Apple Watch 7 – make yours adventure-ready
I decided to research and write this post after trying to turn the Apple Watch 7 into a ‘Garmin Fenix 7‘. I did find some great alternatives to SOME of the Garmin’s outdoors features but I’m not going to try to kid you that the Apple Watch beats the Garmin Fenix for pro outdoor usage, so please read on in the spirit of adventure whilst still realising that the Apple Watch is not always something for weekend adventurers to sniff at.
Must Read: Apple Watch 7 Review
That said, the Apple Watch 7 is the best smartwatch and it’s a good running and fitness watch too. For sure, it’s not the best tool to help you scale Everest but it can be used to boost your enjoyment on adventures that involve technical challenges like following a route, avoiding a storm or making sure you’ll be back before sunset. If you already have an Apple Watch 7 then a few free or low-cost apps might save you splashing your cash on a new outdoors watch like a Fenix 7 that you might never truly need.
This article also becomes an Apple Watch 7 vs Fenix 7 comparison at times albeit narrowed down to outdoor usage. But if you want a smartwatch 360 days a year and an adventure watch for 5 days a year then this post should let you know how your Apple Watch can sensibly bridge that gap.
Table of Contents (Click to Expand)
Some quick background on the Apple Watch 7 for outdoors
The Apple Watch 7 was initially rumoured to be released with an accompanying outdoors version. That didn’t happen but what did happen was that the Series 7 had improved dust-proofing. Current rumours claim that it is the Series 8 (2022) that will now come as a Fenix competitor but I’m not so sure…the rumour mill could just have got carried away with the dust-proofing. Anyway, the important point for you is that it might be worth waiting until September 2022 if you really want a Series 8 designed for the outdoors.
The technical challenges you might face outdoors will be “many and varied“. Let’s start with your need for some tools that will help you plan and prepare for these environmental challenges:
- Getting emergency help
- Rugged Strap, Case & Lens
- Accessories: Adding physical protection
- Accessories: Emergency Charging
- Onboard sensor: Compass
- Onboard sensor: Altimeter
- Onboard sensor: Barometer
- Onboard connectivity:
- App: Weather
- App: Daylight Tracking
- App: Follow Routes
The first 4 of these relate to the precise Apple Watch model that’s best suited for the outdoors and hot to better protect the one you buy
Getting Emergency Help
If you are concerned about the possibility of needing emergency help then you need to consider the watch’s ability to automatically detect & report an accident. For example, if you are unconscious, then you need to consider how the watch can call for help.
Both the Apple Watch 7 and Garmin Fenix 7 can ask for emergency help via your smartphone, indeed the Stainless Steel (LTE) versions of the Apple Watch do not even need your phone to be present. However, these features are useless if you plan to travel beyond the range of normal phone signals.
Watch 7 is waterproof to 50m and the Fenix 7 to 100m, so both of those are OK. However, the Fenix 7 passes fairly comprehensive MIL 810 standards, covering impact, sand/dust, fungus, humidity and more, the Watch 7 only claims dust proofing to IP6X.
For weekend adventurers, the ability to contend with weeks of exposure to equatorial fungus is perhaps overkill and you will be more concerned about your strap breaking, your case scratching or the lens cracking or scratching.
Apple Watch 7 – Nomad Rugged Strap
At one extreme, the standard Garmin Fenix 7 strap will be fine for your adventures however your non-Apple-branded strap may not be up to much more than a brisk walk in the park.
I’ve used the super high-quality NOMAD leather straps for a while and they are very elegant and look great with a work shirt. Perhaps not great for a storm as my main one is made of leather. “Fear not!” Nomad said, “try this…” they said and here is their updated 2022 outdoors strap
This strap has a slightly improved design over the earlier model being made from a strong, vulcanised FKM fluoroelastomer. It feels super-strong and has the comfort to boot. In this case, I have the sleek black colour with 316-stainless steel lugs and buckle which match the aluminium case or chrome cases on the AW. There is a thin slotted pattern on the top of the band and breathable ribbed grooves on the underside. From a technical perspective, it’s been tested to resist a 5-20 kgf lateral slide-out force when in the Apple Watch and of course is super sport-friendly as well. It is water-resistant and can be used for adventures and swimming. The material is able to resist high temperatures, sunlight, and chemicals while also repelling oils so it can be wiped clean after any outing.
It’s a much higher-durability strap than you would get on a typical Garmin, thicker than on my Fenix 7 for example, plus, in comparison, the metal lugs/buckle exude quality. You can also see from the images above that there is more detail on the underside than a typical Garmin strap. Apple Watch straps vary in price from a few dollars/pounds up to a few hundred. The Nomad Rugged is priced in line with those from Apple at $49.95,or direct from Nomad here.
- Get the Nomad Rugged Strap for £57.00, Eu63 or direct from Nomad here.
