How to Choose the Right GPS Watch

Text by: Kelsey Begg

Garmin, Hiking & Trekking, Polar, Running, Ski & Snowboard, Suunto, tomtom. How to Choose the Right GPS Watch

Choosing the right GPS watch can seem like a tedious task that requires a great deal of research, product comparing and personal trial and error. Everyone has their preferences and when it comes to electronics, the stakes are higher as there are a lot of options to choose from. 

The first step in choosing a GPS watch is knowing what activities you will want to use it for. Once you’ve decided on which activities you will use the watch for, you can dive into the features. While the shapes, sizes and colours will vary, most brands will carry GPS watches that have similar functions and features.

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Types of GPS Watches

When starting your search for a new GPS watch, some GPS watch background information is ideal. There are three main categories that a GPS watch will fall under, watches for training and everyday use, simple training watches and watches for training and navigation. Understandably, some will be more suited towards athletes while others are designed for the outdoor enthusiast who simply enjoys keeping track of their adventures and statistical data. Which one are you?

Training & Everyday Use

These watches are ideal for those with an active and busy lifestyle. Some of these watches are capable or tracking your sleep patterns and even tracking how many steps you take in a day. Others have smart watch features which allow you to receive emails, texts and calls all from your wrist wherever you are. Ideal for a day on the road for work or a simple evening pedal along your favourite route, the training and everyday use watches are convenient and becoming more and more popular. In this category, you can find your basic GPS training watch, smart watches as well as fitness trackers, although, with recent technology updates, it’s possible to find one watch that combines all three.

m600 sport smartwatch

Polar

M600 Sport Smartwatch

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fenix sapphire

Garmin

Fenix 3 Sapphire

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vivoactive bundle

Garmin

Vivoactive Bundle with Heart Rate Monitor

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Simple Training

For those athletes looking for a watch to track simple training routines, you won’t be looking at one jam packed with smart watch features. These watches are used predominantly for collecting information from the training and will display data such as speed, distance and calories burned. A simple training watch is just as high-quality as the other GPS watches even without navigation features or smart watch features.

forerunner 15

Garmin

Forerunner 15 Small with Bundle

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Garmin

Forerunner 15 Large with Bundle

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ironman run

Timex

Ironman® Run X20 GPS

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Training & Navigation

If you’re an outdoor enthusiast who enjoys getting lost in the woods and hiking up mountain sides, a training and navigation watch is what you need. These watches work more or less like a handheld GPS although often times, they provide more information than just GPS Tracking. The GPS feature is used to navigate and a “track back” feature can lead you back to your starting point. Although these watches are generally designed for those who spend countless hours off the beaten path, it isn’t a prerequisite if it’s truly the type you want.

ambit3 sport

Suunto

Ambit3 Sport HR

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traverse alpha

Suunto

Traverse Alpha

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spartan ultra

Suunto

Spartan Ultra Titanium

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Understanding the Features

GPS watches are packed with a variety of features from tracking your speed and distance to providing data on the elevation you’re currently at. There will often be times where there are features that don’t apply to you and the activities you are using the GPS watch for. These are the type of features that you can easily go without and it wouldn’t have any negative impact. It is important to be aware of these features because the more features a product has usually relates to a higher price. 

While there are some watch features that are completely useless to a specific activity, there are others that are absolutely crucial or very beneficial. Take hiking and mountaineering, for example, a GPS watch that is equipped with a barometric altimeter is as essential as a heart rate monitor to a runner. If you’re thinking of purchasing a GPS watch for a specific activity, ensure that the features you need are included.

Below are the most common GPS Watch features that you will encounter while shopping.

Time Tracking

This feature is ideal for athletes as well as those who are just looking to progress. There are two main ways which you can track your time while running or cycling, the first being simply providing you with an elapsed time and the second which allows you to measure a specific segment using split-time tracking. Being able to track specific segments will let you know where your strong sections are and where are the sections that you need to work on. This feature alone can easily be the difference between a podium finish and not.

Pedometer

This is an important feature for runners specifically as it combines with an odometer to provide a full tally of your training. A pedometer measures the distance that you have run by using your foot strike and combining timing with distance. With this information, you are able to consistently keep track of your pace while you run.

Altimeter

Whether you’re a mountaineer or you’re a runner training on hills, an altimeter is a necessary feature. This measures how many vertical feet you have climbed, skied or ran and can add interesting details to your training. The altimeter is especially useful for runners training on hills as they can see their progression even if they have only run for a short distance over a long duration.

Heart Rate Monitor

While some watches are equipped with a heart rate monitor which tracks your pulse from your wrist, they are the most effective when paired with a heart rate strap. This strap is worn across your chest under your running clothes. The watch is able to read the signals transmitted by the heart rate strap and provide an accurate reading while training.

Training Program

Some watches, GPS and others, feature training programs that are integrated into the watch. You can simply pick a program and start. Nowadays, you are able to upload your training data to a program which logs all your details and may offer tips to enhance your performance.

