How do Altimeters work? Climbers Altimeter Buyers Guide

If you bought a sport watch in recent years than you probably have an Altimeter in it.
But how do Altimeters work and do we really need them?

If you are a frequent Air traveler then you have probably heard the phrase from your pilot “Ladies and gentlemen, we are now cruising at “X” meters”. It could be 10,000 meters or 6,000 meters but the question is how the pilot knows their Altitude? They do it with the help of a very handy device which is known as Altimeter. The altimeter is the short form of “Altitude Meter” and it is used by the airplanes, skydivers and mountain climbers to know their Altitude. In this comprehensive guide, you will learn how do Altimeters works? Let’s get started.

Garmin Altimeter

How does an Altimeter Work?

Altimeters determine the altitude based on the atmospheric pressure and they use the instrument “Barometer” to do it.

This instrument determines the atmospheric pressure and then uses that reading to determine the Altitude.

These Altimeters are commonly known as Barometric Altimeter or pressure Altimeter (as they use Air pressure to determine Altitude).

Now you must be wondering, how does determining the atmospheric pressure help in determining the Altitude? The answer to this question is pretty simple.

The gravity of the earth pulls everything towards it and it is also the same for the air molecules. The atmospheric pressure near the earth is greater and as you go on higher location the atmospheric pressure decreases.

The Altimeter then uses that air pressure to compare it with the preset pressure value and determine the Altitude. That’s how the conventional Altimeter Works.

However, the other types of Altimeters use different calculation methods to determine the Altitude. GPS Altimeters uses the GPS to determine the Altitude and Radio Altimeters uses the Radio waves to find the Altitude.

The mountain climbers use the conventional Altimeters or the GPS Altimeter to determine their Altitude.

History of Altimeters

An altimeter is a very useful gadget and it has been around for decades. It was invented by the American-German Inventor known as Paul Kollsman.

He is a very famous inventor and according to the United States Patent Office, he has 124 patents on his credit. Paul Kollsman invented the Altimeter in 1928 which proved to be a very crucial instrument for airplanes.

At the start, it was limited to the Airplanes only as it allowed them to know their altitude and make adjustments in the flight course.

The Kollsman’s version of the Altimeter was the Pressure altimeter which worked by measuring the air pressure outside the plane.

Now, apart from A Barometer, there are different types of Altimeters available out there and the following are some of the most popular types of altimeters out there.

  • Radio Altimeters
  • GPS Altimeters
  • Laser Altimeters

We have shared a detailed guide on different types of Altimeters on our website.

How Accurate is An Altimeter?

Just like other gadgets out there, Altimeter is not perfect and many factors can affect its accuracy.

For example, when using the traditional Altimeter, you will need to manually calibrate it. If you have done the calibration right then the Altimeter will accurately measure the altitude.

In some cases, factors such as weather changes also affect the air pressure which can lead to false readings. For example, the high temperature leads to pressure drop and cold weather leads to higher pressures.

Therefore, you will need to keep these factors in mind to ensure that you are getting the right readings.

In the case of GPS Altimeters, they use the process known as Triangulation to find out your accurate position. The GPS Altimeter also uses at least four satellites to find your accurate elevation. In normal conditions, GPS Altimeters can prove more accurate than conventional Altimeters.

However, factors such as weather can compromise the strength of the GPS Signals and hence you can get the false readings. In such extreme cases, Conventional Altimeters can work better than GPS Altimeters.

How Do Fitness Trackers Track Climbed Stairs? Which Are The Best Ones?

The manufacturers claim that their Trackers that are equipped with altimeter can also accurately tell you the distance you have covered upwards like the number of stairs that you have climbed or the floor that you are currently on.

Is that so? and if so which fitness tracker with an altimeter can count stairs climbing in the most accurate way?

Best Fitness Tracker For Tracking Climbed Stairs And Floors – Is there Such A device At All?

Let me be honest with you, the answer to that is no, none of the fitness trackers today cannot track stairs climbing accurately.

I know that lots of fitness trackers come with stairs climbing features and that their manufacturers claim that they do it accurately.

The number of people who are getting frustrated from inaccurate stairs climbing count is huge and it takes someone like me which is not a seller nor working for none of the brands to tell you the truth and save you the frustration.

So why then, fitness trackers cannot count stairs climbed accurately?

The answer to that is because of the technology that they use, let’s talk more about it.

