Once functioning solely as a means by which to tell time, watches have evolved immensely since they were first created. Nowadays, it’s possible to get your hands on examples that are practically infinite in their capabilities. Of course, most folks realize that it’s much simpler and more beneficial to track one down that serves a specific function related directly to your life and activities.
While it’s hardly the most popular complication in the world, an altimeter has the potential to be an indispensable function for anyone interested in manned flight, mountaineering, and long-form hiking. With the unique ability to tell you your altitude (or height) above a fixed point, altimeter watches are an important tool that can help in logging your travels, navigation, and can even help save your life in a survival situation. We’ve rounded up the following collection of the 10 best altimeter watches for men.
What Is An Altimeter?
The Complication Explained
While not nearly as commonplace as, say, a chronograph function, an altimeter is still extremely valuable under the right circumstances. As you might have guessed from the name, those circumstances are any in which gauging one’s altitude is an essential bit of knowledge. After all, that’s what an altimeter does: tells the user their altitude (or height) above a fixed point. Most typically, that fixed point is sea level, but (in some cases) it can be changed to suit other needs — for instance, if you want to measure altitude change on a hike from a fixed starting point until the end of the trek.
Originally, altimeters worked by sensing pressure changes in the atmosphere.Originally, altimeters worked by sensing pressure changes in the atmosphere. It isn’t an infallible system, but it’s generally pretty accurate. This is because the higher one climbs — be that on a mountain hike, in an aircraft, or otherwise — the less pressure there is in the atmosphere. The reason for this is simple: the Earth’s gravity pulls everything toward the planet’s center, even air molecules. So, the closer you get to the center of the planet, the higher the pressure.
Of course, readings can also be altered by weather and rendered less accurate, as the atmosphere is under constant change, but the general functionality remains reliable enough that the technology is still widely used today. Still, a barometric altimeter would need to be constantly calibrated for the best accuracy.
While pressure-based barometric altimeters are still very common in things like analog watches, aircraft gauges, and even handheld devices used by skydivers, technology has advanced to the point that there are other types of altimeters nowadays — some which are still in use and others that are now defunct. The most common non-barometric altimeter that still exists and is commonly used is GPS-based. As you may already know, GPS uses a network of satellites orbiting the Earth to help triangulate a given device’s exact location on the planet.Knowing the limitations of your technology can potentially end up saving your life. While this is typically used to determine longitude and latitude on a map, it can also be enlisted to determine — you guessed it — altitude.
Unfortunately, in practice, GPS has the potential for some pretty big flaws. For instance, if GPS reception is bad — the result of being out of the range of usable satellites (a circumstantial misfortune most of the time) — some hikers and outdoorsmen have found that their GPS altimeter readings can be as far off as 400 feet. That might seem like a small amount, but it can make a huge difference, especially in an emergency situation. Regardless of which type of altimeter watch you end up choosing, it’s important to keep these pros and cons in mind, because knowing the limitations of your technology can potentially end up saving your life, should you find yourself in an emergency survival situation.
Choosing Your Altimeter
The Right Watch For The Job
There are still a lot of other decisions to make before settling on the perfect altimeter watch.If you’ve already decided which of the two most common altimeters you want in your watch, there are still a lot of other decisions to make before settling on the perfect altimeter watch for you. We’ve gone ahead and outlined a couple of the most important factors to consider, however, in the following section. As always, this is not an exhaustive guide, but will help illuminate many of the metrics to pay attention to when shopping for your perfect altimeter watch:
Analog, Smart, or Hybrid: Typically speaking, analog watches utilize barometric altimeters in their construction, whereas smartwatches rely upon GPS. If you’ve already decided on one or another — smart or analog, GPS or barometric — this is important, but will not likely alter your decision. There is a third option, however: hybrids. Hybrid watches often have analog movements with more-traditional watch faces, but they utilize smart technology along with smartphone applications to access more complications and functions, like fitness tracking or topographical mapping. Like smartwatches, these devices most often use GPS altimeters in their construction — a symptom of the smart side of their functionality. This might not sway your decision, but it’s a helpful tidbit of which to be aware.
