The Best Altimeter Watches (ABC Watches) of 2019

Brandon Lampley, Senior Editor at Treeline Review, takes the Garmin Fenix 5S Plus on a kayaking trip in North Carolina.   Photo by Brandon Lampley.

Brandon Lampley, Senior Editor at Treeline Review, takes the Garmin Fenix 5S Plus on a kayaking trip in North Carolina. Photo by Brandon Lampley.

 

We would never hike without a watch, and we would argue that a watch, specifically an altimeter watch with altitude, barometer, and compass (ABC) functions, is an essential piece of backcountry gear. Don’t believe a watch can make your outdoor experience better? Here’s why we think an ABC watch is an essential piece of outdoor gear.

Based on our research and experience, we chose the Garmin Instinct as the best altimeter watch for hiking and backpacking.  If you want an altimeter watch that will also serve as a daily activity tracker, then the Garmin Instinct or Fenix 5X Plus are excellent choices, differentiated by the specific features you want and your price sensitivity.  It you don’t care about daily activity tracking and maximizing battery life is your primary concern (but you still want GPS), then the Suunto Ambit3 Peak meets those needs at a reasonable price. If you want a straightforward ABC watch with a year of battery life (but no GPS), then you can keep it old school with the Sunnto Core. There is no one hiking watch that is perfect for everyone.  Your choice will depend on how you plan to use the watch. Not sure? We can steer you in the right direction.

 


 

 
 

When it comes to essential gear, a watch is almost as important as a map.   Photo by Naomi Hudetz.

When it comes to essential gear, a watch is almost as important as a map. Photo by Naomi Hudetz.

Why an altimeter watch is an essential piece of gear

We think an altimeter watch is an essential piece of hiking gear. Here’s why: There have been occasions when we only realized that we had missed a trail junction when our elevation was decreasing more than our map indicated.  A rapid change in barometric pressure lets us know that a storm could be brewing. While knowing how to read a map and use a compass is an essential hiking skill, a watch can help you at times when getting out a map and compass are less convenient (like in the dark or during a storm).


Timekeeping, the most basic function of a watch, is also critical for hiking.  Every long distance hiker knows the equation distance = rate x time. Knowing your approximate hiking pace (rate) and elapsed time gives you a decent idea of how far you have traveled. While we think the extra features of an Altimeter, Barometer, Compass (ABC) watch can improve your backcountry understanding and experience dramatically, if nothing else--it’s worth it to carry some sort of non-phone time keeping device.

 
Naomi Hudetz, Chief Officer of Getting Stuff Done at Treeline Review, with the Suunto Core (bright yellow watch band).   Photo by Liz Thomas.

Naomi Hudetz, Chief Officer of Getting Stuff Done at Treeline Review, with the Suunto Core (bright yellow watch band). Photo by Liz Thomas.

 

How to Choose an altimeter Watch

A hiking watch must perform a few basic functions: serve as a timekeeper; provide generally accurate ABC (altimeter, barometer, compass) functions; and be durable enough to withstand water, dirt, and the rigors of outdoor activities.   Other features like GPS and activity tracking are nice, but not essential.



For years, I resisted GPS watches because of battery life. However, significant improvements in battery life in the last year make the new generation of GPS watches a reasonable choice for multi-day hiking trips.  



Andrew Skurka recently questioned whether the basic ABC watches are obsolete due to the new generation of GPS sport watches.  It depends on how you want to use the watch. Is it only for hiking or do you want an everyday fitness tracker with hiking-oriented features?  Below is a summary of essential hiking watch features and a list of other features that are available.

There are essential features for hiking watches and not so essential features.

There are essential features for hiking watches and not so essential features.


Essential Features of altimeter Watches


Timekeeping

We know it sounds trivial, but every hiker needs a reliable time piece.  Your hiking duration will allow you to estimate distance covered. You will need to know how much daylight is left in the day or how long until sunrise.


Durability  

An altimeter watch must be waterproof and able to withstand the dirt and general abuse of the trail.  We will note that all of our selections are rugged, but our top choice, the Garmin Instinct, is built to a “Mil-spec” standard.

Battery Life

We noted above that improvements in battery life have made GPS watches a realistic option for multi-day outdoor adventures. Suunto and Garmin have achieved this by limiting the GPS and sensor (e.g., heart rate) readings. In addition, our recommended GPS watches can be charged in the field with a backup battery pack. Our external battery for outdoors people story is forthcoming and we recommend the Anker 10000 Power Core Redux.


