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 2021 top picks, including Casio, Suunto, and GPS giant Garmin. For more information on ABC watch features, check out our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Weight: 1.9 oz.
Battery: Lithium-ion and solar
What we like: A rugged, long-lasting altimeter watch with GPS.
What we don’t: Pricey and small monochrome screen is not great for navigation.
If you’re in the market for a do-all altimeter watch, Garmin’s Instinct Solar hits a fantastic balance of price and performance. The Instinct is all business on the outside, with a durable case, monochrome display, and five-button interface that’s easy to use in wet weather or with gloves on. On the inside you get impressively modern tech, including a host of sensors (barometric altimeter, compass, thermometer, pulse oximeter, and more), GPS support, and everyday features like health monitoring and music control. To top it off, the Instinct includes a substantial built-in solar panel on its face, which (in sunny conditions) gives the watch a significant boost in battery life compared to similar designs (up 54 days as a smartwatch and unlimited in battery saver mode).
The Garmin Instinct falls into a bit of a tweener category, combining the looks and savvy of an altimeter watch with many features from multisport GPS designs. While most hikers and mountaineers will love the added tech (many ABC watches don’t include GPS, activity tracking, or smart features), those looking for a more simple timepiece can save a lot of money with models like the Suunto Core and Casio Pro Trek below. On the other hand, if you plan to use your watch for navigation, the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro (also below) is a much more capable design, with a colorful display and preloaded maps that include details like location markers and topographic lines. But for a burly altimeter watch that can take a licking and keep on ticking (literally), the Instinct Solar gets our top spot this year.
See the Garmin Instinct Solar
Best Budget ABC Watch
Weight: 2.3 oz.
What we like: Proven technology and performance.
What we don’t: Reliability issues with the band.
With a sleek minimalist design and a wide variety of optional colors, the Suunto Core is a true everyday 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 seven-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). But the basics are there, and the price is right for many who want a no-frills, easy-to-use design.
See the Suunto Core
Best GPS Watch for Maps and Navigation
Weight: 2.9 oz.
Diameters: 42, 47, 51mm
What we like: Top notch navigation with preloaded road, trail, and topographic maps.
What we don’t: Expensive, heavy, and overkill for casual users.
The Instinct Solar gets our top pick for its durable construction and long-lasting solar power, but explorers who want top of the line GPS navigation should look to Garmin’s premier multisport watch, the Fenix 6 Pro. Like the Instinct, the powerhouse Pro line includes quality ABC sensors, accurate tracking thanks to GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo satellite compatibility, and features like wrist-based heart rate monitoring and sleep tracking. Importantly, Fenix 6 Pros (available in standard, sapphire, and solar versions) also have the best available wrist-based mapping: detailed contour lines and extensive navigation tools that excel for activities ranging from hiking and mountaineering to trail running and skiing. Finally, while not quite up to snuff with the Instinct Solar, the latest version of the Fenix also got a serious bump in battery life, which is helpful for extended trips.
The biggest downsides of the Fenix 6 Pro are cost, complexity, and weight. Considering that you can get a capable altimeter watch for less than $300, the $650 MSRP for the 6 Pro will put it out of reach for many (the larger 6X is $700). What’s more, the tech is overkill for someone just looking for the basics like barometric pressure, elevation, and heart rate—and when it comes to getting the most out of your altimeter watch, sometimes less is more. Finally, even in the smallest “S” form, the Fenix is on the heavy side due to its stainless steel build, and you will feel the extra heft during activities like running. But if you value the Garmin’s slick navigational features and don’t mind paying for extras like WiFi support and music storage, it’s one heckuva altimeter watch.
See the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro
Best of the Rest
Weight: 2.0 oz.
Diameters: 42, 46mm
What we like: A multisport GPS and ABC watch at a great price, outstanding battery life.
What we don’t: Limited smart features and lacks the rugged appearance of an altimeter watch.
COROS might not have the brand recognition of Suunto, Casio, or Garmin, but their mid-range Apex is a noteworthy addition to the ABC watch market. Built with a clear uphill-athlete focus, the Apex includes a barometric altimeter (not a given in multisport GPS watches), 20 sport modes ranging from ski touring to trail running, and a durable build with titanium alloy bezel (you get stainless steel in the 42mm version) and sapphire glass display. What’s more, we’ve found the COROS’ simple dial and button interface easy to use with gloves on, and battery life is outstanding at 35 hours in tracking mode (25 hrs for the 42mm) and up to 30 days with simple use.
