Going Up?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 2000 Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

Going Up?

Clay Ellis

Name your game: if it takes place in steepterrain, an altimeter will come in handy, reading atmospheric pressure to determine the altitude—critical data when your compass won't give you all you need. Let's say you know your elevation and, we hope, the name of the stream you're fishing. Check your topographic map and find where the contour line for your elevation crosses the stream. Bingo. You know your exact location.

That's nice, but the latest electronic models do more than display altitude. Some can tally the runs you've made during a day of alpine skiing and then add up your total vertical feet—powerful evidence when it comes to adjudicating bragging rights. Some track barometric trends and sound an alarm at a preset elevation to prevent you from zipping past the point where you should veer left along a ridgeline. The more features your beeping, blinking, buzzing gizmo offers, though, the more likely it'll be that you'll have to tote the manual in your pack.

What's more, the accuracy of even the most expensive models will fluctuate with the weather, putting you at risk of altimeter-induced .embarrassment ("Hey! We're at 30,000 feet!"). The only real solution is to reset your altimeter at points of known elevation as often as possible; every hour or so would be ideal. Do that and the five units we reviewed—four digital and one analog—should prove plenty accurate for navigation, not to mention for settling who buys the first round. —GLENN RANDALL

Avocet Vertech 32-lap-memory stopwatch and countdown timer make it good for the track as well as the trail. A barometric pressure reading gives clues to weather trends. Works up to 40,000 feet—should you have the urge to do some stratospheric ballooning. Clear instructions don't make it any easier to set the correct altitude. No backlight. Avocet charges $20 to replace battery. The serious aerobic athlete, mountaineer, or alpine skier who doesn't mind wearing something that looks like a cyclometer. $150
FreeStyle Altimeter Two preset altitudes—home and your favorite trailhead, for instance—allow on-the-fly recalibrating. The orblike design is impressively slim; too cool neoprene/leather band comes with an extension to fit around a coat sleeve. Measures altitude in three-foot increments to 30,248 feet. Not entirely intuitive, but on-screen prompts guide you through functions—a boon to the forgetful. Reverse backlight illuminates the numbers instead of the background. The trail runneror the casual skier who doesn't have a season pass. $160
Suunto Altimax Seriously sophisticated. Records rate of ascent or descent, useful for one-way hiking. "Logbook" tracks vertical gained and lost and maximum altitude (up to 29,500 feet) for, say, each day of a ski trip. Handy "difference measurement" tells you how much your altitude has changed since you started. Lengthy, yet decipherable, instructions. Logical layout of modes, with few buttons doing double duty. Master the features you want; ignore the rest. Gigantic face. The woodsy jack-of-all-trades, so long as one of those trades is software savant. $179
Brunton Sherpa Handheld device the size of two fingers. Displays time, altitude, wind speed (current, average, maximum), temperature, windchill, barometric trend, .atmospheric pressure—nearly everything the budding meteorologist could want, save for humidity. Clear and mercifully brief instructions. Only two buttons, so there are fewer combinations to fumble with in the field. The weather junkie; the gravity hound won't be tempted since it doesn't track total vertical ascent or descent. $170
Thommen Classic 21,000 Handheld analog altimeter crafted in Switzerland. (Works by measuring fluctuation of vacuum-sealed capsule.) Revolving needle indicates altitude and barometric pressure. Unlike LCD displays, it won't crap out in extremely low temperatures. Pshaw. Rotate a knurled dial to set altitude. The alpinist, even though it tops out below the world's highest peaks. (Could you recall how to work one of the digital units at 21,000 feet? Didn't think so.) $316
800-543-9124 Suuntousa

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