My new Suunto Core, plus how I use my watch while backpacking

My new Suunto Core. Its face is so reflective right now that you can see today's overcast in Boulder.

My new Suunto Core. Its face is so reflective right now that you can see today’s overcast in Boulder.

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.

Oh, crap! When I saw the pressure dropping precipitously in the Brooks Range, I knew that I needed to boogie until conditions deteriorated too much, then find a place to hole up and wait the storm out.

Oh, crap! When I saw the pressure dropping precipitously in the Brooks Range, I knew that I needed to boogie until conditions deteriorated too much, then find a place to hole up and wait the storm out.

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.

30 Responses to My new Suunto Core, plus how I use my watch while backpacking

  1. Corrina Peipon June 4, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

    I just bought one of these, and it’s reassuring to see that this was also your choice. I am a newcomer to backpacking but was already seeing the need for a watch like this. It’s taking me a while to learn how to use it, but so far, I think I made the right decision. I just wish it had a thermometer!

  2. Philip June 4, 2013 at 7:37 pm #

    A bit of an odd review. Of the three functions, you use one, carry backup for the second, and can’t trust the third. 300$ is a chunk of change for this. You can get the same for 10$ in Chinatown or 15$ at Wal*art. It will look a whole lot less cool, but the usability will be just as lousy :) . But hey, I perfectly understand that when you bought The Ring, you had to buy a present for yourself, too. Congrats!!

    • Mark March 4, 2014 at 8:47 pm #

      Casio are the real deal as far as digital watches go. Robust, affordable and easy to get anywhere. Casio was there at the start of digital watch making & revolutionized it in the late 80′s with the G-Shock.
      Suunto digital watches are wildly overpriced; they are made in China FFS!
      They are “the” digital watch only for guys too young to know the history of digital watches. Skurka = relentless supporter of high cost aspirational/yuppie kit, what UK soldiers call “Gucci gear”.

      • Andrew Skurka March 5, 2014 at 8:55 am #

        Indeed, I see all the yuppies using homemade alcohol stoves, A-frame tarps, frameless packs, foam pads, and clothing littered with patches and stains.

        • High Life March 18, 2014 at 5:56 pm #

          Yes, I too see all the yuppies hiking 35 miles per day for 4-6 months a year, wearing running shoes, eating out of a beer can, hiking with a photon for a headlamp at night…FFS!

  3. Joël Cox June 4, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

    I’ve been keeping an eye on the Garmin Fenix – which has a reported battery life of 16-50h – just to track some data while being on the trail.

    • Andrew Skurka June 5, 2013 at 8:16 am #

      What kind of data? And what will you do on a hike longer than 16-50 hours?

  4. Mike Clelland June 5, 2013 at 7:03 am #

    I pretty much never ever use a watch in the mountains.

    I’ll carry one sometimes. I put it in the baggie with my toothbrush and sunblock. It’s a tiny cheap-o timex digital with the band cut off.

    I almost NEVER set an alarm to wake up.

    Sometimes, on the last day, I’ll pull it out. Maybe I have a scheduled pick up (I need to know the time for that).

  5. CRAusmus June 5, 2013 at 9:07 am #

    Excellent review on the best watch I’ve ever owned. In my opinion there are three must haves in your navigation kit and a watch is the third. I have no idea why folks don’t add this extra dimension to navigation. It is extremely important for those of us that travel off trail.

    This is an extremely capable back up compass, and anyone not carrying a back up compass better be carrying a PLB because you will eventually need it.

    I also find the altimeter and barometer to be very precise. The core can even tell by the change in pressure whether or not it is caused by the user ascending/descending and won’t give you false readings, like my High Gear used to.

    Couple the sunrise/sunset feature in, and your scheduling gets even more precise.

    This is an excellent watch Andrew. Thanks for a great review.

