How to Choose an Altimeter Watch

A look at all the watches tested. From left to right: Garmin Fenix 3 (Top Pick for Features)  Suunto Core Alu (Best Buy)  Casio PRW6000Y  Suunto Traverse  Casio  SGW300HB  Suunto Ambit3 Peak.
Article By:
Amber King
Senior Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Tuesday

Altimeter watches provide a range of functions and data-gathering techniques that allow adventurers to navigate landscapes. Hunters, fishers, climbing guides, mountaineers, hikers, pilots, and vertical athletes can all benefit from information offered by these products, such as altitude and location. A traditional model has three basic functions; altimeter, barometer, and compass. With these three readings combined, you can 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 'Buying Advice' article, we discuss different model types, how altimeters work, key functions, GPS capability, and watch accessories. Before you go on your next adventure, ask yourself…

Is an altimeter watch right for you?


Any outdoor recreationist can benefit from using an altimeter watch, but do you need one? In addition to the regular time-telling functions, an altimeter allows one to track weather patterns, determine location, and even navigate to specific coordinates. Since an altimeter uses atmospheric pressure to determine altitude, a hiker may find this useful (in addition to the barometer) to track weather patterns. Many watches come with a barometric tracker that shows oscillations in pressure.

Hiking in the high country of the San Juan mountains! Setting a storm alert is helpful to determine if a storm will move in or not. An important tool in the mountains where lightning can be a real shocker.
Hiking in the high country of the San Juan mountains! Setting a storm alert is helpful to determine if a storm will move in or not. An important tool in the mountains where lightning can be a real shocker.

Effectively, it can be used as a mini-weather station. A severe decrease in pressure may indicate a storm moving in while an increase in pressure indicates great weather. Climbers may find the total ascent and descent function helpful for training and data tracking, while hikers and mountaineers may use the altimeter function to determine the relative location of a camp in white-out conditions. Many explorers looking for the next first ascent of a big mountain can use an altimeter watch to determine summit information like the altitude of a peak or the elevation of new camps along the way. That said, the most important function of an altimeter watch is to simply gather information, take notes, and track progress. If you're in the market for a simple timepiece, you may be better off checking out some basic watches (that are a little less expensive) with just a time telling function. However, if you're in the market for something that can help you determine where you are, where you've been, and where you're going, an altimeter watch may be what you've been looking for.

Altimeter watch testing on Denali  we carried several altimeter watches to the 20 320ft summit of Denali for side by side in the field comparisons.
Altimeter watch testing on Denali, we carried several altimeter watches to the 20,320ft summit of Denali for side by side in the field comparisons.

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 of both types below to see which best suits your needs.

Ryan enjoys the views of the high alpine tundra in the San Juan mountains. Hmmm...we wonder what altitude we're at...let's see!
Ryan enjoys the views of the high alpine tundra in the San Juan mountains. Hmmm...we wonder what altitude we're at...let's see!

Traditional
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.
A look at the traditional variety. Left to right: Casio PRW6000Y (solar powered)  Suunto Core Alu (battery)  Casio SGW300HB (battery)
A look at the traditional variety. Left to right: Casio PRW6000Y (solar powered), Suunto Core Alu (battery), Casio SGW300HB (battery)

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 provide 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 5, Suunto Traverse.
All GPS contenders. From left to right: Suunto Ambit3 Peak  Garmin Fenix 3  Suunto Traverse.
All GPS contenders. From left to right: Suunto Ambit3 Peak, Garmin Fenix 3, Suunto Traverse.

Features: Take 'em or leave 'em?


With innovations in technology comes new advancements. As a data-driven society, quick access to information is becoming more and more important, and people want to access that information. What kind of data are you interested in? Do you want a watch that will tell you how fast you're moving? Or how far you've gone? Perhaps you're looking for something that will give you a vertical gain and loss of your day. With altimeter watches, you can get a watch that is either simple or chalked full of features. In addition, some are more accurate than others. So what do you need? If you're looking for the basic functions of an altimeter watch in addition to training and fitness information, then you'll benefit from buying a watch with GPS and many other features. However, if you're just interested in just figuring out the time, your location, the altitude, and if there's weather moving into the area, a simple altimeter watch with basic features is truly all you need.

A look at some of the fun features of the Garmin Fenix 3 (and this just scratches the surface). From top left to right: step count  compass  altimeter graph. From bottom left to right: Barometric pressure graph  temperature graph  and time.
A look at some of the fun features of the Garmin Fenix 3 (and this just scratches the surface). From top left to right: step count, compass, altimeter graph. From bottom left to right: Barometric pressure graph, temperature graph, and time.

Before you begin your search, you need to ask yourself a few key questions:

1) What will you be using your watch for?
2) How long does your battery need to last?
3) What kind of features do you want?

