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GPS sport watch settings & displays for backpacking

Most backpackers wear a simple watch, an altimeter watch like the Suunto Core, or no watch at all. My pick, however, is a GPS sport watch. In this post, I will explain how I customize the watch’s settings and displays for backpacking trips.

The case for a GPS sport watch

I used a simple watch on my first thru-hike in 2002, and replaced it with an altimeter watch two years later. Now, I use a GPS sport watch because it:

  • Includes all the features of an altimeter watch, notably a clock, chronograph, altimeter, barometer, and digital compass;
  • Records my route, at up to a 1-second tracking interval;
  • Displays and records my hiking speed and distance, and cumulative vertical gain and loss — with greater speed and accuracy than I could achieve by manual dead-reckoning and map-reading;
  • Serves double-duty between trips, when I maintain my fitness primarily by running (a lot); and,
  • Costs less than an altimeter watch, incredibly.

Product recommendations

I highly recommend the Suunto Ambit3 Peak. Read my long-term review of the Suunto Ambit2 Peak, its predecessor.

If you do not intend to use your GPS watch for endurance sports like running, cycling, and swimming, the Suunto Traverse will be sufficient. However, currently the Traverse costs more despite being less powerful than the Ambit3 Peak.

If you are loyal to Garmin, the Garmin Fenix 3 is the closest comparison to the Ambit3 Peak. I have no first-hand experience with it. And, frankly, based on my long-term experience with the Ambit, I have no motivation to switch.

Setting and display customization

In Movescount I can customize many of the Ambit’s settings and displays, like the data that is shown, and the frequency at which my GPS location is recorded. These settings can be saved in multiple profiles, known as “Sport Modes.” For what I do, I have created four modes: standard runs, track & tempo workouts, ultramarathon races, and trekking.

suunto-ambit-sport-modes

My saved Sport Mode profiles in Movescount

Settings

The Ambit has three main settings, plus some advanced settings (which I leave to the defaults).

suunto-ambit-settings

Recording interval: 10 seconds

The watch will record data from its various sensors (e.g. GPS antenna, accelerometer, altimeter, thermometer) every 10 seconds. If the 1-second interval were selected, the watch would capture this data for the nine other seconds (and your hiking speed will display accurately in Strava, if you use that platform). However, the internal memory would fill much faster, within a few 10-hour days on the trail. At 10-second intervals, you can go weeks before needing to download the data.

GPS accuracy: OK

My Ambit2 will last about 50 hours when it pings GPS satellites every 60 seconds. The Ambit3 Peak will last 200 hours. When I need to recharge my device, I use the Anker PowerCore Mini, which weighs about 3 oz and which can recharge my Ambit2 about six times. Because the Ambit is so battery-efficient, I leave it running all day, which is hassle-free and which creates fewer trip logs to manage later.

For my purposes, a 60-second interval offers sufficient accuracy. In that time, I will have hiked about 88 yards (assuming a 3 MPH pace). Remarkably, few twist-and-turns are missed during these intervals, because the watch continues to record accelerometer and altimeter data.

The accuracy of the track could be increased by using 1-second (“Best”) or 5-second (“Good”) intervals, but at the expense of battery life. This may or may not be a great concern, depending on your watch and the length of your trip.

Pods to search: None

When running, I frequently wear a heart rate monitor. (Read my long-term review of the Suunto Dual Comfort Belt.) But I don’t use any pods while hiking.

Displays

The Ambit can display up to eight screens in each Sport Mode. That sounds great, but I think that would lead to an annoying amount of scrolling. To scroll, use the Next button.

I use just four screens. Each screen has up to three fields: top, center, and bottom. The top and center fields are fixed; the bottom field can scroll with up to four data sources, by pressing the View button.

Screen 1: Primary

Top field

  • Chronograph | On recent personal trips, I can hike for 13-14 hours per day. How many more hours do I have before hitting my max?

Center field

  • Day time | When will daytime temperatures peak? When will darkness arrive? When will we take our next break?

Lower field

  • Distance | Cumulative mileage for the day.
  • Altitude | When in mountainous terrain, altitude is a useful datapoint for navigation.
  • Battery charge | When I notice my battery running low, I make a mental note to recharge it in camp.
ambit-setting-main

Screen 1


Screen 2: Vertical

Top field

  • Ascent | Cumulative climbing for the day. My sustainable max is about 7,000 vertical feet per day. If I am in excess of this amount, or contemplating another pass that would push me over, I need to be aware that I may pay for it tomorrow with flat legs.

Center field

  • Altitude | A useful data point when navigating in mountainous terrain.