  6. Greg Topf June 5, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    I have used a Suunto Core since 2009, and have used in a full range of conditions just as described by Skurrrka. I’m on my third strap, but the unit is still going strong and maintains all of the integrity it had on day 0. The model I have does eat a battery every 6-9 months or so, so it’s annoying compared to the efficiency of an old Casio/Timex, but not mission threatening in any way. And it looks super rugged cool.

  7. Aubrey June 5, 2013 at 7:33 pm #

    Andrew,
    I will be interested in your long-term impression of the Suunto Core. I am in the market for an ABC watch, and I think the Suunto offerings have an impressive feature set and are nice looking. Reliability is a bit of a concern, especially given the typical street pricing. Perhaps Andrew Skurka clients will qualify for a significant discount. ;-)

  8. DaveC June 6, 2013 at 7:42 am #

    I have a 7 year old Suunto Observer which aside from a few scratches is still going strong. I use the altimeter a lot while navigating. Provided one rezeros it every day or so, I’ve found it to be very accurate. A crucial weapon during adventure races.

  9. Gil Syswerda June 6, 2013 at 7:44 am #

    A watch, along with a tide chart, is pretty useful when hiking along the ocean. For example, on the West Coast Trail, some headlands are not passible above a certain tide level. Also, if you know shoreline hiking is coming up, it’s nice to time things so that you can hike it at low tide. It’s much more pleasant and interesting to walk on sandstone ledge than slugging it out in the sand, or worse, being pressed up against the tree line with thousands of logs and branches to navigate.

  10. Dan June 8, 2013 at 9:53 am #

    “The core can even tell by the change in pressure whether or not it is caused by the user ascending/descending…”

    Does this actually work? I can’t imagine how a watch would accomplish this unless you calibrated your elevation regularly so it monitored the discrepancy.

    I’ve got a Casio PAW1300 which I’ve been very happy with. I don’t trust the compass, but the altimeter/barometer is great and I like how it’s solar powered so I never have to worry about batteries.

  11. Alex July 12, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

    I bought “Casio GW9200-1 G-Shock Riseman Alti-Therm Solar Atomic Watch” for half the price. It has all the same features less compass. It is also shake-resistant and good for up to 200m of water and mineral glass. Hopefully, I will be happy with it for a very-very long time :)

  12. petersont August 1, 2013 at 7:43 am #

    hi -

    curious: top pic looks to be negative display, bottom positive display…? Does yours have the option to alternate between them both?

    thx
    p

    • Andrew Skurka August 1, 2013 at 9:03 am #

      The top photo is of the Core. The bottom is of my old Highgear Summit. The Core cannot toggle back and forth between negative and positive displays.

      • petersont August 12, 2013 at 7:50 am #

        yep, excuse please – saw that as soon as posted.
        One bit of advice: many reviews lament the poor legibility of the negative display in low light. What do you think? Was there a reason other than aesthetics you chose the all black over the regular black ( with positive display )?
        thx

        • Andrew Skurka August 13, 2013 at 9:35 am #

          Mostly aesthetics. The positive display is definitely more eye-friendly.

  13. Merle Segault October 2, 2013 at 4:35 pm #

    Andy Skurka:

    Merle, here. How do you recharge your Core Watch when you are out hiking? Does it keep good time? How magnetic is it? Would it interfere with a pacemaker implant?

    Your travels sound exciting. Good luck. Will you be around the Pacific Northwest, (i.e.) PNTA (Pacific NW Historical Trail)?

    Good Luck,

    Merle Segault

    • Andrew Skurka October 2, 2013 at 5:00 pm #

      The Core does not need to be recharged. There is a user-replaceable battery.

      I don’t know exactly how magnetic it is. It does not seem to throw off my compass.

  14. Wil Layton November 10, 2013 at 6:41 am #

    Depending on what your needs are of course, the new Suunto Core is a great watch. Asside from time of day, day of week, month, date AND barometric pressure. The Observer’s baro trend arrow shows 6 hours’ worth of barometric pressure trend – how awesome is that?
    In my opinion this is a huge advantage , though the Observers alarms aren’t anything you’ll hear if you happen to be a heavy sleeper – all in all its a great tool on the trail!.

