Review: Garmin’s Instinct Tactical is Fit for the Wild

February 3, 2020Michael Herne
garmin watch

When people think of Garmin, they generally think of the first GPS unit they had for their vehicle. But Garmin’s global positioning system technology is used across a variety of industries, including aviation, marine, fitness, and outdoor recreation. In the outdoor space, their watches are often featured on “best of” lists and praised for their navigation tools, which is essential when you’re hunting, hiking, or camping in the backcountry

I’ve used my trusty Garmin Fenix 3 for years and was hesitant to replace it, but I had the opportunity to test out the new Instinct Tactical after it was released in August 2019. I put it to the test during a couple weeks of training, as well as in Colorado’s backcountry for elk archery season. After wearing the Instinct Tactical for a week, it was evident that it is a smartwatch more than capable of suiting the needs of most outdoorsmen

Photo by Michael Herne/Coffee or Die.

One of the first things you notice about a watch is how it feels on your wrist. The Instinct’s new silicone band has just enough stretch to aid in both comfort and keeping the watch in place while performing strenuous activities like running, hiking, swimming, or weightlifting. Weighing in at 52 grams, it’s significantly lighter than the 82-gram Fenix 3 it replaced. The activity buttons are also flatter and more ergonomically placed on the Instinct series watches; the round, protruding buttons on the Fenix 3 would often inadvertently depress, starting an activity at inopportune times.

As for appearance, the Instinct Tactical has more of a G-Shock look, which fits the intended user in the military, tactical, or outdoor sphere. While the display resembles an analog clock face, it’s jam packed with apps and technologically advanced features. As far as colors, choices are limited to black and coyote tan. 

The Instinct Tactical connects to a smartphone via bluetooth and sends most standard notifications through the phone. I shut off this feature because of the redundancy, but the function is there if needed or preferred. The watch also displays weather pulled from your phone’s weather app. One feature that was particularly convenient while in the backcountry was the watch’s ability to connect to my Garmin InReach Mini. I could send preset messages, start tracking, or even initiate an SOS from the watch.

Photo by Michael Herne/Coffee or Die.

As has come to be expected from Garmin, the GPS on the Instinct Tactical is fast and accurate. The company equipped it to use multiple global navigation satellites, including GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo. In open country, I could get coordinates in 60 seconds or less; in areas that were more densely timbered, the watch still performed well (within 10M of my other GPS devices). The watch’s compass and altimeter were also accurate when compared to my backup compass and other GPS devices.

Some functions that are specific to the Instinct Tactical are a dual position display that uses both MGRS and degrees/minutes/seconds, and stealth mode, which stops the device from sharing and storing your GPS location and disables all wireless connectivity. Further, the watch comes with a night vision mode that allows the face to be viewed under night vision devices, as well as jumpmaster and waypoint projection apps. 

However, all those features cost battery life. Especially when spending time off the grid, battery life is a big deal, and overall, the Instinct Tactical did well in this department. As with most battery-powered items, smaller and lighter means less battery life. During normal activity tracking and app use during training, the battery lasted well over a week. When using it in GPS mode to navigate back to camp while in the woods, the battery took a significant hit. Garmin states that the battery will last up to 14 days in normal smartwatch mode and 16 hours in GPS mode, which was pretty close to accurate. However, it charged relatively quickly on a portable charging device. 

Compass function. Photo by Michael Herne/Coffee or Die.

My only real complaint while using the watch was the navigation feature itself. It operates similar to the way it would if I was using the watch to record a run or other physical activity. When navigating, the watch displays a line from your location to your destination, as well as the distance. I prefer navigational tools to use a simple arrow pointing toward the required azimuth and display the distance remaining. That being said, the navigation led me to my destination without fail.

One of my favorite features of the Instinct Tactical is the heart rate monitor. It was interesting to keep track of my heart rate and stress levels throughout the day — while ascending and descending 10,000-foot peaks, as well as while doing regular physical training. The watch comes equipped to monitor activities from running to swimming. Similar to the Fenix series, the Instinct Tactical allows the user to plan intervals and target paces on Garmin Connect, upload the workouts to the watch, and then the watch will keep pace during running workouts. Garmin Connect also allows the user to plan sport-specific workouts for time, distance, target pace, heart rate, and more, including recovery and rest periods. These functions make the Instinct Tactical a great companion for running, biking, rowing, swimming, and even skiing and snowboarding. 

The advanced features of the Instinct Tactical are great if you work in the military, law enforcement, or tactical realm, but those who have no use for the tactical apps can simplify to the basic version. In either iteration, the watch is feature-packed and more than capable of suiting the needs of the outdoorsman, adventurer, or athlete.

Michael Herne
Michael Herne

Michael Herne is a contributing writer for Coffee or Die. He is an Airborne Ranger currently serving on active duty (13 years) in the U.S. Army, with a total of 33 months deployed to Afghanistan. His passion lies in backpack hunting and fly fishing. In the time not consumed by his military obligations, you’ll find Michael somewhere in the outdoors with a fly rod or bow in hand and a pack on his back. His hunting exploits continue to take him to beautiful and interesting places, from the hills of Kentucky to the peaks of the Rocky Mountain West. He has been hosted on the podcasts Becoming a Bowhunter and East to West Hunting.

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