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If you are an avid outdoorsman, backpacker, hiker or hunter, then you know that there are a few pieces of gear you should have in your arsenal at all times. There are basics like a knife and an emergency radio, but a compass is one of the most basic items you should always have in your arsenal.
What if you could combine a compass with both an altimeter (to detect your altitude) and a barometer (to measure the air pressure around you at a given altitude) and have it all on your wrist in one small package? That’s what’s happened in the last 30 years with the altimeter watch. There have been lots of technological advances, so picking the best altimeter watch for your needs might be confusing.
We’ve taken the guesswork out of it for you and have broken down our favorite picks for the best ABC watch. These watches have become known as “ABC watches” (altimeter/barometer/compass) and as technology advances in all areas of outdoor gear, they are becoming more popular for everyone that enjoys the outdoor/hiking/hunting/camping lifestyle. All of our favorites include the ability to measure altitude, barometric pressure and include a compass to help you accurately judge your true direction at all times. They are also becoming more modern looking, providing a look that will pass for a watch you can wear everyday.
Below you will also find all the details including a buyer’s guide that you should explore before buying an altimeter/ABC watch. We include a comparison chart of our top 10 picks, details on each watch, as well as a link to user reviews on Amazon.com where you can see what others have to say about the product. If you feel like we missed one, please drop a line in the comments section and let us know!
Comparison Chart and Table:
Table of Contents:
What Is an ABC Watch?
As stated earlier, the “ABC” stands for altimeter, barometer and compass. Watches in this category offer all three of these components included with your timepiece. Many of these watches are digital and can use either a lithium battery or operate on solar power.
The first commercially available ABC watches were offered by Casio in 1989. This early form of the ABC watch was a digital watch that offered an Electric Barometer, Altimeter and Bathometer. This was an early iteration and is a far cry from some of the more technologically advanced models on the market today.
Are All Altimeter Watches considered ABC watches?
The short answer is no. You can find watches that have an Altimeter & Barometer but no compass. Whether this is important to you depends on your use. Something like the Garmin Forerunner 910XT is a great choice if you are just using it for running or biking where there are elevation changes.
Then there are some people who’d prefer to not rely on a digital compass. If you are one of those individuals and you know you NEED a compass, we’d still recommend buying a watch with a digital compass anyways. The battery power required is really no different to have a compass and non-compass model and you can always use the digital version on your watch as a backup.
ABC Watch Construction & Components:
Altimeter: One of the top features of hikers and mountain climbers is the integration of an Altimeter in with their watch. Altimeters are used primarily in airplanes to judge the given altitude of what elevation you are at. Altimeters use atmospheric pressure as the method to judge your altitude both up or down in elevation. Altimeters measure the air pressure of any given location to calculate your approximate altitude. It’s important that you look at the instructions when setting the appropriate starting point on your watch. It’s recommended that if you are primarily using your watch for elevation changes, that you set your base level at sea level. From that starting point, the Altimeter will measure changes in altitude depending on how you hike.
Barometer: A Barometer measures Barometric Pressure which is otherwise known as Atmoshperic Pressure. It is also defined as force per unit area exerted against a surface by the air weight above that surface. This pressure is measured by the Barometer and there is a direct correlation between the altitude of your location as well as the air pressure of that location. The easiest way to explain this is that the higher you go, the thinner the air gets due to the air pressure getting lower. This is why you get winded at extremely high elevations, and this is what your watch is measuring. It’s also been known that Barometric pressure readings can be helpful in determining if there is a storm on the horizon. If your pressure suddenly drops, you’ll know that mother nature has something brewing and it might be time to consider seeking shelter.
Compass: This part is pretty self explanatory. Your ABC watch will come equipped with a compass making it the ultimate outdoor companion for your next mountain climbing or hiking trip.
Construction: Usually ABC watches are geared more towards the outdoor crowd, so they are typically more rugged in construction and can withstand a beating. They make these watches to withstand the rigors of hiking, mountain climbing, mountain biking and a variety of other outdoor activities.
How Do Altimeter Watches Work?
We will try and keep this simple. Your ABC watch measures current absolute pressure and mean sea level pressure. There is a relationship between the two which is why it’s important to set a baseline on your ABC watch to ensure proper readings. This is why you should always calibrate your watch for a set altitude and recalibrate it frequently to ensure the most accurate read.
