I always considered a GPS watch is one of those luxury items, which is why it took me so many years of navigation outdoors, trail running and general training to get one; what a mistake! I should have bought a GPS watch ages ago – it is now my favourite tool of navigation along with a map for fast hiking trips. The ability to load waypoints and routes, track my progress and get live stats on my speed are amazing – it is an integral part of my modern navigation system. I have already mentioned my setup in the past:
- A good old compass (with a base plate) for any kind of electronic failure;
- Home printed maps that I get off OS Maps online;
- Smartphone for carrying loads of extra digital maps for higher and lower resolution of my trip; and lastly
- A GPS watch
I’d like to explain how I use a GPS watch as part of the above light, efficient and robust navigation arsenal, show some tricks I’ve found and provide a little overview about what is available to buy today. But first, there are a few things to clarify.
Is it really a GPS?
It is rare to find anyone in the modern world who hasn’t heard about GPS and doesn’t know that it somehow relates to navigation. It is even rarer today to find an outdoors enthusiast who doesn’t know that GPS stands for Global Position System, but few know that this is just one possible GNSS. The overall name for a global constellation of satellites that can aid navigation devices is Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), and at the moment there are 2 of them: GPS (USA) and GLONASS (Russia). By 2020, 3 more currently regional systems are scheduled to become global: BeiDou to become CNS (China), Galileo (EU) and IRNSS (India). Japan and France are also working on their own GNSSs.
As you can see, you want your satnav (Satellite Navigation) device to be connecting with all of the above GNSSs to increase accuracy and coverage, and indeed most satnavs work with both GPS and GLONASS (the rest are not yet available to the public). GPS became the first GNSS to be open to the public and allow everyone to get accurate location services – even if not at the highest quality at all times – so as a habit, we started calling all GNSS devices GPS devices.
For ease of use for this post, I will be referring to a GNSS wearable device as a GPS watch – it is just easier for all of us to get it and easier for me to write.
Just in case you missed it (or never knew) – how does GPS work?
I won’t go into the full history of the GPS but will just say that it has been a USA military system used since the 1960’s, expanding from being used by the Navy to all branches of the military. In the 80’s the US government opened the use of GPS to the private sector and recreational GPSs started popping up. Until the year 2000, GPSs were limited in accuracy to 300ft/100m due to the military dithering to reduce the accuracy for civilians, but since then the system was made accurate for all of us. The system has 31 satellites in orbit at the moment, allowing for full global coverage.
GLONASS went through a different process: the system has been fully functional and effective since the 80’s with 43 satellites in orbit, all being extremely strong and accurate. The system was neglected during the 90’s with the collapse of the USSR and since 2000 has been subject to the constant process of being restored to its former glory. The system is still struggling to reach the number of satellites that GPS has, but currently there are 24 satellites in the GLONASS system and they also offer full global coverage.
GPS (or any GNSS) is based on using a Doppler effect that measures how long it takes the signal from the satellite reach your GPS device and bounce back again. The satnav device listens to a signal coming from satellites, trying to send a “bounce” back to them. When the device receives a bounce from 3 satellites, it can triangulate a location; adding a fourth allows it to find altitude. This is, of course, a very simplistic explanation but it is enough to understand that a GPS device needs as much open sky and the least obstacles around to get a fast and accurate reading.
GPS devices measure the progression of the device (and you, who carries it) by constantly checking for radio signals and getting a location, recording that location point and time in a log (GPX file) and saving it. Based on the readings some devices will calculate speed, distance left, etc.
The main reason that GPS devices were originally popular is to get a location that could then be found on the map; this location could have been latitude and longitude or a grid reference. There are so many applications of GPS that it would take a long time just to write it all, so we will focus on the only ones relevant for us: location, altitude and movement tracking.
All about GPS watches
GPS watches aren’t really new – they have been around for a while, though at the beginning they were really just a smaller GPS unit with straps to wear as a watch. The release of the GPS from dithering happened at the same time as the technological advances in micro chips and antennas. The new GPS chips and smaller antennas meant smaller devices that also proved to be more accurate by using better algorithms and software.
The whole process of developing smaller and better GPS watches finally made for a really useful watch around 2010 when the first GPS watches that actually looked like a watch were released. After this point the GPS watch stopped being an awkward looking item you could only use when outdoors or during extreme training, but an everyday item, some might say even a fashion item.
The next step in the evolution of GPS watches was to start adding features that were beyond the watch and location functions: speed, cadence and connection with ANT+ devices (such as heart rate monitors, foot pods and more) allowed users to track more information, including biometric performance. From here the training watch and the GPS watch have become one, offering better information, training and performance.