Lower field

  • Descent | Cumulative for the day. Descending is not as hard on the legs, and thus less important than cumulative ascent.
  • Vertical speed | A good measure of fitness. With a loaded pack, I can climb continuously at about 40 vertical feet per minute. This also helps to estimate when I may arrive at the top of a climb.
ambit-setting-altitude

Screen 2


Screen 3: Cumulative distance

Top field

  • Chronograph | Cumulative for the day

Center field

  • Distance | Cumulative for the day

Lower field

  • Average pace | I can extrapolate this to the remainder of today, and to future days, too.
  • Ascent | This may help to explain variability in my cumulative distance and average walking speed.
  • Descent | Ditto
ambit-setting-cumulative

Screen 3. If this seems oddly short and slow to you, you should attempt what I’d done so far on this day.


Screen 4: Distance since last landmark

Top field

  • Lap time | For how long have I been hiking since my last major landmark, such as a trail junction or road crossing? Normally I start/end splits based on the landmarks in my datasheet.

Center field

  • Lap distance | In conjunction with a datasheet (or by measuring on my map the distance to a upcoming landmark), I can approximate my arrival time.

Lower field

  • Lap average pace | To estimate my arrival at the next landmark, assuming no major changes in the terrain.
ambit-setting-split

Screen 4


Screen 5: Climate

Single field

  • Barograph | Displays barometic pressure over time, which may indicate changes in weather. Includes temperature.
Screen 5

Screen 5


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30 Responses to GPS sport watch settings & displays for backpacking

  1. Chris August 2, 2016 at 2:14 pm #

    Do you find the battery life of the Suunto matches what they tout it to be? Might be looking for a replacement of my Fenix3 after running out of battery roughly 15-16 hours into a race, which is 4-5 hours less than advertised.

    • Andrew Skurka August 2, 2016 at 2:21 pm #

      Yes, I do. The last really good test was in September during Run Rabbit Run 100. I had the interval set to 5 seconds (“Good”), which gives an estimated lifespan of 24 hours. My watch had 18% left after 20.25 hours, as I documented later. That’s right in line with the 24-hour estimate. I’m even more impressed since the watch was 2 years old by that point and had recorded 500+ workouts.

      I’ve heard similar complaints about the Fenix. Sounds like they were optimistic with their battery life. I think the Garmin Epic was even worse.

  2. Russell August 2, 2016 at 2:27 pm #

    I finally broke down and got the Ambit3 Peak last week. Even though I’ve only done some modest walking to test it out, I’m quite pleased with it. Wish I’d opted for it over the Casio ProTrek ABC watch a few years ago.

    Your post is quite helpful in helping me figure out how to customize my watch. It seemed daunting at first … when I started poring over the manual, I felt like I was trying to learn to fly the space shuttle. But after playing around with it, it became quite easy to figure out.

    My one complaint … if you can call it that … I wish there were a way to permanently incorporate the compass feature into a custom sport mode. If I understand it correctly, it has to be done every time you activate the mode.

    And you’re right – compared with the Traverse, it does more for less. And who knows, maybe ownership of this watch will inspire me to become an endurance athlete..

    • Andrew Skurka August 2, 2016 at 2:35 pm #

      I’m going to speculate on why the Traverse costs more:

      1. An Ambit4 will soon be available, so they are trying to clear out inventory.
      2. The build on the Traverse is more expensive, because the GPS antenna is incorporated into the watch body rather than a distinct piece between the body and the strap as it is with the Ambits.

      Re your complaint, I can see it, although I rarely use it, instead preferring a magnetic baseplate compass.

      • Shawn K. September 1, 2016 at 7:28 pm #

        Any speculation on what the Ambit4 will offer, and when it’ll be released? I’m more of a last-gen guy anymore, so I’d probably look for a deal on an Ambit3 once the New Hotness is available.

        Do you use a full featured GPS unit much? I’ve always preferred using a map & compass, to the point that carrying my old Garmin doesn’t make much sense. Replacing it with a GPS watch seems to fit more with how I do things, and it’d save me a fair amount of weight.

        • Andrew Skurka September 2, 2016 at 10:45 am #

          I would like to see a wrist-mounted heart rate monitor in the Ambit4. Otherwise, my suggested improvements would be minor.

          Not sure if there will ever be an Ambit4. They might see the new Spartan watch as its replacement.

          I rarely use a full-featured GPS. When I do, I use the Gaia app on my smartphone. When I do use it, it’s to get absolute certainty of my location. For simply getting a track of my route, the GPS watch is much more convenient.

  3. Nathan Taylor August 4, 2016 at 10:31 am #

    Do the GPS/ABC watches automatically factor in GPS position to calculate compass declination so that you are getting a true-north heading from the compass function?

