For anyone who is serious about running the trails, a good GPS watch is essential for both logging your training and exploring new routes. That’s why I put together the best GPS Watch for trail running review.
Of course, when you run ultra marathons or are going to be out on long training days, there are very specific requirements that you will want for your watch.
If you are only doing 10k or half marathons it’s going to be pointless buying a watch with all the bells and whistles on it. However, as an Ultrarunner, there are a few things that you are going to want and need your watch to do.
So, let’s outline some of those requirements below before we start talking about the watches themselves.
Probably one of the highest priority requirements for your watch if you are running long races. A lot of watches won’t last past 12 hours if you are operating with a GPS which can be a real pain. I myself have experienced a battery running out with 8 hours of a race to go and it doesn’t feel great when you are drained and tired. If long distances are your main focus then it may be worth considering watches like the Coros Apex or Polar Vantage M that both have outstanding battery life in GPS mode.
GOOD NAVIGATION FEATURES
Whilst some races have good signage, some don’t and training routes certainly don’t. It’s always a good idea to have a watch that can upload routes so you can stay on course for the duration. There is nothing worse than taking a wrong turn and then finding out 2 miles down the track that you went the wrong way. Of course, the ability to upload maps is generally limited to watches at the higher end of the price range. If the feature doesn’t warrant the cost then I would suggest either buying a map or doing a recce of the course prior to running – it’s a lot cheaper for sure.
It probably goes without saying, but a durable watch is essential. You’re going to be out in all types of weather and conditions, you might even take a tumble or knock the watch off a branch or rock. There would be nothing worse than a broken watch face or a snapped strap to really upset your day, especially when you have spent a lot of your hard-earned money on the thing.
This one might seem obvious again, but being comfortable is a priority. Imagine being 15 hours into an Ultramarathon, your tired, irritable and the slightest thing might tip you over the edge. Do you really want a watch that feels awkward on the wrist, is heavy and is making your wrist sore? Avoid that scenario, make sure your watch is comfortable.
When you have been training for months and you want to review your progress so far, you want to have some decent software and app to allow you to review this. You probably also want a watch that is going to connect to running apps like Strava. Either that or record everything manually!! Some apps also have the ability to set up a training plan for you which can be useful if you aren’t sure how to go about your training.
THE ABILITY TO PLAY MUSIC
This one isn’t for everyone, but the ability to play music without taking your phone or MP3 is high on the list for some people. I don’t tend to listen to music during a race, often because headphones are banned and I like to chat with other racers. But I do when I’m on training runs. The only watch out with this is that it will drain your battery fast when being used with GPS.
With so many GPS watches on the market, it’s hard to decide which watch is best for you. I am here to help whether you are looking for the best budget or top of the range watch.
The main players in the GPS watch market are Garmin and Suunto, which is why you will see a lot of their watches in this review. However, there might be a couple of surprises added in that might just grab your attention.
Not everyone can afford or even wants to spend huge amounts of money on a watch. Of course, in a lot of cases, you get what you pay for. However, there are a couple of well-priced watches in this review that will probably work for most serious runners. The Polar Vantage M and the Garmin ForeRunner 235 both offer great features at a reasonable price.
GARMIN FENIX 5 PLUS
- Good Battery Life
- Good App & Data
- Great Navigation Features
The Garmin Fenix 5 Plus is a rugged and durable watch with a ton of key features for any serious runner. It’s also got a great battery life too.
In smartwatch mode the battery will last 12 days, in standard GPS mode that comes in at about 18 hours so will get you through a few long-distance races for sure. Add in the music and you are greatly reduced to a little under 8 hours so be careful how much you use the music if you’re on a long race. Just make sure you fully charged in advance.
Garmin also has a feature called UltraTrac mode:
UltraTrac mode is a GPS setting that periodically turns off GPS to save battery power. When GPS is off, the device uses the accelerometer to calculate speed and distance. Speed, distance, and track data accuracy are reduced in UltraTrac mode. The accuracy of the data improves after a few outdoors runs using GPS.
The watch itself has a built-in heart rate monitor that’s pretty accurate. Not quite as accurate as a heart rate chest strap, but a lot more comfortable if you are out on a long run.
The navigation features are excellent and you can upload colour maps to the watch. It’s very easy to upload routes to the watch and they are very detailed once loaded on there. This type of detail can be the difference in getting lost or not on tricky routes.
