Best Altimeter Watch
Best Overall Altimeter Watch
The Coros Vertix was hands down the best altimeter watch we tested this season. Aimed at the mountain athlete who is going long and high, this watch has unbeatable battery life. Its features provide more information than just altitude; it can also help track your acclimatization and fitness. With impressive altimeter and GPS accuracy and the ability to import and follow specific routes, record a variety of sports, and even track sleep, heart rate, and blood oxygen content, the Vertix seems to do it all.
A bit bulkier than some of the other models, this watch was still comfortable for users with a smaller wrist. We found it intuitive to use and enjoyed the speed and layout of the accompanying app. The Vertix sits at a pretty high price point, but considering everything you're getting with this watch and the frequency with which Coros is releasing software updates with additional features, this is the one to invest in!
Read review: Coros Vertix
Best Bang for the Buck
Suunto Core Alu
The Suunto Core Alu is a classic ABC watch designed to get the basics right. It tracks total ascent and descent and offers both barometer and altimeter graphs, a compass, and a reliable, long-lasting battery. Don't be afraid to take this on a multi-day or multi-month mission.
It's not filled with as many features as the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus and doesn't include a GPS. We also wish that the altitude and barometer graphs were a little sleeker. If you are looking for something even a little more affordable, opt for the traditional Core, which costs a lot less. Despite its drawbacks, we figure that if an altimeter watch should do one thing well, that is to measure altitude, and that's what the Core Alu does.
Read review: Suunto Core Alu
Best Model for a Shoestring Budget
The Casio SGW300-HB is a bare-bones altimeter watch that is the least expensive model we tested. It has basic time-telling functions and a dual-sensor that can track barometric pressure and altitude. This budget watch is relatively accurate and gave decent estimates of altitude when calibrated regularly.
This utilitarian watch lacks sleek styling and an ergonomic fit. It is also less precise than other watches because the altitude reads in 20-foot increments. Because it doesn't come with navigation features like a compass or GPS, it's not a backcountry way-finder. However, if you're in the market for a timepiece and would like to know the barometric pressure and altitude now and then, this easy-to-use, long-lasting award winner may be your best bet.
Read review: Casio SGW300-HB
Best Model for Tracking the Most Sports
Garmin Forerunner 935
In addition to the classic ABC features, the Garmin Forerunner 935 can track almost any sport or activity. Whether that's a trail run, your post-workout stretching, or strength training, it helps you keep track of every aspect of your training. With constant heart rate monitoring, you'll also be able to learn about your sleep and recovery patterns and how your fitness is progressing.This watch lacked consistency in providing accurate altitude reading and lacked long-lasting battery life compared to other models. Although the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus Sapphire is another great watch, this one edged higher for us because if you want the additional features that it offers, we'd recommend our overall winner the Coros Vertix. The Forerunner stands out based on its friendly interface, comfortable fit, and smartwatch feature set that can track it all.
Read review: Garmin Forerunner 935
Why You Should Trust Us
Our panel of experts included Amber King, Ben Applebaum-Bach, and Paige Klugherz. Amber is a science teacher and endurance athlete, and Ben Applebaum-Bauch is a former backpacking guide with a decade of professional experience in the outdoor industry. Originally from Canada, Amber now resides in southwest Colorado, where she discovered trail running, completing her first half, full, and ultra marathons in one year. Ben has led countless trips through remote parts of northern New England and the Canadian coast in addition to thru-hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail, Long Trail, Colorado Trail, and extensive travel on the Appalachian Trail.
Paige lives at the foot of the Sierra outside of Bishop, CA and is an avid trail runner, hiker, and backpacker. She ran her first ultra skyrace earlier this year and has spent the summer testing these watches while covering countless miles on trails and talus in the High Sierra and the remote highlands of Iceland. She risked the dorkiest of tan lines by wearing as many as four watches at once to get you the most comprehensive, comparative data on every model.
We conducted field testing in a few primary locations — the Peruvian Andes and the High Sierra, which allowed high altitude testing of the watches. The stunning canyons of Utah provided the perfect place to examine GPS accuracy. The remote highlands of Iceland put the route-finding capabilities and battery life of each model to the test. The White Mountains of New Hampshire provided a prime testing ground with heavy tree cover and sometimes wild weather.
