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Garmin Instinct Solar Review: A Great Backcountry Partner

When Garmin first debuted the Instinct in 2018, it instantly became my favorite sports watch. But I ended up skipping a full review because, at that time, I wasn’t sure about the watch’s value proposition. Garmin already makes a fantastic series of backcountry watches. Why would you get one with half the functionality?

It was also … kind of ugly. I liked it. But as with dad sneakers, Kraft Singles, and Pete Davidson, I have yet to meet anyone else who likes it. So many other great fitness trackers fit the sleek, minimalist aesthetic that the chunky Instinct seemed out of place. But I was laughably wrong. Since its debut, the Instinct has become an extremely popular Garmin tracker. After all, it keeps you from getting lost in the woods and it doesn’t empty your bank account.

This year, the company debuted a successor: the Instinct Solar, which has a Power Glass face so it can recharge from the sun. After more than a week of testing, I’m not convinced solar charging adds as much power as Garmin would like me to think. Still, it does make my favorite sports watch even better.

Big and Tall

The Instinct is not small. I measured the face to be 1.75 inches across and 0.25 inches deep. It takes up most of the real estate on my small wrist, but it’s still comfortable, not to mention durable and robust. It’s waterproof up to 100 meters, and I don’t worry about accidentally knocking it against canoes or my car door.

Around the basic black-and-white memory-in-pixel display, which you can customize with different face styles and display metrics, is a thick bezel printed with instructions for Garmin’s five-button system. It points out which button lets you start GPS and which one is the menu. I like the Instinct’s retro look a lot, and I also—eek!—like the button instructions. On most watches that have a multi-button system, it always takes me a few days to remember how to use it.

Right after the Instinct finished charging, I strapped it on my wrist and took off with my family for a camping weekend. To find our quarantine-partner family in the woods, we hiked on a trail, paddled a canoe back to the car, loaded it up, and paddled back. I also had to run several miles back to the car for little errands, like, oh, forgetting to fill out the permit for our site.

Photograph: Garmin

This is exactly what the Instinct Solar is made for—casual backcountry use that doesn’t necessarily require detailed maps on a big, glowy, battery-eating screen. To get a camping permit and avoid a ticket, I ran several miles to the car and back by myself in the dark. I clicked on the Track Me feature for a simple map to find my way back.

In case you’re holding your breath right now, I made it. No surprise there—I checked the GPS recordings against online maps for several GPS-tracked activities and found it to be pretty accurate.

The Garmin Solar also comes in new surf and tactical versions, which have features specifically for those respective uses, like tide data and a dedicated surfing activity tracker. But the Instinct Solar on its own has plenty of other functions. I delayed our lake crossing by several minutes trying to decide whether paddling a loaded canoe was more like SUPing (stand up paddle surfing) or Rowing, two activities you can track on the watch. (The answer was SUPing, but only because it tracked distance in miles rather than meter segments.)

New additions to the Instinct Solar also include a pulse oximeter to measure your blood oxygen levels while sleeping, and Body Battery, a Garmin-specific metric that measures your energy levels with an algorithm that takes into account your activity, stress levels, sleep amount and quality, and heart rate variability.

I’ve found Body Battery to be useful, back before I thought there were things I could do to improve it. Unfortunately, that was before a pandemic overtook the planet, so I didn’t find myself checking these metrics very much. It was not helpful for my mental health to get up in the morning and find that insomnia had kept my Body Battery at an 8 out of 100.

Fun in the Sun

Solar charging is a supplement, not a replacement, for plugging your watch into an outlet. While Garmin claims the watch will also charge from indoor light, I checked the solar intensity meter as well as my UV exposure when inside, and it was nil. It works best if the Power Glass face is in direct sunlight, and Garmin does suggest taking it off to lie in the sun.

Unfortunately, taking something off my body while camping is exactly how I end up losing sunscreen, socks, and a tank top that I apparently left in a dry bag for four years. It does recharge while I’m wearing it outside, but your mileage will vary depending on the weather, how long you’re outside, etc.

The 100 percent measurement on the solar intensity graph is 50,000 lux, which is the intensity of a bright, sunny day. From my experience, spending two days outside with bright sunny weather increased the battery life by almost 50 percent. I got five days to a week with one charge on the original Instinct on Max Battery, which turns on features like backlighting, maps, and smart notifications. I managed a week and a half with the Instinct Solar.

In Battery Saver mode with solar charging, Garmin claims you’ll never have to recharge the watch. Battery Saver mode turns off most functions, but you can increase battery life by tinkering in Power Manager. For example, I created a personalized mode that turns off maps and turns off the backlit display, which extended the battery life several days.

Then I turned on continuous Pulse Ox measuring in the Garmin Connect app and immediately got a warning that my battery was low. So I paddled outside on sunny water for 4 hours and got my battery life back up again. And the cycle continued.

Garmin watches can get hilariously specific. There’s a Garmin for everyone, whether you want a casual everyday watch, one for runners, or one for cruising on your yacht. The Instinct Solar happens to be mine—a hardy, GPS-enabled outdoor watch that will charge surreptitiously whether I’m chasing my kids or going for a run.

It’s worth noting, however, that if you spend lots of time inside, you can still get the original Instinct for a good deal less.

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