Garmin Instinct review

An outdoor watch that's built for hardcore adventurers
Garmin Instinct
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The Garmin Instinct is a rugged outdoor sports watch that comes from the same wearable stable as Garmin's Fenix range.

Built to withstand the toughest of elements, the Instinct has all the usual skills you'd expect to see from one of Garmin's outdoor-friendly watches.

There's GPS along with GLONASS and Galileo support to offer plenty of mapping coverage. There's a barometric altimeter to measure elevation when you're climbing up mountains, a heart rate monitor and a promise of battery life that will go the distance.

Best watches for hiking

Unsurprisingly, this hardcore outdoor aid places a big emphasis on features that should come in handy when you're trekking or hiking. I'm talking things like course navigation, the ability to import GPX routes and including Garmin's great TrackBack feature.

Sitting in between the Vivoactive and Fenix ranges, it's priced at $299.99. So it's more affordable than Garmin's top end rugged watch, but it's by no means cheap either.

Also check out our review of the new Garmin Instinct Solar, which increases battery life with solar panels in the screen.

Garmin Instinct: Design

Garmin Instinct review

Let's start with the basics. The Instinct comes in three colours: flame red, tundra and graphite (pictured). Aside from that initial choice, there’s little more design customisation you can make to the watch save for the addition of Quickfit straps.

Weighing in at at 52g and featuring a 45mm casing, the Instinct is fairly unnoticeable when it's on your wrist, especially against some of the chunkier options out there like the Fenix, or some of the models Suunto has to offer in the outdoor watch realms. The one (large) silicone strap that comes with it fits comfortably and makes wearing it 24/7, even while in bed, relatively painless.

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Saying that the Instinct is Casio-esque is actually a bit unfair to the celebrated Casio design. The sole comparison between the two is almost entirely based on the fact that they’re both dual colour digital watches – in the same way that a Rolex and a Timex both have analogue models. In reality, the screen is similar to an old-style dot matrix screens found across the majority of digital devices in the 90s. It’s clear and does the job, but it’s essentially just a very simple 128 x 128 pixel, monochrome display that gives you a no frills, information providing experience.

That may sound like a negative, but if you want something that’ll provide you with information to get from A to B when you’re hiking across a mountain range, then that’s exactly what you need. The limited screen colours presumably go a long way to helping extend battery life as well as removing any unnecessary functions that you probably don’t need on a long hike in the wilderness. It’s also waterproof to 100 metres and shock resistant, which I’d take over a colour screen in an emergency situation any day of the week.

Sat within the screen is a second smaller window which acts as a sort of navigation tool, showing you the current status of whatever you’re doing, whether that be scrolling through a menu, pausing a workout, pointing in a specific compass direction or taking your current heart rate. It’s a simple but comforting aspect of the watch face that you can even customise to a certain degree.

Bottom line, while this isn't much of a looker, it's comfortable to wear and offers enough screen estate to soak up data when you're on the move.

Garmin Instinct: Interface

Garmin Instinct review

Although the Instinct has a major chunk of functionality (more about that later), the five-button control system does require a fair bit of initial investment to get the hang of. Some of it, like the activity selection or forward-backward/up-down logic, is relatively simple to work out after half an hour of pressing. But delving deeper into the options becomes significantly more challenging.

The Instinct loads up with a set range of screen options providing information, like heart rate over the last four hours, top line activity stats, phone notifications, events, weather and compass. Accessing each of these is done via simple up and down buttons and for the most part the majority are what you’d expect from a Garmin.

The real beauty of the Instinct comes from the customisation options. Firstly, you can customise your top-level screens (there are 12 standard watch faces off the bat). Each piece of visible information acts as a little modifiable block. Once selected (using the top right customisation button) you can scroll through dozens of other options to replace it with, dependent on what you actually want to do with it – for most hardcore outdoor people there are probably more useful pieces of information than daily step goal.

Customisable data includes the usual offenders such as heart rate, cadence, temperature, elevation, target, intervals and stress data.