Water Resistance

This one is big for swimmers although important for all athletes to pick a watch with at least 50 meters of water resistance. For swimmers, you will obviously want to choose a watch with a greater resistance to ensure your watch will not get damaged during your training.

Battery Life

There’s nothing worse than having your electronic device die on you halfway through training whether it be a phone, MP3 player or watch. Think of how long you generally run, cycle or swim for and take note of the duration. Ensure the GPS watch that you are purchasing has a reasonable battery life and will be reliable should you venture out on a long journey whether it be for training or not. 

Additional Features

Many GPS watches and basic watches will be equipped with additional features. These additional features include compasses, programmable alarms and backlights. There is a time and place for every feature but those that are designed for convenience and functionality, you can’t go wrong without!

gps watch

There are so many features integrated into GPS watches, smart watches and even your basic watch so it’s important you choose one that has the features you need. There’s no point in having a watch packed full of features that you can’t actually use, so do your research and choose wisely. The features listed below are beneficial for each particular activity although not all of them are 100% crucial to have.

GPS Watch Features for Runners

  • Heart Rate Monitor
  • Pace tracking
  • Cadence tracking
  • Vertical Oscillation
  • Interval options
  • Route tracking (GPS)
  • Heartbeat tracking
  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
  • Stopwatch/Timer
  • Distance tracking
  • Time tracking
  • VO2 Max tracking

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GPS Watch Features for Swimmers

  • Water resistance
  • Swimming metric tracking
  • Time tracking
  • Distance tracking
  • Pace tracking
  • Speed tracking
  • Stroke Rate
  • Laps
  • Stopwatch/Timer

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GPS Watch Features for Hikers

    • Altimeter
    • Route tracking (GPS)
    • Distance Tracking
  • Pedometer
  • Time tracking
  • Thermometer
  •  Track Back
  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
  • Long battery life

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GPS Watch Features for Cyclists

  • Route tracking (GPS)
  • Distance Tracking
  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
  • Heart Rate Monitor
  • Interval options
  • Cadence tracking
  • Stopwatch/Timer
  • VO2 Max tracking
  • Time tracking

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Music PlayBack Features

If you are looking for a GPS watch that plays music, there are some but there aren’t many. TomTom is a brand that carries a few options with music playback and you can also find some smart watch models that feature music playback. With the music playback feature, you can leave the phone at home and still listen to your favourite tunes while training.

music and cardio bundle gps watch

Spark Music + Cardio HP Bundle

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cardio and music headphone gps watch

Adventurer Cardio + Music Headphone

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spark 3 gps watch

Spark 3 Cardio + Music Headphone Bundle

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Data Collection & Platforms

Once you’ve decided on a GPS watch that is equipped with all your necessary features, next step is to look at the data collection and platforms. While many watches only display the real-time data on the watch itself, more sophisticated watches will upload the data to your computer where you can easily review all the information.

Cloud-Based or On-Computer

If you are an athlete who wishes to track your training and progression, a watch that doesn’t upload information is a quick no-go. For those GPS watches that do upload the data to a computer, there are multiple data interfaces that they can use. Most will require an internet connection in order to review your data through the specific cloud-based system that particular brand uses. Garmin is one brand that gives customers the option between using an on-computer software or a cloud-based system. If you have a preference, this is an important feature to look into. 

Choosing a Data Organization Platform

If you are already using a different fitness device, it is ideal to find a GPS watch that will use the same platform so you can eliminate relearning a new system. By using the same system, you also allow all your data to be collected, recorded and stored together. This eliminates having multiple accessories and programs to keep track of.

If you are a person who uses multiple GPS devices from a variety of manufacturers for various reasons, do not worry. The data can all be easily collected and stored together using Strava which is an App used by swimmers, cyclists and runners. 

In this day and age, most manufacturers will have smartphone apps so you can easily collect your training data even when you’re not wearing your GPS watch. It is important that the device is properly linked to the app before you venture out and start recording.

GPS Watch Accessories

While GPS watches are already jam-packed with multiple features and all the bells and whistles, for some athletes and outdoor enthusiasts, additional accessories are necessary for specific training or adventures. These accessories include crank-mounted sensors for cyclists or foot-mounted motion sensors for runners. These additional accessories are not for everyone but for those who are serious about their training, they may be a necessity.

gps watch training

GPS watches and smart watches have become the new greatest thing when it comes to training and even just exploring in the outdoors. The sophisticated features render them a valuable tool and accessory and the sleek styles enable them to be easily worn for everyday use. 

The hardest part of choosing a GPS watch is knowing what you really need and what is just extra. Once you have decided which features are necessary, the shopping process becomes much easier. Each GPS watch will come with an owner’s manual so don’t stress if you get lost in the data collection and platform organization lingo. 

Enjoy a day on the trails, up in the mountains or running around town and keep track of your accomplishments with a GPS watch. Designed for sport and fitness use, these watches are more than just your typical watch.

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