Best ABC Watches: What You Need For Outdoor Adventure

Sean Nelson
Written by Sean Nelson

ABC: Altimeter, barometer, compass. These are the three features that make a great explorer’s watch. In this product review article, we will cover what to look for in an ABC watch as well as review some of the best ABC watches on the market.

The reason you want one, however, is threefold and includes each of the features of this watch. An altimeter is an instrument that measures distance above sea level. Knowledge of your elevation can be crucial for navigation in some circumstances.

You are better able to pinpoint your location on a topographic map by cross-referencing the elevation given on your altimeter with those listed on the map.

Altimeter watch

Altimeters work well for tracking exercise routes such as hikes, running routes or cycling routes because you can see distance climbed and eventually have a summary of your route. Altimeters are useful for backcountry use if you are attempting to reach a given elevation to travel along, as well.

A barometer is an instrument that measures atmospheric pressure. High atmospheric pressure corresponds to clear weather while a drop in atmospheric pressure signifies incoming storms or other inclement weather.

Some of the watches reviewed here include features that chart trends in atmospheric pressure so you know when it is dropping or rising. Other watches actually have a storm alarm if the pressure drops too much in a short period of time. Having this advance warning can be crucial to being able to find shelter in the event of an oncoming storm.

Suunto ambit

Other weather instruments included in these watches can include moon and tide data, which is very useful for activities around the water such as fishing, sailing, kayaking or exploring shorelines. Although atmospheric pressure may at first seem like an arbitrary number, in reality by understanding its trends you can gain a lot of information about incoming fronts.

The “C” component of the ABC watch is a compass. Compasses have been in use for hundreds of years as a navigational tool, and they are tried and true even today. A compass on an ABC watch can be used in conjunction with the altimeter for navigation purposes.

Some of the watches included in this review are not only ABC watches, but also include GPS capabilities. Most of these watches can be synced to a smartphone app that helps track fitness and how that relates to GPS location. Some include heart rate monitors and use heart rate data coupled with GPS data to calculate a myriad of fitness metrics ranging from running cadence to stroke rate in swimming and bicycle power output.

Man with outdoor watch rock climbing

They can also estimate recovery times and VO2max values. Serious athletes who need to fine tune their athletic training can seriously benefit from this data, but mere mortals can use it too, to help achieve fitness goals. Most of these watches are water resistant up to a certain pressure, a must for outdoor adventures.

While not suitable for SCUBA diving, snorkeling and swimming are acceptable activities for the watches that typically will perform at a depth of 100 meters or more.

The price range of ABC watches is quite wide, as the price will depend on how much the watch can do and the quality of its data output. Certain watches are able to record data for an extended period of time and they vary in their capability to sync to websites and smartphones.

ABC Watches that Stand the Test of Time

All in all, an ABC watch can be useful either as a navigational tool, an athletic training tool, or both. Here are nine ABC watches and a short summary of their capabilities, but the real adventure of putting them to use is up to you!

Suunto Core Wrist-Top Computer Watch

Weight: 2.26 ouncesSuunto Core Wrist-Top Computer Watch

Dimensions: 6 x 6 x 4 inches

Special features: Altimeter with altitude log memory; compass with semi-automatic calibration; depth meter; barometer with storm alarm

Best use: Mountaineering, backcountry skiing

The Suunto Core Wrist-Top Computer Watch has all the required features of an ABC watch. The altimeter in the watch allows you to measure your elevation and then assists you in locating your position on a topographic map by matching the given altitude with the contours of the map.

Additionally, the Suunto Core allows you to measure your altitude without entering a reference number.  The barometer on the Suunto Core measures and records air pressure and changes in air pressure, which directly correlate to weather conditions.

By keeping track of air pressure changes, you will be aware when a storm or inclement weather is approaching.

The Suunto Core also features a storm alarm that will alert you to rapid changes in barometrical pressure over a three-hour period of time. There is also a built-in weather trend indicator which shows the barometric history for the last three and six hours.

This watch includes a compass with a digital bearing. The altimeter also records your entire session so that you can analyze the data later if need be.

This watch has all the basics of a great ABC watch and comes with a two-year warranty.

Related: Suunto Traverse

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Casio Men’s PAG240-1CR Pathfinder

Weight: 3.2 ouncesCasio Men's PAG240-1CR Pathfinder

Dimensions: 4.7 x 4.3 x 3.8 inches

Special features: Alarm feature, altimeter feature, compass, stopwatch

Best use: Swimming, snorkeling, hiking, hiking at night, backpacking

The Casio PAG240-1CR Pathfinder is one of the most affordable ABC watches included in this review. However, it does not have as many special features as the Suunto Core, but it is still a good watch for those who do not need as much technical data information. The Pathfinder is solar powered and its battery lasts 6 months without light exposure.

It features a digital compass, an altimeter, a barometer, a thermometer, a stopwatch, calendar, and five alarms. The Pathfinder is also water resistant up to 100 feet in depth. This makes it a good choice for swimming or snorkeling but not resistant enough for scuba diving.

It also features sunrise and sunset data, which can be essential for backpacking when deciding whether to keep hiking or to set up camp.

Thanks to its affordable price and all the necessary features (altimeter, barometer, compass, thermometer) this watch is a good choice for the outdoors person who does not need advance storm warnings or detailed records of their activities.

Related: Casio PRW3500

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Garmin Fenix 2 GPS Watch

Weight: 3.2 ouncesGARMIN FENIX 2 GPS WATCH

Dimensions: 0.7 x 1.9 x 1.9 inches

Special features: Connects to smartphones; altimeter; barometer; compass; GPS positioning; can track heart rate and VO2 max; modes for fitness metrics

Best use: Outdoor athletes who want to monitor the specifics of their training

The Garmin Fenix 2 GPS watch includes many unique features that make it go above and beyond your typical ABC watch.

While it does include an altimeter, barometer and compass, it uses the data gained from these instruments to inform the user of various fitness metrics in different activities. The Fenix 2 is excellent for trail running, especially when paired with a heart rate monitor, which is sold separately.

The altimeter and GPS record distance traveled as well as elevation change so you can see how your body responds to uphill or downhill travel. Other fitness training features include VO2max calculations, recovery advisor and Virtual Partner.

The Fenix 2 can also report cadence, ground contact time and vertical oscillation to help monitor changes in running economy. The Fenix 2 can also track distance, pace, and stroke count for swimming and its ski board mode will track speed, distance and vertical drop.

The GPS allows you to mark waypoints, which is useful for marking start and finish lines or your vehicle when you are on the trail. The barometer can predict weather changes by monitoring air pressure changes.

Finally, all of this data can be linked to a smartphone or computer with Garmin compatible devices. When synced to a smartphone, you can receive emails, texts or alerts to your watch when you are on the trail.

Related: Garmin Forerunner GPS watch

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Suunto Ambit2 GPS Heart Rate Monitor


Dimensions: 1.97 x 1.97 x 0.71 inches

Special features: GPS, altimeter, barometer, compass, features for running, biking and swimming

Best use: Athletes who want to track specific fitness metrics paired with GPS data

The Suunto Ambit 2 GPS watch is very similar to the Garmin Fenix 2.

There are several differences: the Suunto Ambit 2 is waterproofed to 100 meters while Garmin is only 50 meters. Additionally, you can download apps and the GPS pings can be reduced to intervals which help save battery life.

Like all other ABC watches, the Ambit 2 has an altimeter, barometer and compass. The barometer includes a storm alarm for sudden changes in pressure.

Yet paired with GPS data and heart rate monitor data, the Ambit 2 has the capability of providing excellent data on fitness metrics for three distinct categories: running, swimming and cycling.

The running setting features navigation, speed, altitude, EPOC/VO2max, lap comparisons, and running cadence to help track changes in physical response to changes in terrain.

The bike setting gives information on bike power, bike lap and max power, and a power distance graph.

The swimming function shows the swimming time, pace, distance and stroke rate. There are many apps available from Suunto that can be paired with the Ambit2 for various features an athlete might desire.

Overall, this is a great watch for any athlete who wants more detailed information about his or her athletic performance, especially in the outdoors when GPS data is desired.

Related: Suunto Core Wrist Top Watch

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Casio Men’s PRG-270 Pro Trek Watch

Weight: 4 ouncesCasio Men's PRG-270 Pro Trek

Dimensions: 3 x 3 x 4 inches

Special features: Solar power; digital compass; altimeter, altimeter memory; barometer; thermometer; water resistant to 100 meters

Best use: Backpacking and mountaineering

The Casio Pro Trek is the most expensive ABC watch listed in this review. The Casio Pro Trek series is promoted by numerous outdoor personalities including fly fishermen, kayakers and mountaineers. You can visit the website for more detailed information.

The Pro Trek is solar powered and features an altimeter, altimeter memory, barometer, thermometer, and five daily alarms. When in compass mode, the second hand on the watch can also be used as the compass needle.

The second hand points toward magnetic north and the LCD displays compass direction angle value, altitude, atmospheric pressure and temperature. The Pro Trek also features a fully automatic LED light with afterglow and Neo Bright luminous hands and markers to make this watch easy to read in the dark.

It also shows a countdown timer and a fully automatic, preprogrammed calendar. There is a battery power indicator and a power saving function, although the solar powered battery will last for six months at full charge.

All in all, this is a great watch for what it does but if you are looking for more detailed information given by a watch, the GPS watches reviewed earlier are a better value.

Related: Casio PRW6000Y Watch

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Weight: 3.2 ouncesGARMIN FENIX 3 HR

Dimensions: 2 x 0.6 x 2 inches

Special features: Wrist based heart rate, water resistant to 100 meters, VO2 max estimator; altimeter; barometer; compass; auto-calibrates its ABC sensor using GPS data

Best use: Athletic training

Another excellent GPS training watch, the Garmin Fenix 3 HR differs from the Garmin Fenix 2 in several ways, the most notable being that instead of requiring you to purchase a separate heart rate monitor and chest strap, the Fenix 3 monitors your heart rate from the wrist.

This is great for athletes who do not like the awkwardness or discomfort a chest strap heart rate monitor can sometimes cause. This watch performs similarly to the other GPS training watches but has several unique modes that are not commonly found in other models.

It does track running, including speed, heartbeats per minute, and heart rate variability. It uses these metrics to estimate your max VO2. The altimeter monitors ascent and descent data and the barometer is helpful outdoors for predicting weather changes.

In the pool (the Fenix 3 is water resistant to 100 meters depth), the Fenix 3 tracks your distance, pace, and stroke count. It also has a feature for paddle sports that includes the stroke count, stroke rate and distance per stroke. The Ski/Board mode calculates speed, distance, vertical drop and a run counter.

The most unique feature of this watch is its golf mode, which gives you yardage for the golf greens you have downloaded from Garmin Connect. This watch has a variety of downloadable watchfaces to give it a unique look or suit you best.

Related: Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire, Titanium

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Suunto Ambit3 Peak HR Running GPS Unit


Dimensions: 2 x 2 x 0.71 inches

Special features: Altimeter, heart rate, speed, pace and distance, additional downloadable features, 100 meter water resistance

Best use: Creative athletes, outdoor athletes

The Suunto Ambit3 running GPS unit utilizes a chest strap style heart rate monitor, which is known to be relatively uncomfortable.

However, this unit is unique in its Add Photos feature. This feature allows you to create a Suunto movie with the highlights from your trip in order to share with your friends. You can also connect your watch wirelessly to a phone in order to see calls and texts on the screen.

The Ambit3 includes a 200 hour battery when the GPS is refreshed every minute, and a 30 hour battery with GPS accuracy down to every 5 seconds. When you create a Suunto Movescount account, you can see a training summary, training analysis and a training logbook with image support if so desired.

Like some of the other GPS training watches, there are functions for running, cycling and swimming on the Ambit3. For running, it will measure cadence, stride length and average pace in real time. Some special swimming features include swim stroke efficiency, stroke rate and type, and stroke count.

As for cycling, power is measured in detail and then graphed for tracking. Hill incline is also measured. This is a good quality GPS watch for serious athletes as well as those who want photos to go along with their output data.

Related: Suunto Ambit 3 Vertical HR

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Casio Men’s PAG240-1CR Pathfinder

Weight: 5 ounces

Casio Men's PAG240T-7CR Pathfinder

Dimensions: 2.2 x 2 x 0.6 inches

Special features: Solar powered; altimeter; barometer; thermometer; compass; water resistant to 100 meters

Best use: Backpacking, hiking, daily use

The Casio PAG240T-7CR Pathfinder is a typical, reliable ABC watch with an altimeter, barometer, compass and thermometer.

One nice aspect of this watch is that it is solar powered and has no batteries you need to worry about replacing. The watch can also be powered for six months at a full charge. It also has a memory feature which stores 40 information logs about altitude, temperature and time.

The pathfinder can chart barometric changes to help predict incoming inclement weather. The altimeter features a graph with a programmable reference point so you can visually see how close you are to your desired altitude.

This watch has a large display with a backlight and is programmed with the world time for 48 different cities. The clock itself features a 1/100 second stopwatch, a countdown timer, and can display times in 12- or 24-hour formats. It also has five daily alarms and a calendar.

While it does not have as many special features as the GPS watches reviewed here, the Casio Pathfinder is a good option for general use of an ABC watch.

SIMILAR: Casio G-Shock Triple Sensor

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Casio Men’s PRW-2500R-1CR Watch

Weight: 5.6 ouncesCasio PRW 2500R 1CR Pro Trek

Dimensions: 6 x 6 x 7 inches for shipping

Special features: Water resistant to 200 meters, tide graph, moon data, power saving function, altimeter, barometer and compass

Best use: Runners, hikers, fishermen, kayakers, other aquatic activities

The Casio PRW-2500 Pro Trek watch is another good ABC watch with an added feature of tide and moon data.

The tide and moon data are very useful for kayaking, offshore navigation, and fishing. This watch is well-designed for water activities as well because it features a 200 meter water resistance. Not only does this mean it will hold up 200 meters underwater, but it will also perform well in situations with high velocity water flow.

While you must know how to interpret tide and moon data for your favor, the fact that this watch provides those features is a great start.

In addition to these specialized weather data features, the Casio PRW-2500 Pro Trek has the same features as any other ABC watch, with an altimeter, barometer, compass and watch features.

This watch makes a great addition to the toolkit of anyone working or recreating in the outdoors, especially pursuing activities that might be enhanced by knowledge of moon phase or tide.

SIMILAR: Casio G-Shock Mudmaster

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As you can see from this review, the functions of an ABC watch can vary widely. While the information that an ABC watch is capable of providing may be too detailed and unnecessary for some people, it can be useful for navigation, predicting storms and even helping track detailed data pertaining to athletic training.

Woman running

Any kind of backcountry trip can be enhanced by advance knowledge of the weather and knowing your location.

What’s your favorite type of ABC watch? Do you have one you wear all the time? What one feature do you look for most when choosing your next one?

Sean Nelson
Sean Nelson

Sean was backpacking since he was 7. He was born close to the RMNP and his father was a ranger, so life surrounded by mountains and wildlife is a norm for Colorado. He likes to explore, but prefers to stay in USA. In his opinion, there are too many trails and options in US to go abroad.

  • Chris Towns

    I picked up the Garmin Fenix 2 GPS Watch and, overall, I think the watch is really excellent. I love all of the different modes that are included with the watch. The GPS signal has always been strong and the battery life is excellent as well. I’ve heard some people have experienced some buggy issues, like with connectivity, but that hasn’t been the case for me.

  • Sean Nelson

    Hi there Chris and I love your choice. It’s an excellent watch and the brand has been pretty consistent in terms of features and quality. Connectivity issues are relative and it depends on the user’s internet/3G connection, as I’ve seen in some of my buddies. No fault of the watch, though.

  • Alicia Djuric

    I like the Suunto Ambit2 GPS Heart Monitor. I really wasn’t expecting to be wearing this as much as I have been; I use it pretty much every day and I had thought maybe I would wear it once or twice a week. It’s really versatile and interfaces really well with my Mac. Love the battery life on it. Would recommend to anyone!

  • Sean Nelson

    Hi there! Three brands stand out in this area, Suunto, Garmin and Casio. They perform very well and that accounts for their massive following. What I usually look for in these watches is the battery life, among others and of course the accuracy of the readings.