The new 1.6 oz (44 g) Highgear ATF8 puts a lot of features in a small, compact package. As part of the company’s Summit Series of products it is made with the outdoors person in mind. How does it work for backpacking?
Design & Features
The High Gear ATF8 is based on the company’s Alterra Multi-function watch. What’s the most noticeable difference? They lost the watch band. The ATF8 is made to be carried, not worn. It has a carabiner-style attachment for hanging from a loop or strap on a backpack. The carabiner can also fold into a groove in the back of the unit to make for a compact pocket carry. The carabiner ratchets as it closes and can be stopped in various positions to allow it to sit on display. A coin slot in the back lets the ATF8’s CR2032 coin-style battery be accessed.
The ATF8 has a slew of functions. It has dual time zones, compass, altimeter, barometer, standard chronograph, special ski chronograph, dual alarms and data logs for the chronograph and altimeter. I won't get into all those - I didn't use many! - but you can scan the company's online manual for some light reading to acquaint yourself with all those bells and whistles.
The ATF has a carabiner-style attachment that may also be folded completely flat or left half-way to form a stand for the unit.
The ATF8 has five buttons around the side of the case (button functions described below). It's in time mode here, where I normally keep it.
- Changes view in time, barometer, altimeter, altimeter log, and chronograph log modes
- Start/Stop information storage in altimeter mode
- Advances variable in setting mode
- Start/Lap/Split action in chronograph mode
- Starts ski chrono
- Turns daily alarm on/off
- View/Select Time 1/Time 2 in time of day mode
- View Select C/F and inHg/mbar in barometer mode
- View/Select ft/m in altimeter mode
- Scroll through altitude log files
- Turn altimeter alarm on/off
- Stop chronograph/save chronograph files
- Scroll through chronograph log files
- Store base altitude in ski chronograph
- Select alarm 1 or 2
- Activate EL backlight system
- Advances display through the various operational modes
- Selects variables in setting mode
- Enter/Exit setting mode for each function
- Clear chronograph and altimeter memories
The ATF8 is equipped with a Swiss-made barometric sensor. The barometer measures the Absolute Barometric Pressure and calculates the Barometric Pressure corrected to Mean Sea Level. Once calibrated, the barometer tracks changes in pressure and will give a “weather forecast” in the form of a little icon in the upper right-hand area of the screen. The main temperature screen is found in barometer mode.
The altimeter function works with the barometer. When climbing or descending (and again, after calibrating the unit to your known elevation first) the unit uses the change in pressure to calculate the change in elevation. While in this mode, an altitude alarm can be set to alert one of reaching a desired elevation.
The ABCs of what I want from my device. Left: Altimeter mode with time and temp. Center: Barometer mode with pressure listed as Inches of Mercury and graph showing pressure trend. Right: Compass mode.
The last function I really use is the digital magnetic compass. It shows the current heading in quarter cardinal points (so the center one is your heading) and the current heading in degrees at the bottom of the screen. In the picture above, I am just one degree off straight north.
Performance & Assessment
I received the ATF8 in January 2010 and have brought it on every backpacking trip since. Looking at my log, I have carried it for 621 miles (1000 km) to date. Most use has been in the Sierra Nevada of California, the rest in northern Minnesota.
Unless testing something else, I have been carrying one of the company’s AltiTech 2 carabiner-style units for the past six years. I like the ATF8 much better. I carry it attached to the shoulder or sternum strap of my backpack at all times. While I have tested watches, I do not care for anything on my wrist so I really like this style of carrying.
The main function that I use with any of these multi-function devices is the altimeter. As most of my backpacking is on trail and in mountainous terrain, I find that a good altimeter is easier and faster to track where I am on a map than with a compass.
I make a point to calibrate the unit at known locations, usually at the top of a pass. If I know beforehand where I am going to stop for the night, I will write that spot’s altitude on my map and recalibrate it when I get into camp too. Calibrating is easy to do, although having owned other of the company’s products helped I am sure. The ATF8 has done very well in its accuracy between calibration spots. It is normal to see a difference of around 20 ft (6 m) after a day that saw 4000 ft (1220 m) or more of elevation gain and loss. On one torture test I calibrated it on the top of Mt. San Gorgonio (11,499 ft/3505 m), drove back home to sea level for five days, and took it to Mt. San Jacinto (10,835 ft/3303 m) the next weekend. After all the time and elevation and pressure changes it was 120 ft (36.5 m) off.
Once in camp I set it to barometer mode and use it to track the temperature and the pressure/weather. The thermometer is very accurate but equalizes quite slowly. I checked it against a certified thermometer and it was dead on, after sitting for about five minutes. With a range of only 14 to 122 F (-10 to 50 C) I can’t rely on it for all my trips. In the Sespe Wilderness I was reading 119.5 F (48.6 C) in the shade at 3:30 pm, so it was probably hotter on the hike in. And more recently I was on the North Country Trail in northern Minnesota where I woke up to a reading in my tent of 19.8 F (-6.8 C) at 7:00 am. In another week or so I will be out of its range for lows. I would like to see a greater range.
The forecasting icons work well, but in the mountains the building thunderheads often tell me the same thing. ;-) On a recent trip in the Sierra I noticed the icon change to “rain” and told my brother-in-law that it seemed weird as it was pretty nice out. As we crested the next pass to start our descent to the trailhead we were treated to the sight of clouds which continued to build. By the time we got down it was raining. How dare I question the ATF8?
Left: the ATF8 hitches a ride on my pack’s sternum strap in the Sespe Wilderness. Right: the water resistance was tested hard in three straight days of rain on the Pacific Crest Trail. It survived, my rain gear did not...
While I don’t need a compass to orient by (and if I did, I would bring a true map-reading analog model) I do use one often to check heading to make sure I am on the correct trail. In flat Minnesota, the woods can be so thick that often the heading of the trail and lakes I pass are the only way to keep track of where I am. The digital compass of the ATF8 works great for this. And since I have been bouncing back and forth between California and Minnesota, the ease of recalibrating the compass and resetting the declination is a blessing. It takes me about a minute to set it for each state once I get there. From what I can tell the accuracy is spot on when compared to my two Rangers.
The alarm is very faint. I have used it only two times. Once to alert me to a turn-around time as I needed to go back to my camp before it got dark, the other an early wake-up. I heard the alarm when it went off while the ATF8 was hanging on my pack. I never heard it go off in my tent. This has been true of the AltiTech units too. It must be noted that my ears do not register high sounds well when background noise (like wind) is present, due to too much powder actuated tool (think guns) use when I was younger.
The unit is said to be water resistant to 5 ATM. High Gear says that it “is designed to be water resistant to a static pressure of 5 ATM and can be worn while showering and light swimming.” As I wrecked one of the AltiTechs by dropping it in 3 inches (7.5 cm) of water in a tiny creek along the Pacific Crest Trail, I did not put the swimming claim to the test. I did carry it in the rainiest backpacking I have ever experienced this spring in California, where many records for rainfall were set in 2010. I clearly remember three days of PCT hiking that it rained all day long. I left the ATF8 on my pack through it all, and it did fine. My rain gear, on the other hand, failed miserably. Well, I was miserable, that was for sure.
Because of where I carry the ATF8, it has seen its share of hard knocks when my pack falls over. As can be seen in some of the pictures, it is getting scratched up a bit but has proven quite durable so far. I am still on the original battery and even in the cold of the last trip it is showing no sign of wearing down. (When battery gets low, the display fades during use.) The blue EL backlight works well but I usually just use my headlamp to check it during the night.
If there was one thing I could change about the ATF8 it would be a way to disable the functions that I do not want or use so that I did not have to waste time scrolling back through them all to get to the ones I do use. My Kestrel lets me remove any functions I don’t need.
A way to scroll backwards would be even better. When I stop to take a quick heading with the compass, I just have to push one button. But to get back to where I to the time mode I have to push eight more, traveling forward through all the functions.
All told I am very satisfied with the ATF8, so much so that I gave my AltiTech 2 away. I look forward to many more trips with it feeding me my backcountry data.
- Accurate functions.
- Easy to calibrate.
- Long battery life.
- Don’t have to wear it on my wrist!
What’s Not So Good
- No way to remove unwanted functions.
- Forced to scroll through everything to get where I want.
- Too-faint alarm chime.