The Best GPS Watches (Review & Buying Guide) in 2021
These GPS watches will surprise and impress you with not only their looks, but also their high-tech features
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BY Lisa Conant / LAST UPDATED ON November 15, 2020
Knowing where you are is important, and being able to know where you are without relying on a phone is just as important to many people. For outdoor sports enthusiasts like hikers, climbers, backpackers, campers, hunters, endurance athletes, military personnel, and survivalists, being able to instantly access your exact location is essential, not only for personal safety but for rescue or emergency scenarios that are sometimes unfortunate occurrences in outdoor activities.
For these individuals, a GPS-enabled watch makes a lot of sense. Much harder to lose than a phone, much more durable, and with generally a much longer battery life, GPS watches offer a practical alternative to pulling a block of metal and glass out of your pocket every few minutes. The types of GPS watches on the market are diverse, and their capabilities surprisingly powerful. They range from all-around cell phone analogs to devices to keep tabs on one’s children, to specific watches tailored for runners and golfers. Whatever the purpose, there is a GPS watch to do it.
This watch is a powerful and sleek piece of wireless technology that connects to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, in addition to GPS signals. Designed to pair with an Android phone, but works well solo.
- Goes for days on a single charge
- Monitors heart rate, atrial fibrillation occurrences, sleep patterns, and more
- One of the priciest choices on our list
- Cost may be prohibitive for many consumers
This watch uses several optical sensors and a proprietary algorithm to accurately and precisely track every pulse of the heart, and a battery of GPS and accelerometers to closely document position and speed.
- Monitor location, heart rate, steps, distance, calories burned, and sleep
- Very versatile watch for the price
- Some concern over the long-term reliability and accuracy
- Uses older tech than some other models
This is a GPS-enabled watch tailored to the needs of golfers. The centerpiece of this niche bit of equipment is the 1.2-inch color touchscreen, which is designed specifically for readability in sunlight.
- Uses GPS location to show accurate yardages
- Handy Quick Fit bands let you quickly adapt looks
- Mainly for golfers but works well for skiers, snowboarders, rowers, and stand-up paddlers
- Not suitable for runners
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Benefits of GPS Watches
- Compact. A GPS watch gives you the benefit of being able to conveniently wear technology that tracks you and your progress, versus having to carry your cell phone with you while hiking, running, climbing, etc. This keeps your hands free and frees up space in your pack.
- Tracking metrics. A good GPS watch tracks lots of valuable information, like location, distance, heart rate, elevation, and more. It can also chart your progress or record data for comparison of past trips, making it a really useful training tool.
- Navigation aid. A GPS watch can be a great navigational aid to keep you from getting lost or to help get you back on track in case of an accidental detour. It can help rescuers find you quickly and easily in an emergency.
- Keeps you on time. It’s a watch, so at its most basic function, it will tell you the time and keep you from being late for important meetings and events. Sometimes this most basic of functions can be the most valuable and the most overlooked benefit of a GPS watch.
- Multi-functional. Not only will a GPS watch tell the time and track your biometrics while exercising, but most also link up to your cell phone to allow you to receive text messages and phone calls while away from your phone.
Types of GPS Watches
A GPS watch for runners is designed to monitor and track certain metrics that are important to people who run regularly. It will track heart rate, O2 levels, pace, calories burned, steps, distance, sleep patterns, and more. Some running GPS watches even have the ability to store playlists so you can listen to music while you’re out.
These watches allow golfers to easily see important metrics and details, even in bright sunlight. They can show things like precise location on a golf course, yardages to greens, doglegs, hazards, and more. Most GPS watches for golfers come with up to 40,000 different course maps preloaded into the watch. These watches can also be used by skiers, snowboarders, rowers, and stand-up paddleboarders.
GPS watches for cyclists are usually compatible with a power meter, which measures your power output throughout your ride to give you a comprehensive picture of how much force you’re exerting. These watches also usually come equipped with a quick-release mount that allows you to take it off the wrist strap and attach it to a bracket at the center of your handlebars.
