Using the Apple Watch for Hiking
|In This Guide|
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?
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?
- It’s a good choice if you don’t hike over about 7 hours. If you want to track your hike as an activity, that’s about the range you have for your workout. And for most hikers, that’s fine. You can get some more life out of the watch and use it on longer hikes, and I’ll share those tips in the battery section that follows.
- It works well in good conditions. If you are not big on hiking in the rain or with bulking gloves on, the touchscreen works fine. But if it rains, you will want to put the watch in water mode, which means you can’t use the screen. And with gloves on, the buttons on the small watch face can be hard to hit. The Garmin Fenix, a purpose-built fitness and outdoors watch, has buttons that you can hit without looking and doesn’t depend on a touchscreen.
- You don’t thrash your gear. I haven’t tested this by smashing my Apple Watch, but if you are hard on equipment and will potentially rub the watch against a rock (like granite) when hiking or scrambling, it will scratch or maybe break. The Apple Watch is waterproof and fairly durable, but it is not built to be a backcountry instrument. That said, I did hike with it for a few months and no damage so far.
- Hiking is an occasional activity that you do. If you are a casual hiker and want something to track and navigate a hike with, the Apple Watch is excellent. If you’re a more serious hiker and want to customize the data you see when hiking and want metrics focused on the outdoors, the Apple Watch will fall short.
- And it might go without saying, but I’ll mention it anyway. The Apple Watch is only really useful if you have an iPhone and live in the Apple ecosystem. There are a myriad of functions and integrations that make it a useful extension of your iPhone experience. If you have an Android, don’t even think about it.
If you do think the Apple Watch is a good fit for you, the big advantages are:
- The screen on the Apple Watch blows outdoors watches away. There’s just no comparison; the Apple Watch has a bright and colorful screen that makes maps and navigation look great.
- You have a good amount of apps to choose from for navigating your hike. And apps are always evolving and competing, and new features show up all the time. Compare this with a dedicated outdoors watch dependent on the manufacturer updating the watch with new features.
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
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
Here are the features of the Apple Watch that come in handy when hiking.
- The GPS is key when hiking. You can use the Apple Watch to plot your position on a map and/or on a GPX track line to see if you are on the trail, off the trail, or which way to turn at a junction. You need to use a hiking app to leverage the trail mapping (more later), but the GPS will track your position regardless of how you record your hike. The GPS performs well (and actually uses GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, QZSS to find your position). Unlike a Garmin smartwatch, you can’t pick and choose which positioning systems that you can use. It’s GPS on or off.
- The heart rate monitor is great for tracking your fitness burn and effort level during a hike. I’ve found it to be within a few beats of my Garmin HRM and Wahoo TICKR heart rate straps.
- The newer Apple Watches have a barometric altimeter, allowing you to get an altitude without GPS (another way to calculate altitude). As with most non-professional altimeters, you have to take an altitude reading on the Apple Watch with a grain of salt. Use it as a ballpark and not an absolute reading. You can display your elevation gain (total climbing) and your current elevation when tracking your hike.
- Apple Watch 5 and higher have a magnetic compass and compass app. Hold your wrist flat, and the watch will point in the direction you are facing. It’s nice to have, and handy in an emergency, but not something most people would use often. Apps like Maps can use it in the background to improve the turn-by-turn directions routing.
- The Apple Watch 6 has a blood oxygen sensor. As a hiker, it’s interesting to measure your blood oxygen when you at are a higher elevation, where the oxygen saturation in the air is lower and you will theoretically be getting less of it. It can give you an idea of how much harder you are working when the air is thinner. The blood oxygen sensor gets a bad rap, but I’ve found if you use it correctly, it’s fairly accurate. The Apple Watch doesn’t have a feature like the Garmin Fenix 6 that tells you what altitude you’ve acclimatized to.
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.
- Red – Apple Watch 6
- Blue – Garmin Fenix 6x Pro Solar
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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