It's always fun to just find a trail and see where it leads. You may discover a beautiful outlook or some cool looking trees, or maybe some wildlife. However, while you were snagging some rad Instagram pics of rocks and trees, you have wandered further and further away from your camp or vehicle. To make matters worse, sundown is in half an hour, which means that you have about 10 minutes of daylight left under the coniferous canopy. Now you turn and follow what you thought was the path back. By now, the only light is the one on your phone and the forest looks a lot different at night. It hits you like a truck, you're lost and unsure how far you need to go and which direction.
This is a situation that happens a lot more often than it should. LiveScience posted an article a few years back on why humans are so prone to getting completely lost, whether it's in a city with street signs or the backcountry. TL:DR, we have lost essential skills that were common back when humans had to actually hunt for their food and build their own houses. We will now subconsciously wander in circles, getting ourselves more lost while trying to find the way out. This is a BIG reason why an essential piece of any adventure kit is a map and compass. So going back to our scenario above, what if you go out on a whim after pulling off a paved road? You most likely won't have a compass or map on you every single day, or will you?
Suunto of Finland is an 80 year old manufacturer of dive and sport watches along with some solid compasses. Suunto got it's start making compasses and eventually compasses for artillery crews in WWII. As of late, Suunto's primary offering has been high-tech heavy duty watches for everyone from military to marathoners and mountaineers to divers. Their latest run of outdoor watches have been dubbed the "Traverse" line and include many different features any explorer would find useful, and maybe lifesaving.
Just this past April, an even more durable option was added to the Traverse lineup: The Alpha. Intended for those who hike and hunt, this new watch has features for both. Being as this watch has only been on the market for a month now, I haven't had a chance to test it's long term usability however, I can inform you of the features it offers and the wearability of it as well. I will update this review in a few months after truly using this thing a lot more. Before we continue, I will say that I purchased this watch through Suunto's VIP program for active duty military. I received a significant discount and purchased it based purely on my previous experience with Suunto, I've had their Ambit watches for about 3 years now and I felt comfortable purchasing another Suunto timepiece. It was hard for me to find a good review on this watch since it was so new so I hope this review is extensive enough to help you make a decision.
First handling this watch, I immediately noticed how lightweight it is yet it's built like a tank. Assembled within a stainless steel bezel that is slightly knurled to give a more robust look, the face is made of sapphire crystal glass for superior scratch resistance. The body is sealed and offers water resistance (essentially waterproof) up to 300 ft underwater. So unless you are James Cameron, this watch should be waterproof enough for any of your adventures. I haven't had a chance to test this yet but my Ambit3 (same water rating) has been to many trips to the ocean and lakes, never once acquiring water damage. The Alpha attaches to your wrist with a water-repellent nylon strap, commonly known as a NATO style strap. This is my first Suunto with a nylon strap and while I can see the durability being superior over the silicone strap I was wearing, the nylon took some getting used to for me. If you already wear a nylon watch strap, the transition should be a lot easier for you. I can concur that the strap is water repellent and not waterproof. I did collect some water in the strap while taking a shower, however it was not a large amount and did not feel much different. The strap was totally dry in less than 10 minutes so it's not a big deal to me. The bezel and body are attached with 4 star screws which should only be removed by Suunto to retain the aspect of a sealed body. This watch has 5 buttons around the body of it. They each have their own label: Light, Next, and Start are on the right side while View and Back/Lap are on the left.
Getting into the functionality, the home face has a lot more information available than the Ambit line does. The current time is displayed largely while the date (day of the week and month/day) is across the top. What is displayed on the bottom field is up to you. By pressing the "view" button on the left of the watch, you can scroll through different info including: seconds, altitude, direction to waypoint, daily step counter, battery percentage, dual time, and sunrise/sunset times. Yes, that can all be on your home watch face. Pressing the "next" button will allow you to move between screens. Screen options include Barometer/Altimeter with a graph, magnetic compass that you don't have to keep level, stopwatch, countdown timer, step counter with daily/weekly/yearly summary and calorie counter, and a moon phase screen with forecasting so you can see when the next full moon is (important for fishers, hunters and werewolves). These can be viewed by pressing the "next" button from screen to screen.
When the "start" button is pressed, a menu appears with options like navigation and logbook. The navigation menu is where this device becomes so much more than a watch. Using Suunto's MovesCount software, the user can preload user-made or community-made routes into the watch. For example, if you want to hike a popular trail, chances are someone already mapped the rail and you can download it to the watch for easy following. You can also make your own. I made an evacuation route avoiding all highways and busy roads and have it saved on my watch in case a natural disaster hits. The possibilities are endless, just keep it to 100 waypoint or less! In the navigation menu, you have the ability to capture your current location in coordinates. If you had to make a call to emergency personnel, this could come in handy to provide them with your exact location. The Traverse line now uses GPS and GLONASS for quicker satellite acquisition and more accurate location readings. On top of all this, you can drop POI (points of interest). Some examples may be the car in a crowded parking lot, your campsite before leaving on a hike, a cool waterfall you want to revisit and so on. At any moment, you can navigate to any POI and the watch will alert you when you are close to the waypoint. The only flaw in this system is that the watch face does not display a map unless a route is preloaded or you are going back the way you just came. For instance, if you wake up and decide you want to hike to that waterfall from two days ago, you can navigate to the POI but the display will only point you in the direction you should go. It will not account for cliffs or rivers in your way so you will have to navigate around those yourself. The good news is once you navigate around obstacles, the watch is still pointing you in the direction you want to go. You will reach your POI, it just requires some thinking on your part. If you get lost and just want to get back to camp, when navigation is enabled, the watch automatically drops "breadcrumbs" as you go and at any moment, you can follow the exact same route back to where you started. This would be helpful in our opening scenario, even a POI drop would be very helpful.
