Backcountry fitness junkies take note, the Garmin Instinct Solar has more data than you will ever need, and enough battery to go the distance (as long as you’ve got sun).
More often than not, I don’t rely on data. I don’t look to hydration trackers to tell me when to drink water, I rely on my God-given “thirst” instinct. And I don’t often track heart rate. I go hard ’til I sweat and try to best what I did last week.
Basically, I trust my own body more than I lean on a smartwatch or wearable device to tell me how I’m doing. That said, I agreed to try out the newest gizmo when Garmin called to sell me on its latest tech. For the last week, I’ve been wearing a Garmin Instinct smartwatch with fitness-tracking brilliance.
And while the Garmin Instinct brand has a well-established reputation, today it unveils the first solar-charging iteration in the line. So I took this doohickey out for 6 days of mountain biking, trail running, paddling, stair routines, boxing sessions, office hours, morning showers, and good ol’ fashioned REM sleep.
I wanted to see what this could tell me that I didn’t already know — and, of course, ensure it can drink UV and shed sweat to keep up with my day-to-day routine.
In short: The Garmin Instinct Solar packs a massive punch for activity tracking, connectivity, and personal metrics — all data that modern wearable junkies and Garmin faithful would expect. But with the introduction of solar power charging, this wealth of information comes without the worry and hassle of constantly finding a charging spot.
It’s a spectacular option for those who know how to leverage the latest in wearable tech. But it’s overkill for those seeking simple timepiece or fitness-tracking options.
Garmin Instinct Solar Tactical Edition Smartwatch Review
Let’s be clear: I received this watch on a Thursday and tested it until the following Wednesday. It undoubtedly has more features than I could hope to test. But the Garmin Instinct watch series already commands a respected following among adventurers and fitness fanatics.
So for those who already know the line, I won’t bore you by rehashing all the basic functions. For those who haven’t tried the Instinct line, I encourage you to check Garmin’s website to see if it’s the best option for you.
In this review, I will run through some of the functions I did utilize — specifically, workout tracking, timers, fitness goals, and basic timepiece functionality. But the biggest feature to highlight is the battery.
Garmin boasts an “unlimited battery life with sufficient solar exposure in Battery Saver mode.” Because I had 6 days — and not infinity — to test the watch, I didn’t even bother with Battery Saver mode. I wanted to see how this sucker performed in full output with daily sun.
I unboxed the Garmin Instinct Tactical Solar Edition (henceforth, just Garmin Instinct) on Thursday. As luck would have it, the brand informed me it failed to ship a charging cord. So I had only the sun to keep it running — ideal testing criteria!
I opened the 58-page “Quick Start Guide” — don’t worry, depending on your language, you’ll only need 5 pages — downloaded the Garmin Connect app, and instantly had notifications routing to my new watch. Honestly, this was absurdly simple, so even techno-troglodytes should find setup a cinch.
Then, without thinking twice, I hopped in my 2001 Mazda B4000 pickup (not important, but definitely cool) and drove into the Front Range. After 3 hours, I was in Aspen’s hipper and mellower cousin, Carbondale. There, I embarked on a battery of adventurous-but-not-outrageous testing ops.
Day 1: Driving, Eating, Sleeping
My first day comprised a 3-hour drive, grocery shopping, fraternizing, and sleeping. Nothing amazing, but totally valid for anyone who needs to tell time and wants to instantly know the basics of how their watch works
Day 2: Mountain Biking, Paddling
On the second day of testing, I took the watch up Aspen Mountain on a bike. Yes, up a mountain — 4-plus miles, 3,200 feet of gain, and some zippy (questionably marked) descent.
After that, I hopped into a raft and shot down the Roaring Fork River for plenty of waterproof testing.
Day 3: 5-Mile Run
Just like it sounds, I took it on a trail run.
The tail end of testing involved some mundane activities — office work, walks, and bike commutes — and planned fitness work, like boxing and stair routines.
Solar Charging, Waterproofness, Activity Readiness
My first concern with a smartwatch/fitness wearable was that it would be cumbersome, apparent, or, worst of all, delicate. I was not disappointed by the Garmin Instinct. This watch is surprisingly lightweight (53 g) and, perhaps more importantly, breathable.
The silicone band has notches across its entire length, increasing not just adjustability but also breathability. I typically wear my watch face facing inward so as not to inhibit wrist mobility (personal preference), but I swapped it around to improve solar charging on occasion.