The latest addition to the GPS watch world have been the dedicated outdoors watches: taking the simple and light designs of the training based watches, the outdoors GPS watches also offer what outdoors watches did in the past: altimeter, digital compass and barometer. The last and most important is the addition of uploading pre-planned routes, using backtracking and planning a route on the watch itself. All those allow outdoors enthusiasts to track progress, navigate and record their adventures while having a fully functioning and robust watch.
Most outdoors-specific GPS watches will offer this list of features:
- Watch functions: time, date, stopwatch, timer
- Outdoors tools: temperature, altimeter, barometer, compass
- GPS-based location display
- Waypoint programming and marking on the go
- Backtracking: returning to the point you started measuring using the same route
- Connecting to ANT+ sensors for increased biometrics data (heart rate, cadence etc)
- Training programs
- Real time statistics about speed, distance, time, altitude gain etc
- Connection to the computer and web based software to view and analyse data
- Water resistance
- USB based charging and 10+ hours of GPS mode running time
Additional features for newer outdoors GPS watches:
- Map display for relative navigation
- Reminders about hydration/nutrition/time/distance/elevation
- Direction indicators and micro-navigation tools
- Bluetooth and Wifi connectivity
Using a GPS watch for outdoors activities (examples using Garmin Fenix 2)
A GPS watch can be used as either a tracking device or as a navigation aid. The navigation function tends to also have tracking functions in it.
The tracking function is probably the most basic of functions when it come to GPS watches: the watch sends a signal at regular intervals and logs the location and time. The signal intervals are usually once a minute, but it depends on the activity that is preset in the watch (faster moving=more frequent signals) or set by the user. Most watches will also offer the option of a specifically designated low frequency program to allow for longer battery life.
The main purpose of tracking in GPS watches came from athletic training: gathering reliable distance and speed data to analyse performance, especially along side biometric data (heart rate, weight, cadence etc). This of course led to some great tools that can be used by hikers, trail runners or anyone moving outdoors:
- Creating specific waypoints on the go – marking a specific point along the way that you can add extra information about: good place for camping, potential hazard, a “crash” in energy levels etc. This allows for better post trip analysis, giving you better data about yourself during the trip and remembering more details about the trip you just had.
- Getting “live” information – either to measure how long you have been walking, how much more you have to walk today (based on pre-planning), what your speed is and whether you need to hurry up before dark or if you can actually afford taking your time. All this distance/speed/time data allows for better adjustment of your trip on the go, reducing the risks of getting stuck in the dark or “over-doing it” on the trail. * One caveat – GPS watches are known to over estimate distance, best is to learn how to correct your watch’s distance problem*
- Backtracking/bread crumbs – as you are generating a trail of waypoints, you can always follow them back using your watch; this is great if you are in a new place and just exploring. The mechanism is pretty simple: the watch creates a route of where you have been so far, and when you are ready to head back, the watch starts using that route for navigation (more in the next section).
All I wrote so far leads to this section, where we look at the GPS watch as a navigation tool, one that can help us reach specific destinations based on pre-determined way points, even in the middle of nowhere. The reason I find this tool so great is how simple and straight forward it is, and it uses the watch’s ability to have “routes” stored in it that include a set of waypoints, telling you which direction you need to be heading in order to get to the next one.
To navigate with your watch you can use a route you create while walking, use a pre made and pre uploaded GPX file of your intended route, or (the hardest option) create a route in the watch using coordinates. This is not where I’ll be going into GPX files (I’ll do that some other time), but I will just say that a GPX file is a text file in a specific format that consists of all the waypoints you have marked in the correct order that they should be walked (if it is a log it will also have a date and time signature). Last, you can also just navigate to a single waypoint, too.
Data that can be used to navigate:
- Manually saved waypoint – this can be a waypoint you have been to and marked, or a waypoint you have used in the past.
- Manually entered waypoint – a known location (geocache, escape location, a peak, etc) that you want to go to, marked by entering the waypoint’s location manually before setting out.
- Track that is now saved as a route – tracks are what we referred to previously – a log of the way you walked in the past. The logs (=tracks) can be saved as routes on the watch and then followed.
- Preloaded route that has been created on a computer – use your favourite GPX creating software (online or offline) like Viewranger, OS Maps, Caltopo and so many others. When done with the GPX file, save it on the computer, upload it to the watch and use it to navigate.
- Manually entered route – manually entering a set of waypoints into the watch to create a route. This is a very awkward way to deal with routes and I will use it only in case of an emergency.
Ways in which navigation is displayed on a watch:
- Direction arrow – The most basic form of direction indication, just make sure the arrow points forward towards the direction you are walking.
- Schematic map – Shows a line that connects all the waypoints. This line is not overlayed on a map, so it lacks context; it only shows direction and sequence. Can be displayed in different resolutions to represent different scales – from whole route overviews to 100m segments.
