Part of what makes the Apple Watch Ultra feel aspirational is the strap you pick at checkout. It’s the smartwatch equivalent of getting sorted into a Hogwarts house — you’re supposed to choose the strap based on the type of adventurer you are. Intrepid hikers scaling the Swiss Alps are supposed to pick the Alpine Loop, while marathoners are meant to shatter world records with the Trail Loop. The Ocean Band is for the Jacques Cousteau in your life. At least, that’s what Apple’s commercials would have you believe.
The reality is that 90 percent of the time, you’re going to be wearing the Ultra in your day-to-day life. That means the best strap is the one you’ll lounge on the couch with, too. For most of us, that’s the $99 Trail Loop.
The Trail Loop is the overall winner
I don’t just say this because I’m a runner. While I’ll admit the Alpine Loop and Ocean Band are more interesting visually, the Trail Loop is the most versatile of the three.
The Trail Loop is the cooler older sibling of the Sport Loop. It’s also made from a stretchy nylon weave, but the side that touches your skin is much, much softer. It’s not nearly as scratchy as the Sport Loop can sometimes be. The Trail Loop also secures with velcro, but it has a pull tab that’s easier to grip when adjusting tightness mid-run. There are no clasps or buckles, making this the easiest Ultra band to take on or off.
I can’t emphasize enough how important adjustability is. Bands with holes, clasps, and buckles can leave people with oddly sized wrists out. If you’re between holes, you either have to drill a new one or wear it a bit tighter or looser than you’d like. That’s not an issue here. So long as your wrist has a circumference between 130-220mm, you can get the exact fit you need.
Of the three bands, the Trail Loop was by far the most comfortable. It dries quickly if you get it wet, and it’s breathable in a way that silicone bands — even the perforated ones — aren’t. It’s also held up well against sweat. Granted, the muggiest days of summer are long gone, but it’s a good sign that my beige and yellow review unit isn’t groady after two weeks of nonstop wear.
What I liked most about the Trail Loop was how light it is. There’s no denying the Ultra, which weighs 61.3g without any straps, is the chonkiest Apple Watch. The last thing I want is a bulky band that emphasizes the extra weight. I actually noticed how much lighter the Ultra felt with the Trail Loop versus the Alpine Loop and Ocean Band.
The only thing I didn’t love about the Trail Loop was the color options. It comes in beige, gray, and black — the definition of nondescript neutrals. It’s fine for most situations but not something that looks particularly stylish if you’re going to a formal event or on a date. But my solution for that is the vast world of affordable third-party straps on Etsy and Amazon.
The Alpine Loop is finicky but better for the outdoors
I wish I liked the Alpine Loop more than I do, but it’s not different enough from the Trail Loop. Both are light, comfortable, and breathable. Running, lifting weights, hiking, and rowing with either band was basically the same experience. The Trail Loop is simply lighter, softer to the touch, and not biohazard orange — which I prefer. (To be fair, you can also get the Alpine Loop in a dark green and starlight. But I wasn’t too impressed by the green color, and I have no opinion on starlight.)
It does, however, have a more distinctive look. The double-layered textile gives it… bumpy top loop-y things! There’s a titanium G-hook that hooks into those loops! Somehow there’s no stitching, and yet I’ve never felt the loops would come apart no matter how much I tugged.
For me, what tipped the scale in the Trail Loop’s favor was the G-hook. When it’s in place, it’s incredibly secure, but it’s also a pain to take on or off one-handed. It’s doable but just annoying enough that it put me off. The Ultra has great battery life for an Apple Watch, but I still need to charge this thing every other day. I try not to wear smartwatches in the shower. (Skin has to breathe!!) So on average, I’m taking the Ultra on or off two to four times daily. It didn’t take long before fiddling with the G-hook got old.
That extra security may be useful if you’re worried about the Trail Loop’s velcro wearing down or the pull tab catching on something. I haven’t had that happen, but it’s something to consider for rock climbers and if you wear a lot of layers. It’s also a better choice if you’re frequently in the elements. The Trail Loop dries quickly, but it still can get soaked through. Conversely, I wore the Alpine Loop while trekking up Seljalandsfoss in blistering wind and freezing rain. It was the sort of day where you get wet even if you’re decked out head-to-toe in water-resistant clothes. The Alpine Loop absorbed some water, but the extra fabric layer meant my skin stayed dry.
The Ocean Band is a bold choice
Compared to the other two bands, the Ocean Band has the most fashion-forward aesthetic, thanks to its “tubular geometry.” That boldness is a double-edged sword. While it pops in photos, not everyone’s going to be able to pull it off outside the pool, especially if you have the yellow version like me. When I wore it around the city, I couldn’t help but feel like I was wearing a kid’s smartwatch. (Perhaps this is because, like many New Yorkers, my wardrobe is black, black, and more black.)
The band itself is made of “high-performance elastomer,” but it’s basically like any other silicone band. It’s just bumpier and stretchier because of the hollow tube design. As the name implies, water slides right off the Ocean Band. It also held up fine in mineral water when I visited some geothermal hot springs. A salty residue did show up, but it was easy to clean. But as with any type of rubbery band, it’s not breathable. If you’ve got sensitive skin, you’ll want to take it off and regularly air out your wrist.
This band is a no-brainer for divers and swimmers. If you’re only buying this band for the style, there are a few things you should know.
The Ocean Band is adjustable, but it’s the finickiest of the three. It has a detachable, pill-shaped clasp that you stick through one of the holes, similar to the Alpine Loop. It’s not hard to use, but it’s fiddly and not something I’d want to adjust often. Another issue is that, unlike the other two bands, this only comes in one size. I’ve got smaller wrists, so I had to stick the clasp pretty close to the top lug. I was left with a tiny strap flap that didn’t look great. Between the single size, the finicky clasp, and the design, I ended up liking the Ocean Band in concept (and in review photos) but not so much in everyday life. That’s the thing about the Ocean Band: it’s polarizing. You’ll either love it or hate it, and whether you can pull it off will depend on certain things beyond your control.
Might I suggest third-party bands?
When you buy the Ultra, one of these three straps is included in the $799 price. Frequent hikers and divers should go with the Alpine Loop and Ocean Band, respectively. For everybody else, I’d strongly recommend the Trail Loop.
If you buy more than one Ultra strap from Apple, you’re going to have to shell out $99 per strap. That’s too rich for my tastes and why I’m not keen on recommending these bands to non-Ultra owners. While you can wear them with any 44mm or 45mm Apple Watch, I don’t see the point if you’re not into the sports they represent. If I didn’t have an Ultra, the only one I’d be tempted by is the Trail Loop. But that’s only because I’ve used it for this review, and it’s forever ruined me for the regular Sport Loop.
If it’s simply a matter of aesthetics, I’d rather buy a third-party band. For $99, you could get at least six or seven attractive bands on Amazon, Etsy, and a dozen other places. Truly, there’s no limit to the styles and aesthetics you can find outside of Apple’s online store. If you do a quick Amazon search, you’ll find dozens of Ultra band dupes already.
That said, I’m not going to stop anyone from buying multiple Ultra straps. Smartwatch bands are a way to make yourself comfortable and express yourself at the same time. Do what makes you happy. All I’m saying is the strap I’ve gotten the most compliments for cost me $10 on Amazon.