Casio breaks it out into pretty simple steps in this article here and we have summarized them for you below:
- Your altimeter will use a pressure sensor to measure the current air pressure.
- Measured air pressure then provides an estimated value based on the altitude.
- The watch is preset to convert preset pressure values into altitude readings.
- Air pressure and temperatures become lower as altitude increases.
- Altitude is then measured based on the lower air pressure, which in turn properly judges your altitude.
Suunto (one of our favorite ABC watch manufacturers) does a great job showing in simplistic form, exactly how their altimeter, barometer and compass watches work in the video below.
A Buyer’s Guide: 9 Things to Consider:
There are a few things you should consider before making a purchase. Altimeter watches generally aren’t cheap like your basic Timex Weekender (which we love for a simple, minimalist every day watch), which means that you should explore the details before spending your hard earned cash.
1. How do you plan to use your Altimeter Watch?
This is probably in our opinion, the most important question. We relate this decision to someone trying to decide on a fixed blade knife versus a folding pocket knife. Both have different uses and needs. You should treat your considerations for finding the best altimeter watch in the same fashion. Someone that is going to head out for the occasional hike on the weekends is going to have a different needs than someone who is a competitive rock climber or marathon runner. Marathon runners are going to be interested in finding an altimeter watch that’s lightweight, weatherproof and has a heart rate monitor. Rock climbers will be looking for a minimalist design that’s light and extremely durable.
They will need something that won’t impede their climbing efforts. This is when things like construction, durability and weight all come into play. If you plan on using your watch for the occasional hike, these things become far less important and looking at a model with a few less features can save you money in the long run.
2. How Accurate are the Altitude/Barometer Readings?
This is an important question and each model is different. The models in our top 10 comparison guide all have gotten good user reviews when it comes to the varying levels of accuracy. We would suggest that you stick with one of the larger known manufacturers like Suunto, Garmin, or Casio.
These manufacturers have the market cornered on these products and have spent a considerable amount of resources to ensure that their products provide some of the most accurate readings on the market. You will find that accuracy readings also depend on how frequently you calibrate your watch.
3. Are Digital Compass Readings Accurate and How Do They Work?
First let’s talk about how they work. Digital compasses are based on magnetic sensor technology that can electronically sense the difference in the earth’s magnetic field. There can be some variations based on true north and magnetic north as a result, but they are generally just as accurate as a non-digital compass.
As technology improves, so do digital compass readings. Similar to the Altitude and Barometer ratings, most major manufacturers have spent time making sure that they have refined the accuracy readings of the compass inside each watch.
4. Battery Power and Longevity:
This is an important question. An altimeter watch with a GPS can cause you headaches if you leave the GPS on the entire time that you are out hiking. That’s going to cut your battery life down to 8 hours or less on some models. This is no big deal for a weekend or day hiker, but for someone running a marathon or marathon relay, this can be a make or break feature so make sure to do your research.
You want to know how the watch is powered and how long it lasts with all features on full use at all times, especially if your watch has a GPS feature.
5. Can You Wear an ABC Watch Everyday, and are they Stylish?
In one word: Absolutely. While they may not be practical for those working in a suit and tie environment, many ABC watches are perfectly acceptable in a smart casual or business casual work environment. The primary thing you will need to look out for is watch size.
Some ABC watches are a little on the “beefier” side and you might have a slight problem fitting it under the cuff of your dress shirt. The good news is that many manufacturers like Suunto have gone above and beyond in making sure their watches are stylish enough to use in just about any circumstance.
If we had to recommend one model that you can wear everyday, the Suunto Core wins this battle hands down as long as GPS and a Heart Rate Monitor aren’t important to you.
Pro Tip: Use freeware like Google Earth to find your starting elevation and calibrate your ABC Watch.
6. Calibration Frequency – How Often & How to Do it:
It’s always good to reset your baselines when you are going someplace new, but like most of the questions we’ve asked, this factor is going to be pretty dependent on each individual. It really is going to depend on the person and how they plan to use the watch.
If you are someone that gets outdoors frequently, there’s no harm in adjusting your starting reference altitude each time you plan on going somewhere that the elevation changes.
You can use free technology like Google Earth to find pretty accurate base readings for just about every elevation and then adjust as needed. For someone that doesn’t go out daily or weekly, it may not be as important to calibrate your watch regularly.
