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Published Aug 4, 2022 2:41 PM

Garmin watches are generally regarded as the best in the business, but anecdotal testimonies don’t really paint an accurate picture of just how dominant the brand is in the outdoor space. In 2021, for example, Garmin raked in a whopping $4.98 billion in revenue. That’s a lot of smartwatches, gang.

Technically, a lot of that money was spent on GPS units, dive computers, satellite communicators, and equipment for aviation and maritime use — but the fact remains that Garmin has serious dough, know-how, and drive to create unparalleled GPS watches for military and civilian use. Just ask the Navy aviators who used their Garmins to navigate home after an aerial mishap, or, you know, any lost lieutenant

I sifted through Garmin’s extensive watch catalog to find the very best ones for military personnel. That includes battle-hardened watches built for combat and comfortable training assistants to help you dominate your next fitness test. The ones that made the cut to appear on this list are, hands-down, the best Garmin watches for life in the military. Here’s why they deserve a place on your wrist.

The spec sheet for Garmin’s tactix 7 series of watches reads like Homer’s ‘Odyssey.’ You could spend all day learning about all the features and capabilities — and I encourage you to do so. At the very top of the lineup is the tactix 7 Pro Ballistics Edition equipped with software from Applied Ballistics that can provide sight adjustments based on detailed information about your weapon, ammunition, and real-time environmental factors.

I got my hands on the tactix 7 at the time of release, and it felt a lot like the tactix Delta that preceded it. Inside, however, there are subtle changes that make a big difference. For starters, the watch runs much more efficiently now. Combine that with improved solar technology, and you can expect significantly improved battery life. The massive, full-color display is also a touchscreen now. It even works when wet, and you can disable the function if you’d rather stick to button operation.

One new feature I liked even more than I expected was the built-in flashlight. The small multi-LED light can be programmed to activate one of four white light settings or a green light with a double-tap of the top right button on the watch’s bezel. The fact that you can choose a specific mode rather than cycling through them is important in the field. At one point, I spent a few nights on a boat without plumbing. Every time I had to get up in the night and walk to the harbor bathroom, it was nice to have a flashlight so I didn’t have to fumble around for one in the darkness. I also appreciated the green light that didn’t ruin my low-light vision.

The real question is whether or not the tactix 7 is worth the pile of money you’ll have to shell out to get one. Objectively, it is; but that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. The other watches on this list are a better value for people who want fitness apps and basic navigation. This is an extreme piece of gear built for extreme challenges. If you have ambitions of traveling the world by land, air, and sea, this might very well be the best investment you make.

Product Specs
  • Screen size: 1.4 inches
  • Lens material: Sapphire crystal
  • Color display: Yes
  • Solar charging: Yes
Why It Made The Cut
  • This tech powerhouse can do everything from calculating ballistics to creating a flight plan. It can definitely handle whatever you throw at it.
PROS

Unparalleled technology and features

Military-specific apps and capabilities

Everyday practicality with Bluetooth, music, and touchless payment

CONS

Eye-watering cost will price out most service members

Bulky and heavy compared to other Garmin watches

If the tactix 7 is the F-35 of the military watch world, bristling with technology and futuristic capabilities, the Instinct 2 is the humble UH-1 that really does most of the work. I guess that makes this Solar Tactical Edition like the UH-1Y Venom; a modern evolution of a classic piece of gear.

This watch was meant to be used and abused. Rather than a big, flashy, full-color display, it presents essential information (in a customizable format, of course) on a black and white screen that’s easy to read at a glance. The polymer housing barely takes up more room than a normal watch. The strap is the most comfortable I’ve worn. The buttons are big enough to use with gloves and the desert tan will look fantastic in uniform.

The brains of this watch are shared with several other Garmin watches. You’ll get multiband GNSS navigation, location data in Military Grid Reference System (MGRS) and latitude/longitude formats, and sport-specific interfaces for whatever kind of exercise you’re into. Daily convenience features include notifications from your phone, calendar alerts, and contactless payment. Solar versions of the Instinct 2 benefit from battery-enhancing solar charging, and the Tactical Edition boasts military-minded capabilities like night-vision compatibility, stealth mode, and a kill switch that can erase all data in seconds.

