Testing an Apple Watch Ultra in the Scottish Highlands

I was very excited when Apple announced the Apple Watch Ultra this fall. I’ve been wearing an Apple Watch on my wrist nearly every day since they were first released seven years ago. What was so exciting about the Ultra is that it seemed to be targeted directly at me. I’m an avid hiker/backpacker and love being outdoors, and I’ve used a regular Apple Watch to track these activities but would love for a device that even better fits this use.

I don’t think you can properly test a device like this without taking it out into the field. So the day my Ultra arrived, I booked myself onto a sleeper train up to the Scottish Highlands for a three day hiking trip to really see how it performed. I ended up hiking just over 61 miles.

I put together a video journaling my experience over this trip. This is the best way to really capture the experience of using the Ultra:

The standard Apple Watches are incredibly capable devices, that I’ve used to great utility on countless hiking trips, but using them in that context always felt a bit like I was pushing the boundary of what it was intended for or capable of. Whereas the Ultra is very much designed for the backcountry context. It is more rugged, more long lasting and much easier to read…all while still being 100% an Apple Watch and not compromising any of the features that make a standard Apple Watch so useful. (I also think it is absolutely gorgeous aesthetically, but realize that is much more of a fashion opinion)

I love this watch and can say confidently that is the best Apple Watch yet made for hiking. The standard Apple Watches are very good, and probably good enough for most day hiking, but if you’ve ever felt limited by their screen, battery or durability you’ll be very happy with this upgrade. I also think it is probably the best choice amongst all sports watches for hiking for all but the most specialist needs (assuming you have an iPhone).

If you are thru-hiking the Pacific Crest trail, or going out on a multi-week wilderness expedition there is probably a better suited device for you, but I suspect that the actual proportion of users where that would be the case is vanishingly small. The fact of the matter is that most of life doesn’t involve scaling mountains or fording streams, it involves paying for things, making calls, texting our loved ones, and regular exercise. In these situations an Apple Watch is fabulously useful.

While I was putting together this review I kept coming back to the analogy that the Ultra is like a pick-up truck. Useful in regular, daily life but capable of heading offroad or carrying gravel from the garden store. It still drives like a regular car, but can do more. The Ultra has retained its “Apply Watch-ey-ness” while expanding its range of uses, which is exactly what I want. If they had instead made a dump truck (which in this analogy are the highly specialized, sport specific watches) it certainly would have been able to carry more gravel than a pick-up, but also been way less useful overall.

This approach could frustrate people who do the specialist activities that demand a specialist device, but is a delight for the rest of us. I’m thrilled to have the Ultra on my wrist and look forward to many more adventures using it.

If you want to see some photographs I took during this trip, I put together a collection of full-res images here.

David Smith