- Full map with route – Latest models of watches present a preloaded map with the route used to navigate. These maps are now even offered in colour (!). Obviously offers the most data on the move.
There are a couple of points to remember when it comes to displaying information:
- More information means the need for more advanced, energy consuming, bigger screens that might make the watch too sensitive to be used outdoors.
- More information can be too much at times, especially if you are using other means of navigation. I find that the map display is just too small for me to enjoy moving fast, but the schematic map shows all the information I need without complications.
What is available in the GPS market now
If you are convinced by now of the GPS watch as a navigation tool, then you are probably considering buying one. This is not a product comparison site and I only review products that I use regularly, but I have researched watches and have a bit to say about what is out there at the moment.
Who makes GPS watches at the moment:
- Big sports companies: Nike, Adidas and New Balance
- Big sport watch companies: Timex, Polar, TomTom, Suunto, Garmin, Seiko
- Small watch companies: Papago, GlobalSat, Motorola, Mytach and so many more…..
Most of the GPS watches in the market are very much fitness tools, focusing on tracking, statistics, training programs and design. The two main competitors that are relevant for outdoor enthusiasts are Suunto and Garmin. The two recommended watches for the avid navigator are:
Both of the watch families above have been around for a few years now and are in their 3rd generation (with the 4th just around the corner) and offer all you would expect from a navigation tool in the form of a GPS watch. I have no real recommendation which is better and I got my Fenix just because I found it on sale.
In general, the best time to buy a new piece of tech (GPS watch included) is just after a new version is released – I got the Garmin Fenix 2 just after the Fenix 3 was released for 50% off.
The real progress between the generations is on the inside of the watches: better antennas (more accurate), better software (more information and functions), smaller chips, and better connectivity. I’m not a fan of buying the latest and greatest for the sake of it, but the latest technology when it comes to GPS watches makes a big difference in terms of performance and accuracy. The latest models also offer connectivity to GLONASS, which the previous versions (2 and older) don’t have.
Needless to say, both the Garmin and the Suunto can be used as training watches just as much as navigation tools; they can even be used for swimming training etc. If you regularly practise a sport and occasionally go outdoors, upgrading to one of these outdoors dedicated watches is worth it – you will get all the functions you need for training and more.
A note about smartwatches and touchscreens
Both the Fenix and the Suunto don’t have touch screen (as became popular on GPS watches lately); this is not by mistake – touch screens are sensitive, not so robust and delicate to use – not what you want when scrambling a grade 2 and bashing your wrist on the rock a couple of times. I avoid touchscreens when going on a more “hands on” outdoors activity.
Furthermore, smart watches are making their way into the world of wearable GNSS devices, but they are far from ready to deal with the great outdoors. I suggest not relying on them for now. Besides, you take your phone anyway (don’t deny it!) so you might as well have a robust watch and not a watch that is also trying to be your phone.
Quick overview and recommendation as part of a navigation system
So, now that I have a GPS watch, how does that fit into the whole navigation system? When I’m outdoors I carry the following:
- Compass with a base plate (emergency only)
- Maps for the route that I have put together and printed myself in a near by pocket (in the jacket or in the Ribz)
- Cellphone on plane mode (to save battery and keep quiet) with a navigation app that has off line maps
- GPS watch with the route I’m walking (daily routes)
The actual use is simple:
- The maps are my main tool – telling me where I’m going next, what it supposed to look like and how I’m getting there
- I check my speed regularly to make sure I’m at 4.5-6 km/h, which is the speed I need to keep given the coverage I like to maintain. It also helps train the body to just keep that speed and after a couple of hours of walking I barely even check
- Map display on the watch to make sure I have not drifted off my route: the watch will show your little arrow on the line. This is just a checking tool and reduces the need to pull out the map, check my surroundings, triangulate my location, get a bearing to my next way point etc. Just look at the watch – on the line? Keep on going. Not on the line? Correct myself. Easy.
- The cellphone is rarely out. If I truly fail to triangulate my location and suspect I’m getting myself lost, I will use my phone to get an “on the map” location using the app.
- If all the tech fails, all batteries are dead or I’m all soaked and all is ruined – I still have my compass to use with my map.
That is how I have been navigating lately – what do you say? Is this the way of the future?
September 2016 update: I have continued using the Garmin Fenix 2 for a while now and had some major issues with it, mainly during my last Cape Wrath Trail trip. the main issue that GPS watches suffer is corrupt files due to sync issues – FIT files that store the data per activity. If you have any sync issues or freezing watch issues, just copy all the files manually to the computer (for backup) using a cable and delete all of them from the watch, that should solve it.