GPS watches can add an extra perspective on mountain navigation – and help to keep you fit. We test some of the best devices.
Outdoor technology advances quickly, and there have been substantial advancements since our last round of best GPS watch evaluations. Top-of-the-line equipment are more powerful (but also more costly). Mapping is becoming more affordable. At most pricing tiers, battery life has increased. But the fundamental question remains: why spend extra money on a high-tech outdoor watch when a cheap digital watch would do? What can GPS watches do better than smartphones for individuals accustomed to smartphone navigation?
In 2021, I pointed out that tracking your walk with a phone will likely drain the battery far more quickly than using a watch. However, the best phones of 2023 have bigger batteries than they did two years ago, making battery life less of a concern. If you have a new, top-end phone, and know how to conserve its battery on the hill, go ahead and use it for tracking your walks. But if your phone is a few years old with an ageing battery, using a GPS watch will save your phone’s battery for taking pictures, viewing maps or dialling mountain rescue in an emergency.
A GPS watch will communicate with your phone and can be used for fitness tracking, whilst some models are ideal as a navigation sidekick, providing quick reference to data such as elevation, position and distance hiked. Although you can do this with a smartphone – or by pacing/timing with a map and compass – having this info glanceable on your watch can be very convenient. And if you don’t want a nav tool on your wrist, and just want something cheap and cheerful to record your walk stats, there are plenty of fitness trackers to choose from.
GPS watches need skill and experience to use safely. Whilst some are capable of replacing a traditional GPS, others are far more basic and have no navigation functions. Understand what kind of device you have and what it can do, and never rely solely on one.
Our picks of the best GPS watches
In this article, you will find an extensive range of GPS watches all of which have been put through their paces during testing. We have covered a variety of watches from budget watches for the more casual hiker to the higher-priced items more suited for the dedicated walker. We’ve looked at everything you could need from a GPS watch and scored them all appropriately, take a look and see which watch will work best for you.
- Suunto Vertical Titanium Solar | RRP: | Available from Alpine Trek | TGO Gear Awards – Winner
- Coros APEX 2 | RRP: $399 | RRP: £419 | Available from Amazon & Sports Shoes | TGO Gear Awards – Recommended
- Garmin Instinct 2 Solar | RRP: $349.99 | RRP: £350 | Available from Amazon & Sports Shoes | Recommended
- Garmin Fenix 7X | RRP: $999 | RRP: £860 | Available from Amazon | Recommended
- Suunto 5 Peak | RRP: $240 | RRP: £169 | Available from Amazon & Alpine Trek | Recommended
- Oppo Watch Free | RRP: £89 | Available from Amazon
- Garmin Instinct Solar | RRP: $449.99 |RRP: £319.99
- Coros APEX 46mm | RRP: $349.99 | RRP: £299.99
- Garmin fenix 6 Pro Solar | RRP: £729.99
- Suunto 9 Baro Titanium | RRP: $599 | RRP: £539
Suunto Vertical Titanium Solar – Best GPS watch overall
- Pros: Class-leading battery life; solar charging; relatively easy to use
- Cons: Big and bulky; mapping lacks text labels; flimsy magnetic charger; laggy operation
- RRP: $839 | £725 (as reviewed; other configurations start at $629 / £549)
- Available from: suunto.com
- Weight: 74g
- Rating: 4.5/5
Case size: 49 x 49 x 13.6mm | Screen: 1.4” transflective colour, always-on | Battery life (GPS on): 85–280 hours depending on features and solar intensity; weeks or months in power-save mode | OS grid ref? Yes | Mapping: Yes; contours and footpaths but no labels | Operation: Buttons and touchscreen.
The Vertical is Suunto’s latest GPS watch aimed at mountain sports enthusiasts and athletes. Until recently the Finnish brand had been eclipsed by competitors, whose devices were often years ahead in terms of features and battery life. However, the Vertical represents a leap back to the head of the pack in many respects, making a compelling overall package – although a few niggles remain.
The Vertical comes in two models: a base model made from stainless steel and a titanium one with solar charging. You can choose from a variety of colourful quick-release silicone straps and is compatible with standard 22mm watch straps.
Build quality is excellent and the design attractive, but it’s physically gigantic on my 6.2in wrist. I’d prefer to see a version no more than 42mm wide and 10mm thick.
