Whether a dedicated weekend warrior or a professional athlete, if you spend time in the wilderness, an altimeter watch can be a powerful and useful tool.
A traditional model has three primary functions: altimeter, barometer, and compass (sometimes referred to as an ABC watch). With these three readings combined, you can keep track of weather trends and determine your location. 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. Below is a list of questions to ask yourself before buying one. We walk you through the questions and the answers.
Is an altimeter watch right for me?
Any outdoor recreationist can benefit from using an altimeter watch, but do you need one? In addition to regular time-telling functions, an altimeter watch calculates your elevation and allows you to track weather patterns. If it also includes a GPS, you can determine your location and even navigate to specific coordinates. If you are the type of person that typically sticks to marked trails, then an altimeter watch can be a fun accessory with some practical applications (it might be able to save you from getting too wet). If you often adventure into the unknown wilds, it can be an invaluable and potentially lifesaving resource.
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 begin your search in earnest.
Climbers and trail runners 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 inclement weather. 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. If you primarily need a quality timepiece, you may be better off checking out some basic models that don't come with the same lofty price tag as many altimeter watches. 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.
Types of Altimeter Watches
There are two primary categories of altimeter watches. First is the traditional altimeter watch that comes with a basic selection of ABC features and are either solar-powered or have a replaceable battery. The second type is the more powerful GPS watch. GPS models have rechargeable batteries and usually come with a whole lot of features that you don't get with a traditional altimeter watch. These watches can often do a lot and be great training tools, but their battery life can be a limiting factor. Check out the pros and cons of both types below to see which best suits your needs.
A traditional ABC watch features an altimeter, barometer, and in most cases, a compass. They have simple watch batteries or a built-in solar panel.
- Pros: More reliable, longer battery life, often inexpensive
- Cons: Fewer features, don't tend to look as good, displays usually feel a little antiquated
- Best Uses: Long adventures, tracking vertical gain/loss, timekeeping
- Watch Examples: Casio PRW-6000Y, Casio PAG240B-2, Casio SGW300HB, Casio GW9400, Suunto Core Alu
A GPS-based watch can capture signals from satellites to determine your location. 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 often also provide a fitness log, sometimes for a wide variety of activities. Some models can even learn about you over time and make recommendations for training load and recovery time.They typically sync with a smartphone and connect to apps. With this integration, you can upload programs, games, and virtual pacers to help you with your fitness training. It also provides you with trip information (e.g., distance, pace, time), and you can navigate with some watches. The primary downsides are short battery lives and a hefty price tag.
- Pros: Lots of features, navigational capabilities, can replace a handheld GPS, user-friendly interfaces
- Cons: Short battery life in GPS mode (~8 to 150 hours, based on power settings), expensive, sometimes overwhelming
- Best Uses: Day trips in GPS mode, weekly excursions (depending on battery life capabilities), fitness training and tracking
- Watch Examples: Coros Vertix, Garmin Forerunner 935, Suunto Ambit3 Peak, Garmin Fenix 5x Plus Sapphire, Suunto Traverse
Features: Take 'em or leave 'em?
You can get a watch that is either simple or chock full of features. Some are also more accurate than others. So what do you need? If you're looking for the basic functions of an altimeter watch and 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.
As is often the case with shiny new things, we found that features we had never previously considered became more and more useful as over time. This is to say if you are willing to splurge a little, opt for a model with additional features.
In this section, we outline key features that many altimeter watches include — all of the models that we tested come with a clock, alarm, compass, barometer, temperature gauge, and of course, an altimeter. In addition to the basic features, we will also discuss some fancier features like GPS connectivity, social media data sharing, 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.
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 the level of accuracy you require. For those who are generally curious about the figure, a less accurate (and potentially less precise) watch will probably do the trick. For those that are looking to pinpoint a location and calculate true vertical gain and loss for the day, you will have to pay a little extra for better accuracy.
How a watch altimeter works
Pilots use highly advanced and sensitive 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.
Air Pressure: Each watch that we tested is outfitted with at least a couple of sensors. The first is used to measure ambient air pressure. As you move higher in the atmosphere, the atmospheric air pressure decreases. Using this sensor and a reference to sea level ambient air pressure, the watch calculates altitude. The following equations are used to determine both barometric pressure and altitude in watches like the Suunto Core Alu, which allows you to change the reference sea level air pressure (most of the watches tested already have that value configured).
Absolute air pressure + Altitude reference = Sea level air pressure
Absolute air pressure + Sea level air pressure reference = Altitude
That said, if the weather (read: pressure) changes, the altitude reading will change as well, even if you don't change position. This is why watches should always be calibrated before starting a trip, and throughout your trip, anytime you have a reliable reference point. If you encounter weather, continue to calibrate the altimeter manually at known sites (using either a map or elevation markers on the trail). 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 are.
GPS: Global Positioning System (GPS) is a network of satellites orbiting Earth. Once your watch receives a signal from three of these satellites, your position can be triangulated. The more satellites that pick up a signal, the more accurate your positional data will be. 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 (e.g., the FusedAlti function in the GPS-equipped Suunto watches).
Calibrating your Altimeter Watch
Be sure to calibrate your watch manually to ensure greater accuracy along your trip. There are many opportunities to calibrate your watch, and you should take advantage of them when possible. If you're backpacking, you can use the contours on your paper map. If you're on a known summit with a known altitude or come across a sign with an elevation marker, you can calibrate it there. All of the watches that we tested allow you to calibrate altitude manually. If you don't complete these calibrations on a daily basis (or more often than that), you may find your altimeter reading is 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 as 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 where weather conditions can fluctuate throughout the day. 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 rolling in), the altitude will probably read lower than the actual. If there is an increase in pressure (nice weather moving in), the watch will probably read higher than it is.
How does latitude affect altitude readings?
Latitude and your location on the planet will affect how your watch calculates altitude. The air pressure at the poles is higher than the air pressure at the equator. Why? Because 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 warmer and thus less dense (density = mass per unit volume) than it is towards the poles. 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 a result, the air pressure at sea level changes with latitude. 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 value. If not, you should find out the barometric pressure where you are and manually enter it into your watch.
First and foremost, a watch tells time. In this review, we encountered watches with atomic clocks, GPS time, and those with manual settings. Most watches tested provided a digital reading, except for 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 scroll through time zones around the world. If your watch does not have a GPS, you will need to manually change the zone when traveling. GPS-based time is easy — it always has the correct time and updates automatically as you cross time zones. Finally, some watches rely on traditional, manual timekeeping — set it at the beginning in reference to another clock, and change it manually if you move through different time zones. We think GPS timekeepers are the easiest to use, as long as you can get a good signal.
All the watches we tested come with a stopwatch, countdown function, and some sort of alarm. Some watches like the Coros Vertix have ten alarms, while most others like the Suunto Ambit3 Peak, have just one. We liked the additional alarms for longer days and alpine starts. Setting multiple can be helpful if you need daily reminders for lunch, medication, sleep, or wake up times. This is especially beneficial for longer trips. That said, many testers felt like this was a nice extra, but not especially necessary.
The compass is a navigational and safety feature to have in case you need to determine your 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. (This is awesome!) GPS watches also include self-stabilization, which means you can get an accurate reading regardless of the angle of your wrist. All of the watches with a compass that we tested have tilt-compensated compasses (except for the Casio PRW-6000Y). This watch requires you to keep your wrist horizontal to get an accurate reading. In general, we like the tilt-compensated compass better as it is more accurate and easier to use.
Why should you care about barometric pressure? The simple answer is that it helps you (and your watch) track weather and make educated predictions about incoming storms. 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 (e.g., the United States), if you lose four millibars of pressure in 12 hours, a storm is most likely on its way. If you lose six millibars in the same period, then it's going to be a big one. If you see a loss of eight or more millibars, go home and save yourself! Unfortunately, the barometers cannot predict when bad weather is going to end.
That said, if you see a trend of increasing pressure, you can hold out hope that the 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 5X Plus and Coros Vertix the best, followed by the Suunto Ambit3 Peak and Suunto Traverse.
All of the watches we tested have a temperature display. We like the idea of this feature, but we learned that while wearing the watch, the sensors aren't very accurate. All of the watches read inaccurately because they are more or less measuring external skin temperature instead of the ambient air. Many of our testers noted that attaching the watch to the shoulder strap of a pack helped resolve this issue and provided a more accurate 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.
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 a 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-powered, and 3) USB charging. Each has its pros and cons, so its best to figure out exactly what you're needing in your watch before purchasing.
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-week or month 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 an extra.
Solar Powered: We loved the Casio PRW-6000Y, Casio GW9400, and Casio PAG240B-2 for their 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.
USB-Charged: The Garmin Fenix 5, Garmin Forerunner 935, Coros Vertix, Polar IGnite, 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. Most of these watches are geared more towards fitness tracking than anything else. Even though the data is nice to have on hand, the battery life will never be as long as solar-powered and regular watch battery models. When GPS is on, watches will last anywhere from just eight hours to 150 hours based on the settings and your location, with the Coros Vertix providing by far the longest battery life. 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 battery life is a serious tradeoff to consider.
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.
Also, you can connect to apps like social media apps like Strava or proprietary apps, including Garmin Connect, Suunto Movescount, and the Coros app, 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 cool feature, especially if you're traveling and want to explore a place by yourself. The only challenge that a GPS watch faces is a lack of battery life (as mentioned above). Turning on GPS function quickly drains the battery, making these watches a lot less reliable than the rest, and not the best option for multi-day/week 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 of 2021 review.
In addition to the plethora of features, one should also consider the accessories to go along with it. Heart rate monitors are a great way to track personal performance. It's perfect for any athlete in training or any recreationist 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). For some models, bike pods can also track cadence and speed more efficiently than just GPS.
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 are a few other top tips to consider when looking for an altimeter watch:
1) Look for a watch with mineral glass. This heat-hardened material is less prone to scratches and wear.
2) Choose silicone straps with many holes. These straps are typically a little more durable and versatile. 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 the watch display. A larger face makes it easier to see in poor conditions. A smaller display will feel a little more comfortable on the wrist but is less functional when you need to sneak a quick peek.
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 is a classic option. This helps to ensure the temperature, altitude, and barometric gauge are more accurate with better viewing access. We thought we'd pass it along to other outdoor enthusiasts as well.