I decided to research and write this post after trying to turn the Apple Watch 7 into a ‘Garmin Fenix 7‘. I did find some great alternatives to SOME of the Garmin’s outdoors features but I’m not going to try to kid you that the Apple Watch beats the Garmin Fenix for pro outdoor usage, so please read on in the spirit of adventure whilst still realising that the Apple Watch is not always something for weekend adventurers to sniff at.
Must Read: Apple Watch 7 Review
That said, the Apple Watch 7 is the best smartwatch and it’s a good running and fitness watch too. For sure, it’s not the best tool to help you scale Everest but it can be used to boost your enjoyment on adventures that involve technical challenges like following a route, avoiding a storm or making sure you’ll be back before sunset. If you already have an Apple Watch 7 then a few free or low-cost apps might save you splashing your cash on a new outdoors watch like a Fenix 7 that you might never truly need.
This article also becomes an Apple Watch 7 vs Fenix 7 comparison at times albeit narrowed down to outdoor usage. But if you want a smartwatch 360 days a year and an adventure watch for 5 days a year then this post should let you know how your Apple Watch can sensibly bridge that gap.
Some quick background on the Apple Watch 7 for outdoors
The Apple Watch 7 was initially rumoured to be released with an accompanying outdoors version. That didn’t happen but what did happen was that the Series 7 had improved dust-proofing. Current rumours claim that it is the Series 8 (2022) that will now come as a Fenix competitor but I’m not so sure…the rumour mill could just have got carried away with the dust-proofing. Anyway, the important point for you is that it might be worth waiting until September 2022 if you really want a Series 8 designed for the outdoors.
The technical challenges you might face outdoors will be “many and varied“. Let’s start with your need for some tools that will help you plan and prepare for these environmental challenges:
- Getting emergency help
- Rugged Strap, Case & Lens
- Accessories: Adding physical protection
- Accessories: Emergency Charging
- Onboard sensor: Compass
- Onboard sensor: Altimeter
- Onboard sensor: Barometer
- Onboard connectivity:
- App: Weather
- App: Daylight Tracking
- App: Follow Routes
The first 4 of these relate to the precise Apple Watch model that’s best suited for the outdoors and hot to better protect the one you buy
Getting Emergency Help
If you are concerned about the possibility of needing emergency help then you need to consider the watch’s ability to automatically detect & report an accident. For example, if you are unconscious, then you need to consider how the watch can call for help.
Both the Apple Watch 7 and Garmin Fenix 7 can ask for emergency help via your smartphone, indeed the Stainless Steel (LTE) versions of the Apple Watch do not even need your phone to be present. However, these features are useless if you plan to travel beyond the range of normal phone signals.
Watch 7 is waterproof to 50m and the Fenix 7 to 100m, so both of those are OK. However, the Fenix 7 passes fairly comprehensive MIL 810 standards, covering impact, sand/dust, fungus, humidity and more, the Watch 7 only claims dust proofing to IP6X.
For weekend adventurers, the ability to contend with weeks of exposure to equatorial fungus is perhaps overkill and you will be more concerned about your strap breaking, your case scratching or the lens cracking or scratching.
Apple Watch 7 – Nomad Rugged Strap
At one extreme, the standard Garmin Fenix 7 strap will be fine for your adventures however your non-Apple-branded strap may not be up to much more than a brisk walk in the park.
I’ve used the super high-quality NOMAD leather straps for a while and they are very elegant and look great with a work shirt. Perhaps not great for a storm as my main one is made of leather. “Fear not!” Nomad said, “try this…” they said and here is their updated 2022 outdoors strap
This strap has a slightly improved design over the earlier model being made from a strong, vulcanised FKM fluoroelastomer. It feels super-strong and has the comfort to boot. In this case, I have the sleek black colour with 316-stainless steel lugs and buckle which match the aluminium case or chrome cases on the AW. There is a thin slotted pattern on the top of the band and breathable ribbed grooves on the underside. From a technical perspective, it’s been tested to resist a 5-20 kgf lateral slide-out force when in the Apple Watch and of course is super sport-friendly as well. It is water-resistant and can be used for adventures and swimming. The material is able to resist high temperatures, sunlight, and chemicals while also repelling oils so it can be wiped clean after any outing.
It’s a much higher-durability strap than you would get on a typical Garmin, thicker than on my Fenix 7 for example, plus, in comparison, the metal lugs/buckle exude quality. You can also see from the images above that there is more detail on the underside than a typical Garmin strap. Apple Watch straps vary in price from a few dollars/pounds up to a few hundred. The Nomad Rugged is priced in line with those from Apple at $49.95,or direct from Nomad here.
- Get the Nomad Rugged Strap for £57.00, Eu63 or direct from Nomad here.
- Try the cool-looking Nomad Sport strap for £35, $34, Eu42 or direct from Nomad here.