Sure, this watch is all polymer; there’s no stainless steel. The lens is Power Glass instead of sapphire crystal. And the screen feels like a downgrade after using Garmin’s fancier offerings. But at its core, this is a purpose-built tool destined for the battlefield. It’s far more capable than the price tag suggests, and it’s possibly the best value in military watches today. Any time a piece of gear is good enough for the high-speed, low-drag guys and affordable enough for the average service member, it’s a win in my book.

Product Specs
  • Screen size: 1.1 inches
  • Lens material: Power Glass
  • Color display: No
  • Solar charging: Yes
Why It Made The Cut
  • Not only is this watch totally capable in the field — with navigational aids, night vision compatibility, and Jumpmaster mode — it’s affordable enough to be bought by the people who actually need it.
PROS

The best value in military GPS watches

Soft-touch band and case are incredibly comfortable

Unlock more features with the Garmin Connect app

CONS

Small, simple, black and white display

Polymer case and Power Glass lens are a step down

Locating, closing with, and destroying the enemy by GPS watch is great — so is navigating to an Instagram-perfect campsite in a national park — but a lot of you just need a watch that can keep up with your daily workout. Garmin has you covered because the Forerunner 245 series was built to bring out your best on a budget. This one can be synced to your phone via Bluetooth to access your favorite playlists.

The price may be entry-level, but the features are assuredly not. Training aids include adaptive programs developed by professional coaches, sport-specific interfaces, biometric data collection and graphs, and GPS accurate enough to track distance traveled, pace, and interval splits. The Forerunner 245 can even determine the ratio between your stride’s length and height to help you perfect your form. The Training Load function will let you know when to push harder and when to take a break with the Recovery Time advisor.

For most of us, music is an integral part of our workouts. The Forerunner 245 Music can be synced to your Spotify, Amazon Music, or Deezer account to keep your favorite playlists at your fingertips while you exercise. If you want to go fast and light without your phone, you can store up to 500 songs on the watch itself. When you’re done, use touchless payment to grab a drink without carrying your wallet.

Considering what you get with this watch, it’s a pretty remarkable training tool. There’s a reason professional athletes work smarter rather than harder, and so can you with hard data gathered from your workouts. This Garmin watch is a great, value-heavy option for everyday wear and your exercise routine.

Product Specs
  • Screen size: 1.2 inches
  • Lens material: Gorilla Glass 3
  • Color display: Yes
  • Solar charging: No
Why It Made The Cut
  • The Forerunner 245 Music has everything you need to get in fighting shape without inflating the price with features you don’t want. Crank up the tunes and get ready to set a personal best time.
PROS

Great alternative to fitness trackers

Tremendous value for exercising and casual wear

We love a color display at this price

CONS

Not intended for use in the field

Short battery life compared to our other picks

The fenix 7 is a far cry from the mighty tactix 7, but you would probably never notice the difference. Unless you’re truly extracting every last bit of performance from the tactix 7 in an austere, remote location, the fenix 7 will probably do everything you need it to.

Rather than a spy gadget or wartime intelligence tool, think of this Garmin watch as the perfect companion for recreational adventure. Its multi-band GNSS support provides pinpoint accuracy using GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo satellite systems (like many other Garmin devices). The big, full-color touchscreen display is a serious upgrade over previous generations and makes navigating with the watch’s map much easier.

Like the tactix 7, the fenix Sapphire Solar benefits from an extremely durable sapphire crystal and impressive solar charging. While heavy GPS use will quickly drain any watch’s battery, it is possible to get several weeks out of a charge with any amount of solar charging (which you can monitor using the lux graph). Naturally, the fenix 7 boasts a long list of features including biometric sensors, topographic maps, a virtual training assistant, and the ability to track your performance over time.

The fenix 7 is an adventure watch most people aspire to. It’s rugged, intuitive, packed with technology, and can do even more when paired with Garmin apps and expansion features via Bluetooth. It wasn’t designed from the ground up for use in a combat zone, but it’s entirely capable of chasing horizons on your own time. For a lot of people, this will be the sweet spot of capability and cost.

