Activity trackers help you gather data about your movement throughout the day, thereby pushing you to reach your fitness goals and holding you accountable. Most fitness trackers on the market give you information about your heart rate, mileage, steps, elevation, length of workout and exertion level. Some provide you with reminders to get up and move every hour, and most give you a readout of texts, calls and calendar alerts on your wrist. A select few trackers provide even more information for athletes, like GPS tracking to help you find your way home during a backcountry hike, recommendations for recovery and workout plans, and the ability to sync to external apps where you can share your workouts with others. For this guide, we looked at trackers in all of the above categories, and we focused on the trackers that would be most useful for athletes and outdoor lovers.
We spent 40 hours researching and testing fitness trackers for this guide. First, we read hundreds of REI customer reviews and spoke with several experts, including Danielle Deal, a senior category merchandising manager at REI. We also read and watched reviews from professional athletes about dozens of the best fitness tracker options. Then we narrowed down our list and ordered nine trackers to test from Suunto, Garmin and Fitbit. Next, we spent a month evaluating each tracker for its ease of use, GPS mapping capabilities, extra features, battery life, accurate step tracking, comfort, and ability to sync up with our favorite apps. We took all the trackers on a road trip along the Oregon coast, dragged them through more than 40 miles of hikes and trail runs, wore them on a daily basis to work, and even took a scuba-diving-specific watch on two dives in Puget Sound.
It’s worth mentioning that in this guide, we did not evaluate trackers from some of the biggest brands on the market, like Apple, because they’re not sold by REI. We also ended up recommending mostly Garmin product here, not because of any sort of brand agreement (these guides are produced in an editorially independent fashion), but because the Garmin watches and trackers stood out as far and away better options for athletes, compared to most of the other brands we evaluated and researched.
With all of that said, below are the five best fitness bands and watches for outdoors lovers. As you’re reading, reference our Fitness Tracker Glossary for help with technical terms.
The Best GPS Watch for Hikers & Trail Runners
If you need a smartwatch that covers all of your adventuring needs, the Garmin Fenix 5X Sapphire GPS watch is the best option. The Fenix is one of the largest smartwatches out there, with a 1.2-inch display size. It offers a huge variety of features, including a heart-rate sensor, a digital 3-axis accelerometer to track your steps, a pressure-based altimeter, a compass, waterproofing, and top-of-the-line GPS tracking with a colorful display. During testing, the Fenix’s battery lasted for up to 10 days without GPS mode and for up to 12 hours with GPS mode engaged.
The best thing about the Fenix is its ease of use: The watch pairs easily with the Garmin Connect app on your smartphone and computer, through which you can input data about your height, weight, fitness goals, and preferred method of data sharing with friends. You can even choose the kind of clock display you’d like to see, and you can download new watch faces for real customization. As you set up your watch, you can link it to any external training apps you prefer. Even if you struggle to figure out new technologies (and one of our testers considers herself to be squarely in this group), you’ll have no trouble setting up the Fenix.
As far as features go, we loved the Fenix most for its topographical GPS mapping, which was the best we used during our testing. During a 9-mile hike, the Fenix immediately and automatically found the route we needed and synced to it, leading us along the path with a colorful display that rotated with our position. As we hiked, the watch marked breadcrumbs that we could use to find our way back to home base. The compass also sets up well and the GPS tracking doesn’t take any time at all to triangulate, which was a problem we found with some of the other trackers we tested. In the watch’s Run and Ride routing feature, you can enter the distance you’d like to run (or ride) and the watch will suggest an appropriate course. The Around Me feature also allows you to see the points of interest all around you, which comes in handy if you want to hike, run or cycle in a new place. You can also get step-by-step directions for runs, with banners that alert you to an upcoming turn, and you can set the GPS sweep speed according to what activity you’re doing so that you get accurate, on-time directions.
After you perform an activity (and there are many to choose from, including hiking, running, walking, cycling, swimming, golfing and so much more), you’ll get a full report on your Garmin Connect app with your average pace, speed, movement time, mileage, high and low heart rate, and training effect. The Fenix’s training effect feature measures the impact of an activity on your aerobic and anaerobic fitness, and the Fenix uses that information combined with the VO2 Max feature to offer what is essentially an automated personal trainer. VO2 Max measures your maximal oxygen uptake and looks at the amount of oxygen you use during intense exercise; then, the Fenix uses this measurement to assess your endurance, eventually suggesting appropriate training and recovery regimens. Here are some of the reports the Fenix will generate within the Garmin Connect app:
Beyond the basic features, we found the Fenix watch was the easiest to connect to other external apps. There are hundreds of community-made widgets that you can input to help you gather metrics on particular activities. Your texts, calls and calendar alerts will populate onto the watch and can be removed with an easy tap of a button. The Fenix’s buttons are also large enough that you can easily switch modes and check activities. (If you’re a music lover, note that you can upload up to 500 songs onto the Fenix 5X Plus Sapphire, which also includes contactless payments. A review of that upgraded model can be found here.)