Related: How We Tested Altimeter Watches
Analysis and Test Results
Over several months, we put each altimeter watch to the test. To learn about each one, we tinkered endlessly and poured over the tomes that are the user manuals for these models to make sure we understood these watches' capabilities. We researched issues with particular models that we needed to focus on during testing and read about each watch from other independent reviewers. We also tested each model side-by-side in a wide range of environments and activities.
Related: Buying Advice for Altimeter Watches
After talking with mountain guides, ultra runners, hikers, and backpackers, we identified five key metrics to consider during testing; altimeter accuracy, battery life, user experience, the number and quality of features, and fit. For each, we designed specific and objective tests and recorded our results. We hope you find our comparison helpful as you consider the purchase of a new ABC watch.
We understand that sometimes price point and value can be a critical factor in determining if a particular product is right for you. One way to look at value is to compare a product's price against its overall score. To get the most out of your altimeter watch, an honest appraisal of what you will use it for (and how often) needs to be defined.
For the casual outdoor enthusiast who wants to know the altitude at any given moment on an outdoor excursion, the base model Casio SGW-300H is an excellent, affordable option that should satisfy that curiosity. If you are a seasonal backpacking guide or regular distance hiker, you will find value in watches that ultimately cost significantly more, but include a handful of features beyond those of a basic ABC watch that are helpful (and sometimes essential) for those activities. Higher-end models like the Suunto Core have barometric pressure readings, records, graphs, and a compass. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak has GPS functionality for those who prefer to spend time off marked trails. On the other hand, if you are training for a huge event (e.g., a marathon, ultra, or long trail thru-hike), then fitness-tracking feature-packed models could be well worth your investment. These watches, like the Coros Vertix or Garmin Forerunner 935, provide health metric insights that go well beyond a standard ABC watch.
When we looked at altimeter accuracy, we considered a few things. First, we reviewed the altimeter interval that each watch uses (many can measure in 3-foot increments, while more basic models use 20-foot spreads). Smaller increments offer a better degree of accuracy. Second, we looked at the accuracy of the altimeter reading. We calibrated the watch to a known altitude and hiked to another specific elevation. When we arrived back to the trailhead, we noted if the elevation change showed zero, or if the reading was off by a few (hundred) feet. We considered the frequency of calibration needed and the range and persistence of a model's inaccuracy (i.e., did it get it right all or most of the time? If it was off, by how much?). Lastly, we looked at how well the watch was able to keep a stable altimeter reading while sitting in the same place for a few days (even throughout changing weather).
Of the all the watches tested, the Coros Verix, Suunto Ambit3 Peak, Suunto Core Alu, and Suunto 9 Baro scored the highest in altimeter accuracy. The Vertix required fewer calibrations and maintained correct altitude readings throughout storm-induced changes in barometric pressure. The Ambit3 Peak proved to have an accurate gain and loss profile. Along with the Suunto Traverse and Suunto 9 Baro, it has the option to use a FusedAlti function that uses both GPS and barometric readings to determine altimeter accuracy.
The Casio PRW-6000Y also provides accurate readings but has a larger altitude interval. Many of the watches display altitude intervals of three feet, as opposed to the Casio's five. The Casio SGW300HB is surprisingly accurate, considering its no-frills design. However, it scored the lowest in this category because the altimeter interval is 5m/20ft, which provides a less precise reading than the rest. Watches could be off on altimeter readings by as much as 500 feet based on the day of testing, and we were surprised to discover that a watch with GPS does not always lead to more accurate measurements. In heavy tree cover, a limited signal diminishes the reliability of readings.
Battery life is of the utmost importance when heading out on any multi-day mission. Since lots of mountaineers, guides, backpackers, and even hikers require an altimeter watch that lasts more than just a day, battery life is rated highly in this review. In some sense, the more battery life a watch has, the more reliable it is.
For the GPS watches, we set the watch to low power mode to see how long each could hold out with the GPS function running. We also looked at the type of battery and whether or not the watch is self-charging. While regular watch batteries will always last longer than a single charge of a lithium-ion battery, there was one GPS watch that still scored very high in this category.
The watches scoring this highest in this metric are Casio's GW9400, PAG240B-2, and PRW-6000Y. They are solar-powered devices that take about six minutes per day in full sunlight to maintain their charge. This is a huge selling point for any long-term adventurer that needs a practically everlasting watch. The Suunto Core Alu also has a regular watch battery but is only rated to last 12 months. All other GPS models feature a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that you plug in to charge.
