The Best Altimeter Watch for Hikers and Backpacking
We tested six of the best altimeter watches side-by-side while running, hiking, and backpacking over 10,000 feet of vertical terrain. We summited mountains, hiked through canyons, and climbed lap after lap at the local climbing crag to determine which is the best altimeter out there. These watches feature key functions that any outdoor enthusiast would find useful: altimeter, barometer, digital compass, and standard time keeper. We also integrated GPS contenders in our selection for a much wider variety of features including a face-off between the Suunto Ambit3 Peak and Garmin Fenix 3. We judged each on its number of features, battery life, ease of use, display, and comfort. Read on to learn more about which watch will give you the best value.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
The Casio SGW300-HB is a bare bones altimeter watch that didn't score nearly as high in the metrics as other contenders, but is the cheapest altimeter watch tested. It features a dual-sensor that can track barometric pressure and altitude. It also has basic time-telling function. If you're an outdoor recreationist who is just in the market for a timepiece, but you'd like to know the barometric pressure and altitude every now and then (but don't rely on it for 100 percent accuracy), this $65 option is the best out there. Unlike other watches, this one is not as reliable because the altitude is read in 20-foot increments, but we were surprised to see that it was still fairly accurate and provided a decent estimate of the altitude when calibrated regularly. So, if you're just looking for a cheap watch that's light, easy to use, with a long battery life, this Best Buy winner may be your best option!
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Analysis and Test Results
An altimeter watch provides an array of functions and data-gathering techniques that can help any adventurer get from one point to the next. Whether you're a hunter, fisherman, climbing guide, mountaineer, hiker, pilot, or vertical athlete, an altimeter specific watch can provide feedback on how high you've climbed and your location. A traditional altimeter specific watch has three basic functions; altimeter, barometer, and compass. Using these three readings in conjunction with one another, can help you map weather trends and determine your location based on known altitudes on your journey. There are many different types of altimeter watches out there, ranging from those with the most basic functions to those stacked with features. In this 'Best in Class' article, we discuss the types of models that we reviewed, how altimeters work, and we compare each watch with one another. In addition, we have provided individual reviews of each contender and articles on how we test and buying advice. Enjoy!
Types of Altimeter Watches
There are two primary categories of altimeter watches. First is the traditional altimeter watch. These are typically battery or solar powered and comes with simpler features. The second category is GPS watches. They have rechargeable batteries and traditionally come with a whole lot of features that you don't get with a traditional altimeter watch. These watches are POWERFUL, but they are limited by battery power. Check out the pros and cons for both types below to see which best suits your needs.
A traditional altimeter features an altimeter, barometer, and in most cases, a compass. Each features a simple watch battery or a built-in solar panel that lasts a long time (months to years) before needing a battery change.
Pros: More reliable, much longer battery power, lightweight, can be inexpensive.
Cons: Less features.
Best Uses: Long adventures, tracking vertical gain/loss, time piece.
Watch Examples: Casio PRW-6000Y, Casio SGW300HB, Suunto Core Alu.
Global Position System (GPS) based
A GPS-based watch is able to capture signals from GPS (and sometimes GLONASS) satellites. Based on the power of the watch, its capabilities vary quite a bit. GPS watches offer many fancy features in addition to the traditional features of an altimeter watch. Not only are they great for tracking vertical gain/loss and weather trends but they also provides a fitness log. They can sync with a smartphone and connect to apps. With these apps you can upload programs, games, and virtual pacers to help you with your fitness training. It also provides you with trip information (i.e. distance, pace, time), and you can actually navigate with some watches.The big downside is the lack of battery life and expensive price tag.
Pros: Lots of features, navigational capabilities, can replace a handheld GPS, user friendly interfaces.
Cons: LOW battery life in GPS mode (~8 to 50 hours, based on power settings), expensive, steep learning curve.
Best Uses: One day excursions in GPS mode, weekly excursions (without GPS on), fitness training and tracking.
Watch Examples: Suunto Ambit3 Peak, Garmin Fenix 3, Suunto Traverse.
How Altimeter Function Works
Have you ever wondered how a watch can calculate altitude? Pilots use highly advanced altimeters to figure out how high they are in the air but how does it work? When it comes to watches, there are two ways to measure altitude. The first is using air pressure, and the second is using a GPS.
Air Pressure: Each watch tested is outfitted with a couple of sensors (or more). The first is used to measure ambient air pressure. As you move higher in the atmosphere, the atmospheric air pressure decreases. Using this and a reference to sea level ambient air pressure, altitude can be calculated. Some watches like the Suunto Core Alu uses both these measurements to calculate altitude. The following equations are used to determine both barometric pressure and altitude in the Suunto Core. This watch allows you to change the sea level air pressure reference, but most of the watches tested, already have that value built in.