How Do Fitness trackers track climbed stairs?

Fitness trackers track climbed stairs by using a GPS Altimeter and some of them are using a Barometer too.

The Altimeter in the fitness trackers is a sensor that reports elevation or altitude in terms of the distance above mean sea level.

It is able to do it by using the GPS that is built-in in the fitness tracker itself or by using the GPS on your phone or by using A Barometer.

The Barometer in the fitness trackers is usually available in the fancier fitness trackers and it is able to reports air pressure in absolute units such as millimeters and inches, kilo Pascals (kPa), or similar units.

Here is what Fitbit says about it:

Fitbit devices that count floors have an altimeter sensor that can detect when you’re going up or down in elevation. Your device registers one floor when you climb about 10 feet at one time. It does not register floors when you go down.

Can A Fitness Tracker Track elevation on A Treadmill Or Stairmaster?

The answer to that is no, Fitness trackers cannot track the elevation on stationary exercise equipment such as treadmill and Stairmaster since they require a physical elevation change

This is what they officially say:

Fitbit devices do not count the elevation gains simulated from a StairMaster, inclined treadmill, or other stationary exercise equipment. Your device uses changes in barometric pressure to detect elevation change and therefore requires that you physically change elevation in order to properly record floors.

The problem with these sensors is that they are not accurate enough to count little steps taken at a time and that weather changes and many other factors might cause changes in the air pressure which will cost them to count steps inaccurately.

Overall, the technology for tracking elevation of stairs climbing is not there yet, however, I’m confident that it will improve a lot in the coming years.

So why do I need a fitness tracker with Altimeter and/or Barometer than?

In case you are hiking, taking long runs or doing rock climbing and wants to see the different heights in your training session and in case you want to see your heart rate changes in the different heights than these devices might give you a piece of good information.

Pros and Cons of a fitness tracker with altimeter using a built-in GPS compared to a tracker that uses the Phone’s GPS(GPS connected).

In order to track altitude, the fitness trackers need a GPS.
In some trackers the GPS is built-in and in others, it will have to use your phone’s GPS.

Main Pros for using altimeter in a fitness tracker with a built-in GPS:

  • You don’t have to carry your phone with you, the tracker will use the built-in GPS in order to track the altitude and you will be able to check it out in real and it will record it so you’ll be able to track your stats in the app of your phone.
  • More accuracy.

Main Cons for using altimeter in a fitness tracker with a built-in GPS:

  • It costs more.
  • Bulkier.
  • Shorter battery life since the built-in GPS requires a lot of power.

How to accurately calibrate your Altimeter?

Most of the digital Altimeters can automatically calibrate themselves provided that they are connected to the internet.

However, you can also manually do it. The main component you will need is to accurately find your current elevation and you can do it by using the Google Earth.

Open the Google Earth website or app and then enable location. Once you enable the location, Google Earth will tell you your accurate elevation which you can feed into your Altimeter and calibrate it.

The experts recommend calibrating your Altimeter on daily basis to ensure that you get the right altitude level.

Advantages of Altimeter

An altimeter is a great gadget and these are some of the benefits of using it.

  • Whether you are just an enthusiast or the climber, the Altimeter will help you know your accurate Altitude.
  • It is a cool gadget to have and that’s the reason why many Smartwatches come with this functionality.
  • It can be used for orienteering.

Disadvantages of Altimeter

Just like other gadgets, Altimeter also has its disadvantages.

  • If you pick up the manual Altimeter then it will be difficult to read especially if you are a beginner
  • Bad weather can affect the functionality of the Altimeter.
  • The basic Altimeters are not designed for extreme conditions. If you are professional then you will need the professional-grade Altimeter.

Is it Worth Buying an Altimeter?

The answer to this question depends on your requirements. If you are just casual hiker or climber then you don’t need a dedicated Altimeter and you can get a smartwatch as most Smartwatches come with the Altimeter functionality. However, if you are a professional climber then you will need a dedicated, professional-grade Altimeter.

Bottom Line

That’s all folks. The altimeter is surely a very useful gadget and if you are into hiking, climbing or orienteering then you can use a good Altimeter. If you are looking for the best Altimeter for climbers then you can check our guide, where we have shared some of the best Altimeters available out there. Also, if you want to know the different types of Altimeters then you can check our guide where we have discussed the types of Altimeters in detail.