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Trailhack#107: Using the Apple iWatch for Hiking and Outdoor Adventures

The invention of the Apple iWatch is a technological advancement that never ceases to amaze me. Despite being one more device that I need to charge at night, it has outstanding functional use on the trail.


It's important to note that the Garmin watch lineup gives Apple a run for its money, especially with the solar functionality that charges while it's on your wrist. Wowza. I have heard great reviews about the Fenix and have it on the list to try one out (so Garmin, if you're reading this, wink, wink).


However, since I am married to the Apple Eco-System at the moment, let's start with this device. The Apple iWatch provides a number of features that are great — the interface and compatibility with your phone and apps. There are many ways to think about the iWatch and its function on the trail.

  • Using the watch to track mileage, caloric burn, and activity

  • Navigation and Directional Assistance

  • Information such as weather, sunrise/sunset, and general communications

Each of these functions will determine how to think about your Apple iWatch and mainly the face settings that you use to configure for your trip. The great news is that the watch allows for many different watch configurations and allows you to switch left to right to change between them. For example, I travel frequently for work and one of my watch faces is time zones. Despite decades of travel, the concept of times zones still continues to illude me — this is where the iWatch excels in making my life easier.


Apple vs. Garmin


While both Apple and Garmin make great watches, we’re only going to discuss the Apple iWatch today. My experience is primarily with the Apple iWatch for the reasons above - interface and apps. If you are curious about the Garmin in comparison to the Apple, the Latitude Photography Podcast has a pretty good conversation around Garmin v. Apple that’s worth a listen if you are contemplating the two options. Brent Bergherm and Liam Douglas have a solid conversation comparing how they view the features and benefits.

So, let’s get started, I start with activity, transition to navigation, and then show some examples of the informational faces that can be used to benefit your trek during the day.


Using the Watch to Track Mileage, Caloric Burn, and Activity


The activity tracking component of the iWatch is relatively straightforward. In fact, Apple has an entire page that is dedicated to the configuration and tracking of your weekly activity — Track daily activity with Apple Watch - Apple Support. Track daily activity with Apple Watch - Apple Support.

We’re not going to spend much time on this topic. The long and short is that the iWatch has faces that will show your progress for the day and you can configure it in a number of ways.

The most important part of the tracking of activity on your iWatch when hiking is to actually start tracking said activity. You can do that by tapping on the Workout App from the apps on your iWatch and using the crown (knob to scroll to hiking).

Using the Watch as a Navigation and Directional Assistance Tool

This is where the watch really excels with hiking in my opinion. In our previous Blog posts, we have discussed the technology and gear that we use when on the trail and in the field. This is a great starting point to think about how you might use the watch for Navigation and Directional Assistance.

Let me start with what it can’t do for you. In the Blog post above, I sing praises about OnX Hunt and less about Garmin for navigation despite the company having a strong history in navigation (ironic). So let’s start with those two navigation tools.

  • Garmin: The Garmin Alpha® 200i & TT 15 Bundle | Dog Tracker & Training is fired up at the start of EVERY trek into the backcountry, this device is essentially the Garmin InReach Explorer+ for navigation assistance, but it is not the primary tool used for navigation. This is a big miss for Garmin in our opinion, the watch and the device do not really do very much for one another.

  • OnX Hunt: This tool is really for your phone. The view on the maps would be too small for viewing on the watch and there is no way to actually map a trail within the Hunt app. They now have a Backcountry app, but at the time I am writing this, it doesn’t have the richness of the OnX Hunt mapping detail (e.g., private v. public, land types, etc).

This leaves two other apps that we talked about in the Blog post that are extremely valuable on the Apple Watch which is AllTrails: Hike, Bike & Run on the App Store (apple.com) and Footpath Route Planner on the App Store (apple.com). These two apps are outstanding when it comes to wrist-related navigation with one catch. In order to optimize the benefits of both, you must create the route in advance and/or have selected the route you are navigating.

  • All Trails: Select a trail that you are going to hike, fire it off to start the trek, and you can view your watch for navigation. If you are not navigating on a trail that has an official map, you’ll want to create the trail in the All Trails Pro desktop interface.

  • Footpath Route Planner: You’ll need to map the trail in advance to gain navigation assistance on the trail. It’s easy to do in the iPhone interface, it’s a matter of drawing on the screen with your finger.

If you are directionally challenged, on your next hike — you’ll be a rock star and no one will know the better. Your wrist will buzz when it’s time to turn or your off course. We have found that both of these apps work extremely well with little issue. But,

  • You MUST download the offline maps

  • You must start the tracking at the beginning of your hike

So what do these apps look like when they are on your wrist…


AllTrails: Hike, Bike & Run | Apple iWatch Interface


If you open the All Trails app on your Apple iWatch,

  • You can start to track yourself without the route guidance by opening the All Trails app from your Apple iWatch.

  • If you are looking to gain the route guidance to keep you on track and also track your trip details, you’ll need to use your iPhone to select your trail and start from your phone — then open All Trails on your Apple iWatch (only after you started your activity from your phone).


Footpath Route Planner | Apple iWatch Planner


Similarly with Footpath Route Planner app on your Apple iWatch,

  • If you have previously created a map and are looking to gain the route guidance to keep you on track and also track your trip details, you’ll need to use your iPhone to select your route and start from your phone — then open Footpath on your Apple iWatch (only after you started your activity from your phone).


Each of these apps is great for keeping tabs on where you are going when out in the backcountry. I will reiterate that you need to download the OFFLINE MAPS for this to work properly if you are out of cell coverage. Count on being out of cell coverage.


Information such as weather, sunrise/sunset, and general communications


The Apple iWatch has endless configuration between the watch faces and information that can be displayed to aid with hiking and outdoor adventures. I would suggest that you peek around at configurations if this is something of interest. There are a few key features that I think are important to call out.

  • Weather: Information is provided through the Apple Weather App (which is The Weather Channel) and Forecast Bar - Weather + Radar

  • Navigation: Apple uses the internal Compass and elevation

  • Sunrise/Sunset: Provided from the Apple Clocks functionality

For the layouts below, I have a few examples of:

  • Infograph

  • Infograph Modular

For each of the watch faces, there are configurations of weather forecast by the hour, rain, sunrise/sunset, compass, elevation, and wind speed. I encourage you to tinker with the right face that works for you. There is a wealth of options to choose from and each can meet the needs of your day. For example:

  • Rain in the Forecast: If you know that rain is a chance, we like to have a view of the rain forecast by the hour and track it closely. Remember that sometimes the data will not update if you are not in cell coverage. Forecast Bar is pretty good for providing hourly tracking with accuracy.

  • Tricky Traversing: The compass functionality is handing when the trails are zig-zagging around up and down and you might lose your sense of directionality.

  • Early Morning or Late in the Day: Should you be heading out later in the day or planning to hit the sunrise, this functionality is great to track when you need to start to head back. And to complement that, you should consider PhotoPills (see below). This will give you even more accuracy for when lighting changes and you’ll have the last light (blue hour).

Overall, the Apple iWatch is a great companion for hiking whether it’s for activity tracking, navigation, or information — if you have interest in any of these details, you can’t go wrong.


Special Call-out: If you’re interested in Sunrise/Sunset, I would suggest downloading the PhotoPills on the App Store (apple.com) and creating a Widget on your iPhone Home screen. It’s quite exceptional with the information that it provides.


We hope this information was valuable for you and happy hiking!

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