Even Without TOPO Maps the Garmin Solar Instinct can be Perfect for the Backcountry

An Interview with Seth About His Garmin Instinct Solar Hiking Watch

Seth is an avid outdoorsman who prides himself on his navigation ability. He is the kind of person who loves spending every minute possible in the backcountry – preferably off-trail. Desiring an easier way to track his routes, Seth knew he wanted a watch to help him track but that he did not necessarily need full-blown topo maps. So, he decided to give the Garmin Instinct a try to see if it helped him on adventures.

Earlier this year, we sat down (via zoom) with Seth to dive into why he chose the Garmin Instinct Solar and learn about how his experience with it has been. We discuss how the Instinct’s route tacking works, why Seth prefers his Instinct over a Fenix, and how the Instinct helps him up his game.

What Instinct model does Seth have?

Seth has the Garmin Instinct Solar in Graphite – meaning that he chose to have a lens with solar energy capture, did not choose a special edition, and chose the Graphite color.

Garmin Instinct® Solar: GARMIN / REI / AMAZON

When you purchase a Garmin Instinct you have three basic options to choose from: (1) choosing if you want a Solar, (2) What edition you want, and (3) Color. A customer’s combination of decisions will determine the name of the model.

Lens Options – Determines name

  • Standard
  • Solar – allows the lens to harvest solar energy

Edition – Determines what additional features the Instinct comes with

  • Standard
  • Camo – Same as the standard but gives you camo design options Comes with a Solar Lense.
  • Tactical – Contains night vision compatibility, jumpmaster, and stealth mode. Is compatible with a solar lens.
  • Surf – Provides you with tide data and has a dedicated surfing activity. Comes with a solar lens.
  • Epsorts – has a dedicated Esports activity profile and access to STR3AMUP! No solar edition.

Model/ColorOptions vary based on previous choices:

    • Standard – Seafoam, Graphite, Tundra, and Lakeside Blue
    • Standard Solar – Graphite, Orchid, Tidal Blue, Sunburst, and Flame Red
    • Tactical – Black and Coyote Tan
    • Tactical Solar – Black and Moss
    • Esports – Black Lava
    • Camo Solar – Graphite Camo and Lichen Camo
    • Surf Solar – Pipeline and Cloudbreak

Garmin Instinct Solar hiking watch.Garmin Instinct® Solar Hiking GPS Watch

Our Full Interview with Seth about his Garmin Instinct Solar

Below is the full interview we did with Seth. Please note that his responses have been edited for clarity and readability.

Before you bought your Garmin Instinct Solar did you use any other watches or similar? 

I’ve never worn a watch before. Like, I don’t wear any accessories or anything else like this.

Why did you choose the Instinct over other similar watches?

So, Garmin was an easy choice for me. I was familiar with Garmin products. I think they make a very high-quality product. And then, as far as just a wearable, quality GPS, I didn’t see a lot of options other than just your, kind of, run of the mill smartwatches. That wasn’t really what I was looking for.

What made the Instinct stand out over the other Garmin watches?

I wanted the instinct because I go out and hike often. I’m probably on the trail/in the wilderness more than your average person – I wander a lot. I never go without some kind of GPS. I always have at least my cell phone and typically have an inReach Mini Satellite Communicator (an emergency beacon). So, the Instinct was a supplementary deal for me. So, that’s why I didn’t go with the high-end maps or the music controls that some other watches featured – I just didn’t need them. I don’t ever go anywhere without my phone, because I also do photography and videography. I just wanted something that looked like a watch and that I thought it would be really rugged. The Instinct Solar has been great. I mean, I’ve smashed the crap out of this thing but if I washed it my Instinct would look relatively new.

Does your Instinct Solar come preloaded with topo maps? 

I don’t use the maps, I use my Instinct for tracking. That’s 90% of what I use this for. At the beginning of a hike, I’ll hit “track” and then it will just follow me – but it doesn’t have maps uploaded onto it.