Here are a couple of equations to help you understand how an altimeter watch calculates altitude:
absolute air pressure + altitude reference = sea level air pressure
absolute air pressure + sea level air pressure reference = altitude
That said, if there are weather changes, the altitude can change (even if you don't change position). This is why watches should always be calibrated before starting a trip and throughout your trip. If you encounter weather, continue to calibrate the altimeter manually at known sites (using either a map or elevation markers on the trail). In addition, if you travel to a different part of the world, make sure you calibrate the sea level air pressure reference to that area, as it changes based on where you go in the world. Learn more about calibration in the next section.
GPS: Global Positioning System (GPS) is a network of 32 orbiting satellites. Once your watch receives signal from three of these satellites, your position can be triangulated. The more satellites picked up can result in more accurate positional data. GPS can be used to determine altitude based on previous logged data. However, these readings are not always precise. Many watches use both the GPS and air pressure function to determine altitude (i.e. FusedAlit function in the GPS Suunto watches), however, they haven't always been accurate.
Calibrating your Altimeter Watch
Be sure to calibrate your watch manually to ensure great accuracy along your trip.
There are many opportunities to calibrate your watch, and these opportunities should be taken when possible. If you're backpacking, you can use the contours on your paper map to calibrate your watch. If you're on a known summit with a known altitude, you can calibrate it there. If you come across a sign with a known altitude, you can calibrate it there. All watches tested allow you to calibrate altitude manually. If these calibrations aren't done on a daily basis (or more than that), you may find your altimeter reading to be off anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand feet.
How does weather affect altitude readings?
Since altitude is calculated based on absolute air pressure (measured by the watch) and a sea level air pressure reference, weather can easily change your altitude reading. This is especially true if you're in the mountains with fluctuating weather conditions. If you want to test this out, simply set your watch to a given altitude and leave it one place while weather moves in and out. If there is a decrease in pressure (a storm moving in), the altitude will probably be lower than the actual. If there is an increase in pressure (nice weather moving in), the watch will probably read a higher than actual altitude reading.
How does latitude affect altitude readings?
Get ready for some grade school science. Latitude and your location on the planet will definitely affect how your watch calculates altitude. For example, the air pressure at the poles is higher than the air pressure at the equator. Why is this? Air pressure at the Earth's surface is determined by the mass of the air column above it. Since the equator receives more sun, the air is typically warmer and thus less dense (density = mass per unit volume). As a result, the air pressure is lower.
On the other hand, at the poles the air is much colder, and thus more dense. As a result, the air pressure is higher. This trend stratifies from the equator out to each pole. And as result, depending on the latitude you're at (and the weather of that area), the air pressure at sea level changes. Make sure you check your local weather station or a local map to determine what the sea level air pressure is in your area, and ensure this is entered into your watch (if your watch uses sea level air pressure to calculate altitude). Some watches don't allow you to change this reading (as it's built in already) and may actually be less accurate in some locations as a result of this. You can avoid this by simply calibrating the barometer to an actual pressure measurement in the area.
A Note on Temperature Sensors
Of all the watches tested, none provided an accurate temperature reading while wearing each on the wrist. Many of the watches varied wildly in accuracy depending on where it was placed (on the wrist or on a backpack) and the day we wore it. Some days provided an accurate reading of the ambient air temperature, whereas others were completely off. We found that all watches were far more accurate when we didn't wear them next to the skin or a conductive surface (like metal) but instead attached them to a plastic backpack strap or wore them around the neck (over the jacket). The reason for this is because temperature sensors are typically too close to the wrist and in many cases the material of the watch face conducts heat between the skin and the metal. If you're looking for a watch with an accurate temperature reading, any one of the watches will do a decent job. Just make sure you don't wear it against your skin, or put it on a conductive surface (i.e. metal table or the snow) as it might throw off the reading. Putting it over a jacket or wearing it as a medallion is a great alternative.
Criteria for Evaluation
Over the last four months, we truly put each altimeter watch to the test. We took them around the western hemisphere from Peru to Canada. To learn about each one, we tinkered endlessly and read the 15 to 70-some page user manuals. We looked online to learn about any issues that needed to be tested, and read about each watch from other independent reviewers. In addition, we tested each watch side-by-side using objective tests.
