My first altimeter watch was the Casio ARW-320 back in 1993. This analog-faced watch was all black with bright yellow buttons. The small digital window showed the altitude (up to a whopping 13,200 ft.), barometer (in mb only) and depth (to 98 ft.). This little wonder was my sidekick on many treks in Washington’s Cascade mountains. I religiously dialed in the altimeter’s reference altitude from our home at 325 ft. The ARW-320 was, at the time, one of the coolest altimeter watches of the day and I wore it through college until it disappeared. I don’t know what ever happened to that watch, but I was bummed losing it.

Casio ARW-320 Altimeter Watch

I then stepped up to the Suunto Vector (a.k.a. the Hockey Puck). The Vector was by far the most advanced altimeter watch of the day, but it came with a price–it’s HUGE size. This thing is behemoth, but it’s still one of Suunto’s top selling watches because despite it’s size, it’s super light and comfortable to wear. And, it works great!

Since the Vector, I’ve thoroughly tested and owned several of the latest altimeter watches from Polar, Timex, Origo, HighGear and Suunto. They all work essentially the same way; translating barometric pressure changes into altitude changes. Yes, an inexact science, but it’s the best there is (aside from cumbersome GPS watch technology, but we won’t go there). Lets dig into the technology behind altimeter watches and why you would want one in the backcountry.

I caught up with Ryan Hamsho, International Sales Manager for HighGear to get some specific information on how altimeters work and why you should have one. I’ve include some of his thoughts below.

How Altimeter Watches Work

Lets first get into how altimeter watches work. The simple explanation is that the higher you go, the less atmosphere is above you, the lower the air pressure is, so the higher the altitude. Altimeter watches use the atmospheric pressure as the method to modify the altitude up or down. Most current altimeter watch models track altitude changes in 3 ft. (1 meter) increments.

Because altimeter watches rely on the actual pressure reading for altitude measurement, most altimeter watches display both the adjusted-for-sea-level pressure reading and absolute air pressure–so as not to confuse you too much when you compare readings to what you see on TV or in the paper, which is adjusted for sea level.

Ryan Hamsho of HighGear, shared the following on how altimeter watches work:

An altimeter does not actually measure altitude directly, but rather just atmospheric pressure. So an altimeter is actually a barometer created for a specific purpose. The altimeter uses the changes in atmospheric pressure to determine the changes in altitude. Why does pressure change with altitude? Simply put, the pressure at any given point in the atmosphere around the earth is a result of the weight of the atmosphere above it (pulled down by gravity). For this reason, the higher in the atmosphere you are, the less atmosphere you have above, and the less pressure exerted on you.

He went on to say that the best way to calibrate an altimeter watch is to adjust your reference altitude on a regular basis–daily if you want it as accurate as possible. The best way to know your exact altitude anywhere in the world is by using Google Earth. Google Earth provides the most accurate altitude readings by searching and clicking in your exact location. See below for the exact altitude of the base of Main St. in Park City, UT (7040 ft.).

Park City Utah Elevation Map

Keep in mind that altimeter watches are not scientific instruments. They are merely gauges to give you the best estimate on the current altitude. If kept properly calibrated during a day that has fairly stable weather, they should prove to be very accurate overall. In varying weather conditions, you will see some variation. Again, it’s essential to know the reference altitude to get back on track.

As a side note, I once had a customer purchase a Timex altimeter watch from the now defunct FeedTheHabit.com Online Store. He was a real estate agent from Florida and he wanted to measure exact variances in altitude to know which properties were more desirable. Remember… he was in Florida where every foot counts. I wish I would have known that before he made the purchase. Needless to say, he returned the watch because it wasn’t consistently accurate without daily user calibration. And, that’s not the intended purpose of an altimeter watch.

Why Should You Have an Altimeter Watch?

Today’s outdoor enthusiast wants to know all the details of their adventures. Handheld GPS units and altimeter watches are now commonplace in the backcountry and with good reason. They can be helpful tools when navigating mountain peaks or cross-country travel because most of them also feature a digital compass and thermometer–all handy features to help you analyze your surroundings and keep track of where you are as well as the current and upcoming weather.

Lets go back to Ryan from HighGear to answer this question from his perspective:

We are an information and curiosity-driven society. Therefore, there are several reasons one might want a wrist or hand-held altimeter (besides the obvious: that they need a time piece) and each reason is based upon a specific application (such as Hiking, Climbing, Mountain Biking and Skiing). Examples of these applications can have varying levels of seriousness. For the hiker, it may be for reasons such as monitoring the altitude for curiosity sake to carefully monitoring the barometric pressure for reasons that may be tied to seeking shelter before the next front begins to move in. In this case, the altimeter could be used as a weather station in addition to its many other functions (time, alarm, chronograph etc.).

