Garmin Instinct: A hefty smartwatch that can handle any adventure

The Garmin Instinct is a beast of a smartwatch.

I’ll be honest... upon unboxing the Garmin Instinct ($299.99), my mind immediately went to the original G-SHOCK and BABY-G — those hulking watches that were all the rage among youth in the early 2000s. Judging by looks alone, it’s not an unfair comparison. The Instinct comes in several colors, is large enough to be attention-grabbing, and has a whole lot happening on the surface.

But that’s just a snap judgment based on appearance, which is obviously an unfair way to assess a watch.

During the two weeks I took the Instinct for a spin, I did my best to drop my preconceived notions and evaluate it as the bold and durable accessory for true adventurers that Garmin advertises it as. After a lot of running, fiddling, and analyzing, here’s where I settled:

It’s a beefy watch

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: The Instinct is not a dainty watch. All in, it measures 45 x 45 x 15.3 mm, which probably doesn’t mean much until you see it up close or strap it on. If your wrist is anything but large, it’s unlikely to be a watch you’ll put on and forget about.

The Garmin Instinct is a hefty watch, but has lots of features.
The Garmin Instinct is a hefty watch, but has lots of features.
Credit: Becky wade firth
Its band is made for the outdoors.
Its band is made for the outdoors.
Credit: Becky wade firth
Beyond all of the navigation support and activity tracking, the Instinct can do most things you’d want in a smartwatch.

The good news is that it’s surprisingly lightweight. At 52 grams, it’s less likely to be the weight that feels burdensome as it is the size. (For comparison, the Fenix 6 Pro Solar, which I recently reviewed, is slightly larger and a touch thinner, but weighs in at 85 g for the steel model and 72 g for the titanium model.)

It’s military-standard tough

Although relatively light, the Instinct is incredibly durable. It’s made of materials meant to withstand all weather conditions and types of excursions: Scratch-resistant Power Glass™ for the lens, fiber-reinforced polymer for the bezel and case, and silicone for the strap. It also meets U.S. military standard 810 for thermal, shock, and water resistance. On that last point, it has a water rating of 10 ATM, which means it can handle pressures equivalent to a depth of 100 meters and everything from rain showers to snorkeling to high-speed water sports. Basically, this watch can stand up to just about any adventure.

The display is a bit small and busy

For its size, I’d expect the Instinct to have a bigger display and a higher resolution. But the display size is limited by a thick border, and the resolution is just 128 x 128 pixels (half that of the Fenix 6 Pro Solar). It’s also monochrome, which isn’t a deal-breaker for me, but which might not be ideal for some.

My biggest complaint about the Instinct display, however, is the little window-within-window in the top right corner. It’s a small circle that displays various things such as the date when you’re on the home screen, the progress of the GPS as it’s loading, and such. Frankly, I find it more distracting than helpful, and I would rather customize the data fields rather than give up precious screen space for an unnecessary second window.

The battery life will keep you adventuring longer

The battery life is surely one reason the Instinct is so hefty. It lasts up to 14 days in smartwatch mode, up to 16 hours in GPS mode, and up to 40 hours in UltraTrac mode. That last one is a GPS mode that spaces out the frequency of GPS updates to once a minute, and is a big selling point for athletes like ultrarunners and thru-hikers who are out in nature for long periods at a time. With UltraTrac mode, they still track their progress without the risk of draining the battery too early.

For the extreme endurance athletes, there’s also the Instinct Solar, which rings in at $399.99 (currently on sale for $324.99) and lets you extend the battery life across the board, given plenty of time in sunny conditions.

You can display your stats in various ways to see how you performed over the course of your activity.
You can display your stats in various ways to see how you performed over the course of your activity. Credit: becky wade firth

The multi-GNSS satellite support and outdoors sensors are a navigator’s dream

Unlike most smartwatches worn in the U.S., which are equipped with just GPS technology, the Instinct accesses three Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS): GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo. Without going too deep into the differences, GPS (Global Positioning System) is United States-owned, GLONASS (GLObal NAvigation Satellite System) is Russian-owned, and Galileo is European Union-owned. They all have different strengths — GLONASS is great in the mountains, while Galileo excels in urban settings, for example — but using all three of them means greater accuracy and the best of all GNSS worlds.