Garmin Instinct: Outdoor tracking

Garmin Instinct review

The Instinct has the tech on board to track an extensive range of sports. Running, cycling and swimming are core modes, but it's also going to cater for outdoor activities like hiking, climbing and even skiing.

Essential reading: Best running watches to buy

Lumping something like hiking into a standard list of activities has been a problem with most sports watches. Hikers or trail runners want largely different information. Mainly because the kind of things we’re concerned about are unknown elements like getting lost in the middle of the night or falling off a cliff in the fog.

At the top level, the Instinct is a fancy compass that accurately tells you the direction you’re going and tracks the route you’re taking. Unlike the Fenix, the monochrome display doesn’t allow for a map. Instead, the route you take is drawn via GPS markers into a very simple line drawing. At first glance, and without playing around with the zoom settings, the “map” – as it’s labelled – looks completely useless. The first time I tried to glean information from it I thought it was broken. It’s not a map though, it’s a tool to track your relative location.

You may not be able to see landmarks on the Instinct, but you can use topography and direction data to work out a hell of a lot. You just need to invest a bit of time into it.

Garmin Instinct review

This may lack the obvious benefits of an Ordnance Survey map, but does make route finding significantly easier. You’re never going to be able to navigate the Dolomites with a smartwatch on its own, but the information available goes a long way to solving most of the problems you’re likely to encounter.

As well as a magnetic compass, something that isn’t always present on smartwatches, the Instinct includes elevation profiles, an ability to enter specific co-ordinates, storm alerts, Galileo supports (to utilise multiple satellites for optimised accuracy), Site and Go (which essentially lets you set a direction to follow) and courses (the ability to download a route to follow using a breadcrumb trail).

As mentioned earlier, the learning curve to using the navigational functions of the Instinct is pretty steep. But once you’ve spent a few hours on it, everything becomes fairly simple. After getting the hang of the route tracking functions I suddenly realised how useful it would have been on previous hikes I’d done where I ended up walking in circles for big chunks of the day.

Garmin Instinct: Sports tracking

Garmin Instinct review

As mentioned, the Instinct is geared towards hikers and outdoor-types (notably climbers or trail runners). If you want a watch for a specific sport, then there are far better alternatives. That doesn’t mean the Instinct isn’t a multi-sport watch, it just means that for the price, you’d probably be disappointed if you were primarily using it for road running.

Hikers do of course do other things though, and luckily, I had the chance to test out the Instinct during a marathon. As a general running watch, it did the job fine. I set the activity interface to show me the things I always use for a race. You won’t get the level of information and detail you can define in more advanced running watches, but it’ll cover enough for most users.

The same rule exists for the long list of other activity options available on the watch. Unless what you’re doing has a navigational aspect, like cycling or trail running, it’ll probably just tick a box for you. The one exception being the strength/gym activity option, which is a deeply pointless and a fairly painful addition. The idea is that you can track reps and sets, however, the manual management of the activity means you have to keep pressing the button every time you start and stop a set, often noticing that your total is lower than it should be.

I actually found I was spending more time playing around with the interface than doing exercise. Still, I’ve yet to see any wearable that’s successfully tackled weight training in any sort of useful way.

Garmin Instinct: Activity tracking and smartwatch features

Garmin Instinct review

Like pretty much all of Garmin's wearables, the Instinct offers 24/7 activity tracking. So we're talking counting steps, monitoring sleep and displaying that Move bar to give you a quick indication of whether you've been active enough during the day. There's also stress tracking and adaptive step goals to push you a little further each day. Garmin's fitness tracking features are up there with Fitbit's as far as striking a good balance between features and insights is concerned.

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From accuracy point of view, I didn't have many complaints – although sleep tracking tended to attribute more sleep time in comparison to the Fenix 5 and Fitbit Ionic. Apparently moments of inactivity before sleep, like reading in bed or watching a film, was recorded as actual sleep.

