Staff Picks: The Best Fitness Trackers of 2021

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An outdoorsperson checks their watch in a snowfield

Editor’s note: Inventory can be unpredictable this year with COVID-19, so some of the items in this list might be temporarily out of stock when you read this guide. We’ll do our best to update it accordingly. Fitness trackers and watches do so much more now than count steps and track your distance, time and […]

The post Staff Picks: The Best Fitness Trackers of 2021 appeared first on REI Co-op Journal.

An outdoorsperson checks their watch in a snowfield

Editor’s note: Inventory can be unpredictable this year with COVID-19, so some of the items in this list might be temporarily out of stock when you read this guide. We’ll do our best to update it accordingly.


Fitness trackers and watches do so much more now than count steps and track your distance, time and pace. From measuring sleep patterns to analyzing your performance, today’s wearables let you unlock as much data as you want. They’re wrist-based training partners and cheerleaders.

Whether you’re navigating a backcountry trail or tracking oxygen output and heart rate, find the perfect device for your needs. These seven fitness trackers and watches are our favorites for hiking, backpacking, running and everyday wear.

Garmin Instinct Solar GPS Watch

Best GPS Watch for Hiking 

Garmin Instinct Solar GPS Watch

  • Average battery life: Up to 24 days; up to 54 days with solar charging
  • Display size: 45 mm
  • Price: $400

Hikers crave long battery life because it frees them up to venture farther without worrying about plugging in. And the Garmin Instinct Solar is solar powered, so the charge outlasts other devices in our lineup. Garmin says the battery lasts up to 24 days or roughly twice as long with solar charging, though keep in mind that battery life will depend on light conditions (bright sunlight is best) and use.

As for its hiking-specific features, the Instinct is loaded. It boasts a basic altimeter, barometer and compass (ABC) functions, GPS, GLONASS and Galileo navigation and a pulse oximeter. When you pair it with a compatible Garmin InReach device, you can use the wristwatch to remotely control your satellite messenger. The breadcrumb-trail feature allows you to follow the same route back to your starting point, and you can create a route with waypoints at home using the Garmin Connect™ app, then send it to the watch for backcountry use. The Instinct is also waterproof to 30 meters. Buy here.

 

Suunto 9 Baro GPS Watch

Best GPS Watch for Ultrarunners

Suunto 9 Baro GPS Watch

  • Average battery life: 25/40/120 hours
  • Display size: 50 mm
  • Price: $499–$599

Looking for a GPS watch that won’t bonk before you do? The Suunto 9 Baro’s battery life—lasting up to 120 hours—means you can venture farther and longer. Smart batteries on the 9 Baro help you manage usage so you can plan ahead, depending on your activity. For example, set the watch to ultra mode if you need the most efficient battery life. (There are three predefined battery modes, or you can create a custom battery mode). The 9 Baro also sends reminders when you need to switch battery modes or recharge it for an upcoming trip based on activity history.

The 9 Baro stands out for its route-finding capabilities. You can program routes to leave digital breadcrumbs called track points that let you backtrack on a route with loads more success than Hansel and Gretel. “When it comes to the programmable routes and breadcrumbs, it’s hard to state how valuable that feature is,” says Braden van Dragt, an REI content producer and ultrarunner. “Being able to have turn-by-turn directions when you’re in the backcountry is huge. Come to the fork in the trail and you have immediate feedback on which way to turn.” Buy here.

 

Garmin Forerunner 245 Music GPS Watch

Best GPS Watch for Runners 

Garmin Forerunner 245 Music GPS Watch

  • Average battery life: Up to 6 hours in GPS mode with music; up to 7 days in smartwatch mode
  • Display size: 42.3 mm
  • Price: $350

Garmin’s Forerunner series is geared toward runners, and the Forerunner 245 Music is a solid choice for music lovers eager to ditch their smartphone. You can load as many as 500 songs onto the watch or stream music from selected services on your phone (this may require a premium subscription). Pair the watch with Bluetooth-enabled headphones or buds, then listen wirelessly on the move.

Aside from tracking distance and heart rate, the Forerunner 245 Music offers a slate of other performance measurements worthy of a personal trainer. One feature predicts race times based on training history; another tells you how much time you should spend recovering before another hard session. The 245 Music doesn’t have GPS navigation features or an altimeter like the Forerunner 745 GPS, but you can view your elevation profile in the app after the fact. You can also bring in extra widgets, change the watch face and add data fields using the Connect™ app to customize the watch to your needs. Buy here.

Other versions: Garmin Forerunner 245 GPS Watch  (does not include music storage)

 

Fitbit Charge 4

Best Fitness Band

Fitbit Charge 4

  • Average battery life: Up to 5 hours with GPS; up to 7 days during regular use
  • Price: $149.95

“The Fitbit Charge 4 does a lot of great things without going too overboard,” says Christa Lindsey, experiences sales lead at the REI store in Sacramento, California. Its primary job is to track your fitness, which it does well. It continuously records a variety of data, such as steps, distance and heart rate, and tracks your progress against daily goals that you set. It also comes with built-in GPS—a pleasant surprise at this price point—so you can see your pace and distance on the move. Add in a 24/7 heart-rate sensor and smartwatch features (which work when your phone is paired and nearby) like push notifications and contactless payment, and you’ve got the best value fitness tracker in our lineup. Buy here.

