What are the best watches for trail running?
Whether you’re a seasoned trail runner or just starting out, the right outdoor watch can help you track your progress, monitor your heart rate, and navigate unfamiliar terrain. Problem is: there are so many to choose from!
In this guide, we’ll be looking at five of the best trail running watches. We’ll profile the latest modern technology from Garmin, Suunto, Corps and Polar. And we’ll compare some of their very best offerings in the Baro, Fenix, Enduro, Apex and Grit X.
If your mind instinctively jumps to the Apple Watch when you hear the term ‘smartwatch’, we’re going to show you why some of these other companies are well worth considering — especially for trail running!
Let’s take a closer look…
- What Are The Best Trail Running Watches?
- What to Look For in a Trail Running Watch
- Why Buy a GPS Running Watch?
- Our Verdict On Watches for Trail Running
What Are The Best Trail Running Watches?
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and jump right into our list of the best trail running watches and what they offer.
Suunto 9 Baro
Starting us off is the Suunto 9 Baro, which includes all the features you could want from your trail running watch – weather features, GPS, a barometer, and an altimeter. The watch’s face is super durable and capable of withstanding some serious wear and tear. That’s an important feature for any trail running watch to have.
If you’re looking for more ‘smart’ features out of your watch, like music downloads or contactless pay, you may be a little disappointed. This is one for the running purists.
The Baro 9 allows you to upload maps to the watch before embarking on your run, allowing you to keep track of your location without needing an internet connection. While the maps might not be as detailed as we’d like, they still get the job done.
Suuto’s Komoot app will act as your control hub for the Baro 9. The app powers turn-by-turn navigation and route planning via the mobile or desktop app. Komoot transfers your route planning to your Suunto app, then to your watch.
Note that you won’t receive a full map on the watch but rather a ‘breadcrumb’ style. You’ll see one line on the watch indicating the direction you should be traveling, but not much else.
Suunto watches are renowned for their wonderfully long battery lives, boasting some of the industry’s longest-lasting batteries. Here’s a rundown of the Baro 9’s battery performance:
- It’s ideal for multi-day events, such as 100+ mile races or fastpacking events.
- You can adjust the watch mid-run, extending the battery life to an impressive 170 hours.
- In full GPS mode, the Baro 9’s battery lasts 25 hours.
The buttons on the Baro 9 are pretty small, which, while it does make the watch light and compact, can make them a little difficult to use. It’s a bit more like a Fitbit in that respect. On the plus side, the large touch screen is effective in pretty much any climate or weather environment, even while wearing touch-compatible gloves or running in the rain.
If you like the sound of the Baro 9 but are looking for something smaller, consider the Suunto Peak. Essentially, it was designed to be a smaller version of its Baro 9 cousin.
Designed for training, racing and extreme outdoor adventures, Pre-set battery modes for up to 170 hours of battery life, Waterproof to 100m.
Garmin Fenix 7
The Garmin Fenix 7 boasts a range of features suited to trail running, including long battery life, excellent navigation, and several sports modes to be used in activities like paddle sports, backcountry skiing, and even mountain biking.
Four watches are included in the Garmin Fenix 7 series – the Fenix 7s, Fenix 7x, Fenix 7 Sapphire, and Fenix 7 Solar. Each of these watches has the same features across the board, with some subtle differences between them.
The Fenix is considered a step up from the cheaper Forerunner series, and it packs a bunch of features that are perfect for exploring your local trails.
It should come as no surprise that the Fenix’s navigation features are some of the best in the game. After all, it is a watch produced by Garmin, one of the largest GPS companies in the world.
High-res, color topographical maps give a comprehensive overview of your route, offering turn-by-turn directions. The watch indicates where you’ll make your next turn – an incredibly helpful feature when you’re out on new trails. You won’t have to pull your phone out every five minutes to get your bearings.
The Trendline is another of the Fenix 7’s best features, collecting billions of previously-traveled miles from the Garmin Connect Community. This helps you find the best routes and trails to follow.
- If you are running on a new trail, Trendline will automatically find routes other users have previously traveled.
- You can add waypoints to indicate stops along the way.
The great thing about the Garmin Fenix is that it allows you to customize its battery mode, choosing the most important features for you on the day of your run. If you notice that the battery percentage dipping lower than you’d like, adjust the battery mode mid-run.
- Solar option allows the watch to last 16 days in Smartwatch Mode and 40 hours in GPS Mode.
- Battery Saver Mode preserves battery life for 48 days.
- 10 hours while listening to music and in GPS Mode.
- In Smartwatch Mode, the battery lasts 14 days.
The Fenix also offers more unique features, such as tracking and safety sensors. If the watch has detected an incident (like a fall) during your run, or if you feel unsafe, it can send your current location to an emergency contact.
Rugged, sophisticated multisport GPS watch features an always-on 1.3” display, long battery life and new ultra-tough athletic design with fiber-reinforced polymer case
Another top-seller from Garmin, the Enduro is a fairly new addition to the company’s line of GPS watches. It debuted in 2021 and proved to be a remarkable little device with an exceptional battery.