  15. Andrew L December 5, 2013 at 12:35 am #

    Hi Andrew,

    Do you find the bearing function on the Core useful? I recently purchased a Core, and while I haven’t had the opportunity to field-test it much, it does seem like the bearing function could be helpful, especially while bushwhacking. I’ve read multiple reviews that touted this as one of the watch’s best features.

    Thanks,
    Andrew (great name, btw :) )

    • Andrew Skurka December 5, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

      This is a nice feature, making it almost a replacement for a real compass, and certainly a sufficient replacement when you don’t have one. Like a real compass, however, you need to practice in low-risk situations before relying on your skills for real.

      • Andrew L December 12, 2013 at 2:47 pm #

        Hi – thanks for the reply. Another feature of the watch which was compelling for me was the temperature measurement. I am wondering if you find knowing the temperature in the field to be helpful. For example, if you see that the temperature is a certain degree, do you adjust your clothing layering appropriately? Or, do you just go by how you physically feel to adjust your layering.

        I noticed that on your gear list for the Alaska-Yukon that you included an REI thermometer “for kicks-and-giggles”, so I’m wondering if it were really just for fun or if you used it to help guide any decision making.

        Thanks,
        Andrew

        • Andrew Skurka December 12, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

          Having a thermometer is a good data point, but it doesn’t really affect any decisions or actions. For instance, if I sleep comfortably and in the morning my watch reads 22 degrees, I know that my sleeping & clothing systems are suitable for that temperature range in the future. But I’m not necessarily going to layer differently when leaving camp because of this temperature — I can layer based on feel.

          The once instance I can think of in which having a thermometer actually affects my actions is when I need to wax my skis. Sometimes it’s difficult to feel the difference between 15 F and 25 F, but these two temperatures demand two different waxes.

  16. Steve D December 14, 2013 at 4:08 am #

    Hi,
    I have just picked up a Core after running with a Protrek prg-250. I find the Core to be one of the most comfortable watches I’ve owned. My question is when having the watch (core) at rest (home) do you keep it in alt, baro or auto mode. I find that if I leave it in alt it changes with the pressure giving me an inaccurate altimiter reading. Should I just get used to switching between both depending on what im doing (rest =baro, moving=alt) even when not on the trails. I find the protrek the same.
    Cheers
    Stevo.

    • Andrew Skurka December 14, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

      The altimeter will naturally be thrown off over time because the barometer pressure is constantly changing (with the weather). I believe that the Core mitigates this somewhat by knowing whether the watch is moving or not — if it’s not moving, it assumes that it’s recording changes in barometer pressure, not altitude. But even a smart watch will be thrown off and will need to be recalibrated.

      Regarding your specific question, I don’t know whether the setting affects the accuracy. I’m doubtful that it would.

  17. NateD March 7, 2014 at 7:06 am #

    Andrew,
    I’m in the market for a new watch and was wondering your impressions on the watch after owning it several months… Has it maintained your initial impression or faded into the “great idea” but never really living up to its potential arena like other pieces of gear can tend to. Ideally it would be great both in the field and in everyday use. Just wondering your thoughts after 6+ months.

    Thanks!
    NateD

    • Andrew Skurka March 7, 2014 at 8:10 am #

      I have worn it almost daily since the original post. It has proven to be accurate and durable, and I like the “automatic” switching between altimeter and barometer depending if I’m moving or not.

      Its functions are more narrow, however, than my old watch from High Gear. Specifically, it doesn’t have a dedicated chonograph screen or lap memory, so it’s not a suitable runner’s watch. Also, I would recommend against the negative display; while it looks sharp, it’s not as legible as a positive (white background, black text) one.

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