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Compasses and GPS units get all the glory, but altimeter watches are incredibly valuable tools in the outdoors. A quality plan involves redundancies, and knowing your altitude can help you locate your position on a map in the event that visibility and satellite signals fail. Because altimeter watches function in a very different way from global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) like GPS, they also provide unique capabilities like sensing changes in the weather so you can prepare for an incoming storm.
Realistically, a watch with an altimeter is going to come with a compass and GPS, as well. If you see products marked as ABC watches, that stands for altimeter, barometer, and compass — and may or may not offer GPS. In this gear guide, you’ll find the best options out there spanning from entry-level to cutting-edge technology. Let’s get you set up with an altimeter watch and hit the trail.
- Best Overall: Garmin Instinct 2 Solar Tactical
- Best Budget: Suunto Core Alpha
- Best with GPS: Garmin Foretrex 601
- Best Solar-Powered: Casio GW9400-1B
- Best Tactical: Garmin tactix 7
The Garmin Instinct Solar Tactical checks all the boxes for a rugged, reliable ABC watch you can trust in the outdoors. It combines multiple GNSS networks (GPS, Galileo, and GLONASS) that can establish a connection almost anywhere in the world with an internal barometer to provide accurate altitude readings. It can also track your pace, heading, waypoints, and health factors, making it an incredible navigational tool in the field. At $500, it’s moderately priced and will likely feel like you got more than you paid for.
Because of all the additional features and capabilities (plus more when paired to your phone using the Garmin Connect app), this is a step up for people who want more than a basic altimeter watch. It’s certainly capable of handling life in the military, thanks to its stealth mode, night-vision compatibility, dual grid coordinates, and a kill switch that can erase all data in seconds. Unlike a lot of outdoor adventure watches, it’s small and subtle enough to wear every day without feeling out of place in town.
This is a fantastic choice for anyone who wants one watch to do every job. Land nav in the field? Piece of cake. Training or working out? No sweat. Hell, it even looks cool in street clothes. At the time of writing, I have three of the watches on this list on my nightstand, and I reach for the Instinct 2 Solar Tactical more often than not because it’s so versatile and easy to use. If you can afford it, this one is a real winner.
- Altimeter: Barometer, GNSS
- Battery life: Up to 30 hours with GPS, unlimited in expedition mode with solar charging
- Waypoint navigation: Yes
- Case size: 45 millimeters
- The Instinct 2 Solar Tactical might be the best value in Garmin’s lineup, and it’s powered by an altimeter, true ABC functionality, and multi-band GNSS navigational support.
Full suite of navigational tools
Huge selection of apps for specific sports and activities
Solar charging extends battery life
Still fairly expensive compared to non-GPS altimeter watches
Feels less premium than a lot of other Garmin adventure watches
Suunto takes a more old-school approach to the altimeter watch game with the Core Alpha, a variation of the brand’s rugged adventure watch tailored to life in the military. Its altimeter runs off an onboard barometer, so you won’t be dependent on satellite signals to get a reading. That’s reassuring on its own and welcome news to anyone who’s concerned about OPSEC when using a GPS-connected device. Just remember that this kind of altimeter is susceptible to interference caused by changes in the weather. Frequent calibration using known altitudes can minimize this effect.
To meet the U.S. military’s requirements for MIL-STD-810, the Core Alpha had to pass nine rigorous durability tests. It then got a red display that can be used with night vision, and a blacked-out exterior (except for glow-ing-the-dark indices on the rotating bezel). The barometer can also track changes in the weather and alert you to approaching storms. Other tools include a thermometer, digital compass, and the usual timers and alarms you’d find on a digital watch.
The Suunto Core Alpha is a great entry point into the world of adventure watches. It’s simple and feels less premium than the other options here, but it also costs significantly less than most of them. I’ve had one in the rotation for several months and never feel short-changed by it. It’s not as precise or feature-rich as the Garmin watches I’ve tested, but that’s OK; it’s good to see options that work with lower budgets.
- Altimeter: Barometer
- Battery life: One year
- Waypoint navigation: No
- Case size: 49 millimeters
- Suunto isn’t going to knock Garmin off its perch anytime soon, but it does offer a very tempting (and affordable) military alternative in the Core Alpha.
Spend less for a proven military ABC watch
Large display is easy to read and works with night vision
Who doesn’t love a rotating bezel?
Nowhere near Garmin’s fit and finish (or performance)
Barometer-only altimeter is subject to weather fluctuations
The Garmin Foretrex 601 uses an onboard barometer and multi-band GNSS positioning to provide not only accurate altitude readings, but also location information in multiple formats, route guidance, and compass headings. It may not look fancy, but it’s a beast of a tool that’s built for the kinds of challenges you’ll face in the military. One of our staff gear testers took a Foretrex 601 to Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms in California for several weeks, and came back impressed. He noted that it wasn’t quite as accurate as the military’s DAGR, but he loved the functionality, night vision-compatible display, intuitive controls, and long battery life.