Like its sibling, the Fenix, the Enduro offers features like a barometer, altimeter, and several sports modes. A Climb Pro feature also informs you of upcoming descents, ascents, and other details such as elevation gain and terrain gradient.
While it might be a lovely light watch, Garmin didn’t skimp on the Enduro’s durability. It comes in both scratch-resistant DLC-coated and stainless-steel models, both of which are capable of performing in the toughest environments while you’re out on the trail.
One thing to note about the Enduro is that it simply doesn’t compare to the Garmin Fenix regarding navigation. The GPS tends to drain the watch’s battery. It works on a breadcrumb-style navigation system, which works well enough, but often requires frequent checking-in.
With that being said, the Enduro does have some fairly impressive battery stats to consider:
- Battery life runs on a Power Glass solar charging lens, charging the watch during runs.
- The Enduro offers up to 300 hours in Max Battery Mode.
- It runs for up to 80 hours in GPS Mode.
So, if you’re planning an extensive, days-long adventure, and don’t have access to a charger, then the Garmin Enduro is definitely worth considering.
Trail run VO2 max tracks your cardiovascular fitness level and adjusts based on trail conditions
One thing we love about the Enduro is that it offers an accurate VO2Max for trail runners, especially compared to other watches of its ilk. There is also a ‘rest tier,’ allowing you to keep the total time running while also seeing how long you stopped at certain points.
Finally, Garmin allows you to equip your Enduro with a nylon strap; offering added comfort when wearing the watch for extended periods.
Garmin didn’t give the Enduro its name for nothing – it’s a wonderfully robust trail running watch that provides you with a plethora of useful features geared toward trail runners.
Coros Apex 2
If you’re after value for money, then consider the Coros Apex 2.
A newcomer to the world of trail running watches, the Apex has already garnered a cult following within the trail running community.
Without the inflated price tag, it boasts all of the features you’d want from a good GPS trail watch. The best part? It’s wonderfully easy to use, operated with just a single knob and no extra buttons.
Coros offers three different models of their Apex (and upgraded Apex 2 series): the Apex Pro, the Apex 46mm, and the Apex 42mm. Each offers the same basic features, with a few differences across each model.
The Coros Apex allows you to upload routes before embarking on your run, then follow along using the breadcrumb format that will sound an alert if you veer off course. The map isn’t as detailed as that on, say, the Garmin Fenix, but it works well enough, especially in tandem with an offline map on your phone.
Not a whole lot can be said about the battery life of the Apex. It takes just 70 minutes to charge, and while you can charge the watch during use, you do have to take it off. This makes it a little harder to see data and track your heart rate.
- 30-day lifespan in regular mode.
- 35 hours of battery life in regular GPS mode for the 46mm, and a maximum of 40 hours on the Pro model.
- The UltraMax setting allows up to 100 hours of battery life while limited GPS is enabled.
- Battery is comparable to that of the Suunto 9 Baro.
The Coros Apex uses its integrated barometer to monitor the weather while also using data from the usual metrics (pace, time, speed, heart rate) to calculate your VO2 Max. In our testing, we found the heart rate monitor fairly inaccurate, which seems to be a common experience amongst Apex users.
For great GPS functionality on a watch that performs as a trail running watch and a smart device, keep the Coros Apex on your radar.
Designed for performance over all types of terrain, the APEX 2 and APEX 2 Pro GPS Outdoor Watches are built with revolutionary technologies for your most ambitious goals.
Polar Grit X
If you’re a data nerd who wants to know all of the stats, be sure to get your hands on a Polar Grit X. This excellent watch comes with all of the same fun data statistics as its sibling, the Polar Vintage V2, as well as an excellent heart rate monitor.
For runners practicing low heart rate training, Polar is the brand to follow. Their Precision Prime wrist monitoring technology uses optical sensors, getting a consistent, accurate pulse reading while you’re wearing the watch.
There are three separate Grit X models that Polar offers: the standard Grit X, the Grit X Pro Titan, and the Grit X Pro, which features a sapphire watch face.
One of the best features of the Grit X is its Komoot route guidance, which helps ensure that you stay on track and don’t get lost on your runs. You’ll also receive reactive hill splits showing performance on both downhill and uphill sections of your run.
Additionally, Polar offers adaptive fueling suggestions, letting you know when to consume more calories. Here’s a quick breakdown of the navigation setup on the Polar Grit X:
- You can load routes using the Komoot app, then port them to Polar’s app.
- The watch uses breadcrumb navigation as its sole map format.
- Polar provides a visual representation of your elevation profile, giving you an idea of the climbs ahead.
- Grit X offers turn-by-turn navigation and back-to-start features.
The battery performance is the same across all of Polar’s Grit models. The battery does fairly well, though it’s nothing special – there are certainly better-performing batteries in the other watches on this list.
- You’ll get 7 days of battery life when not using the GPS.
- The Grit X’s battery lasts 40 hours in GPS Mode.
- Certain settings allow you to extend the watch’s battery life while running, particularly the Power Save mode.
