Do I Need a GPS Watch for Hiking?

Today’s GPS watches can do so much more than just keep the time. They can track your location, your elevation, your route, and even your heart rate and the calories you’re burning, but do you really need one for hiking?

A GPS watch is not necessary for general hiking. However if detailed metrics are desired for exercise or other tracking purposes than a GPS watch makes sense. Additionally, a GPS Watch can help in wilderness navigation.

So that’s a lot to digest–a lot of people use GPS watches for different reasons, so let’s break down why a GPS watch might either be your best friend, or just another gadget.

By the way, as an Amazon Associate, I earn when buying qualified products through links on my site.

2 Reasons to Use a GPS Watch

There are some strong reasons that you might consider getting a GPS watch.

Before we jump into the reasons, what do I mean when I say GPS watch?

  • A wrist-worn device
  • Can be used by itself for data and metrics
  • As basic to advanced GPS navigation capability

Apple’s iWatch falls in these categories but it is especially complicated since you can make calls with it, so I’ll be mainly talking about specialized GPS watches that are focused more on geolocation tracking rather than an iWatch that can be used for communication.

1. Advanced Fitness Statistics

As mentioned, there is a ton of data that the GPS watch can keep track of for you. Some of it you can use for personal fitness. If you’re going to use hiking as one way to get in shape, a GPS watch can be a valuable tool for keeping you on the move.

Many of them will even remind you to get up and start walking if it thinks you’ve been sitting on the couch binge-watching your favorite show for too long.

You can also compare your hikes if you want to get a little faster climbing that hill, or reduce (or increase) your heart rate to the range your doctor recommended.

Once you’ve entered some personal information (gender, age, weight, etc.), and you’re looking to drop a pound or two, a GPS watch will help you with how many calories you’re burning, and keep you on pace for any goals you’ve set. 

If you are looking for a fully-featured GPS watch as an example to see what kind of statistics you can gather, check out this GPS watch from Garmin at REI’s website. I found this video really helpful in demonstrating some of the features:

Garmin Instinct Solar GPS Sportswatch // Everything New!!

Besides hiking, the GPS watch can even tell you how many laps you’re swimming, or even how many waves you have surfed…

If you’re a data nut and love tracking all the metrics, then you actually might need a GPS watch.

2. Finding Your Way

You may be just plain interested to learn more about where you’ve been hiking or are planning to hike. How high is that hill or peak you’ve been climbing? What is the elevation of that lake where you love to go camping? Was that hike really only five miles like the sign at the trailhead said? It felt like ten for sure!

Just like learning about the flora, fauna, and climate of your neighborhood, knowing more about the terrain in your little corner of the world can make you appreciate it more, and give you a depth of understanding you’ve never had before, even if it’s somewhere you’ve lived for many years. 

Besides just general information, many GPS watches can actually give you your GPS coordinates. In combination with a map, this means you can navigate your way more safely in the wilderness.

Remember, GPS watches have relatively small faces, and they don’t have big screens. This means that if there is map functionality, it’s meant to connect to a smartphone if you want to use an electronic map. What this means is that the most location data that you’ll get is maybe a tiny minimap, or just GPS coordinates (latitude and longitude).

If you’re trying to conserve battery life and travel in the wilderness for long periods of time, then a good paper map in combination with the GPS coordinates from your GPS watch can make all the difference for getting where you want to go.

3. Staying Safe

So navigation can be convenient, but it can also be the difference between life and death.

How Likely Am I To Get Lost?

So, you may be wondering if it’s worth the cost of a GPS watch for hiking (since premium models are pretty expensive–around the $400 range).

I studied the data from National Parks and found that around 400 Search and Rescue operations (SAR) are initiated each year for those who are hiking. Now there’s many reasons why a SAR is called for–ranging from illness, injury to missing persons. (source)

So, getting dangerously lost is not extremely common, but these numbers don’t take into account what people use to navigate and what preparation people take.

The point is that if you’re hiking and you’re in a dangerous situation, you don’t want to be lost. If you stay on the trails and the trails are well-marked, you are not likely to get lost–but it’s difficult to know how well a trail is marked and maintained if it’s in a very remote location.

So any tools you can bring to help you know where you are are welcome.

Here’s a story of a woman hiker who was lost for two weeks in critical condition. Fortunately, her story has a happy ending (nytimes)

Aren’t GPS Gadgets For Sissies?

I’ve come across this question often while doing research and talking to others–many people feel that you’re not truly getting in touch with nature unless you don’t have any electronics including GPS devices.

