During the previous weekend, I secured five fitness smartwatches, drove to Mount Diablo State Park in California, and ascended approximately 2,100 feet to the summit. The purpose? To determine which smartwatch brand — Apple, COROS, Garmin, Polar, or Samsung — was the most precise for tracking elevation.
Most high-end smartwatches feature a barometric altimeter to assess your elevation gain during outdoor workouts. Altimeters utilize air pressure fluctuations to compute elevation changes in conjunction with GPS data. However, some are more precise than others, and most brands do not allow manual calibration of your starting position.
I’ve been eager to conduct this experiment for a while, ever since my trial last year when I wore six smartwatches for 6,000 steps to evaluate which came closest to the actual number. Since then, I have also carried out several multi-watch GPS accuracy tests for reviews, but these have all been two-dimensional assessments. I have never known how accurate my watch is when it informs me I’ve ascended X feet or climbed Y flights of stairs.
For my evaluation, I selected three watches I’ve previously assessed — the COROS PACE 3, Garmin Forerunner 965, and Samsung Galaxy Watch 6 Classic — along with two I am currently evaluating, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 and Polar Vantage V3.
My apologies to the hikers with preferred brands I did not bring along; my arms, as slender as they are, only have so much space. Charging and accommodating five watches was more than enough to handle, and they attracted plenty of glances on the trail as it was.
Furthermore, some of my preferred wearables (like the Fitbit Charge 6) lack altimeters entirely, meaning they cannot be relied upon for elevation data, apart from GPS estimates.
Fortunately, you can easily evaluate your own smartwatch’s precision if you desire!
Simply select a hike on a site such as Alltrails, like the Mount Diablo via Summit Trail hike, and note the minimum and maximum elevation, as well as the total elevation gain. Then, embark on the hike yourself and compare your watch’s findings to reality.
The data below presents the results of my smartwatch elevation precision test:
|Total elevation gain
|Exact GPS data (AllTrails)
|Apple Watch Ultra 2
|COROS PACE 3
|Garmin Forerunner 965
|Samsung Galaxy Watch 6 Classic
Note: You probably observed a missing data row. That’s because at some point on the descent of Mt. Diablo, my Polar Vantage V3 malfunctioned, displaying an endless loop of the Polar logo, and then performing a factory reset after I returned home. The Polar subreddit indicates that other individuals have experienced similar problems in the past.
Fortunately, I took a photo near the peak displaying my elevation (3,729 feet) and total gain (2,018 feet) at the time. If you add another 100 feet or so of climbing, the Vantage V3 was likely quite close to what my other watches indicated; I simply cannot provide exact data, especially without the starting elevation. I am greatly disappointed that this glitch disrupted my test!