GPS sports watches

GPS sports watches are now commonly used for bushwalking and ski touring and other outdoor recreation activities.

Depending on the model they can provide the following features:

  • GPS functions (waypoints, routes)

  • Apps for specific actives (e.g. walking, ski touring, cycling, swimming)

  • Sports tracking - logging of activities that can be uploaded to websites (e.g. Garmin Connect, Strava)

  • Activity tracking - daily activity including steps and sleep.

  • Altimeter

  • Barometer

  • Compass

  • Heart rate monitor (some require a separate sensor for this)

  • Maps for navigation (but the small screen size is a major limitation)

  • Connectivity with mobile phone for notifications, uploading activities, downloading apps etc

  • Solar panel dial for recharging while in use (expensive models only).

A wide range of GPS sports watches are available ranging from $80 to $1200. Consider the essential features needed when purchasing. Battery life if a key consideration. Major manufactures include Suunto, Garmin and Polar.

Garmin Fenix 6

Sunnto 7

Polar Vantage V

While smartwatches may include a GPS and can provide bushwalkers and ski tourers with activity information, GPS sports watches track more data, provide more features and can be customised to provide additional information and functions.

Pros and cons of using a GPS sports watch for navigation

Note: features and functions vary between manufacturers and models.


  • Useful for navigation when a topographic map is being used for primary navigation.

  • Can get grid reference of current location when GPS function is on.

  • Grid reference format can be set to required map datum

  • Can create and label waypoints and navigate to them.

  • “Track back” function to retrace a route.

  • Button controls function in all weather conditions

  • Some models can provide altimeter and barometer functions


  • Screen size too small to display a topographic map that is useful.

  • User needs to convert the longform grid reference to 6 figures for referencing a paper map.

  • Short battery life when GPS is on. Some watches have a setting that reduces GPS accuracy to provide longer battery life.

  • Controls and menus fiddly and non intuitive - difficult to access information.

  • Touch screens don’t work well when wet

Tips for using a GPS sports watch

  • Set the appropriate map datum

  • Turn GPS function off when not required to avoid flattening the battery

  • Learn how to convert from long grid references to 6 digits to plot locations on a map.

  • Understand how the barometric altimeter (if available) can be calibrated automatically and manually.

  • If using altimeter readings, check them against a map and manually recalibrate if required.

  • Calibrate the electronic compass outdoors to improve heading accuracy. Do not stand near objects that influence magnetic fields, such as vehicles, buildings, and overhead power lines.

  • Carry the charging cable and a battery pack on extended trips.

  • Create a waypoint for the campsite when doing day trips so it can be used to navigate to if needed.