“I have had mine for over a week now and have cranked out many runs,” said one customer. “This thing has tracked great and the battery life has been impressive (5-6 days for watch mode and several runs 5-10 milers). I was a little shocked by the size when I first opened the box. It took a couple of days to get used to the weight and how big and compared to my fitbit blaze. The topo map function is great and the quick course calculations are impressive.”
The Best GPS Watch for Runners
The Garmin Forerunner 645 GPS was our favorite watch to slip on during a quick run around the city. While it doesn’t beat out the Garmin Fenix’s GPS mapping abilities, the Forerunner gives you exactly what you need while running: It’s lightweight, with a 1.2-inch display size but a smaller overall profile than the Fenix. The Forerunner also offers basic activity metrics and features like a pedometer (operated by the digital 3-axis accelerometer), water resistance, long-lasting lithium-ion battery, altimeter, compass, alarm, stopwatch, heart-rate sensor and much more. We especially loved the fact that we could check our pace at any moment while running, which helped us hit a PR during a 5-mile road race during testing.
Like all the other Garmins we tested, the Forerunner was fairly easy to set up. You can enter all your information through the Garmin Connect app, and the watch is ready to use within minutes. That said, we continued to discover many of the watch’s features after several weeks of use, as they’re a bit buried in the interface and you sometimes have to go searching for them. The Forerunner doesn’t have a touch screen but the large buttons on the sides make it easy to navigate through many activity and tracking options.
Once you engage in activity mode, the watch begins tracking your speed, distance, steps and calories burned, as well as advanced running metrics like ground contact time. After you’ve completed your activity, all of the metrics send automatically to your Garmin Connect app, which offers details like average heart rate, average pace, a map of your route, and information about your running cadence. The reports look similar to the Fenix’s reports, but with slightly less information included:
You can upload tracks (or routes) onto the Forerunner before you head out so you can see if you’re staying on course during a run, walk, hike or cycling trip. We found the battery life on this watch to be good but not great, with about 5 to 7 days of battery life if we didn’t use it on GPS activity mode. With GPS mode on, the watch lasts about 10 hours, so it’s not the best option for ultrarunners or backpackers, and we think its best used by city runners. You can also swim with this watch, although Garmin says you shouldn’t keep it underwater for more than about 30 minutes (if you’re a swimmer, you might consider the Garmin 945 Forerunner Tri-Bundle, which comes with two pool- and open-water-friendly chest straps, and is discussed in this review). We liked the Forerunners’ slimmer fit, which is a better option for people with narrow wrists, and we think it’s a nice-looking, stylish option for the office. Like all Garmin products, you can link the Forerunner to other apps, like Strava, or to third-party running tools, like Stryd footpods.
“I bought the Garmin 645 primarily because it had modern software (support for Garmin Pay, ConnectIQ apps, etc.) and WiFi,” said one customer. “I use it for cycling, walking, and hiking. One of my favorite features is the ability to load “tracks” or routes on it. For example, you can use one of the mapping sites to generate a cycling specific route, save that as a TCX file, import it into Garmin Basecamp (a free application from Garmin) and send the route to the watch via USB. Then, before you start the cycling program, you can access the saved route by holding down the “up” button and accessing the navigation menu, select a route, and then start it. This is really useful if you want to know if you are on or off course. (It will usually alert you within 50 feet or so of taking a wrong turn that you are “off course.”)”
The Best Basic Fitness Band
If you don’t want all the bells and whistles of a smart watch, a band might be a good option for you. We tested several band options from brands, and eventually landed on the Garmin Vivosmart 4 as the best option on the market right now. It’s very easy to set up and is so small and lightweight, you’ll barely notice it on your wrist. Like all Garmin products, you set the band up via the Garmin Connect app, where you can enter your height, weight, fitness goals and more. You also get to choose the clock face style and the information you’d prefer to see on the front screen of your Vivosmart band.