Outside of a military environment, this is a great altimeter watch and GPS device for more adventure in the more remote parts of the world. If you plan on hunting or backpacking in one of the United States’ wilderness or Bureau of Land Management areas, the Foretrex 601 will be right at home. It can tell you where you are, where you need to be, and how to get there.
Because of its size, the Foretrex 601 isn’t going to be an everyday GPS watch. It’s built for dedicated use outdoors by service members, guides, and other people who navigate open terrain for a living. The good news is that the lack of flashy features keeps the price down, so people in the military can actually afford it. Wear it on your wrist, clip it to your pack strap, or mount it to your plate carrier and get stepping.
- Altimeter: Barometer, GNSS
- Battery life: 48 hours with GPS, up to one month in watch mode
- Waypoint navigation: Yes
- Case size: 2.9 x 1.7 x 0.9 inches
- If navigating in the field is your top priority, the Foretrex 601 is tough to beat. You’ll appreciate the simple controls and oversized, night vision-compatible display.
Get an accurate altitude using a barometer and GNSS
Store and use waypoints in MGRS or latitude/longitude format
Display is visible with night vision
Massive compared to our other picks
Uses disposable AAA batteries
Casio opted to power this G-Shock’s altimeter with an integrated barometer rather than GPS. That helps make it a standalone piece of tech, and a nice side effect is a sub-$350 price tag. The barometer tracks changes in ambient pressure and will notify you when there’s bad weather brewing. Other sensors include a thermometer and a digital compass with magnetic declination correction. All this is wrapped up in Casio’s famously tough resin case.
Casio designed the GW9400-1B for military use, but its navigational tools, 20-meter waterproof rating, and eight-month battery life are just as useful off base. It’s a solid piece of gear for hunting, camping, backpacking, and trail running. The G-Shock has also become a bit of a status symbol among watch enthusiasts, so you might even get some approving nods in places you might not expect them.
There’s no ignoring the fact that this G-Shock is a monster of a watch. The 55-millimeter case diameter is even bigger than the Garmin tactix 7, and that’s saying something. If you want something understated for everyday use, look elsewhere (like the Garmin Instinct 2 Solar tactical). However, if you want a hardcore altimeter watch with all the features of an ABC watch and none of the cost of a GPS watch that you can wear in the field and not worry about, this is the one for you.
- Altimeter: Barometer
- Battery life: Eight months
- Waypoint navigation: No
- Case size: 55 millimeters
- This Casio combines a compelling price, a barometric altimeter, a digital compass, and long battery life. Besides, G-Shocks are almost indestructible and perfect for military life.
Famously durable resin case and band
Sensors include an altimeter, barometer, digital compass, and thermometer
Solar charging extends the already impressive battery life
Rudimentary display compared to many other tactical watches
Large and clunky for people with average to small wrists
Garmin loaded the tactix 7 with multi-band GNSS support that includes GPS, Galileo, and GLONASS satellite networks, and an onboard barometer that measures air pressure to calculate your altitude. Between the two methods, you’ll always have a solid idea of where you are. All those international satellites also yield incredibly accurate location and navigational data worldwide. Plot points, plan a route, and monitor your progress with the 1.4-inch full-color touchscreen display.
The tactix 7 is the apex predator of the Garmin food chain, so it comes with all the brand’s bells and whistles. Tactical features include stealth mode, night vision mode, dual-format grid coordinates, and a kill switch to clear the watch’s memory. It also has a massive ensemble of training and sports apps to keep you fit, a suite of aviation apps that pilots can use in the air, and a built-in LED flashlight with white and green light. Honestly, if something can fit in a watch, it’s probably here.
The tactix 7 will be outside most people’s budget, but if you can swing one, you’ll end up with a truly epic piece of equipment. This watch is more than an altitude watch, more than an outdoors watch, and more than a GPS watch. It’s a global navigator you can wear, and it’s a dream come true for professionals who demand the best.
- Altimeter: Barometer, GNSS
- Battery life: Up to 77 hours with GPS, up to 139 days in expedition mode with solar charging
- Waypoint navigation: Yes
- Case size: 51 millimeters
- The amount of technology inside the tactix 7 is simply astonishing. Yes, its price is eye-watering, but it’s the best tactical watch you can get, plain and simple.
Loaded with features that are useful on the battlefield
Massive, customizable, full-color, touchscreen display
Excellent maps and navigational tools
Prohibitively expensive for most recreational users
Might be too large to wear casually
Things to consider before buying an altimeter watch
All the products you see here earned their spots on this list, but that doesn’t make them interchangeable. Before you click that “buy now” button, make sure the one you choose meets your specific needs.
Know how altimeter watches work
Not all altimeters function the same way. You might even get different readings on one device. We can focus on the basics of GPS and barometric altimeters, but a lot of the information on this topic comes from pilots, so my sourcing is aviation-heavy. That makes sense — if anyone needs to have precise altitude readings, it’s the people hurtling through the air at hundreds of miles per hour, sometimes without any visibility.