Once you know the answers to these key questions, you can objectively begin your search!

In this section, we outline key features perfect for any outdoor enthusiast. All watches tested come loaded with some kind of battery, clock, alarm, compass (except one), barometer, temperature gauge, and of course an altimeter. In addition to the basic features of an altimeter watch, we will also discuss some fancier features like GPS connectivity, connections to social media, and more. Once you've learned about what an altimeter watch has to offer, and what to consider, check out our Best Altimeter Watch for Hikers and Backpacking review to make a selection.

Altimeter


If you're a hiker, backpacker, mountaineer, guide, or vertical athlete, knowing your altitude is the key function of an altimeter watch. For some, it may satisfy the curiosity of just knowing what elevation you're at, whereas for others it may help you find your location in a white-out storm. You can use it to calculate your vertical gain and loss throughout the day or to help you pinpoint your location. When considering an altimeter watch, it's important to consider accuracy and the level of accuracy you require. For those who are curious as to general altitude, a less accurate watch will do. For those that are looking to pinpoint a location and calculate true vertical gain and loss for the day, you may have to pay a little extra for better accuracy. Some watches are more accurate that others, reading altitude in one-meter increments, whereas others are far less accurate — reading altitude in five-meter increments. In addition, some watches are better at determining the actual altitude, within 50 feet, while other are less accurate and come within a few hundred feet.

A comparison of all the altitude logs for each watch. The Casio PRW-6000Y is not included. From top left to right: Suunto Core Alu  Garmin Fenix 3. From bottom left to right: Suunto Ambit3 Peak  Suunto Traverse.
A comparison of all the altitude logs for each watch. The Casio PRW-6000Y is not included. From top left to right: Suunto Core Alu, Garmin Fenix 3. From bottom left to right: Suunto Ambit3 Peak, 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.

This shows the right side of the watch  with two buttons. All the buttons are spaced far apart enough to be used with gloves. In addition  you can see where the sensor is located (between the buttons).
This shows the right side of the watch, with two buttons. All the buttons are spaced far apart enough to be used with gloves. In addition, you can see where the sensor is located (between the buttons).

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 a 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 previously 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.

Make sure to calibrate your watch regularly to ensure great accuracy on your adventures.
Make sure to calibrate your watch regularly to ensure great accuracy on your adventures.

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, the air is much colder at the poles and thus denser. 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.

Hiking in the high Andes required a recalibration before the trip. We looked at the sea level air pressure and changed our reference value to match so we could get accurate altimeter readings.
Hiking in the high Andes required a recalibration before the trip. We looked at the sea level air pressure and changed our reference value to match so we could get accurate altimeter readings.

Clock


The clock is an underlying reason to own any watch. In this review, we encountered watches with atomic clocks, GPS time, and those with manual settings. Most watches tested provided a digital reading, with the exception of the Casio PRW-6000Y. Atomic clocks are incredibly accurate and controlled by radio signals. In addition to an atomic clock, a few watches offer a world clock, allowing you to access up to 31 different time zones. So you just need to adjust it to the proper time zone when traveling. GPS-based time is easy — turn it on and you've got the correct time. This is especially helpful when traveling to different time zones…you don't need to reset anything, the watch does it for you. Finally, the traditional manual clock is another option. You simply need to change it when the time changes itself. In all, we found the GPS clock to be the easiest to use. We didn't need to change it while traveling, we just had to make sure it had a good GPS signal.

We love the large font and the options to change the watch from the digital format seen here to an analog format. We also liked the how the seconds are counted with the tick marks working their way around the face of the watch.
We love the large font and the options to change the watch from the digital format seen here to an analog format. We also liked the how the seconds are counted with the tick marks working their way around the face of the watch.

Atomic clocks are a little harder to figure out while the traditional manual clock is the easiest.

All the watches tested all came with a stopwatch, countdown function, and some sort of alarm. Some watches like the Casio SGW300-HB have five alarms, while most others like our Editors' Choice, the Suunto Ambit3 Peak, has just one alarm. We liked the additional alarms for longer days. Setting multiple alarms can be helpful if you need daily reminders like when to take lunch, sleep, or when to wake up. This is especially beneficial for longer trips. That said, many of testers felt like this was a nice extra — but not especially necessary.

Compass


The compass is a nice feature to have as it provides a basic data point of your possible location and the direction you're traveling. Some watches allow you to set a point to navigate to which can replace the need for a handheld GPS (which is awesome!). What's more is the GPS watches feature 3D compass technology allowing you to get an accurate reading regardless of the angle of your wrist. In fact, all watches tested with a compass for tilt-compensated compass except for the Casio PRW-6000Y. This watch requires you to keep your wrist horizontal in order to get an accurate reading. In general, we like the tilt-compensated compass better as it is more accurate and easier to use.

