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Published Apr. 12, 2021

It’s time to graduate from that basic watch on your wrist to something that can help you stay in shape, keep you connected, and improve your situational awareness. Think of GPS watches as a smartwatch that’s built to excel in Teton Valley rather than Silicon Valley. This kind of watch is just as tough and utilitarian as your old sports watch, but with features you’d expect from the latest tech gadget. It’s kind of like getting out of an Humvee and climbing into an MRAP: you don’t have to give up any of the capabilities you’re used to, and the list of benefits is long. 

Which GPS watch you choose will depend on how you plan on using it. Navigating across rough terrain in a far off land requires a different watch than counting steps around the office at your stateside staff job. We found something for everyone, though, so read on to find one that’s right for you.

If you think of a capability you want your next GPS watch to have, we’re pretty sure the Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Solar has it. Large, full-color display? Check. Live fitness monitoring for all your workouts? Check. Detailed topographical maps anywhere you go? Check. Not only can this watch pull off the usual GPS watch party tricks, its 1.4-inch solar display also recharges the battery anytime it’s exposed to sunlight so you can go longer in between breaks for charging. Not only do fitness trackers monitor your heart rate and speed, this watch uses all that data to provide you with a recommended pace to get the most out of your workout. In addition to GPS and maps, navigational aids include a compass, gyroscope, and altimeter. Like any good smartphone, it also supports contactless payment, stores music, streams your favorite content, and connects to your phone to allow notifications and voice commands. Sport-specific features are even available for golf and skiing. Sure, it’s the most expensive watch on this list; but it’s as close as any of us can get to a Bond gadget, so we’ll take it.

The Suunto Core is one of the most compelling budget-friendly GPS watches we could find. When you can spend up to $1,000 on a GPS watch, it’s great to see someone offering a functional alternative for only about ten percent of that. With such a deep discount comes a few sacrifices. No, you won’t get a touchscreen. Yes, the display is single-color. On the upside, you’ll still get a well-built GPS watch that tracks your position, altitude, and bearing. The built-in weather monitoring system not only displays current conditions but tracks trends and sounds an alarm in advance of incoming storms. That’s the kind of utilitarian feature you need in the backcountry, where fitness apps and text notifications are less important.

Let’s get this out of the way; the Sky Caddie LX5 is not the GPS watch for high-speed, low-drag tactical operations. It isn’t something we’d recommend using to navigate across Death Valley. No, it earned its place on this list for being such a cool piece of kit that we just had to show it off. This GPS watch uses today’s technology to put detailed, color topographical maps of more than 35,000 golf courses on your wrist. It shows distances from your position to the near side of the green, far side of the green, and pin to help you be your own best caddie. Check distances to any point on the course with a tap on the screen. Keep score and even monitor your heart rate to prevent yourself from breaking clubs in an unexpected temper tantrum. You can even set the display to look like a traditional watch face for everyday use or those times when you don’t want your golfing buddies to know all your secrets. Honestly, the fact that this isn’t standard issue for everyone who picks up major is shocking.

The Timex Ironman R300 has the PT studs covered, thanks to fitness tracking and proven build quality without unnecessary weight–or cost. This GPS watch comes in on the lower end of the price range, but that doesn’t make it cheap. You’ll still get a color touchscreen display that monitors your cardiovascular output, steps, and distance traveled in addition to telling the time. It also estimates your caloric output and tracks your sleep patterns for improved overall health. Battery life lasts up to 25 days–or 20 hours when the GPS is active. The slim face stays out of the way during exercise. The silicone band and waterproof housing, safe for dives to 100 feet, ensure that this watch can keep up with you no matter how hard you work out. Connect this watch to your phone to receive alerts and control your music. Program the pacesetting feature to compete against a goal or personal best. If you want high-end fitness tracking without paying for things you don’t need, this is the way to go.

The Casio Pro Trek saves the day for those of you who need a GPS watch but want a classic analog face. Behind that familiar appearance is a host of high-tech gadgetry. An array of sensors provide readings on temperature, altitude, compass bearings, and step count. Your GPS location lets this watch provide sunrise and sunset times and adjust the clock according to your time zone. The glass face and durable internals are water-resistant to depths of 100 meters and can handle temperatures as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Bluetooth connectivity lets you bump up the watch’s capabilities by connecting it to your smartphone. You’ll also get classic watch features like a five-setting alarm clock, stopwatch accurate to 0.01 seconds, and automatic calendar. One advantage of the analog screen is the ability to power all these features for two years using a standard CR2025 battery.