After talking with many mountain guides, ultra runners, hikers, and backpackers, we learned that there were six key metrics to consider with testing. The number of features, battery life, ease of use and interface, altimeter accuracy, display quality, and comfort. For each we designed specific and objective tests and recorded our results below. We hope you enjoy this thorough, in-depth, and awesome comparison of the top altimeter watches.
Every altimeter watch has a few basic functions. This includes an altimeter, barometer, and a timekeeper. Most also come with a compass function. There are many watches out there, and with the onset of more GPS watches entering the market, there are a plethora of features that are being packed into these tiny devices. In this metric, we looked at the features of each watch.
We enumerated the features to determine which scored the highest in this metric. We also looked at the quality of the features, whether or not graphs were generated for specific functions (like altitude and barometric pressure), and how helpful the data was on the trail. In the end, we learned that the Garmin Fenix 3 was undoubtedly the best in this category featuring all the basic altimeter functions and a slew of others. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak was a close second while the most basic Casio SGW300HB scored the lowest in this category.
Of all the watches tested, we really liked the GPS watches' features when it came to altimeter readings. In general, we looked at the type of altitude profiles generated (i.e ascent and descent over time) and the number of logs each watch could handle.
Altitude Profiles: The graphs produced from each watch varied (based on the manufacturer). We really like the Garmin Fenix 3's use of different colors and the clarity of the graph. The Suunto Ambit 3 Peak and Suunto Traverse produced the same kind of graph that was good, but not as nice as the Fenix 3. The Core also produced a graph but we found it small and harder to read in comparison to the others. The Casio PRW-6000Y also produces a graph, but quite frankly, it only shows the most basic information, and it's hard to see and use. The Casio SGW300HB, on the other hand, does not produce any graphs, one of the many reasons it scored lowest in this category.
Data Logging: All the GPS watches win out again for the type of data taken and the logs created. All watches produced data logs that showed an altitude graph, total ascent, total descent, and altitude change. And in some cases, others had fancier features to better analyze the data collected. In general, the GPS watches won out in this category, because it didn't matter how many logs it could handle.
All we had to do was simply sync our logs up to the app, which would clear the cache in the watch, allowing you to take as many data points as you wanted. That said, the Suunto Core can hold up to 16 logs, while the Casio PRW-6000Y can hold up to 30. The Casio SGW300HB does not hold any logs.
Barometer: All watches tested featured a barometer and captured barometric trends in some way shape or form. For this feature, we looked at the quality of the barometric graph and whether or not the watch allows you to manually change the sea level pressure. We did this by taking the watches to the same location, calibrating them to the same barometric pressure, and looking at the graphs produced as a result.
Overall, we learned the Garmin Fenix 3 once again shines for its barometric trend graph. It allows a plot option of either 6, 12, 24, or 48-hour, which allowed the most effective pressure trend capture of all the watches tested. The Suunto Ambit 3 Peak and Traverse feature a similar graph, but it doesn't allow different plot intervals, nor does the graph look as nice. The Suunto Core has a decent graph that shows a trend over a seven-day period.
All the watches tested in this review (with the exception of the Casio SGW300HB) featured some kind of compass function. Most of the compasses in this review have tilt compensation technology (meaning you don't have to keep your wrist horizontal to get an accurate watch reading) except for the Casio PRW-6000Y. A little archaic in comparison, you must keep your wrist level and horizontal to get an appropriate reading. However, if you're into the old-school devices, this watch might be right up your alley. In general, we found the compasses useful for determining direction and to get a general point of reference, but we found it wasn't nearly as reliable as just using a regular compass. If you're planning a cross country mission, make sure to bring the old map and compass don't just rely on your watch.
In addition to the compass function, many of the GPS watches can actually navigate to and from different points. You can also mark waypoints and navigate back to them, should you get lost or your forget your route. Learn more about these in the GPS section!
Time Keeper and Alarm
All the watches tested featured some sort of digital time keeper device in addition to a stopwatch, countdown timer, and alarm. The Casio brand watches like the Casio SGW300HB and the Casio PRW-6000Y stood out for having five alarms as opposed to just one (found in all models). In addition, both watches feature a world clock with different time zones. The SGW300HB showcase 31 time zones while the PRW-6000Y has 29 time zones.
In general, we like the GPS watches better for time simply because the GPS automatically changed when entering a different time zone. The Suunto Core, on the other had, has a dual time option where you can enter the current time of your current location in one place, and keep your home time in another. All watches except the Casio PRW-6000Y had a long alarm length and volume. We would have liked to see a longer beeping time with the Casio as it wasn't long enough to wake us up during some deep sleeps.
