Garmin Fenix 6 In-Depth Review
|In This Guide|
Okay, spoiler alert, the Fenix 6 is a great, if not the greatest, outdoors watch so far. In this review and how-to guide I’m going to focus on the hiking and outdoors applications of the Fenix 6. I’ll be specifically using the Fenix 6x Pro Solar, which I’ve had on my wrist 24/7 since the day it came out. I’ve owned every Fenix model since the 3, and the 6 Pro Solar doesn’t disappoint.
This watch is incredible! I had the Fenix 3HR which set the bar, then the Fenix 5X, which even after two years with the watch never leaving my arm, I was still excited to use it every single day. That is really saying a lot. The 6X Pro Solar has yet again set a new bar with incredibly useful features. – REI Review
If you find this guide helpful, you can help support this site by buying the Fenix 6 with this link to REI. You get a discount of up to 10% with an inexpensive REI membership and free shipping. It ends up being cheaper than buying from Amazon, there are benefits to buying from REI, and you help support free hiking guides for everyone.
Which Fenix 6 Should I Buy?
Garmin offers several variations on the Fenix 6, but they don’t do a great job of making it easy to decode which model offers what. Here’s how to understand the different Fenix models:
- Sizing: 6s (small, 42mm case), 6 (medium, 47mm case), 6x (large, 51mm case)
- Regular Fenix 6 or Pro/Sapphire: Pro and Sapphire models have music, on-board topo maps, Wi-Fi, and other software features enabled. The regular 6 model has these software functions turned off.
- Sapphire or Non-Sapphire: Sapphire models have a scratch-resistant glass. Sapphire crystal glass is the third hardest mineral, right behind diamond. The Sapphire glass darkens the screen a little bit, but not much. Non-Sapphire models have Corning Gorilla Glass. All Sapphire models also come with Pro software features included, but not all Pro models have Sapphire glass.
- Solar or Non-Solar: Solar is only available in the 6x model and includes solar panels on and around the watch face that help charge your Fenix (more later). Garmin calls this Power Glass and it’s also scratch-resistant, but not as much as the Sapphire model (it’s Corning Gorilla Glass 3 with DX Coating). I’ve had my Pro Solar for several months with 24/7 use and no scratches so far.
Garmin doesn’t recommend using a screen protector on the Pro Solar model because it cuts down on the solar intensity.
Here are my recommendations on picking the right model:
- If you use maps, you want a big watch face, so go as big as possible and get a Fenix 6x.
- If you go on extended hikes or outdoors trips and battery life is important, go with the Fenix 6x Pro Solar.
- If you don’t get solar, get the Sapphire glass Fenix 6 that best fits your wrist.
Fenix 6 Review Video
Is the Fenix 6 Worth It?
If you have an older GPS or smartwatch it can be tough to decide on whether the Fenix 6 is worth the cost; it’s an expensive watch. Let me walk you through some of the notable features relevant to hiking and the outdoors. I’ll go through some of the other non-outdoors features later in the article; make sure you check them out. There are many other applications available on the Fenix 6 that might be useful to you.
Standard features include:
- Track hikes, runs, cycling, weight training, yoga, pilates, almost anything
- Onboard GPS, heart-rate monitor, and pulse oximeter (to measure blood oxygen)
- Smartwatch that integrates with your phone (which you can turn off)
- Sleep, step, and fitness tracker
- Navigation tool (topo maps, altimeter, barometer, compass)
- Training computer (analyzes your form and gives you advice on your training)
Notable new features applicable to hiking and the outdoors include:
- Bigger screen than past models (including the 5x Plus). The resolution on the 6x is 280×280 pixels with 1.4 inches diameter screen.
- Much better battery life and more power-saving modes (more later in the battery section). The Pro Solar adds some battery charging capabilities and is nice if you’re trying to get the most out of the watch.
- New Sony GPS chipset has great accuracy for a smartwatch. There are a ton of variables with GPS accuracy but in general over many hundreds of miles, the GPS was accurate and dependable. Garmin has also done a lot of software honing in its firmware updates that make the accuracy better. The non-GPS chipset also seems faster; routing and software functions seem a little zippier than my 5x Plus.