Garmin has it’s own Garmin Connect software so you have the ability to connect your watch with your phone and upload all your data to it. It’s easy to use and the information available is huge. You can also connect with Strava and the like.
There is also the ability to upload 500 songs to the watch and connect a pair of Bluetooth headphones. You can even load apps like Spotify to the watch.
Overall, the Fenix 5 Plus is a watch with a huge amount of features that are designed for the avid explorer and ultra runner. If data is your thing then this watch has the lot. It might just have a bit too much for some.
SUUNTO 9 BARO
- Full-Colour Screen
- Very Rugged and Durable
- Decent Battery Life
- Software Not as Good as Other Brands
The Suunto 9 Baro is another of those chunky, rugged top of the range watches that will do pretty much anything you need it to.
There are three predefined battery modes that the manufacturer states will run the watch between 25 – 120 hours with GPS tracking on. However, as with most watches, using the Ultra battery setting will impact the accuracy of the GPS. Suunto also has their intelligent battery software that will remind you of when to charge the battery and also optimize the battery usage when you are on the go. That’s quite a nice addition as I have on occasion, forgotten to charge my watch and have worried about it running out.
On the plus side, although the watch is chunky, it’s certainly built to last and endure the harshest of conditions. It’s even water-resistant up to 100 meters.
With the Baro feature, you will be told when the sun will rise and set, but also give you storm warnings – I think this is a good feature, especially if you live in areas where storms and bad weather can get you into trouble quite quickly.
There is no music feature on this watch unlike some others, but it the sole purpose of this watch is to help with your training and fitness.
Overall the watch is a solid performer but it has been commented that the data feedback for your training is not as good as say Garmin. There have also been comments that the watch isn’t as easy to use as others with 2 fewer buttons than the Garmin, which makes it a little more fiddly to use.
- Long Battery Life
- Good Value For Money
- Comes in 2 Sizes
- Comfortable to Wear
- Rotary Dial for Menu Might Not Suit All
- Heart Rate Sensor Intermittent
Let’s start with the huge advantage this watch has over others. The battery life is just awesome. In the standard mode with GPS running the watch can last up to a whopping 35 hours – that should pretty much get you through any race up to 100 miles. The battery will also last up to 100 hours in UltraMax mode and 30 days being used as a standard watch. That’s impressive stuff.
The watch also comes in 2 sizes – a 42 mm & 46 mm watch face. The only difference between the two in terms of performance is the 42 mm has a lower battery life at 25 hours in GPS mode – still good for long races.
The watch is also very comfortable to wear and lightweight in comparison to Fenix & Suunto 9. The watch is also thinner which is surprising with the exceptional battery life it has.
Coros also have a very good mobile app and the data from the watch transfers really quickly. The app itself has tons of data that you can play with until your heart is content. It also links to Strava which is a great addition nowadays.
Overall I think this is a very good value watch from a less known company in the GPS watch field. If you’re into long-distance runs and activities and are looking for great battery life this watch might just be for you. At around $300 it’s also a very competitive price as well.
The Forerunner 235 has all the great features Garmin watches have to offer but at a more reasonable price. It’s perfect for most runners and has all the information you will need to assess your training efforts.
The battery life is ok at 11 hours with continuous GPS. In Smartwatch mode the battery will last 9 days. There isn’t a function to extend the battery life in Ultra mode, this is reserved for watches that cost almost twice the price. If you are going to be out on a very long race then perhaps a mobile charging unit would be a better option for battery top-up.
As with most Garmin models, there is the option to change watch faces with the Connect IQ app. This can be an advantage if you want the watch face to look a little more formal than sporty. Of course, there is also the usual option of smartphone notifications on the watch which will show you incoming messages, appointments etc.
Overall, if you are a runner who is starting to get more serious about your training and want data to review your training etc. then the Forerunner 235 might just be the watch for you. The battery life is fine for races up to 50 miles depending on your pace, but anything more you will need something different.
POLAR VANTAGE M
- Value For Money
- Very Reliable GPS
- Great Battery Life
- Good Heart Rate Accuracy
- No Real Personalisation
- No Smart Functions
If your main focus is information about your running and training without the gimmicks of smart notifications and fancy watch faces then the Polar Vantage M might just be the watch for you. It comes in at a very competitive price and easily performs as well as a watch that costs much more.
