The 10 Best Altimeters
This wiki has been updated 16 times since it was first published in October of 2016. Whether you want to know how high your model rocket soared, the elevation of the mountain pass through which you're driving, or how high you and your hiking buddies got on your last trek, there is an altimeter available that will rise (ahem) to the challenge. Our assessment of these takes into account their various functions, durability, bonus features, price, and usability. When users buy our independently chosen editorial choices, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki. Skip to the best altimeter on Amazon.
Garmin GRA 5500 This is one of the most reliable radar-based systems on the market, with top-tier performance at a maximum altitude of 55,000 feet. It readily interfaces with both company displays and third-party equipment, and it can safely operate in temperatures as low as -55 and as high as 85 degrees Centigrade. Just bear in mind that if you don't also own an airplane, its cost may not be justifiable. garmin.com
January 06, 2020:
While mechanical models like the Sun Company 203 and the Alti-2 Altimaster III Galaxy aren't going to see a lot of technical innovation that would drive new models to come out on a frequent basis, the digital models like the Casio Pro Tek and the Garmin Foretex all have superior models in their lineups that we've decided to include on this ranking. The Garmin Foretex 701 Ballistic Edition is particularly advanced in its navigational abilities, as it interfaces with three distinct position systems. It might have taken the top spot if its smartwatch features had been a little more refined.
Another wrist-worn model we added to the list is the Oris Big Crown ProPilot, which is an enormous watch for daily wear, especially with its 18mm thickness. It's a remarkable piece, however, with a mechanical barometric altimeter artfully housed around the exterior of a modified automatic movement by Sellita. It also has a factory-calibrated true-pressure gauge that helps you set the starting altitude for your current height above sea level.
Ultimately, these are all barometric models making an informed calculation about altitude based on atmospheric pressure. These readings are susceptible to inaccuracies due to things like changing weather patterns and issues with calibration. If you want a true altitude reading, you'll need to turn to the radar-based system by Garmin included in our special honors section, each of which is designed for use in aircraft.
October 19, 2018:
Removed the SunRoad and Estes models because of continued issues with usability and durability. The Herbert Richter model, while a satisfactory product, has ongoing problems with availability, so it was also removed. Added the Suunto and Garmin models as high-tech options and also updated the Casio selection from the older SGW400H to the newer Pro Trek.
How Does An Altimeter Work?
Even if you haven't, you've certainly seen it in movies, and you know that at some point it's somebody's job to keep an eye on the plane's altitude.
At some point in your life, you’ve probably flown in an airplane. Even if you haven't, you've certainly seen it in movies, and you know that at some point it's somebody's job to keep an eye on the plane's altitude. Fortunately for pilots, that job is as easy as glancing at an altimeter. But how exactly does an altimeter know how high it is?
Most altimeters throughout history have actually been barometers. A barometer is a device designed to measure air pressure, and if you know a bit about how air pressure works, you can understand how this tool can be repurposed to tell you your altitude. Normally, a barometer measures air pressure and gives you a reading thereof, but in the case of the altimeter, that air pressure reading is recalibrated to display height above sea level.
Air pressure is essentially a force of gravity. The Earth pulls down on individual molecules in the air, so that there are many more near the surface of the Earth than there are as you journey upward away from that surface. The higher you get, the fewer molecules there are to create that sensation of pressure. This is why we often refer to the air at higher altitudes as being thinner, as there is less oxygen along with pretty much everything else floating around.
The barometric device inside an altimeter is basically a simple box designed to expand or contract depending on the amount of air pressure exerted on it. It's up to the owner of this device to calibrate it so that it knows how much pressure exists at sea level on a given day. In addition to gravity, weather and temperature can play a big role in air pressure, so it's important to keep this kind of altimeter calibrated on a regular basis. As the air pressure exerted on this box decreases, the box expands, forcing a hand connected to it to spin around the face of the altimeter that is marked to show height above sea level.
Many modern altimeters work in the same manner, but display their results digitally, as that format is much more popular and generally easier to read than a traditional analog altimeter. Some altimeters utilize different means of ascertaining height above sea level, such as the bouncing of radio waves off the Earth's surface, but these won't do much for the individual who looks to take his or her altimeter along with them for a hike.
Which Altimeter Is Right For You?
Most of the altimeters available for sale on the market are pressure based, meaning that they operate using the same pressurized box method as the traditional analog altimeter. Some units, particularly those with digital readouts, may employ piezoelectric crystals that respond to the amount of pressure exerted on them by the box as it expands or contracts, resulting in an accurate digital readout. Knowing which kind of altimeter you need will have more to do with exactly how you want to use it than anything else.
For example, some model rocket enthusiasts reach for altimeters that are designed to attach to their rockets.
For example, some model rocket enthusiasts reach for altimeters that are designed to attach to their rockets. These are usually very small, digital devices designed to give you a reading of the maximum altitude reached, so you can determine how powerful your rocket launch was. These are also great for competitions in which the greatest height achieved by a rocket is awarded victory. Generally speaking, however, they are a little less accurate and a little less durably built then other options.
If you want to use an altimeter as a survival tool on hikes into elevated wilderness areas, or to take with you on mountain climbing expeditions, you'll want something that's particularly durable. Many of the options on our list do more than just provide you with your altitude, as well. Outdoors enthusiasts will appreciate things like GPS geolocation, weather prediction, and integrated compasses, all of which can combine to increase your safety in the wild while decreasing the size and weight of your pack.
There are also options on our list that are essentially wrist watches with built-in barometric altimeters. These devices aren't necessarily less effective than those designed for experienced outdoorsmen, but it's important to realize that their smaller build is going to result in decreased accuracy. For many, this isn't such a problem, as knowing your altitude to anything more specific than a few hundred feet is usually irrelevant, and most survivalists only need a good sense of how high up they are to know how to adjust their performance to maximize minimal oxygen levels.
Other Excellent Survival Tools
If you are interested in an altimeter as a survival tool, you probably have some very interesting adventures ahead of you. In order to make sure that those adventures go as smoothly as possible, you should outfit yourself with the best gear the market has to offer.
In keeping with the versatility of a good knife, a bit of paracord can be one of the most useful tools for survival in the wilderness.
A survival knife is probably the cornerstone for most outdoorsmen's packs. It can serve myriad purposes depending on which model you get, allowing you to decrease your overall gear quantity knowing that you've got a capable, multifunctional tool at your side. It's generally a good idea to travel with more than one knife, as well, so make sure you load up.
In keeping with the versatility of a good knife, a bit of paracord can be one of the most useful tools for survival in the wilderness. This material has a significant amount of tensile strength, and it often comes in an easy-to-carry bracelet form, many of which have integrated compasses to keep you moving in the right direction.
Whatever you do decide to pack with you into the wilderness, it's important that it ends up in a good backpack. External and internal frame backpacks are ideal for survival situations, as they can be worn and carried for extended periods without taxing the body too much, and many are designed to withstand anything mother nature can throw at them while accommodating a tremendous amount of equipment.
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