We mention Google earth as a good resource because it’s free. You can check out the link here for a desktop version of Google Earth. If you are on the go, Wikipedia is also a great resource as it has the elevation readings of most locations and the database administrators do a pretty good job of keeping the information up to date.
We would still recommend that you do so each time you know that you are going to be heading somewhere where there are elevation changes.
7. Do you need a GPS with your ABC Watch?
This question will really depend on what you intend to do when you buy your watch as covered earlier. This is a critical buying decision. Finding out after the fact that you wish you’d gotten a watch with a GPS and didn’t is a 250$+ waste of money.
Figure out what you need before you buy it and make your decision. This is a feature that not everyone wants, but most hikers appreciate once they’ve experienced.
8. Do you need a Heart Rate Monitor?
A HRM as a feature is a no-brainer if you are training for a triathlon or if you are an aggressive mountain biker. It becomes less important for someone that’s only outdoor activity is kayak fishing, unless you are someone that just actively likes to monitor their heart rate for fitness reasons.
This feature is definitely a nice to have, but not a must have for folks that like to hunt or are outdoors on the weekend as a casual activity. The one benefit of having a HRM installed is the added versatility you gain with everyday wear.
9. What Are the Best ABC Watch Makers Today?
This is a subjective question and will really depend on each individual. We prefer the bigger manufacturers (in no particular order) like Suunto, Garmin, Casio and Pyle.
We’d recommend sticking to one of the larger manufacturers that have been in the ABC watch game for a while. These models are preferred by outdoor enthusiasts, runners and even people in the US Military. If it’s good enough for them, it should be good enough for you.
Altimeter Watch Reviews – Our 10 Favorites:
Let’s break down our favorites. Below you will find our top picks along with the reasons why they made our list. If you feel like there’s one that we’ve forgotten that is on your list of favorites, please drop us a line in the comments section and let us know!
Garmin Fenix 3:
The Garmin Fenix 3 is our top pick for just about any outdoor activity. It has everything you need and is one of the top selling models on the market today. It comes equipped with the following features in one big package:
- Heart Rate Monitor (Optional)
- Water Rated Up to 100 Meters
- Wireless Connection making calibration easy
The battery life on the Fenix 3 is also outstanding. It’s rated for up to 20 hours with the GPS activated and can last up to six weeks before needing a recharge when it’s in watch mode. It also is one of the more stylish watches on the list and can be easily pulled off in a business casual work environment. It’s a favorite for triathletes, hikers, runners and anyone that engages in outdoor activities, including hunters.
It also has a few fitness features when you purchase the model that has an HRM which makes it even more versatile. It’s also incredibly light weight at only 2.9 ounces which is lighter than just about every watch in our top 10 list. If you can afford the price tag, this is our top choice for the money. It’s the best ABC watch you can buy from a cost to technology perspective. We like the Garmin Fenix 3 for every outdoor activity possible – from hunters enjoying the latest technological advances in binoculars, to runners training for a marathon.
The Suunto Core is our favorite that you can buy if you are on a budget. There are several different makes on this watch which make it one of the top watches for everyday wear. The watch is compatible with a number of different straps which make it a great option stylistically and will give you the flexibility of wearing this watch in business casual environments. Here are a few of the features:
- Water Resistant up to 100 Feet
- Build in Weather Trend Indicator
- Build in Storm Alarm that senses rapid pressure drops
- Digital Thermometer
The Suunto Core has a battery life of 12 months while in “time mode” so you can expect to have to replace the battery about once per year which is average for most watches. We like the price tag on the core for what it offers and the fact that it’s one of the most popular ABC watches on the market. It’s also incredibly light weight at 2.26 ounces. If you don’t need a Heart Rate Monitor or a GPS, this one should be in your top 3 when considering your purchase.
Garmin Fenix 2:
The Garmin Fenix 2 is a still a great option for anyone on a budget. It’s got more features for the price than the Suunto Core but is less of a daily wear option in our opinion. It has a few great features which we think are great for the price range:
- Heart Rate Monitor (Optional)
- Water Rated up to 50 Meters
- Strong housing to withstand abuse
This is a great watch for people that will use it primarily for fitness training. The Garmin Fenix 2 has some of the better fitness features of any of the ABC watches out there. The performance bundle model comes equipped with features that will track your running dyamics, swimming strokes and has a ski mode, making it perfect for outdoor skiing. It carries a longer battery life of up to 50 hours in GPS mode but it falls short of the Suunto and Fenix 3 with only 5 weeks of “watch mode” when not running the GPS. The watch can charge via USB making it easy to charge. For those that have outdoor activity in spurts, the Fenix 2 is a great budget friendly option that you can’t go wrong with.
