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Altimeter Qs
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nathan matthews
(nathanm) - F

Locale: Bay Area
Altimeter Qs on 05/19/2012 09:14:30 MDT Print View

It's been at least six months or so since we had an altimeter question (I think), and it appears that the models have changed since last time people discussed High gear, at least. I'm looking at getting an altimeter (watch or clip), and it seems that the most popular choices are Suunto and Highgear. Highgear seems to have changed its models around, so now the choices are an Axio mini or Axio max. I'm a little more overwhelmed by the Suunto choices, but I've seen both the Vector and Core mentioned positively on BPL.

All I'm looking for is accurate altitude readings and reliability--I carry a magnetic compass when I need one and don't need other bells or whistles, and I've seen some reliability complaints on BPL about both the Highgear and Suunto watches (in particular, it seems important to keep watches above 20° F). Are the Suuntos worth the extra money? Is there a reason to get the Axio max instead of the mini?



Craig Rowland
(craigr) - MLife

Locale: Pacific NW
Casio pathfinder on 05/19/2012 09:31:33 MDT Print View

I use a Casio Pathfinder pag-240 solar watch. The altimeter is accurate and has other features like electronic compass, barometer graphing, sunset/sunrise times plus record keeping. Plus the solar feature means no dead batteries ever.

Edited by craigr on 05/19/2012 09:41:03 MDT.

Colin Krusor

Locale: Northwest US
Altimeter watch on 05/19/2012 13:50:17 MDT Print View

There are others on this forum with a lot more watch/altimeter expertise than myself, but I recently did a lot of searching and reading of reviews. My reading supports Craig's (implicit) suggestion: consider a Casio.

The Suunto, HighGear, and Silva Tech4O watches have persistent problems with reliability and waterproofness. Often they work fine, and there are positive reviews, but also many reports of failures and experiences like hearing from a customer service rep that, despite the "10 meter" or "30 meter" water resistance rating, "getting it wet is not recommended."

Casio seems to be the exception. There are good and bad reviews, of course, but the overall pattern suggests that Casios are far more waterproof, more reliable, and have better battery lives than any other brand of altimeter watches. Casios have crowded displays and aesthetically haven't changed much from the early 1990s (they aren't sleek like a Suunto), but they are much more likely to work than any other brand.

Franco Darioli
(Franco) - M

Locale: @Tarptent
Altimeter Qs on 05/19/2012 16:19:55 MDT Print View

I use a Casio too, have been for 10 years or so. (solar powered )
Checking against several Suunto models most of the time my Casio and their Suunto are within 10m however they are not necessarily accurate but close enough (for me...)
My Kestrel 2500 seems to be closer but again not spot on.
BTW, the one built in the Garmin CSX 60 (GPS) isn't any better.

Craig Rowland
(craigr) - MLife

Locale: Pacific NW
Display on 05/19/2012 16:31:03 MDT Print View

I agree the Casio display is a little crowded compared to the Suunto. But I have no complaints on waterproofness and durability. It has been a very reliable watch and the altimeter is often within 20 ft. of my GPS. This is pretty good when you consider the display resolution is only 20 ft. for the altimeter. And again the no need for batteries is a huge plus because the compass altimeter functions are power hogs and chew batteries otherwise.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Altimeter watch on 05/19/2012 16:50:43 MDT Print View

Altimeter watches are useful, but ...

'Water resistant' does NOT mean waterproof. There is an industry agreement to use this term without challenge, but it only means splash-resistent. Do NOT expect the watch to take immersion. Yes, I got suckered in too some years ago.

Try to avoid any watch with a built-in compass. The electronics for the compass chew power at a great rate, AND the compass is usually only a 2-axis unit, not a 3-axis one. That means that if you tilt the watch slightly the reading will change - significantly. This is due to the watch not being able to compensate for the tilt in the Earth's magnetic field. You can get errors of 20 degrees (from memory) quite easily. There may still be some of my gear reviews with extensive scientific testing at BGT on this painful subject, along with my rant on 'water resistant'.

Low temperatures are a problem, but not so much for the watch as for the non-lithium battery. Apart from real lithium cells, most other batteries die below freezing point. The LCD display itself will die below (about) -30 C as well. That too is chemistry. Keep the watch on your arm or in bed with you.

I do wish 'they' would produce a good, splash-proof, slim light altimeter watch without any attempt at a compass and without the rest of the frills - and especially without those d a m n-awful macho bulky cases and heavy wrist-bands. We are not all hulking machos needing gimmicks to assert ourselves.

And some of those heavy wrist-bands restrict the circulation in my hand when I am skiing, giving me a freezing hand. I don't wear any watch on my wrist these days - I cut the band right off and carry the watch itself on a string in my pocket.

[/rant] :-)


Rick M
(rmjapan) - F

Locale: London, UK
Casio on 05/19/2012 17:58:01 MDT Print View


Edited by rmjapan on 06/19/2015 07:56:57 MDT.

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

Casio on 05/19/2012 19:16:42 MDT Print View

I'm very happy with my Casio PAW-1300. The sheer number of watches Casio makes can be a little overwhelming, but this watch is solar powered, altimeter works reliably, calibrates the time daily off the atomic clocks, compass seems a little wonky unless I've calibrated it recently. I like how it graphs the barometric pressure so I can look at the trend when I wake up in the morning. Very pleased for the ~$140 that it cost on eBay. The PAW-1300 and PAW-2000 are the 'slim' ones that aren't so huge and bulky.

Ken Nguyen
(ninjapuppet) - F - MLife

Locale: B-Town
my casio failed on 05/20/2012 00:15:17 MDT Print View

I have a casio protrek titanium alti/baro/compass
Its not the solar version, so batteries required replacment after 3 years. first set of replacement was great and lasted another 3 years.

however My last set of replacement The watchmaker told me that to do pressure testing would cost $100 extra on top of the $80 to change my 4 batteries! (i can get a suunto core for $230) so I decided not to do the pressure testing. He said it should be water resistant but no guarantees.

off I go on a 3 day walk in intermittant rain, and came back with the watch waterlogged and it has now died. Lived an awesome life for its 10 years, but something to keep in mind when changing the batteries.

Edited by ninjapuppet on 05/20/2012 00:17:21 MDT.

Nathan Hays

Locale: San Francisco
Brunton Nomad on 05/20/2012 01:48:51 MDT Print View

I have a Brunton Nomad. Nice unit, but changes in altitude always register 10% shorter than the actual movement. Calibrate at 5000', go up to 6000' and it shows 5900', return to start and it's back to 5000'. Spec sheet says it's good to +/- 10%, so mine is worst case. I just do the math in my head to get it right.

Dunno if the newer version is better - it's all in the specs. REI reviews seem to indicate it is no better. The important thing for me is that it is consistent, which it is.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: my casio failed on 05/20/2012 04:02:26 MDT Print View

> came back with the watch waterlogged
There is usually a very thin shaped O-ring sealing the back cover. This MUST be repositioned very carefully when replacing batteries. It will help if you are a bit generous with silicone grease as well.


Ben Crowell
(bcrowell) - F

Locale: Southern California
GPS on 05/23/2012 19:48:35 MDT Print View

If you're also carrying a GPS, then it seems like a no-brainer to use a GPS that also includes an altimeter.

An altimeter that is not combined with GPS is a hassle to use. Over the course of a day's hiking (assuming a lot of altitude change), you have to be constantly correcting its calibration by hand.

Is an altimeter without a GPS really that much lighter than a lightweight GPS? Or is there a price issue?

Inaki Diaz de Etura
(inaki) - MLife

Locale: Iberia highlands
Re: GPS on 05/24/2012 01:59:03 MDT Print View

An altimeter is typically a tool that we use for navigation and we need to check constantly and on the go. Some people use the GPS that way too but then autonomy is very limited as batteries are over in a matter of hours. The batteries in the typical barometric altimeter last months or years. I usually take a GPS but keep it off and only use it as a last resort. The altimeter however is always on. In mountain terrain, it's super useful for navigation.

For that kind of use, it's a bad idea to combine in the same set too functions with such different energy needs.

Ben W

Locale: NW Center for Volcano-Aided Flight
Analog on 05/24/2012 17:15:55 MDT Print View

Does anyone have first-hand experience with analog altimeters? I am also looking for an altimeter, but despite being a computer science phd student by day, I prefer low-tech non-electronic tools, even if they weigh a little more.
Liberty Mountain SB-500 Sport Altimeter
Sun Altimeter 203

Edited by bpwood on 05/24/2012 17:18:46 MDT.


Locale: South West US
Re: Altimeter Qs on 05/24/2012 18:48:55 MDT Print View

Altimeters are super useful, especially in a watch cuz you can just glance at it. I have an older Suunto X6 that works well ... the screen goes blank around 20 degrees or so but always comes back when it warms up a bit. Have had it for 7 years now and it's still going strong.

You said:
"All I'm looking for is accurate altitude readings and reliability..."

Something to keep in mind is that an altimeter only measures air pressure. It's up to you to interpret the results. Changes in air pressure could be due to: changes in elevation, changes in weather, or your location (ex. leeward side of a windy pass will have lower air pressure, thus inaccurate elevation reading). So, just to manage expectations here, keep in mind that an altimeter might not be super-accurate, but will give you a good idea of what altitude you are at.

Also, a GPS's altitude readings may not match up exactly with your map, or trail marker etc. Depending where you are in the world, it could be off by a couple hundreds of feet. You can read why here. The point being, wilderness navigation isn't necessarily precise, but it will get you where you want to go.

Edited by oiboyroi on 05/24/2012 18:51:23 MDT.

Walter Carrington
(Snowleopard) - M

Locale: Mass.
RE: Altimeters on 05/24/2012 19:35:12 MDT Print View

"Does anyone have first-hand experience with analog altimeters?"
Yes, I had a fairly cheap one years ago. It worked well.
I still have an old Casio watch with altimeter/barometer function and it also works well and has greater precision (number of digits) but not always greater accuracy than the analog one had.

These are all barometers calibrated to altitude. Barometric pressure changes with the weather, so the altitude reading also changes. If a low pressure area comes through overnight (i.e. storm) your altimeter will show that you have climbed hundreds of feet in your sleep in your tent :)

Yuri R
(Yazon) - F

Roger.. on 05/24/2012 21:09:53 MDT Print View

I have had Casio pathfinder in the past (killed with my fat fingers while replacing battery) and have another one now - PAG240-1 (rated at 100m).

I also use a Citizen Eco-Drive watch BM6400-00E (rated at 200m). I swim, surf, snorkel, dive in them AND use them as my daily time pieces.

So the claim of them being only splashproof and not waterproof is unfounded.

The trick is to select a watch that no one would be opening - which is why i went with Ciziten (Eco-Drive) and Casio (ToughSolar). I don't need to replace the battery on an annual basis. It is the opening and closing the case that causes most water leaks. Not submerging them when they have never been opened.

As far as my PAG240-1 goes - is it perfect? No. For starters the strap is not the best and is something i may replace with a NATO Zulu one. But is it one hell of a tough and useful time piece? Absolutely!

On the subject of altimeters - one in PAG240-1 is decent, but not as accurate as a GPS based one from what i can tell. PAG's alti functions is based on barometric pressure and temperature, so during rapid changes in those two - altimeter may be off. But it is still pretty accurate for most of my needs.