Tom's Guide Verdict
The $299 Garmin Instinct’s rugged design, precise GPS mapping and practical battery management make it the best sports watch for most people.
Comfortable and durable design
Precise GPS mapping
Good battery management
No music storage
Inaccurate sleep tracking
Why you can trust Tom's Guide
Water resistance: 328 feet (10 ATM)
Heart rate sensor: Yes
Display: 0.9 inches, 128 x 128 pixels
Smartphone notifications: Yes
Size: 1.8 x 1.8 x 0.6 inches
Weight: 1.8 ounces
Battery life: 14 days, 16 hours in GPS mode
I flirt with alfresco life on occasion, but stop short of pitching a tent in the wilderness or free-climbing an enormous rock. However, once I strapped the Garmin Instinct on my wrist, I felt like I could scale El Capitan.
Not being an experienced mountaineer, I instead used this Garmin Instinct review as an excuse for a social-distanced excursion to Maine’s Acadia Park. After hiking high-altitude trails everyday to burn off all the blueberry pancakes and lobster rolls, I can say that the Garmin Instinct is one of the best sports watches and the best Garmin watch for those who like to explore the outdoors.
Garmin Instinct: Price and availability
The base model of the Garmin Instinct costs $299.99 and is available in Graphite, Sea Foam, Tundra, Flame Red, Sunburst and Lakeside Blue options. Tactical editions come in Black and Coyote Tan at the same cost.
The Instinct Solar is a version of the Instinct that harnesses the power of the sun for an extra 54 days of battery life. It costs $399.99, which is a significant premium but could be worth it for those who spend long periods of time outdoors. The Instinct Solar comes in $499.99 Surf, Tactical and Camo editions as well.
Garmin Instinct: Design
The Garmin Instinct is reminiscent of the Casio G-Shock, but didn’t feel chunky on my wrist as the iconically rugged Casio watch does. In fact, the Instinct felt lightweight and looked slim enough that I didn’t consider it an eyesore in photos or out to dinner. The multisport Garmin fenix 6—which starts at a much higher $600—is still more my style, but I savored the Sea Foam blue finish and breathable, perforated straps of the Instinct model I reviewed.
Like competing ultra-rugged watches, the Instinct bears a Military Standard 810 rating for hostile environments, which means it can withstand extreme environments and temperatures and be submerged in water to 328 feet (10 ATM).
I didn’t come close to meeting the ceiling of these conditions in Maine’s mild summer climate, but I did brace rocky beaches and glacier-formed granite peaks. The Instinct didn’t show signs of wear even when I clambered up Acadia’s steeper summits — although I can’t say the same about my elbows and knees.
Garmin Instinct: Display and interface
The Garmin Instinct’s 128 x 128-pixel display looks crude compared to the colorful AMOLED screen of the Amazfit T-Rex GPS sports watch. But the Instinct’s advantage is a screen that’s easy to read in direct sunlight. I’d say of all the wearables I’ve tested to date, the legibility of the Instinct’s display is among the most impressive in the category.
I also appreciated the backlight for a short night time excursion to see the full moon over Sand Beach.There’s no touchscreen, so you have to use the Instinct’s side buttons to navigate menus. As an everyday Apple Watch wearer, I often fumbled to get to where I needed to go, but after a weekend of wearing the Instinct every day I had it figured out.
There are 12 different watch faces you can choose from, as well as a library of widgets that reflect metrics available on the companion Garmin Connect app (iOS, Android). The Instinct isn’t compatible with the Garmin IQ app store, so you might be better served by one of the best smartwatches if you’re looking for more versatile functionality from a wearable.
Garmin Instinct GPS and outdoor sports tracking
Acadia National Park proved to be an ideal environment for testing the Garmin Instinct’s GPS and outdoor sports tracking capabilities. I had no cell service on most of the trails, so I relied on the Instinct’s GPS to keep tabs on my treks. With an on-board compass, saved waypoints and TrackBack, I could easily navigate my downloaded maps, as well as tread my courses in reverse.
