Do You Need A GPS Watch For Hiking? (The Truth)

Getting lost while hiking can be a frightening experience and is something that hikers should avoid. GPS watches can help even the most experienced hiker remain on the correct route and reduce the risk of becoming lost. So, you might be wondering what GPS watches are and if you really need one.

You’ll need a GPS watch if you are hiking in remote areas, away from clearly marked trails. These watches provide accurate location coordinates that you can use to plan routes, track progress and verify your position against a paper map to avoid getting lost.

Advances in modern technology have greatly improved the ability of hikers to plan routes and track their progress. In this article, we will look at what a GPS watch does, list some of the reasons you may get a GPS watch, and what to should look for when purchasing a GPS watch for hiking.

What Are GPS Watches For Hiking?

A GPS watch for hiking is a navigational device that shows your location and can track your hike, a handy tool when hiking in remote areas. It uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) network of satellites to provide the coordinates for your location. Therefore, you have access to reliable navigation even when hiking in the most remote locations.

As the watch uses GPS you aren’t reliant on Wi-Fi access for navigation. Using a smartphone to map your route and location can be a problem in areas with poor signal reception. A GPS watch has some limitations in terms of reception, but on the whole, it is a reliable navigational device that can rapidly provide you with up-to-date location coordinates.

The GPS watch acts as a receiver and uses satellites to triangulate a position by sending out and receiving signals. The result can be incredibly precise, showing your position on earth within a few yards.  A GPS watch can also show a host of other information including altitude, topographic maps, distance covered, speed, heart rate, and calories burned.

There are many brands of GPS watches on the market, and the more features they have, the more expensive the watch tends to be. A useful feature of a GPS watch designed with hiking in mind is the breadcrumb trail tracker,which provides an overview of the route and makes it easier to retrace your steps if required.

How Much Do GPS Watches Cost?

A GPS watch could cost you anywhere between $150 to $800. Therefore, GPS watches are not necessarily cheap, although as with most technology devices they may become less expensive over time. This represents quite an outlay if you’re an infrequent hiker, but for someone who hikes often in the wilderness, they may represent good value when measured against the importance of accurate navigation.

The more premium watches will tend to have more features to push up the cost. Again, before buying a GPS watch you should assess the different functions of a watch and whether they are relevant to your requirements. Budget is always important, but it is not about buying the cheapest device, but the best value, one which offers all you need at the best price.

Apps on smartphones can certainly provide some of the features of a GPS watch, although mobile signals can be more intermittent in remote places compared to GPS. Some people also love to switch off their phones when hiking to enjoy the natural surroundings without disturbance. They may feel a GPS watch is a good investment to achieve this aim.

Are GPS Watches Worth It For Hiking?

GPS watches are worth it if you plan to hike away from clearly marked, designated trails, and head out into remoter areas. You can’t put a price on safety, and having accurate location coordinates from a GPS watch reduces the risk of becoming lost even for an experienced hiker.

Other features such as topographical maps, weather alerts, incident detection, and the breadcrumb trail offer further peace of mind. Not just for you but for loved ones too, who know you will be easier to locate if something does go wrong.

There are many additional functions on GPS watches including fitness statistics, but the fundamentals of navigation and location detection they provide are what make these devices worth it when hiking in the wilderness. Using a GPS watch alongside a traditional map can be the best way to navigate on unfamiliar trails.

8 Reasons To Get A GPS Watch For Hiking

1. Safety

The primary reason to buy a GPS watch is for its navigational use out in the wilderness. By using GPS you can receive precise coordinates of your location at any point. You can use GPS to ensure you are on the correct route, reducing the risk of getting lost miles from the nearest point of help.

Hikers getting lost is not uncommon, and in certain situations, it can be a life-threatening incident. Having accurate location coordinates sent to your watch that can be used alongside a paper map provides additional peace of mind when miles from nowhere.

A slight aside from the safety element of having accurate location coordinates is the ability to record the precise location of areas or landmarks that you particularly liked or stood out along the way. This makes it easier to return to that same spot at some point in the future compared to trying to locate it from memory, attempting to re-trace your route by what looks familiar.

2. Route Planning And Tracking

You can use a GPS watch to help plan a route, both before the hike and while on the trail. Many good-quality GPS watches include topographical maps which you can use to help plan a safer route. These maps can be used to indicate more dangerous terrain and steeper inclines that you may wish to avoid.

Being able to visualize any dangerous sections you are approaching such as steep slopes or water is very useful, particularly if the weather has taken a turn for the worse and there is poor visibility. You can also get devices that will alert you if you are starting to veer off your planned route.

