Dear Alpine: Altimeter Watches

dear alpine: altimeter watches

Hey Alpine,

I just took the plunge and signed up for a Mexico Volcanoes expedition this winter!   Psyched to climb some high peaks with my man Stuart Robertson and refuel with all the tacos I can eat.   To get ready for the trip, I’ve been looking at GPS watches.   It seems like all the guides have them.  Give it to me straight.   Do they really help with training?  What about on the climb?   Thanks for the advice!

Watch Me


Hi Watch Me,

Great question!   We are big fans of smart altimeter watches over here at Alpine Ascents International and they can be spotted on the wrists of nearly all of our guides and 90% of our hard-charging administrative staff.   Why?   Quality altimeter watches offer the most essential information for all your backcountry adventures – altimeter, barometer, and compass with large scratch-resistant faces and glove friendly buttons.   We’ll lay out why we like these watches for training, during a climb, and even drop a little science along the way along with a few watch recommendations.

With a smart watch, the training possibilities on your wrist abound.   You can set workouts up on your phone and download them to your watch – hill repeats anyone?  On some of our climb pages, you might see the following text: Climbers must be able to climb at a rate of 1,000 vertical feet per hour.  If you have an altimeter watch, it’s a breeze to track your climb rate in your training hikes / climbs to see if you are on track for your upcoming trip.  More generally, you can use smart / altimeter watches on training runs and hikes to track your distance, speed, and elevation gain.

Most watches also track across multiple sports – backcountry skiing, swimming, yoga, mountain biking, etc.  so you can keep track of your total weekly training output.  One of our administrative staffers was recently surprised to that she was commuting over 70 miles a week on her bike to the office.  Nice!   When your training in the backcountry,  knowing your elevation and distance traveled helps keep you oriented to your tour plan.

Altimeter / smart watches also sync to popular training apps like Strava so you can track your training over time and show off your epic hikes to your friends of course.   Last but not least, many smart watches also keep track of how many hours you sleep and alert you if you are falling into a sleep deficit.   Proper rest is essential for productive training after all!

On the Climb:
Having an altimeter watch can be a super valuable addition to your kit for many reasons. An altimeter paired with a map can easily help give you a point of reference if inclement weather hits. In combination with a compass you can navigate your way more safely in the wilderness. Some smart watches with GPS capabilities also have mapping software which allows your watch to become a navigation tool as well using the ‘track back function’ or the ‘topo map feature’. People doing longer hikes will find this feature useful since they can set up multiple waypoints.

Another feature that our guides find useful is the barometer reading. The barometric pressure is a direct correlation to weather. When the pressure increases (barometer reading goes up) high pressure which is normally associated with clear skies is coming. When the pressure decreases typically a low front is coming in which is associated with stormy weather. All Altimeter/Smart watches come with the standard features like an alarm clock, stop watch, timer, etc.… all of which can be helpful while on a climb.

How do Altimeter Watches Work?
Science time!  The higher you climb, the less atmosphere is above you and the air pressure drops.  Altimeter watches use the atmospheric pressure reading as the method to determine your altitude. Most current altimeter watch models track altitude changes in 3 ft. (1 meter) increments.

Picking Out an Altimeter Watch  
If you’re read this far, there’s a good chance an altimeter watch may be in your future. How could you resist such functionality? Now that you’re in the market, here are some key metrics to look for.

  1. Battery life –  You want to make sure you have enough battery life to last you through your adventures.
  2. Ease of Use –   An intuitive, easy to use watch will make your life easier.  You don’t want to be fussing around with knobs and buttons when you’re working hard.
  3. Features – Altimeter, barometer, and compass are the big ones.  Some smart watches also have music functionality, allow you to view text messages (yikes), and let you to download maps directly to your watch.
  4. Cost – How much watch can you afford?  Do you need the highest end watch on the market or would a more affordable model with less bells and whistles be perfectly fine for your lifestyle?

Our Recommendations:

Top Shelf Options:

Coros Vertix 2  – $699.00
This watch can talk to all five major satellite systems at the same time which brings huge improvements to GPS plotting, especially when navigating deep in the forest or along rock walls.  It also has a shocking battery life for a GPS Watch. With 140 hours of standard full GPS tracking and 60 days of normal use, it more than doubles the battery life of its already market leading predecessor.  The watch also has global offline mapping and users can download their Topo map by regions for free from   Need music?   You’re covered.  It has 32GB of onboard storage for your workout jams.  If you want the best watch out there, look no further.

Garmin Fenix 7 – Sapphire Solar Edition – $899.99
The Fenix 7 Sapphire Solar GPS multisport smartwatch that harasses the power of the sun for an excellent battery life – up to 73 hours in GPS mode or 22 days in smartwatch mode. The battery saver mode (less accurate tracking) increases that figure to 173 hours with solar.  The watch also uses data from the wrist heart rate monitor to provide insight into your performance and recovery over time.  After each workout, recovery time lets you know when you’ll be ready for another hard workout. It even accounts for training intensity and factors such as stress, daily activity and sleep.  It also has the handy features common in other smart watches like notifications from your smartphone, contactless payments and the ability to store music on the watch.

Budget Pick: Garmin Forerunner 55 – $200.00
The Garmin Forerunner 55 is the perfect choice for a climber on a budget! Shaving off some of the higher end bells and whistles, the Forerunner 55 still provides all the health information you need to step up your training to the next level. With built in GPS, up to 2 weeks of battery life in Smartwatch Mode, and training plans through Garmin designed to help you reach your goals- this watch still packs a punch for it’s lower price! One of our office staff loves her Forerunner 55 and the ease of use. “The Garmin Coach program is amazing, monitoring your workouts and vitals throughout the day, it will suggest workouts based not only on my goals but also on my body’s recovery time! My Forerunner 55 keeps me honest about my training even on my low energy days.”

Pro Recommendation:  Garmin Forerunner 945
Our program coordinator and current Glacier Peak, Eldorado, and Adams FKT holder, Tara Fraga, swears by the Forerunner 945.   “I live and die by my Forerunner 945. It does all the things I need it to do without having to constantly stress about the battery life. I’ve run a 100-mile race in the mountains without the battery dying, along with other 20+ hour missions and finished with charge remaining. I also like that it’s way lighter than the Fenix line, and that the case is plastic rather than metal (from what I’ve seen the metal gets more scratched). My watch takes a beating, and it holds up great.”



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