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Using The Apple Watch For Hiking

Using the Apple Watch for Hiking

In This Guide
  • Who Should Use the Apple Watch for Hiking?
  • Extending the Apple Watch Battery for Hiking
  • Hiking App Recommendations for the Apple Watch

One of the questions I get asked the most is, “is the Apple Watch good for hiking?” I review many hiking watches and GPS units, but not everyone wants to invest in another piece of gear, especially if they have an Apple Watch already. So to cut to the chase, the Apple Watch is suitable for hiking for most casual hikers, and in this guide, I’ll tell you the who’s and the why’s. I’ll also show you how to use it for hiking and go through some apps that are good for hiking with your Apple Watch.

I tested with the Apple Watch 6, 44m, no cellular, over three months of hiking about 20-40 miles a week.

Is the Apple Watch Good for Hiking?

Workoutdoors App On Apple Watch
While not purpose-built for hiking, the Apple Watch has enough power to replicate the functions you’d get on an outdoors watch, such as mapping and following a track. FYI this is the WorkOutDoors app.

First off, it’s important to note that unlike watches like the Garmin Fenix or Instinct, the Apple Watch isn’t a purpose-built watch for the outdoors. It certainly functions in the outdoors in many cases, but it’s really built as a wrist-based companion for an iPhone. So who will it work for?

Fenix 6 Navigation Step 4
A purpose-built watch like a Garmin Fenix will be loaded with navigation and training tools already. On the Apple Watch, you have to find apps to fit the bill, and nothing is perfect for everything, but there are a decent amount of apps that can get the job done for most hikers.

If you do think the Apple Watch is a good fit for you, the big advantages are:

If you want to explore the non-Apple Watch hiking watch options, check out my gear page for my latest recommendations.

Apple Watch for Hiking Video

Extending the Apple Watch Battery

Portable Charger Apple Watch
If your Apple Watch battery runs out on a hike, you’ll need a portable charger. Some apps let you continue to track your hike while charging, and some apps will “auto-pause” your workout when charging. Overall it’s a bit of a pain, especially when compared to the battery on a Garmin Fenix which can last a week or more with daily activity tracking.

The main Achilles heel of the Apple Watch is the battery life. If you’re hiking for over 7 hours, you’ll have to recharge it, which means carrying a battery charger with you. And if you want to use the watch after the hike in your everyday life, it also means that you have to charge the watch immediately after hiking. I keep an extra charging cable in my car, and then charge it when I start driving. The magnetic charger sometimes disconnected from the watch when in the car, especially on sharp turns or bumpy roads.

If you hike with your phone and are okay with ditching your heart rate information (and associated calorie burn), you can turn on “Power Saving Mode” when using the Apple Workout app to track your hike. This will end up using your phone’s GPS instead of the GPS on the watch. When using Power Save and an iPhone, I’m getting about 25 hours of use on a full charge. To turn it on, go to the Watch app on your phone, then Workout, then Power Saving Mode. Here’s a video of how to make it work, as well as a hack to get heart rate.

If you want to use another app to track your hike, there are other battery saving techniques that you can employ based on your situation. I can usually squeeze about 9-10 hours out of the battery with just these techniques.

Apple Watch Hiking Features

Apple Watch Compass
When the Apple Watch first got a magnetic compass, it was hyped up in their marketing materials a bit. It’s nice to have for the casual hiker. I’d guess that most hikers doing overland hikes probably have a more professional direction-finding option.

Here are the features of the Apple Watch that come in handy when hiking.

GPS Test

Here you can see my Apple Watch 6 GPS versus the Fenix 6x Pro Solar. This is a hike through some deep canyons. It’s probably one of the more challenging situations for a GPS. Scroll around the map and check it out.

Click Here To View

Best Hiking Apps For Apple Watch

The Apple Watch comes bundled with two apps that might be helpful for hiking right out of the box, the Workout App and Maps app. But they’re not the best if you want to use your watch for hiking.

Apple Watch Hiking App
The built-in Workout app lets you track a hike as a workout. You can display basic information about your hike, but not any type of maps or route information.
Apple Watch Maps App Walking Directions
The built-in Maps app can give you walking directions to a destination, but doesn’t really let you follow a hiking route that is not getting from point A to point B. And there are limited trails on the app, but its good for walking on sidewalks and pedestrian trails.

