sleek designs and colors
There has been one watch that sits at the top of the list for outdoor watches for years. That’s right, it’s the Suunto Core. While it’s not a smart watch, it is smart enough to know all the details you need to supplement your adventure in the backcountry.
Okay, I know it doesn’t count as a “technical” feature but a good looking watch is important, right? Well, among outdoor watches, I don’t think that anyone is doing aesthetics as well as the Suunto Core.
Because this watch doesn’t use an onboard GPS or smart computer at all, the battery life is significantly improved over other models. If you’re heading into the backcountry for a remote expedition and can’t charge devices – this is probably the best watch for you.
Since there is no on board GPS you’ll have to rely on the accurate altimeter and compass combined with a good old map and compass in the field. Many of you prefer to do it this way anyways, so I’m sure it’s not a problem!
If you don’t like the idea of a smart watch for your outdoor endeavours, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better alternative than the Suunto Core.
Best For: Adventurers who want the best compass watch with long battery life and an accurate altimeter and barometer.
Outdoor Watch Comparison Table
|Suunto Traverse Alpha Watch||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||4.3 / 5.0|
|Garmin Epix Outdoor Watch||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||4.0 / 5.0|
|Casio Men's Pro Trek Outdoor Watch||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||3.7 / 5.0|
|Garmin fenix 3 GPS Watch||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||4.4 / 5.0|
|Suunto Core Watch||No||Yes||Yes||Yes||3.7 / 5.0|
How to Choose the Best Outdoor Watch
- Battery Life
- Watch Band
- Onboard Watch GPS
- FAQs For Outdoor Watches
In this guide I’m going to help you understand the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to outdoor watches.
Most outdoor watches incorporate a barometric pressure sensor. These little sensors detect the changes in atmospheric pressure around you. This data is then used to help predict weather changes when combined with other data from the watch.
Generally speaking, however, I’ve found that these changes are usually quite obvious. By the time the watch has detected a drop in pressure signifying an incoming front, you can usually see and feel the change in weather coming anyways.
On many low end outdoor watches these sensors lose calibration quickly. If you want a reliable barometer – which leads to a reliable altimeter and weather prediction – you’ll want to invest in a watch with accurate sensors.
As we alluded to above, this altitude sensor on many watches is combined with the barometer to detect changes in elevation above sea level. On watches with GPS capabilities, the GPS sensor may be used to gauge the altitude of the user.
When it comes to elevation sensors I would prefer a watch with a GPS sensor. These watches are much more accurate and reliable than those relying on barometric sensors.
If you do use a barometric watch, be sure to calibrate your watch’s barometer before making a summit attempt. This will ensure that your watch is as accurate as possible in recording and reporting data to you.
I find that altimeters can be helpful when combined with topographic maps to confirm your location. It can be helpful to use the altimeter on your watch with the contour lines of a map to dial in your location and route.
I learned this one the hard way with outdoor watches and GPS units. When you start looking at digital compasses there’s one feature that rules all others: the 3-axis compass.
On many low end models, manufacturers save money by using a 2-axis compass. With these watches you’re forced to hold the watch perfectly flat in order for it to display an accurate orientation.
With 3-axis compasses, you can hold the watch at any angle or orientation and get an accurate bearing without fiddling around.
I have found that when I use outdoor watches the most helpful feature, by far, is the integrated compass. It just makes navigating and orienting the map so much easier to have a compass on your wrist to quickly reference.
That said, watch compasses do not replace orienteering compasses in the field. When navigating with a topo map you must still carry a dedicated compass for the purpose.
Watch compasses don’t have the ability to be as accurate to the map as a good compass can be and any small errors in orienteering can mean you’re off by huge distances when you arrive at your intended destination.
For outdoor watches, battery life can be one of the most important factors, or it may not matter. So, what’s the reasoning and should you be worried about battery life?
Battery life matters if you’re going to be out for more than about 8 hours at a time. You want a battery conservative watch if you’re taking it on long backpacking trips and overnights.
Battery life doesn’t matter for day trips, skiing, day hikes, etc. You’re likely to be able to recharge with a wall plug at night or during a lunch break, so it won’t matter if you have a power hungry watch.
That said, a battery life minimum would be about 8 hours in my world. You might have a different opinion, but if my outdoor watch can’t even make it through a day at the office, it’s definitely not up to the task of summiting a mountain with me.
Keep in mind that outdoor watches used for winter sports like skiing or ice climbing may have much shorter battery life in the field. The cold of winter saps the life out of batteries and will drain your phone or watch much faster than normal.
To combat this you can do one of three things:
- Get a watch with a bigger battery
- Get a watch that’s very power conservative
- Carry a portable battery charging pack.
We’ve all gotten so used to the modern watches with straps that we can interchange that it’s hard to imagine a watch with just one wristband. However, I know many of you don’t want to hassle with changing bands.
