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How to Best Use Your Activity Tracker and Handheld GPS

The Garmin Forerunner 210 on the summit of the Grand Teton. We love the small size that is equivalent to a standard watch  and much smaller than most other GPS watches.
By Jediah Porter ⋅ Review Editor
Wednesday June 3, 2015

Tracking and Navigating Your Outdoor Activity

In the "information age" and the era of the "quantified self", outdoor enthusiasts and athletes are looking to better track and monitor their activity and progress. There is a burgeoning market of devices for capturing data along the way. Additionally, whether in deep wilderness or on your neighborhood streets, effective navigation and communication is crucial. In both of these latter categories we have more options than ever before. An outdoor enthusiast has a whole host of choices and information to sort through in making his or her selection.

At OutdoorGearLab, we have invested a great deal into covering a broad portion of the entire market of compact outdoor electronics. Along the way we have learned how to choose from, and what works well in each category. Additionally, we have learned a great deal about how to differentiate the various categories of small electronics for outdoor use.

Background and Terminology

Before we break it all down for you, let us clarify some terminology and technology.

Most tracking and navigation devices use the Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS is a network of satellites maintained by the US Government, each of which is constantly sending a simple signal toward earth. A device on the ground senses these signals and, measuring their relative strength, can determine one's position on the earth. From that position data location, speed, prior position, distance, and direction to a future position can be deduced. GPS requires open sky and significant battery power.

Other devices use one of another few satellite networks for one- or two-way routine and emergency communication. Where cellular phone signal is inadequate or completely missing, tapping into these satellite communication networks allows for effective discourse. This function is useful both for requesting help in emergencies, nonemergency help (broken down car, e.g.), and communicating with basecamp or loved ones.

A select few devices use barometric pressure sensors to deduce weather changes and altitude. An even smaller amount can connect to a smartphone and provide weather updates.

Finally, some activity tracking devices use an accelerometer sensor that tracks movement. From a wearer's movement, these devices can deduce steps and pace and distance of action.

Recommendations, Sport by Sport

Not every product is suitable for every sport. Some activities are best served by very specific types of equipment, while others can be tracked and monitored with more general purpose equipment. Allow us to somewhat demystify your options, sport by sport.

Keep in mind that smartphone apps like Strava essentially perform the same function as a GPS bike computer or a GPS watch, but each of these three options have different user interfaces. A cycling computer is designed to work well while in the saddle, a GPS watch is designed to be glanced at quickly while on the move, and an app like Strava collects data on your phone while in your pocket, but is not ideal for viewing at while in the middle of an activity. Instead it is more fun to review the collected data after the fact and compare with friends. Either a watch, a bike computer, or an app will collect essentially the same data, so your choice when purchasing a device will be how you want that data presented to you during an activity.

Day-to-Day Activity

Your activity monitor  in order to be truly effective  needs to go everywhere with you.
Your activity monitor, in order to be truly effective, needs to go everywhere with you.
Whether in between training sessions or just in your day-to-day life, many people are more and more interested in fully quantifying their action. We tested a suite of both traditional pedometers and more full-service fitness trackers that are applicable in tracking day-to-day action on foot. These devices are limited in their ability to track dedicated training, but are great for motivating and quantifying every day action. Good training, regardless of your chosen sport, requires accounting for all action. Between training sessions, tracking activity data can improve your fitness programming. More and more athletes are using a pedometer or fitness tracker for tracking that "non-training stress". Additionally, most fitness trackers also track sleep, which can be extremely beneficial when getting ready for a big race or meeting or for just making your overall health plan.


Garmin Edge 510 out for testing near Lake Tahoe.
Garmin Edge 510 out for testing near Lake Tahoe.
For hard-core cyclists, on the road or off, there is nothing better than a dedicated bicycling GPS computer. A bike computer equipped with GPS mounts readily to your handlebars, has a large screen for easy high-speed viewing, tracks relevant data, and many can be configured to work with other dedicated cycling sensors like a power meter or cadence sensor. Many models are equipped with detailed maps and in the case of the Garmin Edge 820, it can provide turn-by-turn navigation. If you also run or climb and want to own a device that works for cycling too, some modern GPS watches can be configured for cycling use. They have smaller screens, but the best, can be integrated with power meters and cadence sensors. With aftermarket handlebar mounts and an app like Strava your smartphone can also be pressed into cycling service, though it will be very limited in terms of battery life. As a cycling tracker, smartphones work alright, but dedicated equipment is more weatherproof and allows you to keep your phone on your body for music and security.


Run tracking in action. Mammoth Lakes  CA.
Run tracking in action. Mammoth Lakes, CA.
In running, whether on road or off, a wrist-mounted device is pretty much mandatory. Our entire GPS watch review discusses devices perfect for high speed foot travel. Just like with bicycling, the user can track his or her running with a smartphone and appropriate app. However, viewing data on the go on a phone is more problematic than on one's wrist. Perhaps the Smart Watch market will bridge the gap between phone, fitness tracker, and athletic watch, but for now we recommend dedicated GPS equipped running watches.

Triathlon and other Multiple Sport Athletics

David Mackey  approaching Transition 2 in the SavageMan Triathlon.
David Mackey, approaching Transition 2 in the SavageMan Triathlon.
In order to track progress and action during a triathlon, a variety of devices are popping up. A select few GPS Watches, notably the Suunto Ambit 3 Sport, can now be configured to track effort and progress across swimming, bicycling, and running.

