GPS/Multisport Watch Buying Guide and Our Top Picks

What is a GPS Watch?

The primary purpose of a GPS watch is to locate you anywhere in the world, regardless of your activities such as running and backpacking. While activity trackers are designed to monitor and track your moves using accelerometers and other sensors, GPS watches can lock directly to satellites for accurate location. Locking to satellites using GPS hardware also gives you access to other important information such as speed, altitude and pace.

The line between GPS watches and smartwatches has become incredibly thin. Smartphones can also do most of the things GPS/smartwatches can, and much more. So why would anyone want a GPS watch when our smartphones already offer similar functionality (at no extra cost)? Let’s find out.

GPS Watches vs. Smartphone’s Built-in GPS

Battery Life

The main reason anyone would want to spend hundreds of dollars on a GPS watch than using a smartphone is the battery life.  Sure, you can also use your smartphone to track your location, but it’ll only last from 3 to 4 hours on continuous use as GPS drinks battery juice pretty quickly.

That’s a real issue when you are out there in the wild for backpacking, trekking or traveling. GPS watches on the other hand last at least twice as much and a lot more if you use the GPS carefully (with most of the time on standby).

Lightweight, Functional

You can wear a GPS watch on your wrist and access important information easily just by having a look at it. You’d have to pull your smartphone out of your pocket, unlock it and finally access the information (unlocking a phone is harder when you are running or working out). That might not seem like a lot of work, but consider doing this throughout the day and during workouts. GPS watches are much more accessible, especially when running/working out or in cold weather.

Accuracy and Functionality

Smartphones are more like jack of all trades and while they do offer a great overall package, mobile devices have to sacrifice on little details. For example, despite so much advancements in the camera technology, a $2,000 smartphone still cannot match performance of a DSLR.

GPS watches made by reputable brands are specialized tools designed to accomplish specific tasks. Their GPS hardware is usually more capable than tiny hardware integrated into smartphones. The difference in hardware translates into improved accuracy, which is something you would not want to compromise on especially when covering shorter distances.

GPS watches have an advantage over smartphones in many situations such as running through a dense forest or between urban clocks on rainy days. A GPS watch will still count your steps even if it is not able to connect to GPS satellites. Most smartphones don’t have a barometric altimeter, which is a feature offered by most premium GPS watches, allowing you to measure change in air pressure (for knowing loss/gain in elevation).

Ruggedness and Waterproofing

GPS watches are wrapped securely to your wrists and designed to withstand environments most smartphones would not be able to survive. Things like getting caught in a thunderstorm do happen and in such cases a GPS watch is a more reliable gadget than a smartphone.

Most GPS watches are water and moisture proof (at least resistant) so you can keep wearing them in almost any situation. You might have an IP68 smartphone, but most of us still don’t prefer diving into water with a smartphone.

Waterproofing in smartphones is primarily meant to protect them from unexpected splashes, while you can keep wearing your GPS watch when swimming. Most premium GPS watches are water resistant at least up to 150 feet, while being able to detect strokes at the same time.

Smartphones Just Don’t Feel Right

Imagine a professional athlete trying to track his/her run using a smartphone. It just doesn’t feel right. Excluding a few premium smartphones, you won’t find a heart rate sensor in almost every other mobile device, which is perhaps the most important sensor when it comes to fitness tracking.

You can also wear a chest strap during workouts/other activities, but that also does not feel right compared to wearing a GPS watch with an optical sensor on your wrist. Optical heart rate sensors compare very well against chest straps in terms of accuracy, while advanced algorithms and software minimize the gap even further.

Things to Consider When Buying a GPS Watch

GPS watches aka multisport watches have a lot in common such as GPS tracking, speed monitoring and step count. But you need to consider certain features to make sure you buy a watch that matches your style, usage and of course the budget. Let’s have a look at some important things to consider when choosing between a variety of GPS watches.

Intended Purpose

All GPS watches have built-in GPS hardware that allows you to locate yourself and track distance, speed and time. If that’s what you are looking for, there is no point in spending hundreds of dollars on features you don’t need.