Regardless of which side of this fence you’re on, there’s some food for thought here. More so, I think, than most watches an outdoor watch needs to be secure. It’s a vital piece of tracking and navigation hardware for you in the field. That’s why band choice and buckle style matter.
I always look for thick, quality metal buckles on my outdoor watches. Now, sometimes we have to compromise, but ideally the buckle should be made from durable, rugged steel. Sometimes it can be hard to tell so check reviews, unboxing videos, and see if you can try one on in person.
Don’t go with velcro. It loses grip after a year or so and won’t hold or look good in the long run. You need a reliable mechanical connection to your watch so it doesn’t fall off at the wrong time!
Lastly, consider the material of your watch band itself. If you have interchangeable bands this may not be as critical.
In any case I try to opt for durable rubber watch bands. These tend to resist abrasion, cutting, and abuse over time. Quality leather bands can be great too, but often they’re cheaply made these days.
Onboard Watch GPS
It’s impossible to full summarize GPS capabilities of outdoor watches here. Every year we get new and improved features but the best ones simplify and supplement the bones of a good outdoor watch.
If you need a full featured GPS unit, I’d urge you to get a handheld unit. The battery life is better, power and accuracy are better, and it’s easier to switch batteries in the field.
For an outdoor watch, minimal GPS capabilities can be an aid to features like the altimeter, pedometer, or compass. More extensive features are available – in fact full featured wrist GPS units are common today!
But, due to their power hungry nature they’re more suited to an afternoon of golf or a long evening run than a grueling outdoor backpacking trip.
FAQs For Outdoor Watches
Q: Can I just use any smartwatch?
A: Today there are more smart watches hitting the market than there are “outdoor” specific watches. So, why not just use one of these for the sports you love outside?
You totally could do that, but you’ll want to do some serious research about compatibility. Most normal smartwatches don’t have a built in compass, altimeter, or barometer. Many of them don’t have GPS onboard either, they instead rely on borrowing information from a paired phone or WiFi connection.
That’s not to say you can’t find a smartwatch that will work, though! Make sure they either have an onboard altimeter, barometer, and compass, or have app functionality that replicates these features.
Q: What are offline maps?
A: Today’s popular navigation apps like Google Maps are offering “offline maps”. What this does is download map data onto your phone or watch. Then, when you’re in the mountains with no WiFi or cell data you can still navigate based on the downloaded data saved on your device.
Offline maps are most helpful when traveling to areas outside normal cell or WiFi service. If this sounds like you, make sure your watch has offline capabilities.
Q: What makes an outdoor watch different?
A: Compared to simple timepieces, outdoor watches usually offer the ABCs: altimeter, barometer, compass.
Compared to a smartwatch, outdoor watches tend to be purpose made to run accurate maps, customized navigation routes, and wilderness features that a normal smartwatch might not have.
Of course, these lines are quite blurry and watches tend to criss cross all over the place according to these definitions. With more versatile wearable tech in the spotlight recently, who knows what we’ll have next year! Wrist mounted computers are becoming better and more affordable every year.
Q: What can I use an outdoor watch for?
A: The sky’s the limit with this one! Outdoor watches can be built around many specific activities such as:
If in doubt, do a little research about the best wearables for your preferred sport. There are watches for nearly every specific type of outdoor activity. We covered a wide variety in our reviews here.
Q: What can outdoor watches connect to?
A: Fortunately outdoor watches are becoming more universally plugged in. I remember my first running watch needed specific cables and apps to connect to the computer. This is not the case with today’s watches.
Check with your specific watch for details but look for these types of connectivity:
- Wireless social sharing
- Wireless updates
- Watch to watch communication
- Bluetooth connectivity to Apple or Android phones
Most high end models will feature all or most of these types of connectivity to make your life easier.
Pro Tip: If you compete or share your activity data with friends often be sure that your device has wireless uploading abilities. Nothing breaks a good workout routine like having to manually upload your data afterwards!
Whether you’re techy and want a customizable Android powered watch like the Casio Pro Trek or something more analog like the Suunto Core, we’ve got you covered. In between the two extremes are many accurate and helpful outdoor watches with ever-improving GPS features and computing abilities.
Remember for an outdoor watch to perform well at a specific sport you’ll need to think about the watch in detail. Determine which features matter the most to you, and then try to keep it within your budget.
If you’re an outdoor generalist, you may be happy with something that does it all like the Garmin Epix that can go on any journey with you and track it to share with friends!
Outdoor watches can really hit the wallet hard, so be sure that you really need all those shiny advanced features before you commit the big bucks!
Sometimes you might be happier saving a few bucks and sticking with more basic features.
I hope this guide was helpful for finding the best outdoor watch to fit your needs. If you want to comment or recommend a watch I didn’t include, please use my contact form to get in touch.