5 outdoor adventure-ready smartwatches I recommend for tracking summertime fun

Apple Watch Ultra 2.
(Image credit: Future)

When the weather warms up, nothing beats heading to the great outdoors. From hiking to biking, swimming to paddling, I'm a huge fan of mixing fitness with fresh air and adventure. I also love tracking my outdoor excursions with one of the best fitness trackers

Having tested countless wearables built for such occasions, I've got a solid sense of which are best-suited for the lake versus the mountains versus the city streets. Of course, this list is by no means definitive, these are simply the five smartwatches I most recommend for keeping tabs on your next adventure with Mother Nature.  

1. My favorite smartwatch for hikes

Hiking is among the most affordable and accessible outdoor warm-weather activities and one of my all-time favorites. What features do I look for in a hiking watch? For one, accurate GPS location tracking is a must — and so is an onboard altimeter/barometer to calculate elevation changes. 

I also prefer smartwatches with maps to check in on the route and my progress mid-trek. Beyond that, solid battery life, a rugged design, and emergency tools like crash detection are nice to have. 

Numerous models meet the above criteria but my personal favorite is the Garmin Forerunner 165. This mid-tier GPS watch is aimed at runners but also has all the features a hiker could want. In fact, it's become my de facto smartwatch for such adventures also thanks in part to its lightweight design and relatively diminutive footprint. 

Similar to Crash Detection on the best Apple Watches and Google's Fall Detection on the Pixel Watch 2, the Garmin Forerunner 165 has Incident Detection, which can be set up to alert an emergency contact if an accident occurs. The feature also sends a live tracking link, along with GPS coordinates for rescue. 

Garmin Forerunner 165: $250 @ REI

Garmin Forerunner 165: $250 @ REI
The Garmin Forerunner 165 is a sporty smartwatch designed with runners in mind, but it's perfectly suited for hikers. It boasts a bright AMOLED touchscreen with maps — also, physical buttons — as well as GPS, heart rate monitoring, sleeping tracking, and a whole lot of tools dedicated to training and recovery. 

2. My favorite smartwatch for bike rides

I love biking, whether around my hometown of Seattle or off in the mountains, whipping turns and spewing dirt. In either case, the device I'm using to track my rides needs to be large and bright enough for me to view at a glance, tough enough to survive bumps and bangs and precise enough to discern between riding up a hill and using a chair lift. 

Excellent battery life also tops the list. So, which model do I reach for? Since January, the Polar Vantage V3 has been my cycling go-to. I became impressed with its capabilities while on a multiday snowboarding trip and quickly decided to give it a go for cycling, too. 

That said, I just got my hands on the even beefier, though similar spec'd Polar Grit X2 Pro and look forward to seeing if it will usurp the V3; I plan to take it on a ride this weekend. 

Polar Vantage V3: $599 @ Polar

Polar Vantage V3: $599 @ Polar
The Polar V3 is a sophisticated GPS sports watch with a super-bright, easy-to-read touchscreen and support for tons of sports profiles, including, of course, mountain biking. Tough-built with great battery life, it's especially brilliant at accurately tracking elevation changes. 

3. My favorite smartwatch for swims

Not all smartwatches are created equally, especially when it comes to tracking time spent in water. While some devices will automatically detect your swim stroke, laps, distance, calories burned and more, many devices don't have the appropriate water resistance to survive frequent dips for extended periods.

One hundred meters of water resistance is the bare minimum a smartwatch must have for me to use it confidently while swimming. This disqualifies popular devices like the Apple Watch SE, Fitbit Charge 6 and Samsung Galaxy Watch 6, all of which have just 50 meters of water resistance

Fortunately, the Apple Watch Ultra and Ultra 2 both boast 100 meters of protection, making them a great choice for everything from open-water swimming to jet skiing. In addition to keeping tabs on all the crucial swim data I care about, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is also easily viewable underwater which lets me check in on my stats without having to pause. 

Apple Watch Ultra 2: $749 @ Best Buy

Apple Watch Ultra 2: $749 @ Best Buy
The Apple Watch Ultra 2 is one of the most feature-packed, tough-built smartwatches money can buy. So, it should come as no surprise that it's a solid choice for tracking your next swim, whether that's laps in a pool or open water. The watch's 100 meters of water resistance also means you can snorkel and even scuba dive with it. 

4. My favorite smartwatch for paddling

Whether you're piloting a kayak, standup paddle board, rowboat or some other form of human-powered watercraft, nothing quite compares to the sensation of gliding across the surface of a lake, pond, river or sea. However, as enjoyable as the experience may be, these activities are serious workouts, and tracking them can be tricky. 

I've yet to get out in my kayak this season, but when I do, I plan on strapping the Garmin Instinct 2 Solar to my wrist. Why? In addition to dedicated kayaking, standup paddle boarding and outdoor rowing modes, it also boasts accurate GPS tracking, mind-blowingly good battery life and 100 meters of water resistance in an easy-wearing, low-key package. 

Garmin Instinct 2 Solar: was $399 now $299

Garmin Instinct 2 Solar: was $399 now $299
Need something that's adventure-ready? The Garmin Instinct 2 Solar is "a near-perfect GPS smartwatch for outdoor sports enthusiasts" we noted in our Instinct 2 review. The standard edition has 28 days of battery but the Solar one can technically last forever with enough sunshine. This is also the lowest price I've seen for the Instinct 2 Solar in some time. 

5. My favorite smartwatch for climbing

Whether you're old-school mountaineering, bouldering, sports climbing or — my favorite — scrambling, it's imperative that your smartwatch is built to take a beating because it will at some point come in contact with solid rock. Of course, if your climbing adventure is outdoors, accurate GPS data is a must-have. So is elevation tracking.

Of all the tough-built smartwatches out there, the Garmin Fenix 7 is my favorite for these types of extreme adventures. Not only could it probably survive a tumble down Mount Rainier but it's also packed to the gills with useful health and location tracking tech. And it boasts Garmin's awesome ClimbPro feature for keeping tabs on real-time performance. 

Battery life is a jaw-dropping 122 hours in GPS mode, which means more time spent scaling rock and less time hanging around. 

Garmin Fenix 7: $649 @ Garmin

Garmin Fenix 7: $649 @ Garmin
The Fenix 7 is one of Garmin's top-tier adventure GPS watches that seriously has it all: great tracking accuracy, a tough-built design, long-lasting battery life, solid water resistance, and even a training feature built specifically for climbers. 

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Dan Bracaglia
Senior Writer, Fitness & Wearables

Dan Bracaglia covers fitness and consumer technology with an emphasis on wearables for Tom's Guide. Based in the US Pacific Northwest, Dan is an avid outdoor adventurer who dabbles in everything from kayaking to snowboarding, but he most enjoys exploring the cities and mountains with his small pup, Belvedere. Dan is currently training to climb some of Washington State's tallest peaks. He's also a big photography nerd.