Product Specs
  • Screen size: 1.3 inches
  • Lens material: Sapphire crystal
  • Color display: Yes
  • Solar charging: Yes
Why It Made The Cut
  • This is one of the most capable fitness-oriented smartwatches you can get. Use the color touchscreen to control sport-specific apps and detailed biometric data to reach peak performance.
PROS

Solar charging and a sapphire crystal are serious upgrades

You’ll fall in love with the full-color touchscreen display

Sapphire-equipped watches come with multiband GNSS

CONS

The Garmin epix presents tempting competition

Is it worth the upcharge over an Instinct Solar?

Things to consider before buying a Garmin watch

You have a lot of options when it comes to GPS watches and smartwatches. Once you rule out alternatives like the Suunto 7 (which is great in town but not built for hard field use) and Apple Watch (which works seamlessly with other Apple products but has lackluster battery life), you’ll need to decide where in Garmin’s massive product range you should be looking.

Garmin’s website currently lists 30 models in the watches and wearables category. Each has multiple options, creating a buying environment ripe for paralysis by analysis. One way to narrow your search is by price. Then, you can prioritize which features and characteristics you care about most.  

Features

How do you plan on using your Garmin watch? Fitness apps, health tracking, and convenience features like control over your music are available on even the budget-friendly Forerunner 245 Music. Upgrading may or may not get you a better display — the Instinct 2 Solar Tactical Edition has a simple black and white display — but it will allow you to enjoy more advanced health monitoring, navigation, and activity-specific apps.

Battery life

If you’re new to Garmin watches, battery life is going to be a pleasant surprise. With the exception of our budget pick, any of the watches on this list would put an Apple Watch to shame. While other smartwatch manufacturers brag about batteries that last 18 hours, it’s common to get several weeks out of a Garmin. With careful GPS use and ample exposure to sunlight, solar models can last longer than a month.

Size

Most Garmin watches are sized similarly to the other options on the market. Frankly, they’re not very different from a lot of analog dive watches. The exception is the mammoth tactix series. Garmin’s flagship GPS watch has a bezel diameter of 51 millimeters and stands 15 millimeters tall on the wrist. Depending on your needs, that could be an asset because it means you get a giant display — or it could be too bulky. You’ll have to decide that for yourself.

FAQs about Garmin watches

Q: How much does a Garmin watch cost?

A: The entry-level Forerunner 245 Music has an MSRP of $349.99, and prices go all the way up to $1,599.99 for the loaded tactix 7 Pro Ballistics Edition

Q: Are Garmin watches worth it?

A: Garmin does a great job of offering watches at a wide range of prices so you can pay for only the features you need. No matter which one you buy, you’ll get a segment-leading product that’s trusted around the world.

Q: Are Garmin watches compatible with iPhones?

A: Yes, although some add-on apps are only compatible with Android devices.

Q: Are Garmin watches waterproof?

A: The Forerunner 245 Music has a water-resistance rating of 50 meters. All the other watches on this list have a waterproof rating of 100 meters.

Final thoughts

The Garmin tactix 7 Pro Ballistics Edition is the undeniable king of the hill right now (as it should be, for $1,600). It’s jam-packed with military tech that’s a genuine asset on battlefields anywhere in the world. If you don’t need every single bell and whistle, you can get the price as low as $1,099.99 for the standard model.  

Methodology 

Narrowing down the best Garmin watches can be daunting and subjective. In this case, I focused my attention on determining which ones work best in a military context. That might mean navigating uncharted terrain during a deployment to a hostile environment, or it could mean keeping you on pace to crush your annual fitness test. Features like night vision compatibility and stealth mode were given preference, but so were ones like contactless payment and the ability to control your music during a training run on your own time. I did my best to narrow the extensive list of Garmin watches currently available to the best overall, the best on a budget, and the best in two other price categories.

In the case of the tactix 7 and Instinct 2, I was able to put test units through their paces myself over the span of several months. You’ll find specific aspects of those watches that stood out in their respective sections of this gear guide.

The result of this is a Garmin watch review that’s written from a military perspective for people in the military — or those who have separated and are keeping the tradition alive.

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