Another option from the start screen is "record". This will bring you to a list of activities to choose from. These activities can be specially selected from the MovesCount website or phone app and you can choose up to 5. This is different from the Ambit3 that allowed up to 10. However, with it's bluetooth connectivity and the MovesCount app, you can choose different activities on the fly so it's not a huge inconvenience. There's a large number of activities to choose from so trust me when I say there's something for everyone. I have used this function on my Ambit3 on my marathon and my backpacking/hiking trips. Depending on the activity, the watch will track your speed, altitude, ascent/descent all while tracking the rout you take so you can view it on Google maps later. Here's the Air Force Marathon Charlene and I ran to give you an idea of the kind of readout you would get from the running activity on this watch, and while we didn't qualify for Boston, we were just happy to finish our first marathon! Each activity has it's own specialized list of attributes it records but you can adjust them to your liking in MovesCount.
Now for the fun features! The first is bluetooth connectivity that allows you to receive notifications from your phone, on the Alpha. Pair it through the MovesCount app and, as long as the watch is within range, you will get text messages and more on your watch. You can't reply from the watch but this feature would be helpful if you are in a meeting and your phone starts buzzing. You can see why right from your wrist. Something new to the Traverse line is vibration alerts. The watch will vibrate on your arm when it wants to alert you to something like a phone notification. This is a nice upgrade from the Ambit3 where it was either a beep or nothing at all. Now for what sets the Alpha apart from the rest of the Traverse lineup. First is the option to change the backlight color from white to red. This is awesome because when it's dark out, your eyes become adjusted, your pupils grow to allow more light and you can see better when you've been in the dark for a while. However, the moment you check your phone or check a watch with a white light, your pupils contract and you are blind as a bat again. The red light is not as harsh on the eyes and will preserve night vision meaning you can see just as well after checking the time as you could before, not to mention the red watch light looks pretty sweet. I mentioned it above but a moon phase capability is important for hunters and fisherman and this watch will tell you what the moon looks like and what it will look like in a week or a month along with moonrise and moonset times. Suunto made the Alpha easy to use with more shortcuts than previous models. Holding down the light button now turns the watch into a minor flashlight. It is bright enough in a very dark area to light the 6 feet in front of you, something that Ambit owners used to joke about doing, myself included, because of the bright backlighting. Now it's an actual function, what a time to be alive. Holding down the view button will allow you to quickly save your current location. If you get out of your car to go on a hike, it's easy to save that POI, just hold down a button for 5 seconds. This is a nice feature and is a lot more user friendly than how the Ambit line saves POIs. If you don't want any buttons to get pressed, you can hold down the back button and it will lock the watch. No button input will be acknowledged until you unlock it the same way. Another feature unique to the Alpha is real-time shot detection. I have been unable to find any other watches on the market with a feature like this. Aimed at hunters, the Alpha will sense when a firearm is shot and will drop a marker at that location. The hunter can then drop a marker where the animal is retrieved and a complete hunt can be viewed on MovesCount later. Just start the Hunting activity at the beginning of a hunt and the watch will do the rest, including tracking the path you take. However, this also means that tall tales aren't as believable when you say you took a 600 yard shot and the watch says it was only 150 yards. Use at your own discretion! Another fun feature is the storm alarm. This will sound off if the barometric pressure drops too quickly, normally indicating precipitation, and hopefully allow you time to get your raincoat!
The new Traverse Alpha from Suunto is geared more towards the outdoor adventurer and hunter and less for the ultra-athlete. The Ambit line has more sport modes and reads different information than the Alpha. If you participate in marathons or triathlons more than you hike, I wouldn't recommend the Traverse Alpha for you, the Ambit would be better suited to your needs. However, if you hike, backpack, casually run and hunt or fish, the Traverse Alpha will work well for you. Bluetooth connectivity and a smartphone app allows you to save and share data along with customizing your watch on the fly. Good looking enough to be worn everyday or even in a suit, yet tested to MIL-STD 810G and passing 19 rigorous tests, it's durable enough for whatever you may face. Check out the video below and keep in mind that they are testing the normal Traverse without the Sapphire glass or tougher bezel of the Alpha. The Alpha comes in two colors, Foliage and Stealth. I almost did the Foliage, a Gray watch with Green strap, but eventually went with the Stealth, Black on Black, to allow wear in my uniform.
I hope this review was helpful for those wondering about this new device like I was. If you have any more questions about it, please leave them in the comments or send me an email using the contact page. I'd be more than happy to help. If you know someone who always gets lost an could use this watch, please share this review with them!
Keep adventuring, stay safe, and always find your way back!