Similarly, if you participate in a variety of sports, the best single device for you is a comprehensive GPS Watch. Look for a watch that can be configured to show different types of data (for instance, speed in mph for cycling and pace in minutes per mile for running) and is equipped with Bluetooth or similar technology for the integration of external sensors like heart rate monitors, bicycle power meters, and foot cadence sensors. If any of the sports you participate in take place in steep mountain environments, make sure your chosen watch also incorporates a barometric altimeter.

Hiking and Backpacking

Zeb Engberg navigates in the High Sierra with the eTrex 20 GPS  our Best Buy Award recipient. Also pictured: Black Diamond Carbon Cork poles  3/4 length Therm-a-Rest Ridge Rest pad  and Black Diamond Speed 30 and 40 packs.
Zeb Engberg navigates in the High Sierra with the eTrex 20 GPS, our Best Buy Award recipient. Also pictured: Black Diamond Carbon Cork poles, 3/4 length Therm-a-Rest Ridge Rest pad, and Black Diamond Speed 30 and 40 packs.
For extensive off-trail navigation in the burliest of conditions, a handheld GPS unit is best. These have admirable battery life, large screens, and very accurate sensors. One could also use a GPS watch but the screen is much smaller and navigation interface is much more primitive. It's is becoming more and more standard for hikers to carry some sort of satellite locator beacon in the wild so they can be found in the event of an emergency. For hikers who don't typically go on long trips, or rarely go off trail, a smartphone app like Gaia or Topo Maps can suffice.

Rock and Ice Climbing

Chance Traub follows a pitch in Red Rock  NV on the Petzl Volta rope.
Chance Traub follows a pitch in Red Rock, NV on the Petzl Volta rope.
Rock and ice climbers, especially those with more athletic motivations as opposed to self-proclaimed "adventure climbers", are generally unaccustomed to carrying electronics with them. This is apt to change as the demographics of climbers change and as the availability and portability of relevant technology improves. First of all, because of the seriousness of the climbing setting, all climbers should at least consider some sort of emergency communication. In many cases a cell phone is appropriate, but in others users should consider a emergency messenger or personal locator beacon. Next, with fitness tracking technology becoming better and more available, many rock climbers are looking to capture their training sessions. On steep cliffs GPS data is notoriously unreliable, but the best GPS watches also capture and record heart rate data. Some climbers are now using heart rate data to track and plan their endeavors.


Classic snow climbing in the Chugach Range of Alaska.
Classic snow climbing in the Chugach Range of Alaska.
Mountaineering combines many of the concerns of rock and ice climbing with those of hiking and backpacking. Many will want to track their speed, altitude, and distance. Many will need assistance with navigation. In steep mountaineering settings GPS altitude data is poor, and retrieving a hand-held GPS device from a pack or pocket can be problematic. We recommend a full-function GPS watch for navigation and tracking. Full-function GPS watches like the Garmin Fenix also include a barometric altimeter for more accurate vertical position data. If you are a mountaineer on more of a budget, watches can also be purchased without the GPS functionality. We reviewed products like this in our Altimeter watch review. Of course, since mountaineering takes place in remote areas, we recommend at least considering some sort of satellite beacon for emergency communication. While it isn't always necessary, mountaineers should always consider bringing avalanche safety equipment, including an avalanche beacon as well.

Backcountry Skiing

Waist deep  evenly graduated  light on top. Does it get any better than this? Ski testing in good pow  California.
Waist deep, evenly graduated, light on top. Does it get any better than this? Ski testing in good pow, California.
Backcountry skiing is much like mountaineering, with the additional fact that many backcountry skiers are even more fitness oriented than mountaineers. We know, we know, this is a gross generalization, but it does bear out to be true. The setting is steep, remote, and inherently off trail. Choose your electronic accompaniment accordingly. Our recommendations for backcountry skiing are basically the same as for mountaineering, with one important caveat. In mid-winter backcountry skiing the main threat is often snow avalanches. This necessitates safety training and equipment including a transceiver but also requires giving consideration to electronic interference. Transceivers are vulnerable to the interference of nearby electronics. Adding more and more devices to your body and pack adds more risk that your avalanche beacon will malfunction when you most need it. Pick the transceiver first, and add just the most necessary others.

Paddling and water sports

Packing up for a trip to the Green River Towers
Packing up for a trip to the Green River Towers
For river, lake, and coast travel a GPS device that can be mounted almost like a bicycling computer, or a watch are most useful. On a river or lake, conditions can change quickly, so a device that can provide weather updates and call for help is most useful. At the very least, a barometric altimeter on your watch or handheld device helps predict storms and weather conditions. Having accurate topo maps and good tracking functions are helpful to make sure you know when to expect things like rapids and campsites, and can also help roughly gage flow rates. Look for units that have excellent water resistance; pretty much any watch will be waterproof, some handheld units can be dunked, and some are even designed to float.

Expedition travel, Whether on Foot, Skis, Mountains, or Water

The Powered Apollo 2: the perfect basecamp accessory. Since it has an included battery  the Apollo 2 can either charge a device directly or store up charge for later. Here is soaks up bright Alaskan sun at the Kahiltna basecamp.
The Powered Apollo 2: the perfect basecamp accessory. Since it has an included battery, the Apollo 2 can either charge a device directly or store up charge for later. Here is soaks up bright Alaskan sun at the Kahiltna basecamp.
For extended remote travel, we are carrying more and more devices with us. These electronics do more and more for us, as is evidenced by the entire above article. In order to keep all those devices powered up, we have evaluated solar charger and external USB battery packs, which are turning out to be indispensable gadgets on their own.

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