The COROS Apex isn’t perfect, but it does stand out in two major ways. First, you’ll be hard-pressed to find another altimeter watch at this price point that comes with built-in GPS (you can step down to the COROS Pace 2, but will lose the Apex’s premium materials and outdoor-oriented activity profiles). Second, the Apex has a sleeker design than many of the other watches here, making it a great option for those who want the tech of an ABC watch without the stereotypical militaristic look. Most users won’t find COROS’ ecosystem as intuitive as Apple’s or Garmin’s—and you don’t get fun additions like music control and health monitoring—but the Apex is nevertheless a great value and we’ve been impressed with the updates COROS continues to roll out.
See the COROS Apex
Weight: 2.3 oz.
What we like: Quality build, great price, and useful smartphone app.
What we don’t: Fairly large for a non-GPS device; no atomic timekeeping.
Casio’s Pro Trek line is among the most recognizable in the ABC watch world, and one of their more recent releases is the PRT-B50. Like other Casios we’ve tested, the design has a solid feel, logical layout with well-labeled buttons flanking each side, and reliable sensors. The PRT-B50 is a bit bulky and falls on the budget end of the spectrum at $220 (you can often find it for less at places like Amazon), so you do miss out on some features like solar power and atomic timekeeping. But the latest Pro Trek is tough enough for serious backcountry use and provides useful data ranging from altitude and barometric pressure to current temperature (provided you remove the watch from your wrist to get an accurate reading).
One feature that sets the PRT-B50 apart from other entry-level designs is its Bluetooth sensor. This allows you to pair the watch with a smartphone and the Pro Trek App. Benefits include the ability to track and store activities, quick access to data like the step counter and elevation gained/lost, and auto time correction (it bases this off your phone’s information). Compared with the apps from Suunto and Garmin, the functionality is fairly basic. But considering the excellent price of the PRT-B50 and general ease of use, we think it’s a nice bonus feature to have.
See the Casio Pro Trek PRT-B50
Weight: 2.9 oz.
What we like: Cheaper than the Fenix 6 Pro and fantastic battery life in GPS mode.
What we don’t: Short battery life for everyday use; less features than Garmin designs.
Building on Suunto’s discontinued Spartan Ultra, the Baro 9 features the brand’s latest tech: accurate GPS tracking, touchscreen capabilities that work reliably well, and a logical menu system that we found easy to master. Feature-wise, its simple breadcrumb navigation and fairly limited software and app functionality fall well short of the impressive Fenix 6 Pro above (Garmin is a standout in this respect), but the Suunto checks the basics for backcountry enthusiasts with multisport recording and a durable construction. And we should note that Suunto also released the 9 Peak this year, which has an almost identical feature set to the Baro here, but includes a pulse oximeter and much sleeker design.
The Baro 9’s battery life is a bit of a mixed bag. To save power, the watch can be set to record locations at various intervals—every 1, 60, or 120 seconds—compensating for the limited GPS tracking by using an accelerometer, gyro, and compass to piece together surprisingly precise location, distance, and pace information. The net result is a truly impressive 120 hours of battery life in GPS mode. On the other hand, you only get about 14 days of standard use, which pales in comparison to most other designs here. But there’s a lot to like about the Baro 9’s clean lines and reliable performance, and with Suunto’s new Snap to Route feature, it’s one of the best watches here in terms of tracking accuracy.
See the Suunto 9 Baro
Weight: 2.7 oz.
What we like: Incredibly durable; great at altitude and in extreme temperatures.
What we don’t: Falls well short of the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro in features.
With a steep price tag and rugged, mountain-ready build, it doesn’t take more than a quick glance to see that the Vertix goes head-to-head with the premium Garmin Fenix 6 Pro above. This is COROS’ top-shelf offering, equipped with all the sensors we look for in an outdoor watch (including a barometric altimeter and pulse oximeter), a battery life of 60 hours in GPS mode (the Garmin’s is 36), and class-leading water rating of 15 ATM. It’s also designed for great performance in extreme temperatures and at altitude, including SpO2 alerts that help you monitor your blood oxygen levels. And the Vertix’s exterior stays true to its mountain-ready intentions, with a durable sapphire glass display and titanium bezel. COROS even added a touchscreen in some modes, which is especially helpful when using mapping and navigation features. Plus, the large dials are a breeze to operate with gloves on.
Considering its hardwearing design and $50 savings over the Fenix 6 Pro above, you might be wondering why we have the Vertix ranked here. To start, the COROS doesn’t match the Fenix in terms of navigational features, with no preloaded maps or topographic information. In our opinion, that capability alone is worth the added price of the Garmin. Further, the Vertix’s user interface is good but not great, you don’t get music, contactless pay, or much in the way of health monitoring, and it’s only available in one size (the Fenix is offered in more than 10 variations and three sizes). That said, not everyone needs the frills of a Garmin, and the Vertix certainly is a nice choice for COROS devotees looking for a rugged design to take into extreme environments.