Basic or entry-level GPS watches usually don’t come with elevation tracking.  Backpackers, hikers and trekkers would want a GPS watch with a built-in barometric altimeter, while swimmers and multisport users need a waterproof watch so they can quickly transition between different activities.

If you think you’ll never have to take your watch swimming, you don’t have to pay extra for waterproofing. Similarly, the more features you want, the more confusing a watch can become (from usability perspective) due to their small displays and tiny buttons.

Style

Gone are the days when GPS watches were super big and bulky. However, they are still bigger and than standard chrono watches. The displays of multisport watches are small and you can only view a limited on-screen information. That’s the main reason you still see large watches with bigger and high-resolution displays.

Choosing the style of your GPS watch is related to how much information you want to see on the display. The more information you want to see, the bigger the display and hence a bigger watch. In addition to the display size, style and looks of a GPS watch largely depends on personal tastes and preferences.

Features and Price

As a general rule of thumb, the more features you want, the costlier a GPS watch will become. That’s why you have to consider the features you really need to find the perfect match.  In addition to GPS tracking, most users would also want a heart-rate monitor and information transfer between devices. Rest of the features are optional for the most part and usually brand-specific. Some other features you may like to consider include:

  • Advanced wireless connectivity and auto-sync
  • Battery life
  • Footpod compatibility
  • Larger and higher resolution displays
  • Platform and app compatibility
  • Advanced metrics such as HR Max (Maximum heart rate), heart rate zones, cadence, stride length, vertical oscillation, VO2 Max, ground contact time, lactate threshold, recovery time and EPOC

You’d have to spend something between $150-$300 for a nice GPS watch with built-in heart-rate monitor, accelerometer and advanced training features. Under $150 watches usually come with the essentials (GPS, distance and speed tracking) minus advanced features. You may also need to pair these basic watches with your smartphone to closely view and analyze the stats.

You should consider $300+ GPS watches if you want all the latest features multisport watches have to offer and don’t want to compromise on anything. However, this certainly should not you stop from considering $150-$300 GPS watches as there is no shortage of good deals if you know where to search.

Best GPS Watches (aka Multisport Watches)

Product
Visual
Where to Buy
Garmin Forerunner 935
Garmin Forerunner 35
Apple Watch Series 4
Casio Pathfinder
Suunto Traverse
Amazfit Stratos

Garmin Forerunner 935

Although a little expensive, the Forerunner 935 is a premium GPS watch with heart rate sensor, barometer altimeter and e-compass. It weighs only 49 grams and works well for a variety of sporting activities, including running, swimming and cycling. It also features advanced dynamics such as stride length, cadence, vertical oscillation, balance and ground contact time.

Key features and specifications

  • Strap material: silicone
  • Chemically strengthened glass lens
  • Fiber reinforced polymer bezel and case
  • Dimensions: 47 x 47 x 13.9 mm
  • Compatible with both Android and iOS
  • 1.2-inch display (240 x 240 px), sunlight visible
  • Rich-data and activity information
  • Heart-rate sensor
  • VO2 Max and FTP
  • Lightweight @49 grams, comfortable
  • Barometer altimeter
  • Electronic compass
  • Overtraining and undertraining notifications
  • Advanced dynamics
  • Battery: up to 24-hr backup in GPS, 2 weeks in watch and 60 hrs in UltraTrac mode (without heart-rate)
  • 5 ATM water rating
  • Automatic evaluation of recent activities
  • Anaerobic training-effect metric
  • Activity profiles for easy switching between different activities
  • Sensors: GPS, GLONASS, heart-rate, barometric altimeter, e-compass, gyroscope, accelerometer, thermometer
  • Connectivity: Bluetooth Smart, ANT +, Wi-Fi

Garmin Forerunner 35

The Forerunner 35 is a great option if you want essential features at a reasonable price. Built-in GPS, heart-rate monitor, 5-ATM water rating and sunlight visible display make the watch suitable for a variety of activities, particularly running.

