For over a decade I wore daily an altimeter watch like the Suunto Core, also known as an ABC watch because most models feature a barometer and compass, too. My favorite was the now-discontinued Highgear Summit, which had the three basic functions, plus a stopwatch with 100-lap memory, easily navigable screens, oversized type, and quick-glance bar charts.
About three years ago I received a GPS sport watch, the Suunto Ambit2 (long-term review). I quickly realized that the Ambit was a revolutionary upgrade for running, and began to use it on all of my runs.
My decade-long custom of backpacking with an altimeter watch was slower to change. “Why do I need all of that data while hiking,” I skeptically asked. But after a few trips with the Ambit, my conclusion was the same: it’s a game-changing device. With only two minor qualifiers, the ABC watch has been made completely obsolete by the the GPS sport watch.
Functions of an ABC watch
For hiking and backpacking, an ABC watch has four useful features.
Using the clock, I would set an alarm, schedule my day, coordinate plans with group members, and dead-reckon.
With this data point, I could rule out false summits, and pinpoint my location by cross-referencing my altitude with another known landmark like a trail or creek confluence.
The barometric pressure indicated the arrival or departure of weather systems. Based on this “forecast” I sometimes changed plans, like by going over a pass late in the day so that I would be on the other side when the storm finally arrived.
For extensive navigation, I prefer a high quality baseplate compass like the Suunto M-3G Global (long-term review). But with a digital compass I can roughly orient a map and find or transfer bearings, which sometimes is good enough.
The new class: GPS sport watches
Select GPS sport watches like the Suunto Ambit3 Peak feature the same hardware as a standard ABC watch: timepiece, altimeter, barometer, and compass.
But in addition, they have a GPS antenna and accelerometer, and are compatible with accessories like heart rate monitors and power meters via ANT or Bluetooth.
Because of this additional hardware — and the software and memory storage necessary to run it — a GPS sport watch is much more powerful than an ABC watch. It can:
- Auto dead-reckon, by calculating the distance traveled from a trailhead or camp, or a more recent landmark like a junction;
- Display current and average hiking speed;
- Measure cumulative vertical gain and loss, which I have found to be the limiting factor when hiking high routes (read #3 for an explanation);
- Perform basic GPS functions, like showing its coordinates, storing waypoints, and navigating to a pre-programmed landmark; and,
- Create a GPX track of a route that can be shared or published later, as shown in the map below using the track of a day-hike I did in Rocky Mountain National Park in October.
These features are very useful for hiking and backpacking, as well as endurance sports like running, cycling, swimming, and Nordic skiing. Also, by uploading the data to Strava, I took my training analysis to the next level.
A final perk of GPS sport watches is that the displays are customizable. View my preferred screen settings for hiking and backpacking.
Most suitable GPS watches for hiking and backpacking
You may have noticed my earlier comment that only select GPS watches are full replacements for ABC watches. These four are:
- Suunto Ambit3 Peak
- Suunto Ambit3 Vertical
- Suunto Traverse
- Garmin Fenix 3
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I have been extremely pleased with my Suunto Ambit2, and cannot imagine a compelling reason to go with anything but a Suunto. For an explanation of the functional differences between the Suunto models, read this post.
GPS sport watch not listed above may not be a full replacement for an ABC watch. For example, the Suunto Ambit3 Run uses GPS to determine its altitude, not a barometer. So it offers no weather forecasting, and more importantly it cannot accurately track vertical change unless the GPS interval is set to 1 second; at 5- or 60-sec intervals the watch misses too much.
Maybe not completely obsolete
This post could be a few years ahead of itself. There are two reasons why you might still hold onto your ABC watch, or purchase one instead of a GPS sport watch.
The retail price of the Suunto Ambit3 Peak — which would be my recommendation — is $500. But for months I have seen it on sale for $300 or less: on Amazon and now at REI (Nepal Edition only). This is less than the retail cost of the ABC-only Suunto Core or newer Core Crush.
But ABC watches are on sale, too: $200 on Amazon for the Core, way below its $320 retail, and even less for the Casio Pathfinder and Casio ProTrek, which make my head want to explode when I simply look at them.
Are the extra features worth the extra money? They are for me, but YMMV.
The CR2023 battery on the Suunto Core lasts about a year. The longest lasting GPS sport watch, the Ambit3 Peak, runs for 200 hours when set to 60-second GPS pings. View the battery life of popular GPS watches.
If you don’t want to worry about batteries, an ABC watch might be better for you. But 200 hours is a long time — the watch can run for 10 hours a day for nearly three weeks without a recharge. Most of my trips are long over by then. And in the unlikely event that I go on another thru-hike, I’ll probably have a battery bank like the Anker PowerCore+ mini to charge my phone and DeLorme inReach anyway. To charge my watch as well, I would need to carry just another 1-oz cable.
Your turn: Agree or disagree? If you own a GPS sport watch, do you find it as useful as I do?
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