When my phone regained connection, I reviewed the recorded GPS map of my hikes in the Garmin Connect app and saw precise points where we moseyed around to take pictures or had to backtrack where we took a wrong turn up South Bubble Mountain.
All the while the Garmin Instinct tracked my heart rate, distance traveled, steps and stairs climbed. Off shore, it tracked my impromptu free swim in Long Pond when my canoe tipped over. There are about 30 total activities the watch can track, ranging from skiing and mountain biking to treadmill running and yoga.
It’s worth noting the Garmin Instinct also has inReach support, meaning it can connect to Garmin inReach devices and establish two-way global SMS communication on the Iridium Satellite system. I didn’t use inReach in Acadia, but I would consider a gadget like the inReach Mini for SOS functionality for more remote adventures.
Garmin Instinct: Sleep tracking, music controls and notifications
Back in the cabin, I put the Instinct’s sleep tracking to the test, knowing the Garmin’s accuracy hasn’t impressed me in the past (See: my Garmin Vivomove Luxe review). Unfortunately, I don’t think the company has it figured out yet. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to go see the country’s first sunrise at Cadillac Mountain and afterwards went back to bed for several more hours, but the Instinct didn’t register my return to sleep. The next night it didn’t recognize when I woke up in the middle of the night and scrolled Twitter for an hour, either.
I did, however, enjoy the Body Battery feature, which helped me gauge my overall energy levels. My 7/100 “battery” meter after the sluggish 8-hour drive to Maine meant I needed to rest up for the day of hiking ahead.
Though the Instinct offers music controls, I wish there was some music storage onboard like the Fenix 6 or Garmin Forerunner 245 Music offers. Sure, I could use the music saved to my phone, but there are times when I want to leave my phone behind. I’m less bothered by the lack of Garmin Pay, considering the lack of retail in the middle of mountains.
As for notifications, the Instinct benefits from Garmin’s Smart Notifications. Although you cannot reply to messages or answer phone calls, you can control which notifications you prefer sent to your wrist and whether you want them sent during activities.
Garmin Instinct: Battery life
Garmin says the Instinct can last up to two weeks on a single charge, although that shrinks to 16 hours while in GPS mode. I didn’t hike for more than 8 hours total over the duration of my 5-day trip, and found I could’ve left the charger at home.
If my Instinct’s battery waned while hiking, though, I could enable UltraTrack. This extends the watch’s stamina to 40 hours in GPS mode by reducing the satellite recording rates. The more affordable Amazfit T-Rex doesn’t have a similar power management feature, and you’ll only get about 10 hours of juice with continuous location tracking by comparison.
Garmin Instinct vs. Garmin fenix 6
If you’re weighing the Garmin Instinct vs. Garmin fenix 6, there are a couple of factors you’ll want to consider. While the fenix 6 has UltraTrak like the Instinct, its battery life in standard GPS mode is 36 hours compared to the Instinct’s 16 hours. The fenix also offers music storage, a larger display and more metric tools for runners.
In terms of features and functionality, the fenix 6 is the star of the multisport watch market — but it comes at a hefty price. Unless the fenix 6’s features are deal breakers and you have $600 to spend, the Garmin Instinct offers most of what you’ll get from the fenix 6 for a fraction of the cost.
Garmin Instinct review: Verdict
The Garmin Instinct is the best adventure watch you can get for under $300, making it an attractive option for the outdoor enthusiast who cares about design durability and GPS accuracy. A desire for music storage and apps could push you towards the Garmin Fenix 6, but be prepared to pay double for those premium features.
That said, you might want to consider the $100 premium for the Instinct Solar if you’re keen on lengthier outdoor excursions and don’t want to be preoccupied with charging. Still, the standard Instinct made as excellent of a hiking accessory as I could want. In fact, it almost inspired me to stake out in Maine’s mountains for a few extra nights — almost.
Kate Kozuch is the managing editor of social and video at Tom’s Guide. She covers smartwatches, TVs and audio devices, too. Kate appears on Fox News to talk tech trends and runs the Tom's Guide TikTok account, which you should be following. When she’s not filming tech videos, you can find her taking up a new sport, mastering the NYT Crossword or channeling her inner celebrity chef.