A Blog about Hiking-, Fitness-, and Health Technology

Make Like Garmin on your Apple Watch (Ultra)

Everyone is doing smart watch shootouts. Few focus on the unique feature of Apple's offerings: mediocre baseline but great app ecosystem.

Having just returned from a 1500 kilometer stroll around the plains and hills of Spain, I could not help to be somewhat stricken with Garmin Envy. And how could I not? While I dutifully closed my rings and competed against myself towards the 500% daily move goal, my Garmin-clad friend calculated her Recovery and Exertion, scrolled through beautiful altitude gain/heart rate overlays, and had her hikes logged into Komoot before the day ended.

You’d be justified in thinking, Apple screwed up. Give us a $1000 watch (in the case of my Watch Ultra) and keep the fitness tracking at the state of 2017’s shitty “WatchOS is now for fitness” level.

But that’s the difference between Garmin and Apple. Garmin is a fitness watch, Apple a Smart Watch. Garmin gives you apps. Apple gives you a real App Store (Garmin’s Connect IQ is … let’s just say, it’s not really a smorgasbord).

So, let’s make like Garmin.


HealthFit provides an OK view into performance and recovery, but that’s not why we want it. Instead, we install it to have an easy sync from Apple’s workout tracking into Strava or Komoot (and a dozen more). As a hiker, I prefer Komoot, but runners and bikers might prefer the Strava sync. The app is free, but I would encourage you to become a supporter and keep its development secure.

The Data, visualized

With that out of the way, the second thing Garmin is really good at, is health data visualization. Apple sucks in this regard. The data are there, but Apple’s “let’s make Milberry, the latte slurping vegan hipster, comfortable” approach to health data visualization just doesn’t cut it for athletes (or long-distance hikers like me). Apple’s SF Hipster approach also tends to emphasize SF Hipster activities like biking or Zumba over activities that benefit hugely from accurate HRV and recovery scores.


That’s where Athlytic comes in. As I said, the data are there (except for HRV being measured as SDNN, we get to that in a second). Athlytic displays the data better and offers insight into recovery and exertion that Apple just doesn’t. It’s close to, sometimes even better than, Garmin’s.

Athlytic also somewhat “fixes” Apple’s focus on SDNN HRV. By taking a Mindfulness “Breathe” session every morning (just breathing normally, this isn’t meant as a meditation but to get 60 seconds of HRV data), it can fill in the blanks left open by Apple.

Eclipse Yourself

From the maker of AutoSleep (another app that fixes, what Apple did wrong) comes Eclipse Yourself. EY (I am a lazy typer) fits right into that pocket, people like me fit as well. It shows the important data, well analyzed and packaged, doesn’t skimp on integrations (like Athlytic it allows you to take a morning HRV via Breathe Mindfulness and it directly integrates with AutoSleep, which you should definitely also use) and provides a more holistic view of things.

On my hikes I usually get up at five, do a “ready check” on my phone, walk 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) or so, and then check on my day. EY will probably save me a few minutes on that, showing clearly where I stand and where I should focus for the day. It is science backed, rather than making up some pseudoscience shit or working with convoluted “oughta be right” approximations. All in all, probably my go-to app for the next Appalachian Trail or Camino.


Finally, there’s Garmin’s maps feature. No denying it, Apple didn’t have hikers (or anyone not doing track or fancy gyms) in mind, when designing its maps. It’s an afterthought, not fit for human consumption.

While mostly designed for trail and outdoor runners, WorkOutDoors is also a very usable hiking companion.

You can select and offline-download vector maps to your watch, choose the kind of sporty thing you do (hiking, sailing, skiing, running, cycling, and dozens more), and get specific views for exactly that use case on your watch. Definitely worth the few cents the app costs.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend a second on Komoot. As a hiker, Komoot is my planner and mapping tool during longer distance events, such as the upcoming 1200 kilometer Camino del Norte in October. I recommend against(!) using it to track hikes, let Apple’s own Workout tracker do that for you and import into Komoot via HealthFit, but after the fact, this is what I use to document and analyze most of my trips.

The Elephant in the Room

… battery.

While my Apple Watch Ultra does two days (Garmin 35 days) in smartwatch mode, logging hikes turns this into a single day, often less, exercise. Garmin wins this race, easily. I simply charge my watch a bit during breaks (10-20 minutes per break, 3-4 breaks per day) and never have an issue. But I do acknowledge this being suboptimal.

Garmin. Beat?

With those apps, together much less than the cost of a Garmin, you’ll get Garmin functionality. And with the app landscape in constant motion, from here on out it’s just a question of how far the Apple Watch Ultra will run circles around and past Garmin’s offerings. There are, of course, other things to consider: Garmin’s “buttons only” operation makes handling the watch much easier than Apple’s reliance on screens over screens. Battery life is an issue, and so is the fact, that Apple Watches collect subpar HRV readings, requiring users to take morning breathing sessions.

But then there is the LTE functionality, meaning you don’t have to carry your phone on runs or hikes. And its deep integration with all things Apple, from calendars and messaging to phone calls from the watch. Garmin Pay is crap, Apple Pay works like a charm. And should you lose your charger, an Apple Watch charger can be bought even in many truck stop shops, while Garmin makes it neigh impossible to replace its proprietary one.

I am dependent on good data and visualization. But I am also dependent on being independent of my phone for runs and hikes, want to have the ease of mind of being reachable, and am an Apple fanboy. So for me, all things considered, the Apple Watch Ultra and its ability to customize the experience to my needs beats Garmin’s hyper-focused approach on endurance athletes who want some basic smart phone functionality, by miles.

I recognize that this isn’t all Garmin’s fault. Apple has locked down phone-watch interactions to its own solutions in many ways. But that’s the hand we’re dealt, and for my game, Apple wins this time.

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