Every year GPS watches hit the hiking market, claiming that they come with the market’s best features yet. Some products perform with supreme accuracy and consistency while others change presentation without updating their technology.
With such a saturated market, it can be hard for hikers and backpackers to find the watches that are truly performing at their best. But when it comes to accuracy, upgraded features, and overall performance, the following watches are at the top of their game.
The Best Solar-Powered GPS Hiking Watches
Solar GPS watches are the next big thing for outdoor adventurers. With a low environmental impact, they’re becoming the go-to product for the eco-conscious. But they also set themselves apart from other watches because of their ability to sustain battery life while in performance mode.
While more archaic watches’ battery life only lasts a day or two in performance mode, some solar-powered watches claim to last as many as 500 days on a charge. When it comes to truly harnessing the power of the sun, Garmin and Suunto are the top watch brands to monitor.
Stainless steel $629
Titanium solar $839
Suunto has been churning out powerful sports watches for 25 years. And the Suunto Vertical is the brand’s first stab at a solar-powered watch. While previous Suunto watches often lacked in battery power, the Vertical aims to change this struggle by allowing us to charge it with the sun.
The Vertical can withstand 60 hours of dual-band GPS tracking for the most accurate measurements, which is longer than some competitive watches. Users can also switch to single band tracking for 90 hours of use. Or in the basic touring mode, it may last as many as 500 hours on a single charge.
For comparison, the Suunto 9 Peak gets anywhere from 25 hours to 170 hours on a charge, depending on the mode that you’re using.
The watch face on the Suunto Vertical is intuitive in design, which makes it fairly easy to start using it as soon as it comes out of the box. The only thing that may take some time to comprehend is the map downloading process.
While testing the Suunto Vertical in the Rocky Mountains, I found that the sun didn’t usually charge the watch as I was using it. But it did seem to slow the loss of battery juice, which is a big stride for suunto. The improved design allows users to go a lot longer without charging their watch.
And it is quick to charge. In fact, you can throw this watch on a charger and power up to 10 hours of use in just 10 minutes. Or you can fill the whole battery in about 90 minutes.
The Suunto Vertical also stood out when it came to using offline maps like heat maps, and avalanche maps, which can easily be downloaded when you have WIFI.
- Map capabilities
- GPS accuracy
- Customization options
- Performance modes
- Large watch face
- Slow satellite connectivity
In addition to offering shiny new solar features, the Vertical also provides users with a barometer, altimeter, Spo02 tracking, a magnetic compass, temperature readings, and an optical HR/HRV measurement. In my experience, the following watches are a little bit more accurate than the Suunto Vertical when it comes to the altimeter.
But only by one to two hundred feet. Finally, the Suunto Vertical is MIL 810 certified, which means that it handles shock and water resistance well. It also comfortably operates in temperatures that range from -5 degrees to 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
Are the upgrades worth the money?
In my opinion, the Suunto Vertical is a cool tool, and a great environmentally-conscious watch. But its solar capabilities have some strides to make before being worthy of the price increase.
Garmin Instinct 2s Solar
The Garmin Instinct 2s Solar is a true powerhouse when it comes to hike tracking and solar energy harnessing. This watch will last up to 60 hours in GPS mode), and up to 100 days in the battery saving mode. From a completely dead state, this watch takes about 120 minutes to recharge (about 30 minutes longer than the Suunto).
Built to military standard 810, this watch also handles extreme temperature, shock, and water at the same level as the Suunto Vertical watch. Garmin is also known for setting the bar for overall accuracy, ensuring that users track every detail to the utmost precision, better enabling them to monitor their performance and hiking stats. And this remains true with the Instinct 2s Solar.
Unlike the Suunto Vertical, the instinct 2s Solar’s watch face is a little bit more complicated. If you’re not used to the 5-button design, you might have to check the manual the first few times that you use it.
While the Garmin Instinct 2s Solar Watch comes with a lot of loveable features, it also has a pretty hefty price tag. At a $449 price point, this watch option isn’t for the faint of heart. But the price tag is reflective of the enhanced features of the watch.
- Overall accuracy
- Battery life
- Uses three GPS systems
- Battery life – lasts about two weeks with regular use
- Smaller than previous models
- Rugged – durability
- 5 button system takes time to get used to
While previous Garmin watches predominantly focused on hiking and running, the Instinct is a much more well-rounded watch. It can be used for sports like surfing, and mountain biking. It also applies automatic sleep tracking, and menstrual tracking.
So, is the watch worth the hype?
If accuracy is important to you, yes. This watch performs beautifully in a variety of different environments without compromising on accuracy.
The Best GPS Watch Overall for Hiking and Backpacking
While solar watches are all the rage, sometimes opting for that style of a watch can feel like overkill. Hikers can easily still find superb GPS watches without solar charging that still give them access to all of the health information and long battery life that they need to stay in the know. Here’s one such watch:
Coros Apex 2
I fell in love with the Coros Apex 2 as soon as I put it on for the first time. It was the first watch I ever tried that felt like it was designed for a woman. I was used to carrying massive watches on my wrist while I hiked and backpacked through the mountains.
But it was an immediate breath of fresh air to maintain all of the classic GPS watch features in a compact little package. The Coros Apex 2 easily has the highest battery life in a watch of its size, staying true to the Coros reputation.
Users can expect this watch to last 40 hours in its full GPS mode, which is right between the Suunto Vertical and the Garmin Instinct 2s. It will also keep a charge in battery save gps mode for up to 75 hours.
And you can fully recharge it in about an hour and a half. Like the aforementioned watches, the Coros Apex 2 also has the MIL-810 rating for durability, and water resistance.
- Extremely compact
- Closest thing I’ve seen to a woman’s watch
- High elevation mode
- Heart rate accuracy
- Battery life
- Screen lock
- Wrist band
Here’s a look at the uprgraded ‘Pro’ version of the watch for those willing to stretch their budget a bit:
The Coros Apex 2 comes with extremely tough sapphire glass, a lightweight titanium case, and an intuitive design. But this watch especially shines when it comes to heart rate tracking and overall accuracy.
While some competitive watches typically get my elevation wrong by a few hundred feet, the Coros Apex 2 nails it every time. And it even comes with a high-altitude mode to give you a better grasp on your oxygen output as you climb. I did notice that this watch tends to over-estimate my sleep by an hour or two. And the wrist band that it comes with is quick to show stains.
But the low price point makes it a truly alluring option for anyone who likes to track athletic information over the course of the week.
So, is it worth the money?
As a $349 watch, this is one of the best watches on the market for the price.
Should You Go Solar?
As consumers grow more conscious of sustainable spending, features like solar-enabled charging are becoming more important. While watches like the Suunto Vertical Solar and the Garmin Instinct 2s Solar are making serious strides towards offering a viable option for those who want to use less electricity, they still have some strides to make before reaching a state of perfection.
Still, given their varied hiking and outdoor athlete features and the power boost that the sun gives them, they make a truly great piece to any athlete’s collection. And if you’re not quite ready to take the leap of faith, the Coros Apex 2 offers one of the best alternatives possible.
Mary Beth began her journey in the outdoors while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2015. She soon went on to backpack the Colorado Trail, and part of Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit. Today, she resides in North Carolina where she can commonly be found rock climbing, surfing, or backpacking. Some of her recent work can be found in Outside and Backpacker Magazines.