One of the ways smartwatches determine altitude is by using information from global satellite networks like GPS, Galileo, and GLONASS (or a combination of multiple networks). Satellites orbit at known altitudes, so by triangulating your position by determining how far you are from multiple satellites, the watch can estimate your height above sea level. The problem is that the radio signals between your altimeter watch and these satellites can suffer from interference and you may experience blackouts in coverage. When that happens, you’ll get an inaccurate reading or no reading at all. Problems with GPS altimeters are rare, but they can happen.
Barometric altimeters are an example of old-school, analog tech that’s just as relevant today as ever. In this case, the whole instrument is contained inside your watch, so you’ll never have to worry about poor signal or outside interference. Basically, tiny components expand and contract based on ambient air pressure to provide a measurement. It works for altimeter watches and it works for modern aircraft. The drawback is that air pressure isn’t constant; barometric pressure changes with the weather. That can actually be an asset because it allows ABC watches to track changes in air pressure and alert you to incoming weather systems.
So, which type of altimeter is best? Both. Watches that use GPS and a barometer to determine altitude will give you more information to work with. If you have to choose just one, you’ll likely end up with a barometric altimeter watch because it’s uncommon for GPS watches to come without ABC capability.
Be realistic about how you’ll be using your altimeter watch
As with any outdoor gear, there’s a big difference between recreational and professional use. If you just want to track your elevation gain on a hike, run, or bike ride, you can certainly get away with using a very basic altimeter watch. If you only want to navigate in a military environment, something like a Garmin Foretrex 601 is a great choice and can save you a lot of money. If you want something that can do it all and serve as your daily smartwatch and fitness tracker, plan on shelling out some serious cash. Know what you expect from your gear and compare that to each of the products on this list to make sure you get the right one.
Set a budget
If I could give every one of our readers a Garmin tactix 7, I would. It’s frankly amazing that so much technology can be crammed inside a watch. All that performance is expensive, though, so you can’t get a base tactix 7 for less than $1,000. If you can swing that (or the up-spec Pro edition, which I recommend), great; if not, there are a lot of rock-solid alternatives here that cost a lot less.
FAQs about altimeter watches
Q: Why would I need an altimeter watch?
A: An altimeter watch is used for navigation. They’re particularly helpful if you’re traveling in high-altitude areas while climbing a mountain or flying in a plane. An altimeter watch tells you your altitude and time, and most modern ones provide additional data points like location and direction.
Q: How accurate are altimeter watches?
A: Accuracy will vary among different altimeter watches, however, Garmin claims to provide altitude readings accurate within 50 feet from 2,000 feet below sea level to 30,000 feet above sea level (if you exceed that without pressurization, good on you). Remember that using barometric pressure will get you close, but the reading will fluctuate with changes in air pressure. Altimeter watches with GPS sensors are more accurate. No matter what you choose, frequent calibration at known altitudes can keep you on track.
Q: Do all smartwatches have an altimeter?
A: All of the smartwatches in the world? Probably, but all the ones on this list definitely do.
Q: Do altimeter watches have durable batteries?
A: Again, this varies. The Apple Watch battery is reliable but doesn’t last very long. The Suunto Core’s battery should last more than a year, but the other capabilities are limited. Garmin’s GPS watches strike an excellent balance with legendary durability and battery life that can exceed a month (depending on the model and exposure to sunlight).
Q: Is a barometer useful on a watch?
A: Barometers are useful for checking your altitude. The ones in watches can typically track air pressure, which allows them to predict changes in the weather. Many altimeter watches can produce an audible alarm to let you know a storm is on the way.
Q: What is the difference between a GPS altimeter and a location altimeter?
A: These two terms are probably redundant. A GPS device can use satellite measurements and fancy math to determine your distance from them and, as a result, your altitude above sea level. Location can be used independently if you know the exact altitude at your location already and use that information to calibrate your altimeter watch.
The Garmin Instinct 2 Solar Tactical is a rock-solid piece of gear that goes way beyond the basics of an altimeter watch. Yes, it costs extra, but it can also legitimately serve as your only adventure watch, altimeter, GPS device, health monitor, and more.
This gear guide required me to go pretty far down the rabbit hole. There are multiple types of systems that produce altitude readings in very different ways. There’s also a big difference between using this information on a hike and using it to fly an aircraft by its instruments. As a result, communities have their own standards for accuracy, reliability, and price. I familiarized myself with as many as I could, understanding that you’ll almost definitely be using yours on foot.
I’ve used a few of the products on this list myself, but I also consulted a few other gear testers who I consider to be extremely credible. Those sources are linked throughout, so you can dive deeper into the weeds if you want more information. If you want to get more information on the ultra-capable Garmin tactix 7, check out the hands-on review and first look at the new model.
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