Garmin Watches and Maps: What you Need to Know for Hiking

Searching online for the best Garmin watches for hiking?  In this article we answer many questions about maps: free, Google, TOPO, OpenStreetMap.  We also cover details about BaseCamp software.  What good is a hiking watch if it does not have reliable map functionality to guide you from trailhead to summit and back?  That’s an obvious answer…

First things first: Familiarize yourself with the Garmin hiking watch models referenced throughout the article. Click links and give them a quick glance.  You can also visit OFFICIAL Garmin Watch storeMossejaw’s Garmin Watch store, or REI’s Garmin Watch store for all available models and price comparisons.

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Which Garmin watch is best for hiking?

The Garmin Fenix series of watches can track routes and use maps.

fēnix® 6X – Pro Solar Edition $949.99


Garmin’s Forerunner 900 watches can also track routes and use maps.

Forerunner® 945 $599.99


The Instinct watches can track routes, but without a basemap.  What is a basemap?

Instinct® Solar $399.99


Garmin Tactix Bravo watches can track routes and use maps.

tactix® Bravo


Which Garmin watches have topographic maps?

For virtually all Garmin’s maps included on the Edge (not a watch but a dedicated GPS device), Forerunner, Fenix and MARQ hiking watch series devices, the base map itself is OSM (OpenStreetMap). These maps are not at the detail level of the Garmin TOPO series of topographic maps.

Edge® 1030 Plus $599.99 


MARQ® Adventurer $1,750.00


Does the Garmin Vivoactive watch 3 have maps?

The Garmin hiking watches that support background maps are those that run the 2.0 version of Garmin Connect IQ and allocate 128kB of memory to each app: Garmin Vivoactive HR and Vivoactive 3 and higher.

vívoactive® 4 $349.99


Does Garmin Connect show maps?

Garmin Connect is a platform that’s all about helping you stay in shape, giving you ways to make the most of your exercise, or simply keeping closer tabs on your health. For hikers using maps, adding routes, tracks, points of interest and waymarks, Garmin BaseCamp is the program to use on your hiking watch.

Garmin Connect can only display a map in an activity if it was recorded with GPS location information – for instance, your daily walking or running route. Activities that do not contain GPS information, such as activities created with a Vivofit or activities recorded in an indoor profile or with GPS disabled, will not have a map.

Are Garmin TOPO maps any good for hikers?

These highly detailed Garmin hiking maps include terrain contours, topo elevations, summits, routable roads and trails, parks, coastlines, rivers, lakes and geographical points. They can also display 3-D terrain shading on compatible devices. The detail is on par with USGS topographic maps.

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Do Garmin TOPO maps show hiking trails?

Garmin TOPO maps feature topographic detail with terrain contours, searchable points of interest and turn-by-turn directions on roads and trails. Popular trails are typically shown, but not every trail has been mapped. – Add TOPO maps to your Garmin hiking watch to guide you on your next adventure.

How can I get Garmin maps for free?

Install free maps on your Garmin hiking watch which are sourced from Open Street Maps. These are fine for finding your way around town or driving, but do not have the level of terrain detail the Garmin TOPO series of maps have.

How to download free maps for a Garmin GPS: step-by-step instructions

Step 1: Go to Open Street Map Website:

Step 2: Choose your map type. Click “generic routable (new style)”

Step 3: You have two choices at this point; you can download a pre-defined country or build your own custom map covering the area you need.

What map format does Garmin use?

GPX data files have long been a GPS standard for waypoints, points of interest, routes and tracks, and other information added to a basemap.

Garmin cannot use Google Earth KML (and KMZ, compressed KML files) files, but points of interest and routes on Google Earth can be converted to GPX files to use on Garmin and other GPS devices or programs via Garmin BaseCamp software.

