Smartwatches are useful and stylish wearables for everyday use, but they also have some additional benefits if you spend a lot of time climbing mountains or hiking trails.
Track your routes as a workout
One of the most basic functions of a smart watch is the ability to track your workouts. This can be motivating whether you are a beginner or a seasoned hiker. Any routes you record can be checked on your smartwatch later, allowing you to see exactly where you’ve been, which is useful for planning repeat trips or changing routes for next time.
This goes hand in hand with using a smartwatch to improve your fitness. Tracking exercise on the Apple Watch is one of the best ways to fill your movement and exercise circles. Your workouts are saved in the Fitness app and you can use the collected data to get a better overview of your overall fitness.
If you’re feeling competitive and looking for extra motivation, you can even enter contests with other Apple Watch users.
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GPS on your wrist
GPS-enabled smartwatches can function as stand-alone GPS devices, such as those purchased specifically for hiking. With the right watch and apps, you can replace your bulky handheld GPS with something that lives on your arm and provides guidance and information with a flick of the wrist.
If you’re serious about hiking, a dedicated hiking GPS watch like the Garmin Fenix will serve you better than an Apple Watch or Samsung Galaxy. These come with built-in Garmin mapping software and have better battery life compared to less specialized wearables. You can transfer GPX files to your smartwatch and track waypoints just like you would on a handheld device.
Even lifestyle wearables like the Apple Watch work well for shorter hikes if you’re prepared to charge frequently. Use apps like WorkOutDoors ($5.99) and Gaia GPS to send GPX files to your Apple Watch, or use apps to find nearby trails. AllTrails works too, but the Apple Watch implementation is little more than a remote for an iPhone app.
Never lose your compass
The Apple Watch 5 and above can function as a compass, as can most of Garmin’s dedicated hiking smartwatches. The Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 also includes a geomagnetic sensor, which means it can also be used as a compass using a free app like Samsung Compass.
You probably shouldn’t rely solely on your smartwatch’s compass for navigation (because your battery could die), but as a backup tool, a wrist compass can help you navigate if you get lost or find that you can’t use the sun or the moon’s position as a guide.
Get more information about your hike
Some smartwatches are designed with navigation in mind, allowing you to see the location of your next waypoint right on your wrist. This is especially true for Garmin devices like the aforementioned Fenix, but there are also apps that run on your Apple Watch that can do the same thing.
You’ll also get more information about your route with basic training tracking available on most devices. This includes metrics like elevation, split times (for every mile or kilometer you travel), how long you’ve been moving, and how far you’ve walked.
You can use this information to make a call about when to return if you’re up against time in terms of daylight or weather conditions. This data is also quite interesting if you are a bit of a data fiend. At the end of your trip, you can see how much energy you’ve burned, which can help you better plan future trips and better understand your dietary needs.
The blood oxygen sensor on the Apple Watch Series 6 and above can help show you how your O2 changes as you climb or descend. The Garmin Fenix can even show you what altitude you’ve acclimated to. While not all of this data is useful, many people will be interested in it.
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Get help in an emergency
Fall detection on the Apple Watch has already saved lives. Once activated, this feature will make a pre-recorded emergency call to inform first responders of your GPS coordinates and then send messages to all named emergency contacts to let them know you’re in trouble.
You can also use Apple Watch to quickly initiate an emergency call by pressing and holding the side button until you hear an alert. If you are injured and unable to access your smartphone, you can still make emergency calls as long as your device is within range (approximately 30 meters or 100 feet).
As of 2020, the Samsung Galaxy Watch series has a similar feature that can send an SOS alert if it detects a fall, or send a similar alert if you press the Home button three times.
Garmin models like the Fenix have similar safety features including incident detection, SOS messaging, and a feature called LiveTrack that allows friends and family to track your location in real time. These depend on your Garmin device being connected to a compatible Android phone running Garmin Connect via Bluetooth.
The Apple Watch can even monitor your heart rate and identify patterns that could signal a cardiac event. This includes an elevated resting heart rate to alert you that something might be wrong. This can help you make wiser decisions, like not pushing too hard if you’re not feeling well.
Take better selfies on the trail
Who doesn’t love a good selfie on top of a mountain, on the edge of a stream or next to it really interesting Rock? Prop up your smartphone, launch the companion app on your smartwatch, and frame your shot perfectly. You can then use the shutter delay to time the shot perfectly, so you don’t look at your watch while taking pictures.
Using your smartwatch as a viewfinder for your phone’s camera is an underrated feature that’s all too easy to forget. But this feature works surprisingly well, overcoming the need to carry (or be seen with) a selfie stick. Using the camera’s timer feature also takes the guesswork out of it.
This isn’t just good for selfies, it’s great for group shots, capturing action and remotely triggering your device to start shooting video.
Leave your phone in your bag
You probably won’t want to check your phone too often when you’re on the go. An always-connected wearable may not seem entirely compatible with being “off” in nature, but it does mean you can leave your phone in your bag and still have access to useful features.
With hands-free tools like Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant, you can send quick text messages, make notes and reminders, or even perform web searches and look up information without ever reaching for your phone. You can also get information at a glance, such as notifications or weather information, and see who is calling you before you decide whether or not to pick up the call.
If you previously used your smartphone as a GPS device to track your trips, you can shift that job to your smartwatch instead. This will save your smartphone battery for more important things (like emergency calls and photography).
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Track your fitness over time
Are you just hiking, trail running, or trying to walk more? The data you collect as you exercise can help you stay motivated by tracking your progress over time. This is especially true for the Apple Watch, which does a great job of showing trends in the iPhone Health app using data collected from your workouts.
The more you track, the more data you collect. Before long, you’ll have plenty of raw data on metrics like daily steps, active energy burned, VO² max, resting heart rate, walking heart rate, and other fitness indicators. You can see them on the chart to get a better idea of where you’re headed.
For example, here’s the improvement we’ve seen in resting heart rate over a year, with improved cardio health (due to more regular hiking) and weight loss:
And here’s what it all does for your walking heart rate, too:
Apple’s Fitness app also helps you feel good about positive trends by highlighting successes:
It will also show you areas you might want to improve:
The Achilles heel of Apple’s system is that it’s built on a model of endless improvement that even professional athletes can’t achieve. You end up having a slow week where your pace slows down or you just can’t make it to the gym and that affects your trends.
These features aren’t limited to the Apple ecosystem, with the Garmin Connect app providing a similar interface for analyzing data collected during hiking, running and other forms of exercise. Samsung Health does a similar job for Galaxy Watch owners.
Choose the right smartwatch
Make sure you choose the right smartwatch. For iPhone users, the Apple Watch is probably the best choice, unless you’re a very serious hiker looking to trade in a handheld GPS for something like the Garmin Fenix (even then, some of the Fenix’s features only work with Android).
Lifestyle wearables like the Apple Watch and Samsung Galaxy Watch series are arguably better everyday devices, but they fall short of Garmin’s offerings in this area. They’ll need to be charged more often and won’t lack specialized orienteering features out of the box, but they’ll integrate better into their respective smartphone ecosystems.
Whatever you choose, if you’re going on a multi-day trip, you’ll also want a portable battery.