Smartwatches are useful and stylish wearable devices for everyday use, but they also have some additional benefits if you spend a lot of time climbing up mountains or on hiking trails.
Track Your Routes as Workouts
One of the most basic functions of a smartwatch is the ability to track your workouts. This can be motivating whether you’re just starting out or are a seasoned hiker. Any routes you record can be checked on a smartwatch later, allowing you to see exactly where you’ve been which is useful for planning repeat excursions or altering routes for next time.
This goes hand-in-hand with using your smartwatch to improve your fitness. Tracking workouts on an Apple Watch is one of the best ways of filling your Move and Exercise rings. Your workouts are saved in the Fitness app and you can use the data gathered to get better insight into your overall fitness level.
You can even enter into competitions with other Apple Watch users if you’re feeling competitive and looking for extra motivation.
GPS on Your Wrist
A smartwatch with GPS functionality can work as a standalone GPS device, like 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 your 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 device. These come with Garmin’s built-in mapping software and have superior battery life compared with less specialized wearables. You can transfer GPX files to your smartwatch and follow the waypoints, just as you can 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 on your Apple Watch or use the apps to find nearby trails. AllTrails works too, but the Apple Watch implementation is little more than a remote for the iPhone app.
Never Lose Your Compass
The Apple Watch 5 and above can function as a compass, as can most dedicated hiking smartwatches from Garmin. The Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 also includes a geomagnetic sensor which means it too can be used as a compass using a free app like Samsung Compass.
You probably shouldn’t rely on a smartwatch compass for navigation alone (since the battery could fail you), but as a backup tool having a compass on your wrist can help you navigate if you get lost or find yourself unable to use the sun or moon position as guidance.
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 of Garmin devices like the aforementioned Fenix, but there also exist apps that run on your Apple Watch that can do the same.
You’ll also get more information about your route using basic workout tracking available on most devices. This includes metrics like elevation gained, splits (for each mile or kilometer you cover), how long you’ve been moving, and how far you’ve gone.
You can use this information to make a call about when to turn back if you’re against the clock in terms of daylight or weather conditions. This data is also fairly interesting if you’re a bit of a data fiend. At the end of a trip, you can see how much energy you’ve burned, which can help you better plan future trips and understand your dietary needs better
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 to what altitude you’ve acclimatized. While not all of this data is useful, many people will find it interesting.
Get Help in an Emergency
Fall detection on the Apple Watch has already been credited with saving lives. Once enabled, the feature makes a pre-recorded emergency call to notify first responders of your GPS coordinates, and then messages any nominated emergency contacts to let them know you’re in trouble.
You can also use your Apple Watch to quickly initiate an Emergency Call by pressing and holding the side button until you hear an alert. If you’re injured and unable to get to your smartphone, you’re still able to make emergency calls as long as your device is in range (around 30 meters or 100 ft).
The Samsung Galaxy Watch line has had a similar feature since 2020 that can send out an SOS alert if it detects a fall, or send a similar alert if the Home key is pressed 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 follow 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 heart rate and identify patterns that could signal a cardiac event. This includes elevated heart rate at rest, which will alert you that something could be wrong. This can help you make wiser decisions like not pushing it too hard if you’re not feeling well.
Take Better Selfies on the Trail
Who doesn’t love a good selfie at the top of a mountain, on the edge of a creek, or next to a really interesting rock? Prop up your smartphone, launch the companion app on your smartwatch, and frame your shot perfectly. You can then use a shutter delay to time the shot perfectly, so you’re not looking at your watch when the photo is taken.
Using your smartwatch as a viewfinder for your phone’s camera is an underrated feature that’s all too easy to forget about. But the feature works surprisingly well and beats having to carry (or be seen with) a selfie stick. It also takes the guesswork out of using your camera’s timer function.
This isn’t just good for selfies, it’s great for group shots, capturing action, and remotely triggering your device to begin shooting a video too.
Leave Your Phone in Your Bag
You probably don’t want to check your phone too often while you’re out on the trail. An always-connected wearable might not seem entirely compatible with “switching off” in nature, but it does mean that you can leave your phone in your bag while still being able to access useful functions.
Using hands-free aids like Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant, you can send quick text messages, take notes and reminders, or even perform web searches and look up information without reaching for your phone. You can also get at-a-glance information like notifications or weather information, and see who is calling you before deciding whether to pick up or not.
If you’ve previously been using your smartphone as a GPS device for tracking hikes, you can also offload this work onto your smartwatch instead. This will save your smartphone battery for more important things (like making emergency calls and taking photos).
Monitor Your Fitness Over Time
Just getting into hiking, trail running, or trying to walk more? The data you gather while working out can help you stay motivated by monitoring progress over time. This is especially true on the Apple Watch, which does a great job of displaying trends in the iPhone’s Health app using data gathered from your workouts.
The more you track, the more data you gather. Before long you’ll have enough raw data about metrics like daily step count, active energy burned, VO² max, resting heart rate, walking heart rate, and other indicators of fitness. You can see these on a graph to get a better picture of which way you’re trending.
For example, here’s the improvement we noticed in resting heart rate over a year, with improving cardio health (thanks to more regular hiking) and weight loss:
And here’s what all that does for your walking heart rate too:
Apple’s Fitness app also helps you feel good about positive trends by highlighting successes:
While also showing you areas you might want to improve:
The Achilles heel of Apple’s system is that it is built on a model of infinite improvement, which even professional athletes cannot achieve. Eventually, you’re going to have a slow week where your pace slows down or you simply can’t get to the gym, and that will affect your trends.
These features aren’t only limited to the Apple ecosystem, with the Garmin Connect app providing a similar interface for analyzing data gathered from hiking, running, and other forms of exercise. For Galaxy Watch owners, Samsung Health does a similar job.
Pick the Right Smartwatch
Make sure you pick the right smartwatch. For iPhone users, the Apple Watch is probably the best choice unless you’re a very serious hiker looking to replace a handheld GPS with something like the Garmin Fenix (and even then, some Fenix features only work with Android).
Lifestyle wearables like the Apple Watch and Samsung Galaxy Watch series are arguably better day-to-day devices but are inferior to Garmin’s offerings in the field. They will need to be charged more often and lack dedicated orienteering features out of the box, but they better integrate into their respective smartphone ecosystems.
Whatever you choose, if you’re doing a multi-day trip you’ll want a portable battery pack too.