My Garmin Fenix 7 (standard) has a fibre-reinforced polymer case, metal rear cover and stainless steel bezel. That is going to get me through any serious adventure however, within a month I had quite a few small scratches on the metal bezel. You will expect that for an adventure watch but you might not want that if you have to wear the same watch to work on Monday. Thus I was a little disappointed. I could, of course, have spent over $/£1000 on the titanium bezel of the Fenix 7X but that seemed like an expensive overkill.
I did go for the overkill option on my Apple Watch 7 45mm Stainless Steel which I am yet to scratch and I wear it a lot. However, even the cheaper aluminium case options for Apple Watch, in my experience, have no problem with scratches to the metal.
All my older Apple Watches were aluminium case models and therefore all come with Apple Ion-X glass. All of them have lens scratches and I would consider myself a generally careful person. The Ion-X glass is just not as good as the Sapphire Crystal that comes only with the stainless steel versions of the Apple Watch.
The standard Fenix 7 comes with Corning Gorilla Glass DX and I’ve never scratched one of those. More expensive Fenix 7 models come with superior Sapphire glass. Older Garmins used chemically strengthened glass which was not so good.
Read more Best Things to Do in Helen, Georgia
The bottom line here for Apple Watch 7 owners is that you need to get a Sapphire Lens version, but it’s probably too late as you already have the watch. In which case you need to consider protection.
Accessories: Adding physical protection
There is further protection for the screen from numerous screen protectors where you can buy packs of one use screen-films or a re-usable screen casing
- Get the reusable screen protector for £10/$10/Eu10
This ActionSleeve from TwelveSouth ($39.99) is interesting in two ways, it provides great protection for the case as well as a seriously long strap that will enable you to wear the watch on top of your coat/outer layers on those cold days when you are navigating. The AW7 DOES fit the strap even though TwelveSouth haven’t tested its suitability.
Accessories: Emergency Charging
To alleviate battery issues for multi-day adventures, there are several powerful chargers specifically designed for the Apple Watch, like iWalk (UK/EU) or Choetech (USA/CA)
Apple Watch 7 – Compass
If you have an Apple Watch 5 or later then you have an onboard magnetic compass and a pre-loaded compass app.
The compass app is a thing of beauty. Putting that to one side, it usually points in the right direction too! I say ‘usually’ because some metal straps can affect the accuracy of the compass on the AW.
I prefer to use one of the complications that come with the compass app. ie I will add the compass complication to a custom watch face. Here you can see the compass complication shown as a circle and as a bar both compared to the Garmin 945 widget glance and Garmin Compass Widget.
- The compass app aids some navigations by allowing you to enter, change and navigate with a bearing.
- There are subtle cross-hairs at the centre of the compass dial, use these to ensure your watch face is properly flat as a twisted or tilted wrist can give you incorrect directional info.
- If you rotate up the crown, the compass app also gives you your elevation, latitude and longitude.
- For AW4 and earlier you can download a 3rd party compass app that will work to varying degrees by the clever use of the GPS and accelerometer. A GPS-based compass relies on the understanding of the difference between GPS points and thus works best when you are moving. The accelerometer can detect when you stop moving and hence stop the compass app’s reliance on your changing GPS position.
Apple Watch 7 – Altimeter
An altimeter works out your distance above sea level, on land we refer to that as elevation. It is possible for a watch to determine elevation based on GNSS/GLONASS/GPS and many do that. However, the Apple Watch 3 saw the introduction of a barometric altimeter that determines elevation change based on changes in air pressure, the broad reasoning being that when you go up the pressure goes down. Putting your glorious adventures in the wild to one side, altimeters are often used to determine how many flights of stairs you have ascended in a day…That’s how sensitive they are to changes in air pressure. Apple Watch 6, SE and Watch 7 all now have an ‘always on’ altimeter and my take on that is that the AW is periodically recalibrating the altimeter, based on your location, so increasing its apparent accuracy. Thus, in my experience, AW7’s altimeter is accurate for example, I always find that the AW7 has correctly calibrated elevation when I leave home; maybe in a forest and on a hillside with a storm approaching the AW7 might not be so accurate. #ItsComplicated.
Most competing outdoor watches with barometric altimeters like Suunto 7 will have the same issues 1) what is the correct starting elevation? and 2) Am I correctly measuring elevation change if air pressure is also changing due to weather?
There is no dedicated ‘Altimeter’ app pre-loaded on the Apple Watch, indeed your elevation and the accuracy of the elevation are shown in the Compass app and are available as a complication. I rarely look at the elevation when running/walking, so it doesn’t deserve much screen real estate… I find it best to include elevation as a complication on my watch face or even to just scroll down to it after opening the compass app.