I’m not going to make the judgement call–being concerned about technology in nature is a valid concern, but I would say anything you can do to say safe is a worthy cause.

3 Reasons to Skip the GPS Watch

So those are some reasons to go for the GPS Watch, now for some of the downsides

1. Cost

While prices for new technology usually drop as they develop, you can expect to pay somewhere between $150-$750 for a quality GPS watch. That’s not a lot to pay if you think it’s really going to help you reach your goals or keep you from getting lost while you’re on a big adventure.

But, if it’s just going to be another forgotten gizmo (itself lost in the back of some drawer next to the paperclips and the i-pod mini), then you might be happier with the extra cash.

Furthermore, if you have a modern smartphone then with the help of a couple apps, you can actually get many of the GPS features on a watch on your phone. This means that instead of spending $400 on a GPS watch, you can just use your $300-$1000 smartphone, instead.

GPS watches definitely have a better battery life, and are meant to be as accurate as possible and have more adventure-ready features than smartphones, but smartphones can definitely be used to navigate even in extremely remote areas.

Check out our post here where we compare hiking GPS’s and smartphones to see what apps you can use as well as if you are missing out on something if you choose to use your smartphone as your hiking GPS..

2. Your Hiking Goals

Are you a statistically minded person who loves data when you hike or are you more of a naturalist who just wants to be in a beautiful place and keep an eye out for bald eagles and cumulonimbus clouds? If communing with nature is truly your only goal, then a GPS watch may not be for you.

You might see it as an unnecessary distraction, or even as an intrusion of the human world when all you wanted to do was get away from it all for a few hours. In that case, you’re going to be far happier with a notebook for sketching or poetry or maybe a pair of binoculars for bird-watching.

3. Why GPS Watches are Unnecessary on the Designated Trails

For most places people hike, such as county parks, state parks, or national parks and forests, the trails are well-signed and well-marked. There are often posted maps with “You Are Here” markers. They may even be ranger stations staffed with friendly people to help you plan your hike and tell you what to watch out for.

If you have no intention to leave these types of well-traveled freeways of the forest, then a simple map may be all you ever need. Let’s face it, hiking has been a popular activity for a long time and countless hikes have been happily completed without the use of any sort of GPS device. In some ways, nothing has really changed about the world, just your options for what you decide to bring along when you explore it. 

Do I Even Need Any Kind Of GPS For Hiking?

One question that comes up is if there’s any need for a GPS of any kind while you’re hiking.

If you are planning on hiking in heavily-frequented areas with well-marked trails and not a lot of remote wilderness, then a GPS is only optional. If however, you are going to be in the wilderness, then a GPS is highly recommended.

One time, me and my wife were hiking through a forest in the Dominican Republic. We didn’t think we needed to worry about a map because the map we were given seemed obvious enough.

We were wrong. We were pretty lost and we didn’t have any cell service of any kind, but we did have a GPS signal, and in combination with that GPS signal and my map app, we were able to tell which direction we needed to go.

Having a GPS device can mean the difference in getting stuck somewhere for a very long time. Make sure you have any kind of GPS device (a well-charged smartphone does well, these days.) and plenty of battery power.

A popular and powerful app called Alltrails is available which allows you to download backcountry trails onto your device so you don’t need an internet connection to get more detailed instructions on where to go when you’re in the wilderness.

So What Even Is a GPS Watch?

Over the years (centuries to be precise), wearable watches have come a long way. The first devices that could be described as wristwatches date back as far as the 16th century, and most likely only a few members of the royal classes could be found wearing them. I guess you could call them the earliest of the early adopters!

By the 1800s, personal timepieces of various kinds were in widespread use, and they continued to become more and more accurate, intricate, and in many cases, beautiful.

All of these early devices were powered by mechanical springs and gears that needed occasional winding in order to maintain their function. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the first battery-powered watches appeared. The 1970s saw the arrival of the first digital watches, and the race for an ever-expanding range of capabilities for the watch ran parallel with the ever-expanding capabilities of the computer. 

Fast-forward to the present, and we have the GPS watch (sometimes referred to as a “smartwatch”). They will certainly give you the time of day, but they can deliver so much more. GPS stands for Global Positioning System, so these watches can keep track of your exact location on the planet.

They can also be tuned to the rhythms of your body and can log such information as steps taken, heart rate, and calories burned.

Each type of watch will also work in conjunction with an app for your phone or computer, so you can keep track of any hikes you take. It will show the route you traveled, the overall distance, the elevation changes, and sometimes even the weather for that day. Just keep in mind, the royalty of the 16th century would be very jealous!


Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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