Do GPS Watches Work In The Woods?

do gps watches work in the woods

If you were thinking about getting a GPS watch to take hiking or help with your trail running, I’d highly recommend looking into it.  Software updates are coming out yearly and the advancement of these watches is only going to improve as time rolls on.

So, do GPS watches work in the woods? Yes, GPS watches work in the woods and other varied terrain. As GPS (Global Positioning System) technology gets better and better with age, GPS watches are going to become increasingly accurate while being used in more remote areas than ever. 

Just keep in mind, if you require pin point accuracy, that may not be realistic. But if you are looking to track your hike or running workout, they will work great. GPS watches are constantly sending and receiving signals from satellites rotating the Earth, these signals can sometimes be interrupted making the data that the watch gives you potentially off by a smidgen.

Tree Covered Trails Vs Open Trail GPS Accuracy

Your GPS watch will most certainly be more accurate on an open trail because it will be able to have clearer reception to satellites orbiting overhead and will most likely not miss any signals that are sent or received.  On a trail that is dense with tree cover or your watch is obscured from the sky in any way, the accuracy will go down as you might lose certain signals and thus will not have that data point to reference.

Always check true trail distances against your watch readings to have a better understanding of how your watch reacts to different trails, outdoor features, and weather patterns.  By doing this, you will then have a better idea about the ways in which your watch has trouble staying accurate.

Over time you can begin to manually track progress that might have been missed by your GPS watch.  Furthermore, look for quick jagged lines in your progress on the map or breaks in heart rate data points to see where your watch went wrong and to re-account for lost time.

Which GPS Watches Are Most Accurate For Hiking Trails

This GPS watch is probably the best one out on the market right now and is priced accordingly.  It is going to not only offer GPS navigation but also GLONASS and Galileo making its location and map features incredibly accurate.

Beyond that there is an altimeter, barometer, and compass as well as features that most smart accessories offer now a days including things like health tracking, music, and payment options right on your wrist.

This GPS watch is great for those that love hiking or backpacking and specifically want location services in their watch.  This watch also tracks steps and calories but more importantly offers great maps and interfaces which purchase and the ability to save as many maps and locations as needed for offline use while you are out exploring remote areas.

This watch is going to be a great medium between functionality and price.  It still has amazing GPS, GLONAS, and Galileo location capabilities but the maps will not be as detailed as in the higher quality GPS watches listed above.  However, if you are looking for a watch that does an amazing job of tracking movement both while out in the wilderness and while training, then this is the watch for you.

If you’re still not sure which GPS watch is going to fit your needs, check out this flow chart I found while researching.  It is a really helpful guide to figuring out which GPS watches are best for different kind of athletes and their specific needs.

Keep in mind, each watch is going to offer a range of features that differ based upon which sports each is designed to aid.  Most will keep up with running, hiking, swimming, and outdoor activities as base uses.

But, there are now also watches specific to golf, swimming and diving, aviation, sailing, and more coming out, so really do some research and you’ll see that there is a robust market for all kinds of GPS watches for any type of user.

Trail Running With A GPS Watch and What To Expect

Trail running with a GPS watch is going to be more or less difficult depending on the trail and the distance.  A trail that winds through the mountains or has a lot of tree cover on an overcast day is not going to give the best readings for a GPS watch.  Nor is a trail that switchbacks over and over till a summit.

However, a relatively straight trail in open spaces or parks is going to be tracked much more accurately.  I’d recommend constantly keeping an eye on the GPS route and pace, because then as a user, it is easier to determine the inaccuracies in GPS watches today.

However, the health related aspects of these watches will still be greatly helpful and accurate for those that need data of that sort to keep track of training.  Just because the GPS and distance tracking might be slightly off will not effect features such as the step counter or the heart rate monitor.

The more precise the data that you need as an athlete, the more you might have to spend on a GPS watch and accompanying accessories.

I will mention that footpods are making a comeback in the running community and have been shown to be much more accurate as they have been updated in tracking movement in conjunction with your GPS watch.

If you are a trail runner who wants highly accurate data on themselves, I would recommend looking into footpods to see if they are something that will aid your training.  They will continually help make your GPS watch data more accurate and in turn more usable.

Also read: Avoid These 5 Common Ultramarathon Mistakes

How GPS Watches Work

GPS watches work by constantly sending and receiving signals from anywhere between 3 and 5 satellites orbiting the earth above you at any given moment while the watch is connected and in use.

These signals are used to triangulate users position on Earth’s grid and give accurate information up to multiple times per second to the device about readings like distance traveled, speed of movement, number or steps taken, heart rate, and calories burned, among a myriad of continually growing features.

GPS watches need no fewer than 3 satellites to be able to calculate your position however these 24 satellites orbiting earth, made by US Department of Defense, have been positioned in such a way that there will always at least be 3 above you.

There are two other common satellite systems in use, GLONASS made by Russia, and Galilleo made by the European Union so check to see if your watch is compatible with those systems as well which will increase the accuracy of the data your watch gives.

The main reason that GPS watches are not always as accurate as users would like is because signals can sometimes be blocked by large buildings, dense tree cover, or even just overcast skies.  Because of this, data for that split second when the watch doesn’t receive signal cannot be collected and thus the number of steps, route taken, or distance traveled may slightly vary from what was actually done.

Depending on if you are taking a 20 mile trail run, or just a short out and back hike, your GPS watch will become slightly less accurate when it has more data to collect over a longer period of time.

It is also important to note that even certain features of a run or hike outdoors can effect a GPS watch’s ability to be accurate including switchbacks, going into a canyon with high walls and limited view of the skies, or traveling through a tunnel.

Sometimes just moving your hand back and forth across your body while running in some cases can effect the signal of a GPS watch and create inaccuracies in the data it is giving.

With that said, GPS watches are amazingly accurate down to around 5 or 10 meters and can generally be trusted to produce accurate data especially as the technology gets better with time and system updates are routinely rolled out.

Do I Need Internet For My GPS Watch To Work?

No, you do not need internet for your GPS watch to work.  Because GPS watches work from satellite signals, your position can be tracked and calculated without the use of internet so long as you keep your GPS watch charged.  Furthermore, you can install maps (caltopo) onto the device itself or your phone to be used without internet when you are in remote locations.

Final Thoughts

With the way that technology is continually pushing the boundaries of itself, don’t be surprised that GPS watch technology is also much further ahead than it has ever been.  GPS watches of old were clunky, had limited capabilities, short battery life, and were often wildly inaccurate when trying to carry out more than the simplest of tasks.

Now, you can generally trust your GPS watch to pin your location down to couple of meters on the face of the Earth, and they give unprecedented real time data to users in more remote locations than ever.

Related content:

Best GPS Watch for Trail Running & Ultramarathon Races (our top pick)

What Are The 10 Essentials for Day Hiking?

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