    • Andrew Skurka August 4, 2016 at 11:41 am #

      I believe that you can specify declination. Default is probably 0 degrees.

  4. Mark August 4, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

    Do you use custom settings and displays on your Ambit2 for running? If so, would you be willing to share sometime in the future? As an avid trail runner an Ambit3 user, it would be interesting to see what data you like most visible and how you use it to improve.

    • Andrew Skurka August 4, 2016 at 1:28 pm #

      Yes, I customized the settings for normal trail runs, too. Previously I shared my ultra marathon race settings, but my normal run mode has a few different things about it, e.g. 1-second GPS intervals, less emphasis on split times. I’ll try to get around to this post sometime soon.

  5. Sean August 4, 2016 at 3:35 pm #

    Yaaaaaas!

    Thanks Andrew, I’ve been looking (and bothering you) to review my Ambit3 hiking mode.

    I’m very, very appreciative for the post.

  6. Albert September 2, 2016 at 1:47 pm #

    Hi Andrew,

    Great post! I also have the Ambit3 Peak and have a few questions.

    In the next month I’m doing a 4 day backpacking trip with about 12h of hiking per day.

    I would like to log it but I’m unsure of how to do it.

    I already took note of your Trekking settings (which seem really practical and useful, btw).

    My question is… Would you recommend Starting the activity recording at Day 1 and Stopping at the end of the trip (just let it run the whole time)? Or Start/Stop each day?

    It’s my first long trip and I don’t want to mess up the data collection.

    Thanks a lot!

    • Andrew Skurka September 2, 2016 at 2:07 pm #

      Start it in the morning. Stop it when you pull into camp. Start a new activity in the morning.

      Throughout the day, keep it “locked” by holding down the lower-right button, so that you do not accidentally depress the start/stop button.

      • Albert September 2, 2016 at 7:17 pm #

        Thanks! Will try that out.

        • Albert September 25, 2016 at 2:45 pm #

          Completed my trip. Awesome watch, totally recommend it for all the other guys thinking about getting one. Recorded my “Trekking” exercise and Navigated the routes at the same time. Great battery life. Even took the time to mix the “Suunto Movies” from each day to share the route with the other backpackers. Thanks for the info again.

  7. Shawn K. September 11, 2016 at 11:48 am #

    Andrew, have you considered incorporating a GPS sports watch segment into your Navigation video series? Maybe showing how you integrate your entire Nav system (compass, map, Ambit3, Gaia, computer) might be a good topic for another video.

    Of course, putting all of your navigation wisdom together in an e-book might be worth the time, too. Maybe there’s already something available, but I haven’t seen a book with a focus on using a GPS sports watch as a nav aid. With your experience and accomplishments, Suunto would be wise to partner with you on that project. You’d fit right in with this group.

    http://www.suunto.com/en-US/About-Suunto/People/

    • John O September 25, 2016 at 2:16 pm #

      I would love to see something similar. I went out and got an Ambit 3 Peak Nepal edition based on this article and I love it so far. The only difference with the Nepal edition is that it has an aluminum bezel, few grams less weight because of the bezel, and the cost.

      It would be great to see how you actually use your ambit when navigating, planning in the field, etc.

      Thank you for all the info your provide!

  8. Scott October 20, 2016 at 2:02 pm #

    Any of you see the new https://www.tomtom.com/en_gb/sports/outdoor-watches/ being viable options?

    • Andrew Skurka October 20, 2016 at 3:32 pm #

      Have not dug into it much. In general, I think it’s pretty hard to improve upon what the Ambit3 Peak offers, which BTW is now selling for about $300.

      Unless Tomtom has new HRM technology, I’ve read that wrist-based HRM’s are not sufficiently accurate. Also, 10-hour battery life is not very good.

  9. Malcolm November 20, 2016 at 12:43 pm #

    I am looking at purchasing an Ambit3 Peak. I am trying to find out if the Peak has a screen that will allow me to see my route traveled or the direction I am going?

    I want it for hiking, backpacking, trail running but also for search & rescue for going towards a set Lat/ Lon location or going towards a set compass heading. Looking for a screen that will show me that.

    • Andrew Skurka November 20, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

      Yes, you can do this. With the Ambit2, I think the Point of Interest (POI) must be loaded beforehand; I don’t see a way to manually add one. When you select the POI under the Navigation menu, it will tell you the distance to it and give you a bearing to follow on the bezel.