After you have completed a hike or even a section of the hike it can be fun to look into the details, such as the breakdown in miles between certain points and how high that incline actually was. GPS watches allow you to track your hike for future reference and can be a good way to record a route you may want to go back and repeat at some point.

3. In Case Of Emergency

As well as getting lost, an injury sustained from a fall is one of the primary dangers when hiking, particularly if hiking alone. We have already discussed how a GPS watch can provide location coordinates and track your hike to prevent you from wandering off your planned route. Incident detection can alert people when you have an accident while hiking.

Incident detection can be switched on for activities such as hiking. When activated, a fall or tumble will be detected, alerting an emergency contact. Your location details will also be sent so you can be quickly located if you do not reply when your contact calls, or if you are injured but are not sure of your precise location.

Not every GPS watch will have incident detection, and those that do are likely to be more expensive. However, it does depend on the pairing of a smartphone, with your smartphone contacting the emergency contacts. Therefore, you will need to have your smartphone with you, and you need to keep it charged up for the duration of your hike.

4. Reliable

GPS offers a more reliable network coverage when in the great outdoors compared to Wi-Fi. Pretty much all of us, hikers or not, will have been frustrated to be somewhere and not get a signal for our phones. Even a poor reception can be frustrating seeing how much we depend on our phones these days.

While GPS is not 100% foolproof and has some blind spots, it is still more reliable than your mobile signal. Therefore, it makes sense that you would prefer a device that uses GPS rather than a standard smartphone signal to use safety features such as navigation, tracking, and incident detection.

5. Weather Alerts

Being aware of any potential changes to the weather when hiking is important. GPS watches can provide you with local storm alerts, allowing you to make any necessary adjustments to your route for safety reasons or perhaps give you time to set up camp before adverse weather hits.

As well as storm alerts your watch can also supply you with information on weather trends when you are hiking in unfamiliar territory. Most watches also have barometer functions that help predict changes in weather through changes in atmospheric pressure.

Being fully prepared as far as the weather is concerned makes for a far more comfortable hike. Storms are potentially dangerous in certain environments. Wet clothing through a lack of preparation or through being taken by surprise is not only uncomfortable but can lead to chafing. You will also become colder when temperatures start to drop.

6. Fitness Stats And Information

GPS watches for hiking can store a host of information about your hike. Some of this can be interesting and fun to reflect on after the hike, while other parts can be useful during a hike and when planning your next adventure. If you’re a stats-loving person this will be for you.

Examples of the stats a GPS watch can keep track of include distance covered, time taken, calories burned, and heart rate. Some watches will also allow you to track interval stats within your hike. This may all sound overkill to those who just want to enjoy a relaxed hike in the great outdoors, but many people love to chart their progress and fitness levels.

7. The Breadcrumb Trail

This is another excellent safety feature that you can find on GPS watches for hiking. Part of the tracking ability of your GPS watch, this feature allows you to track your route and retrace your steps back to the start or a previous point along the route.

The breadcrumb trail provides you with an overview of your route and steps on how to get back to your starting point. It is another way to help prevent you from getting lost out in the wilderness. If you have miscalculated your route or found your trail blocked and inaccessible, a breadcrumb trail allows you to retrace your steps.

The tracker uses the compass function installed on the watch toindicate the way you are facing, ensuring you are not disorientated and head off in the wrong direction, before continuing to show you the direction you are headed as you follow the trail back.

8. Portable

A GPS watch by its very design is a highly portable device. This might seem a little obvious, but when hiking you are always looking for ways to reduce the load and weight you are carrying. A GPS watch on your wrist, although possibly heavier than standard watches, will soon seem like second nature and forgotten about until required.

The watch is therefore convenient, and just as important, easily accessible for navigational information and important updates or alerts.

6 Reasons You Don’t Need A GPS Watch For Hiking

1. Can Be Pricey

A GPS watch for hiking is not an insignificant investment and can set you back anything up to $800 and possibly more. The cost of the watch will reflect the accompanying applications and functions of the watch, and to have some of the more useful elements can see you pay more.

You will want to consider whether you will really use all the features offered with a GPS watch before parting with your cash. However, be a little wary that GPS watches at the low pricing end of the market can sometimes provide less accurate information, not great when depending on it for navigational data. Therefore, carry out thorough research beforehand and check out the reviews.

2. Some Features Still Need Wi-Fi

Although GPS is a more reliable network for navigation and route tracking, features such as incident detection on some watches rely on a smartphone receiving a signal. If your watch also relies on pairing with your smartphone for other location-based services then hiking in an area with poor Wi-Fi reception can negate the benefits of GPS.