Overall, this is one of the most impressive GPS watches I’ve tested, and a good choice for anyone needing a mountain navigation companion that can take serious abuse. It’s a lot more suitable for hardcore winter conditions than your phone – and the battery will last much longer. The price, while expensive, is reasonable compared to competitors.
Read more: Suunto Vertical Titanium Solar review
Coros APEX 2
- Pros: Superb battery life; mapping and OS grid refs at a relatively low price; high-quality materials and strap
- Cons: Screen a little dim indoors; mapping more basic than Garmin
- RRP: $399 | £419
- Available from: Amazon & Sports Shoes
- Weight: 1.5oz | 43g
- Rating: 4.5/5
Case size: 43×42.8×12.8mm | Screen: 1.2in transflective colour, always-on | Battery life (GPS on): 45-50 hours | OS grid ref? yes | Mapping: yes (optional free download); has terrain features but some paths missing | Operation: buttons, rotating crown, touchscreen
The Coros APEX 2, which received a Best Buy award in our print issue, is an impressive GPS watch for the price, with a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal screen and a part-titanium body with 50m water resistance. The included strap is comfortable in both hot and cold weather, and the intuitive rotating crown is great for scrolling quickly through menus. The menus are simple, with easy-to-understand data screens and easy access to altimeter, barometer and GPS location. The phone app works well, integrates with many third-party services, and can be used to import and export routes. The battery life is exceptional, exceeding the brand’s claimed 45 hours, and charges rapidly from a power bank. It is the most versatile GPS watch for hikers, and the cost is still very reasonable.
Read more: Coros APEX 2 watch review
Garmin Instinct 2 Solar
- Pros: Available in two sizes; exceptional battery life; rugged; solar charging; good for navigation; customisation
- Cons: Steep learning curve; vast number of irrelevant features for walkers
- RRP: $349.99 | £350
- Available from: Amazon & Sports Shoes
- Weight: 1.8oz | 53g
- Rating: 4/5
Case size: 45x45x14.5mm | Screen: 0.9in transflective monochrome, always-on | Battery life (GPS on): 30-370 hours depending on features used and solar intensity; unlimited in power-save mode | OS grid ref? yes | Mapping: no, but usable breadcrumb navigation | Operation: buttons
The Instinct 2 Solar is a rugged-looking GPS watch with a silicone strap, a clear monochrome display, and solar charging. It has become more complicated to set up, but is still a great GPS watch for hill use. It does all the basics well, including offline sync with your phone and OS grid reference. Battery life is substantially better than its predecessor’s, and the more efficient solar panel can extend usable tracking time dramatically. The non-solar model is worth a look for a £100 price saving.
Read more: Garmin Instinct 2 Solar review
Garmin fenix 7X Pro
- Pros: Exceptional battery life; solar charging; customisation; fluid touchscreen operation; built-in torch
- Cons: Very expensive; big and bulky; learning curve
- RRP: $999 | £860
- Available from: Amazon
- Weight: 3.1oz | 89g
- Rating: 4/5
Case size: 51x51x14.9mm | Screen: 1.4in transflective colour, always-on | Battery life (GPS on): 38-578 hours depending on features used and solar intensity; 1 year + in power-save mode | OS grid ref? yes | Mapping: yes, with option to install additional maps | Operation: buttons and touchscreen
The Fenix 7X Pro is a watch that can do everything, with the best battery life possible, and give you the best experience of viewing maps on your wrist. It is available in three sizes, with the 7X being the largest and comes with a quick-release silicone strap. It has a touchscreen, improved battery life, much better solar charging, a torch, and some software tweaks. It also has a powerful torch, but its capabilities are overkill for most users.
Read more: Garmin Fenix 7x Pro review
Suunto 5 Peak
- Pros: Great value; does the basics well
- Cons:Slow user interface; uncompetitive battery life; no barometric altimeter or compass
- RRP: $240 | £169
- Available from: Amazon & Alpine Trek
- Weight: 1.3oz | 39g
- Rating: 4/5
Case size: 43x43x12.9mm | Screen: 1.1in transflective colour, always-on | Battery life (GPS on): 20–40 hours | OS grid ref? yes | Mapping: no, but usable breadcrumb navigation | Operation: buttons
The Suunto 5 Peak is a compact, lightweight watch at an attractive price. It offers five buttons for easy use, no touchscreen, and a quick-release silicone strap. It focuses on tracking, fitness, and basic navigation tasks, but there is no compass or barometric altimeter. The screen is in colour, but small and dim compared to other watches tested. The phone app connects to komoot, FATMAP, Strava and other services, but offers less flexibility than the Garmin or COROS apps.