These watches often feature a higher degree of water resistance than a runner’s or golfer’s watch. They can track distance in both pools and open water swims. In open water, the watch has an accelerometer that is combined with the GPS signal that it uses to help you gauge distance and speed accurately. During an indoor swim, the accelerometer can count strokes and laps in the pool once you set the pool’s length in the watch. In some cases, the accelerometer can even identify the type of swim stroke you’re using.
These watches usually combine several features from the runner’s, cyclist’s, and swimmer’s watches, for obvious reasons. They have the quick release mount for your bike and have lots of customizable data options. They can also quickly transition between sports with just the touch of a button so you won’t miss a beat when switching between legs of your triathlon. For example, when you switch from cycling to running, the watch’s display will switch your speed from miles per hour for cycling to minutes per mile for running.
GPS watches are especially useful for hikers and backpackers. They have not only the ability to accurately pinpoint your location in case of a rescue situation or to keep you on track and prevent you from getting lost, but they can also track your altitude, or elevation, with an internal barometer. They can detect temperature and often warn of oncoming storm systems and imminent sunsets, keeping you safe and from unplanned events.
If you are looking for a GPS for your motorcycle read our review here.
Garmin is one of the top recognized names in GPS navigation systems. With more than 15,000 employees in over 80 countries worldwide, it’s got a global reach with trusted products like the Garmin inReach Explorer®+ handheld GPS locator for mariners and sailors, and the Garmin Catalyst™ Driving Performance Optimizer.
Is there anything Apple doesn’t do? It’s one of the most widely known tech companies on the planet, with cellular and wearable technology that is the world leader in innovation. It’s widely known for life-changing products like the Apple iPhone 11 and the Apple MacBook Air Laptop.
Samsung is a household name in globally-reaching technological advancements. Samsung has long been known for manufacturing revolutionary products, such as its line of Samsung Lifestyle TVs and its line of Samsung Connected Appliances.
Fitbit is a pioneer in wearable fitness technology. Founded in 2007, it introduced one of the first watch-style fitness monitors to the masses and has been a trusted source ever since. It’s more widely used products include the Fitbit Charge 4 and the Fitbit Ace 2 for children.
Polar has been leading the way in heart rate monitor technology since 1977. It caters to all levels of fitness and is a trusted brand among medical professionals who want to monitor patients’ heart activity using smartly designed products like the Polar H10 Heart Rate Sensor and the Polar Vantage M, advanced running and multi-sport watch with GPS.
GPS Watch Pricing
- Under $150: GPS watches in this range don’t come with a lot of customizable features, but get the job done as far as tracking location, time, distance, speed, and calories. They usually come equipped with date and time, alarms, and stopwatch functionality.
- $150-$350: This price range will get you a good, reliable watch with a longer-lasting battery. GPS watches in this price range will have added features, like interval workouts or heart rate monitors, and will be waterproof. They don’t have a ton of specificity between sports, however.
- $350 and up: These GPS watches will be the cream of the crop, with lots of added features and data capabilities. They will often be sport-specific, with longer battery life and apps designed for tracking metrics that are unique to each sport they’re made for. They’ll also feature comprehensive tracking and training aids.
While all GPS watches are rain- and sweat-proof, not all of them are completely waterproof enough to handle total submersion in water. Most GPS watches lose satellite connectivity when under more than just a few inches of water, so if you intend to use it around water, look for a watch that’s rated to IPXC7 standards, meaning it’s water-resistant to at least 30 meters. This means your watch can handle some submersion, but it won’t hold up to deep submersion for a long time.
Almost all GPS watches run on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. The base models will be able to hold a charge for 10-12 hours when GPS mode is turned on. This is fine unless you’re an endurance athlete, hiker, backpacker, or survivalist. For these activities, look for a watch that has a battery life of 20 hours or more when in active modes.
