When I wear my outdoors-writer hat, I always want to know the distances of my hikes, paddles, trail runs, ski trips, and what have you. In the spring of 2009, I finally broke down and bought a GPS watch, the Garmin Forerunner 405.
Now when I take a hike, I can see precisely how far I traveled and how long it took, and when I get home I can upload data to my computer, via the Garmin Connect website, to view a lot more statistics: average pace, best pace, calories burned, maximum and minimum elevation, and so forth. I also can view a map of my route.
In addition, my version of the Forerunner, the 405 CX, comes with a heart monitor to keep track of my heartbeat. The CX costs more than the standard 405 ($370 versus $300).
The Forerunner works as an ordinary watch, though it’s not the most attractive thing to wear when you’re stepping out on the town. By pressing the touch-sensitive bezel, you can switch from the time/date screen to one of three other main screens: GPS, Menu, and Training. You scroll through the various options on these screens by dragging a finger along the bezel. When the option you want is highlighted, you select it by pressing a button.
The watch has an amazing (almost bewildering) array of functions. Many seem aimed at serious runners who are in training. For example, you can race against a “Virtual Partner,” tailor workouts so your heart rate stays within a selected zone, or measure your improvement over time on a given course.
I rarely use the fancier functions, but I find the Forerunner works fine for the basic functions: distance, time, pace, heart rate, and calories.
Hikers might also be interested in elevation changes. When I first bought the watch, I found the elevation data ludicrously off base. I frequently run along an old railroad bed that traverses the Bloomingdale Bog near Saranac Lake. This route has virtually no elevation change, but my Forerunner would claim that I ascended more than five hundred feet.
I wasn’t keenly interested in the elevation function, but I called Garmin. I was not satisfied with their customer service. I was told that they had never heard of this problem before and that my watch must be defective. I found this curious since I had seen similar complaints in online forums. In any event, I traded in the watch for another, but the second one had the same problem. Again, I was told that my watch must be defective. I traded it in for a third: same problem. By now it seemed clear that there was a larger problem, but I never got to the bottom of the matter. Garmin stopped answering my calls and/or e-mails. One day I noticed that the Garmin Connect website had been revamped, and ever since then the elevation data have seemed to be on target.
I have a few other complaints:
1. When the GPS function is on, the watch runs for only eight hours or less. This will do most of the time, but not if you’re on an all-day hike or multiday trip.
2. When the watch gets damp from rain, it sometimes malfunctions.
3. Garmin Connect recently switched from Google maps to Bing maps. The Google maps showed the boundaries between the Forest Preserve and private land. The Bing maps do not. In fact, Bing provides no useful geographical information about some of my Adirondack hikes other than the outline of my route: all that appears is a red line on a tan background.
Overall, I have been happy with the Forerunner. Indeed, I am astounded by all the things it can do. However, keep in mind that his is my first GPS watch, so I have not had the opportunity to try other brands.