This Outstanding Watch Is A Viable Way To Access Pertinent—And Perhaps Lifesaving— Information While In Areas Outside Cell Tower Reach.
I’ve been a watch geek for as long as I can remember. Sometimes, a simple, elegant timepiece will suffice, although, more often, I want critical data handy with just a glance at my wrist.
When traversing mountainous regions, a well-equipped watch can even serve as a survival tool—giving you bearings, altitude and even warning of the approach of bad weather. I’ve used a few of these modern marvels over the years for work and recreation. This experience has given me some specific insight about the designs and features that are useful, so when I got the chance to review Suunto’s Core Black Yellow TX, I relished the opportunity.
Watches with additional sensors have been around for decades. Back in the 1990s, when I started in search-and-rescue (SAR) in the mountains of southwest Colorado, triple-sensor watches were readily available. Cell phones weren’t prevalent until the latter part of that decade, and they certainly weren’t “smart.” As a result, I came to rely on this capability on my wrist.
I kept a pack with me, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Having a compass, altimeter and barometer at all times further enabled me to conduct SAR operations in the field. I can’t tell you how many times I used a watch to call in a helicopter while advising approximate altitude and wind direction. Pilots flying into sketchy situations love this information because it helps them calculate their lift capability (ceiling), as well as the best direction for landing and takeoff. And, although a cell phone’s capabilities have increased exponentially since those hoary days of old, they still don’t work in some of the locations I operate in.
Relying on a good watch is still a viable way to access pertinent information while in areas outside cell tower reach. In my experience, the Suunto Core has a pretty distinguished record of doing just that. I’ve owned an older Core for years and use it frequently.
By comparison, the newer Black Yellow TX is an improvement in many ways. It’s lightweight, comfortable and a good size that’s easy to read. I tried out this evolved model during multiple activities in vastly different terrain.
“There are many options available for customization on the Suunto Core…”
Because the Core relies on the inputs you give to calibrate the sensors, there’s some work that needs to go into having reliable readings when you’re out in the field. First, the elevation and barometer need to be programmed in. On the Front Range of Colorado, I dwell in the 5,000-foot elevation area but have high elevation within close driving range.
Next, the compass has to be calibrated. This actually takes a couple of steps. First, you need to go into “compass” mode and then slowly rotate the Core in a circle several times. I did this away from metal and any other magnetic influences. Once this is complete, you also need to set up your declination. This is critical, because magnetic north is not exact north and, depending on where you live, it could be a different direction—east or west—by several degrees. In my locale, I need to adjust north by 8.10 degrees east to get true north on a compass. Once this was entered, I compared the Core with a reliable compass.
There are many options available for customization on the Suunto Core: You can set it for military or standard time, pick a language for interface and set the standard for units of the measurement you’d like. You can choose between Celsius and Fahrenheit for the thermometer, feet and meters for the altimeter, and inHg (inches of mercury) or hPa (hectopascal pressure units) for the barometer. You can turn the button tone on or off and set up a regional notice of sunrise and sunset by plugging in a city in your vicinity. Depending on your lighting conditions, you can even adjust the contrast if you want the display to appear differently.
After some basic setup, I headed out for field trials.
In the Mountains
One of the first tests was taking the Core to the top of Cameron Pass, which is around 10,500 feet of elevation. It was early March, and my daughter’s school had planned on taking a bunch of first-graders snowshoeing. March is traditionally our heaviest snowfall month and, at that elevation, it’s not uncommon to still have 10 to 15 feet of snow.
I checked elevation at home base—a known value—and then checked again at the summit. The altimeter was accurate. Barometric pressure can have an impact on this, but it was a “bluebird day,” when high pressure created amazingly nice weather. (By the way, I have no cell signal up there. I either end up shutting off my phone or switching it to “airplane” mode when in the mountains.)
During the trip, I checked compass readings at intervals and confirmed they agreed with what I knew about the area. I‘d spent some time at home base to confirm this before I headed to the mountains (it’s always good to confirm).
Suunto’s website says the compass is accurate to within 5 degrees, and this fits with what I’ve observed. This, alone, could make a huge difference in how you might navigate out of a bad situation. Thankfully, the class field trip was completely without peril, and we all made it back without issue, although I ran the Core through a battery of directional and elevational tests. The watch can actually graph changes in altitude, as well as trending weather patterns.
