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The Best Trail Running Watch for 2021

Best Trail Running Watch Reviews

1. Garmin Forerunner 235 Running Watch

The Forerunner 235 is the proverbial Goldilocks of trail running watches; it’s not too expensive, doesn’t have too many features, isn’t too hard to use, and performs all of its functions fairly well.

Since this is a Garmin product, you know that it’s going to have some great maps and tracking features too. The large face does an excellent job displaying those maps and showing your stats throughout your adventures with colors that are rich and numbers that are crisp and easy to read, even at a full sprint.

The controls on the Forerunner aren’t the easiest to use, though, making use of a few buttons along the watch’s crown to scroll through menus.

The heart rate monitor also has some accuracy problems, especially when it comes to interval training. While the large face and silicone band gives it a fairly technical look, as far as GPS watches go, it’s still pretty stylish and looks more like a watch than a wrist-mounted computer; it’s pretty lightweight too.

Coming in at the middle of the pack on cost, the Forerunner 235 is a great option for runners that want all the features of a trail running watch, but without a bunch of unnecessary bells and whistles.

2. COROS APEX Multisport GPS Watch

If you’re searching for a rock-solid watch with understated aesthetics, the Apex might be the perfect fit. Its no-frills watch face and sleek design doesn’t look all that different from your standard digital watch and wouldn’t look out of place at the office or for post-run meetups.

Most impressive though is its battery; if you turn the Apex’s GPS off, the watch will run for close to a month – easily the best battery life of any of the models reviewed here; even with GPS tracking on, it lasts a full thirty-five hours.

Are you someone that hates reading the instruction manual for your gadgets? Coros designed the Apex with just one button, so there’s really nothing to learn. It functions as the back button, and then a digital crown is used to scroll through the menus, making it a lot more user-friendly than some of the button-heavy watches.

One drawback is its lack of activity tracking; most trail running watches are set up for several different sports, but it only tracks running, swimming, cycling (ideal for the triathlete!), hiking, and cardio. Data geeks won’t be impressed as it lacks the analytical software seen on some of the most popular trail running watches.

The Coros Apex definitely isn’t cheap, with a price creeping into the premium market. However, it’s superior battery life and intuitive controls make it one of the best watches for no-nonsense trail runners.

3. Garmin Foretrex 401 Waterproof Hiking GPS

The most glaringly obvious difference between the Foretrex 401 and its competitors is its size; it’s not so much a watch as a wrist-mounted computer. The “watch” is the size of a small cell phone (though it doesn’t weigh a lot more than most trail watches).

There’s no way you’ll forget it’s on your wrist, and you definitely won’t be bringing it to any post-workout gatherings.

However, its 1.6” screen provides plenty of real estate to display your maps, and since this is a Garmin product, you know the navigational system is spot on. The larger numbers and crisp black and white display make finding your way back to the car a whole lot easier to see mid-run.

Unfortunately, the Foretrex also lacks a rechargeable battery, instead being powered by two AAA batteries that last about 17 hours. For daily or near-daily runners, that kind of runtime will be unacceptable.

The market for the Foretrex 401 is admittedly small. It’s not the cheapest trail GPS, it definitely doesn’t have the best battery life, and the black and white screen seems barbaric compared to the bright and full-color screens of some trail watches.

However, the large screen and excellent GPS tracking make this the device of choice for those less concerned about how far and how fast they’re going and more about how they’re going to get back to the trailhead.

4. Suunto Ambit3 Peak Trail Running Watch

The Ambit3 is one of Suunto’s mid-range trail running watches, built with just enough features to keep the average outdoor enthusiast happy and at a price that won’t break the bank for entry-level runners.

The vast majority of trail runners and hikers will be satisfied with the Ambit3’s functionality; it has GPS tracking, while also recording your pace, distance, and altitude.

It doesn’t have the activity-specific tracking found on some of the more expensive trail watches. However, if you like to keep a record and do some analysis of your runs, you can upload the data to the Movescount app via Bluetooth or USB cable.

The Ambit3 also lacks a heart rate monitor, but you can buy a belt/watch package, which will save you a little money. Given that most trail running watches have a fairly lackluster built-in heart rate monitor having the option of just buying the watch is a welcome change.

It also doesn’t have the near bulletproof sapphire glass seen on other models, but it’s still fairly scratch-resistant – just don’t go banging it against rocks. Fortunately, Suunto still included a barometer for highly accurate altitude readings and weather forecasting.

There’s nothing overly fancy about the Ambit3, and that’s exactly why it’s a great fit for most trail runners. All those extra features rarely get used, and they make the menus harder to navigate through. If you just need something to track your distance, heart rate, and GPS tracks, this one will work great.

5. COROS Pace GPS Watch

Coros isn’t a big name player in the trail watches industry like Garmin or Suunto, but their Pace model can certainly hold its own with the rest of them. With a battery that can track your activities for twenty-two hours straight or run for four weeks under normal usage, it’s one of the best “set it and forget it” style watches.

While most trail watches utilize the GPS and GLONASS satellite systems, the Pace also links up with the BDS system, which is expected to be the most accurate of the three come 2020. Unfortunately, the watch can only track your progress; it doesn’t let you upload a route and follow it like some of the more expensive trail running watches.

The Pace is also one of the simplest watches to operate with four buttons around the face, and each of them having a label explaining their function. You don’t need to scroll through dozens of menus either, so it never takes long to get to the screen you want.

If you’re hoping to get a watch with a super accurate heart rate monitor, though, this probably isn’t the best model.

Like many trail watches, the optical monitor just isn’t that great compared to a chest strap or some of the more expensive watches. This is a moderately-priced watch designed for trail runners that don’t want a lot of fuss or too many options. It does everything it’s supposed to do and isn’t bogged down with stuff you’ll never use.