See the COROS Vertix
Weight: 3.6 oz.
Battery: Lithium-ion and solar
What we like: Hard to kill and uses proven Firstbeat analytics.
What we don’t: Outdated, heavy, and more expensive than modern options with similar tech.
One of Casio’s latest watches to bear its venerable G-Shock name is the Move HR GPS. Building on the brand's initial foray into the GPS world, the Pro Trek WSD-F20, the Move combines Casio’s trademark durability and solar power with modern touches like activity tracking, heart-rate monitoring, and smartphone support. Importantly, Casio turned to Garmin’s Firstbeat technology to synthesize the collected data, meaning you get specs like VO2 max, training load, recovery time, and calories burned sent straight to your phone via bluetooth. And as expected from a G-Shock design, the Move HR is about as bombproof as an outdoor watch gets.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to opt for the Casio over other watches here is the rugged and shock-resistant case, which you’ll either love or hate. The G-Shock Move also features the most impressive water rating on our list (it can handle pressure up to a depth of 200m), which gives even more credence to its bombproof construction. And finally, with a built-in solar panel, it can last for up to a year of daily use without needing a charge. But in 2021, most of these features are fairly standard in outdoor watches, and the Casio doesn’t offer anything remarkable for $399. In the end, we’re partial to more modern and sleek designs from brands like Garmin, COROS, Polar, and Suunto.
See the Casio G-Shock Move HR GPS
Weight: 2.3 oz.
What we like: Durable build and super accurate HR monitor.
What we don’t: Firmware needs fine-tuning and battery life is middling for daily use.
Polar isn’t a household name like Garmin or Casio, but their GPS watches hold their own in a competitive market. The Grit X here is their most premium multisport offering, designed for durability in rough conditions and landing in between the Fenix 6 Pro and Apex above in terms of features, accuracy, and price. With a stainless steel bezel, Gorilla Glass touchscreen, and fairly streamlined build, the Grit X is durable yet sleek, and you get great tracking with multi-GNSS support and a plethora of multisport settings. Notably, heart rate accuracy is top-notch and on par with most chest straps, and the Polar Flow app is intuitive and can be viewed both on your smartphone and desktop computer (unlike the COROS app, which is only available via mobile).
But despite all of its strengths, the Polar Grit X simply isn’t as fine-tuned as other models here. While battery life in GPS mode is fairly standard (note: you’ll have to pause your tracking to view it), the Grit X lacks power-saving features and must be charged every few days even when used without GPS (by contrast, our COROS Apex can last weeks). Further, the Grit X disconnects from your phone during an activity (read: no text alerts) and makes it impossible to access the compass function unless you’re actively tracking. Finally, the navigation tools are extremely basic, and you don’t get added smart features like music support or contactless pay. But for triathletes, runners, or cyclists looking for the best wrist-based HR monitor, the Polar is hard to beat, and the price is right at a reasonable $430.
See the Polar Grit X
Weight: 1.6 oz.
What we like: A basic altimeter watch (that looks the part) for just $65.
What we don’t: No compass, limited accuracy and durability.
If you’re looking for a basic altimeter watch that won’t cost you an arm and a leg, the Casio SGW300HB fits the bill. At a $65 MSRP (often available through Amazon for less), the watch features Casio’s hallmark aesthetic and detailed LCD screen, which easily toggles between modes by way of a number of large, glove-friendly buttons. In terms of sensors, you get a built-in barometric altimeter and thermometer, great for judging altitude, assessing conditions, or predicting weather on extended backcountry trips. And the SGW300HB is fully functional as a basic watch too, with a stopwatch, timer, alarm, and more.
The Casio here is about as bare-bones as it gets for an altimeter watch, and with no integrated compass it’s not even a complete ABC design. You’ll also pay for the budget price tag with limited accuracy, and the mineral crystal screen collects scratches easily. But battery life is decent with the same CR2025 watch battery featured in the Pro Trek above, and the SBW300HB can withstand a fair amount of wear and tear and exposure to moisture. For those just getting into backcountry exploration or curious about what an altimeter watch has to offer, it’s an affordable place to start.