Your needs for data options will vary depending on your chosen activity or purpose for having a GPS watch. Do you want to be able to track only location, speed, pace, distance, and time, or do you need more specific data trackers, like elevation, altitude, barometric pressure, heart rate, oxygen levels in your blood, calories burned, outside temperature, swim stroke or lap counter, distances between two landmarks, etc.?
- Memory Capacity. This can vary from watch to watch. How much data do you want to be able to store on your GPS watch? If you’re training for a marathon or triathlon, maybe you want enough capacity to store your training logs for months at a time. If you’re a golfer, maybe your watch needs to be able to store thousands of course outlines for you to reference at any given moment. Memory capabilities usually go hand-in-hand with cost.
- Breadcrumbs. “Breadcrumbs” is a term for digital pinpoints that some GPS watches are capable of dropping along your route while you’re running, hiking, or cycling. They form a connected line on a rudimentary map that outlines your route for you so that you don’t get lost. You can also upload a route and use the breadcrumbs as a rough outline to find your way.
- Waypoints. Having a watch that you can program waypoints, that is, actual latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates, into can come in very handy if you want your watch to guide you using directional arrows. They’re also useful to create routes you want to go on, or for marking locations and points of interest, such as spots to avoid, restrooms, resting points, etc.
- Training Aids. Do you want your watch to be able to help improve your training methods? Some GPS watches come with aids that can take your data, assess it, and use it to create plans or tips to help you take your training to the next level. Training aids are great features for marathoners, triathletes, endurance athletes, and more.
Best GPS Watch Reviews & Recommendations 2021
- Make a habit of plugging your GPS watch in at the same time and place as you charge your cell phone each night so that you’re never caught out on a run or hike with a dead battery.
- Frequently clean your watch strap, watch face, and cable connections to ensure accurate biometric readings and a longer lifespan of your wearable technology. You want to get the most out of your investments, so take regular care of it.
- Be sure that the GPS watch you choose is going to do what you need or want it to do. Getting a watch that’s tailored to your specific personal interests and activities will help to greatly narrow down the available options when weeding through all the different models out there. If you’re a runner, you don’t need a watch that has 10,000 different golf course maps stored on it.
- Just like with your phone, be sure to lock your watch so that it doesn’t accidentally get activated and drain the battery when it’s being stored in a gym bag, purse, or backpack.
- Take the necessary time initially to customize your watch and set your top priority monitors and features to be quickly and easily accessed over less important options. This will enhance your GPS watch experience.
- Be sure to read online user reviews before making your final decision. Finding out ahead of time what other users have experienced with your possible models can make your choice a lot easier.
- Make sure that the band of your GPS watch fits very snugly. A lot of sensors and monitors are located on the back of the watch and require solid, snug contact with your skin to function accurately.
- Always be sure to fill out your watch’s warranty information and register your product online, if they offer that. The technology in GPS watches is highly sensitive, and given the initial cost of some models, you want to make sure that your investment is protected against any unforeseen manufacturer’s defects or malfunctions.
Q: What's the best GPS watch?
The best GPS watches come from reliable and well-known companies that have a solid track record of producing accurate and durable products. The best GPS watch for you will be the one that tracks and monitors all the metrics that are relevant to your chosen sports or activities.
Q: What is GPS in a watch?
GPS stands for “Global Positioning System”. It determines your exact location on the planet using triangulation from various orbital satellites.
Q: Do I need a GPS watch for hiking?
While the old school method of maps and compasses can successfully navigate you through most hikes, a GPS watch can be invaluable if you get lost or injured and need help getting out of the woods. You can use it to contact rescuers and can send your exact pinpoint location to them to speed your rescue. You can also use it to track your hike and reverse it so that you can walk back out of the bush on the exact path that you came in.
With the continual and rapid advances in modern technology, GPS watches are becoming increasingly popular and relevant ways to track a ton of metrics in a tiny, wearable fashion. Whether you go with the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3, the Polar M430 GPS Running Watch, or something in between, there’s definitely a GPS watch to suit your needs.