While Bluetooth will allow you to use some functions on your phone, forgetting to take your smartphone or the battery on the phone running out will also mean this is not an option either. Therefore, add your smartphone to your pre-hike checklist and ensure the phone is fully charged before you leave the house if you have GPS watch functions that are reliant on a smartphone app.

3. Blindspots

Although GPS offers a more reliable service than a mobile signal, it still has its blindspots. Densely wooded areas and low valleys with high sides can interrupt GPS reception. If this is a brief interruption you can soon connect again to receive an update on your location coordinates.

However, if much of the trail features such terrain, then a GPS watch may become redundant during the trip for location-based functions.

4. Battery Drains Faster

The battery on a GPS watch can last for quite a while without the need to be re-charged. However, keeping the GPS switched on continuously will drain the battery much faster. Most hikers will turn on GPS sparingly, and only when they use a function that requires GPS. Like your phone, make sure your watch is fully charged before leaving the house.

Hiking with a paper map with occasional reference to GPS will help conserve battery life on your watch, while still ensuring you benefit from accurate location coordinates to ensure you are on the right course. Many GPS watches come with a spare battery pack, which although an additional item to pack, can be a valuable backup if you accidentally leave the GPS function on all day.

5. Small Screen Size

The very nature of a wristwatch means the screen is not going to be that big. Large enough to glance at location coordinates and fitness data, but not ideal for some of the other functions a GPS watch can offer, such as topographical maps.

Having a pre-downloaded map on your watch can be very handy, as well as saving you from having the GPS function switched on so often. However, the small face of a watch makes such maps hard to read in detail and is a prime reason why such features work best when paired with a smartphone with a larger screen.

6. You Hike On Designated Trails

If you only hike on well-marked, designated trails within areas such as national parks, then a GPS watch is not a necessary item. These sorts of trails are usually well maintained, clearly marked, and can have ‘you are here’ style maps along the way.

Such designated trails tend to be more popular as they are more accessible to less experienced hikers. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that you wouldn’t see other hikers if you did need to ask a question, and you may also have staffed ranger stations too. You should start thinking about a GPS watch when you are hiking in more remote areas on less clearly marked trails.

What To Look For In A GPS Watch For Hiking

When you buy a GPS watch for hiking you want a device that has the functions you need for your style of hiking, that is reliable and has a battery that will last. The following are some of the criteria you should address when looking for a GPS watch for hiking.


The functions a watch offers are a key consideration when looking for a suitable GPS watch. Some are fundamental features that you want on your watch, including:

  • GPS navigation
  • Altimeter
  • Barometer
  • Tracking
  • Weather alerts
  • Incident detection

Other recommended functions include topographical maps and the breadcrumb trail. Additional functions will usually mean a more expensive watch, but ultimately you want a device that makes hiking in the wilderness safer.


You need to be able to rely on your watch to work effectively and accurately at all times. You do not want to find out your watch is inaccurate in an emergency just at the time you need it most.

Advanced watches have well-designed software, a barometric barometer, and support the Russian satellite network (Glonass) as well as GPS. All this adds up to a more accurate, reliable, and faster provision of location data.

Battery Life

Not only are you looking for a watch with a good battery life between charges, but also one which copes well when GPS is switched on. GPS functions can drain a battery, but even when GPS is left on a decent battery can see your watch last for 12 to 13 hours. Bear in mind other features such as Bluetooth and backlights will also take their toll on the battery.

Some GPS watches are also sold with a spare battery pack, which can be useful if you have forgotten to fully charge the battery in the watch. A battery with a long life and a spare battery pack can be key on long hikes or multi-day hikes.

Ease Of Use

A GPS watch packed with functions will be more complex to use than one with minimal functions. Choose a watch with just the functions you need to reduce such complexity and make it simpler to use. When you are feeling tired, or when you quickly want to track your location, the last thing you want is to feel you need an IT degree to operate your watch.


Your GPS watch must feel comfortable, but it must also be durable enough to withstand the rugged nature of hiking trails. Double straps, a scratch-resistant lens, and a metal or polymer case can all help make for a more robust watch. A water-resistant watch is also a good idea, protecting it against sudden storm downpours.


Some of the features and functions of a GPS watch are served better when paired with a smartphone or a laptop. By using Bluetooth to sync these devices and download apps you can make use of features such as topographical maps, viewing them on a larger screen compared to your smaller watch face.

Final Thoughts

A GPS watch for hiking offers many benefits, including access to accurate location coordinates, route planning and tracking, hike statistics, and safety features such as incident detection. When hiking in more remote areas a GPS watch can be a crucial device in ensuring you don’t stray off course.