To test GPS, we ran three different routes with varying GPS accuracy. The first was an open road, the second, a treed out trail, and the last was a canyon. We did these tests numerous times, in a variety of weather to see which truly performed the best. In the end, we learned that none of the GPS watches were 100 percent accurate all the time, but some watches were a little more reliable with their readings than others. In this case, the Suunto Ambit3 Peak proved to have the best GPS accuracy most of the time.
Through these tests we learned that GPS function isn't always 100 percent accurate. Some days, one watch will be more accurate than another, even with similar weather and conditions, day-to-day. We imagine this has to do with the satellite positions of the watches during different days of the year. However, of all the watches tested, the Suunto watches proved to be the most accurate, most of the time.
The Garmin Fenix 3, when running through a canyon, was the first to lose signal, and grossly overestimated our actual distance. This happened again in areas of spotty satellite reception (i.e. near cliffs, heavily treed sections, etc). The Suunto watches also sporadically lost reception in some cases, but never overestimated the distance by 2-3 miles on a five-mile hike (like the Garmin Fenix 3). The Suunto Traverse proved to be a little less accurate than the Ambit Peak3, but was still better than the Garmin Fenix 3. That said, if you're looking for the watch with the most reliable GPS readings, the Suunto Ambit Peak3 is your best bet.
Battery life is of utmost importance when heading out on any multi-day mission. Since lots of mountaineers, guides, backpackers, and even hikers require a watch that lasts more than just a day, battery life is rated highly in this review. In a lot of ways, the more battery life a watch has, the more reliable it is. In this metric, we tested the battery life of all watches. For the GPS-watches, we set the watch to low power mode to see how long each lasted (comparatively) while leaving the GPS function on. We also looked at the type of battery for the regular watch batteries and whether or not the watch is self-charging. In these tests, the Casio PRW-6000Y scored the highest. GPS watches did not do well in this metric, while regular watch batteries proved to be much more reliable.
The watch scoring this highest in this metric is the Casio PRW-6000Y. It is a solar-powered watch that takes about six min/day to completely charge in full sun. This is a great plus for any long-term adventurer that needs a reliable compadre. Unlike the PRW6000Y, the Casio SGW300HB features a simple watch battery (not a built-in solar panel) that is rated to last three years. The Suunto Core Alu also features a regular watch battery but is only rated to last 12 months. All other watches are GPS based and feature a rechargeable lithium ion battery that is simply plugged in.
Of all the watches tested, the Garmin Fenix 3 lasted 32 hours in UltraTrac mode with the GPS on. Without the GPS on, this watch lasts approximately six weeks (depending on the features you use). The Suunto Ambit Peak3 proved to last about 22 hours with the GPS mode on (and with power save options engaged). Without the GPS, this watch lasts roughly one month in regular watch mode. The Suunto Traverse was the absolute worst for battery life. In GPS mode, it only lasted eight hours, making this a good for day hikes, but not multi-day missions. Without the GPS, it lasts roughly two weeks before needing a recharge.
Ease of Use and Interface
The ease of use and interface is how easy it is to go through the functions of the altimeter watch. For this metric we gave each watch to a set of novices and had them try to calibrate the altitude. We also asked each to set the basic time function for each watch. Each tester then rated each watch based on how easy it was to calibrate and set the time function. We also considered how easy the watch was to use out of the box, without consulting the user manual. In addition to looking at the ease-of-use of the features, we also looked at the button size and how functional each was with a set of gloves (to mimic cold weather conditions).
After our testing, we learned that the Casio SGW300HB was by far the easiest to use, while the Garmin Fenix 3 was the easiest to set up. The Suunto brand watches were a close second, while the complex Casio PRW-6000Y was by far the hardest to figure out. We also thought the GPS-based watches (Fenix 3, Suunto Traverse, and Suunto Ambit3 Peak) in addition to the Suunto Core Alu, were the easiest to use with gloves. Both Casios were very difficult to use with thick gloves as the buttons on the face are small.
When we looked at altimeter accuracy we considered a few things. First, we looked at the altimeter interval that the watches uses. Second, we looked at how accurate the altimeter reading was based on a calibration, followed by a hike to known altitude, then comparing each altimeter reading. Additionally, we hiked back to the trailhead to see if the elevation change showed zero, or if the reading was off by a few (hundred) feet. Lastly, we looked at the how well the watch was able to keep a stable altimeter reading while sitting in the same place for a few days (even with weather changes).