See the Casio SBW300HB
|Garmin Instinct Solar||$400||1.9 oz.||Yes||Lithium-ion/solar||Unlimited||45mm||15.3mm|
|Suunto Core||$219||2.3 oz.||No||CR2032||12 months||49mm||14.5mm|
|Garmin Fenix 6 Pro||$650||2.9 oz.||Yes||Lithium-ion||48 days||42, 47, 51mm||14.7mm|
|COROS Apex 46mm||$350||2.0 oz.||Yes||Lithium-ion||30 days||42, 46mm||11.9mm|
|Casio Pro Trek PRT-B50||$220||2.3 oz.||No||CR2025||2 years||57.5mm||15.8mm|
|Suunto 9 Baro||$499||2.9 oz.||Yes||Lithium-ion||14 days||50mm||16.8mm|
|COROS Vertix||$600||2.7 oz.||Yes||Lithium-ion||45 days||47mm||15.6mm|
|Casio G-Shock Move HR GPS||$399||3.6 oz.||Yes||Lithium-ion/solar||12 months||63mm||20.4mm|
|Polar Grit X||$430||2.3 oz.||Yes||Lithium-ion||7 days||47mm||13mm|
|Casio SBW300HB||$65||1.6 oz.||No||CR2025||Unavail.||50mm||Unavail.|
Editor’s note: The stated battery life is the manufacturer’s claim while in time mode. When using the altimeter, smart features, or GPS functionality, battery life will be reduced.
- Altimeter Watch Features
- GPS-Enabled Altimeter Watches
- Dimensions and Size
- Power Source and Battery Life
- Daily Use
Altimeter, Barometer, and Compass
Entry-level ABC watches come with the basics: a barometer that provides measurements of both current atmospheric pressure as well as elevation, and a compass. You’ll also get a temperature sensor in most cases, including with budget-oriented designs like the Suunto Core ($219) and Casio Pro Trek PRT-B50 ($220 at the time of publishing). And finally, all watches on our list include features like lap timers, a stop watch, alarm, multiple time modes, and a backlight.
As prices rise, the biggest shift will come in the quality of the timepiece. Cosmetic changes make them more functional for daily use with less plastic in the construction and sleeker, lower-profile designs. You’ll also get superior water resistance, more comfortable bands, and upgraded watch faces that resist scratches and are easier to read. In addition, they’ll often provide more detailed insights about the ABC data they’re collecting. Examples include mapping of elevation gained and lost as well as shifts in barometric pressure (and big shifts in pressure will trigger an alarm on the watch to warn of incoming weather). Finally, at around $300 MSRP for a non-GPS model, you will get a watch with atomic timekeeping for greater accuracy.
Originally popular in the running and triathlon crowds, there are a growing number of GPS-enabled watches that excel in the backcountry. In short, they combine the feature sets of a handheld hiking GPS, altimeter watch, and fitness tracker (some entry-level designs forgo ABC sensors). Compatibility with a range of satellites, including GPS, Galileo, and GLONASS (depending on the model) improve coverage and accuracy. And features like downloadable routes, tracking to recount your travels, and extended battery lives make these ideal partners for hikers, mountaineers, skiers, and ultra-distance athletes. We’ve included a number of GPS-equipped designs here, but for a complete breakdown, see our round-up of the best GPS watches.
One area where GPS-enabled watches vary significantly is in their mapping and navigation abilities. In general, the market can be broken into two categories: topo-equipped models like Garmin’s Fenix Pro that feature detailed contour lines, and simple mapping that includes only a basic line or marker on an otherwise blank screen. Both are useful for following a preset route or retracing your steps with the breadcrumb functionality (which works just as its sounds), but topo mapping provides helpful insights into the terrain, including expected elevation change if you’re off-trail or considering a different route. No matter the respective mapping abilities, as with all pieces of technology, GPS watches should not be relied on as your only source of backcountry navigation (we love using the Gaia app on our phone, and there's always the good old paper map and compass).
As touched on above, outdoor GPS models share many features with watches intended for sports like running, cycling, and swimming. High-end designs like the Suunto 9 Baro and Garmin Fenix 6 Pro can pretty much do it all, with built-in ABC sensors (many multisport watches don’t have a barometer), wrist-based heart rating monitoring with zone recording for training purposes, and dedicated modes for triathletes. COROS’s Apex is an intriguing value option with excellent battery life that excels for long runs, although its software and data collection is less refined than the more proven Garmin and Suunto models.