The Coros Vertix has a battery life that exceeds any other GPS watch and is long enough to compete with some of the non-GPS watches in the review. This model received a very high score based on the number of accessible features and their usable duration. The battery life provides access to 45 days of use or 60 hours of GPS tracking (150 hours in Ultratrac mode). Realistically this is comparable to having 7-month access to the Casio GW9400 but with far fewer features and less accurate data.
The Suunto Ambit3 Peak made it about 22 hours with the GPS mode on with power save options engaged. Without the GPS, this watch lasts roughly one month in regular watch mode. The Garmin Fenix 5x Plus Sapphire and Garmin Forerunner 935 do pretty well for GPS watches and managed about 30 and 20 hours of GPS time, respectively. The Suunto 9 Baro is below average, and the Suunto Traverse and Polar Ignite had decidedly poor battery life. They're sufficient for day hikes, but we wouldn't trust them for multi-day missions.
The user experience metric measures how intuitive it is to use each altimeter watch, as well as the display quality, buttons, and accompanying app (if applicable). We took into account how easy it was to get started with each watch and set the time and initial calibrations. Though we strongly recommend reading through your model's user manual, we also know that many people prefer to learn through hands-on use. With that in mind, we tried our hand at configuring the watches without consulting a manual first. We also looked at button size and their responsiveness, and the ease and design of any apps.
After our testing, we learned that the Casio SGW300HB is the easiest to use, while the Coros Vertix, Garmin Forerunner 935, and Garmin Fenix 5x Plus Sapphire are the easiest to set up. The Suunto brand watches and Polar Ignite weren't far behind.
The complex Casio GW9400 and Casio PRW-6000Y are the hardest to figure out. We also found that GPS-based watches (Garmin Fenix 5x Plus Sapphire, Suunto 9 Baro, Suunto Traverse, and Suunto Ambit3 Peak) in addition to the Suunto Core Alu, are the easiest to use with gloves. The Casio models are challenging to use with thick gloves as the buttons are recessed a bit more.
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 the visual clarity of the watch in a variety of conditions. Models that have a large watch face with a mineralized glass cover and different colors scored higher than those without.
The Garmin Fenix 5x Plus Sapphire, Garmin Forerunner 935, Coros Vertix, and Suunto 9 Baro earn the top spots in this category for their sharp and colorful displays. These watches truly stand out from the rest.
The Suunto Ambit3 Peak also has a great display. The font and colors of the watch face for both GPS Suuntos are the same, but the mineral glass is slightly different. The Suunto Core also provides an aesthetically pleasing and easy-to-read display, but the watch face background is not interchangeable like all the other watches mentioned above. This makes the model harder to read in bright sun or low light. Also, the nighttime light is a little weak in comparison to the rest.
The Casios didn't do as well in this category because their screens were often smaller, overfilled with information, and not as crisp. These models are more challenging to use at night based on their limited backlight functionality. A button will illuminate the screen for one-second intervals, but they lack the option of sustained lighting.
Every altimeter watch has a few essential functions. These include an altimeter, barometer, and a timekeeper. Most also come with a compass (making them true ABC watches). There is an overwhelming amount of models on the market. The market is evolving to put numerous features in the tiny devices. Some smartwatches can pair with smartphones and are app compatible. There are also many GPS based watches for tracking, navigating, and exploring. In this metric, we looked at the specific features of each watch.
To determine which watch scored the highest, we tallied up the features of each model. We also looked at the quality of the features, whether or not graphs are generated for data like altitude and barometric pressure. Ultimately, we asked if these features add value and utility to the on-trail experience. In the end, we learned that the Garmin Fenix 5x Plus Sapphire was undoubtedly the best in this category, featuring all the basic altimeter functions and a slew of others. The Suunto 9 Baro is close behind, followed by the Ambit3 Peak. The most basic Casio SGW300HB scored the lowest in this category.
Overall, the features found on GPS watches stood out in altimeter readings. We looked at the type of altitude profiles generated (i.e., ascent and descent over time) and the number of logs each watch could store.
Altitude Profiles: The quality of the graphs produced from each watch varies considerably based on the manufacturer and price point. The high-quality displays and color used to distinguish between different types of information found on the Garmin and Coros made the profiles very user friendly. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak and Suunto Traverse produce the same kind of graph that was also good. The Suunto Core also produces a graph; however, it is smaller and harder to read than the others. The output of the Casio PRW-6000Y and GW9400 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 they create. All of these models produce records that show an altitude graph, total ascent, total descent, and altitude change. Particular models had even more technical features to help analyze the collected data.