Altimeter

An altimeter is a critical tool for backcountry navigation.  Knowing your elevation helps you locate your position on a map or distance to a mountain pass.  All of our choices have a barometric altimeter. This means they use changes in air pressure to determine elevation changes.  It is important to calibrate the watch a couple times a day to account for weather related barometric changes. Our GPS watch picks (Garmin Instinct, Fenix 5X Plus, and Suunto Ambit3 Peak) have auto-calibration options using GPS.  Nonetheless, we recommend you verify the elevation with your map or landmark and manually calibrate as necessary.



Barometer

As we note above, the barometer is critical for the altimeter, but it is also a useful tool for forecasting changes in the weather.  All of our picks have a “storm alert” feature where rapid drops in barometric pressure will trigger an alarm. This feature is especially useful when hiking in areas susceptible to afternoon thunderstorms.



Compass

A compass, along with a map, is one of the most useful backcountry navigation tools.  A compass on a watch is nice, but it is not going to be as useful for map and compass navigation as a quality baseplate compass.  We generally use a watch compass to get a general sense of direction.  Also, we are not too proud to admit that we have used a watch compass to get from our campsite back to the trail in pre-dawn darkness.  

 
Battery life, size, and fit are all important considerations when choosing an altimeter watch.


Size and Fit

It doesn’t matter how badass your watch is if it doesn’t fit comfortably enough to wear. GPS watches tend to be heavier than normal watches or fitness trackers and can take a while to get used to. Their watchbands are likewise large. We interviewed numerous women and smaller-bodied humans who complained that GPS watches look large and feel heavy on their wrists. If you’re nodding your head in agreement, our advice is to choose watches with smaller faces (available in almost all our recommended models) and purchase third-party external watch band that fits.





While tracking the weather isn’t an essential aspect of a GPS watch, it sure is a nice perk.

While tracking the weather isn’t an essential aspect of a GPS watch, it sure is a nice perk.

Other features to look for in an Altimeter (ABC) watch

GPS

Improvements in battery life make a GPS watch our top choice for hiking. It’s great to be able to use GPS to track your distance covered, speed, and elevation changes.  GPS functionality also allows your hiking watch to serve as a more general fitness tracker. While some non-GPS watches and fitness trackers claim to measure distance covered by using an accelerometer (an advanced pedometer) , GPS makes this information significantly more accurate.

Our upgrade pick, the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus series, also includes on-board maps that allow you to see topography and features along your route.  The Garmin Instinct (our top pick) and Suunto Ambit3 Peak (our pick for best basic GPS hiking watch) do not have mapping, but they allow you to navigate to a waypoint or point of interest.  While watch based GPS units are generally not as accurate as professional GPS units, we and Navigation Professional believe they are plenty accurate enough for recreational hiking and activity tracking use

All of our GPS watch picks allow you to track back to your starting point.  This is an especially important feature for backcountry skiing where there is no trail to follow and tracks can be lost.  


Daily Activity Tracking

Daily activity tracking is not an essential function of a hiking watch, but it’s nice to have, especially if you don’t want multiple devices.  The Garmin Instinct and Fenix 5 Plus series count your steps, monitor your heart rate 24/7, track your sleep, and can even calculate your stress level.  The Fenix 5 Plus Series goes further to provide VO2 Max metrics and pulse oximeter readings (Fenix 5X Plus only).


The Suunto Ambit3 Peak lacks many of the daily activity tracking features found in our Garmin picks.  There is no step counter or wrist-based heart rate monitor.   

Smartwatch Features

Smartwatch features such as phone notifications (text, emails, incoming calls), customizable watch faces and data fields, and music playback controls are nice additional features in an altimeter watch. The Fenix 5 Plus Series offers the most smartwatch features. It is our only pick that includes music storage and contactless payments (Garmin PayTM). The Garmin Instinct and Suunto Ambit3 Peak offer fewer features.


Sunrise/Sunset

Some altimeter watches advance on the basic timekeeping features by telling you when sunrise and sunset happen in your area. This is useful even if you are flying halfway across the world to hike and forgot to check when sunrise and sunset are at your new hiking destination, altimeter watches can tell you the sunrise and sunset for your locale.


 

When taking a GPS watch into the wilds, figuring out how extend your watch battery can be a plus.   Photo by Naomi Hudetz.

