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Gear Guy

What's the best all-purpose outdoor watch?

I interested in purchasing a multi-functioning watch, such as the Suunto Vector, something with an altimeter, barometer, and the like. I'd be using it when hiking, camping, or mountaineering; I'd even like to swim with it on. Is Suunto the only company that makes these watches? Is there a hiking watch that can do it all, even when it's freezing and underwater? Tony Detroit, Michigan

A: The Suunto Vector ($200), its Suunto siblings, and competitors such as the Avocet Vertech Alpin II ($160) do indeed pretty much do it all. They have all the features you mention—compass, altimeter, barometer, and, of course, ordinary sport-watch features such as stopwatch, alarm, and, wait for it, a clock. Moreover, they're reliable and surprisingly accurate. It's also entertaining to watch your rate of ascent or descent as you're hiking (something the Alpin shows; I'm not sure about the Vector).

Still, two caveats. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the precision of a magnetic compass, particularly when using maps for route-finding, over the somewhat awkward interface of a wrist-top compass. And of course, as an electronic gadget, any wrist-top computer can break or suffer from a dead battery.

The other problem is the swimming one. These are NOT diving watches, and really aren't recommended for any prolonged submersion. That's because the barometric function requires pretty good access to the outside air. They're "waterproofed" to the extent you can get them wet from rain, stick a hand in a stream when fetching water, that sort of thing. But no swimming.

Freezing is not a problem. These watches also have thermometer functions and are good to very cold temps, although at some sub-zero point the battery may start to go dead.

Keep pointed west!

Gear checklist: Suunto Vector; Avocet Vertech Alpin II.

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