Suunto Amibt 3 with HRM:
The Suunto Ambit 3 with HRM is another solid choice in Suunto’s lineup. This watch is geared more towards sports training but can be used in a variety of other functions including hiking and mountain biking. There are a few distinguishing features:
- Water Resistance up to 100 Meters
- Bluetooth Technology
- 50 Hour GPS Mode
- Heart Rate Monitor
The Suunto Ambit 3 is a favorite for marathon runners and elite trainers. It comes with free access to movescount.com which is the Suunto online sporting community that many people take advantage of when training for marathons and triathlons. The watch allows you to download data and use it through the community to track progress through your training. This watch is definitely geared more towards the fitness crowd with the features that it has, but in the price range it’s hard to beat the bells and whistles that it comes with. We prefer the Garmin Fenix 3 a little bit more for looks, but this is another solid option from Suunto at a great price.
Casio Pro Trek Tough Solar Water Resistant:
First and foremost, we have four similar Casio models on this list. We’ve listed them in order of price/options and what you get for your money. Any one of these Pro Trek watches are a solid choice and they have similar features. Looks play a part in any watch choice and each of them look very different. Here are some of the features of our first “Tough Solar” Pro Trek on our list:
- Water Resistance up to 200 Meters
- Titanium Band and Stainless Steel Case
- Solar Rechargeable Battery
- Long 5 Month Battery Charge with No Light Exposure
The Casio Pro Trek Tough Solar Powered watch is one of two metal watches on our list. The case is Stainless steel and the band is made of titanium. This is a great watch for people that prefer to be a little less “tech” looking with their fashion choices. While it’s classy like a Rolex, it serves its purpose as a great watch for everyday wear.
The feature we love about the Pro Trek Tough Solar is the fact that even though it’s battery powered, it gets recharged through exposure to the sun. This is a great watch that doesn’t rely on being plugged in to get recharged. The titanium band is solid and this watch was built to take a beating. It’s heavier than the others at 4 ounces, and is less practical for someone that’s training for a marathon. It is practical however for anyone that plans on doling out some serious abuse that needs a strong watch to stand up to it. It’s also great for people in a business casual environment that may want a “diver’s style” watch for everyday wear.
Casio Pathfinder Tough Solar Triple Sensor Stainless Steel:
The Casio Pathfinder is very similar to the Water Resistant “Pro Trek” solar watch. It is also solar powered with the recharge, but the primary differences are slightly less functionality and a less polished look. The band and face are a little more rugged than the “Pro Trek” model and there are slightly less features as it’s a slightly older model. Here are some of the features:
- Water Resistance up to 100 Meters
- Titanium Band and Stainless Steel Case
- Solar Rechargable Battery
- 12/24 Hour Display Time Formats
The pathfinder is a great budget watch for anyone that likes to hike, rock climb or just wants a tough watch that they aren’t afraid to bang around a little bit. It’s less polished than the Casio Pro Trek and has a few less features but it’s a solid option for anyone that is looking to spend less than $200.00 on a watch with a metal case and band. Again, this one is probably less practical for marathon runners, but a good all around watch for people on a budget.
Casio Pro Trek Black Sport:
The Casio Pro Trek Sport is the second cheapest watch on our list. This watch is unique because of the low temperature resistance (can hang in there until 14 degrees) and the longer battery life without exposure to light. Here are some of the features worth mentioning:
- Water Resistant up to 100 Meters
- Resin band which is incredibly durable
- Can measure Altitude in 1 meter increments
- Solar Rechargeable Battery
The sport delivers what the other Pro Trek models do at a cheaper level but with less features. It’s heavier than many of the other watches on our list at 6.4 ounces. It has a stainless steel case tied in with the Resin band. It’s a good option for people that are on a budget and may be just breaking into the ABC watch game. It does not have a HRM or come equipped with a GPS.