When taking a GPS watch into the wilds, figuring out how extend your watch battery can be a plus. Photo by Naomi Hudetz.

How to Extend the Battery Life of your Altimeter Watch


Garmin provides several options for extending the battery life of your altimeter watch. We think similar strategies will work to extend battery life on the other watches we recommend as well:


  • Reduce the backlight timeout

  • Reduce the backlight brightness

  • Turn off the GPS or reduce the GPS ping rate (this is called UltraTrac on the Garmin Instinct or Fenix 5X Plus)

  • Turn off Bluetooth wireless technology when you are not using connected features

  • When pausing your activity for a longer period of time, use the resume later option

  • Limit the smartphone notifications

  • Turn off wrist-based heart rate monitoring

 

One of the founders of Treeline Review wearing the Suunto Core on a test hike.   Photo courtesy Naomi Hudetz

How we researched altimeter watches

To develop criteria for how to choose a Altitude, Barometer, Compass and GPS Watch, we aggregated and analyzed comparative reviews from DC Rainmaker, Road Trail Run, Navigation Professional, and Outdoor Gear Lab. We also aggregated customer reviews from Reddit , Amazon, and REI. For general information about watches, how GPS or other functions of these watches work, we relied on work from Momentum Watch, Runners World, and Andrew Skurka.


We used our own experience long distance hiking (aka “thru-hiking”) with GPS and altimeter (ABC) watches on the Great Divide Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail, Grand Enchantment Trail, and GR20 in Corsica. These routes and thousands of additional miles were accomplished with our experience using the Suunto Core, Ambit3, and other watches mentioned here.

 

A close up view of our top pick, the Garmin Instinct.

Best Altimeter Watch for Most People

Garmin Instinct


We believe the Garmin Instinct is the best ABC altimeter watch for most people. The Instinct provides basic altimeter, barometer, and compass (ABC) functions and battery saving GPS functionality, in an extremely rugged watch. Although it is specifically designed for hiking and other outdoor adventure activities, it has some fitness tracking metrics such as heart rate monitoring, step and floor climbing counts, and sleep and stress tracking. DC Rainmaker describes the watch as providing the outdoor and navigation features that most folks want in an easy to understand user-interface.


The Garmin Instinct resembles a Casio G-Shock (think 1980s tactical) more than lifestyle fitness watches (such as the Garmin vivoactive 3 or Apple Watch). The watch is made with a fiber-reinforced polymer and constructed to meet the MIL-STD-810 standard, a military standard regarding durability for shock and environmental extremes. This makes it a particularly rugged watch designed for outdoor adventure activities.


The display is also designed for easy use. It has a high contrast monochrome screen that Road Trail Run found “incredibly readable in all light conditions.” The Garmin Instinct has 12 built-in watch faces and highly customizable data screens. Using Garmin Connect IQTM, Garmin’s app store, you can customize things like third party watch faces, data fields, and widgets.


To get the most out of your Garmin Instinct watch, we suggest getting the Garmin Connect app.

It’s important to note that the Garmin Instinct watch, as well as the Garmin Fenix 5X Plus (our upgrade pick), gain their full functionality when paired with your smartphone via the Garmin ConnectTM app. The Garmin ConnectTM app is used to provide the watch with weather, sunrise/sunset data, and phone notifications. You can also develop training plans, courses, and track activities on the Garmin ConnectTM app or the web-based version. The Garmin app even has a social component to share data and compete against others.


The Garmin Instinct has a claimed battery life of 14 days without GPS, 16 hours in full GPS-on mode, and 40 hours in UltraTrac mode. UltraTrac mode still uses GPS, but takes less frequent GPS and sensor data (e.g., heart rate) readings to extend battery life.


Road Trail Run conducted an independent battery test. They found that the Instinct battery lasted for just under six days. During this time, he had the watch monitor the user’s heart rate 24/7 and used it in full GPS mode for eight hours of running in cold conditions.


A close up view of the Garmin Instinct displaying weather information.
 

Features of the Garmin Instinct Altimter Watch

The Garmin Instinct is equipped with a number of features specifically designed for hiking and other outdoor adventure activities.


GPS Navigation

The Instinct has access to the standard GPS, GPS+GLONASS (Russian GPS) or GPS+Galileo (European GPS). The additional satellites can improve the accuracy and reliability of the GPS . Furthermore, the Russian GLONASS GPS is more accurate in subarctic regions in northern and southern latitudes.