Seasoned trail runners will be happy to know that Polar has put their Grit X through military-grade performance assessments to ensure maximum durability. These tests include drops from various heights, exposure to extreme temperatures, and humidity.
The Grit X also includes a running power meter for those who prefer to measure this metric while running rather than monitoring their heart rate. Overall, this high-quality, durable trail running watch works great for pros and amateurs alike.
What to Look For in a Trail Running Watch
While it’s all well and good to know which trail running watches are the best in the industry, perhaps more valuable is knowing what you should be looking for in those watches. Here’s a quick guide to choosing your next trail running watch:
Sample Frequency is one of the most important factors to check in a trail running watch. This measures how often the watch checks your position using GPS tracking. A good watch will update and record your current position every second.
Some watches have settings that allow you to change this to different intervals, like once every minute. This will help you extend the battery life of your watch. The only downside is that you’ll receive real-time position and speed data that’s less accurate.
Good Battery Life
When it comes to long-distance running, good battery life is important for your watch. Most standard GPS watches can operate on a single charge for around 8 to 10 hours (in GPS mode), after which they promptly die.
So, getting your hands on a GPS watch with extended battery life – while the GPS is active – is essential. It’s also important to consider the distances you’ll be running and the maximum time you can expect to be out on a trail.
Durability and Comfort
The best trail running watches are comfortable to wear for hours on end. They also need to be durable enough to handle the hours of sweating and knocking they’ll be subject to on your runs. That’s why given the choice, many ultra runners would opt for a Casio over an Apple Watch…
Reliability is key.
Your metrics are the factors that your watch tracks while you run, giving you useful information regarding your running performance. A watch with a heart rate monitor is most useful, especially if you prefer tracking your heart rate while training.
Altitude is another fairly useful metric, as you’ll be able to regulate your effort based on the difficulty of the gradient you’re currently running only. Of course, navigational metrics are also useful – you want your watch to tell you where to turn next and prevent you from getting lost in the woods.
Re-Charging While Running
Even the best trail running watches money can buy will die at some point. It helps to choose a watch with a battery life far longer than the runs you plan on running. But, when you start getting into multi-day races or ultramarathons, being able to charge your watch while running is a feature you’ll need to consider.
Why Buy a GPS Running Watch?
Many runners out there believe that trail running does not require a GPS watch. While you might be able to complete your trail runs without a watch (and with a lot of luck), there are plenty of ways that a GPS watch will make your trail runs that much more rewarding.
Here they are:
Get Recovery Advice
While this is certainly a feature best suited to more professional runners, some trail running watches offer advice after your runs, particularly on how long it will take your body to recover. This comes in handy when you are training for big events or are trying to train your body to a certain fitness level.
Watches like the Polar V800 or the Garmin Forerunner 620 offer detailed, concise recommendations on how long your rest period should be before you run again. This incredibly useful tool helps prevent overtraining and injury – two very common problems for runners across the globe.
There’s no doubt this is an amazing feature to have, but not every runner will see it as important. Be sure to consider whether this feature would benefit your running style.
Never Worry about Holding Your Phone Again
One of the primary reasons that many trail runners opt for GPS watches is convenience. Not only is carrying around a chunky phone endlessly frustrating, but it serves as the perfect distraction to take away from your focus.
Running watches are the perfect solution to not having to carry your phone on your runs anymore. They work the same as standard wristwatches, wrapping nicely around your wrists using a simple strap. The added bonus is that they allow you to record some important data and metrics concerning your run.
Speaking of data, that brings us to our next point…
Record Useful Data with No Effort
The main benefit of running watches that you’ve probably already heard about is that they allow you to collect important information regarding your body while running. These watches monitor your speed, heart rate, location, elevation, distance traveled, and pace.
If there’s one thing that every runner likes, it’s recording their running information and analyzing it. After the data has been captured, it’s easy to access using the screen on the actual watch or via a mobile app like Strava or Komoot.
It’s good to know how fast you were running, whether or not you beat your best, and how far you traveled while running. And, if you’re trying to train for long-distance competitions or ultramarathons, tracking your heart rate is of the utmost importance.
They Monitor Your Heart Rate
Almost every running watch – GPS or otherwise – tracks your heartbeat. It does this using optical sensors that read your pulse from your wrist, and if you’re serious about training, then it’s an essential feature.
This information lets you see how effectively your body is circulating blood throughout, especially when exerting yourself at long stretches or up hills. It helps you create and alter training plans to improve your aerobic capacity, thus helping you grow fitter and strengthen your heart.
Heart rate measures the number of times your heart beats each minute. Your heart rate is considerably lower at rest than when you exert yourself. Monitoring your heart rate consistently will allow you to see the trajectory of your training and fitness journey.
Our Verdict On Watches for Trail Running
While their features may be numerous and varied, there’s one thing that rings universally true for all GPS trail running watches – you need one!
Whether you’re an amateur trail runner who’s just getting started or a pro who’s been at it for years, the benefits of wearing a GPS watch while out on a run are endless.