Garmin Instinct Tactical

Finally, a ‘smart’ watch I love and really think you will love too.

The Garmin Instinct Tactical is the first “smart” watch I like. Actually, I like it a lot. Because this isn’t really what you would expect of a smart watch, this is more like a modern incarnation of what G-SHOCK should be building. This is worth talking about.


I started with three goals. To find a watch that would:

  1. Provide me with workout tracking (my path, and heart rate at minimum) during my rucks.
  2. I wanted something that could also function as my alarm clock, but it had to be vibration for alarms.
  3. It should replace the durability and no fuss nature of the G-SHOCK I normally wear for sleeping and working out.

I did not, set out to find a smart watch, but it seems most watches with vibrating alarms make it a smart watch. So the goal then was to tamp down the features of the watch. Because I also didn’t want to have to charge a watch everyday — if you have to do that, then you are wearing a gadget, not a watch. (Insert joke here about power reserves on automatic watches.)

To get something with truly good battery life, you are getting something with a toned down screen. The Instinct line drew my eye right away. Black and white, old school looking LCD display. With huge durability considerations, and a week-ish of battery life. It could track and route you, monitor HR, and do smart watch like things. And it was really cheap, like $200.

And then I saw the ‘tactical’ variant which adds a special face (the entire face can go dark background with light numbers) and another feature which cuts off the ability for the watch to log anything back to another device. Essentially meaning that when you put the tactical edition in ‘stealth’ mode, all data stays local to the watch, like a private browsing mode but for a watch. Oh, and the tactical edition says tactical for an extra roughly $100.

So I bought that.


There are a ton of features on this. You can track your route, track workouts. You can use a retrace function to wayfind back to your car. You can see notifications like text messages on it. A compass and a barometer. You can see weather and all sorts of other shit.

I use only these functions, and have turned most others off:

  1. Workout tracking. I use the ‘hike’ workout to track my rucking.
  2. Sleep tracking. I had no idea the watch did this until I woke up after wearing it for the first day. Good stuff!
  3. Alarm.
  4. Time.

Perhaps the biggest function of this watch, is the ability to turn off all the shit you don’t want turned on. I have found it hard with other smart watches to tone them down to the level I want — the Instinct gets that. Thank you Garmin.


As I mentioned the screen on the Instinct Tactical is black and white, but more specifically a 128px by 128px ‘monochrome, sunlight-visible, transflective memory-in-pixel (MIP)’. So like clearly we all know what that is. Best description is that there are little square blobs which make up the screen and they are either dark or not dark. And that’s how it makes stuff on the screen.

Direct Texas morning sun, perfectly readable. Magic.

What I do know is that it is incredibly readable, with a strong backlight that is adjustable. And I mean in direct, noon, Texas sun this display is perfectly readable. In the dark of the night, a tap of the backlight gives you a crisp and readable screen.

Looks like old school digital to a degree, not high end like an Apple Watch or a Retina display. You can see the jagged nature of the characters, and yet it is so much more high contrast and so much more legible than most of the digital screens I am used to that it feels like its own kind of magic. It is a bit retro, but it doesn’t feel old. It feels utilitarian.

I think that’s the best way to explain this screen: everything you need with exactly nothing else.


One thing about this watch is that the five buttons are configurable. So you can set fast shortcuts to the things you use, and if you really dive into it you can do multi-button shortcuts so that you can get to even more (I have found that unless I wear the watch constantly I cannot remember what is what with the custom button press stuff). What I did set is that the top right selects a hiking workout, and a second tap of that starts it.

That’s incredibly fast to get going — with no scrolling and tapping around just to do something that is a core feature. In the above picture, that’s the custom workout face I have set for my rucking workout. It shows the time in the middle, my average mile time at the top, and the distance at the bottom. In the round call out is my heart rate.

Exactly what I need, and nothing else. Perfectly simple, while showing you a ton of info.

On the app side of things, the connect app shows a decently detailed screen of your workout (I cropped the location/map out of the first picture):

All of that ties into the Apple Health data as well. Comparing the pace and distance to the GAIA GPS app on my iPhone put the Garmin within 0.1miles of the iPhone. No clue which is more accurate, but it was close enough that I didn’t care, with the Garmin reporting a shorter distance.

Overall, I love having this, not for the data I get after the workout, but for the data I get while working out. I monitor my pace closely, as I want it keep the average as close to 15 minutes as I can, and I watch my heart rate to know whether I have more to push myself. No complaints at all.


Sleep tracking is like 85% good, and to be clear I do not think any gadget is good at sleep tracking. Sometimes the Instinct doesn’t catch wake ups, or waking up, and is rather liberal in the time it tracks me as falling asleep. It seems to err on the side of more sleep logged than fewer — but the data is extremely easy to edit in the app. In fact there’s no controls I have seen for initiating sleep mode on the watch.

As I mentioned at the top, I had no idea this was a feature of the watch, but I do like it. I like that I have learned I need about 7.5 hours of sleep a night in order to feel good. And that’s about it. I find sleep data pretty useless otherwise.

Battery Life

I was expecting about a week of life (the gauge claim of 14 days in smart watch means that there is no GPS usage), but I get more than that. Hard to complain about for sure and the watch charges quickly too. I would have no worries taking it on a 4 day hike without a charger and just using it as I needed it. I think if you are using the GPS or notifications more than I do, you probably get less life. But with me wearing it every night, and doing 3-4 workouts a week, including wearing it all day on the weekends — it’s about 12-16 days of battery life. Really is hard to ask for more than that, though I am not a heavy user of every feature.

The charge setup is such that a small 3000mah battery backup could keep you charged on the road for a very long time — something to keep in mind if you want to go off the grid with it for a while longer.


I want to also note how this feels on the wrist, as it is a larger watch. It feels great on my roughly 7.1” wrist. It is low enough profile that it never gets in the way, and doesn’t look overly large on my wrist. But more than that this watch weighs nothing. When you pick it up the lightness is crazy. The strap is some kind of stretchy magic which means you never feel as though the watch is cutting off circulation, while still being able to wear it snugly.

I really love the strap on this. The adjustments are many, and the stretch is fantastic. This is one of the more comfortable and transparent watches I have ever worn.

Why I Love It

I am going to catch some flack for this, but here goes.

The Instinct Tactical is everything I love about a GSHOCK, but better looking, more comfortable, and all the extra features to allow me to better track my activity when I am active — all more than a G-SHOCK at a price you pay for many G-SHOCKs. It is not so good I feel like I want to wear it over everything else, I don’t want to wear it into the office. It’s inexpensive, but not cheap, so it doesn’t look or feel cheap, but low enough cost, getting banged all around is of no concern.

And yes, I get it, the stats are not such that it would beat out a G-SHOCK, but also like not even military personnel need the ruggedness of a G-SHOCK and certainly not me. (Garmin notes: Instinct is built to the U.S. military standard 810 for thermal, shock and water resistance (rated to 100 meters).) I have worn it in the shower, a big no-no for 51% of watch enthusiasts, and it’s great, no issues. I don’t think there is a way I could break this, and that’s perfect.

If you bought one, and told me you don’t need any other watch — I would understand and tell you that I am torn daily between this and my Tudor GMT. Yes, the Tudor is better looking and I would pick it over this, but damn this is a good watch. And a fantastic fitness tracker too.

And, if I ever get back out into the woods, I am guessing it tears it up out there too.

Buy it.

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