Of course the Apple Watch works as a GPS watch. What can’t it do? By now, you already know that the Apple Watch can connect to your device and online accounts to provide seamless integration with your communication, navigation, and fitness apps–along with whatever else you use your phone for. You might be surprised to learn how well it performs as a fitness tracker and GPS watch, though. Advanced sensors monitor not only your heart rate, but your blood oxygen level and sleep patterns. Log your workouts with exercise-specific analysis to accurately track your caloric expenditures. The Apple Watch is also more than a fashion statement. Its aluminum shell is tough enough to take a beating and waterproof for those rainy runs or extended swim workouts. In the event of an accident, fall protection has you covered with the ability to contact emergency services when you can’t do it yourself.

Related: 7 men’s watches to kickstart any collection

Types of GPS watches

  • Everyday GPS watches: Most smartwatches are surprisingly durable. Everyday GPS watches blur the lines between survival tools and fashion accessories. In this category, you’ll find watches that can do all the athletic, outdoorsy things you need with enough style to wear out on the town. It’s nice to have this kind of capability without going fully tactical.
  • Fitness GPS watches: If you care about your workouts, you should probably be tracking your progress with more than a notepad. Fitness GPS watches monitor everything from heart rate to distance traveled. You can reference data on your athletic performance and get real-time information about how far you’ve run, hiked, or swam. Some GPS watches can even access information like weather conditions and elevation.
  • Tactical GPS watches: Tactical GPS watches are designed to perform under the pressure of grueling combat scenarios. Look for watches that pack technology and tools into a lightweight package, with muted colors and durable materials. A quality GPS watch can absolutely be a tactical advantage, so don’t let your outdated timepiece become a liability in the field.

Key features of GPS watches

  • Connectivity: Obviously, GPS watches need to connect with satellites to provide you with real-time information about your whereabouts. They can also communicate with other devices via Bluetooth and wifi, which means you can be more connected than ever. Many options allow you to receive notifications from your phone on your watch and use voice commands to respond, control your music, or access apps. 
  • Durability: All the technology in the world can’t help you if it isn’t tough enough to stay with you on the go. Make sure you’re getting a GPS watch that can withstand water, impacts, and extreme temperatures. We only made room for the most worthy contenders on our list to make sure you get the performance you need.
  • Capabilities: All GPS watches offer more capabilities than your traditional watch, but the benefits they offer vary depending on whether you prioritize style, fitness, or tactical advantages. The GPS market is large and growing, so there are specialized options for just about every intended use. Be honest with yourself about what you expect to gain from buying a GPS watch, and we’re confident you’ll be happy with the upgrade.
  • Display: One of the main differentiating factors among GPS watches is the display. Stylish and fitness-oriented watches often use large, full-color displays that make it easy to receive detailed information in an engaging way. Tactical GPS watches tend to use simpler displays that are unlikely to draw attention and compromise your position. 

Benefits of GPS watches

GPS watches do far more than tell time. Get real-time information about your physical output, environment, and communication with the rest of the world with a watch that monitors your fitness and gives you access to the apps on your phone. GPS watches act as a clock, navigational aid, smartphone, and fitness tracker in one compact device. By upgrading to one of these watches, you can eliminate the need to carry (and pay for) multiple devices. It’s also convenient and reassuring to know that you have all these capabilities with you no matter where you go. And remember when GPS watches looked like bricks with an armband? Back then, they could do little more than keep track of your location. Current GPS watches are just as sleek and fashionable as anything else on the market.

GPS watch pricing

Quality entry-level GPS watches offer many of the features you’d get from a high-end alternative at a much more accessible price, usually less than $200. Avoid the most inexpensive options and you’ll be fine. For more than $200, premium GPS watches provide incredible capability in a durable, attractive design. Prices can approach four figures, but the advantages might be worth it, depending on your needs. 

Related: How to use a compass like a master navigator

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