The Instinct can save locations, navigate to a designation or waypoint, or follow a track or course that has been created on the Garmin ConnectTM app or website and synced with the watch. It also has a TracBackTM feature to navigate along a route back to your starting point.


Navigation Professional, a Danish website that evaluates GPS products, found that the Instinct's GPS performance was on par with our upgrade pick — the Fenix 5X Plus . Navigation Professional considered the Instinct’s GPS performance to be “more than good enough for hiking and other outdoor activities.”


A close up view of the Garmin Instinct displaying elevation minimum and maximum information.

While the Garmin Instinct cannot load maps like the Fenix 5X Plus, our upgrade pick, we don’t see this as a reason not to recommend the Instinct. The reason? We don’t think a watch is a great platform to visualize a map. The screen is small, so panning and zooming can be a bit awkward.


If you want a mapping and navigation tool, other than a paper map, we prefer to use the Gaia app on our smart phone. Most people will take their phone into the backcountry. We find the Gaia app more useful than using a handheld GPS device.


However, we think a watch’s navigational features are useful for dropping a waypoint, navigating along a bearing, or finding your way back to a starting point. As mentioned earlier, by syncing your phone and GPS watch, they can work to complement each other for digital mapping, too.


A close up view of the Garmin Instinct displaying navigational features.
 

Altimeter

The Garmin Instinct has a barometric altimeter. Barometric altimeters measure changes in atmospheric pressure to calculate changes in elevation. Put simply, the higher you are, the less pressure in the atmosphere. The watch can be automatically calibrated using the GPS or calibrated manually at a known benchmark.


The watch has cool features like showing the elevation profile of preloaded courses (via Garmin ConnectTM) and 3D speed and distance. This calculates your speed and distance using elevation change and horizontal movement across the ground.


Barometer

You can set the Instinct's barometer to trigger a storm alert when the air pressure drops quickly. This is a very useful feature for hiking in areas with frequent afternoon thunderstorms.


Compass

The Garmin Instinct has a magnetic compass. Garmin has a “Sight N’ Go” feature whereby you can point the watch compass at an object in the distance, like a mountain pass, lock in a heading, and the watch will guide you to your destination. Similarly, you can guide yourself to a waypoint or “project” a waypoint.


InReach Remote

The Instinct can be used as a remote for your InReach satellite communication device. When the watch is paired with your InReach, it can be used to initiate an SOS (please only do this when there is a real emergency), send and receive messages, or control the tracking function. While we sincerely hope you never have to use this watch-activated SOS feature, it would be handy in an emergency where your body is unable to otherwise move or if you have become separated from your pack and are unable to reach your InReach beacon. This could be a way to save yourself if you’ve fallen in a hole or crevice or part of your body is lodged under a boulder.


Thermometer

The Instinct has a built in thermometer, but like all watch thermometers, they are only accurate if the watch is removed from your wrist (for about 30 minutes). However, the Instinct can be paired with Garmin’s Tempe external temperature sensor for more accurate real time temperature information.


Sunrise / Sunset / Twilight Times

This may sound like a pretty basic feature, but we find it a very useful feature, especially on long distance “thru” hikes. We’ve also found it a useful feature for global travel, where you may step off a plane to find yourself unfamiliar with when the sun rises or sets in your new locale.


A close up view of the Garmin Instinct displaying heart rate data.
 

Fitness Tracking and Other Features

The Garmin Instinct is more than just a hiking and sport altimeter watch. It has a full suite of fitness and lifestyle features allows it to replace your daily activity tracker including:


Activity Tracking

The watch will track your steps, floors climbed, sleep, and even stress. There are pre-loaded activity profiles for hiking, running, swimming, biking, walking, stair climbing, and more. This data can be synced with Garmin ConnectTM app for long term tracking.


Virtual Partner

You can race against a specific time or pace. You can even compete against past activity times (e.g., you can try to beat your time on a previous training hike).


Heart Rate Monitor

The Instinct has a wrist-based heart rate sensor for 24/7 heart rate tracking. The watch can also be paired with a heart rate chest strap for more accurate heart rate readings.


Phone Notifications

The Instinct can be synced with your smartphone to receive texts, emails, and other notifications.


Music Playback

Music cannot be loaded on the Instinct. Our upgrade pick the Fenix 5X Plus has this feature; however, the Instinct can control the music playback on your phone.


