It was time to replace my Highgear Summit watch after many years of reliable service. Its face was scratched up; its buttons have become loose and its water-resistance has become questionable; and, aesthetically, I was looking for an improvement, maybe even worthy enough to wear on the altar in August. I settled on the Suunto Core, which has loosely the same features as the Summit but in a much sexier package.
Some backpackers don’t wear watches but I always have. It’s another tool in my kit, providing me with precise data that I can use to improve my experience and safety. I primarily use my watch for three functions:
1. Scheduling, via Time and Alarm. My big trips haven’t been very leisurely, and knowing the time helps me to stay on — and plan out — my schedule. I get up when I intend to, via the alarm, which allows me to make more full use of the day, as opposed to accidentally sleeping in and trying to make up for lost time later. I also monitor the length of breaks, cat naps, and re-supplies. Finally, based on my average hiking pace, I can identify the likeliest campsites for tonight and the next several nights, and predict if I’ll reach the next town while the Post Office is still open.
2. Navigating, via Time, Compass and Altimeter. When hiking on trails, the most valuable navigational skill is dead-reckoning. You can calculate your hiking speed by measuring the time it takes you to cover a known distance between two points. Once you know that pace, you can anticipate the time it will take for you will reach landmarks ahead — “It’s 3:25pm right now. There’s a trail junction in 1.5 miles, which should take me 30 minutes since I’ve been hiking 3 mph; that should put me there at 3:55, perhaps a little faster since it’s mostly downhill.” Dead-reckoning helps you to stay found: you’ll know if you didn’t reach a landmark when you should have, and you won’t convince yourself that you’re somewhere you mathematically can’t be.
I was never impressed with the Summit’s digital compass and therefore never used it. Thus far, the Core’s compass is more encouraging, as it precisely aligns with the magnetic Suunto M-3D compass that we use on my guided trips. Even so, I probably will use it regularly only for finding North and orienting the map — if the navigation is more intense than that, at least until I develop more trust in it I’ll bring a magnetic compass, too.
The altimeter is also a very useful feature. I use it to rule out false summits and passes — especially those shrouded in trees or clouds — and to double-check vague landmarks along my route (e.g. umarked trail junctions, canyon confluences) to ensure that they are what I think they are. Also, whenever I need to contour off-trail, the altimeter confirms that I’m not going up or down more than I want to.
3. Weather forecasting, via Barometer. It’s not as accurate as your local weatherman — Or is it? — but the barometer usually gives me at least a sense of what the weather is doing. If the atmospheric pressure drops off a cliff, I know that a storm is coming. Likewise, if I see increasing pressure, more favorable weather is coming my way. The only weather event not predictable by a barometer are the monsoon-style thunderstorms often seen in the Southwest and Mountain West during the summer, since those events are due to convective air currents, not pressure fronts.
What about a GPS watch?
I don’t use a GPS unit while backpacking, instead preferring old-school paper maps and (maybe) a compass. So naturally I didn’t seek out a GPS-enabled watch, as it’d be an expensive feature that I never use.
If you do use a GPS, a GPS-enabled watch is probably not your ticket anyway. First, this feature drains battery life. For example, the Suunto Ambit 2S has only an 8-hour lifespan when the GPS is enabled before it must be recharged. Second, a GPS-enabled watch is going to be more limited in its features than a handheld GPS. Specifically, it’s unlikely to have quality topographic maps or menus and buttons that are optimized for GPS functions.