Smartwatches are useful and stylish wearables for everyday use, but they also have some additional uses if you spend a lot of time climbing mountains or hiking trails.
Track your routes as workouts
One of the most basic features of a smartwatch is the ability to track your workouts. This can be motivating whether you are just starting out or are a seasoned hiker. All recorded routes can later be reviewed on a smartwatch so you can see exactly where you’ve been, useful for planning repeat trips or changing routes for next time.
This goes hand in hand with using your smartwatch to improve your fitness. Tracking workouts on an Apple Watch is one of the best ways to fill up your exercise and exercise rings. Your workouts are saved in the fitness app and you can use the collected data to get a better insight into your overall fitness level.
You can even enter competitions with other Apple Watch users if you’re feeling competitive and looking for some extra motivation.
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GPS on your wrist
A smartwatch with GPS functionality can work as a standalone GPS device like those purchased specifically for hiking. With the right watch and apps, you can replace your bulky handheld GPS with something that lives on your arm and provides guidance and information with a flick of your wrist.
If you’re serious about hiking, a dedicated hiking GPS watch like the Garmin Fenix will serve you better than an Apple Watch or Samsung Galaxy device. These come with Garmin’s built-in mapping software and have superior battery life compared to less specialized wearables. You can transfer GPX files to your smartwatch and follow the waypoints just like on a handheld device.
Even lifestyle wearables like the Apple Watch are good for shorter hikes if you’re willing to charge frequently. Use apps like WorkOutDoors ($5.99) and Gaia GPS to send GPX files to your Apple Watch, or use the apps to find nearby hiking trails. AllTrails works too, but the Apple Watch implementation is little more than a remote control for the iPhone app.
Never lose your compass
The Apple Watch 5 and later can act as a compass, as can most of Garmin’s dedicated hiking smartwatches. The Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 also includes a geomagnetic sensor, meaning it can also be used as a compass with a free app like Samsung Compass.
You probably shouldn’t rely solely on a smartwatch compass for navigation (since the battery could die), but as a backup tool, a wrist compass can help you navigate when you’re lost or unable to use the sun or Moon position as orientation.
Get more information about your hike
Some smartwatches are designed for navigation, so you can see the location of your next waypoint right on your wrist. This is especially true for Garmin devices like the Fenix mentioned above, but there are also apps that run on your Apple Watch that can do the same thing.
You can also get more information about your route using basic exercise tracking available on most devices. This includes metrics like elevation gain, split times (for each mile or kilometer traveled), how long you’ve been moving, and how far you’ve walked.
You can use this information to call when to turn around if you’re driving against the clock in terms of daylight or weather conditions. This data is also pretty interesting if you’re a bit of a data eater. At the end of a trip, you can see how much energy you’ve burned, which can help you better plan future trips and better understand your dietary needs
The blood oxygen sensor on Apple Watch Series 6 and later can help show you how your O2 is changing as you ascend or descend. The Garmin Fenix can even show you to which altitude you have acclimatized. While not all of this data is useful, many people will find it interesting.
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Get help in an emergency
The fall detection on the Apple Watch has already saved lives. Once activated, the feature makes a pre-recorded emergency call to notify first responders of your GPS coordinates, then notifies all designated emergency contacts to let them know you’re in trouble.
You can also use your Apple Watch to quickly initiate an emergency call by pressing and holding the side button until you hear an alert. If you’re injured and can’t reach your smartphone, you can still make emergency calls as long as your device is within range (about 30 meters or 100 feet).
The Samsung Galaxy Watch lineup has had a similar feature since 2020, which can send an SOS alert when it detects a fall, or send a similar alert when the home button is pressed three times.
Garmin models like the Fenix have similar safety features, including accident detection, SOS messaging, and a feature called LiveTrack that lets friends and family track your real-time location. These depend on your Garmin device being connected via Bluetooth to a compatible Android phone running Garmin Connect.
The Apple Watch can even monitor heart rate and recognize patterns that could signal a heart event. These include an elevated resting heart rate, alerting you that something may be wrong. This can help you make smarter decisions, e.g. B. Not applying too much pressure if you’re not feeling well.
Take better selfies on the trail
Who doesn’t love a good selfie at the top of a mountain, at the edge of a creek or next to one really interesting Rock? Prop your phone up, launch the companion app on your smartwatch, and frame your shot perfectly. You can then use a shutter delay to perfectly time the shot so you’re not looking at your watch when the photo is taken.
Using your smartwatch as a viewfinder for your phone’s camera is an underrated feature that’s all too easy to forget. But the feature works surprisingly well and is better than carrying (or being seen with) a selfie stick. It also takes the guesswork out of using your camera’s timer feature.
Not only is this good for selfies, but also for group shots, capturing action, and remotely triggering your device to start recording a video.
Leave your phone in your pocket
You probably don’t want to be looking at your phone too much while you’re out and about. An always-connected wearable doesn’t seem entirely compatible with “switching off” in nature, but it means you can leave your phone in your pocket and still access useful features.
With hands-free devices like Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant, you can send quick text messages, take notes and reminders, or even search the web and look up information without reaching for your phone. You can also get information such as notifications or weather information at a glance and see who is calling you before deciding whether to pick up or not.
If you have previously used your smartphone as a GPS device to track hikes, you can outsource this work to your smartwatch instead. In this way, you can save your smartphone battery for more important things (e.g. making emergency calls and taking photos).
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Monitor your fitness over time
Just starting out in hiking, trail running, or trying to run more? The data you gather while exercising can help you stay motivated by monitoring progress over time. This is especially true of the Apple Watch, which does a great job of showing trends in the iPhone’s Health app using exercise data.
The more you track, the more data you collect. Before long, you’ll have raw data on metrics like daily step count, active energy, VO²max, resting heart rate, walking heart rate, and other fitness indicators. You can see these on a graph to get a better idea of which direction you’re trending.
For example, here’s the improvement we’ve seen in resting heart rate over a year, with improved cardiovascular health (thanks to more regular hiking) and weight loss:
And it all affects your walking heart rate too:
Apple’s fitness app also helps you feel comfortable with positive trends by highlighting achievements:
At the same time, it will show you areas that you might want to improve:
The Achilles’ heel of Apple’s system is that it’s built on a model of infinite improvement that even professional athletes can’t match. Eventually you’re going to have a slow week where your pace slows down or you just can’t go to the gym and that will affect your trends.
These features aren’t just limited to the Apple ecosystem, as the Garmin Connect app provides a similar interface for analyzing data collected from hiking, running, and other forms of exercise. For Galaxy Watch owners, Samsung Health does a similar job.
Choose the right smartwatch
Make sure you choose the right smartwatch. For iPhone users, unless you’re a very serious hiker looking to replace a handheld GPS with something like the Garmin Fenix (and even then, some Fenix features only work with it), the Apple Watch is probably your best bet Android).
Lifestyle wearables like the Apple Watch and Samsung Galaxy Watch series are arguably better everyday devices, but fall short of Garmin’s offerings in this space. They require more frequent charging and don’t have dedicated orienteering capabilities, but they do integrate better with their respective smartphone ecosystems.
Whatever you choose, if you’re going on a multi-day trip, you’ll also want a portable battery pack.