GPS sports watches

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GPS sports watches are now common, but they are not suitable as a primary device for bush navigation.

Depending on the manufacturer and model, a GPS sports watch can provide the following features:

  • GPS useful to get a quick grid reference, but note that GPS use flattens the battery. 
  • Apps for specific activities and other functions, e.g. altimeter/barometer.
  • Digital compass but not useful compared to a baseplate magnetic compass.
  • Maps – but screen size is too small to be useful for bush navigation.
  • Connectivity with mobile phone is a standard feature that should be avoided while bushwalking as it will flatten both the watch and phone batteries.

A wide range of GPS sports watches are available ranging from $80 to $1200.  Consider the essential features needed when purchasing. Battery life is a key consideration.

Pros and cons of using a GPS sports watch for navigation


  • Can get grid reference of current location.
  • Grid reference format can be set to required map datum.
  • Can create and label waypoints.
  • “Track back” function can retrace a route.


  • Short battery life when GPS is on; e.g. when using mapping or tracking functions.
  • Screen size too small to display a topographic map that is useful.
  • Need to convert longform grid reference to 6 figures for referencing a paper map.
  • Controls and menus fiddly and non intuitive – difficult to access information.
  • Touch screen doesn’t work well when wet.

Tips for using a GPS sports watch

  • Set the map datum (usually UTM).
  • Do not leave the GPS or tracking function on all the time – use these only when needed to avoid flattening the battery.
  • Learn how to convert from long grid references to 6 digits to plot locations on a map.
  • Carry the charging cable and a battery pack on extended trips to recharge it.

Note: this section intentionally avoids excessive technical detail.