The digital compass provides a directional reading in degrees.
The digital compass provides a directional reading in degrees.

A compass is great to just get 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. In addition, you need the straight edge of a compass to triangulate your route and estimate distances between your location and another visual destination.

Barometer


Why should you care about barometric pressure? The simple answer is to track weather. Whether you're a hiker, guide, backpacker, or climber, you will benefit from having a mini-weather station attached to your wrist. Especially if you're stuck in a snow cave waiting out a bad storm or hiking through slot canyons in the desert. For folks at middle latitudes (i.e. the United States), if you lose four millibars of pressure in 12 hours, there will most likely be a storm. If you lose six millibars in the same period of time, then it's going to storm pretty bad. If you see a loss of 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.

The barometric reading on the Casio PRW-6000Y
The barometric reading on the Casio PRW-6000Y

That said, if you see a trend where pressure begins to increase, you can hold out hope that a storm will break. All the models we tested could graph the barometric pressure except the Casio SGW300-HB. When looking for a watch, consider the interval of the barometer, whether it has a storm alarm, and how nice the barometric graph is. Of all the models we tested, we like the graphs on the Garmin Fenix 5 the best, followed by the Suunto Ambit3 Peak and Suunto Traverse.
All the watches tested in this review used barometric units of hPa (hectopascal) and inHg (inches of mercury). You can choose the metric that better suits your tastes.

Temperature


All watches tested had a temperature sensor. While many of our testers liked this function, we learned that while wearing the watch, the sensors weren't very accurate. All watches were inaccurate as they took into account skin temperature and didn't just measure the ambient air temperature. Many of our testers mentioned that wearing the watch around your neck or attached to a shoulder strap helped to alleviate this issue and provided a more accurate temperature reading. In general, we didn't notice that any of the watches varied too much in temperature as long as we didn't wear them on our wrist. In general, this is a great function to have if you're trying to determine ambient air temperature or track temperature trends. The only watch that had a temperature trend feature is the Garmin Fenix 5. Many guides will benefit from this function (especially if you can't hike in temperatures hotter than 90F).

If you're looking for an accurate temperature reading  wear your watch on your backpack strap! This way the heat from your wrist doesn't affect the temperature accuracy.
If you're looking for an accurate temperature reading, wear your watch on your backpack strap! This way the heat from your wrist doesn't affect the temperature accuracy.

Battery Life


Battery life is a crucial consideration for anybody heading out on a multi-day mission. When considering a purchase for an altimeter watch, look at how the watch is charged and the amount of time it lasts. Buying a watch with limited battery isn't any good when you need it for the long haul. A dead watch is a useless watch. When it comes to battery life, there are three options to consider; 1) Traditional Watch Battery; 2) Solar Power; and 3) USB Charged. Each has their pros and cons, best for a specific function.

Traditional Watch Battery: A traditional watch battery is nice to have. It lasts longer and is far more reliable than USB charged watches. It's best for multi-day missions and can stay charged up to many years. That said, based on the power requirements of a watch, the battery life changes. The higher the performance of the watch, the more power it needs. The Suunto Core Alu, for example, has a battery that lasts only 12 months, while the simple Casio SGW300HB can last for up to three years. The Core has more accurate sensors, gathers more data, and has a much higher level of performance. As a result, it uses more battery life. The Casio SGW300HB is the opposite. It takes fewer data points and has limited functionality. As a result, it doesn't demand as much power and its battery lasts a lot longer. Even though a regular watch battery is great, it can't support many features like GPS, fitness tracking, and connections to social media. That said, if you're worried about the battery dying on a trip, you can simply pack one with you. Light and easy!

The buttons are large  convex and easy to use with a pair of gloves. Here we see the left side of the watch with two buttons and the sensor. The right side of the watch has three buttons. This watch features just a simple watch battery.
The buttons are large, convex and easy to use with a pair of gloves. Here we see the left side of the watch with two buttons and the sensor. The right side of the watch has three buttons. This watch features just a simple watch battery.

Solar Powered: We loved the Casio PRW-6000Y for its solar charging capabilities. On long trips and throughout the life of the watch, there is no need to worry about charging. Just place it near a window or expose it to the sunlight for as little as six minutes a day and it will keep chugging on. The only downside is that solar powered watches are typically way more expensive than other options (due to the mini solar panel).

This Casio was the only one that had an analog time teller with a smaller digital window.
This Casio was the only one that had an analog time teller with a smaller digital window.

