How We Tested Altimeter Watches

By:
Amber King
Senior Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Tuesday

We tested each watch while running in the high Peruvian mountains and exploring the remote canyons of Utah. We summited several peaks ranging from 9,000 to 16,5000 feet. We wore them through all conditions while comparing each side-by-side. We wore them while working, walking the dog, hiking, and running in the mountains. Each watch has seen it all! Not only did we just wear them, but we came up with many objective tests to determine which performed the best. Here are a few tests (not all of them) that we performed to guarantee an objective and accurate review.

While backpacking to a refugio at 15 500 feet in the Peruvian Andes  we gained almost two thousand feet of elevation along the switchbacks you see in this picture. Just one of the few climbs we undertook during this review.
While backpacking to a refugio at 15,500 feet in the Peruvian Andes, we gained almost two thousand feet of elevation along the switchbacks you see in this picture. Just one of the few climbs we undertook during this review.

To test altimeter accuracy, we calibrated each watch at a common location, hiked uphill, noted the altitude at the summit, then hiked back down again. By doing this we were able to determine which provided the most accurate readings. We did this several times in a wide range of weather.

Here we tested the GPS accuracy while hiking. First we started with wide open terrain  then moved into a canyon. We finally emerged from the canyon to discover the Garmin Fenix 3 (bottom left) seriously overestimated our actual distance travelled  while the Suunto Ambit3 Peak was the most accurate (actual distance = 5.2 miles one way).
Here we tested the GPS accuracy while hiking. First we started with wide open terrain, then moved into a canyon. We finally emerged from the canyon to discover the Garmin Fenix 3 (bottom left) seriously overestimated our actual distance travelled, while the Suunto Ambit3 Peak was the most accurate (actual distance = 5.2 miles one way).

To test temperature, we placed each watch on a non-conductive surface to see how their readings compared to that of a classic mercury thermometer. We also performed the same test while wearing the watches on our wrist for 10 minutes. Battery life was tested via field tests, online surveys, and at-home tests to determine which watches lasted the longest (with and without GPS function), and which ones didn't last hardly any time at all. Some watches (with a battery) couldn't be tested as their estimated battery life was three months (and our testing period is three months). We also compared GPS function between each GPS watch and determined which had the most accurate GPS over many days of running the exact same route and comparing tracks.

We even took the GPS watches into the depths of the Earth (where GPS reception is poor) and determined which watches were best able to keep a GPS lock and provide accurate distance, pace, and altimeter information. To determine the best watch display, we compared reflectiveness in sun (with and without sunglasses), and also considered the length and brightness of each watch's night light. Finally, for ease of use we simply looked at how easy the watch is to figure out without consulting the users manual.

We took the Suunto Ambit3 Peak to the high mountain range of the Peruvian Andes. We ran  hiked  and backpacked over 150 miles with over 19 000 feet of vertical gain. Pictured here is Jared running out a downhill after summiting a 16 000 ft pass.
We took the Suunto Ambit3 Peak to the high mountain range of the Peruvian Andes. We ran, hiked, and backpacked over 150 miles with over 19,000 feet of vertical gain. Pictured here is Jared running out a downhill after summiting a 16,000 ft pass.

After performing all these tests, we rated each watch using six different metrics: features, ease-of-use, battery life, altimeter accuracy, display quality, and comfort and fit. After all these in-field and at-home tests, we have produced (what we think) is the best altimeter watch review out there.
 

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