The Garmin Instinct seemed to have no trouble tracking heart rate, sleep patterns, and specific activities regardless of which way I positioned it.
I never once plugged the watch into an A/C outlet during testing. I relied solely on solar charging. Though I left the watch at home twice for roughly half a day each time, as of this writing — 6 full days of testing — the Instinct tells me it still has 10 days of battery life left.
Additionally, the Instinct has endured river swims, showers, and whitewater float trips without succumbing to water infiltration. The brand claims you can submerge it down to 100 m — and in both river rapids (dunks) and daily showers, it held up no problem.
In addition, it put up with general abuse — plenty of sweat, errant tree branches, and the occasional drop — without so much as a scratch. This doesn’t mean it’s indestructible, but if you treat it like it’s worth half as much as you pay for it, it will likely take it in stride.
Read the manual. Honestly, this thing does so much, there’s no way to test it all in the 6 days I used it. It excelled tracking heart rate and automatically logging my bike rides, runs, stress periods, and sleep. This watch offers up more data than you will ever fully utilize. But it’s there.
The real power lies in the app. Through it, you can review the metrics relevant to your activities and goals. I found the Body Battery most interesting.
Basically, Garmin tracks how much you’re putting out — stress, physical activity — and how much you’re charging through sleep and calories. At the end of the day, you can see if you’ve taken enough “you time” to balance out all the effort you spent getting after it.
Anyone who has ever overtrained will appreciate this feature.
But fitness nuts will appreciate the sweet of activity metrics — workout routine set trackers, heart-rate monitors, stairs climbed, miles logged, laps swum, and a whole lot more. It even has modes for snowboarding and skiing, weight training, and more.
And just as the name suggests, the Tactical Edition has some wild features, like night vision goggle compatibility (so you can read it while going all Tom Clancy), and the Military Grid Reference System (MGRS) to share and track longitude/latitude coordinates with others.
It also boasts a “Jumpmaster” mode, so you can input your altitude, desired landing point, and wind speeds so that you get where you’re going when you jump out of a plane.
If this is something you will use, email me — you should be testing gear for us.
And for the backcountry aficionados, the Garmin Instinct Solar helps you navigate with GPS, and waypoint/bearing capability to help you set a route.
Finally, conspiracy theorists and actual CIA operatives will appreciate the Kill Switch, which lets you wipe all your data, and Stealth Mode. This feature provides access to the distance/physiological data but stops the watch from sharing your location.
And, of course, the Instinct Solar pairs with your phone to provide realtime notifications — whatever pings your phone will show up as an alert on the watch. Unlike more robust smart tech found in a wearable like the Apple Watch, however, this will not follow voice commands or provide a virtual assistant like Alexa or Siri.
Garmin Instinct Solar Watch: Is This a Good Smartwatch?
In short, yes. This watch will work wonderfully for those who know how to operate the latest tech.
Honestly, there are so many features on this watch, it’s unlikely you will unlock its full potential on your own. Garmin offers supplemental guides — beyond its multi-language Quick Start mini-book — to help you familiarize yourself with its myriad offerings.
And for those who don’t intend to jump out of a C-17, Garmin offers a standard and Surf model (tracks tide data and more).
If there’s a downside, it could be too much information. In addition to all the health and activity data, the sheer amount of information that comes through as notifications can be a bit distracting. Of course, all these settings are adjustable — if you take the time to tailor them to your needs. But out of the box, the Garmin Instinct Solar gives you more than you might expect.
While Garmin introduced some updates tech updates to the line, the big improvement here is solar charging. At its basic level, the brand nailed it. The Garmin Instinct Solar Tactical Edition is tough, resilient, svelte, and, above all, long-lasting. If that’s the kind of watch you need, you won’t be disappointed.
- Battery life: 24 days in smartwatch mode, up to 54 days when solar charging (outside in full sun for 3 hours per day)
- Waterproof: 10 ATM (down to 100 m)
- Weight: 53 g (1.8 oz.)
- Activity profiles: Running, swimming, cycling, skiing/snowboarding, mountain biking, hiking, paddling, hunt/fish, tactical ops, floor/stair climbing, weight training, yoga, and more
- Smart features: Notifications, calendar, weather, and more
- Health info: Continuous heart rate, resting heart rate, blood oxygen saturation, sleep, energy (“Body Battery”), stress tracking, hydration, menstrual cycle, and more
- Location data: GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, barometric altimeter, accelerometer, compass
- Price: $400 (base) / $450 (Tactical/Surf Edition)