- Try the cool-looking Nomad Sport strap for £35, $34, Eu42 or direct from Nomad here.
My Garmin Fenix 7 (standard) has a fibre-reinforced polymer case, metal rear cover and stainless steel bezel. That is going to get me through any serious adventure however, within a month I had quite a few small scratches on the metal bezel. You will expect that for an adventure watch but you might not want that if you have to wear the same watch to work on Monday. Thus I was a little disappointed. I could, of course, have spent over $/£1000 on the titanium bezel of the Fenix 7X but that seemed like an expensive overkill.
I did go for the overkill option on my Apple Watch 7 45mm Stainless Steel which I am yet to scratch and I wear it a lot. However, even the cheaper aluminium case options for Apple Watch, in my experience, have no problem with scratches to the metal.
All my older Apple Watches were aluminium case models and therefore all come with Apple Ion-X glass. All of them have lens scratches and I would consider myself a generally careful person. The Ion-X glass is just not as good as the Sapphire Crystal that comes only with the stainless steel versions of the Apple Watch.
The standard Fenix 7 comes with Corning Gorilla Glass DX and I’ve never scratched one of those. More expensive Fenix 7 models come with superior Sapphire glass. Older Garmins used chemically strengthened glass which was not so good.
The bottom line here for Apple Watch 7 owners is that you need to get a Sapphire Lens version, but it’s probably too late as you already have the watch. In which case you need to consider protection.
Accessories: Adding physical protection
There is further protection for the screen from numerous screen protectors where you can buy packs of one use screen-films or a re-usable screen casing
- Get the reusable screen protector for £10/$10/Eu10
This ActionSleeve from TwelveSouth ($39.99) is interesting in two ways, it provides great protection for the case as well as a seriously long strap that will enable you to wear the watch on top of your coat/outer layers on those cold days when you are navigating. The AW7 DOES fit the strap even though TwelveSouth haven’t tested its suitability.
Accessories: Emergency Charging
To alleviate battery issues for multi-day adventures, there are several powerful chargers specifically designed for the Apple Watch, like iWalk (UK/EU) or Choetech (USA/CA)
Apple Watch 7 – Compass
If you have an Apple Watch 5 or later then you have an onboard magnetic compass and a pre-loaded compass app.
The compass app is a thing of beauty. Putting that to one side, it usually points in the right direction too! I say ‘usually’ because some metal straps can affect the accuracy of the compass on the AW.
I prefer to use one of the complications that come with the compass app. ie I will add the compass complication to a custom watch face. Here you can see the compass complication shown as a circle and as a bar both compared to the Garmin 945 widget glance and Garmin Compass Widget.
- The compass app aids some navigations by allowing you to enter, change and navigate with a bearing.
- There are subtle cross-hairs at the centre of the compass dial, use these to ensure your watch face is properly flat as a twisted or tilted wrist can give you incorrect directional info.
- If you rotate up the crown, the compass app also gives you your elevation, latitude and longitude.
- For AW4 and earlier you can download a 3rd party compass app that will work to varying degrees by the clever use of the GPS and accelerometer. A GPS-based compass relies on the understanding of the difference between GPS points and thus works best when you are moving. The accelerometer can detect when you stop moving and hence stop the compass app’s reliance on your changing GPS position.
Apple Watch 7 – Altimeter
An altimeter works out your distance above sea level, on land we refer to that as elevation. It is possible for a watch to determine elevation based on GNSS/GLONASS/GPS and many do that. However, the Apple Watch 3 saw the introduction of a barometric altimeter that determines elevation change based on changes in air pressure, the broad reasoning being that when you go up the pressure goes down. Putting your glorious adventures in the wild to one side, altimeters are often used to determine how many flights of stairs you have ascended in a day…That’s how sensitive they are to changes in air pressure. Apple Watch 6, SE and Watch 7 all now have an ‘always on’ altimeter and my take on that is that the AW is periodically recalibrating the altimeter, based on your location, so increasing its apparent accuracy. Thus, in my experience, AW7’s altimeter is accurate for example, I always find that the AW7 has correctly calibrated elevation when I leave home; maybe in a forest and on a hillside with a storm approaching the AW7 might not be so accurate. #ItsComplicated.
Most competing outdoor watches with barometric altimeters like Suunto 7 will have the same issues 1) what is the correct starting elevation? and 2) Am I correctly measuring elevation change if air pressure is also changing due to weather?
There is no dedicated ‘Altimeter’ app pre-loaded on the Apple Watch, indeed your elevation and the accuracy of the elevation are shown in the Compass app and are available as a complication. I rarely look at the elevation when running/walking, so it doesn’t deserve much screen real estate… I find it best to include elevation as a complication on my watch face or even to just scroll down to it after opening the compass app.
