There are more GPS watch options out there than you can shake a wrist at. It’s time to work out which watch is for you.


Do you know someone with a GPS, sports, or fitness watch? If you’re not sure, do you know someone who goes on about hitting their step goal or how much REM sleep they got? Yeah? Well, they probably have one.


Read: Coros Vertix 2 Review


After several years with a watchless wrist and an evenly tanned forearm, I was sceptical about being one of these watch people once again.

I’d dabbled with ‘timepieces’ on and off, mostly so I could tell the tide — does that make it a tidepiece? — and to know how finely I could cut an early surf without being late for work. 

But, from telling me I was running late and that the tide was running out, I now have a watch that will, no joke, film me on waves via Surfline camera integration, as well as provide top speed, distance, wave count and even upload that often unimpressive information to Strava on my behalf. 

This watch is a Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar Multisport Watch which I’ve had stuck to my wrist for over a year now. I still haven’t even used all of its features, but I finally feel qualified to say that once you get a GPS watch, there’s no looking back. Oh, and that I’m woefully short of my step goal today… 


Is It Time For A GPS Watch? — Gear Guide

What is a GPS Watch?

GPS watches have boomed in popularity in recent years. However, the first map based watch was around long before then. Feast your eyes on the Plus Four Wristlet Route Indicator from 1927.


Is It Time For A GPS Watch? — Gear Guide


Yes, that is a hard copy, miniature map scroll, thanks for asking. Clearly, we’ve come a long way and you no longer have to twist the toggles on the right to scroll through the map — don’t ask me how you turned left and right using these things though.

We’ve also come a long way from the original Garmin Forerunner that was powered by a pair of AAA batteries in 2003.


Is It Time For A GPS Watch? — Gear Guide


Thankfully, nowadays a GPS watch is indistinguishable in size from a regular watch — if not in price. 

Indeed, the price will dictate how many features your watch will have, from simple health and sports trackers starting around $300 to hard-wearing, solar-powered outdoor GPS watches with backcountry navigation tools and all the bells and whistles approaching $1400. 

In my opinion, the trick to buying a GPS watch is figuring out what you want it for and not going overboard with features you’ll never need — 42,000 preloaded golf courses might be overkill, for example.



Many GPS watches will also be integrated with Spotify or your music app of choice — some will require your phone to be with you to play music, but the more advanced (read: expensive) watches will let you download playlists and podcasts onto the watch itself, so you can leave the phone at home when out running.

Plenty of them will receive emails, texts and alerts — something I’ve actually disabled to better enjoy the outdoors in which I take my watch. 

And plenty more can boast contactless payment. Although, I recommend keeping this activated because buying a sports drink mid-run with a swipe of your wrist is an impressive trick to quite literally, have up your sleeve.


Is It Time For A GPS Watch? — Gear Guide

Left to right: Garmin Forerunner 945, Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar, and Garmin Forerunner 935, by way of my housemate’s wrists…

Beginner GPS watch/Sports Watch

Key function: monitor health stats & basic activities


The most basic reason to get into the tech watch game — aside from telling the time — is to monitor your health and perhaps encourage and remind you to do more physical activity. 

Entry-level GPS watches — also called ‘sports watches’, ‘fitness trackers’ or ‘smartwatches’ (n.b. smartwatches are mainly designed to emulate a smartphone by delivering alerts and not tracking adventurous activities, however, there is significant overlap in the three) — will have more than enough power to help you track steps, sleep, hydration, respiration, heart rate and more basic exercises.

The Garmin Vivoactive 4SS GPS smartwatch has 20 pre-loaded activities to choose from and a bunch of health interfaces.


Is It Time For A GPS Watch? — Gear Guide

Intermediate GPS Watch

Key function: monitor technical sport & outdoor activity performance

For those wanting to take their training up a notch and start talking about things like cadence, VO2 max and Swolf (swimming efficiency), then a more activity-focused sports watch will be in order. 

Some of the higher end multisport watches have up to 80 different sports modes. My watch literally has an activity setting for pickleball…

A popular pick for more traditional exercise, the Garmin Forerunner 745 is the brand’s smallest and lightest full-featured running and triathlon-specific watch.


Is It Time For A GPS Watch? — Gear Guide


The Garmin Forerunner 945 Running Watch goes a step further and is consistently voted the best running GPS watch on the market.

This watch gives immediate feedback on your performance and training with things like heat and altitude acclimation, training load focus, recommended recovery time and aerobic or anaerobic training status as well as all the running metrics you would both expect, and didn’t know existed like cadence, stride length, time in contact with the ground.


