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What is a GPS Watch?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 17, 2024
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A GPS watch uses wrist-top Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology to provide a convenient mapping device for adventure enthusiasts. Unlike separate GPS units, the watch is worn on the wrist and also tells the time. Some models include an integrated chronograph, compass, barometer, altimeter and thermometer functions. Fitting GPS technology into a wrist-top device that is easy to use and consumes little power takes creative engineering and ingenuity. Models differ as to features, but in general, they are targeted towards serious hikers, climbers, bicyclists, boaters, and adventurers.

The GPS uses satellite triangulation to determine the exact position of the wearer, normally within a few feet (about 1 meter). By checking your position periodically, the watch calculates the distance traveled and rate of speed, including rate of ascent when applicable. Marking waypoints, or distances to existing waypoints, are part of the feature set. A good GPS watch will ensure you stay on the trail even when nature has obscured landmarks, or intersecting paths make it difficult to follow. One with a built-in compass can be a true life saver to anyone who travels off the beaten path.

One feature to watch for when considering a GPS watch is PC integration. By using proprietary software, an integrated watch can download or upload maps from all over the world to use during biking, backpacking, paddling and more.

A PC-enabled GPS watch can also be a great training tool. Just upload consecutive logs from your watch to your PC and the software will analyze and compare your performance. Based on the results, you can plan your next excursion, map it out, and upload it for your next trip.

While Casio was reportedly the first to get a GPS watch to market, the design of this pioneering device was rather bulky. Current models are quite attractive, taking the form of multi-mode digital sports watches. Prices range according to model and features. Whether or not prices fall over time might largely depend on demand in this highly lucrative niche market.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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