For winter use, some of the higher-end models from Garmin offer extensive capabilities for activities ranging from XC skiing to resort and backcountry riding. The Fenix 6 Pro line, including the standard and Solar models (we tested the latter using these features), is able to record everything from distance covered and elevation change while XC skiing (for both skate and classic) to the number of laps you ski or snowboard at the resort. Taking it a step further, the Fenix 6 Pro has preloaded maps for more than 2,000 ski resorts, which we found provided impressive detail for navigating on-trail runs. And in the backcountry, you can quickly check on data like topo mapping to analyze the steepness of the terrain, barometric pressure, distance covered, and elevation gained/lost throughout the day. Like with the mapping section above, the watch shouldn’t be your only resource for navigating and understanding your winter surroundings, but it’s undeniably a fun and valuable tool in a range of conditions.
A final notable feature of many GPS watches is their connectivity to smartphones. Similar to everyday pieces like the Apple Watch, you can pair the two via Bluetooth for receiving notifications like text messages or to see who is calling on your watch’s screen. Further, some Garmin units like the Fenix and Instinct Solar allow you to directly control music volume on Bluetooth headphones. In general, non-GPS devices have limited to no connectivity to smartphones. One notable exception is Casio’s Pro Trek PRT-B50, which leverages your phone’s GPS to track and upload data from your trips. That said, the connection is limited to the Pro Trek App and isn’t useful around town.
Since you’ll be wearing it for extended periods, the physical size of a watch is another important consideration (we’ve included the diameter of each model in our product write-ups, and the comparison table above includes both diameter and height). Many ABC watches trend towards the bulky end of the spectrum, and models like the Casio G-Shock Move HR GPS and Pro Trek PRT-B50 look and feel overly large on small- to average-sized wrists. Even sleeker designs like the Suunto 9 Baro and standard Garmin Fenix 6 Pro take up quite a bit of real estate and can be uncomfortable if you prefer a light and compact shape. The good news is that there are a number of trimmed-down models, including the 42-millimeter version of the COROS Apex and the smaller Garmin Fenix 6S Pro (also 42mm). You do sacrifice a little screen size and often some battery life in going with the smaller variations, but the tradeoff in comfort will be worth it for some.
Closely tied to dimensions is the weight of a given watch. As expected, a lighter and more compact design is one that you won’t notice as often, especially during active pursuits like running, biking, or backcountry and XC skiing. Weight inevitably goes up with more durable and longer-lasting materials, as well as when you select a feature-rich model with GPS. Our picks above vary quite a bit, ranging from the hefty Casio G-Shock Move HR GPS (3.6 oz.) to the Garmin Instinct Solar (1.9 oz.). Many of our favorites land in between at 2 to 3 ounces, which we’ve found to be a good balance of durability and all-day comfort.
Coin Cell Battery
The traditional way to power a timepiece is with a coin cell battery. This holds true for a number of non-GPS products, and with battery life typically lasting one to two years and plenty of low battery warnings, it’s rarely a major issue to get it changed in time. You’ll often find coin cell batteries in entry-level designs, and from our list above, this includes the Suunto Core and Casio Pro Trek PRT-B50.
Solar comes with the benefits of limiting waste and not having to worry about bringing along a replaceable battery or needing to charge the watch every few days. Not to mention that a self-sufficient little instrument has a simple beauty to it—especially for travelers and extended backcountry trips. 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. Casio is the clear leader in this realm, although Garmin is making inroads with their new Power Glass technology seen in our top-ranked Instinct Solar (note: Garmin’s design is intended to supplement their lithium battery, while the non-GPS Casio models are fully solar powered).
Like a smartphone, GPS-enabled watches rely on rechargeable lithium batteries. These watches drain battery life fairly quickly with their digital screens and connectivity to phones and satellites for tracking purposes. As a result, they can only go relatively brief stretches in between charges, although the technology is making big improvements as of late. On the short end, the Polar Grit X lasts only 7 days as a standard smartwatch, while the COROS Apex 46mm can stay powered for up to 30 days.
It’s worth noting that battery life has been improving with just about every new release. Using our top-rated Garmin Fenix as an example, the old 5X maxed out at 12 days in smartphone mode while the latest 6X Pro has jumped to 21 days. In addition, Suunto, Garmin, and COROS offer battery-saving modes that cut down on smart features and extend the period between when the watch collects your satellite coordinates, thereby increasing battery life. For the aforementioned Garmin Fenix 6X Pro, Max Battery GPS Mode boosts battery life to 120 hours, while the watch can last up to 80 days in Battery Saver Watch Mode.
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 Pro Trek PRT-B50 and Garmin’s Instinct Solar 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, Casio, and COROS have gone a long way towards changing that perception, and in 2021, smartwatch designs like the Apple Watch Series 6 even include ABC sensors. In addition, compatibility with smartphones and Bluetooth headphones only make them more appealing for everyday wear.
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