Is It Time For A GPS Watch? — Gear Guide

The Garmin Forerunner 945 even provides race estimates in 5k, 10k, half mara and marathon splits alongside your VO2 max which is a useful fitness metric.


It’ll also recommend certain daily run and ride programs to make sure you’re not overtraining and that you’re doing the requisite base, tempo, sprint interval and recovery training.



Is It Time For A GPS Watch? — Gear Guide

A selection of the Garmin Forerunner 945 Running Watch’s many performance interfaces.


The Forerunner 945 also offers a Livetrack feature to allow friends and family to see where you are during races or local runs and you can also configure it to be used as a personal safety device to send your location to designated contacts in case of emergency. Many of the mid-range and upper range Garmin devices have this functionality. Most of those will require a paired phone to be with you, however, some models like the Forerunner 945 LTE offer specific phone-free safety.


Is It Time For A GPS Watch? — Gear Guide

Advanced GPS Watch

Key function: specialised backcountry navigation with all kinds of multisport bells and whistles

When you’re not just running around the block, but want a watch that’ll hold up to the rigours of the great outdoors and multi-day adventures, then one of the more advanced GPS watches may be for you.

We’ve previously reviewed the Suunto 9 Baro GPS Watch, which is Suunto’s flagship adventure watch and has similar functionality to my Garmin Fenix 6 Pro. In that review, Tim was quick to note the inability to download music and lack of contactless payment. Some GPS discrepancies also exist but it is markedly cheaper than the Fenix 6 Pro and still a popular choice.


Relive The Battery Glory Days - Suunto 9 Baro // Gear Review, tim ashelford, gps watch, berry island, nsw

Tim checking out his heart rate while trail running as part of his review of the Suunto 9.


In addition to having preloaded activities like trail running, swimming, biking, hiking, skiing, surfing, climbing and more at my fingertips, perhaps the real reason to invest in the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar Multisport Watch over its competitors is the superior navigational tools it brings to the table. 

It’s worth noting that Garmin launched the Fenix 7 range of watches a few weeks ago, including the Garmin Fenix 7X Solar Multisport Watch which builds on the 6’s impressive performance. Yet, in my opinion, this makes for another compelling reason to buy from the Fenix 6 range, since retailers like Wild Earth are offering significant discounts now that the Fenix 7 lineup has arrived.

From topographic ski maps to city maps replete with street names, the Fenix 6 Pro has one of the larger watch faces around so it’s possible to decipher a considerable amount of info in a glance. 

The Fenix 6 Pro is especially reliable for navigating as it accesses multiple global navigation satellite systems — GPS, GLONASS and Galileo — to continue tracking in a range of typically challenging environments.


Is It Time For A GPS Watch? — Gear Guide


There’s an altimeter to let you know your vertical, or more likely, how much more hill you have ahead of you, a barometer that will detect a change in the weather and a three-axis electronic compass.


Relive The Battery Glory Days - Suunto 9 Baro // Gear Review, tim ashelford, gps watch, reminder

Tim charging his Suunto 9 Baro GPS Watch via solar power. | @tim_ashelford


The biggest criticism levelled at GPS watches is to do with their needing to stay charged. Since they’re no longer powered by two AAA batteries like the OG Garmin’s, some smartwatches will need to be plugged in each night.

The Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar Watch is not one of those. The Power Glass™ watch face itself acts as a solar panel and you can customize the power modes to keep it going for over 10 days straight. In GPS activity tracking mode it will last around 28 hours. 

There’s even a setting called ‘expedition mode’, which is an ultra low-powered GPS reference that will last for weeks. 

I’ve tracked multi-day hikes in the Snowy Mountains with ease and only charge it once a week when it tells me the battery is getting low.

Naturally, Garmin watches are integrated with the Garmin Connect Mobile app — kind of like Strava but with a heap of additional personal and health stats.

It keeps a record of all your activities. I can even dig up old trail runs or hikes to compare back to and evaluate fitness.

Time’s up! Which watch to choose?

Ok, clearly, there are a number of options out there and in the interests of saving time, you can go as niche or as general in a sports/GPS watch as you want.

Garmin featured heavily in this overview since it’s the brand I personally have strapped to my wrist, however, there are plenty more brands like Suunto, Coros and Polar worth investigating.


Is It Time For A GPS Watch? — Gear Guide


We would recommend defining what is important to you in a watch — beyond telling the time. Whether it’s monitoring fitness, improving your running performance or selecting a remote route through the bush, figure out your needs and work backwards.

No matter which piece of tech you want to wrap around your wrist like an athletic Ben 10, there’s a sports or GPS watch out there for everyone and (most) budgets.

Just remember, when you’re outdoors, apply sunscreen meticulously around your watch, or, like me, you’ll never be able to take it off again…


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