In terms of replacing your smartwatch, the Instinct does a fair bit. It will let you see notifications on the watch display and there is the ability to respond to texts and answer/reject calls (if it's paired to an Android phone). You can also control music playback, hook it up to Garmin's Virb action camera and see calendar and weather information. What you don't get is Garmin Pay, the ability to pack on music or Connect IQ support. That means you can't add apps, widgets and custom fields to the watch.

Garmin Instinct review

While much of the Instinct's data can be reviewed on the watch, you're most likely to explore it further once it's synced to Garmin Connect. Whether it's the phone or web app, there's plenty to explore here and you can of course push data to third party services like Strava once the two accounts have been linked up.

As far as offering an experience that's different from what you'd get from pairing a Fenix or a Forerunner watch, there's nothing big to report here. If you've used a Garmin wearable before, then a lot of what you'll see will feel very familiar. It's jam packed with data and it can take a bit of time getting to grips with where everything lives. But it's certainly improving as far as a place to dig deeper into your data goes.

Garmin Instinct: Heart rate accuracy

Garmin Instinct review

If you're planning to put the onboard heart rate monitor to good use, I'd say it performs pretty much like Garmin's other watches that pack in the same HR tech. It's in good in general, particularly for 24/7 monitoring, but not exceptional once you start putting it to the high intensity training test.

Against a chest strap for a HIIT session, the live data seemed to be quite inconsistent, with the chest strap reacting quickly to fluctuations in activity and rest periods. The Instinct seemed to have a delay of a few seconds before catching up with the chest strap.

Garmin Instinct review

HR accuracy for HIIT: Garmin Instinct (left) and Garmin HR chest strap (right)

At lower effort training sessions, the highest heart rate in HIIT training came in within one or two bpms and the average only three bpms off, which is pretty good. But once you start ramping things up and quickly changing the pace and intensity, more inconsistencies start to creep in.

Working at above 130bpm during HIIT sessions, the Instinct struggled to react to the sudden changes in intensity while the chest strap during the same workout was hitting above 170bpm. The comparative data (image above) subsequently looks like completely different workouts.

Garmin Instinct review

HR accuracy for running: Garmin Instinct (left) and Garmin HR chest strap (right)

When testing against a more consistent bpm activity, in this case a 10k running race, the Instinct noticeably falls in line with the chest strap, but does still record a higher maximum heart rate reading. Although there’s an initial dip using the Instinct against the chest strap, the latter HR data is actually very close for the remainder of the activity. So, for more endurance-based activities, like hiking or trail running, it seems well equipped to do a pretty good job.

If you're planning to use the Instinct as your main workout watch though, it'll pay off to invest in a compatible chest strap to give you the most reliable heart rate insights.

Garmin Instinct
Garmin Instinct

Garmin Instinct: Battery life

Battery is a major factor for outdoors watches, when you're planning to spend a lot of time away from civilisation and not taking that charger with you. Garmin claims that the Instinct gives you 16 hours with the GPS tracking turned on, 40 hours using the UltraTrac GPS optimising mode (worse GPS but better battery) mode and two weeks if you just use it as a smartwatch.

In my experience, those numbers seem pretty much on the money. It's well equipped for a long day trekking or hiking with all of those sensors put to good use with no worrying drop offs. If you're willing to sacrifice mapping data accuracy for longer tracking time, then you'll get even longer. But for most, the Instinct's battery life is going to do the job.

Garmin Instinct
By Garmin
Everything about the Garmin Instinct promotes necessity over enjoyment, from the simplified design and stripped back UI to the customisable format of the screens. The core focus of the watch is by far the navigation, and there's a steep learning curve to get to grips with it all. But those features are plentiful. If you value the outdoor tracking skills of the Fenix, but aren't willing to pay big bucks to have them in your life, the Instinct is going to appeal.

  • Simple, customisable UI
  • Small and light
  • Good battery life
  • A lot of invaluable information for hikers
  • Not the prettiest
  • Steep learning curve
  • No TOPO maps
  • No Garmin Pay