The Most Important Features of an Altimeter Watch

August 20, 2017

I just replaced my Suunto Vector altimeter watch after two decades of use. I used it over thousands of miles of trail in outdoor destinations across the United States in all sorts of conditions, temperatures, and weather. It was one of the best, most reliable pieces of electronics I have every owned and provided most of the elevation data in the various hiking guidebooks I have authored over the years.

The features that matter

In order of priority, here are the key features I used repeatedly—and were essential for its replacement:

A comfortable fit. Many altimeter watches are huge, which can be a problem if you have small wrists or just generally dislike having an oversized gadget strapped to your arm. Try on various models and bands for comfort and fit to find one that’s comfortable to wear, otherwise it won’t matter what features you choose—you probably won’t wear it much.

The ability to quickly and easily adjust the elevation. Altimeter watches work by measuring the barometric pressure, which varies slightly from day to day depending on the weather. Altimeters also rely on a standard model for how barometric pressure changes with altitude, which can also vary depending on the temperature, among other things.

The point is that the elevation reading is always worth checking anytime you’re at a precisely known elevation (mountain summit, known landmark, etc.), and then adjusting your altimeter watch accordingly. You should be able to do this with a minimum of button pushes or menu screens.

The ability to record (and quickly display) cumulative elevation gain and loss over the course of a hike. For most hikers, it’s fun to know how much total up and down a given hike entailed. For guidebook writers, it’s an essential data point to accurately describe a hike.

A display that largely and prominently shows the elevation numbers. If you’re constantly checking the elevation, it’s nice to be able to quickly and instantly read the numbers at a glance.

Large buttons that work even with gloves or with cold hands. If cold weather doesn’t slow down your outdoor adventures, you’re going to want an altimeter watch that you can operate without exposing your digits to the chill.

A clock. Being able to tell time is a standard, and useful, feature of altimeter watches.   

So that’s it. As far as I’m concerned, everything else—various alarms, thermometer, an integrated compass, features that track barometric trends, measures of the rate of descent/ascent, etc.—are all just bells and whistles that I seldom, if ever used. Don’t get caught up in evaluating such feature fests—focus on the basics instead.

So what did I end up buying? A Suunto Core (black military style), pictured above. Watch for a full review in a future blog post.


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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.