The digital age has spawned a vast number number of tools, gadgets and devices catered to the outdoor market. Some of these devices are hard to imagine living without but most are far from essential.
Throughout this period of digital disruption one piece of gear has not only remained relevant but has evolved into a truly essential tool for adventure and exploration: the humble wristwatch. From its basic and essential time keeping role the watch has been innovated into a wrist top outdoor and performance information hub. Every year manufacturers build instruments with an ever expanding and unbelievable array of features and functionalities.
But what do we truly need from a watch intended for the hard use of backcountry hunting? In my opinion, many of these new-age instruments are far too impractical for the majority of field applications, especially within the context of remote backcountry hunting.
For my purposes the list of must-have features is relatively short: a low-profile body and strap design, an alarm, glove friendly buttons, and an altimeter/barometer top my list of key features. Notable exceptions from this list are a compass and GPS but I don’t consider these a must have in a watch. I never depend solely on an electronic device for a compass and with the multitude of GPS enabled personal locator and messaging devices now available there is no shortage of GPS options on the market. Yes, two is one and one is none so you could make the point that having redundant GPS capability in a watch is a necessity, especially in the event of emergency extraction but I have yet to find a GPS enabled watch that wasn’t too bulky or heavy for my tastes. If I don’t like wearing it I won’t take it into the field, simple as that.
In this article I’m going to review what in my opinion is one of the most practical and functional outdoor watches on the market, the Suunto Core ALU Deep Black. Suunto has been in the outdoor watch game a long time and they produce a full line of products to satisfy virtually every outdoor need. The Core series has been around for years and is one of the most well known outdoor watches on the market. The Core ALU Deep Black is a new addition to the Core line-up, falling under their Premium category. These models combine sleek, modern design with the essential outdoor functions we’ve come to expect from the Core series. Full disclosure, my Core ALU Deep Black was sent on loan for testing and review purposes.
The Core ALU hosts a solid list of features: altimeter, barometer, compass, temperature, storm alarm, sunrise/sunset, depth meter to 10m, multiple date/time functions, and a user replaceable battery. In short, more than enough features and functions to satisfy my needs.
In this review I’m going to focus on comfort and user friendliness as in my opinion that should be the deciding factor when making your final selection. There are many watches out there boasting more internal functions than a Super Cub cabin but if the watch isn’t comfortable or it takes you 20 minutes just to figure out the multi-button formula required to access a given mode, what’s the point?
If you’re a real metric focused techno-geek that likes to re-trace your GPS tracked trail and analyze the minutiae of every outing you should probably stop reading this review. This isn’t the watch for you. If like me however you’re more of a minimalist that appreciates a product that checks all the boxes without unnecessary bulk or features you’ll never use, keep reading as the Core ALU should be at the top of your list. I used this watch extensively, from regular day-to-day use, to trail running and hiking and numerous hunts. It’s a solid watch that’s a pleasure to wear and use.
Specific to bulk, in my opinion there’s a definite point of diminishing returns. As backcountry hunters we are always looking to simplify and our watches should be no exception. In the past I’ve used some of the more feature rich “outdoor computer” watches and found I rarely used the majority of the extra functionalities. I was simply stuck with a heavy, bulky device that was a hassle to fit under gloves or dig out from beneath the sleeve of a jacket. From a hunting perspective, what good is a watch I can’t access easily without unnecessary movement or noise?
The Core ALU fits nice and tight to the wrist and the unbelievably comfortable silicone strap keeps the watch in place without any rubbing or friction on my outer wrist bone. I have a fairly prominent ulnar head (the bump on the outside of your wrist) and find stiffer strap materials like elastomer or plastics quite annoying as the strap won’t accommodate this prominence without having to keep the watch looser than I like. This leads to slippage when swinging my arms or when wet or sweaty and frankly drives me crazy. This also makes the watch far more likely to catch on clothing or gear. I wore this watch on numerous torrentially wet West Coast trail runs over the summer and early fall and the silicone strap kept the watch comfortably in place.
The aluminum case and body is lightweight yet durable and in my opinion is just the right size to be easily viewable at a glance without feeling like you have Big Ben strapped to your arm. The case hinges are designed to accommodate wrist anatomy and I can honestly say this is the most comfortable watch I have ever worn. I would often forget it was on, something I’ve never been able to say about a watch before. The sleek design of the circular case combined with the anatomically friendly hinges and strap collectively make the watch very low profile despite being a fairly big watch by traditional standards. It rarely caught on the sleeve of my jackets and was easy to access when wearing gloves that came up over my wrist.
The buttons are just big enough to be toggled with gloves on yet not so big that you trigger them with every bend or movement of the wrist or hand. Cycling through the features and modes is entirely intuitive, no frantic button pressing as you try to remember how many times you need to press a given button to access the feature or mode you’re looking for. All functions are accessible quickly and easily. Setting up the various date and time modes was straightforward and calibrating the altimeter and compass even easier. In fact, I only looked at the manual a couple times over the months I tested the watch.
In summary, for the overwhelming majority of applications the Suunto Core ALU is more than enough watch and there may not be a more comfortable, easy to use outdoor watch on the market. I’ll be sad to send it back but there’s no question this watch is the frontrunner for those of us that like a well-designed, simple, yet highly functional watch for virtually any outdoor application.