Apps get updated all the time with new features, which is one of the advantages of having an Apple Watch. If you’ve found that features on these apps has changed, let me know and I’ll update the guide for other users.

WorkOutDoors

Workoutdoors App Hiking
Navigation on the Apple Watch is dead simple with the WorkOutDoors app. Just follow the line. Alerts tell you if you’ve gone off the trail. There are tons of ways to customize the screens and data fields too.

WorkOutDoors is the granddaddy hiking app, and is probably the most feature-rich. It’s really everything you’d expect from a hiking app. You can use it as a standalone app without a phone, you can download maps and zoom with the crown, you can load GPX tracks onto it, you can view and record waypoints, and you can view a ton of data, similar to a Garmin GPS. The big drawback is that it only uses Open Street Maps, which don’t have topographic contour lines. They do, however, have very good trail coverage.

Overall, WorkOutDoors is the best choice for hiking if you want to come close to a dedicated GPS like a Garmin.

Gaia GPS

Gaia Gps On Apple Watch
The Gaia GPS watch app had handy turn-by-turn directions like you would get on a non-hiking map app. You can also see here that it’s telling me if I’m on or off the route.

The Gaia GPS smartphone app and website has long been my favorite, but I had some issues using the Apple Watch app. You can plan a hiking route on the Gaia GPS website, tablet, or phone app, and then send the route and maps to your watch. The main problem for me was that the iPhone app would have issues sending to the watch. Maybe it’s just a technical issue based on my setup, so give it a try yourself. When I did get it to work, it was fine, but didn’t offer the level of detail or customization that WorkOutDoors did. (Psst! Gaia GPS, buy the WorkOutDoors app guy out and hire him to develop your Watch app!)

HikingGuy readers get a discount on a Gaia GPS premium membership – details on my gear page.

AllTrails

Alltrails On Apple Watch
The AllTrails app was limited. You can only view a map like this if you’re a pro subscriber, and even then, it’s not interactive.

For AllTrails, the Apple Watch just works as a remote control and must be used with the iPhone. You can start and stop your timer, see limited stats, and if you are a pro subscriber, view your dot on a map (which is a clunky process). I didn’t find the AllTrails watch app helpful on the trail.

ViewRanger

Viewranger On Apple Watch
Despite some good reviews for the ViewRanger app, I didn’t find it too useful. The map was limited, and you need to have an account to follow hikes from this screen.

If you are already a ViewRanger user, the Apple Watch app might come in handy, but I wouldn’t pay for the membership to use the app. I found the experience a bit buggy, and it tries to integrate trail info and highlights, but it’s not as useful as it sounds.

Wikiloc

Hikingguy Directions
Although Wikiloc has a map page, it’s no where near as smooth as WorkOutDoors. I think it would suffice if you live in the Wikiloc universe already.

Some folks use Wikiloc to find trails, and it’s a similar experience to AllTrails. Unlike the AllTrails Watch app, can send a route to the watch and use the watch without a phone to navigate. I had some issues loading the maps onto the Apple Watch, which could have been a bug that has been resolved since. Overall I liked the WorkOutDoors app better. If you already use the WikiLoc website and app, it’s a reasonable option.

Conclusions

I’ve got to admit, when I got my Apple Watch for this test, I didn’t have high hopes of using it for hiking, but I’ve kinda fallen in love with it. I use it on my shorter hikes because it’s just simple. I also have an iPhone and love the various integrations like the turn alert vibration when driving with Apple Maps. I think for most iPhone users who are casual hikers, the Apple Watch combined with the WorkOutDoors app or Gaia GPS is great.

If you are more of a hardcore outdoor athlete, want something that lasts longer and is geared to outdoor activity, look into the Garmin Fenix or Instinct, which can also pair with your iPhone (or Android). The integrations with the iPhone won’t be as slick as the Apple Watch, but the tradeoff is that you have something that can handle anything that the trail throws at it.

Have an idea on how to make these guides better? Leave me your thoughts here..

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