Key features and specifications

  • Built-in GPS and heart-rate sensor
  • Strap material: silicone
  • Chemically strengthened glass lens
  • Dimensions: 35.5 x 40.7 x 13.3 mm
  • Suitable for wrists with 140-200mm circumference
  • 0.93 x 0.93 inch sunlight visible display
  • Battery: up to 13 hours in gps mode, up to 9 days in smartwatch mode
  • 5-ATM water rating
  • Sensors: GPS, heart-rate and accelerometer
  • Compatible with Android and iOS

Apple Watch Series 4

Although Apple Watch is advertised as a smartwatch, if performs like a GPS watch for the most part. It comes with most of the bells and whistles of GPS watches plus a stunning display and cellular connectivity.

Key features and specifications

  • The heart-rate monitor allows you to take ECGs (electrocardiograms)
  • Slim and lightweight, 44 x 38 x 10.7 mm, 48 grams
  • 3D Touch OLED Display, 1.78 inches, 448 x 368 px (326 ppi)
  • Stainless steel frame, ceramic/sapphire back
  • Sapphire crystal glass protected display
  • Viewable under direct sunlight (up to 1000 nits brightness)
  • 16 GB internal memory
  • Built-in loudspeaker
  • Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0
  • GPS GLONASS, GALILEO, QZSS
  • NFC
  • Sensors: 2nd gen heart-rate, gyroscope, accelerometer, barometer
  • Battery: up to 18 hours on mixed usage
  • Cellular connectivity (eSIM)
  • Up to 50 meters water resistant

Casio Pathfinder (One of the best all-around watches at a reasonable price)

A great option if you prefer functionality and battery life over fancy displays and extra features.

Key features and specifications

  • Solar-powered multisport watch
  • Up to six-month battery life on a single charge (can stay alive for anything between 5 to 23 months)
  • Digital compass
  • Barometer altimeter
  • Thermometer
  • EL backlight
  • Stainless steel case
  • Dimensions: 57.3×50.9×15.3mm
  • Up to 100 meters water resistant

Suunto Traverse (An excellent option for backpackers and hikers)

Key features and specifications

  • Allows you to upload routes and follow progress
  • Distance/altitude stats
  • Points-of-interest and step re-tracing
  • Barometric Trends
  • Built-in sunrise/sunset times
  • Battery life: Up to 100 hours on mixed usage
  • Water resistant up to 100 meters
  • Mobile notifications
  • Backlight
  • Weather trends
  • Military Standard 810G compliant
  • Compatible with Android and iOS

Amazfit Stratos (Great value for the money)

Although the manufacturer (Huami, a sub-brand of Xiaomi) is known to copy a lot of features from Garmin watches, you get great value for the money (which matter the most from consumer’s perspective). Amazfit is one of the few mid-range watches that offer VO2 Max data in the package.

Key features and specifications

  • VO2 Max and advanced performance tracking features
  • Heart-rate sensor, GPS/GLONASS
  • Scratch-resistant 2.5D Glass (Corning Gorilla)
  • Different sports modes (running, cycling, mountaineering, swimming etc.)
  • Mobile-to-watch app notifications
  • Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity
  • 1.34-inch touchscreen (320×300 pixels), always-on display
  • Carbon fiber housing, ceramic bezel
  • 5-ATM water rating
  • Changeable 22mm strap
  • Barometer
  • On-device music storage (4GB total storage)
  • Compatible with Android and iOS
  • Weight: 70 grams
  • Sleep tracking
  • Battery: up to 11 days on basic and 5 days on regular use

Conclusion

A GPS watch won’t make you any faster or provide added strength. But it makes things a lot easier and provides quick access to important information. It lasts longer than smartphones and offers better accuracy in difficult environments. You can get a surprising amount of information out of your activates when wearing a GPS watch, which enables you to analyze the data more closely.

Not all runners, backpackers and everyday-users necessarily need to buy a GPS watch. However, it can be a good investment for those who can afford it and want a device that’s easily accessible, functional/rugged and lasts much more than a smartphone on a single charge.