Recommended 3rd party app: Altimeter+
Apple Watch 7 – Barometer
During your adventure, you have another use for the barometer. If you are stationary over an extended period then changes to air pressure could alert you to an approaching storm. I found a few apps that give storm alerts and severe weather alerts but I don’t think any of them determined the alert solely on barometric pressure changes (for when you are off-grid)
Another issue was that I could not find any easy, free way to show a complication of barometric pressure. However several fullscreen apps do show atmospheric pressure. Fbarometric complications do seem to be available on the paid-for versions of Carrot weather and MyRadar.
Suggested 3rd party app: Carrot (not free and a little bit quirky/fun). It has a pressure complication, shown above.
Apple Watch 7 – Weather Forecast
With an Apple Watch 7 LTE or connected over mobile data on your iPhone, you can continually update the weather forecast on your watch. If you know you are going to be out of cell range during your adventure you could pre-load one of your route points, like Yosemite National Park, into the Apple weather app which is only updated when there is an internet connection. That’s fine for a day-long trip but that’s about it.
Apps like MyRadar take weather to a higher level by introducing weather alert notifications as well as having a cool full-screen weather radar view which might add some value if you plan to take cover. The free MyRadar app has no active complications that you can add to your watch face.
You’ve probably also heard people speaking very highly of the frequent, localised weather updates on Dark Sky. Expect more from that as it’s now owned by Apple.
Apple Watch 7 – Daylight Tracking
My road bike adventures seem to always end just after dusk, luckily I always have a rear radar light (Varia RTL515), I seem to be less lucky with trail adventures, ending up running or cycling in mildly-dangerous moonlit situations. Even if you are more organised than me, the best-made plans still go astray and it’s wise to be aware of dusk and sunset (twilight) times.
My best and prettiest solution for this was to combine Apple’s Solar Dial watch face with complications from the Solar Watch Sunrise Sunset app. It all looks cool but I’m not entirely convinced it provides the information I want in the best way for aiding adventures. The Solar Dial watch face lets you know the next astronomical event and you can scroll between them with the crown, I think the same settings on the Garmin watch face, shown above, are more in-your-face and obvious (better).
You could perhaps consider other iPhone-only apps like Sundial and then set up a sunset/dusk alert that pops up on your watch as a notification. After all, you won’t be constantly looking at the sunset time all day whereas, with a compass, you might frequently look at it.
Apple Watch 7 – Following a Route
Route planning and then following that route on the Apple Watch opens up a vast amount of complexity that’s beyond the scope of this post. There are many Watch OS apps that deliver routing features from differing perspectives. From a tech perspective, the watch can be working by itself to guide you OR a phone app can be guiding you from your rucksack and the watch acts as an extension of your phone but conveniently on your wrist.
When following a route, many Apple Watch apps will frequently vibrate and indicate when, where and how you next need to turn. That’s fine. They tend to work well but you are trusting them to be correct.
Apple’s Map app works to direct you in the way I’ve just described. However, it also has the ‘map intelligence’ built in to re-route you and you can check your progress on the map on the watch too. The latest release of Apple Maps in Watch OS8 also has directions optimised for cycling.
The Apple Map app has clear and somewhat rudimentary map imagery. It’s fine, I guess. However, you can get more detailed maps that are better suited for your adventures with other apps. The following example shows the WorkOutDoors app which is pretty cool but costs £3.99. You download OSM map tiles to your watch and you can trace your route over the pretty map tiles and still leave your phone at home. The workoutdoors app can import routes via your iCloud account and is also highly customisable for sports usage and well-liked by many people.
If you want to download and follow a standard digital route like US National Trails, UK trails and many similar routes across the world. You could use the popular Komoot app, Komoot is especially popular in mainland Europe and I would say it’s one of the prettier navigation apps out there but its Watch app does require your iPhone to be connected.
Thoughts: Can Apple Watch 7 really replace the Fenix 7?
The Apple Watch 7 can be a great tool for your mini-adventures if you already own an iPhone. No one is suggesting it is going to be used by extreme explorers any day soon.
However, if you want to use your existing Watch Series 7 for adventures then you will have to overcome these three hurdles
- The suitability of the physical package – you can always protect your aluminium Watch 7 with a more rugged strap, case protector and screen protector.
- Battery life – you can always carry a charger &/or battery pack
- Convenience – Whilst a compendium of apps may well meet your needs you have to research and install them all. The Fenix 7 comes with everything pre-installed.
Perhaps let’s ask the question in reverse. Q: Can the Fenix 7 replace the Apple Watch 7? A: Fenix is simply not as good a smartwatch as the Apple Watch when it comes to clever & deep integration with Apple devices, and I suspect that most people prefer the aesthetics of Apple too. Thus if you really want the very best smartwatch for your iPhone then you will need to seriously consider getting the Apple Watch 7 and simply making do with its limitations when occasionally out in the wild.
— Update: 05-01-2023 — cohaitungchi.com found an additional article Using the Apple Watch for Hiking from the website hikingguy.com for the keyword apple watch hiking face.
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.
Have a question about the guide or want to see what other people are saying/asking? View the Youtube comments for this video. Leave a comment and I will do my best to respond.