Hiking with an Apple Watch

posted in: Apps, Gear | 4
Is the Apple Watch useful for hiking? Short answer: kind of.
Long answer: I’ve been able to put the Apple Watch through its paces over the past two months, both at home with regular use as well as 16 days of road tripping, some backcountry hiking, and a few weekend camping trips. Read on for my experience and a couple recommended apps.
Apple Watch Fishing GPS Hiking

Initial Apple Watch review:

I was surprised to find that the Apple Watch exceeds my daily battery needs. With regular use at home and work I often have about 40% left over at the end of the day (moderate usage from 8am-11pm). Unfortunately it decreases my iPhone 6 Plus battery life by roughly 20% per day since all of the watch apps currently use the iPhone to operate over Bluetooth (an unfortunate restriction in Watch OS1).
You may immediately realize that this makes the Apple Watch nearly useless for extended backpacking trips, at least in it’s current state. By placing your iPhone in airplane mode, turning wifi off and turning Bluetooth back on, you can expect about 1.5 days of watch life, and maybe 2+ days off phone life, depending on limited usage and whether you shut everything off overnight. Without the Apple watch, I can usually get 3-5 days of use out my iPhone 6 Plus with limited GPS and camera use when I’m trekking in the backcountry.
While the watch may not be ideal for multi-day trekking, it can definitely be useful for day hiking or trail running. Currently an iPhone is still required to be in Bluetooth range for most watch apps to work, but with the right setup the Apple Watch can offer some convenient data at a glance, even without an internet connection via cellular service.
Apple Watch Hiking GPS

Apple Watch Apps for Hiking Offline

Motion X GPS:
Currently my favorite app for raw altitude, speed and location data, directly on my wrist. Essentially a slimmed down version of the iPhone app, Motion X GPS displays GPS coordinates along with other useful data such as total ascent and distance traveled during a trip. Waypoints can quickly be added as well. Using the glance screen provides fast coordinates and altitude info. Unfortunately the app currently does not allow offline maps to be loaded, and seems to rely on Apple Maps for visual location information. With no data connection this screen just displays a load screen. You can get it on the app store for your iPhone here.
Apple Watch Hiking GPS
Apple Watch Hiking GPS
Topo Maps:
For visual offline maps on your wrist, you can view your location on preloaded topographical maps using Topo Maps. The experience is very minimal, but effective: zoom in, zoom out, pan, and locate current position. You can find it on the app store fro your iPhone and Apple Watch here.

Apps that don’t work:

A couple apps that offer good home screen “complications” become ineffective without a data connection.  The two that might seem useful but fail quickly without Internet access are Sunrise/Sunset and Weather.
1. Sunrise/Sunset displays nothing after a short period of time. It would be nice if this continued to display last known information.
2. Weather only displays last location temp, for some time before displaying nothing. This is largely unavoidable.

Apple Watch Hiking GPS

Complications that do work:

Some complications that maintain usefulness without data:
1. Moon image remains accurate.
2. Moon status retains information for moonrise time and fullness.
3. Time and date still work, hopefully an obvious one!
4. Activity monitor continues to track daily calories burnt, standing time, excersise time, steps and distance traveled.
These are just a few of the things I’ve noticed so far. The Apple Watch has a long way to go if it’s going to become an effective gadget in the camping and backpacking world. It’s not so bad for road tripping and general traveling though. As long as you can keep both your watch and phone charged while maintaining an internet connection there are plenty of ways to make use of it. I’ll try to elaborate in another article in the coming weeks. In the meantime, feel free to offer your 2 cents in the comment area below!
  • peteo

    I’ve used the apple watch for kayaking and hiking too. Gaia gps is my go to app, their apple watch extension is nice, and shows your stats plus a topo/sat map or other map based on what’s set in the iPhone app. You can download these maps for offline use. Recording your heart rate with the watch sucks the battery down fast. Can get around 6-8 hours of tracking. One thing you might want to do is get a small battery pack with 2 ports so you can charge both your iPhone and watch overnight. The one I have can charge both my watch and iPhone 2 times and only weights a few ounces.
    I also use watch kayaking, topo’s also include detail water ways so they can be useful to see where you are. Watch OS 2 will work allot better with maps since it will allow the use of the crown and real time touch access so you can move around the maps like the watches native maps app.

    • Adventure Gear Download

      Hey Peteo!

      Gaia GPS is really a great app, it’s too bad it’s $20! I get pretty much the same usage out of Motion X GPS for $1. I really like that you can add custom map types for offline use. Another map app I really like is Forever Map 2 If I just need basic driving directions or if I’m traveling internationally, this is my favorite offline map. I even use it when hiking in the backcountry in National Parks. The trails are almost always clearly marked and its simple to use, not much battery drain.

      There are a few battery saving techniques for the Apple Watch, especially if you don’t care about heart monitoring. I don’t have a problem with it lasting a full day though, sometimes 2. I’ve been using this 12,000 mAh battery pack with 4 USB ports for a while now, and it only cost about $35. Since it carries such abig charge it is a bit hefty, but it’s helpful since both my fiancé and I are able to use it over multi-day treks to keep our iPhones going.

      Which topo maps do you prefer for good water navigation? I have a couple loaded on Motion X, but I’m not always satisfied.

      I actually just updated to Watch OS 2 beta 3. I’m not seeing much of a performance increase yet, mainly because I don’t think many developers have updated their apps to run independently yet. Looking forward to the future updates though!

      • peteo

        I use usgs topo maps. Gaia GPS also has a ton of map choices and you can add your own too. Their web site is also great and you can sync your trails and other peoples trails with it.
        They have this new trail routing feature on the web site where you place one point and then another point and it will make a track along trails to get you from point at to point b. You can then save that track and it will sync with you Gaia account.

        Not surprised there isn’t much improvement yet with apps since none of the beta native apps can be submitted to the App Store. You need to contact the devs directly and ask. If you have watch OS 2 beta you should email Gaia GPS and ask to become a beta tester. Maybe they can get you a beta version of the watch app.

  • Yvonne L

    I had forgotten that I owned Motion X until I read this. I used to use it for street nav. Tracking and waypoints worked great. I had a bit of trouble reading the display on the water with no shade. Maybe polarized sunglasses are the trick. The tracking ate up my phone battery.
    Also, found that the Digital Crown on my Apple Watch started to get a bit sticky a couple days after kayaking. I imagine it was the salt water. I cleaned around it with rubbing alcohol and will do that as part of my regular gear maintenance from now on.