Alternative Functionality: Whether you want an analog watch or a smart one, it’s very important to know the alternative functionality of your device. While rare, there are some analog watches that will only supply you with the ability to tell time alongside an altimeter. More commonly, however, analog altimeter watches come with other complications built in — like chronograph functionality (for incremental timekeeping), an onboard compass (for directional navigation), a tachymeter (for determining speed by time or time by speed), or even a standalone barometer (a device that measures ambient air pressure without taking altitude into account).
Analog watches, even when loaded to the gills with complications, are severely limited when compared to smartwatches and hybrids, however. Thanks to technological advancements, smartwatches and hybrids can pack hundreds of potential functions into their cases — ranging from fitness tracking and heart rate monitoring, to GPS navigation, to storing and playing music or podcasts, to giving you access to text and email notifications or even receiving phone calls. The possibilities are practically endless. If maximum functionality is your bag, pick a smartwatch with an altimeter. If you’d rather keep your device focused and purpose-driven, opt for an analog.
Barometric vs. GPS: As mentioned before, most analog altimeter watches use barometric sensors for their altimeter functions, whereas smartwatches most typically rely on GPS. But this is not a hard and fast rule. There are some smartwatches that still used barometric pressure sensors to determine altitude. There’s not a good way to tell the difference, however, outside of looking at the specifications of a given watch. If you can’t find the information, reach out to the manufacturer and they should be able to enlighten you.
Suunto Core Smartwatch
Built to survive in the great outdoors through loads of punishment, the Suunto Core is one of the best backcountry-ready smartwatches on the market. What makes it even more enticing is that, while it has digital functionality for things like activity tracking and GPS locating, it actually uses a barometric sensor to determine altitude, making it a lot more accurate than other options in its class. Mate that to the fact that it also has a durable and lightweight composite case paired to an elastomer strap, and it’s hard to understand why the brand is charging so little for so much. It’s also worth noting that, on top of an altimeter, it also boasts a compass, barometer, is water-resistant to 30 meters, and it can withstand extreme temperatures.
Garmin Fenix 3 Smartwatch
The first option on our list to utilize GPS as a means of reading altitude, the Garmin Fenix 3 smartwatch is also loaded to the gills with other features that make it one of the most formidable outdoor smartwatches ever built. That includes double time location functionality via both GPS and GLONASS — for some of the most accurate readings — as well as a battery life of up to a whopping six weeks (in timekeeping mode alone), a high-resolution Chroma display, 100 meters of water-resistance, and a good deal more. It’s also worth noting that, for an upcharge, you can opt for the HR version of the watch which gives you severely improved fitness and wellness tracking.
Citizen Eco-Drive Promaster Altichron Watch
There aren’t many budget-friendly options for altimeter analog watches on the market, but the closest you’ll get without sacrificing functionality is probably the Citizen Eco-Drive Promaster Altichron you see before you. The dial looks a bit busy, granted, but that’s because this watch is overflowing with complications that make it one of the most useful Citizen has ever built. For starters, it uses the brand’s signature Eco-Drive functionality, meaning it can be powered by light — any kind of light, not just sunlight — and never needs a battery replacement or a plug-in charge. It also features a compass bezel, has a date window, and can measure heights of up to 32,000 feet via the onboard barometric altimeter.
Suunto Traverse Alpha Smartwatch
Though they lack fancy functions like full-color touchscreens, there’s no denying that Suunto makes some of the most useful outdoor-ready smartwatches on the market. And they’re especially helpful if you’re a big-time adventurer or an athlete who specializes in rough, off-the-beaten-path terrain (like a hunter or fisherman) — a fact exemplified in their Traverse Alpha smartwatch. Equipped with multiple modes to suit your given adventure, this watch boasts a massive catalog of features that range from GPS/GLONASS navigation, to a moon phase calendar, to activity tracking, and so much more. Of course, it has an altimeter, but also boasts compatibility with night vision systems, is water-resistant to 330 feet, and can even help you plan routes along an onboard topographic map.
Casio Pro-Trek Smartwatch
Unsurprisingly, when Casio decided to get into the outdoor smartwatch industry, they pulled out all the stops and built one of the best options we’ve ever seen. The WSD-F20 you see before you is packed full of helpful tools to suit all your adventures. That includes full color topographic downloadable maps; an onboard altimeter, compass, barometer; activity tracking; mil-spec durability and 50m water-resistance; and a battery life of up to 25 hours with GPS active and a month in timekeeping mode. Powered by Android 2.0 technology, that long list barely scratches the surface of what this outdoor altimeter smartwatch can do.
Tissot T-Touch Expert Solar Watch
It might seem hard to believe, but Tissot was actually the first watch brand to offer a touchscreen option in their catalog. What’s even more impressive is that the line is still amongst the top contenders in the category. Just take a look at this one, the T-Touch Expert Solar watch, and you can see why. As the name suggests, this device is powered by sunlight — meaning you never have to swap in a battery or plug it in. It also has a long list of built-in features, including a timer, alarms, chronograph functionality, a digital date window, and — of course — an altimeter. And all of that is housed in a PVD-coated titanium case. We’re not certain this is the most capable non-smart altimeter watch on the market, but it certainly isn’t far off.
Garmin Fenix 5X Plus Smartwatch
If Garmin’s fully-loaded Fenix 3 smartwatch isn’t quite up to your standards (we know how absurd that probably sounds), then their 5X version should have all the other bases covered. It’s not what we would ever call “affordable,” but even then there is so much going on with this watch that we still think it’s a bit of a steal. Not only does it have onboard GPS, an altimeter, activity tracking, and a full-color touchscreen — but that’s really just the beginning. It also boasts a blood-oxygen monitor to make your fitness tracking all the more accurate, comes with the ability to use contactless payments, and has enough storage space to house up to 500 songs for all your listening pleasure — whether you’re just going about your day or training for the next decathlon.
Alpina AlpinerX Smartwatch
A true hybrid timekeeper, the Alpina AlpinerX is probably what they’d put in the dictionary next to the definition of “outdoor smartwatch” — if that was a thing. Its timekeeping functionality is powered by an MMT-283-1 caliber movement — which gives it a battery life of up to two years. But it also features smartphone connectivity with an included app, activity tracking, sleep tracking, an onboard coach for fitness training, a smart alarm, call and message notifications, and a good deal more. Of course, that doesn’t say much for its outdoor features — which are equally numerous and include a UV indicator, a barometer, a compass, a thermometer, and (of course) an altimeter. And all of that is housed under a sapphire crystal and inside a 10ATM water-resistant black glass-fiber and stainless steel case.
Oris Big Crown Pro Pilot Altimeter Watch
The Oris Big Crown Pro Pilot watch is one of the best pilot watches in the world. It’s also one of the few that, surprisingly, comes with its own onboard altimeter function. Boasting a beefy stainless steel case with a matching link band, this horological masterpiece boasts an altimeter and barometer (alongside the appropriate markings on the dial), an automatic Swiss movement with a 38-hour power reserve, a waterproof rating that makes it good for depths of up to 100 meters, and a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal. Apart from the barometer/altimeter, this watch is fairly uncomplicated. In this case, however, that’s a very good thing. This is a watch made for a man who knows exactly what he wants.
Bell & Ross BR01-96 Altimeter Watch
The Bell & Ross BR01-96 Altimeter Watch might be the most appropriately-styled option on our entire list. And this is for the simple fact that it was designed to resemble the actual instrument gauges found inside the cockpit of an aircraft. It’s also a masterful piece of horological design, loaded with just enough to make it uniquely useful without bogging it down with a bunch of unnecessary additions. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s an absolutely stunning black-and-white design, either. It’s also a limited edition, with only 999 examples to be made. For a uniquely styled timepiece unlike any other, go no further.
Complications: The Chronograph Watch Explained
While specifically useful, not everyone is going to need an altimeter function in their watch. The chronograph is far more common and useful, however — so long as you know how to use it. Learn all the ins and outs on our helpful guide explaining chronograph watches.