A close up view of the Garmin Instinct displaying sunrise, sunset, and twilight information.

Your fitness and activity data can be synced with Garmin ConnectTM, Garmin’s app or third party apps like Strava.


The Instinct was just released in October 2018 so it’s early to see a large number of customer reviews. However, we have been impressed by the nearly uniformly positive reviews to date on Amazon (85% 5 star), REI.com (100% 5 star), and positive feedback on Reddit.


The Garmin Instinct does not have all the features of our upgrade pick, the Garmin Fenix 5X Plus series, but we think it has all the right features needed for hiking along with a solid set of fitness tracking functions at a reasonable price.


Garmin Instinct altimeter Watch

 

The Garmin Fenix 5X Plus is on a test run kayak trip.

 

Best Upgrade Altimeter Watch

Garmin Fenix 5X Plus


The Garmin Fenix 5X Plus series is much more than an altimeter watch. It contains the full suite of backcountry functions found in the Garmin Instinct including altimeter, barometer, and compass. However, the Fenix 5X Plus also has mapping functions and a host of fitness and lifestyle features (like music storage paired to wireless buds) not found in the Garmin Instinct, our top pick. While we don’t think these fitness and lifestyle features are essential, we were impressed by what the Fenix 5X Plus is capable of doing. The Fenix series has an easy-to-use user-interface for fitness and lifestyle features that can replace your other fitness devices.


The Garmin Fenix 5X Plus is the highest end model of Garmin’s Fenix 5 Plus series (5/5S/5X Plus released in the summer of 2018). The Garmin Fenix Plus Series is a significant upgrade from the previous Fenix 5 series. All the 5 Plus watches have full color maps (previously only the 5X had maps), support Garmin PayTM, have on-board music storage, and better battery life. To date, the watch has received generally good reviews on Amazon and REI, especially with regard to battery life and ease of use.


It can be confusing to understand the differences and price points within the Fenix 5 Plus line. There are over a dozen different variations of bands and watch materials within the three Fenix 5/5S/5X models. The 5S has the smallest watch face and the 5X the largest. All have the same core features with one notable exception. The higher-end Fenix 5X Plus model has a pulse oximeter to measure the oxygen saturation in your blood. The table below summarizes the cost and specifications of the Fenix 5X Plus models:

 
FENIX 5 PLUSFENIX 5S PLUSFENIX 5X PLUS
Cost: Glass Display$700 $700 NA
Cost: Sapphire Glass$850 $800 $850
Cost: Sapphire + Upgraded Bezels and Bands$1,100 $850 $1,150
Size (mm)47 x 47 x 15.842 x 42 x 15.451 x 51 x 17.5
Weight (grams)86; 76 (titanium)6596; 87 (titanium)
Battery Life: Smart WatchUp to 12 daysUp to 7 daysUp to 20 days
Battery Life: GPSUp to 18 hoursUp to 11 hoursUp to 32 hours
Battery Life: GPS and MusicUp to 8 hoursUp to 4.5 daysUp to 13 hours
Battery Life: UltraTracUp to 42 hoursUp to 25 hoursUp to 70 hours
 

The least expensive Fenix 5 Plus is $300 more than our top pick, the Garmin Instinct. So, is it worth the extra cost? The following are features of Fenix 5 Plus series not found in the Instinct:


Full Color maps

The Fenix 5 Plus comes preloaded with regional maps. For instance, watches sold in North America come with North American Maps. Maps from other regions are available from Garmin (for a fee) or are available for free from third parties. The maps also come with Garmin’s Trendline Routes. These are popular routes based on billions of Garmin Connect TM routes (think heat maps). This means popular cycling routes and the famous hikes in national parks will show as Trendline Routes.


Garmin PayTM support

This is Garmin’s version of Apple Pay and should work at most locations that accept contactless payments.


On-board music

Music playlists and podcasts can be loaded on the watch so you don’t have to stream from your phone. The watch has the capacity to hold up to 500 music or podcast files. Garmin has also integrated Spotify. This will allow users with a Spotify Premium account to download and listen to music offline.


ClimbProTM

ClimbProTM is a feature that splits up individual climbs along a predetermined course to show the distance, ascent, and grade of each upcoming climb. For example, if your hike, run, or ride has several distinct climbs, the watch will show a graph for each climb while underway. Once a specific climb it completed, the watch will show the details for your next climb.


 
A close up view of the Garmin Fenix 5X Plus with mapping data.
 