USB-Charged: The Garmin Fenix 5, Suunto Ambit3 Peak, and Suunto Core Traverse are all USB charged and feature GPS function. The upside to these watches is they have lots of features. These watches are designed to gather data — moving time, route information, navigation to a point, fitness tracking, and more. In fact, most of these watches are more geared towards fitness tracking than anything. Even though the data is nice to have on hand, the battery life truly sucks in comparison to solar powered and regular watch battery models. When GPS is on, watches will last anywhere from just eight hours to 50 hours (based on the settings and your location). For most multi-day adventures, this isn't long enough to keep GPS function on the whole time. So you must be diligent to turn the GPS function off when it's not needed. If you're looking for something that can track a route for days, a Handheld GPS may be your best bet instead. That said, when GPS is off, a watch can last anywhere from just 14 days to six weeks (based on the model). Overall, these watches feature more perks, but the battery life is a serious tradeoff to consider.

A comparison of both altitude  and battery life. Both watches started fully charged. The Suunto Traverse shows almost 50 percent less battery life than the Suunto Ambit3 Peak on this hike.
A comparison of both altitude, and battery life. Both watches started fully charged. The Suunto Traverse shows almost 50 percent less battery life than the Suunto Ambit3 Peak on this hike.

Overall, when considering your watch purchase, determine what kind of battery life you need to make an informed decision. Take a look at our comparison chart in our best in class review to see a direct comparison of battery life and types of batteries used.

GPS Function


Having GPS is a great way to see your moving metrics. Some folks are truly interested in this information, while others just aren't. One of the big pros of any GPS watch is the features. Moving speed, vertical climb and descent, route information, high and low points, fitness trackers, virtual fitness pacers, virtual games, pace metronomes, and more, are all features that you'd find in high-end GPS altimeter watches.

A look at the GPS function on the Garmin Fenix 3 while taking a short bike ride out of town.
A look at the GPS function on the Garmin Fenix 3 while taking a short bike ride out of town.

Also, you can connect to apps like Strava, Garmin Connect, and Suunto Movescount to help you track your fitness routines. You can also use these apps to upload routes to your watch with predetermined waypoints. All you need to do is follow the route for a new adventure. A really cool feature — especially if you're traveling and want to explore a place by yourself. If you're in the market for a watch like this, the Garmin Fenix3 is our Top Pick for Features. However, if you're not interested in fancy features — a regular altimeter watch like the Suunto Core Alu may be for you. The only challenge that a GPS watch faces is a lack of battery life (as mentioned above). Turning on GPS function seriously drains battery, making these watches a lot less reliable than the rest, and not the best option for multi-day missions (if you plan on running GPS the whole time). To learn more about GPS watches for fitness training, check out our The Best GPS Watch for Running and Training review.

Accessories


In addition to the many features to consider when purchasing an altimeter watch, one should also consider the accessories that can go with it. Heart rate monitors are a great way to track personal performance and some versions of the watches tested in this review, like the Garmin Fenix 5 come with it! It's perfect for any athlete in training or any recreationalist that likes to see what their body is doing. In addition, you can also find compatible foot pods for more accurate pace and distance information (best for runners). You can also find bike pods to track cadence and speed more efficiently than the regular GPS.

Additional Considerations


When looking for your next altimeter watch, features aren't the only thing to consider. You should also look at its durability and functionality for all conditions. Here we will discuss some of our top tips when looking for an altimeter watch.

1) Always choose a watch with a mineral glass. This watch face is less prone to scratches and wear. It is a heat-hardened glass that is about ten times harder than plastic.

2) Choose rubber straps with many holes for outdoor activities. These straps are typically a little more durable, versatile, and comfortable. They also feel more comfortable and flex around clothing more easily. A watch that sports more holes is far more breathable and won't feel itchy or hot on your wrist.

3) Consider the size of your display. A larger display makes it easier to see in poor conditions (i.e. snow, rain, etc.). A smaller display will feel a little more comfortable on the wrist but is less functional in poor environmental conditions.

4) Choose a watch with large buttons. If you're planning on a winter adventure, make sure to choose a watch that is compatible with gloves. In our testing, we looked at each watch to see how well it could be used with a pair of gloves. We learned that the bigger the buttons, and the further spaced apart they are, the better.

5) Choose a long wristband. If you have a choice of wristbands, make sure you choose the longer option. In some cases, you may want to wear it on the outside of your jacket. Also, make sure the band has enough holes for the tongue to fit through - especially if you have a smaller wrist.

6) Wear it medallion-style. In a casual conversation with a couple of mountain guides, they mentioned that wearing the watch around their neck was a classic option. This helps to ensure the temperature, altitude, and barometric gauge are more accurate with better viewing access. We thought this was a cool option for any outdoor enthusiast.

Amber King
About the Author
Amber hails from cold North of Canada. After finishing up her B.Sc and B.Ed in 2009, she opted for a transient life exploring the mountains and deserts of the U.S. on foot and rock. She is an avid rock climber, trail runner, hiker, and splitboarder. When she's not tromping around in the woods, you can find her planning experiential science-based trips as a middle and high school teacher in the foothills of the San Juan mountains.

 
 

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