Offline map test on Apple Watch Ultra

After ordering Apple Watch Ultra on the launch day, I started to get doubts about whether it would live up to the promise of being a great running and hiking watch. On the top of my list was the question: How well would the offline maps work when hiking?

Could Apple Watch Ultra replace my trusty Garmin Fenix 6X Pro as a hiking map?

Now after using the watch for a day, here are my initial tests and thoughts on whether Ultra could replace my Fenix for being a map on my multi-day hikes.

Bummer, there is no built-in offline map

At the launch event, Apple spent quite a bit of time discussing how wonderful Ultra will be for hiking and multi-day expeditions. Even their ad video told how “you need a map”. To every hiker’s astonishment, there is no map on Ultra. Instead, Apple focused on telling how the watch now records a backtrack of waypoints that you can use to get out of the wilderness.

Are the waypoints and backtrack the best Apple can do in 2022?

Apple marketing waypoints and backtrack is ridiculous: even my Garmin eTrex from 2000 — yes, 22 years ago — already had this feature.

One could argue that people should be using paper maps while hiking. In my opinion, a paper map should be considered a backup — not your primary navigation tool while walking.

Garmin eTrex could follow your track back to the starting point already in 2000

Many Garmin hiking-focused watches have a real offline topographic map, including the trusty Garmin Fenix 6X Pro I have been using for two years. Here is the list of Garmin watches with a pre-loaded TopoActive map:

Not only do these watches show you on a map, and let you follow a pre-planned route sent to the watch as GPX, but allow you to create a new route following paths — all completely offline.

My Garmin Fenix 6X Pro can hold multiple continents worth of detailed TopoActive maps

My hiking navigation toolbox

On a typical multi-day hike I typically use the following:

  • Komoot for pre-trip planning, generating a GPX route
  • Garmin Fenix 6X Pro for navigating while walking. It allows seeing what is around you with just a glance, including elevation profile and whether you are on your pre-planned route. Furthermore, it works as a backup for route planning.
  • iPhone with Garmin Explore app for route planning during the stops. The phone has a drastically better screen and a faster user experience. Route planning (including following paths) works offline. You can easily send the outcome to Fenix.
  • Paper map and a compass as a backup. These typically never get used.
  • I recently upgraded my trusty old Garmin InReach mini satellite communication device to the latest model: InReach mini 2. The new model can also follow GPX route while walking and track back to the starting point. Looking forwards to put this to a test soon.
A great toolset for hiking navigation: Fenix 6X Pro, iPhone 12 mini with Garmin Explore app, and Inreach mini 2

Best workaround available: WorkOutDoors

Today, the option for proper offline vector maps on the watch is the app called WorkOutDoors. This app is pretty much a must-have for anyone training outdoors with Apple Watch. Not only it gives you a working map but allows easily to follow a route sent to the app as GPX file. Furthermore, the customization options are almost endless: you can design as many screens as you like for each of your activities in various layouts and hundreds of metrics.

WorkOutDoors allows following the GPX route on a Mapbox vector map completely offline.

One of its key features is the ability to choose an area from a map on iPhone and store all map tiles on that area on your watch. Compared to Garmin’s offline implementation there are several considerations:

Pros

  • Apple Watch is at least one order of magnitude faster than any Garmin watch. Furthermore, the 2000 nits display on Ultra is wonderful. This gives one a great user experience when browsing the map.

Cons

  • One can only pre-load small areas to the watch. On Garmin, you choose the continents that you want to store on your watch. Depending on the Garmin model, you’ll have one or more continents already pre-loaded when you buy the watch. With this, you can always trust that you’ll have a map with you.
  • WorkOutDoors does not do route planning. Instead, you need to plan the routes before your adventure on Gaia, Komoot, Path… or Garmin Explore. Each of them can then export the route as GPX to WorkOutDoors where you can follow it while hiking. On Garmin watches, you can choose any point on a map and a route will ….
  • No course elevation graph that would show the upcoming climbs and descends on the hike. This is a major problem: an elevation graph for the planned route is very useful on a hike in the mountains for preparing for the miles ahead.

Pre-loading the maps to the watch takes effort

There are two map servers you can use for loading the maps from: Mapbox (default) and Thunderforrest.

Same area with Mapbox and Thunderforest maps. The paths are visible on both, but Thunderforest is superior.
  • Mapbox maps are much faster to load to the watch but do not include topographic contours. Map is based on OpenSteetMap data. Apparently Mapbox also has an excellent looking outdoor map — maybe there could be a way to use that in the future?
  • Thunderforrest maps look great and have contour lines essential for hiking. The downside is that they are slow to send to the watch. An area that might take 1-2 minutes for a Mapbox map, can take 10 minutes with Thunderforrest. With this, prepare to spend hours pre-loading the nearby areas you want to always store in your watch.
Pre-loading even a small area to watch takes several minutes.
Pre-loading Thunderforest map for my local hiking areas took close to two hours.

Planning a route for your Ultra — Garmin to the rescue

There are many apps out there that claim to be great for planning your next hike:

While I have used (and still use) all of them, none are any good without internet connectivity. Most of them may allow you to look at the pre-planned routes and maps offline. Some even allow to plan a new route. Unfortunately, none of them allow planning a route that follows paths and allow sending that to your watch when you are offline. Some also include Apple Watch apps, but none of them support offline vector maps and are thus mostly useless.

Luckily Garmin Explore works offline, includes the amazing TopoActive maps, and has a very intuitive routing where you can adjust routes on the fly and they snap to the hiking paths automatically. Furthermore, you can send routes to Garmin watches, InReach device, and also to the WorkOutDoors app (and thus Apple Watch) while you are in the middle of nowhere on your expedition.

One critical thing that I did not check: Does Garmin Explore app work without owning at least one Garmin device?

Update: Guru Maps has an excellent offline vector hiking map you can download per state to your iPhone. It allows navigation (routing along hiking paths) completely offline, and allows exporting GPX offline to WorkOutDoors. All of this is seems to be available on the free version of the app.

Conclusion: WorkOutDoor saves Apple Watch Ultra?

While Garmin watches provide a more robust out-of-the-box solution for navigating on a multi-day hike, I think that the WorkOutDoors app makes Apple Watch Ultra usable enough for hiking navigation.

That said, situation is complicated and the details (see above) may tilt the scale in your situation: is having only a small map acceptable for you, is the battery life sufficient for you, is routing on watch a must have for you, …

This is likely the navigation toolset for my next adventure.

For me, there are many more aspects to choosing a smartwatch, so I’ll continue exploring before deciding whether to keep Fenix or Ultra.

Read my followup to this post about the second concern: Training metrics

Ask anything or help correct any mistakes in the comments.

Note: I have purchased both watches myself and have not been paid to promote either. This post contains Amazon affiliate links to the products mentioned. Purchases made through them will help support this site at no cost to you.

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