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(The Gear Loop) - Marketed as a smartwatch that’s "inspired by the stories of renowned explorers, accomplished adventurers, and elite athletes", the latest Apple Watch Ultra isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to offering features for outdoor active lifestyles.

A reimagined design - complete with 49mm titanium casing - the Ultra is an Apple Watch at its core, but has been aimed at endurance athletes and outdoor adventurers that want reliable GPS and a smartwatch that isn’t going to buckle under pressure.


We’ve been spending a fair amount of time with the Apple Watch Ultra - hiking, climbing and running with it on our wrist to see if really packs the tools hardy outdoors folk tend to use on a regular basis.

Loic SalanNavigating with the new Apple Watch Ultra photo 6

A golden compass

Apple has completely redesigned its Compass app and this sits at the centre of a bespoke Wayfinder watch face - only found on this Ultra edition.

Tapping the dial quickly flicks between a live compass and the standard watch face, itself packing eight different complications that can easily be configured for ocean, adventure, and endurance activities. 

This new watch face also features a unique night mode, which is accessed by rotating the Digital Crown upwards and it turns the interface red for better visibility in low light. In reality, it serves to not blind everyone in your immediate vicinity when camping or night hiking.

Loic SalanNavigating with the new Apple Watch Ultra photo 10

Tapping on the centre of the Wayfinder watch face brings up the Compass view, which is a bit like the radar map you might find on a video game. You can zoom in and out by spinning the Digital Crown and it will highlight any previously marked waypoints, or automatically added points, such as a parked car.

Nice and easy navigation

One neat feature Apple has implemented here is a Backtrack function, which essentially records your steps and then creates an easy breadcrumb trail that leads back to the starting point or a waypoint of your choice.

Handily, this feature auto activates when away from Wi-Fi rich environments, so in most hiking cases, will automatically have your back when out in the wilderness, even if you are out of areas with mobile signal.

The Gear LoopNavigating with the new Apple Watch Ultra photo 14

However, the compass doesn’t show a map, but instead plots a line to your location that you have to follow. This only requires a cursory glance at the watch face when walking, running or cycling along neatly laid trails, but will require more thorough attention when somewhere more technical and potentially dangerous, especially in poor weather conditions.

Rivals, such as Garmin and Suunto, provide topographical maps with real contour lines for this exact reason, because when you are navigating the side of a treacherous mountain, you want o know exactly what lies around the next corner - particularly when that involves steep drops.

Marking territory

As previously mentioned, it’s possible to mark waypoints via the watch and Apple has made this as easy as possible. Simply tap an icon on the bottom right of the compass and you’ll be able to mark your exact location.

Loic SalanNavigating with the new Apple Watch Ultra photo 8

There is a bunch of pre-populated icons, colour schemes and the ability to add some text. This then populates a list of waypoints that you can navigate to via the watch face at a later date. These last seemingly forever, until you run out of internal storage or until you delete them.

This is particularly handy for perhaps marking your basecamp, particular beauty or climbing spots you’d like to return to or just to help remind you where your parked car is located. Again, the app will help you retrace your steps.

Route planning and third party apps

Some of our frustration with the Apple Watch Ultra surrounded the fact that some of the more detailed route planning and performance metrics come via compatible third party apps.

Loic SalanNavigating with the new Apple Watch Ultra photo 1


If you’re used to uploading GPX files or plotting detailed off-road routes directly from a smartwatch, you’ll have to go hunting for the right app and then will likely have to pay for access to premium features.

Considering the Apple Watch Ultra costs £849, we feel this is a little more than frustrating for those that want proper expedition-spec features.

Of course, there’s always Apple Maps and the like, but these aren’t reliable in the wilderness, while we found the Apple Watch apps for Strava, Komoot and even OS Maps weren’t particularly feature-rich when used on the watch alone.

Loic SalanNavigating with the new Apple Watch Ultra photo 13

GPS and battery life

Cleverly, Apple decided to move its GPS antenna to the surface of the titanium case, which has been made possible thanks to the more raised side profile of the Ultra.

This, coupled with the fact Apple uses both L1 and L5 frequency GPS, means it’s an incredibly accurate watch when tracking activities, and achieving a GPS lock is one of the fastest experiences we’ve had.

The only downside is the battery life suffers when relying heavily on GPS features, with our experiencing noting that even half a day of solid wayfinding use had a severe impact on overall battery life. 

Loic SalanNavigating with the new Apple Watch Ultra photo 9

Apple will release a battery optimisation setting later in the year, which adds to its existing low power setting (60hrs of battery life claimed here) that will create additional power savings by reducing GPS and heart rate readings for improved battery life.   

SOS and emergencies

Not only can Apple Watch Ultra sense when you’ve been in a car crash, and automatically alert the emergency services, it can also make all-important SOS calls in emergency situations.

Pressing and holding the side button sends an SOS call to local emergency services, notifies your emergency contacts, sends your current location, and displays your Medical ID badge on the screen for emergency personnel.

Loic SalanNavigating with the new Apple Watch Ultra photo 7

Those with cellular activated on their  Apple Watch Ultra can also make international emergency calls. When you’re traveling abroad, the watch can call local emergency services from over 120 countries and regions.

Finally, Apple is proud of its emergency siren, which when activated emits an 86-decibel siren, with a unique sound pattern designed to attract attention to your location up to 600 feet or 180 meters away. 

It first sends a pattern that suggests distress, before emitting the universally recognised SOS pattern. 

Writing by Leon Poultney.