Besides accurate readings, I enjoyed the Core’s durability. It’s an easy thing to take a tumble in the snow, and the 30-meter water resistance can easily be taken for granted. Overall, the watch is robust—although I’ve scratched the lens of the previous model a little more easily than I would’ve expected.
It’s impressive to think a device capable of providing such a wide array of atmospheric data can endure so much and last about a year on one CR2032 battery. This is the advertised battery life, and I’ve found it to be just over a year with moderate use. Another nice thing about the Core is that the user has the ability to change the battery themselves, as opposed to going to a watch shop or jeweler.
In the Valleys
While I used the Core daily, the big trips proved to be the most valuable for collecting important data. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Colorado had shut down. However, we were encouraged to go out and exercise (social distancing observed, of course), because it was considered “essential activity.” Doing my part, I decided to go down in elevation, as opposed to up. I wanted to check out some different terrain and see how the Core performed in those areas.
The Pawnee National Grassland is east of my home. I swear, “Pawnee” must be an ancient term for “never-ending wind”! However, despite the wind, it’s a beautiful place, with lush, rolling plains interspersed with occasional graphic demonstrations of erosion. For the most part, the area is a resplendent grassland dotted with pronghorn antelope. Still further east, you can find a couple of huge buttes carved out of the land.
I also tested the Core and its features there. Temperatures were much hotter, and the wind careened incessantly as I hiked the trail that wound between the two stony buttes. I followed creek beds and topped out on high desert plains before taking it all in. The Core held true to known altitudes and also kept a good bearing throughout my navigation—confirming my trust in the device.
“I can’t tell you how many times I used a watch to call in a helicopter while advising approximate altitude and wind direction.”
Proven and Trustworthy
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the mission for which a co-worker and I were dropped off at a landing zone on the side of a mountain that was slightly less than 12,000 feet in elevation. The Colorado National Guard had lowered its Blackhawk down into the snow to drop us off. Our objective was to check out some footprints while we searched for a downed aircraft. After the helo left, we floundered in the 11-foot-deep snow until we got into our snowshoes. We discovered that the prints were those of an enormous bear … and we then found the pilot in his plane, beyond care. The helicopter crew reported that the helo was low on fuel and could not return until the next day. We spent the night in that snow, and I checked my watch frequently to get bearings and altitude. We camped and prepared for extraction the following day.
Returning to the landing zone the following morning, the entire area was socked in with cloud cover. As we waited for our rescue, I began to feel uncomfortable because of the winds and darkness of the clouds surrounding us. You can usually look around and get an idea what the weather’s going to do, but when you’re in the clouds, it’s a different story.
I checked my watch and saw that the barometer had dropped out violently. We made for lower ground as a storm moved up the mountain. The hail ripped in sideways, and the hair on my head rose as the static electricity built up. We got out of the storm’s path just before the lightning erupted.
When things had cleared significantly, the helicopter pulled us off the mountain. The watch’s capabilities were quite possibly literal lifesavers that day.
A Survival Aid
During a survival situation, the ability to take a reading with an accurate compass could make all the difference in the world. This, alone, makes the Core a valuable aid. If you know your terrain, you can reasonably navigate it. The Core doesn’t replace your normal gear, but it’s a powerful supplement. People wearing this watch and who lose their packs would still be better off than those without it.
Having the added bonus of knowing the altitude can increase your comfort level with your location. It can help you track how far you’ve come. The barometer—especially its included storm warning that sounds an alarm to alert you—can be of crucial benefit. There are times when you might not have a great picture of the sky and weather around you (as I’ve already mentioned). This alarm feature is huge—giving you time to head to safety before it’s too late.
The other features, such as the thermometer, are nice, but not as crucial.
The Suunto Core Yellow Black TX is an outstanding watch. It has an accurate compass, barometer and altimeter. It’s lightweight, comfortable to wear and easy to read. In addition, it’s extremely customizable and water resistant and could be an invaluable aid in a survival situation—whether you’re at high altitudes in the mountains or navigating city streets.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the September, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.