The Best Altimeter Watch for Hikers and Backpacking
We tested five of the best altimeter watches on the market in side-by-side tests over a year. These watches feature the key functions that hikers, backpackers, and climbers use the most: altimeter, barometer, digital compass, and standard time-keeping features. They all performed well but their user interface, display, and many custom features vary greatly between models. All will get the job done and are recommended, but if you are going to spend $200+, you want the best or at least the best value, right? Read on.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Altimeter Watch
Best Bang for the Buck
Top Pick for Common Features
Analysis and Test Results
Number of Useable Features
There were several features common to all the altimeter watches we tested but how they functioned and were displayed was very different. We compared each of these features through a series of tests above 20,000 feet, gaining and losing nearly 10,000 feet in a single day, and also with testing in the lab. The Suunto Ambit2 came out on top but all the watches were pretty close in the scoring. They all have features such as date, stop watches, count down watches, storm (i.e. barometric pressure) trackers/graph, etc. But it's often the extras like the Ambit's GPS and computer graphing features that make the difference. If you are having some trouble thinking of how best to use your altimeter watch check out this article.
All the altimeter watches tested had a stop watch and a timer (timer counts down, stop watch counts up) and alarms. The Suunto Ambit2, Suunto Core and Suunto Vector have three alarms while the Casio Pathfinder PAG240-1 has five. Besides having fewer alarms, a bigger deal was that the Suunto alarms weren't very loud; we had to put the watch close to our head to make sure we heard it. Some of the watches had other time features like world time and dual time The Pathfinder and the Core had the ability to set sunrise and sunset alarms depending on your preset location.
The Ambit2 score just a little higher than the second place Core because it had the best altimeter plus a built-in GPS. The Core scored second highest because along with the Ambit2 it has the smallest (three-foot) increments. The Vector has 10 feet and both Pathfinder models have 20-foot increments. Each of the models we tested had an altitude log. While this doesn't seem like a big deal, this is one of their most-used features. These feature lets you keep track of your total ascent, descent and number of runs. For skiers, it logs how many laps you take. For hikers and climbers on trails that go up and down, it will tells your true vertical elevation gained.
Again the Ambit2 stood out with its ability to easily transfer data to a computer and graph your entire trip. Also on your computer you can combine your elevation change with times and GPS locations.
Our Top Pick, the Suunto Core, had the next best logging ability; it could keep track of up to seven days worth of information at a time. The Vector has a 24-hour log that will store up to 100 logs. The Pathfinder models can only hold up to 40 logs.
Why should you care about barometric pressure? Well for folks at most middle latitudes (i.e. contiguous United States) in a 12-hour period if you loose four millibars then it's going to storm; minus six millibars, then it's going to storm pretty bad; eight or more millibars, go home and save yourself! Sadly it doesn't work the other way for predicting when the bad weather is going to end and the good weather is going to arrive. All the models we tested could graph the barometric pressure, with the Suunto Core and the Ambit2 having the nicest graphs. Both Casio Pathfinders had decent graphs and the Suunto Vector had by far the most basic.
This is again where the Ambit2 shined with 3D compass technology. With a traditional compass, you need to hold the compass level to get an accurate reading but the Ambit's 3D compass compensates for any tilt, allowing you to get an accurate reading regardless of the angle of your wrist. All the other watches we tested had digital compasses as well. They will work for people who just need a compass for a general point of reference but if you are doing more serious cross-country travel we'd recommend you also bring a normal compass because it will be far more accurate.
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. The Suunto Core's well-labeled functions and easy-to-understand menu was our top pick. The similarly laid out interface of the Ambit2 was good but with so many features it took more time to get accustomed and as a result wasn't quite as easy to use as the Core or the Vector. Both Casio Pathfinder models were almost as good with well-labeled buttons and nearly as easy-to-understand menu items. The Vector had fewer features, which gave you less to be confused by, but it had a less easy-to-understand and less well-labeled interface.
Our display score measures how easy the watch is to read in bright light, in low light and in the dark while using the watch's backlight feature. The display score also counts how well the information is laid out. The Ambit2 features both black-on-white and a white-on-black options combined with big easy-to-read numbers; it was our top pick for display. The Casio Pathfinder with its easy-to-read double layover screen was a close second to the top pick for best display. It also had by far the best backlight in the review, making for easy reading at night. This is where we thought the Suunto Core really suffered the most; we struggled to read it on bright glaciers or near dusk.
First off, a few things the user needs to understand: all barometric based alti watches are subject to changes in the weather, causing a change in the pressure, which in turn causes a change in the elevation. After our extensive side-by-side testing, and with this fact in mind, the Suunto Core and the Ambit2 were the most accurate because, unlike both Pathfinder models and the Vector, the Core has the altimeter and barometer functions linked together. It measures elevation in three-foot or one-meter intervals compared with the Pathfinder's 20 feet or 5 meters and the Vector's 10 feet or 3 meters. The altimeter/barometer feature in the Core is sweet. It calculates long-term pressure trends to give you a more accurate reading. For example, when you are ascending it gains elevation with you as the barometric pressure changes at a rate far faster than the barometric pressure changes with weather. Once you stop gaining elevation for a while (i.e. sleeping) it realizes that and sees any slight barometer pressure changes as weather change and not elevation gain/loss. This is a pretty cool and fairly effective feature; it works sometimes but not always in our real world tests. Even with this feature aside, after extensive side-by-side testing we thought the Core was the best at providing the most accurate elevation reading.
Other Types of Watches
If you are looking for a watch only to monitor your training progress or for navigation, then check out our review of The Best GPS Watch for Running and Training. We recommend the Suunto Ambit 2 S, which is the little brother of our editors choice, the Suunto Ambit 2. It is smaller and more compact but missing some of the features of the Ambit 2, like the barometric altimeter, making it perfect for people who are mostly interested in tracking their athletic progress.
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.
— Ian Nicholson
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