 

Garmin fenix 6 Sapphire Multisport GPS Watch

Best Multisport GPS Watch

Garmin Fenix 6 Sapphire

  • Average battery life: Up to 14 days
  • Display size: 47 mm
  • Price: $800

The Garmin fenix 6 Sapphire is the ultimate multi-tool for your outdoor adventures. It’s techy enough for gearheads, chic enough to dress up and feature-rich for any outdoor pursuit. You’ll find a wealth of training and outdoor functions like a wrist-based heart-rate sensor and a pulse oximeter that measures oxygen levels in your blood, which can help you see when you’ve acclimatized in high altitudes without waiting for symptoms. There’s also real-time pacing.

But what sets the waterproof (to 100 meters) fenix 6 Sapphire apart on this list is its unparalleled GPS functionality. It uses 1:100,000 preloaded topo maps based off data from GPS, GLONASS and Galileo satellites, giving it the best coverage of any watch here. (Attention, powder hounds: It also comes preloaded with maps for 2,000 ski resorts, so you’ll never wonder where you are on the hill again.) It also has an altimeter, compass, gyroscope, accelerometer and thermometer.

As with all Garmin watches, the size and scope of the Garmin app store opens possibilities to customize your watch for your activity needs. “If you’re willing to spend the time learning the interface, you can create exactly the watch and data fields for what it is you want to do,” says Brad Stenger, an REI sales associate in Rochester, New York.

You’d think all those activity-specific features and GPS capabilities would make the fenix 6 the size of a tennis ball, but it’s slim and sleek (much like a regular wristwatch). It’s good-looking enough to wear daily (swap out wrist bands for more style options) yet rugged enough that you needn’t worry about playing too hard. Buy here.

Other versions: S – smaller face; No letter – medium; X – bigger sizes

Versions: fenix 6X Sapphire, fenix 6S Sapphire

 

Casio G-Shock GBA800 Fitness Watch

Best Digital Watch

Casio G-Shock GBA800

  • Average battery life: 2 years
  • Price: $120

For more than 37 years, the Casio line of G-Shock watches has attracted loyal fans devoted to the timepiece’s rugged profiles and military-grade toughness. The GBA800 is “a small step up from the classic G-Shock watch,” says Cole Erickson, REI’s merchandising buyer of electronics. This iteration is smaller compared to previous models. Another nice touch? You don’t have to worry about charging it for a long time. “You’ll never plug it in while getting about two years on the battery,” Erickson says.

Though the GBA800 isn’t a smartwatch or a GPS watch, it hides plenty of tech. When you link it via Bluetooth to the G-Shock Connected app, you can check out basic fitness data like the number of steps you’ve taken and calories you’ve burned. The GBA800 can store stopwatch data (200 lap records) and measure five levels of exercise intensity. Buy here.

 

Polar Vantage M GPS Watch

Best Watch for Wrist-Based Heart-Rate Tracking

Polar Vantage M GPS Watch

  • Average battery life: 30 hours in GPS mode; up to 5 days in watch mode
  • Display size: 46 mm
  • Price: $279.95

Polar has been the pioneer in wireless heart rate technology for more than 40 years, and the Vantage M is a go-to choice if you’re looking to use heart rate to help you train but want the convenience of a wrist-based device (rather than a chest strap). The watch uses optical sensors in combination with other technology to deliver reliable, consistent heart rate readings when worn correctly.

The Vantage M, integrated with GPS and GLONASS, measures speed, distance and altitude for activities, even swimming. Five physical buttons (no touchscreen) let you control your watch even with gloved hands. Another cool feature is the ability to parse your training load: how your workouts strain your body like your cardiovascular system. The watch measures how much you’ve strained yourself during a workout and compares that to your average over previous sessions to show you how your training changes. In this way, it’s also an excellent companion for gym workouts. Buy here.

Shop All Watches

Buying Advice

When choosing a fitness tracker or GPS watch, consider the following factors.

How Do You Plan to Use It?

Identify your specific fitness and training goals so you can narrow your choices. Which features do you absolutely need, and which can you live without? If you’re training for a marathon, triathlon or other competition, you may want a watch with lots of data and training tools such as the Garmin fenix 6 Sapphire. A multiday backpacker or mountaineer would appreciate the navigation tools of the Garmin watches in our list. If your goal is to simply stay active, you could probably get by with one of the more affordable trackers in our lineup like the Fitbit Charge 4 or the Casio G-Shock GBA800.

Durability is a key factor for recreationists who spend a lot of time in rugged environments; the fenix 6 Sapphire and Casio G-Shock excel in this feature.

Most of the brands mentioned in this guide require the use of a proprietary app to take full advantage of an array of the fitness tracker’s features. Many also allow you to connect to third-party apps. Your experience with the app may influence how happy you are with a particular device’s features. It’s worth checking out the apps on your phone before buying.

Style and Comfort

Looks and comfort do matter, particularly if you plan to wear your watch on a regular basis. Some fitness trackers and watches with larger display screens make it easier to use but can overwhelm smaller wrists. The display screen of the Suunto 9 Baro GPS Watch is the largest in this lineup, while the Fitbit Charge 4 is smallest.

Budget

Fitness trackers can get expensive, fast. Higher-end GPS watches come loaded with features, some which you may never use. If you’re not running an ultramarathon, you may not need your watch to last up to 24 days at a time. Again, consider your needs.

How to Choose Fitness Electronics

Methodology

We asked our REI Co-op sales associates and staff for their favorite fitness trackers and watches that are sold by REI. They reported back with their top picks.

The post Staff Picks: The Best Fitness Trackers of 2021 appeared first on REI Co-op Journal.

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