You own hiking boots, skis, snowboards, a kayak, a scuba regulator, climbing gear, and too many other contraptions to strap to the roof of your all-wheel drive vehicle. Gadgets today can keep you on track as you enjoy outdoor activities--and they can also play a key supporting role in proving your claim of the most ski runs crammed into a powder day.
The best options
While any GPS watch can track your activities, it's best to pick one designed specifically for the outdoor enthusiast. These models add an altimeter, a barometer, and a compass to the GPS for better outdoor navigation. A 3D compass points north even if you don't hold the watch completely level (as scout-training dictates); and its barometric sensors are much more accurate than GPS for calculating altitude. These outdoor GPS watches also support profiles for specific outdoor sports; instead of having you measure your ski trips by clicking laps, for example, they count your ski runs automatically.
Outdoor models also tend to be more rugged and include better mapping features than runners' watches do. Many support ANT+ for synchronizing with your computer as well as with external sensors, including all the usual fitness tools like foot pods and heart-rate monitors. The Suunto Ambit let's you create (or download) custom apps and sport profiles, while the Garmin Fenix connects to an external ANT+ temperature sensor that's more accurate than the one built into the watch.
Nothing provides better bragging rights than a high-definition video of your grand endeavor (or mishap). Strap a sports video camera to your helmet, handlebars, or kayak for nonstop first-person video (or pop it off to focus it on your friends instead). These cameras are designed for high-octane activities, with waterproof, shock-resistant enclosures and simple controls. Most models include a variety of recording modes to manage battery life and storage, as well as various mounts for hooking them onto nearly anything (beware--the mounts can get expensive quickly). You can't go wrong with a GoPro Hero 3, a Contour+2, or a ContourRoam2.
If you decide to venture way off-road, nothing beats an outdoor handheld GPS to keep you from getting lost. Stick with models that include full maps and long battery life. As great as wrist units are, they don't help when you veer off-route. Garmin and Magellan both offer a wide range of models to fit your budget.
Personal locator beacons send emergency signals to satellites to call for rescue if you get into trouble outside of phone-coverage areas. Traditional PLBs send a standard signal, encoded with your GPS, to the same global satellite system that has been used for decades for marine and aviation emergencies. Once you trigger the signal, a central command in the United States picks it up and routes the information to the closest rescue authorities. The Artex ResQLink+ is a solid choice.
Commercial satellite beacons communicate with the satellite phone system instead of dedicated rescue satellites. You can use them to let your friends know where you are and in some cases to send basic messages, instead of just calling the authorities. The Spot Satellite Messenger requires a service plan and doesn't work in some locations (like the arctic), but it will meet most people's needs. The Delorme InReach relies on the SPOT call center, but adds more-robust messaging when you pair it with your smartphone.
Add a heads-up display by Recon Instruments to your ski goggles and pair it with your phone to get real-time stats, including hang time on ski jumps.
Things to avoid
Don't use your smartphone as an outdoor GPS for deep expeditions--it usually lacks the precision and features of a dedicated unit.
Skip any outdoor GPS model that lacks maps. Unless you practice a lot, you'll never translate your position properly to paper.
Solar-powered chargers rarely work as well as advertised, especially if you aren't stationary. They have their place, but make sure you get one with an internal battery you can plug in to the wall before you start your trip.