- The new Fenix is thinner with less bezel and more screen. I’ve found that it snags less when I have long sleeves on and the screen definitely has more real estate, which is great when looking at maps. The extra real estate means that you can see more map.
- The new widget layout makse it easier to glance through information quickly.
- You have some options to customize the map display. The ones most useful have ben normal, high contrast, and dark. There’s also a popularity display that shows purple lines for popular routes, based on all the recorded Garmin data. Usually when I use popularity display with hiking I don’t get anything, but with running and cycling you’ll see the popularity heat-map lines.
So should you get it? How much money can you spare? 😁
- If you’re okay spending the money and want the latest and greatest, then get it, it’s great.
- If battery is important to you, then get it. For example, you can get 60 hours of battery in GPS modes, so you could use one charge on a 6×10 hour day backpacking trip. In expedition mode you can get 46 days, so if you’re thru-hiking, this could be a good choice.
- If you don’t have a hiking smart-watch yet and want to get something that will last for a few years, get it.
- If you don’t have a hiking smart-watch yet and want to get something that is durable, has the bulk of the features of the Fenix 6 without the maps and fancy stuff, consider the Garmin Instinct.
- If you have an older model Fenix and it works fine for you, you don’t need the Fenix 6. You can still load GPX tracks on older models like the Fenix 3.
If you’re reading reviews on REI, Amazon, etc., just a quick note. There are some 1-star reviews that look like they are before some important firmware updates. I find it helpful to look at the most recent reviews first.
Don’t need all the bells and whistles? The Garmin Instinct is a great (and affordable) alternative. You can load the GPX file from this hike onto the watch and make sure that you’re on the trail at all times. You can also track your pace and calories for the hike, runs, bike rides, workouts, and almost everything. Check Out the Reviews & Prices
How The Fenix 6 Works
Here’s a quick tour of how the Fenix 6 works and how to use it for the outdoors. I could probably write a thousand words on each of these features, so I invite you to check out the manual (link a the bottom) if you want to dig deeper. I also dive deeper into navigation later so keep reading.
When your activity is synced you can view it on the mobile app or dive deeper on the Garmin Connect website.
Fenix 6 Battery and Solar Performance
The battery and power management on the Fenix 6 is great and much better than older models. I’m not sure if it’s a bigger battery or more efficient chipset or both, but you get more time between charges on the Fenix 6. According to Garmin, you get about 21 days of watch mode and 60 hours of activity tracking without any solar or battery saving tweaks.
You can create custom power modes on the Fenix 6 that turn features on or off based on what you need. Custom power modes are created in the settings under “Power Manager”, and once created are applied to your hike or other activity by going into the settings for that activity and choosing the power profile. You can also select from standard Garmin modes of normal, max battery, and jacket mode (no optical heart rate if you wear it outside clothing).
So Power Modes get applied to activities, but there’s also a “Battery Saver Mode” that gets applied to the regular watch mode. It works similar to power modes; when you enter Battery Saver Mode you can turn features on and off. You can also set a customizable low-battery alarm so that you can enter Battery Saver Mode when you get low. You can access it from the setting menu, or toggle it on and off by holding in the power button.
I find the power profiles great. I turn off music and other features that aren’t important and it’s great. I haven’t gone on any really long backpacking trips, but have taken it on trips under a week and it’s good every day. And I have a cheap USB battery charger just in case (and use it for other devices too).
Make sure you take the automatic Pulse Oximeter readings off, they drain the battery more quickly than anything else.
The solar panel offers a lot of promise, especially for those who are outside every day. First off, set your expectations accordingly. The solar panel on the Fenix 6 is small, arms move around, sleeves cover the watch face, and we are often under trees and look for shade on hot days. The solar panels are not going to quickly charge the device back to 100%. But you are going to offset the battery drain, especially when you’re hiking in direct sunlight.
Here’s what I’ve observed about the Pro Solar functionality from hiking with it for several hundred miles:
- It’s much better when you’re in direct sunlight (hiking through scrub, above the tree line, or in the desert).
- When you’re under cover don’t expect many benefits.
