Of course, a WearOS device is problematic for hiking because its battery life will not be the longest.
China, where many Google services are blocked, should not have been good for making me like a WearOS watch – but it was, and especially for the Suunto 7.
The reason? Mapbox maps on the wrist and Suunto’s heatmaps.
Alps Hiking: Easy
Hiking or trail running in a region such as the Alps, with navigation aid from an outdoors watch, is typically easy enough. Many of the trails you could take are visible on and “known” to route planning apps so that creating a route manually or even through automatic routing works well.
For many trails, you can also find descriptions and gpx to download and import into apps, sync to your watch, and follow.
There are things to be aware of, of course, but it’s usually easy enough to plan everything.
China Hiking: Complicated
In a country like China, things tend to be more complicated.
China is not big on sharing GPS data; Chinese might share their pursuits on social media, but my Chinese is not enough for all those apps.
Not enough people who write in English have gone to most places, let alone written about their experiences, nevermind showing/sharing gpx.
Descriptions and “maps” of tourist spots and hiking trails are typically more fanciful and artistic than useful.
Google maps, even if accessible, still follow Chinese rules to show everything with an offset from reality, so that the map view that would show trails and landmarks does not correspond with where everything really is.
The satellite view, interestingly, does not have that same offset. It still cannot be used for planning anything much since it does not show the names of roads or landmarks.
The WearOS / Mapbox Advantage
This is where WearOS comes into play.
WearOS apps – at least the ones I know – predominantly use Mapbox as their maps provider… and I love these maps.
Even in China, roads are shown well; places and their names are shown well; topography is indicated well. And it is all in the right spot.
Typically, map downloading or updating through the mobile phone link has not been a problem, and offline maps sync well enough, too.
This already means that it becomes possible to check one’s place and likely option for going on pretty easily, even on the outdoors watch, even somewhere on a mountain in China.
Many standard map apps on the smartphone were less useful. Chinese ones tend to be too focused on urban areas and road navigation while in a car, so they were out.
Viewranger, for example, still works rather well. The maps it uses are good and very usable.
Viewranger has its issues in the ways it does (and does not) work with WearOS watches, however. Basically, it would not easily allow for simultaneous navigation and track recording on the watch – and of course, I’d much prefer using the Suunto app to get my data there (and not to use two apps on a WearOS watch simultaneously).
The alternative would be to navigate by smartphone, but while out and about somewhere in the mountains, I avoid that; that’s what I have my watches for.
With Suunto’s Suunto 7 WearOS smartwatch and the Suunto app, something else comes into play: the heatmaps.
Suunto has created a similar feature as Strava, heatmaps from their users’ data – only without the drama those had produced.
These heatmaps have proved a real boon for a situation where route gpx and the likes are not readily available, as it is with China.
Having one’s position in the right place – as with Mapbox maps on a WearOS watch – is rather helpful already.
Seeing where other people have gone, especially outside of cities (where just about any road is often marked on the heatmaps) when there are no gpx from others or hiking maps, that’s a whole other level of useful.
Heatmaps View in the Suunto App
The Suunto app offers the heatmap traces even when creating a route. Planning one’s way (and preparing a route for watches that support route navigation) works well with that alone, and independently of the device.
In my travels in China, this was often amazing.
Except for some of the best-known tourist spots that even attract international visitors, one often has no idea where there are places that people would visit – and even if you have an idea of that, you don’t know the actual trails… see above: no maps, no descriptions.
With the heatmap, it was great fun – and function – to look around the map and see where the glow of people’s earlier trails appeared.
Often enough, checking what places those were, I found interesting spots I had heard of before, but never would have remembered to look for.
The Suunto 7 does not – or at least, not yet (let’s see where Suunto develops it in the future) support route navigation.
The Suunto 7 Heatmap View
The Suunto 7 can show the heatmap itself, however, same as it can show the normal Mapbox map – and that alone can be a great help when on a path/trail and wondering where people have gone before.
Nothing but WearOS offers that functionality, in such a good way*. Yes, it’s paid for with short battery life – but well, life’s about trade-offs. Technology, double so.