For the climber, the altitude is relevant to determine the amount of vertical ascent or descent surmounted in minutes and hours leading to the determination of whether or not they will make an ascent/descent before the sun goes down. Further to that, there is the ability to track total ascent/descent in a 24 hour period of time.

The applications are similar for the skier and mountain biker, but the numbers accumulate in a much quicker fashion. It may be as well that a skier or biker is interested in their vertical speed. The altimeter in cooperation with the chronograph will provide this feedback. All feedback can then be logged and reviewed for future reference.

So, depending upon the type of outdoor activity, the usefulness of the altimeter watch can vary from simple curiosity during an afternoon hike, to a matter of life and death for an alpinist trying to summit a high-altitude peak within a certain time window.

Why I Use an Altimeter Watch

I like using my altimeter watch to track my backcountry skiing and mountain biking travels. It’s interesting to track your vertical ascent/descent on a mountain bike ride, or your overall vertical ascent/descent during a 3-hour backcountry ski trip. And, most models allow you to track your total ascent/descent over a period of time–say, the ski season. A few years back, during the FeedTheHabit.com Dueling Vert Contest our own Kendall Card skied 40,000 vertical feet in a single day. All tracked with his handy-dandy Suunto altimeter watch.

For me, it’s more about knowing how fast and how much–not so much a matter of life and death.

Highgear Altis TI and Suunto Core Light Green - Great Altimeter Watches

What to Look For in an Altimeter Watch

I’ve used many altimeter watches in my day and have found Suunto watches to be the best in the business as far as durability, functionality and looks. HighGear is a relative newcomer to the industry (started in 1999) and has made huge inroads in the altimeter watch market with plenty to offer at great pricepoints. All HighGear models all feature a Swiss pressure sensor to ensure the most accurate barometric pressure calibration.

If you’re in the market for a new altimeter watch, there are many models to choose from. Here are a few tips to keep in mind before buying one.

My Altimeter Watch Tips:

  • Head to your local REI to try them on–they are typically much larger than you think (this goes for women especially).
  • Even though some may seem quite large, they all wear pretty well (e.g. you won’t notice their size so much over time).
  • Get one with a mineral glass face to avoid scratching.
  • I prefer those with rubber straps for use in all outdoor activities. I like to run, bike, hike and ski with my altimeter watch, so I don’t need a bulky metal band to get in my way.
  • Unless you are really into analysis, don’t spend extra money on one that allows you to download data to your computer. None of them work on a Mac (my biggest gripe) and you likely won’t use it as much as you think.
  • Suunto and HighGear are the market-leaders and are the safest bets as far as quality, durability and functionality. The Suunto Core and HighGear Altis Ti are the latest models.
  • If you’re looking for one that also features heart rate functionality, the Polar AXN is a great option.

The latest models from Suunto and HighGear are pictured above. The Suunto Core ($249 – $599) and the HighGear Altis TI ($300) are great options for anyone looking for a nice looking, everyday watch that is also a highly-functional wrist-top computer/altimeter.

BUY NOW: Find the Latest Altimeter Watches at Backcountry.com

About Author

A Seattle native, Jason developed a love for the outdoors and a thing for mountains. That infatuation continues as he founded this site in 1999 --sharing his love of road biking, mountain biking, trail running and skiing. That passion is channeled into every article or gear review he writes. Utah's Wasatch Mountains are his playground.

20 Comments

  1. wow, i agree with you about Casio ARW-320 Mr. Jason, this is also my first outdoor watch. when I was a student college (geology) I always wear this watch during mapping, it is reliable, taft enough.
    unfortunately, nowadays casio does not produce this tipe anymore.

    regards,

    Dikdik
    Geologist from Indonesia

  2. I have owned the Highgear aerial and broke it multiple times (though it did have the best features for skiers). In general I always break the rubber bands included with watches. Looking for a metal band altimeter watch is not easy. The only one I found initially was the Suunto Observer, but it carried a $500 price tag! And when you look at it it’s actualy NOT a metal band, it’s a rubber band with metal plates pinned to it. Rather than being stronger it’s actually weaker because the pins create holes/breaking points!
    The only true Metal-band altimeter watch I have found is the Casio Pathfinder 1300T-7V and I LOVE it! It is by far the most durable altimeter watch on the market. But you do sacrifice function a touch. It only reads to 20foot intervals.
    Perhaps the other companies will learn from Casio and make metal bands. Or perhaps casio will learn and make a 3ft interval watch.

  3. @Gareth… Yeah, Casio’s altimeter accuracy kind of stinks. I’m sure they will improve over time. What’s the max altitude on that watch?