- If you leave it out in the sun in watch mode, you get about 1% charge in 4 hours.
- When hiking in the sun, the battery drain generally cuts in half (1-2%/hour to 0.5-1%/hour).
- Using a screen protector gave me pretty much the same results.
Expedition Mode is a multi-day tracking app that turns off all the sensors and screen, then records a track point every 60 minutes (you can adjust between 15-90 minutes). To see the watch face, you just tap the power button and it stays on for a few seconds and goes off again. You can also mark waypoints in this mode. You can get 45 days of tracking (and up to 10 more with solar) in this mode. So if you’re thru-hiking and want a basic track stored, expedition mode could come in handy.
Fenix 6 GPS Performance
GPS is always a tough one to measure because there are so many variables and a lot of folks have strong opinions about which satellite constellation is best. I use the Fenix 6 and GPSMAP 66i, often pour over my GPX tracks after a hike, and do a fair amount of tinkering with my settings. So while I’m not testing this in a lab, I am constantly observing and evaluating GPS performance.
- Performance on the Fenix 6 is not as good as a handheld GPS like the GPSMAP 66i, which you would expect since the GPS antenna is likely bigger on the handheld unit. Also your hands (and the Fenix) will move around more than a handheld which normally sits stationary in a pocket while you hike.
- Aside from the occasional errant track point, the Fenix 6 GPS tracking has been remarkably accurate.
- The Fenix 6 has been (generally) more accurate (less errant track points and drifts) than the Fenix 5x Plus.
- When you stop, it’s important to pause your activity. Otherwise the unit will continue to take track points which could be off by 20+ feet each, inflating your distance. This is called nesting because of the circular pattern the track makes.
- Tree cover and canyon walls affect GPS performance. You need 4 satellite fixes to get a semi-accurate position, the more the better. Whenever that ability is impeded by the conditions, the track will suffer.
- There is no winner when it comes to GPS, GPS+Galileo, or GPS+GLONASS accuracy.
- If you have a clear view of the sky and you want to save battery, GPS only will be usually fine.
- I use GPS + Galileo because I hike in varied conditions and it offers more options to get a fix. Galileo will have 30 satellites up by 2020 giving you more options to connect (in addition to the 24 GPS birds).
- Some folks have luck with GPS + GLONASS but I had more (random) errant track points when using it. Again, a lot depends on the conditions and GLONASS is supposed to be better in the higher latitudes, so maybe it will work for you.
Fenix 6 GPS Track Case Studies
I have a comparison of the GPSMAP 66i and Fenix 6 GPX tracks if you want to check it out. It’s through tall and short buildings in an urban setting. I find that these types of conditions make GPS units struggle the most. There are also some Fenix 6 tracks from other conditions in there for you to dive deep on.
Fenix 6 GPS Accuracy Tips
- Try to sync your Garmin Connect app with Garmin and then sync with your Fenix 6 before starting your activity. If you’re hiking in the middle of nowhere, you’ll want to do this at home. This will download the latest Garmin EPO file to your Fenix 6 which helps it predict where the satellites will be. In practical terms it usually means you’ll acquire a fix in a few seconds. The EPO file is good for a few days so it’s best to sync before your hike.
- Let your GPS signal “soak” for a few minutes which means more signals get locked in and stabilize. I’ll turn my activity on when I get to the trailhead (but not start it), get my boots on, etc., and after a few minutes when I’m ready, the GPS signals should be stable and ready to go.
- Change your tracking from Smart Recording to Every Second Recording (in settings). Unless you have thousands of tracks and need to save room, or are tweaking your battery to get the most juice, it’s worth the extra file size because you get better fidelity with “every second.” Smart Recording looks for changes in direction, speed, heart rate and elevation to trigger a track point. It works fine but why not get some more precision if you can afford it?
- Turn on 3d Speed and 3d Distance (in settings) to factor in elevation when calculating your speed and distance.
- Use GPS + Galileo for the most options when getting a satellite fix. GPS might work fine but there are occasional outages with various satellites so having more options for a good fix is worth it.
- Pause your activity when you stop to minimize GPS drift and nesting.