One thing that every user needs to understand is that all altimeter watches run off barometric pressure readings. In addition to a set standard sea level pressure reading, these readings are subject to change with changes in weather patterns. While some provided a more stable reading than others, all the watches tested never had the absolute correct elevation reading without daily (sometimes two to three times a day) calibrations.
Of the all the watches tested, the Suunto Core Alu scored the highest in altimeter accuracy. This watch showed the most accurate readings on hikes, required less calibrations than the rest, and proved to have an accurate gain and loss profile. Other GPS watches like the Suunto Ambit3 Peak and Suunto Traverse has the option to use a FusedAlti function that uses both GPS and barometric readings to determine altimeter accuracy. Both watches proved to be fairly accurate, with the Peak3 providing a more accurate reading than the Traverse.
The Garmin Fenix 3 also provided decent altimeter readings, but proved to be a little off more often than not. The Casio PRW-6000Y comes next, providing accurate readings, but a larger altitude interval. While the rest of the watches (when looking at altitude in feet) show an altitude interval of three feet, this watch uses a five foot interval. That said, they all have an interval of one meter (if you prefer the metric system). The Casio SGW300HB was surprisingly accurate for its no frills design. However, it scored the lowest in this category because the altimeter interval is 5m/20ft which provides a more inaccurate reading than the rest. Overall, all watches provided decent accuracy with daily calibrations. Most watches were off for altimeter readings by 50 - 500 feet based on the day of testing.
When looking at display quality, we simply evaluated each screen, its size, and how easy it is to see during both the day and night. We also looked to see if the background color settings could be changed, and how easy it was to see the watch in all conditions. In the end, a large watch face with a mineralized glass composition, with different font colors scored higher than those without.
Hands down - the Garmin Fenix 3 was the top pick for this category. We liked the large font size, the clear and durable mineral glass cover, and its colorful fonts. This watch truly stood out from the rest. The Casio PRW-6000Y also proved to have a crisp, non-reflective display. However, we weren't too happy about the tiny digital window that made some of the data hard to see. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak also has a great display that proved to be a touch more crisp than the Suunto Traverse. The font and colors of the watch face for both GPS Suuntos are the same, but the mineral glass is a little bit different. The Suunto Core also provides a nice, easy-to-see display, but the watch face background is not interchangeable like all the other watches mentioned above, and the font is harder to see in bright and low light. In addition, the nighttime light is a little weak in comparison to the rest.
The Casio SGW300HB comes in last with its much smaller watch face and less durable watch face. The old-school font on the watch face is easy to see, but not nearly as nice as the other options out there.
Comfort and Fit
When evaluating comfort and fit, we looked at which watches felt the most comfortable on the wrist. We gave these watches to a slew of friends and family to test both inside and out. We looked at the band material, the breathability of the band, its weight, whether or not the watch would fit well over and under clothing, and whether or not the band had an ergonomic fit. In the end, we learned that watches with a more ergonomic fit, a more breathable band, and slimmer profile scored higher than those without.
The winner here is once again our Editors' Choice, the Suunto Ambit3 Peak. The band on this watches features an insert that wraps around the wrist, and doesn't feel heavy. In addition, the band features many holes that allow good breathability on hot days. The Suunto Core Alu also features this ergonomic fit, but doesn't have nearly as many holes for breathability. That said, in comparison to the Suunto Ambit3 Peak, the profile is a little thinner and feels lighter.
The Casio PRW-6000Y is the only watch that features a carbon fiber insert in its lightweight construct, making it one of the most durable bands tested. We also like its ergonomic fit and lighter and thinner profile. All of these watches scored a solid 9 out of 10 in this category, for different reasons. The Suunto Traverse also features a lightweight design, but many of our testers did not like the non-breathable band. The band is also attached directly to the watch face, making it less ergonomic than the aforementioned.
The Garmin Fenix 3 is BIG. Even though many of our testers liked the large display for checking stats, this watch scored as one of the lowest in this category. Many felt that the watch face was large and bulky, and often hard to fit underneath clothing. Finally, the Casio SGW300HB scored lowest in this category. Despite it being the most lightweight watch, many of our testers thought the tiny, scratchy, cloth-based band was not very comfortable to wear. It also proved to be less breathable, and hard to fit overtop of layers.
The watches that we tested in this category feature important functions that hikers, backpackers, and climbers want most. In addition to telling the time, these features include altimeters, barometers, and digital compasses. We tested the performance of each of these attributes all while rating the ease of use and the product's interface to help you narrow down the selection and find the best product to purchase. We know that selecting just one watch out of the competition can be difficult but hope that this review has proven to be helpful when making your decision.
— Amber King
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