Even though the Vivosmart is small, it provides a pretty hefty dose of data feedback. It can track sleep, heart rate and many movement metrics. When you look at the front screen, you’re able to see your daily steps and any text or call notifications, as well as the time. We also liked the move alerts, which cause the band to vibrate slightly after an hour of no perceived action.
When you decide to go out for a run, hike, swim or cycle with the Vivosmart, you swipe right to navigate to a bunch of symbols, which represent all of the activity options. The band has an auto activity start, which senses when you are moving, and it’s fairly intuitive to use during activities. While it doesn’t have GPS, it has everything else you need: time, steps, mileage and heart rate. The watch vibrates at each interval (which is preset to a mile) and it’s an easy to way to check in on your progress as you’re moving. Like the other Garmin products, all of the available data tracks onto the Garmin Connect app, which spits out a report like this at the end of your workout:
One funky feature: The Vivosmart tracks stress, based on your heart rate. When your heart rate gets elevated, you’ll get a notification telling you to calm down. This happened often during testing, mostly when we were doing things like watching a scary movie or navigating through traffic. However, we found it useful during the workday; at several points, we really did stop to take a few deep breaths, to keep our heart rate low and steady. You can also see your texts or calls on the Vivosmart, although the screen is too small (0.8 inches) for this feature to be very useful. The battery life is fairly solid as well; we were able to go about five days between charges. You can wear the Vivosmart in the water and it will track swims, although Garmin does note that the band is only water resistant, not waterproof. Swimming or showering with the band is fine, but scuba diving with this watch is not recommended. A small tap backlights the screen for nighttime use.
“I’ve owned smartwatches but nothing like this one,” said one customer. “It’s slim, lightweight and holds you accountable to your goals. It allows you to receive social media alerts, phone call alerts and emails. Also syncs to your smartphone and allows you to skip songs. I really love it when I set my goals like steps or heart intensity and feeling my watch vibrate with the message GOAL displayed. Makes me feel like I accomplished my day and gives me that extra push to want to work out! This is a great watch for anyone looking to monitor your goals and I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on how nice it looks. Thank you Garmin for such a great product.”
The Best GPS Watch for Backpackers & Ultrarunners
The Suunto 9 Baro GPS Watch does pretty much everything the Fenix does but with a few differences, the most important of which is extended battery life. If you’re a backpacker or an ultrarunner, we think the Suunto 9 Baro is an appealing choice.
Initially, we thought the Baro was much more difficult to set up than the comparable Fitbit or Garmin models we tried. To find the Baro’s best features, we had to spend a lot of time playing around, mostly because this watch’s navigational system isn’t quite as intuitive as some of the others on the market, and because it just offers so many features. That said, the Suunto app does offer a tutorial the first time you power it up, which helped us get started. We felt like we conquered this watch after about three weeks of wearing it nearly constantly, so give yourself some time and be patient.
The Suunto Baro is a large watch, with a 1.97-inch display size that’s definitely a bit excessive for people with small wrists. The watch’s band is fairly comfortable, though, even when you’re out on the trail for a long time. To start an activity (and Suunto offers many possible options), you choose “start” and then the watch runs for the total time, displaying the typical features of steps, miles, heart rate and time spent. We did notice that the Baro tracked more steps than the other watches, even when we wore them at the same time. Once you’re done with your activity, the Suunto app displays basic data about your workout, such as time, distance, and heart rate, as well as a map of the route you took. The reports typically look like this:
Speaking of the route, the Suunto Baro does have well-equipped GPS tracking. To load it up, you go to an app on your computer, pick a trail or route, then upload it to the watch. When you’re on your hike, run or cycle trip, the watch will show a pre-plotted line to follow, and it lets you know if you’re off track. Getting into the actual navigational system on the watch’s interface is a bit difficult, requiring several clicks and swipes. But once you do get there, the map is fairly easy to use. We found calibrating this watch to be a bit annoying, as it puzzlingly asked us to move our wrist in a figure-8 position nearly every hour or so to reset the compass. One other interesting feature: The Suunto app provides a heat map of routes in your area for many activities, such as hiking, road running, trail running, cycling, swimming and even skiing. This helps you find popular routes in the area, which is especially useful when you’re traveling. Here’s an example of a road-running heat map for Seattle:
The biggest draw of the Suunto Baro is definitely its battery life. We used the watch on GPS mode during a 5-hour, 9-mile hike and the battery only drained 30 percent from its full charge, indicating that you could probably use this watch for up to 20 hours with the GPS capabilities on at full blast. Without GPS on, this watch lasts for at least a week without a charge.
