Getting the Most Out of Your GPS Smart Watch
Smart watches, like smart everythings, are experiencing rapid growth in usage rates. They are a useful device for tracking everything from steps, distance, altitude and calories burned, through to providing users with a compass on their wrist and a way to record GPX files of every adventure they do.
But it isn’t an uncommon experience for a new user to become frustrated with little anomalies and inaccuracies that detract from the device’s perceived usability and effectiveness.
What’s more, the locations the outdoor adventurers frequently visit, such as rainforest canopies and rugged landscapes, are the most difficult places to get reliable GPS connections, which detract from the accuracy of these devices.
Luckily, there are steps that can be taken to improve the overall accuracy of your GPS smart watch and ensure you get the very most out of it on every adventure.
To put these tips into perspective, before I started using them, I was getting ‘drop-outs’ when tracking, causing the GPX file to have sections that resembled straight lines or where the tracking would shoot off to an obscure point and back again shortly after. These issues rendered the recordings and their associated metrics as basically useless.
For those who don’t like to beat around the bush (pun intended), here is a quick list of the tips. More details are provided below for each tip.
Check you have the optimal device settings.
Ensure you battery is fully charged.
Sync the watch with its app for the latest satellite data and software.
Calibrate the Compass, Altimeter and Barometer before every activity.
Soak the GPS after getting a 'GPS Ready' message when starting tracking.
A quick note: there are a wide range of brands and models in the market, such as Garmin, Suunto, Casio, Fitbit, Apple and Samsung. Different brands and models have different capabilities and settings. This article will provide examples related to a Garmin Fenix 5 (the specific watch I have), but most tips will be readily transferrable to any watch with the same capabilities. If it isn’t quickly apparent how to change this setting on your watch, there are loads of videos on YouTube showing step-by-step how to find and adjust these settings.
Tip 1: Ensure you have the optimal device settings.
There are a number of settings that should be adjusted in order to get the most accurate recordings from your watch. They are as follows:
This refers to which global satellite systems your watch can use to get the tracking information. Depending on your watch, you may only have access to GPS (US), but some watches also have access to GLONASS (Russia) and GALILEO (EU).
Generally speaking, the more satellite systems you use when tracking, the more likely you are to gain accurate recordings, with the best system arguably being GPS, followed by GLONASS and then GALILEO.
Recommended Garmin setting: GPS + GLONASS
Data Recording Method
This refers to how often the watch records a GPS point when tracking your activity (e.g., every second, every minute). For increased accuracy, you want to make sure this is as frequent as possible.
If you set your watch to record a GPS point ‘every second’, this will produce richer detail in recorded activities/tracks than a setting of ‘every minute’. For example, say you are zig-zagging down a series of switchbacks on a track.
The longer the time between each GPS point being recorded, the more likely you will be to lose some of the true nature of the shape of the track (e.g., it may miss an entire back-and-forth switchback if it takes you a minute to walk that section).
While more frequent data recording will mean more battery drain, most watches are more than capable of recording 12 hours or more when recording a GPS point every second.
Recommended Garmin setting: Every Second
Following on from data recording method, the auto pause function found on some watches is also very important.
This setting is designed to automatically pause the tracking when you stop, to prevent the watch from recording multiple GPS points in a single spot when you are stopped (for example, at a waterfall, having lunch).
This is important given that there is always going to be a degree of error in GPS recordings. At best, most watches will typically claim to get within 10 metres of your actual location.
So, if your watch records 30 GPS points while you take a 30 second break, that could add some additional distance to your metrics based simply on that margin of error (this is why some GPX files have spots that resemble messy balls of string).
I will note that my experience with the Garmin ‘Auto Pause’ setting has been far from perfect. I found that while it correctly identifies when I stop, it is typically less effective at determining when I start walking again.
As a result, I manually pause my watch when I stop. While this might seem like a recipe for disaster (walking a kilometre and realising you didn’t restart the tracking), this does become second nature and I *touch wood* haven’t had any issues to date.
Recommended Garmin setting: Auto Pause = ‘On’ (or manually pause)
There are a range of other settings that, through my research, I determined may improve the accuracy of the device.
These are listed below, in terms of the device settings for a Garmin Fenix 5 – you may need to Google or YouTube the comparable setting on your watch if it is not immediately obvious.
3D Speed = On
3D Distance = On
Auto Lap = Manual Only (Off)
Auto Climb = Off
Lap Key = Off
Auto Scroll = Off
Power Save Timeout = Normal
Tip 2: Fully charge the battery of the watch before each activity.
This one is a quick and simple tip. Given that the optimal settings for tracking and recording will place a larger strain on the battery, it is always a good idea to charge the battery up before each activity, if possible.
Tip 3: Sync the watch with its app to ensure you have the latest software and satellite data.
This is another simple tip, but a pretty important one. Generally speaking, most watches will be paired via Bluetooth with an app on your smartphone. While the primary purpose is to see all your data via a pretty interface on the phone, there are two other important things that often occur when you sync.
The first is an update of the watch’s software. This ensures it is operating as smoothly as possible. If this doesn’t occur automatically when syncing, regularly check to make sure the watch’s software is up to date.
The second is most important for accurate recordings. Syncing the watch with the app will generally also update the latest satellite data, known as EPO files (Extended Prediction Orbit). As the name suggests, these files provide a prediction of the planned orbit of satellites.
Having the most up to date EPO files will ensure you connect faster with satellites and can improve accuracy. Again, if this doesn’t occur automatically when syncing, update these as close to each activity as possible, as these files are typically updated every few days, so expire quickly.
Tip 4: Calibrate the compass, altimeter and barometer.
This step is best done immediately prior to an activity, as close to the location where you will be tracking as possible.
It is important to find as open an area as possible when performing these calibrations, as they rely on a solid GPS connection.
The location of these settings will differ depending on your watch, but the compass calibration may require you to hold and move the watch in a particular way, while the calibration of the altimeter and barometer is far more straightforward using GPS.
Tip 5: Soak the GPS once a connection is established.
Once you are ready to start tracking and have selected your activity type, you will typically need to wait for a 'GPS Ready' message. While you may be eager to start moving as soon as those words hit the screen, a little patience can go a long way.
This is arguably one of the most important tips, and that is to ‘soak’ the GPS. In simple terms, that means standing in an open area (presumably where you conducted your calibrations) and allowing the watch to find as many satellites as possible.
While 5 minutes will typically be enough, I tend to try for 10 minutes if I’m heading into particularly thick rainforest or rugged areas such as valleys or gorges, as these are the environments that will be the most difficult for maintaining the GPS connection.
A helpful hint is to perform your calibrations and allow the GPS to soak when you first arrive at your location, and then get ready (pack your bag, put on your shoes, etc) as it soaks.
So, there you have it. Since adopting this process I have experienced flawless tracking, even in more rugged and remote locations. Try them out for yourself and hopefully they help you get the very most out of your GPS smart watch.