Color display, Sapphire glass, and multiple watch and band options

All of the Fenix 5 Plus series watches have a color display. However, the Fenix 5 Plus series comes in three models (5, 5S, 5X) with distinct sizes, weights, and battery life. There is also a variety of watch bands and bezel materials available (at a cost).


The Fenix 5X Plus comes with a sapphire glass display. Sapphire glass is a $100 to $150 upgrade from the 5 and 5S. Sapphire glass is a hard, transparent, synthetic material that is chemically the same as natural sapphire. It is more durable and scratch resistant that the standard mineral crystal displays found on the other watches we recommend.


VO2 Max

All of the Fenix 5 Plus series watches provide VO2 Max metrics. VO2 Max is a measurement of how well your body uses oxygen (aerobic fitness). This is measured by analyzing the relationship between your heart rate and pace, along with age and sex. It is more accurate when paired with a chest strap, but can be useful for tracking changes in VO2.


Pulse Oximeter (Fenix 5X Plus only)

The Fenix 5X Plus has a wrist-based pulse oximeter to determine your blood oxidation level. This lets you know how your body is acclimating to high altitude activities. While it isn’t as accurate as a the finger tip/ear lobe pulse oximeter used by high altitude guides, the watch does allow you to track relative changes without carrying additional equipment.


 
A close up view of the Garmin Fenix 5X Plus with heart rate information.

Connect IQTM support


The Fenix 5 Plus series has access to Garmin’s Connect IQTM app store. This is where you can download third party data fields, watch faces, and widgets.


This is a long list of additional features not available on the Garmin Instinct.


Treeline Review senior editor Brandon Lampley tells us: “Perhaps the most significant difference/upgrade between the Instinct and the Fenix 5X Plus is the mapping and on-board music. This frees the Garmin Fenix 5X Plus user from their smartphone. You can go on a hike or a kayaking trip without your phone. And with Garmin Pay, you could even leave your wallet behind.“


Perhaps the most significant difference/upgrade between the Instinct and the Fenix 5X Plus is the mapping and on-board music.  This frees the Garmin Fenix 5X Plus user from their smartphone.  You can go on a hike or a kayaking trip without your phone. And with Garmin Pay, you could even leave your wallet behind. -Brandon Lampley, Senior Editor



While we think it would be nice to have on-board maps and music and cool metrics like Pulse Ox reading, we think the Instinct has the core features needed in a hiking watch at a very reasonable price.

Garmin Fenix 5X Plus

 

The Ambit3 Peak in action on the GR20, Corsica, France.   Photo by Liz Thomas.

The Ambit3 Peak in action on the GR20, Corsica, France. Photo by Liz Thomas.

The Best Altimeter Hiking Watch With Great Battery Life

Suunto Ambit3 Peak


The Suunto Ambit3 Peak is the best choice for folks that want an altimeter watch with the basic ABC (altimeter, barometric, compass) functions, GPS connectivity, incredible battery life, and don’t care about fitness tracking features.


Battery life is the truly exceptional feature of the Suunto Ambit3 Peak. The watch will run 30 days without GPS. If you want to run GPS, but also save on battery, there are battery saving GPS modes whereby the GPS will only ping every 1, 5, or 60 seconds. This results in battery life of 20, 30, or 200 hours, respectively. To put this in perspective, you could record well over two weeks of hiking between charges. If that isn’t enough battery life, you can recharge the watch in the field with a portable battery.


 
The Suunto Ambit3 Peak on a test hike.
 

The Ambit3 Peak has a barometric altimeter, like our top pick the Garmin Instinct. This allows the watch to function as an altimeter without using GPS (assuming you regularly calibrate the watch). The barometer can also show weather trends and be programmed to provide storm alerts.


The Suunto Ambit3 Peak also has full GPS capabilities. There are not built-in maps like in the Fenix 5 Plus series, but you can navigate along a route, to a waypoint, or back to your starting point. There is also a feature called FusedAltiTM. This uses the GPS and barometer to provide more accurate elevation readings. Outdoor Gear Lab found that the Ambit3 Peak “...consistently provided some of the best GPS accuracy along with easy-to-see altitude graphs and barometric data displays.”


Ambit Peak3 tracking GPS information on the GR20.  Photo by Liz Thomas.

Ambit Peak3 tracking GPS information on the GR20. Photo by Liz Thomas.