6. Garmin Forerunner 35 Watch

Garmin Forerunner 35 is one of the more popular trail running watches out there right now, particularly suitable for budget-conscious runners, sporting a decent heart rate monitor in the watch (no chest strap needed!), a GPS tracker, and step counter.

The Forerunner has a slightly smaller than average battery, able to power the watch for about thirteen hours in GPS mode and nine days as a step counter/heart monitor. Best of all, though, it connects with all of Garmin’s great mapping apps. The watch can also control the music on your smartphone, but this is only available with Android devices.

One of the biggest complaints with the Forerunner is that it lacks a touchscreen face, using five buttons along the rim to control it. The controls aren’t very user-friendly, but that’s the tradeoff when choosing a budget trail running watch.

The watch’s silicone band won’t feel sloppy on your wrist, but it looks a little technical for post-run drinks or dinner. It does come in a few color combinations, so you can customize it to fit your tastes. If you’re looking for a budget trail running watch that has all the basic features, the Forerunner 35 is a great option.

7. Garmin Fēnix 5 Plus Smartwatch

Garmin’s Fenix 5 is one of the most popular and feature-filled trail running watches on the market. The Plus version has near-field technology built into the watch so you can make contactless payments – perfect for grabbing a post-workout java or smoothie without needing to carry a wallet.

There’s also the 500 song storage capacity, which lets you play music without the need to pack the phone in your shorts. It also features full-color topo maps, which are easier to navigate compared to ones found on most trail running watches.

In addition to these new features, the watch has all the great features of the Fenix 5 – a 20-hour battery life, a barometric sensor for more accurate altitude readings, and easy to use maps. If you’re concerned about fashion, on and off the trail, you can swap out the armbands – soft and lightweight rubber for the runs, and a classier metal for drinks afterward.

There’s really only one downside to the Fenix 5 Plus, it’s really expensive – about half the price of a new iPhone expensive. However, if you love quality gear, especially if you’re an ultramarathoner that needs the very best, this is the watch for you.

8. Suunto 9 Multisport GPS Watch

A step up from the Ambit3, the Suunto 9 is a trail running watch designed to go the distance, literally. Not only does it have a nearly indestructible design with a super-strong case surrounding the sapphire crystal watch face, but it also boasts a one hundred and twenty-hour battery life while tracking with GPS.

That kind of performance is nearly unheard of, and it’s all thanks to the battery conserving “ultra mode” that collects GPS points only sporadically. This feature, along with the FusedTrack tracker that puts all those points together, makes it the watch of choice for endurance/ultra runners.

Even when it’s not operating in the ultra mode, it gets twenty-five hours of runtime, which is nothing to sneeze at.

The Suunto 9 is more than just a battery miser, though; it also has a barometer for accurate elevation readings, a top-notch heart rate monitor, and a touch screen that’s easy to use. You can also easily swap the band out for one that’s less technical looking if you want to wear it every day or to post-run meetups.

While the GPS on this watch is pretty impressive, the tracking features aren’t quite up to the level of the Fenix 5. It doesn’t come with any topographic maps, so while it’ll display your route just fine, you won’t have any detailed information about what lies ahead.

The Suunto 9 is one of the most expensive trail running watches and there’s a good chance you don’t need all of its features or its super-long battery life. If you like to have the best of the best though, this is a great choice.

9. Polar Vantage V GPS Multisport Watch

This is the créme de la créme of Polar’s trail running watch line, and it is packed with features; it has excellent battery life and comes with the easy to use Polar Flow software for analyzing your workouts.

The Vantage V builds on Polar’s wildly popular V800 model. However, this version has a more accurate heart rate monitor that constantly verifies that the watch is in contact with your skin to prevent erroneous readings. It also includes a barometer to provide more accurate altitude readings.

If ever there were a feature-heavy watch, it would be the Vantage V. It has a grand total of six sensors: running and power, cycling speed, cadence, and power, and heart rate. This is in addition to the GPS, GLONASS, and barometer used for tracking your position. Fortunately, all that information is seamlessly integrated using the Polar Flow software.

An unexpected problem? The controls. It has a touchscreen, which would normally be considered an advantage on a trail running watch, but the inclusion of it in addition to the Vantage V’s crown buttons makes menu navigation annoyingly difficult for first-time users. The touchscreen isn’t super responsive either, so it’s unclear if its a welcome addition at all.

This watch doesn’t come cheap, so unless you plan to make use of all the sensors and capabilities, better to go with a less expensive option.

10. Polar M430 GPS Running Watch

Polar has made a name for themselves with high-quality watches that are big on features and are bundled with excellent software. Unfortunately, only the latter is true for their lower-priced M430 watch.

One of the best things about getting a Polar watch is the Polar Flow software, the program that analyzes your workouts and helps you set up new ones. It comes as standard on even their least expensive watches and is incredibly popular with trail runners that really want to get into the weeds with their runs.

The M430 doesn’t have a lot of menus, which makes it easy to scroll through using the few buttons on the crown, but can feel lacking in features.

Fortunately, Polar did an excellent job at making the face easy to read with large numbers and a crisp display. However, because of the way the band connects to the face, the M430 also won’t get a tight fit on smaller wrists. A loose fit is disastrous for the heart rate monitor’s accuracy, so you should just avoid this watch if you have smaller wrists.

In its basic mode, the M430 will run for about two weeks and about twelve hours or so with the GPS running. This is enough for most trail runners, but you’ll need to vigilant about charging it between sessions.

The Polar M430 is one of the less expensive trail running watches out there, but its lackluster accuracy and mediocre battery life make it a fairly niche product. It’s best for runners that are already using the Polar Flow software and don’t want to switch to anything else.