    I’ve heard lots of people having issues with the bands on the Highgear watches. I haven’t worn one long enough to have any issues. However, I’ve worn several Suunto models for years and have never torn a watch band. I guess I don’t beat the tar out of them like many folks do. 🙂

  4. Manuel in D.F. on

    I love that watch! I still have mine, I’ve had it for 16 years. I’m having a nightmare trying to find new straps for it in Mexico, the original ones are about to give out.

    I’m an avid scuba-diver, and have taken that watch down down to depths of 140+’. Casio very clearly states not to do that 🙂 That this is not intended for scuba. But hundreds of dives later it’s still very accurate as a baro/altimeter! They really built this sucker very well!

  5. Good tip list, particularly the one about trying on the watches. I get a ton of returns from women who think the watch will fit on their wrist and when it arrives are disappointed because it is too big.

    Tony

  6. Wow, I just googled this, I had the same Casio altimeter watch with yellow buttons, I lost it on a camping trip and I”ve been looking for another one ever since.

    It worked extremely well and only cost $70 new, it was replaced by a series of much larger watches costing $200-$300

    I wanted to get the model number of the old one to watch and see if Casio ever makes another run. If you check their website many old watches are available for cheap.

  7. JH… right on! Glad we were watch buddies! That was a cool watch and would still be a decent watch by today’s standards if all you want is the altimeter reading and nothing else.

  8. Altimeter Watches on

    I’ve heard of pilot’s having altimeter watches to have as a backup in case their altimeter in the plane fails.

  9. Hartej Pal Singh on

    I have a Barigo Model 53. Works well. Less known but good looking. Stainless Steel case and rubber strap. Try it some time.

  10. Could nt get the battery out of my Suunto Vector as the coin slot thing had been burred over time. Tried to get the battery out by dismantling the watch. I hear you say this is a very poor idea.I agree wholeheartedly. Two little peices of copper strip fell out of it from who knows where. That was the end of my Suunto. Love the things so much have immediately bought another one.A costly excercise but just love the Suunto

  11. Loved that old Casio ARW-320, my first alti- watch as well. Sadly, I cracked the crystal in a jam crack, bought another and lost it, bought an Avocet Vertech which just quit on me. Trivia question: Max altitude reading for the Casio was 13,200. What did the display read after that? I realize this is an old thread, and comments say they don’t make this style any longer. While this exact model is gone, they do make similar, e.g. Casio Multi-Task Gear Model SGW400H-1B, $56.99 at Costco. They also list some higher end models for $250-$300 retail, model PAG240, discounted on eBay. Bonus, they now read to 32,800 ft, useful if you are climbing Everest or flying unpressurized jets!

    • That old watch was fun indeed. It brings back good memories of my time in the Cascades as a kid.

      I’m not sure what it read when above 13,200… mine didn’t make it out of the Cascades and I think I maxed out at Camp Muir (only 10k ft). What did it say?

      I have a buddy that went with the Avocet and that thing fell apart in about 6 months. Buttons fell off.

      • When it maxed out it read FULL. Did that a few times on Rainier. We mostly used them in the Cascades, so it was fine.

        I am contemplating getting a wrist GPS, would be nice to not be concerned with barometric pressure changes affecting the altitude reading.

          • Excellent article Jason!

            I need some advice for an unconventional application.

            I paraglide and sometimes like to throw the glider around when I can get good altitude. I’m looking for something with an altitude alarm. Basically I want to start at a high altitude, do my manoeuvres, then have an alarm go off at a preset lower altitude (minimum reserve height above ground + safety factor).

            My questions are:

            Can these watches do this? e.g. the Suunto Vector claims to have an altitude alarm.

            Are the altimeters significantly affected by speed/g-force (say up to 60mph/4.5Gs)?

            I try to keep a visual reference of my altitude, but I want to cover situations where I’ve screwed up and am consumed with trying to recover the glider whilst falling out of the sky. I want something to remind me it’s time to give up and throw the reserve parachute. I don’t intend to trust my life on the watch, just to use it as a reminder to check my altitude visually.

            Cheers,
            John

  12. John… good question about the altimeter’s responsiveness. I’m not so sure any altimeter watches were built to respond that quickly to altitude variances. They are mostly intended for running, hiking, and cycling so they don’t check the altitude in real-time. Most of them have a few second delay in altitude reporting… not something I’d want to trust my life to.

    Most do have altitude alarms that should work for your circumstances, but again, I don’t think many of them have real-time altitude as they check every 5-10 seconds (or more).

  13. Pingback: Top Five Things to Look For When Choosing an Altimeter Watch | ABCHEALTH-CARE.COM

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