This is a good starter ABC watch and is worth considering if you are on a less than $200.00 budget and looking for something that has a little bit of additional durability. The 7 month battery life on a full charge is a great benefit and one of the longer lasting batteries of any watch we’ve looked at.
Casio Pro Trek Triple Sensor Digital Sport:
The digital sport is the cheapest ABC on our list. It gives you the basics that you need and it’s great for those people that are on a sub $150.00 budget. All of the Pro Trek watches are pretty solid and this is a great option if you are looking to break into the altimeter watch market and don’t have a lot of money to burn. Here are some of the features worth looking at:
- Water Resistant up to 100 Meters
- Durable Resin Band
- Solar Rechargeable Battery
- 12/24 Hour Display Time Formats
Overall the digital sport is a good entry level watch that’s durable and will give you the basics. Like the Pro Trek Black Sport, it’s a good option for those that may not want to spend a ton of money right out of the gates to get the latest technology in a watch. One specifically great feature on this Casio is the fact that it has a 9 month battery charge without exposure to sunlight for a recharge. This is a great feature and it will ensure that your watch stays ready to go for long periods of time, even if it sits in your closet for a while during the winter. The biggest drawback is the weight, which is a beast at 11.20 ounces. Any one of the Pro Trek Casio watches are going to be some of the best altimeter watch options for someone buying an ABC watch, it just depends on your cost of entry and how much you can afford to spend.
Suunto makes our list yet again with the Traverse GPS watch. Traverse is a great option for fitness buffs. It estimates daily steps and calories and the GPS has a route navigation that allows for 50 stored routes. Here are some of the features worth considering:
- Calorie/Step Counter (Pedometer)
- Lithium Ion Rechargeable Battery with 100 Hour Battery Life
- Durable Silicone Strap
- GLONASS GPS Navigation System
The Traverse is one of the few models on the list that includes a built in pedometer while looking awesome at the same time. The face is on the larger side, but it still looks elegant and can be worn in most circumstances short of formal occasions. It can also help you track calories which is helpful if you don’t have an app installed to a smartphone or other smart device that you use to track your caloric intake.
It doesn’t track data for biking or running but it makes up with it for those that enjoy walking and want to track their fitness basics. The GPS is incredibly accurate according to most user reviews. You get a good overall package in the Traverse that comes up just short of the Garmin Fenix 3 with regards to the options available. This is a great watch for the money and looks incredibly stylish to match.
Garmin Fenix Hiking GPS Watch with Trackback:
Another sub $150.00 budget choice, the Garmin Fenix gets you all the basics. It a GPS watch that comes equipped with a 3 axis compass and automatic calibration. You can mark up to 1,000 waypoints and over 10,000 track points. Here are a few key features worth mentioning:
- GPS Navigation
- Waterproof up to 50 Feet
- 24 Hour World Clock
- Compatible with other Garmin GPS units and Smartphones
The Fenix Hiking GPS is a good entry level choice. It’s great as a starter watch and should be considered by anyone that’s looking at one of the entry level Casio watches. The price tag is great for a model with GPS, as the Casio models do not have a GPS unit installed and are in the same price range.
It’s not as trendy as some of the other models on our list (especially the Suunto models which we think are outstanding), but for the price point it’s tough not to be excited about the features that it offers.
So What’s the Best Altimeter Watch For the Money?
When answering this question we tried to take in several factors, but ultimately the Garmin Fenix 3 wins the battle when we take cost, features, and overall user reviews on amazon.com into account. For what you get, this is the best option you can buy for under 600.00 at most retailers.
The Garmin Fenix 3 has everything you need for just about every feature outside of the fact that it has a higher price tag. But even with that higher price tag, it’s the best ABC watch on the market for the money.
If you are on a budget and are in the 250.00 range, then the Suunto Core takes the cake. It has a great blend of cost efficiency and is available in a ton of different looks. Some of the silicone banded variations are minimalist enough to fit under the cuff of a dress shirt, and some of the more rugged builds are perfect for competitive rock climbing. Our only complaint about the Suunto Core is that it does not have a heart rate monitor or GPS.
If you need something with a GPS and a Heart Rate Monitor – spring for the Garmin Fenix 3 and don’t look back.
Finding the best altimeter watch doesn’t have to be difficult. If you feel like there’s an model we missed that’s just as good as our top 10, feel free to drop us a line in the comments so we can add take a look at adding it to our altimeter watch reviews section.
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