GPS Watch Buying Guide

This post first appeared on Tom’s Guide

Activity trackers are made to monitor your every move, but GPS watches serve a different purpose: They locate you in the world, no matter your activity. Unlike accelerometer-based fitness trackers, GPS watches communicate with satellites to grab your location and follow you as you run, walk, bike, hike and move through a workout. With this detailed information, GPS watches can accurately track speed, pace, altitude and more, making them ideal for serious athletes.

There are quite a few GPS watches to choose from, and they range in price from $100 to more than $400. However, the most expensive devices (and there are many) may not be the best fit for your needs. Here’s what you need to know before investing either in a simple GPS watch or the best GPS watches for hiking.

GPS Watches vs. Fitness Trackers

Fitness trackers are ubiquitous now, and even the bare-bones devices track steps, calories and distance as you go through your day. Some will even record how well you sleep.

While most GPS watches track distance, they will only do so when you activate them. That’s because acquiring and maintaining a GPS signal requires much more battery life than the accelerometers used by non-GPS-enabled fitness bands. As a result, GPS watches are generally used to track discrete activities, such as a run, hike, or where you are on the golf course. GPS technology also gives you a much more accurate reading of your distance traveled, and can measure your altitude, too.

Since GPS devices can better connect with satellites outdoors, one of the most important things to know is how often you plan on training outside. If you frequently run around your neighborhood, take trips to the mountains to hike or train in different environments, a GPS watch may be better-suited for you than a fitness tracker.

Heart Rate Monitor

Some GPS watches have optical heart rate monitors built in, giving you more data and extra convenience, but they will cost you more.

The $269 TomTom Runner Cardio and the $249 Fitbit Surge both have built-in heart rate monitors. Many less expensive GPS watches, such as the $139 Garmin Forerunner 15, don’t have built-in heart rate monitors, but can be paired with a chest strap, which costs anywhere between $40 and $70.

Water Resistance

A GPS watch must be made to withstand the elements. Most, if not all, are at least splash-proof, but even some of the least expensive devices offer more protection. The $99 Garmin Forerunner 10 can be submerged under 165 feet of water (a rating of 5 ATM). Its newest big brother, the Garmin fēnix 3, can survive a dip in up to 330 feet of water, or 10 ATM.

But water resistance isn’t just for protection. GPS watches such as the $400 Suunto Ambit3 Sport, which is designed for triathletes, can resist 10 ATM of water and tracks swimming metrics, including time, distance, pace and stroke rate, and type.


For reaching new heights, a built-in barometric altimeter will provide more accuracy. It’s a sensor that measures changes in elevation by measuring barometric pressure, working in conjunction with the elevation tracker of the GPS. If you do a lot of off-road running or cycling, or if you’re a frequent hiker, this will measure how high you climb during each workout.

Typically, devices with altimeters will cost more, such as the $400 Suunto Ambit3 Sport.

Music Playback

Since smartphones have GPS technology embedded, you don’t need both a GPS watch and a smartphone while you’re working out. However, listening to music while you run requires a smartphone, and unfortunately not many GPS watches provide music controls. This is more of a smartwatch feature, found in all-purpose devices like the Fitbit Surge. The upcoming Garmin vívoactive, which has GPS, will also act as a music controller.

Battery Life

GPS watches tend to have two battery life ratings: one during standby and one during active GPS tracking. Some devices, such as the Garmin Forerunner 15, can last for months as straight timepieces. However, communicating with satellites is a taxing job and dramatically reduces battery life when the feature is used constantly: When in GPS mode, the Forerunner 10 can survive up to 5 hours on a single charge.

Multipurpose devices have even shorter lives because power is used to support other features such as activity tracking, heart rate monitoring and smartphone notifications. The Microsoft Band starts out with only two days of battery life, and that time is reduced to a mere few hours if you’re constantly using GPS.

Devices such as the Garmin Forerunner 15 and TomTom Runner GPS watch can get at least 6 to 8 hours in GPS mode, and are ideal for day hikes, runs and bike rides.

Watches such as the Garmin fēnix 3, which are meant for more extreme outdoor activities, such as skiing and mountaineering, can last up to 20 hours in GPS mode.


Believe it or not, Bluetooth isn’t ubiquitous across GPS watches. Low-end devices such as the Garmin Forerunner 10 don’t support wireless syncing; you must connect the watch to your computer to transfer activity data to a Garmin account.

Even as you go up in price, Bluetooth isn’t standard. The $139 Garmin Forerunner 15 only syncs wirelessly to accessories such as foot pods and chest straps, not your phone for data syncing. You’ll find more freedom with devices like the $250 Fitbit Surge, which let you sync data wirelessly.


GPS watches can get expensive fast. It’s important to know your goals before you buy. If you want a basic companion to wear only while running, an inexpensive GPS watch in the $100 to $150 range will have the features you’ll need. However, if you dabble in other activities and sports, and want to perform better and track your progress, investing in a top-tier device will be worth it.