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.
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.
The Ambit has three main settings, plus some advanced settings (which I leave to the defaults).
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.
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
- 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?
- Day time | When will daytime temperatures peak? When will darkness arrive? When will we take our next break?
- 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.
Screen 2: Vertical
- 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.
- Altitude | A useful data point when navigating in mountainous terrain.
- 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.
Screen 3: Cumulative distance
- Chronograph | Cumulative for the day
- Distance | Cumulative for the day
- 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
Screen 4: Distance since last landmark
- 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.
- 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.
- Lap average pace | To estimate my arrival at the next landmark, assuming no major changes in the terrain.
Screen 5: Climate
- Barograph | Displays barometic pressure over time, which may indicate changes in weather. Includes temperature.
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