The watch claims 20-100 hours of GPS training time, but 100 hours is for the ‘Tour’ mode, which has greatly reduced track recording and is less useful if you want to analyse your route afterwards. It is made with 100% renewable energy and is a good choice for those looking for an affordable watch to cover the basics.
Read more: Suunto 5 Peak review
Oppo Watch Free
- Pros: Inexpensive; responsive interface; easy to use; great if you just want activity and fitness tracking
- Cons: No built-in GPS or navigation functions; poor strap; limited battery life; touchscreen-only navigation
- RRP: International shipping | £89
- Available from: Amazon
- Weight: 1.2oz | 35g
- Rating: 3/5
Case size: 46×29.7×10.6mm | Screen: 1.64in AMOLED colour, tap/raise to wake | Battery life: about 9-10 hours of activity recording (no GPS onboard); about 10 days of general use | OS grid ref? no | Mapping: no | Operation: touchscreen
The Oppo Watch Free is an activity tracker that relies on a connected phone’s GPS and accelerometer to track activity. It is a thin, light device with a vivid and attractive AMOLED display, and is responsive and wakes with a tap or raise of the wrist. The interface is simple and responsive, with minimal clutter. It can track steps and sleep, see a weather report, set timers and stopwatches, and measure your heart rate. Because it uses your phone’s GPS, the watch’s battery doesn’t drain as quickly as you might expect. The Suunto 5 Peak is a better buy for a bit more money, as it has real GPS and can give you an OS grid reference.
Read more: Oppo Watch Free review
More of the best GPS watches worth looking at…
Below are some older models of GPS watch that we have previously reviewed and are still worth a look. You will find that many of these are the predecessors of some of the other watches that you would have seen in this guide to the best GPS watches.
Garmin Instinct Solar
- Pros: Rugged; excellent battery life; effective solar charging; good for navigation; customisable
- Cons: Steep learning curve; altimeter accuracy
- RRP: $449.99 | £319.99
- Weight: 1.8oz | 53g
- Rating: 4.5/5
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 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
Coros APEX 46mm
- Pros: Superb battery life; compact; lightweight; easy to use; good phone app
- Cons: Screen a little dim indoors; no OS grid ref
- RRP: $349.99 | £299.99
- Weight: 2.0oz | 57g
- Rating: 4/5
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
Garmin fenix 6 Pro Solar
- Pros: Maps on your wrist; excellent battery life; high level of customisation
- Cons: Very expensive; learning curve; built-in maps not very good; solar adds little to battery life
- RRP: £729
- Weight: 2.9oz | 84g
- Rating: 4/5
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
Suunto 9 Baro Titaniumn
- Pros: Great build quality; good strap; fairly easy to use; Komoot integration
- Cons: Expensive; bulky; dim screen; slow response; battery life could be better
- RRP: $599 | RRP: £539
- Weight: 2.4oz | 66.9g
- Rating: 3.5/5
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
Features to look out for in GPS watches
Comfort and fit
If you have a small wrist, a smaller case size may be better. Look for a comfortable strap too. Touchscreen-only devices are less suitable for use with gloves or in bad weather.
Most watches tested are waterproof. For maximum durability, look for sapphire crystal and a case made from titanium or rugged plastic.
Cheaper fitness trackers don’t always have their own GPS, and instead piggyback off your phone for position. This is less accurate and will drain your phone more quickly but it can work well enough for basic use on day hikes. We’ve got a handy article on how to use GPS for hiking navigation.
Look for at least 12 hours with GPS active, or more for multi-day walking. Some devices have battery-saving modes that will extend battery life at the cost of accuracy.
AMOLED displays tend to be less readable in bright sunlight and can use more battery. An always-on, transflective, sunlight-readable display 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 of your location.
Some GPS 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. check out our guide to the best Best hiking apps for digital mapping we’ve also covered a regular question around conectivity with Do GPS watches need the internet?
How we test
Alex Roddie tested these watches on a variety of day hikes and short backpacking trips in the Lincolnshire Wolds, Lake District, Scottish Highlands and Suffolk Sandlings. Weights stated include the standard strap, weighed on Alex’s digital scale.