There are several free web-based programs that can convert KML/KMZ files to or from GPX files:

Converting Google KML files to GPX for use on your Garmin device:

  • Access your My Map in Google Earth. Your My Map must have lines or routes in it.
  • Click on View in Google Earth.
  • Visit one of the conversion websites below to convert your KML file to GPX.
  • Select GPX as your output.
  • For the input, choose the KML file you just downloaded from Google My Maps.
  • Click Convert.
  • Download your GPX file from the link on the page. – This is an easy-to-use program that’s fairly intuitive. – Also an easy-to-use program that’s fairly intuitive.  – This program can do a lot but it’s not intuitive; it’s more for map nerds and experts.

How do I use Garmin BaseCamp for hiking?

With Garmin BaseCamp software on your computer, users can plan and manage hiking trips, organize user data, and transfer information between the computer and compatible Garmin GPS devices:

  1. Import and view maps in 2-D or 3-D (preloaded device, memory card, or download required)
  2. Create, edit, and organize hiking routes, tracks, waypoints, and more
  3. Download and transfer BirdsEye satellite imagery to a device (subscription required)
  4. Get support for importing downloaded geocaches from
  5. View playback of hiking routes, tracks, and adventures
  6. Create and share geotagged photos

Can I put Google Maps on my Garmin watch?

Not directly. Google uses KML files, Garmin use the GPS standard GPX files. You can import KML files into Garmin BaseCamp software that you can select and directly import an existing track (on the map) to any Garmin watch that supports Tracks. See more under “What map format does Garmin use“. This assumes you are using a Garmin map compatible watch.

Install free maps on your Garmin watch

How do I get free Garmin map updates?

Go to and log onto your myGarmin account. Notifications appear in the Home tab that inform you of recently purchased map updates and available free updates.

How does Garmin calculate Vo2 max?

Garmin is using Firstbeat software technology to calculate the Vo2max.

As the Vo2 max is calculated from your heart rate it will take a week or two of activity tracking before you see a stable number for your Vo2Max score. Also, since it’s just an estimate rather than a direct measure, it’s best to use it as a trend line instead of an absolute measurement of fitness.

The Vo2Max calculation is highly dependent on your heart rate and the accuracy is dependent on having an accurate MaxHR  (maximum heart rate) number in your Garmin device profile. An accurate number is based on your physiology and fitness. It is not the same as the standard 220 BPM (beats per minute) minus your age that will automatically be generated for you when you set up your account.

On the Garmin Support Center website you can read a simple method that answers this question: How can I determine my max heart rate?  However, you need to be in good shape to perform their recommended test.  If it’s not safe for you to exert yourself maximally, then you will rely on the default MaxHR automatically generated on your Garmin hiking watch.

How does Garmin measure stress?

If using only a Garmin watch, the accuracy is quite good. When you track hiking or other activities using another Garmin device (i.e. cycling with an Edge bike computer) the number will not be accurate because Garmin Connect doesn’t use the data it holds from the watch to associate the increased heart rate with exercise rather than stress.

Is an Apple watch better than a Garmin watch for hiking?

People who love hiking, trail running and the great outdoors need a reliable GPS watch that provides navigation features and a long battery life for multi-day adventures. In general, Garmin hiking watches are built for rugged outdoor use in a variety of weather conditions. Altitude/elevation, barometric pressure, compass and route tracking are common to Garmin watches. Apple did not add a barometric altimeter (elevation gain or loss) to their watch until Series 3 and later, so those watches should be fine for hiking,  though are not built for ruggedness, i.e. scratched or broken glass screen.

Also note the typical hours of usage for one battery charge. Generally, Garmins have much higher battery capacity and can go for many days without recharging. The Apple Series 6 is rated for 18 hours on one charge. By comparison, the Garmin Fenix 5 operating in GPS UltraTrac mode is rated for 75 hours.

1 Comment

  • Rob S. Reply

    For those that are looking to make hiking more of a constant activity in 2021, these are great watches to have. A few options are available and they provide great functionality for the investment they call for, too.

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