    • Paul December 5, 2016 at 11:38 am #

      Malcolm, it looks like the functionality to add a POI on the go exists. Check out this link: http://www.suunto.com/en-US/sports/News-Articles-container-page/TutorialTuesday-POIs/ Step 4 under the SAVING A LOCATION AS A POI heading,

      4. Select CURRENT or DEFINE to manually change longitude and latitude values.

      I wonder if this functionality is also available using the Movescount app on a bluetooth connected phone.

      Anyone with first hand experience of either?

      • Andrew Skurka December 5, 2016 at 11:44 am #

        Correct. I just poked around more, and you can indeed create POI’s based on where you are (coordinates auto populated by the GPS receiver) or where you want to go (must manually add using right-side buttons).

        When you command it to navigate to a POI, it gives you a distance and bearing.

  10. Malcolm December 5, 2016 at 8:34 pm #

    Thanks for the comments. I just got my Ambit3 Peak and am looking forward to getting it into the woods & mountains

  11. Dave Martin December 6, 2016 at 12:36 am #

    Hi Andrew.
    Greetings from Cape Town.
    I just purchased a Suunto Traverse, and I am a little confused about the Altimeter.
    What is your preferred settings for this feature. Do you just set a reference point for this before the start of each trip?

    Thanks

  12. Marcus February 27, 2017 at 6:15 pm #

    have you used the navigation feature much? I have used it for short hikes just to test it out. When I used it I don’t believe I was able to record my track simultaneously. I believe you can either record or navigate, not both at the same time. I’m not sure how it would work on a long hike, but it seems it could save some map/compass time. I was wondering how it might fair on a long hike such as your HBR? Thoughts?

    • MikekiM March 10, 2017 at 12:46 pm #

      Marcus, I record tracks while using the navigation function all the time. I am using a first generation Ambit, and have not found compelling reason to upgrade. I assume this will work on later Ambits as well. It’s important that you start in the Exercise/ Record mode first. Once you have successfully connected to GPS and/or HR, press and hold the main right side button to enter Options and select Navigation. Follow the prompts for the route you want, whether you want to follow it or view it, and which direction. In use, the Ambit will cycle through the displays as follows Exercise 1-> Exercise 2-> Exercise 3->Navigation-> Exercise 1. Of course, if you have more displays to the Exercise you choose, those will cycle first. I like to leave the Ambit display on the Nav display so I can see quick glance where I am, relative to where I should be, so I don’t have to pull out GaiaGPS. I create routes in GaiaGPS and upload them to MovesCount. I rarely create waypoints in the Ambit route, but I do use POI’s such as water courses/cache and important points.

  13. Marcus March 10, 2017 at 2:07 pm #

    Andrew/MikekiM, I have the Ambit 3 Peak. I primarily use it for trail running and training/HR to track my route and check stats etc. I have not used it for nav, but played around with the nav in my neighborhood. Do you have any experiences using it for long distance navigation backpacking? I am considering the HBR route this August and was thinking of programming the entire route if it can handle all the data. Of course I will have map/compass with knowledge on use, but was wondering how useful the watch could be for a long route. It would be extremely convenient if you could solely use the watch to navigate.

    • Mikeki March 10, 2017 at 3:32 pm #

      Cliff Notes… Relying on the Ambit as your primary GPS is going to be frustrating because of the display limitations and limited information. Not recommended as your sole navigation device.

      I see no reason the Nav/tracking features wouldn’t work, though I wouldn’t rely on them as a primary nav tool for a few reasons..

      The Nav display is dreadfully small. Your route is going to be sized so the entire route fits on the Ambit display and the position marker will indicate where you are on that route. I tend to rely on mine to keep ‘trail drift’ in check.. so I don’t wander too far from the intended route. If your route has been scaled down dramatically so it displays on the Ambit, your drift is going to have to be substantial before it is even detectable on the display. Shorter routes that don’t get scaled down so dramatically make it easier to see how far you are off course.

      Keep in mind, there are no topo options. The route is essentially a single dimension, single line representation of the route. No map, no topo, no landmarks.

      The position indicator does show your direction, so you’ll know you’re heading in the right direction.

      I don’t recall the storage capacity so not sure if you could have your entire route programmed. I know I have four routes with a few waypoints and POIs saved right now. I would think breaking it down into logical segments rather than one long route would work best and if you did this, you might find they routes are sized reasonable to view on the display. For instance, if you break your trip down to 15-20 mile days and save one route for each day, the size of the route on the display would likely be usable. Whether there is enough available memory to store the routes, waypoints, POIs and such is undetermined.

      Tracking is another story. I find recorded tracks on the Ambit to be very accurate, I use the same settings as Andrew. Speed over ground, altitude, ascent and descent are all highly accurate as well, so viewing the Move on MovesCount is information rich. Battery life is awesome, and time-to-full-charge is super fast when charging from a battery bank.

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