“The biggest draw for me has to be the battery life and the fact it adapts and tells you when to charge and how long you have left if you want to squeeze a few more hours out on the mountain,” said one customer. “But the best thing for me in the Suunto phone app… I especially like the map section where I can be in a new town and I can plot a route within minutes and then upload to watch straight away, no leads needed and takes minutes. I have found so many new trails on my doorstep that I didn’t know existed. The watch also looks pretty cool too.”
The Best GPS Watch for Scuba Divers
The Garmin Descent is a high-end watch made for scuba diving, free-diving and spearfishing. It’s based on the Fenix and offers everything the Fenix does, plus extras that are specifically useful for divers. After testing this watch during two (very cold) dives in Puget Sound, and asking several master divers to evaluate the watch’s features, we think the Descent is a good option for someone who wants all the features the Fenix offers, and who plans to dive occasionally.
During the day, the Descent functions just like the Fenix, with superior GPS tracking as well as a focus on basic metrics like speed, mileage, heart rate, and more. But once you hit a depth of around 1 meter under the water, the Descent shuts down all of its other features and becomes just one thing: a high-end dive watch. The watch literally locks underwater, putting a halt on any texts, calls or alerts from third-party apps. It has big buttons on either side of the screen for navigation (which we were able to use even with 7-millimeter gloves on). The basic band is hefty, although you might find that you need an even bigger band, which is included in the box, if you plan to dive with a dry suit or heavy wetsuit. The display is 1.2 inches wide.
You can plan a dive on the Descent in advance by navigating through the watch’s interface and setting your maximum dive depth and time. We tested this watch on two relatively shallow dives with average 25-foot depths, so we didn’t plan our route in advance since we knew we wouldn’t have to clock any decompression time. However, if you’re diving deeper than we did, you’ll want to set the watch’s specs before you start your dive. The compass also doesn’t work until right when you hit the water—but at that point, it clicks into gear, giving you a marker for your dive’s starting point. (The GPS only works above water, not below.)
Once you’re under the water, you can choose your heading and the Descent will keep you on that heading, buzzing lightly when you move away from your intended route. During the dive, the watch’s display shows actual time, total dive time, depth and NDL (no decompression limit). On the right side of the watch face you’ll see the depth gauge, which will alert you if you’re rising or falling too quickly. This is especially useful in open water, where you may need to do a safety stop but you don’t have any markers for depth. The watch’s backlight is also super bright, which means you could easily use this watch during a night dive, too. On the left side of the watch face, you can see information about nitrogen load, which is important for decompression stops.
Once your activity is complete, the Garmin Connect app shows each dive as its own entry, with notes about time, water composition and the kind of tank you used. You can leave your own notes in the app about each dive, too, and it’ll provide you with information about heart rate, water temperature, nitrogen load, average depth and depth changes over time. Finally, the Descent provides you with a map, showing both where you started and where you ended your dive. While the GPS doesn’t work underwater, this feature is helpful for finding your way back to home base at the end of the dive, should you surface far away from your intended finish site. The post-dive data readouts on the app typically look like this:
You can take this watch to around a 100-meter depth in salt or freshwater. You’ll also want to wash any saltwater off after your dive, to avoid any corrosion of the metal. Like the Fenix, the Descent has a long-lasting battery life of more than 15 hours with GPS tracking.
“I have done 6 ocean dives this weekend with this watch, one of which was a night dive,” said one customer. “It worked great. Easy to use. Compass works great. Fun to see your heart rate profile, depth profile and temperature profile for the dive. Not air integrated.”
How do fitness trackers work?
Fitness trackers help you measure your workouts and movements to help you get more exercise and meet your fitness goals. There are a couple categories of fitness trackers:
- Activity band: These moderately-priced bands use accelerometers to count your steps. They sometimes monitor sleep and many can wake you up in the morning via a gentle, vibrating sensation. Most are waterproof, and some offer heart-rate monitoring. An example of an activity tracker is the Garmin Vivosmart 4, which we’ve recommended in this guide.
- Smartwatch: A smartwatch is a digital watch with basic features, like an alarm and stopwatch. Most smartwatches also offer lap-counters, lap splits, countdown timers, interval timers, training logs, heart-rate tracking, step tracking and more. Most watches today are also water resistant, and some offer an even more advanced GPS tracking system to help you navigate, in addition to collecting data. An example of a smart watch is the Garmin Fenix 5X, which we’ve recommended in this guide.