 

We didn’t select the Ambit3 Peak as our top pick because it doesn’t offer a full suite of fitness tracking and smart watch features found in the Instinct. While you can select sport modes such as hiking, cycling, running, swimming, and multisport (more on that below), the Ambit3 is still missing activity tracking features that we like:


Activity Monitor

Unlike with our other picks, the Ambit3 does not allow you to track daily steps or floors climbed.


Wrist Based Heart Rate Monitor

The Ambit3 does not have a wrist based heart rate monitor. You are able to pair a bluetooth enabled heart rate belt with the watch (Suunto sells a heart rate belt with the watch for an additional $50). But this means you must wear a separate heart rate chest strap to record your heart rate during an activity, track your calories, or monitor your sleep. We have tried to wear a heart rate chest strap during a long distance, multi day hike...it isn’t very comfortable.


Advanced Fitness Features

There are several fitness features found on both the Garmin Instinct and Fenix 5X Plus that are not included in the Ambit3 Peak such as custom workouts, competing against a virtual partner, and recording personal records.


Music Playback

You are not able to control music playback from the watch.


Vibration Alerts

This may sound trivial, but the Ambit3 Peak only provides audible activity or phone alerts that can be easy to miss.


 
A close up view of the Suunto Ambit3 displaying time, date, and battery life data.
 

We did like that the Ambit3 has a multisport mode where multiple activities can be tracked as a single event (e.g., a triathlon). Our top pick, the Garmin Instinct, doesn’t have multisport mode; the Fenix 5X Plus does have this capability.


Suunto has its own app and website, MovescountTM, where you can collect and share your activities, create workouts, and customize your watch. Like the Garmin fitness watches, the data from the activities can be downloaded to Suunto’s MovescountTM app and website.


The Suunto Ambit3 Peak is an exceptional sport watch, whether it be for hiking, cycling, swimming, or triathlons. We didn’t choose it as our top pick because it lacks fitness tracking and lifestyle features found in the Garmin Instinct. However, for folks not interested in these features, it could be the best choice.


SUUNTO AMBIT3 PEAK

 

The founder of Treeline Review on a test hike with the Suunto Core.

The Best Altimeter (ABC) Watch Without GPS

Suunto Core


The Suunto Core is the best option if you want a great ABC (altimeter, barometer, and compass) watch without GPS functionality, fitness tracking, or other smart watch features. We would guess that the Core is the most popular watch in the long distance hiking community. This is because the Suunto Core is very durable, waterproof, has great battery life, and performs the essential functions well. Both Treeline Review founders have used the Suunto Core for years.


The Core has a barometric altimeter that displays the elevation in three foot increments. The barometer shows 3-6 hour trends and can provide storm alerts. We know from personal experience and Outdoor Gear Lab also found that the altimeter is very accurate as long as you calibrate it on a regular basis (more on how to do that below). The watch also provides elevation graphs and cumulative elevation gain/loss stats.


A close up of the Suunto Core displaying elevation and temperature information.
 

The Suunto Core provides the basic watch functions that are essential for any hiking watch. There is a timer, stop watch, daily alarm, and sunrise/sunset times. The display is large and easy to read in different light conditions. The functions are easy to access and use.


The Core runs on a single CR2032 lithium battery (a $2 battery available at most locations that sell batteries) that is easily changed in the field. We can confirm Suunto’s claimed one year of battery life, even when using the altimeter and elevation logging functions several months a year. In our experience, it can sometimes be tricky to open (a good thing if you’re trying to keep out water). A watch kit (often comes with the battery when you purchase it) can usually do the trick.


Suunto Core in the snow.   Photo by Mike Unger.

Suunto Core in the snow. Photo by Mike Unger.

 

Our one beef with the Core is that the watchband isn’t the best at staying latched. Amazon reviews echo this, as well as complaints about the buttons sticking. Our advice is to not take it swimming and consider removing it for showers, too. It seems like many of the customers who had issues took that 20 feet underwater rating to heart.


The Suunto Core comes in various configurations of materials and bands at different price points. You can even get a sapphire glass version for a couple of hundred extra dollars (we don’t think this is necessary. The mineral crystal display holds up just fine, though negative customer reviews often mention scratched glass a downside to this model.) Still, for a watch that you can often find on sale for under $200, there’s a lot to love on this ABC watch.


SUUNTO CORE

 
 


The Ambit3 Peak on a hike in Corsica.

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