The battery life is exceptional at up to 30 hours whilst running in GPS mode – there’s only one other watch in this review that can boast that sort of battery life. So of course, this will have you covered with nearly any ultra marathon distance you might choose to try.
The wrist heart rate monitor is head and shoulders above the competition with it’s the latest in bio-impedance diodes and optical sensors.
The watch is also waterproof and has a biking activity tracker making it a good choice for triathletes too.
One of the great features with all Polar watches is the Polar Flow App for your smartphone. There is an absolute ton of data on this app for all your training and you can also plan your whole training schedule. You can set a date and distance of an upcoming race and the app will populate a training plan to have you in peak condition for that race.
Overall, the Polar Vantage M is a fantastic watch in my opinion. It has all the data and training plans you need to have you in the best condition for your races. If added extras and gimmicks are your thing then maybe this watch won’t be for you. But if training is your primary objective for the watch then it’s one you need to consider.
GARMIN FORERUNNER 245 MUSIC
- Value For Money
- Great Features
- Excellent Music Capability
- Good Choice of Free Apps
- No Barometer – If that matters to you
If you are in the market for a great running watch that also has the capability of offering great music then look no further than the Garmin Forerunner 245 Music. It’s within the mid-range price bracket but has all the great watch features Garmin has to offer.
Battery life is good with up to 7 days in Smartwatch mode, and impressive 20 hours in GPS Mode, so great for long Ultras and up to 6 hours with GPS and Music modes. Any watch running music and GPS at the same time will drain the battery quickly so 6 hours is fairly good.
The watch is capable of storing up to 500 of your favourite songs as well as the ability to stream content from services like Spotify and Deezer. If you love your music on the run then this watch fits the bill perfectly.
As with any Garmin watch, the software is excellent and the Garmin Connect App will pair with your watch and give you all the great running and training stats you desire. There is no barometer function so you won’t see how many steps you climbed, so if this is important to you then either check out a different watch. You won’t see running power either unless you purchase an item like the Stryd Power Meter.
The watch itself is easy to use as per most Garmin products and it’s very comfortable on the wrist with its silicone strap. It’s fairly thin too at 12.2 mm and at 38 grams the watch is also fairly light for what you get.
Overall, if you love your running stats and you enjoy your music on the run the Forerunner 245 Music might just be the perfect watch for you. It’s reasonably priced for what you get with some great Garmin functions to boot. I would very much recommend this watch.
GARMIN FORERUNNER 35
- Grips Anything
- Very Rugged
- Good Protection
- Can Buy Waterproof Model
- Not for Road Running
- Maybe Narrow for Some
The Garmin Forerunner 35 is an excellent option for those just getting into running more seriously. It’s a little more basic than a lot of the other Garmins but at around $120 currently you are getting a lot of watch for the money.
The Forerunner 35 features wrist-based heart rate monitoring. It also has an auto pause and auto lap features, as well as a step counter. It also features GPS so you can track how far and fast you’re going with ease. Thanks to the 5 ATM waterproofing it’s more than capable in any weather.
There is Built-in GPS – built-in to acquire satellites quickly to track how far, how fast and where you run, even under tree cover.
When paired with a compatible smartphone, Forerunner 35 pulls text, social media and other notifications, and it alerts you on your wrist.
Overall, if you are on a budget or are just starting to take your running a little more seriously, then this watch might just be the right choice for you. It has plenty of features to keep you informed about you workout and it’s also light and comfortable to wear. The best budget option in my opinion.
For any serious runner, we want to understand how we are performing and we are very keen on our stats. Hopefully, this review has outlined some of the best GPS Watches for Trail Runners. I have certainly been impressed by them.
My top pick for a GPS Watch today is the Garmin 245 Music. It has all the great features I need for my training with the addition of the music player. As I’m out on the trails for long days and I love my music it just made sense to have this watch at a reasonable price. I have just replaced it for my Garmin Fenix 3 which has been an awesome watch for me over the past 3 years.
Is there a watch on the list you would recommend or maybe one that hasn’t been reviewed? I would love to hear your opinion and recommendations in the comments below.
You can also check out my other Best of Reviews below:
All the best,