GPS watches reign supreme in this category because of their integration with a phone or computer app. Once the logs are synced to an app, the user can clear the log cache, which allows you to gather as much data as possible. 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 the watches we tested feature a barometer and capture barometric trends in some form. For this feature, we looked at the quality of the barometric graph and whether or not the watch allows you to change the sea level pressure manually. We did this by taking the watches to the same location, calibrating them to the same barometric pressure, and looking at the graphs produced.
Overall, the Garmin Fenix 5x Plus Sapphire and Coros Vertix shine for the tracking length and provided specific intervals at which you can view barometric data. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak and Suunto Traverse feature a similar graph, but aren't as visually clear. The Suunto Core has a decent graph that shows a trend over seven days.
All the watches tested in this review (with the exception of the Casio SGW300HB and Polar Ignite) feature 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 models, which do require a steady wrist to obtain a precise reading.
If you're into old-school devices, these models might be right up your alley. In general, we find the compasses useful to get a general point of reference, but on the whole, they are not nearly as reliable as a regular compass. If you're planning a bush-whacking bonanza, make sure to bring the old map and compass — don't use just your watch.
Time Keeper and Alarm
They are watches, after all, so the models that we tested feature some sort of digital timekeeper in addition to a stopwatch, countdown timer, and alarm. In general, we like GPS watches better for time simply because the GPS automatically changes when entering a different time zone.
The Suunto Core, Suunto 9 Baro, and Garmin Fenix 5x Plus Sapphire have (at least) a dual time option that allows you to 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 have a long alarm duration 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 periods of sleep.
To test GPS, we ran three different routes with varying GPS accuracy. The first was an open road, the second, a tree-covered trail, and the last was a canyon. We did these tests multiple times in various weather conditions, to see which genuinely performed the best. In the end, we learned that none of the GPS watches were 100 percent accurate all of the time, but some watches were a little more reliable with their readings than others. In this case, the CorosVertix and Suunto Ambit3 Peak proved to have the best GPS accuracy — most of the time.
Some days, one watch is more accurate than another, even with similar weather conditions. The Garmin Fenix 5x Plus Sapphire was spot on much of the time but occasionally would have an off day, and the Garmin Forerunner 935 often overestimated mileage by .01 to .2 miles. Of all of the watches tested, the Suunto and Coros models proved to be the most accurate most often, except for the Suunto 9 Baro, which was sometimes tragically incorrect. The Suunto Traverse proved to be a little less accurate than the Ambit3 Peak.
Comfort and Fit
When evaluating comfort and fit, we looked at which watches felt the most comfortable on our wrists. We gave these watches to a slew of friends and family to get some additional input on both. We looked at the band material, the band's breathability, its weight, whether or not the watch would fit well over and underclothing, and whether the band has an ergonomic fit. In the end, watches with a more ergonomic fit, more breathable band, and slimmer profile scored higher.
The Garmin Forerunner 935 was the leader in this category for its slim profile and flexible band that allowed for a comfortable fit on a variety of wrist sizes. The Suunto Core and Coros Vertix followed closely behind, featuring comfortable bands but having slightly thicker watch faces.
The Casio PRW-6000Y is the only altimeter watch that features a carbon fiber insert in its lightweight construction, making it one of the most durable bands we tested. We also like its ergonomic fit and lighter, thinner profile. 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 others.
The Garmin Fenix 5x Plus is big. Even though many of our testers liked the large display for checking stats, we feel that the watch face is large and bulky, and often hard to fit underneath clothing. Its saving grace is a highly flexible, adaptable band. The Casio PAG240B-2 scores low due to its rigid, scratchy, cloth-like band that is not very comfortable to wear. The Casio GW9400 scores poorly because of its thick and hard to adjust band and because the heaviness of the watch face caused the buttons to dig into our arms. These were both hard to fit under layers.
The altimeter watches that we tested in this category feature important functions that hikers, backpackers, runners, and climbers want most. In addition to telling the time, almost all of these models are true ABC watches, featuring altimeters, barometers, and digital compasses. We understand that selecting one watch from this advanced market is difficult, and we are here to help. We comparatively tested the critical attributes of a watch to refine your purchasing selection and find the best product.
— Paige Klugherz, Amber King & Ben Applebaum-Bauch