If you’re simply looking for something to track your steps and heart rate, you should look at buying a fitness band. If you’re looking for a digital companion for your hardest workouts, something that can track your steps, heart rate, distance and time, plus provide a map and some training tips, you should look at buying a smartwatch.
Are fitness trackers waterproof?
Yes, most fitness trackers today are waterproof or at least water resistant. All of the fitness trackers featured in this guide are waterproof.
“Everything we sell at REI is tried and true when it comes to waterproofing,” says Danielle Deal. “You can submerge your electronic device. While people seem to be skeptical about this, I promise it’s true: You can use all of these devices in the pool as long as you’re not holding them underwater for extended periods of time.”
Which features are most important in a good fitness tracker?
Most trackers these days have all the basic features, like step tracking, mileage, heart rate, distance, time and specific features for specific activities. But Deal says the best fitness trackers will have highly accurate mapping technology with trackbacks or breadcrumbing, to help you get back home.
“You also want to look at battery life,” she says. “That’s a huge question. If you have GPS tracking running the whole time, how long will it last? And finally, user experience is important. Is it easy to set up and operate?”
Fitness Tracker Glossary
- VO2 Max: This metric considers the amount of oxygen you’re using during intense exercise. VO2 max is commonly used to measure an athlete’s aerobic endurance before and after a training period. During anaerobic exercise, you’re not consuming enough oxygen to supply the energy demands being placed on your body. You can usually sustain aerobic activities—when your body has enough oxygen—for much longer periods of time. Garmin’s devices use V02 Max to help establish a training plan and to tell you how much you’ve improved during each workout.
- Training effect: Training effect is Garmin’s term for the way a workout impacts your aerobic and anaerobic fitness levels, including information about your V02 Max. Some of Garmin’s devices will show you the percentage of time you spent over your anaerobic threshold during a particular activity. That number will then be used to examine how your fitness levels have improved over time, and the app will also suggest recovery and training options for the future.
- Pedometer: A pedometer is a device used to measure your step count throughout the day. Usually pedometers can detect the motions of your hands or hips, which is how they clock your steps.
- Pressure-based altimeter: An altimeter measures the atmospheric pressure of your current location. The higher up you are, the lower the pressure will be. Skydivers, pilots, hikers, mountaineers and scuba divers are usually most interested in devices that contain this feature.
- Accelerometer: An accelerometer tells you how fast you’re increasing your speed by detecting your body’s vibrations, then using those data points to determine the direction and magnitude of your movements.
- 3-axis compass: A 3-axis compass uses three magnets and a tilt sensor to determine your gravity vector, which can help you figure out which direction you’re heading.
- Gyroscope: A gyroscope is a free-rotating disk, called a roto, mounted onto a spinning access at the center of a large, stable wheel. It is used to help you determine your orientation in space.
- Breadcrumbs: These are navigational aids that help you get back to the place where you started. As you begin a hike, walk, run or cycle excursion, your device makes note of your location every few feet, dropping breadcrumbs onto a map. When you need to return back to your initial location, you can follow the breadcrumbs in a reverse fashion to home base.
- Topographic GPS mapping: Topographic maps contain information about terrain contours and elevation. They’re essentially a 3-D version of a typical map, and they often allow you to plan your route more efficiently.
- Running cadence: This is your stride rate. It’s usually measured in spm, or strides per minute, and many fitness trackers provide information about your running cadence to help you increase your speed or running efficiency over time.
- Garmin Pay™: This is Garmin’s contactless payment solution, where you can upload your payment information through the Garmin Connect app, then simply scan your watch at any major retailer to pay for a purchase.
- Connect IQ™: ConnectIQ is Garmin’s open platform for third-party app developers. You can visit ConnectIQ to download new watch faces, programming for specific activities and more.
- TCX file: A TCX file is an XML file that contains fitness data. When you transfer your data from your tracker to another platform, it will emerge as a TCX file. That file typically contains data about your activity, lap time, distance, calories, intensity level, heart rate, VO2 max and more.
- NDL: Your NDL is your no-decompression limit for scuba diving, which is the time limit that you can safely stay under the water depending on the depth of your dive and the profiles of your previous dives. A diver who stays underwater for longer than their NDL can’t ascend directly to the surface and must instead make safety stops on the way up to avoid decompression sickness.
For more information about how to choose the smartwatch that’s right for you, read the Co-op Journal’s previous coverage: