Suunto Ambit for Hiking and Backpacking

I never go hiking without my Suunto GPS watch, having accurate distance and altitude on your wrist helps with navigation and on the long days can be satisfying to see

I first got a Suunto Ambit2 for use hiking and backpacking a few years ago and I’ve since replaced it with Suunto Ambit3 Peak which is functionally identical. The core feature of both watches is GPS tracking and they also have a barometer and temperature sensor. For hiking the two most useful pieces of information (besides telling the time) are the distance and altitude.

Suunto Ambit2 at the peak of Mount Diablo showing the time, altitude, and total ascent

The distance is tracked by GPS; Suunto is known for its accuracy and fast to acquire GPS. The frequency of logging can be configured per “activity” with intervals of 60s, 10s, and 1s. The higher the frequency the more accurate the distance and recorded tracks but the more drain on battery life. For hiking 60s is usually more than adequate however I usually use the 1s logging for day hiking as the battery will easily last and it provides for more accurate routes.

My activity home screen shows the distance in the main section with the time above and altitude below

The altitude is tracked by combining both the GPS and barometer sensors, which Suunto calls “FusedAlti”. GPS by itself is much less accurate for altitude than it is for longitude and latitude so having the barometer significantly improves the accuracy. The reading is accurate to within 3ft (1m) and in my experience it’s very accurate (in the photo above at the peak of Mount Diablo the altitude reads 3,835 and Mount Diablo is actually 3,848 so it’s only ~10 feet out).

In addition to providing the distance and altitude the watch will also calculate extra of data from these; the activity time, current and average speed, and total ascent and descent, which are all useful to know as you go. The temperature sensor will show you the current temperature.

One of the activity screens can show a graph of the recent altitude change

The watch comes preprogrammed with a set of activities but you can configure your own to show whichever information you want. The watch face is capable of showing three lines, one enlarged one in the center, a smaller one above, and a paginated smaller one below which can be toggled using the view button over 4 different metrics. For hiking I have 3 screens configured to show:

  1. Time; Distance; Altitude, Average speed, Current speed, Battery
  2. Time; Altitude; Ascent, Descent, Temperature
  3. Altitude graph, which also includes activity time

I find more screens than this a little unwieldy to manage.

Showing the altitude, time, and ascent at Monument Peak in Fremont

The battery estimates that Suunto provides are pretty accurate, it will easily last two days entire days without recharging at the highest frequency. Having a watch that’s designed to record GPS is far more battery efficient than doing so on my phone.

The recorded tracks, or “moves” as Suunto calls them, are synced via a USB cable that clips onto the watch’s side and saved to Suunto’s Movescount website which then displays the tracks on a map along with trip statistics.

The watch also has the ability to preprogram a route and provide simple directions on-screen although I’ve never used this functionality, preferring instead to use the GPS on my phone with offline maps and regular old paper maps for navigation.

The Suunto Ambit range has a plastic nub on the underside that houses the GPS antenna, and the watch is pretty bulky, however it fits comfortably on my (small) wrists. The newer Suunto Traverse, which I believe has all the same functionality and is more targeted towards hiking, now has the antenna built into the body of the watch.

I love my Suunto Ambit and am addicted to it now, I would feel naked without it. It’s really satisfying to be able to glance at your distance and ascent and is a really useful navigational aid.

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