What You Need To Know About Wrist-Based Mapping In GPS Watches

New technology helps make discovering great runs anywhere in the world increasingly easy. Lots of new GPS watches now not only track the usual run stats but can help show the way, with deep mapping and even turn-by-turn navigation.

How does GPS-based mapping work?

GPS watches and our phones receive signals from a constellation of satellites designed to provide accurate locations worldwide. Your devices keep track of your exact location and determine your pace and distance. The most common format for location data is called GPX. GPX format files contain the data to create tracks or routes of where you or others went. If you then import them into a compatible device, they can be followed.

Where can I find routes and courses to plan my adventures?

Strava is a great resource, with millions of runs, rides, and other activities recorded worldwide. They are discoverable by location and by name. For example: a race, trail or athlete. Strava also has heatmaps showing the most popular runs for a given location. Meanwhile, Suunto’s Movescount also has worldwide maps of popular routes for all sorts of activities, easily downloadable—no Suunto watch or account required. All Strava and Movescount runs, rides and other tracked routes are easily exported as GPX files.

RELATED: 7 Great Apps To Track Your Running Data

Wrist-based maps

GPS watches including the new Garmin fenix 5X ($700) and Casio Pro Trek WSD-F20 ($500) can display maps without a phone signal. The maps are similar to what you can see on your phone, miniaturized.

With the groundbreaking Garmin fenix 5X you can import any GPX file to the watch—one you have created or one found elsewhere. Using its built-in base maps of all roads, you can get turn by turn directions for your route, with distances to the next turn, vibration alerts when it’s time to turn, ETA and distance to the finish—plus direction and distance to get back on course if you need. It can also suggest courses to follow of any distance and in any direction from where you are standing. It even includes built-in topographic maps of the entire U.S. Not a running watch, the hiking, cycling, paddling and skiing focused Android Wear Casio Pro Trek WSD-F20 has phone-free color maps and satellite views, weather trends from its sensors, altimeter and a compass. It’s best with an Android phone, as iOS functionality is limited.

GPS run watches such as the TomTom Adventurer ($350) as well as all TomTom Spark 3 ($130 and up), Polar V800 ($500), Suunto Spartan ($500 and up) and other watches in the fenix 5 series allow you to import GPX files to the watches. You see your position as a line relative to the route you loaded and want to follow. (Your other run stats are still available on other screens.) TomTom and the National Parks Foundation have released a curated National Parks trail routes for upload to the Adventurer, just in time for summer exploration.

Most of these watches also let you create a route by clicking off its segments on a map at their websites to create a route file you can upload to the watches.

RELATED: Wrist Bling—Advanced GPS Watches With Style

But Don’t Forget

While using these watches in the wilderness, always have a paper map, compass and the skills to use them. Tech does fail or run out of juice.

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