If you look at GPX track and it’s way off the trail, don’t necessarily blame your GPS, the map could be wrong. It’s not uncommon for Google or OSM maps to be incorrect.
Navigating With the Fenix 6
As an outdoors smartwatch my Fenix 6 does a lot of heavy lifting for me; I use it to confirm my position, make navigation decisions, and to mark waypoints. And it works great. It’s not a substitute for having paper maps, but for most people, wearing a Fenix 6 and having a paper map will be enough to navigate successfully in the backcountry. Let’s walk through some of the important concepts.
So I mentioned that the Fenix 6 syncs with Garmin Connect, which is a fitness-focused system. When you run, go for bike rides, workout, etc. with the Fenix 6 it syncs your workouts with Garmin Connect, gives you training feedback, integrates it with your physiological markers to give recommendations, etc. If you workout, run, ride, etc. it’s not perfect but it’s pretty awesome.
Garmin has decided to segment the fitness world and the outdoors world. So then there’s another software ecosystem for the outdoors called Garmin Explore. It’s more navigation focused and doesn’t have things like heart rate analysis. Like Garmin Connect, there’s a website and mobile app. And like Connect, it’s free when you buy your Fenix 6. If you have an InReach device, it’s the same system that they use to sync and store navigation information. It also displays InReach messages that you’ve sent.
Since the Fenix 6 functionality bridges the fitness and outdoors worlds, you can use and sync with both Connect and Explore. I use Connect more because it’s easier to plan and gives me more information, but when I want to extract waypoints I use Explore.
Waypoints are called “Saved Locations” on the Fenix 6.
On the Fly Navigation
The Fenix 6 has onboard routable topo maps and powerful routing engine, and you can create courses on the fly. In reality I rarely use this function; by the time I hit the trail I know where I am going and just use the GPS to cross-reference that. But it can come in handy if you just want to do a quick hike or perhaps have an emergency.
You can navigate a course while in an activity like hiking or running, or you can use the “Navigate” activity that just focuses on navigation (but doesn’t have anything special in terms of data).
Following a Course
The best way to plan a route for the Fenix 6 is to create a course in Garmin Connect. Garmin Connect lets you use Google, Open Street Maps, and HERE maps to route your course. You can find the Course creator under training on the menu. Once in there, you simply click along the trails and the route is created along the trails.
Once you have your course saved I’ve found the best way to get it to the Fenix 6 is to bring the course up on your Garmin Connect mobile app, then hit “send to device” which will transfer it using Bluetooth and make it available when you select a course for hiking.
Following a GPX File
You can import a GPX file from the web into the Garmin Connect or Garmin Explore app and then navigate with them. I prefer the Garmin Connect app because the interface is much better and the transfer is easy from the Garmin app. Once you’ve imported a GPX file it basically gets converted to a course, and you follow it the same way you would any other course.
You can also import a GPX to the Garmin mobile app, but a lot depends on the operating system and version that you are using.
ClimbPro has been around for cycling for a while, and now we have it for the hiking activity too. At first I thought it was a bit of a gimmick, but I’ve grown to enjoy the ClimbPro screen on my mountain hikes. ClimbPro only works when you create a route in Garmin Connect or on the Fenix 6 itself. It automatically segments out notable climbs on the route and displays them as a data screen on the hike. Unfortunately you can’t select your own climbs but the automatic selection is pretty good.
In ClimbPro you get the climb number, distance to go, ascent to go, average gradient, and a bottom field that you can customize (on the screen shot above its vertical speed). When you are not on a climb you get to see the next climb and how far away it is.
Fenix 6 Navigation Notes
- The Fenix 6 is compatible with the free (and great) Garmin Basecamp program for Mac and Windows.
- You can load free (and often more detailed) Open Street Maps onto the Fenix 6
- You can load 3rd party apps (like WikiLoc) and data fields from the Garmin IQ store onto the Fenix 6.
- The topo maps loaded onto the Fenix 6 are decent and have many more trails than they did a few years ago. Garmin uses the Open Street Map project as part of their map data and it’s obvious that the quality and quantity of trails is better.
