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Suunto 9: A computer for athletes in the form of a wristwatch


MSRP: $599

The first time I put on the Suunto 9 wristwatch, I was excited to see a heart rate monitor built in. This was something new for me in my years of climbing and trail running in the mountains. I wasn’t quite sure how accurate the wrist monitor would be in taking measurements from the top of my wrist, but I was definitely psyched not to don the usual and cumbersome chest-strap monitor. This watch is groovy in that it doesn’t skimp on much; it has many desirable and useful features for a mountain athlete of any caliber. Most notable are its heart rate monitor, altitude/barometric pressure functions, GPS tracking, battery life and other data capabilities for athletes to geek out on.

The size of this watch is probably my biggest complaint–it sometimes catches on doorframes. The small-framed woman in me struggled: I imagine it would be similarly cumbersome to wear a 7-inch cam clipped to a climbing harness all day! Seriously, even though I am using my arms more these days now that I am in a wheelchair after a climbing accident, the watch, regardless, is a bit bigger than I’d prefer for a light and fast mountain mission.

Once I got over my minimalist attitude, I started delving into the specifics of the Suunto 9. I was curious about the accuracy of the Valencell heart rate monitor. Functionally, the LED optical sensors shine light underneath the watch into your wrist, and measurements are derived from how much the blood flow scatters the light (a brief, more scientific explanation can be found here). I found the measurements to be accurate based on my previous experience with other devices. Having hiked around for years with a heart rate monitor on my chest, I became more in tune with how my body responds and performs. As a climbing ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park I would hike 30 to 60 miles a week on the job in addition to my personal running and climbing adventures on days off. I learned I can have a great conversation with full sentences while working at altitude if my heart rate is under 145. If I get up into the 160s, I might still try to jabber to you in three-word sentences, gasping for breath. The readings of the Suunto 9 were spot-on during a bike ride up Fall River and Trail Ridge roads in Rocky Mountain National Park. If you desire even more accuracy, the Suunto 9 is compatible with a heart rate belt, which can be purchased with the watch for $50 more.

The author biking on Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park. [Photo] Zach Zehr

The author biking on Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park. [Photo] Zach Zehr

One of the features I liked most with this watch is the Barometric/Altitude function. I was able to mess around a bit above tree line in Rocky Mountain National Park, to find a “standard” norm for weather changes in my home region. It’s an easy and straightforward task to set these baseline functions on the back end with this watch. Also, depending on your battery preservation tactics, this watch generally combines GPS and barometric altitude to give an incredibly accurate reading. If you are getting into a longer adventure, wanting to save battery life, altitude will still be measured with the GPS turned off.

I was impressed by the watch’s battery life. It lasts up to 20 hours in training mode and up to 120 hours in power-saving settings. I used the Suunto 9 for many two- to four-hour adventures at full power mode, for two weeks without having to charge it once. To be honest, I haven’t worn it yet in Patagonia where the weather is notoriously fickle and some of the mountain missions tend to be five to six days in length. I have confidence it would last, especially given the ability to moderate battery life according to personal desired outcomes.

If you’re reading this review, I would guess that you like mountain adventuring AND you are keen on seeing the beefiness of the terrain you have covered. This watch excels at measuring elevation gain/loss and there are apps you can buy to pair it with your phone. Unfortunately, I struggled with this feature, as I was unable to set it up on my computer. Had I been able to, I surely would have geeked out comparing data. Two specific functions I’ve been able to use are EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption) and PTE (Peak Training Effect). These pertain to those of us who desire technical specifications on our performance measures. Athletes can also pull training plans onto the watch to guide their daily workouts, get regular checkups on their progress across a variety of sports in an easy-to-read infographic and use 24-hour heart rate monitoring to inform their rest and recovery needs. They can also monitor daily steps and calories burned, and set targets for each.

Close-up of the Suunto 9. [Photo] Quinn Brett

Close-up of the Suunto 9. [Photo] Quinn Brett

Overall, the Suunto 9 has the standard activity tracking data such as distance and pace. It does offer more than 80 different sport functions, which seems a bit excessive–or maybe I am just a narrow-minded climber and endurance athlete. If you need more, don’t fret! This watch allows you to customize your activities. The touch screen interface makes it easy to skip over the simple functions you might not use. The nice part about the basic setup of this watch is that any unused functions are easily avoidable and don’t seem to bog it down in any way. I was impressed with the user-friendliness of the Suunto 9 and the amount of clear, accurate data it pumps out, despite my frustrations of its size.

Quinn Brett works for Rocky Mountain Conservancy and is a former climbing ranger for Rocky Mountain National Park, a Yosemite big-wall speed climber and ultra-runner. She suffered a spinal cord injury from a fall while climbing on El Capitan in 2017 and she is now adapting to life as a paraplegic athlete. She writes a blog at

Many features with a high degree of specificity
Color touchscreen
GPS navigation
Measures heart rate on the wrist
Water resistant to 100m
Barometer and weather functions
Long-lasting battery life

Big and heavy for a wristwatch
Having so many features can make the watch a bit overwhelming or confusing
Some functions could be more user-friendly to set up