When looking for the best outdoor watch, is simply telling the time enough? Certainly, a watch should reliably tell the time, but how much more do you need it to do when you are out in the woods? With options running from basic watches to wrist-worn computers, the choice usually comes down to the type of hiking you intend to do. Here are some features to consider when selecting the best hiking watch for you.
Read our in depth reviews below...
Considerations for Selecting a Backpacking Watch
As electronics get smaller, it is possible to hike with what is essentially a computer on your wrist. While that is great for a day or weekend hike, it may not be the best idea for a long distance trek.
The problem? Sooner or later those gadgets need to be recharged. When looking for the best hiking watches, one of the first considerations is how much battery life you need. If your hikes are mostly day trips where you are able to recharge at night, pack up the gadgets. However, if you spend weeks in the wilderness without electricity, long battery life may be more important.
Waterproof or Water Resistant
Chances are good you will get wet while hiking and your watch probably will too. To survive a soaking rain, a watch should have some degree of waterproofing. The differences between waterproof and water resistant is the amount of water pressure the watch seal can withstand.
Most often this is measured in meters and under static conditions -- 50M, for example. However, the meter rating does not equate to the actual “safe” depth for the watch. A good rule is a 50M watch would survive in the shower or a good soaking rain.
A 100M watch might be a better choice if your hiking involves swimming or an occasional river crossing. Unless you plan to scuba or dive with the watch, a 200M rating is probably overkill for hiking.
Rugged and Shock Resistent
Let's face it, hikers fall. You may get bruised, but your watch should withstand the hazards of life on the trail. Although the band and case may meet rugged, military standards, the best watches will also have strong crystals.
Generally there are three types of crystal: acrylic, mineral and sapphire.
Acrylic crystals are popular because they are inexpensive, have minimal glare and resist shattering. However, sapphire crystals are the most durable and scratch resistant. In fact, only a diamond or another sapphire can scratch a sapphire crystal.
The mineral crystal lies in between. Ordinary glass is chemically or heat treated to create a mineral crystal. Although a mineral crystal can break, it is far more durable than acrylic and is a good choice for hiking and outdoor use.
Easy to Read
Hiking watches should be easy to read in a variety of outdoor conditions. Most watches have glowing dials or back lights, so checking the time in the middle of the night usually is not a problem.
Some watches are prone to glare and are virtually unusable in strong sunlight. Likewise, some dials are harder to read at an angle or in low light and cloudy conditions. Before selecting a trail watch, make sure you can read the dial from your wrist in all light conditions with ease.
Alarms & Other Features
While not necessary, an alarm is a handy feature on a backpacking watch. If you sleep a little too soundly in your sleeping bag, the alarm will assure you never miss a fantastic sunrise. Watch models with multiple daily alarms can remind you when it is time for food, rest or medication—things that are all too easily forgotten on a long hike.
In addition to alarms, some watches have other nice-to-have features like dual time mode, stop watches, count down timers, calendars and even thermometers (for the outdoor temperature, not yours).
If you like gadgets, there are some higher-end watches equipped with fully functional GPS systems that will track and save your footsteps enabling a repeat hike at any time. These watches often have all the functions of a fitness trainer as well, thus justifying the extra cost.
Sometimes referred to as ABC, many mid-range outdoor watches now feature altimeters, barometers and a compass. If you travel the backwoods, a good compass is indispensable. Of course, you should learn to use it before you go.
This video will give you a good basic understanding of navigating with a compass.
An altimeter is equally useful to double check elevation and assure you have not accidentally gone off course.
It is tricky to completely predict weather, but a rapidly changing barometer is a good indication of bad weather brewing. If you are a long distance hiker, having a barometer could mean the difference between the safety of a shelter or tense moments out in the elements.
Our Top 5 Best Hiking Watches
Aposon Mens Military Digital Sport Watch
The Aposon Mens Military Digital Sport Watch is simple and basic, yet designed to hold up to sports and outdoor activities. It is shock resistant and features a mineral crystal display—great features for a watch that costs under $25. The big LED screen is backlit but difficult to read in some light conditions.
Rated waterproof to 50M, the watch is perfect for rainy days on the trail. However, it may not be the best choice if your hike requires river crossings or you plan to swim. With a stopwatch, alarm and calendar, the Aposon will keep track of the time and date while you enjoy life on the trail.
