The Best Altimeter Watches
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 an unbeatable battery life and is filled with features to not only measure your altitude but also to help you track your acclimatization and fitness. With impressive altimeter and GPS accuracy along with 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. Also, if you are looking for something even a little more affordable, opt for the traditional Core, which costs a lot less. In spite of its drawbacks, we figure that if an altimeter watch is meant to do one thing well, its 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 by far the least expensive model we tested. It has basic time-telling functions and a dual-sensor that can track barometric pressure and altitude. Despite its price tag, we were surprised to see that it is still fairly accurate and provided a decent estimate of the 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 also like to know the barometric pressure and altitude now and then, this easy-to-use, long-lasting Best Buy 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 you can think of. Whether that's a trail run, your post-workout stretching, or the strength training you know you should be doing more of, 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.
The downsides of this watch were that it wasn't as consistently accurate and its battery doesn't last as long as our overall winner, the Coros Vertix. 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. However, with a friendly interface, comfortable fit, and lots of features, this is still our Top Pick for an altimeter watch that can track it all with some great smartwatch features incorporated, as well.
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 in order 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 afforded the opportunity to test the watches at high altitudes, and Utah canyon country where we examined how well the GPS worked in canyons. The batteries and route-finding capabilities were put to the test in the remote highlands of Iceland, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire also 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 pricepoint and value can be a critical factor in determining whether or not a certain product is right for you. One way we get at this is to compare a product's price against its overall score. In addition, getting the most out of your altimeter watch requires an honest appraisal of what you will use it for and how often.
For the casual outdoor enthusiast who wants to know altitude at any given moment on an outdoor excursion, the base model Casio SGW-300H is a fine, 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, and graphs, as well as a compass. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak also has GPS functionality for those who prefer to spend time off of 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). Second, we looked at the accuracy of the altimeter reading, calibrating a watch and then hiking to another known altitude. When we hiked back to the trailhead, we noted if the elevation change showed zero, or if the reading was off by a few (hundred) feet. We also considered the frequency of necessary calibration and the range and frequency 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 with weather changes).
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 even when storms caused changes in air pressure. The Ambit3 Peak proved to have an accurate gain and loss profile, and along with the Suunto Traverse and Suunto 9 Baro, 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 that it competes with some of the non-GPS watches in the review. We scored this one very high because we think that having access to all of the features of this one for up to 45 days of use or 60 hours of GPS tracking (150 hours in Ultratrac mode) make this just as valuable as having 7-month access to the Casio GW9400 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 fine 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 a lot of 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 thought the 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 difficult 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 how easy it is to see the watch in a variety of conditions. In the end, 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 a little bit different. The Suunto Core also provides a nice, easy-to-read 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 sun or low light. In addition, 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. Also, the backlight will only stay on for one second at a time, with no option to hold it on.
Every altimeter watch has a few basic functions. These include an altimeter, barometer, and a timekeeper. Most also come with a compass (making them true ABC watches). There are many models out there, and with more smartphone pairing and app compatibility, as well as more GPS watches entering the market, there are a plethora of features packed into these tiny devices. In this metric, we looked at the 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 specific functions (like altitude and barometric pressure), and how helpful the data is on the trail. 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.
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 store.
Altitude Profiles: The quality of the graphs produced from each watch varies considerably based on the manufacturer and price point. We really like the clarity of the Garmin and Coros displays, as well as their use of color to distinguish between different types of readings. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak and Suunto Traverse produce the same kind of graph that was also good. The Suunto Core also produces a graph, but we think it is small and harder to read in comparison to 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. In some cases, they had even fancier features to better analyze the data they collect.
GPS watches again tend to win here because once the logs are synced with a phone or computer app, you can clear the log cache in the watch, which means you can take as many data points as you want. 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 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 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 as a result.
Overall, the Garmin Fenix 5x Plus Sapphire and Coros Vertix shine for the tracking length and detailed intervals at which you can view barometric data. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak and Suunto Traverse feature a similar graph, but aren't quite as good visually. 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 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 an accurate 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 all of 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 sleeps.
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 a variety of weather conditions, to see which truly 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 breathability of the band, its weight, whether or not the watch would fit well over and under clothing, and whether or not the band has an ergonomic fit. In the end, watches with a more ergonomic fit, more breathable band, and slimmer profile scored higher than those without.
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, also 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, too, 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 tested the performance of each of these attributes all while rating the ease of use and the products' interfaces to help you narrow down your selection and find the best product to purchase. We know that selecting just one watch from the pack can be difficult, but we hope that this review is a helpful resource.
— Paige Klugherz, Amber King & Ben Applebaum-Bauch