Tracking trail treks and runs: GPS watch units beef up technology, scale down price

With smartphones boasting easy-to-use map and navigation technology, GPS makers are adapting to a new world where handheld units are overshadowed by phones. The response: A rise in watches for trail runs and fitness, plus devices that work with your phone. Here’s what we saw new in the GPS category at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market.

Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2012 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Aug. 2-5. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

This SNEWS Outdoor Retailer Summer Market recap is brought to you by Cordura:

It’s no secret that trail running is becoming a larger part of the outdoor market, but it’s not just about a bump in footwear sales for retailers — running accessories, such as GPS watches, are taking off as well.

Manufacturers of GPS watch units are beefing up technology, scaling down size and adding more features for consumers looking to track their treks, whether it’s a lunchtime run or weekend hike.

“As a whole in the category, we’re seeing companies taking GPS technology and bringing it to a smaller format,” said Justin McCarthy, spokesperson for Garmin. That provides users with “something they can bring with them at all times and not be a burden.”

new Fenix (MSRP $399, photo right) takes many of the robust navigational features of the company’s handheld units and fits them into a watch that can be worn everyday.

“We’re definitely targeting the adventurer and the alpinist,” with the Fenix, McCarthy said. “But I also see it as for the user who is the weekend warrior and who wants to wear this on a day-to-day basis.”

The Fenix includes an altimeter, barometer and compass, and can provide real-time performance data such as distance traveled, pace, time and calories burned.

Highgear is showing a product with a festival of technology — digital compass, altimeter, barometer, thermometer and heart rate monitor combine in its new XT7 Alti-GPS (MSRP $250, photo left). The product, like Garmin’s, can be used for navigation as well and has the option to work without the GPS, which conserves battery life.

Many manufacturers are offering entry-level products at lower price points to cater to the growing running and trail running market, said Pia Baker, Timex’s brand director for outdoor and sport.

Though Timex and Suunto launched products earlier this year (Timex’s Marathon and Suunto’s Ambit), both companies showed upgraded versions at Summer Market.

Timex’s Marathon (MSRP $99) will come in bright new colors and feature technology staples such as water resistance (up to 30 meters), a heart rate sensor and the capability to track speed and distance.


“At $99, this breaks the barriers to entry,” Baker said. “People can enter the category with a dedicated device.” Timex also offers its Run Trainer (MSRP $229 with chest strap, $189 without).

The Suunto Ambit (MSRP $550 with chest strap, $500 without, photo right) gives users basic GPS information, but has a full navigational aspect as well. It features the company’s Fuse Speed, an accelerometer that comes in handy when the GPS signal is lost in tunnels or heavily wooded areas.

“Between heightened consumer interest and prices coming down as technology has matured,” Timex’s Baker said, “we expect to see a lot more runners coming into the GPS watch category. It will probably double within the next two to three years.”

–Ana Trujillo

GPS makers remodel for phones

With smartphones boasting easy-to-use map and navigation technology, GPS makers are adapting to a new world where handheld units are overshadowed by phones.

Chip Noble remembers backpacking 15 years ago with his company’s DeLorme GPS serial-cabled to a bulky Palm Pilot. Others hikers marveled at the green-hued maps flickering on the formerly ubiquitous Palm. A few years later, mapmaker turned tech company DeLorme released handheld GPS units that soon included aerial satellite imagery. Today, the company is offering phone-friendly map apps and two-way “inReach” satellite communicators that sync with tiny GPS units and provide text messaging for phones anywhere on the planet.

“For us it’s about adding functionality that a cell phone lacks, like being able to send a text message from anywhere. You can’t stagnate and say we only do handheld GPS,” said Noble, DeLorme’s product and design manager. “Imagine if we said that during our Palm Pilot days? You wouldn’t be talking to us now. It’s a great time to be an adventurous person who loves all this new technology.”

Magellan has felt the pinch from GPS smartphones flooding the market. While the company has yet to release a system that works with phones, Magellan is developing a product that is compatible with phones and extends the GPS capability of cell phones, said Magellan’s director of marketing Warren Hewerdine.

For now, Magellan is emphasizing its products precision and reliability over phones, partnering with National Geographic Maps to deliver individualized content targeting specific users, like hunters, fishermen and alpinists.

“Dependability is needed and dedicated GPS devices bring that dependability to the table,” Hewerdine said.

–Jason Blevins