Since there are no other features, you will need to carry a compass, maps and other navigational tools. The battery life is not specifically indicated, but should be sufficient to power the standard LED display through many months, if not years, of hiking.
- Long Battery Life
- Shock and Scratch Resistant
- Low Cost
- Lack of Features
- Waterproof to only 50M
Lad Weather Sensor Master
The German Sensor Digital Compass Altimeter Barometer Chronograph is one of the few hiking watches that comes in a variety of colors – nine to be exact. It has a great luminescent backlight that is easy to see. Along with the standard ABC navigation features, it features a Weather Forcaster.
This is a great feature for hikers who don't want to continuously check the barometer for weather changes. Dual time mode, alarm, thermometer and countdown timer are also included in the very reasonable price.
There are two drawbacks to this watch. One, it is only water resistant to 30M. A long day hiking in the rain could easily challenge that and render the watch useless. Two, the crystal is acrylic which is easily scratched when hiking through brush.
- Color Options
- Multiple Functions
- ABC (Altimeter, Barometer & Compass)
- Acrylic Crystal
- Water Resistant to 30M
EZON Hiking Climbing Multifunctional Outdoor Watch
The EZON Hiking Climbing Multifunctional Outdoor Watch does just what the name implies. It puts the standard functions required of the best watches for hiking in an attractive steel case suitable for outdoor use.
The built-in thermometer is handy for those who need to know the temperature. However, to be accurate, the watch should be off your wrist for at least ten minutes. A calendar and alarm are also included. For those who hike for fitness, the EZON's pedometer is a great feature.
The EXON overall is attractive, but the stainless steel buckle is extra large and somewhat cumbersome to wear--especially if you have a small wrist. Also, the watch would be more useful for a wider range of hiking situations if it had a water resistant rating higher than 50M.
- Acrylic Crystal
- Waterproof to only 50M
Casio Men's PAG240-1CR Pathfinder
The stylish yet functional Casio PAG240-1CR Pathfinder Triple Sensor is equally at home in the office and the woods. The stainless steel case and mineral display are attractive enough for dress. With a compass, altimeter, barometer and thermometer, you can also step into the woods prepared.
Five daily alarms, stop watch, countdown timer and full calendar round out the standard features. Sunrise Sunset Data assure you see every sunrise and are safely tucked in your sleeping back by sunset. Water resistant to 100M, the watch is suitable for swimming without worry.
Perhaps the best feature for hiking, however, is the solar charger. Once charged, the battery will last six months without further exposure to light. Unless you are exploring caves, battery life should be no problem.
- Long Battery Life
- Built-In Solar Charger
- Water Resistant to 100 m
- ABC Functions
- Display Hard to Read at Angle
- Quiet Alarm
- Lengthy Set Up for Advanced Feature
Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire
What can you say about the Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire except “wow.” It truly is a navigation tool in a watch costume. The color screen immediately catches the eye while the case and rugged sapphire lens are built for backwoods travel.
With all the features expected in a high-end watch, the Fenix 3 Sapphire also has the navigation you would expect from Garmin. With built-in fitness and wireless connectivity, you can upload your path and get email right from your wrist. In fact, this model does just about everything but start the campfire.
The biggest drawback to the Garmin is the battery life. In GPS mode, it will last about 20 hours. In UltraTrac mode, about 50 hours. In watch mode, you can get six weeks of life, but what fun is watch mode? True, you can recharge the unit fairly quickly, but will you reliably find electricity every other day of a hike?
- Navigational Features Plus ABC
- Rugged Sapphire Lens
- Wireless Sync with Garmin Connect and Smartphone
- Battery Life
Best of the Best Outdoor Watches
Your goal is to find the watch that best matches your hiking style. What works for day hikes may not work well for longer backpacking trips. If it fits your budget and hiking style, nothing beats a “smart” watch with integrated GPS ability like the Garmin. However,the battery life is too short for long or remote trips where "plugging in" is not possible.
So, for overall trail fitness, the best watch is probably the Casio Men's PAG240-1CR Pathfinder Triple Sensor Multi-Function Sport Watch. It is reasonably priced and has multiple functions to help you find your path. It is water resistant to 100M, so it will survive a cool dip in a mountain pond. The battery life is more than sufficient for months on the trail. Plus, when the days are sunny, it will even recharge itself for more adventure.