While I have no easy way of scrutinizing the multi-GNSS support, based on daily runs in various locations and conditions, I can vouch for the strength of the systems as a whole. It never took long to catch a signal, and the pace, distance, and elevation readings I got both while running and after seemed dead-on.

On top of the satellites, the Instinct comes with a suite of altimeter, barometer, and compass (often called ABC) sensors (plus a thermometer) that bring ease and accuracy to the navigation process. The altimeter lets you know your current elevation as well as ascent and descent totals; the barometer uses air pressure changes to help you keep track of (and predict) the weather; and the compass lets you know which direction you’re heading in, whether you’re standing still or on the move.

The Trackback Routing™ and optional inReach pairing add a layer of safety to your adventures

Garmin’s Trackback Routing™ feature makes out-and-back journeys, which many of my runs are, a breeze. With a compass, basic map, and distance remaining metric, it helps you get back to your starting point via the same route that you took, no guesswork required.

For next-level safety, plus an extra $350-$800, you can also purchase an inReach device (along with the necessary satellite subscription). It will pair with your Instinct and allow you to exchange messages, share your location, get weather updates on your watch, and alert a 24/7 emergency response team that you need immediate help. Since these devices mean one more thing to buy and carry (most of them are comparable to the size of a walkie-talkie), I imagine it’s something that only the most serious of explorers would take advantage of. But in risky and solo situations, I can see how the smartwatch-inReach combo would be a total game-changer — for both the adventurer and their worried loved ones.

It tracks a ton of activities and metrics

In terms of activity tracking, unless you participate in something super niche, the Instinct has probably got you covered. It includes several profiles for running (classic, treadmill, indoor track, trail); cycling (classic, indoor, mountain); and swimming (pool, open water); as well as a slew of outdoor recreation profiles (hiking, climbing, mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding, XC skiing, stand-up paddleboarding, rowing, kayaking, and technical).

The stats are pretty accurate and its GPS tracking is even better.
The stats are pretty accurate and its GPS tracking is even better. Credit: becky wade firth

In addition, it tracks a handful of gym activities, including strength, cardio and elliptical training, stair-stepping, floor climbing, indoor rowing, and yoga. For the vast majority of users, that list is probably more than sufficient. But if you’re a serious surfer, jumpmaster, or golfer, you may be left wanting if you go with the Instinct.

Metric-wise, the Instinct offers a rough report of your heart rate, sleep, cadence, steps, calories burned, floors climbed, and other activity-specific metrics. For more accurate heart rate readings, a chest strap is always a better option than the built-in wrist-based heartrate monitor.

It does almost everything you’d expect from a smartwatch

Beyond all of the navigation support and activity tracking, the Instinct can do most things you’d want in a smartwatch: Smart notifications, weather, calendar, smartphone music controlling, and such. Notable omissions are Garmin Pay, music storage (and controlling) on the watch itself, and Wi-Fi connectivity; the Instinct is only Bluetooth and ANT+ compatible. This watch clearly was created for outdoor enthusiasts, who would be unlikely to miss such features.

Add to cart?

The Garmin Instinct is a specific watch for a specific user. In addition to most of the expected smartwatch and activity tracking capabilities, it goes above and beyond in a few key areas. For one, it’s extremely durable, material-wise, and it meets thermal, shock, and water military standards. It’s also super strong in the navigation and safety department, with multi-GNSS satellite support, ABC sensors, a robust battery life (especially in UltraTrac mode), Trackback™ Routing, and the option to pair with an inReach device. A small subset of serious adventurers and endurance athletes would reasonably utilize and appreciate such features.

There are some tradeoffs, though. The watch takes up substantial space (while remaining relatively lightweight), the display size is somewhat small and disrupted by the second mini-window, the resolution is on the weaker side, and it lacks a few features such as Garmin Pay and in-watch music storage.

Overall, the Garmin Instinct is a great watch for a reasonable price — especially if you would take advantage of its specific functions. Ultrarunners, thru-hikers, solo trekkers, and trailblazers of all types would obsess over this. For less adventuresome athletes (like my marathoning self), however, it probably does more than you’ll ever need, and you’d be better off with a simpler, more sport-specific choice.

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