Recommended 3rd party app: Altimeter+
Apple Watch 7 – Barometer
During your adventure, you have another use for the barometer. If you are stationary over an extended period then changes to air pressure could alert you to an approaching storm. I found a few apps that give storm alerts and severe weather alerts but I don’t think any of them determined the alert solely on barometric pressure changes (for when you are off-grid)
Another issue was that I could not find any easy, free way to show a complication of barometric pressure. However several fullscreen apps do show atmospheric pressure. Fbarometric complications do seem to be available on the paid-for versions of Carrot weather and MyRadar.
Suggested 3rd party app: Carrot (not free and a little bit quirky/fun). It has a pressure complication, shown above.
Apple Watch 7 – Weather Forecast
With an Apple Watch 7 LTE or connected over mobile data on your iPhone, you can continually update the weather forecast on your watch. If you know you are going to be out of cell range during your adventure you could pre-load one of your route points, like Yosemite National Park, into the Apple weather app which is only updated when there is an internet connection. That’s fine for a day-long trip but that’s about it.
Apps like MyRadar take weather to a higher level by introducing weather alert notifications as well as having a cool full-screen weather radar view which might add some value if you plan to take cover. The free MyRadar app has no active complications that you can add to your watch face.
You’ve probably also heard people speaking very highly of the frequent, localised weather updates on Dark Sky. Expect more from that as it’s now owned by Apple.
Apple Watch 7 – Daylight Tracking
My road bike adventures seem to always end just after dusk, luckily I always have a rear radar light (Varia RTL515), I seem to be less lucky with trail adventures, ending up running or cycling in mildly-dangerous moonlit situations. Even if you are more organised than me, the best-made plans still go astray and it’s wise to be aware of dusk and sunset (twilight) times.
My best and prettiest solution for this was to combine Apple’s Solar Dial watch face with complications from the Solar Watch Sunrise Sunset app. It all looks cool but I’m not entirely convinced it provides the information I want in the best way for aiding adventures. The Solar Dial watch face lets you know the next astronomical event and you can scroll between them with the crown, I think the same settings on the Garmin watch face, shown above, are more in-your-face and obvious (better).
You could perhaps consider other iPhone-only apps like Sundial and then set up a sunset/dusk alert that pops up on your watch as a notification. After all, you won’t be constantly looking at the sunset time all day whereas, with a compass, you might frequently look at it.
Apple Watch 7 – Following a Route
Route planning and then following that route on the Apple Watch opens up a vast amount of complexity that’s beyond the scope of this post. There are many Watch OS apps that deliver routing features from differing perspectives. From a tech perspective, the watch can be working by itself to guide you OR a phone app can be guiding you from your rucksack and the watch acts as an extension of your phone but conveniently on your wrist.
When following a route, many Apple Watch apps will frequently vibrate and indicate when, where and how you next need to turn. That’s fine. They tend to work well but you are trusting them to be correct.
Apple’s Map app works to direct you in the way I’ve just described. However, it also has the ‘map intelligence’ built in to re-route you and you can check your progress on the map on the watch too. The latest release of Apple Maps in Watch OS8 also has directions optimised for cycling.
The Apple Map app has clear and somewhat rudimentary map imagery. It’s fine, I guess. However, you can get more detailed maps that are better suited for your adventures with other apps. The following example shows the WorkOutDoors app which is pretty cool but costs £3.99. You download OSM map tiles to your watch and you can trace your route over the pretty map tiles and still leave your phone at home. The workoutdoors app can import routes via your iCloud account and is also highly customisable for sports usage and well-liked by many people.
If you want to download and follow a standard digital route like US National Trails, UK trails and many similar routes across the world. You could use the popular Komoot app, Komoot is especially popular in mainland Europe and I would say it’s one of the prettier navigation apps out there but its Watch app does require your iPhone to be connected.
Thoughts: Can Apple Watch 7 really replace the Fenix 7?
The Apple Watch 7 can be a great tool for your mini-adventures if you already own an iPhone. No one is suggesting it is going to be used by extreme explorers any day soon.
However, if you want to use your existing Watch Series 7 for adventures then you will have to overcome these three hurdles
- The suitability of the physical package – you can always protect your aluminium Watch 7 with a more rugged strap, case protector and screen protector.
- Battery life – you can always carry a charger &/or battery pack
- Convenience – Whilst a compendium of apps may well meet your needs you have to research and install them all. The Fenix 7 comes with everything pre-installed.
Perhaps let’s ask the question in reverse. Q: Can the Fenix 7 replace the Apple Watch 7? A: Fenix is simply not as good a smartwatch as the Apple Watch when it comes to clever & deep integration with Apple devices, and I suspect that most people prefer the aesthetics of Apple too. Thus if you really want the very best smartwatch for your iPhone then you will need to seriously consider getting the Apple Watch 7 and simply making do with its limitations when occasionally out in the wild.
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