The Fenix 6 offers altitude and heat acclimation features are mainly geared toward runners and cyclists, with the training status and VO2 Max getting updated based on your acclimation results. Here’s how it works.
- For altitude acclimation, the watch combines your training activities along with a daily snapshot of your altitude, puts that data into some fancy algorithm, and then tells you the altitude that you’re acclimatized to. It only works when you are above about 2,800 feet.
- For heat acclimation, the Fenix looks at the heat and humidity of your last workouts compared to your bio-markers like heart rate and effort, plugs it in an algorithm, and then spits out a figure.
From there you get an alert and info in your training status on your acclimatization status. How useful is this to me as a hiker? Not much. In an ideal world as a hiker I’d like to see some kind of indication that my blood oxygen saturation in improving while at altitude, but the Fenix 6 acclimation feature doesn’t factor in the pulse oximeter.
When I was hiking at altitude for a few days I’d get messages that I had acclimated to various altitudes but it wasn’t any information that helped me make any decisions in terms of my effort for the day. If I was training (running or cycling) at altitude for an extended time, I’m sure this would come in handy more.
Altimeter, Barometer and Compass
As someone who hikes a lot, I generally use the altimeter the most. I don’t use the watch compass but it’s nice to have to glance at or cross-check with my analog compass. And the barometer is a nice to have when you’re out on multi-day backpacks (although I generally get a weather report from my InReach). Some highlights include:
- Altimeter calibration from GPS, manual entry, or map data.
- Storm alert when barometer drops by a (user selected) level.
- Sensors that automatically calibrate unless you want to manually intervene.
Like almost every other GPS in the world, these sensors are decent but not the same as a professional instrument.
Other Notable Fenix 6 Features
There are a ton of other features in the Fenix 6 but not all of them lived up to their expectations.Here are some other notable features worth mentioning. Some of them might be handy for you outside of hiking and the outdoors.
- The pulse oximeter is not great. When compared to measurements with a professional fingertip pulse ox meter, the Fenix 6 is always lower. And sometimes it really struggles to take a reading, which you can correct by moving the watch around a little on your arm. It really needs a good “connect” with your wrist to work. I had high hopes for it but now I just keep it off to save the battery.
- The Fenix 6 measures your respiration rate now (included with a firmware update).
- The new Elevate Heart Rate Sensor works great and is usually within a beat or two of a chest strap.
- There are golf and ski resort maps onboard if that’s your thing.
- The Trendline Popularity routing is good for runs but there’s not much for hikes.
- If you swim, the wrist heart rate monitor works in the pool.
- You can have 8 data fields on the screen during an activity. It’s a little too small for me but it’s an option.
- PacePro lets you create target run paces that are adjusted for elevation changes and distance.
- Incident detection alerts someone through your phone if you crash on your bike.
- Physio TrueUp syncs your workouts and training status across devices (like if you use an Edge for cycling).
- Although the Fenix 6 measures HRV with the wrist HR monitor to calculate things like “stress,” you can’t just get HRV readings to measure fatigue (why? who knows…)
- Garmin Pay lets you do contactless payments. I used it on the Portland (OR) transit system and it was pretty cool.
- You can load up to 2,000 songs onto the watch and use Spotify or Amazon Music to listen to them. It also pairs with Bluetooth headphones.
- You can get notifications from your smartphone.
- You can download third-party apps like Uber from the Garmin IQ store.
Fenix 6 Resources
If you want to dig deeper I recommend the following links:
- Fenix 6 Owners Manual (you can also download a PDF version from here)
- Fenix 6 Firmware Updates
- Fenix 6 Support Center
- Fenix 6 Support Forums
- Garmin Forum on Reddit
Fenix 6 Unboxing
Here’s the unboxing of my Fenix 6x Pro Solar with titanium band. I also came with an orange silicone band (in the box).
Fenix 6 Watch Band Options
There are also different band options available. The nice thing about the new Fenix watches is that they have quick-release bands; you just slide a little latch when it’s upside down and it comes off. The notched bands are the easiest to deal with but the titanium and carbon bands are nice if you need something a little fancier. The fixed bands need to be taken to a jeweler to be sized correctly. Each model has its own band size: