For hikers and mountaineers alike, a quality altimeter watch is a worthy addition to your gear collection. Popularly referred to by the acronym ABC (Altimeter, Barometer, Compass), these watches offer the most essential information for backcountry adventures. Built to handle the extremes, altimeter watches have a distinct look with durable, scratch-resistant faces and large screens flanked by glove-friendly buttons. You’ll see a lot of familiar faces in our 2017 top picks. Two manufacturers, Casio and Suunto, dominate the market, but GPS giant Garmin has made a recent push to capture high-end users. For more information on ABC watch features, check out our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Weight: 3.5 oz.
Dimensions: 2.0 x 2.0 x 0.7 in.
What we like: TOPO maps and amazing functionality.
What we don’t: Expensive and fairly complex to use.
Garmin’s new Fenix 5 undoubtedly is expensive, but it’s hands down the best multisport altimeter watch on the market. This powerhouse includes full ABC functionality, GPS and GLONASS satellite compatibility, and wrist-based heart rate monitoring. But what sets the 5X apart from other Fenix models like the 5 and 5S is the inclusion of detailed TOPO mapping. The contour lines provide impressive insights for hiking, mountaineering, and other serious backcountry use. And despite being packed with new tech, the Fenix 5 has had a relatively smooth launch with few glitches—something that previous Fenix models and recent releases from Suunto did not.
The biggest downsides of the Fenix 5X are cost and complexity. Prices have been increasing with each new model, but the leap to $700 ($850 with the metal band) puts it far out of reach for many people. More, the tech is overkill for someone looking for the basics like elevation gain and barometric pressure. But if you value the watch’s slick navigational features and will use its multisport capabilities for running, biking, skiing, and more, it’s our top choice.
See the Garmin Fenix 5X
Weight: 2.57 oz.
Dimensions: 2.2 x 2.0 x 0.5 in.
What we like: Great looks; premium fit and finish.
What we don’t: Pricey for lacking GPS functionality.
Casio’s Pro Trek line has consistently delivered tough, long-lasting performance, but has always lacked in the looks department, especially for those averse to heavy doses of plastic. Well, the PRW-6000Y-1A does a great job addressing that, with arguably the classiest looking watch to ever come from Casio. Ditching the plastic, you get a thoroughly modern face with a white on black display, and a stylish band with carbon fiber inserts. The watch also has a full compliment of features: altimeter, barometer, compass, and thermometer, along with a stopwatch and an extremely accurate time function. This being a Casio, you get the peace of mind of solar power, which means you can wear it all the time and never have to worry about charging or replacing the battery.
What's not to like with the PRW-6000? One is the full retail price of $500, as you can get a lot of the same features from Casio and others for about a hundred dollars less. On Amazon, though, the watch is consistently on discount, and at around $380 the PRW-600Y-1A is a fantastic deal for an ABC watch that wears equally as well on the trail as it does at the office.
See the Casio Pro Trek PRW-6000Y
Weight: 2.4 oz.
Dimensions: 1.9 x 1.93 x 0.57 in.
What we like: Proven technology and performance.
What we don’t: Too expensive at full price (but it's often on sale).
With a sleek minimalist design and a wide variety of optional colors, the Suunto Core is a true every day multifunction watch. Often on sale for $200 or less, the Core also has an impressive lineup of features: sunset and sunrise times for more than 400 locations, alerts of changing pressure or disappearing daylight, and 7-day altitude log tracking for hikers.
The Suunto Core has been on the market for a number of years, and as such, there are a couple known issues that can crop up. First, the band doesn’t always hold up well under heavy use and might need to be replaced for around $50. Second, despite the large screen, some people find the black background and white text difficult to read in sunlight (there are options with a white background and black text, however).
See the Suunto Core
Weight: 2.9 oz.
Dimensions: 2.0 x 2.0 x 0.6 in.
What we like: A do-all multisport ABC and GPS watch.
What we don’t: The Fenix 5X surpasses it in mapping.
Garmin’s Fenix 3, the predecessor of the Fenix 5X above, still is on the market and represents a solid value in a GPS-style outdoors watch. Compatibility with both GPS and GLONASS makes for fast satellite locks and good tracking, and the various “sport” modes are tuned for recording data while running, hiking, biking, swimming, and even skiing. Unlike the new Fenix 5X, the navigation mapping is pretty barebones but does provide some helpful information for following a route.
At under $500, the Fenix 3 and Suunto Ambit3 below are natural competitors for triathletes and dedicated outdoorspeople. In weighing the two with a focus on hiking, mountaineering, and skiing, we give the edge to the Fenix, while the Ambit3 wins out for pure triathletes. And both fall short of the newer Fenix 5X with its intuitive operation and detailed mapping. But opting for the older Fenix 3 delivers a slew of fun data at a $250 savings.
See the Garmin Fenix 3
Weight: 3.14 oz.
DImensions: 1.97 x 1.97 x 0.7 in.
What we like: Well made and feature packed.
What we don't: More closely aligned with triathletes than hikers.
Suunto’s Ambit3 has been on the market for a few years, but remains our favorite outdoor GPS model from the Finnish brand. In addition to the extensive feature set of the popular Suunto Core, the Ambit3 adds GPS that can track your position, get accurate elevation data, and graph ascents and descents (information is uploaded to Suunto’s Movescount.com). Their Movescount application also allows youto customize features, including a storm alarm that will trigger an alert if there is a significant change in barometric pressure.
A new model has replaced the Ambit3 for 2017: the Suunto Spartan. But the Spartan has been plagued by a rough launch with numerous glitches and missing features. More, the new Spartan doesn’t move the needle for outdoors use like the detailed mapping you get with the new Fenix 5X. As such, we recommend going with the older Ambit3 Peak or springing for the Garmin Fenix 5X at this time.
See the Suunto Ambit3 Peak
Weight: 2.0 oz.
Dimensions: 2.2 x 1.85 x 0.5 in.
What we like: Easy to use, quality feel, good value.
What we don’t: Smaller display, finicky light button.
The PRG-300 is a great altimeter watch for first-timers. It has an approachable price (we’ve consistently seen it under $150), tough construction, and enough features to satisfy most hikers, climbers, and general outdoor enthusiasts. The pertinent data is right at hand—you can view altitude, barometric pressure, and degrees on the compass with a single button push. We prefer atomic timekeeping over manual, but this is an understandable omission at this price (the $50 more expensive PRW-3000 Pro Trek gets it, for example). Our other nitpick is the button for the light, which is in a tricky location just below the bezel and can be hard to press, particularly if you’re wearing gloves.
Unique to the PRG-300 Pro Trek is its small footprint. The watch measures 1.85 inches side-to-side and is one of the few options on this list that won’t overwhelm a small wrist. The clear downside of a smaller display is that it can be a little more difficult to read, but we’ve been satisfied with the clarity overall. As other Casio models, the PRG-300 is solar powered, and provided you wear it on occasion, you won’t ever have to think about keeping it charged.
See the Casio Pro Trek PRG-300
Weight: 2.3 oz.
Dimensions: 2.25 x 2.0 x 0.6 in.
What we like: An outstanding value.
What we don’t: A bit bulkier than other altimeter watches.
Consistently priced under $200, the Casio Pathfinder PAG240-1 is among the best values on this list. This solar-powered multifunction watch can run for up to 6 months without seeing the sun and performs well on virtually any outdoor excursion, no matter the conditions. The altimeter, barometer, and compass modes are easy-to-use out of the box, and the watch is tough enough to handle bumps and scrapes along the way. We also like the time zone function (41 cities) and multiple alarms (up to 5).
What are the downsides of the Pathfinder PAG240? It feels a bit bulkier than other watches on this list and doesn’t dress up in the city as well as a Suunto. And like other less expensive ABC watches, the altimeter and other functions aren’t quite as accurate. For the same model with a titanium finish, see the Casio Pathfinder PAG240-7.
See the Casio PAG240-1
Weight: 2.82 oz.
Dimensions: 1.97 x 1.97 x 0.65 in.
What we like: Focused design for hiking.
What we don’t: Pricey for what you get.
Billed as an ABC and GPS watch for hikers and trekkers, the Suunto Traverse slots in below the Ambit3 in terms of functionality. The Traverse shares many of its internals with the Ambit but in a slightly lower profile design and lighter weight. More, the Traverse aims for a narrower market and doesn’t record data for runners, bikers, or swimmers. Instead, it has navigation and tracking capabilities—it’s as easy as planning a route on your computer using the Movescount application and downloading it to your watch. As with the Ambit3 and the Garmin Fenix 3, the map on the Traverse is a pretty basic line but does provide helpful guidance and is quite accurate.
Our biggest issue with the Traverse is value—with the price drop on the Ambit3 Peak above, the Traverse offers less features for more money. Those that appreciate the simplified design may still prefer the Traverse, but as it currently stands, we won't move the Traverse any higher on our list.
See the Suunto Traverse
Weight: 3.0 oz.
Dimensions: 2.0 x 2.1 x 0.7 in.
What we like: A union of a handheld GPS and multisport watch.
What we don’t: Dated technology compared to the Fenix 5X.
At its release a few years ago, the Epix showcased Garmin's GPS prowess in a compact size. This watch takes the basic square shape and functionality of Garmin’s triathlon watch, the 920XT, and adds touch screen enabled navigation. More, downloadable maps and internal storage allow for impressively detailed mapping on the 1.4-inch color screen. It’s still a true ABC watch and even includes a 3-axis compass, which reads accurately when standing still. The Epix can be cumbersome to use and the look doesn’t wear well around town, but it's still an impressive piece of technology.
The biggest issue with the Epix is that the Fenix 5X makes it nearly obsolete. The new Fenix has a significantly more user-friendlier interface, double the memory (16 GB vs. 8 GB for the Epix), and integrated heart rate monitoring (you can pair the Epix with a separate heart rate strap). Where the Epix becomes more interesting is on sale, and with its current price of $310 on Amazon (full MSRP is $550), it’s nearly as affordable as a non-GPS model.
See the Garmin Epix
Weight: 3.2 oz.
Dimensions: 2.4 x 2.3 x 0.6 in.
What we like: Casio looks with GPS.
What we don’t: Usability and tech fall well short of Garmin and Suunto.
For 2017, Casio enters the GPS watch market with the Pro Trek WSD-F20. Running on Android Wear and pairing to a smartphone, this essentially is a smartwatch with features for the outdoors. In addition to an altimeter, barometer, and compass, the WSD-F20 is the first Casio watch to include GPS and GLONASS compatibility. With sport-specific settings, you can find your location, track, and collect data while doing things like hiking, biking, skiing, and paddling.
The leap into the GPS world is commendable, but the Pro Trek WSD-F20 drops to the bottom of our list because it falls well short of watches from Garmin and Suunto. The short battery life is insufficient for more than casual daily use, the map functionality is limited, and the watch relies on a smartphone for most functions (you can download maps for offline use, however). We’re excited to see Casio jumping into the high end of the ABC watch market, but it’s clear they still have work to do.
See the Casio Pro Trek WSD-F20
|Garmin Fenix 5X||$700||3.5 oz.||Yes||Lithium-ion||12 days||2.0 x 2.0 x 0.7 in.|
|Casio Pro Trek PRW-6000Y-1A||$380||2.57 oz.||No||Solar||Forever||2.2 x 2.0 x 0.5 in.|
|Suunto Core||$174||2.4 oz.||No||CR2032||12 months||1.9 x 1.93 x 0.57 in.|
|Garmin Fenix 3||$450||2.9 oz.||Yes||Lithium-ion||6 weeks||2.0 x 2.0 x 0.6 in.|
|Suunto Ambit3 Peak||$449||3.14 oz.||Yes||Lithium-ion||30 days||1.97 x 1.97 x 0.7 in.|
|Casio PRG-300-1A2CR||$138||2.0 oz.||No||Solar||Forever||2.2 x 1.85 x 0.5 in.|
|Casio Pathfinder PAG240-1||$166||2.3 oz.||No||Solar||Forever||2.25 x 2.0 x 0.6 in.|
|Suunto Traverse||$469||2.82 oz.||Yes||Lithium-ion||14 days||1.97 x 1.97 x 0.65 in.|
|Garmin Epix||$310||3.0 oz.||Yes||Lithium-ion||16 weeks||2.0 x 2.1 x 0.7 in.|
|Casio Pro Trek WSD-F20||$500||3.2 oz.||Yes||Lithium-ion||1 month||2.4 x 2.3 x 0.6 in.|
Editor’s Note: The stated battery life is the manufacturer’s claim while in time mode. When using the altimeter or GPS functionality, battery life will be reduced.
- Altimeter Watch Features
- GPS-Enabled Altimeter Watches
- Smartphone/Watch Altimeter Apps
- Power Source
- Recalibration and Accuracy
- Daily Use
- Why Purchase an ABC Watch?
The Basics: Altimeter, Barometer, and Compass
Entry-level ABC watches come with just that: barometric pressure readings, an air pressure based altimeter, as well as a compass. You’ll also get a temperature sensor and some sports-related lap timers. And guess what? They all keep track of the time and include alarms.
As prices rise, you’ll see greater leveraging of the information the watch is collecting. More advanced tracking of elevation gained and lost as well as changes to barometric pressure will be graphed in detailed fashion right on the watch. And at around $300 MSRP (depending on the model) you will get a watch with atomic timekeeping for greater accuracy. Cosmetic changes make them more usable as daily timepieces with less plastic in the construction and sleeker, lower profile designs. You’ll also find that watches at this price point have nicer watch faces that resist scratches and brighter screens.
Once you clear $500, you’re typically getting a GPS-enabled wrist computer that blurs the lines between a handheld hiking GPS and multisport watch. Backcountry navigation comes with downloadable routes, GPS tracking will recount your travels, and compatibility with heart rate monitors and bike sensors make these ideal partners for triathletes, ultra marathoners, and extreme outdoor adventurers.
This high-end watch category is gaining a lot of momentum, and can be currently broken into 2 categories based on mapping capabilities: Garmin’s Fenix 5X and Epix provide detailed TOPO maps with contour lines, and the rest of the offerings from Suunto and Garmin include only a basic line or marker on an otherwise blank screen. Both are useful for following or retracing a route, but the TOPO mapping does make navigation much easier. No matter the respective mapping abilities, as with all pieces of technology, these GPS watches should not be relied on as your only source of backcountry navigation.
Over the past few years, smartphones and smartwatches have made inroads on the altimeter watch market. Specifically, there are a number of apps for both iOS and Android that measure your distance and altitude profile, and many even include maps. There are a number of considerations here, including the necessity to be connected to a GPS signal (often you can download and save maps but you will need a signal for accurate tracking). Perhaps most importantly, GPS apps are absolute battery hogs. So unless you plan on bringing a portable or solar charger, these altimeter apps are better for short day hikes than serious forays into the backcountry. If you are interested in going this route, Gaia is one of the most popular GPS apps (starting at $10), and a handful of others are available for free.
The traditional way to power a timepiece is with a coin cell battery. This holds true for a number of Suunto products, and with battery life typically lasting about a year and plenty of low battery warnings, it’s rarely a major issue to get the battery change taken care of. True, it’s not convenient or fun as solar, but it still works.
Solar comes with big intrigue. Not having to worry about bringing along a replaceable battery or needing to charge the watch every few days has its appeals. Not to mention that a self-sufficient little instrument has a simple beauty to it – especially for travelers – and we love that Casio has invested in this technology. You also don’t have to worry about getting the watch its vitamin D that often, because they can store a charge for months at a time. Cost doesn't become prohibitive with the solar power; you can find the popular Casio Pathfinder PAG240-1 or new Casio PRG300 Pro Trek for consistently under $200.
The high-end GPS enabled models like the Suunto Ambit3 and Garmin Epix have to use a lithium ion battery because of their thirsty GPS receivers, making them less ideal for longer treks. However, battery life has been improving within this technology, and the watches will last significantly longer when not in GPS mode. You also have the option to extend the time period between when the watch collects your GPS coordinates, such as Garmin's UltraTrac mode, which also helps in extending battery life.
Using air pressure readings isn’t foolproof, so it’s always a good idea to recalibrate an altimeter watch. This can be particularly important when traveling. Finding a known elevation at the start of your trek is the simplest way to get your watch’s altimeter dialed in. While it might be a pain to have to recalibrate, going through this process is the best way to keep the device as accurate as possible – which is kind of the reason you bought the watch in the first place.
Speaking of accuracy, not unlike using a pedometer or activity tracker to measure approximately how many steps you take in a day, an altimeter watch is a great gauge for elevation. And just as with the accelerometer in your Fitbit, using air pressure to measure altitude isn’t perfect. Changes in air pressure due to incoming weather can impact the elevation readings, but it’ll most likely remain darn close. Treated as a good estimate, you’ll appreciate the information provided all the more.
ABC watches traditionally had a decidedly outdoorsy look to them, so they weren’t a popular choice for daily wear. These models were plenty capable from a features standpoint and easy to read, but the large size and numerous buttons and compass markings looked out of place. Watches like Casio’s Pathfinder PAG240 still aren't great for around town (depending of course on the town), but the sleek, simple designs and digital screens on the high-end offerings from Suunto, Garmin, and Casio have gone a long way towards changing that perception. And for those with small wrists, the Casio Pro Trek PRG-300 and Garmin’s Fenix 5S are great options.
For most users, an ABC watch is picked up because it’s a fun piece of kit. It doesn’t hurt that you get actual data to back up your post-adventure boasting (8,000 feet of elevation gained!) and an answer to the question most everybody asks on a backpacking trip: “I wonder what our elevation is right now?” And while it’s true a compass should be a part of any backcountry setup – even for you day hikers – that doesn’t necessitate purchasing a full-on altimeter watch.
But ABC watches are far from gimmicky and provide a lot of important data. Significant changes to air pressure can signal weather changes, and these watches will graph those changes while you’re in barometer mode, giving a good indication of incoming weather. Some of the more advanced models even have built-in storm alarms, like the Suunto Ambit3 and Casio ProTrek 6000, registering these substantial swings and alerting you with a chime. This sort of notification is particularly helpful in exposed terrain.
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