How has it helped your hiking experience? 

I love this thing and the value that I’ve got out of it. I like to push myself and I like to train to try to do kind of difficult things. So this has been like a training companion. I like to be able to monitor heart rate, monitor the altimeter, and check barometric pressure on my wrist. Those are things that are important to me. I was training for the Arizona Trail, which was when I really used this thing quite a bit, and it was great for monitoring pace, what zones my heart rate was in, and viewing my recovery rate. Also, when I go off-trail I can just hit a record on my watch and be confident that if something happened, like if I lost my maps or hit inclement weather,  I could get back to where I started thanks to the tracking function.  As long as I know that this is accurate to where my starting location was, it gives me an immense amount of confidence, because I can get there.

I needed my Instinct a few months ago while I was foraging for mushrooms. I consider myself a pretty good navigator, but somehow, I had gotten turned around, and simply being able to look at my watch and know the orientation that I was going was huge. I was going in the wrong direction. But with just a quick, simple look down, I was able to course-correct.

I’ve also done some work in, like, forestry where I find myself off-trail more often than I do on trail. Off-trail is typically where I like to be since I like to explore. I wouldn’t want to navigate with a watch GPS, for whatever reason. I don’t want to look at my wrist. I don’t use maps or GPS often because I don’t necessarily have a particular place I need to go. If that makes sense. I can wander. And if I want to go to the top of that mountain, I’ll go to the top of the mountain. So, within that, specific navigation isn’t super crucial, I have other ways of doing it that I’m more confident in.

Why did you choose a Garmin watch that did not have downloadable topo maps?

The price was good. However, as I mentioned before, I go on a lot of long excursions and if you’re using those really bright, colorful maps, you will drain the battery life. Those kinds of maps are not, in my opinion, designed for long-term treks. I don’t need an incredibly detailed map to tell me where I’m going. I just need a line and a dot and make sure that I’m on the right spot. That’s it.

Even with the less detailed display on the Instinct Solar, the battery life is short when recording GPS,  a long day hiking and recording will drain the battery which means I still have to charge it every night on a long trip. I would imagine with the bright, colorful display of the other watches the battery life is significantly reduced. That was a major factor in deciding to go with the Instinct over the other models.

You can also upload your tracking data from your Instinct to your phone and then you can overlay them on maps. So, you can look back at things that you have done. That is more valuable to me than even being able to see what I’m doing right now.  When I was training, and you hit record you can connect to your phone, through the Garmin Connect app, and it gives you quite a bit more information.

Do you ever miss the more detailed map features that a Fenix could offer? 

I use my phone for detailed navigation, my inReach Mini for out of signal communication and any SOS needs, and my watch for personal activity tracking, shorter off-trail navigation, and an insurance policy strapped to my arm if I get in a tough spot and need to make it back.

If you like your phone for maps and music then I don’t see the need for a Fenix. I always hit the trail with more than one way of navigation, especially if  I am planning to go off-trail. This watch acts like a detailed activity tracker with built-in safety redundancies.

What other features do you like on the Instinct?

One of the main things that I liked about the Instinct was the sleep monitor. It also has this thing called your body battery which measures your stress throughout the day. The watch monitors your deep sleep at night and looks combines it with your stress levels throughout the day to measure your Body Battery. That was one of the reasons I wanted to get a smartwatch. Plus, all of these extras that come with Garmin, as far as, altimeter and being able to track GPS were what really sold me.

How do you use the Instinct Solar in your everyday life? 

I love that the battery will last weeks if I only record short trips. I would imagine the Fenix has to be charged regularly with that display. I record my walks almost every day or any other activities like riding a bike. It lets me know how far everything is and how much exercise I am getting. Plus the calorie burned feature can be helpful if you are trying to monitor a diet or exercise program. You can get a lot of information from the Garmin Connect app if you dive in. I also like that it is more subtle looking – It doesn’t draw much attention.

Share your thoughts

Listen to this podcast on