The sports watch of today is a different beast than it was five or 10 years ago. No longer is it just a timing device—a simple stopwatch with start/stop and lap/reset functions—with a rugged rubber strap and cartoonishly bright buttons. Nowadays, as technology is refined and squeezed into smaller packages, sports watches have essentially become wrist-worn, go-anywhere computers with rugged yet stylish housing, navigation features, advanced multisport functions, Bluetooth capability and quickly expanding memory banks to store training regimens and backcountry journeys. Sport-specific apps allow us to tailor watches to our uses and, thanks to GPS, can do everything from automatically take mile-splits to guide us back to journey's start.
Without losing ourselves in an abyss of features, let’s focus on four considerations when thinking of the sports watch, and how they fit into your plans.
Cardio/Heart Rate Monitor: The chief value of a heart rate monitor watch is that it puts us in charge of our training by allowing us to effectively monitor our heart rate. We can catalog lap and split times, personalize heart rate target zones and watch for calories burned—all of which helps to create a systematic approach to training, to workouts and, in the end, to pushing our limits in a smart, quantifiable manner.
Backcountry Navigation: The barometric altimeter is a crucial tool for navigation in the hills, mountains and backcountry. Add a compass, and you'll know your current elevation and heading. Additionally, sudden changes in your watch's perceived elevation—caused by a change in barometric pressure—can warn you of incoming severe weather or temperature changes, which may affect your decision to press on or return to camp.
GPS: One of the most significant benefits of GPS over land-based orientation systems is its ability to function in all weather conditions. Some watches, like the Garmin Fenix, allow you to pre-program waypoints into them, which helps navigation—and, more importantly, cuts down on time spent standing around finding your bearings—on bad weather trips. Translation: GPS is a great back-up tool and can save your skin in the backcountry, but learn to use a map and compass, since they don't run on batteries.
The fun side of GPS watches is that they track your progress in real time, including your speed, distance, and create a record of when and where you made your mark on this earth, careening down a black diamond at 60mph or setting a 5K PR. Compatible software allows you to revisit an entire day spent skiing, mountain biking or paddling a river, and analyze cumulative data. This is huge for serious athletes who want to improve their performance or for outdoorspeople who simply want to quantify their stoke (500,000 vertical feet in a season, brah!).
Apps: There are thousands of apps you can download to watches like the Suunto Ambit2 to customize them for just about any athletic pursuit you can imagine: pool splits, maximum speed, rate of ascent and descent, incline, calories used, storm alarm and, yes, beers burned. Whatever you want to monitor, chances are there’s an app for it, and you can create a program that will let you know how many stouts you can drink without putting on the pounds. Or, more likely, how many you need to burn off.
These are 12 of the best sports watches available. We chose them for their diverse uses—running, cycling, swimming, hiking, skiing, mountaineering, etc.—excellent build quality and overall durability, and ranked them based on a combination of first-hand experience and online consumer reviews. We understand that comparing a pricey GPS heart rate monitor trainer with a swimming watch is a bit of an apples and oranges exercise, but our ranking also considers overall value—whether you're getting what you paid for, and whether it performs as advertised. In the end, all 12 are great watches, and what you pick will depend on your budget and intended uses. Anyway, enough with the fine print. It's time to workout. Don't believe us? Just check your watch.