Tech4o TraiLeader Watch
Test Series by Raymond Estrella
August 12, 2008
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Orange County, California, USA
6' 3" (1.91 m)
200 lb (90.70 kg)
I have been backpacking for over 30 years, all over California, and in many of the western states and Minnesota. I hike year-round, and average 500+ miles (800+ km) per year. I have made a move to lightweight gear, and smaller volume packs. I start early and hike hard so as to enjoy the afternoons exploring. I usually take a freestanding tent and enjoy hot meals at night. If not hiking solo I am usually with my wife Jenn or brother-in-law Dave.
Manufacturer: Tech4o is a division of Johnson Outdoors
Web site: www.silvacompass.com
Product: TraiLeader 1
Year manufactured/recieved: 2008
MSRP: $139.99 (US)
Weight listed: N/A
Weight measured with battery 1.8 oz (51 g)
Battery type: CR2032
Size (diameter of face): 2.1 in (53 mm)
The Tech4o (a re-naming of Silva, the compass people) TraiLeader 1 is a watch that may be better named Sybil as it has so many faces…
While I expected the TraiLeader to be big (I have owned two other brands of wrist worn units) the diameter surprised me. It is pretty wide. But it is thinner than I expected, which I will count as a blessing. If I formatted the picture below correctly it should be life-size.
This multi-use watch is the leader (get it?) of the company's Performance series of watches. The ventilated polymer band wraps around a stainless steel case. The case holds the electronics package that make this a cool piece of multi-function hiking gear. The back of the case has a battery access port that can be opened with a coin.
I will describe the features of the TraiLeader, but may not go into heavy detail on all of them. (We all know what a watch is, do we not?)
The TraiLeader has 4 buttons that are used to maneuver through the various menus and functions. They are labeled on the bezel. As I am looking down at it they are as follows.
Upper left button: ESC, displays Time or Trail menu, returns to previous screen
Upper right button: ST/STP, toggles display up, increases values, view alternative displays, starts/stops timers.
Lower left button: MODE, selects modes (functions), confirms selections, enters settings modes
Lower right button: LAP/RESET, toggles display down, decreases values, changes units, starts/stops speed & distance mode, enters laps and resets timers
The "stem" is the button for the backlight.
It uses two separate menus, a Time menu and a Trail menu.
First of all it is a time piece. In the Time Menu mode it can be used to show Time, Date, Day, 2 Alarms, 50 lap Chronograph, 6 Timers, and a Dual Time Zone display. Because the focus of my reports will be on the TraiLeader's use for backpacking most of these functions will be used but not talked about in great detail. (I do not have much need of a lap counter in the back country.)
The Trail Menu has the features that I am interested in and will be using the most.
One feature that I am not familiar with but will be watching closely is the accelerometer. As I know nothing about them I will give Silva's explanation of how it works.
"The accelerometer sensor works by first detecting changes in the user's movement (acceleration) that are translated into varying degrees of electric current within the sensor. These electric currents are instantly decoded by the Tech4o watches into highly accurate measurements of speed and distance and displayed on the watch face."
I have used both analog and digital pedometers in the past for walking and running that use a pendulum and counter, that when programmed with the distance of my stride gives an approximation of distance covered. This seems to be something similar as it asked me to put my stride length in. I have some accurately measured walking routes that I can check this against on flat ground. I also have some known distance hikes that I do regularly to see how well it performs when the elevation change is drastic.
The function that I will use the most based on the use of my present weather station and multi-function unit is the Altimeter/Barometer feature. I have been hiking with an altimeter for about 16 years. I have found that on the mountainous types of trails that I frequent an altimeter is a much faster and more accurate tool than a compass for identifying where I am. Let me explain the basics of how it works.
The barometer measures air pressure. Once calibrated and left in a single location the barometer will track the changes in the air pressure. Based on this some "weather forecasting" is possible. An example of this is a camp site that Dave and I made in the Domeland Wilderness one time. After hiking in beautiful weather we made camp where I calibrated my unit and left it in the tent. Five hours later I noticed that the barometer had fallen drastically. I told Dave that I thought we were in for some bad weather. In the middle of the night an unforecasted storm hit bringing rain and snow.
The altimeter is actually just an extension of the barometer. Air pressure lessens as we go up in elevation due to the affects of gravity (the pressure goes up as we descend). When in altimeter mode the unit translates this change in pressure into a gain or loss of elevation. To be accurate the unit needs to be calibrated at spots on known elevation. I always set mine when I top out on passes or at lake shores.
The TraiLeader has a bevy of sub-functions that I can use with the altimeter including ascent/descent calculators, altitude graphs, logs and an altitude alarm to stop me from ascending higher than a predetermined level. I have found that I do not use these features very often in the field but like to play with them at airports.
The digital compass looks pretty nice as I play with it writing the initial report. It picks up single degree changes as I rotate it. I have one of Silva's oil filled magnetic compasses that I will check it against. The TraiLeader allows me to take a reverse bearing, something that is very useful for orienteers doing triangulations, but I usually just use the altimeter to help figure where I am. It offers an easy to adjust declination feature, which I like. I set the declination for my area, but as I also regularly hike in other states the ease of changing it is welcome.
The thermometer is another function that I will use a lot. I like monitoring the temps at my sites and in my tent, especially on my winter trips. I will check it against Dave's stick thermometer to see how accurate it is.
The screen can be set up to display three different sets of information on each. After playing around with it I have decided to have the main Time mode display with the time centered, the date below and a weather icon above. The main Trail mode display is showing altitude centered, the time below and the temperature above. As I hike I may swap the upper display for an elevation graph so I can see a representation of my gain and loss. (I spend so much time pogo-ing my altitude the graph is a lot of fun.)
There is a lot more that the TraiLeader can do but I do not want this report to turn into a mind numbing techfest. The easy-to-navigate website listed above has a plethora of information about all of the features found on the TraiLeader. But I am going to save my time and apply it to getting outside and using this cool watch.
Quick & Dirty, Nitty Gritty
The TraiLeader has the best digital compass I have ever used and stellar altimeter and forecasting functions. But it has some bugs and quirks that disappoint me. Read on to find out more.
The TraiLeader has been worn on the following trips.
Dave and I went up the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) at the south border of San Gorgonio Wilderness to a couple miles past the Whitewater River. The temps hit 86 F and it was very windy. We went 25 miles in 8 hours. The TraiLeader did very well with the altimeter but not measuring distance.
Jenn and I went to San Jacinto for an overnighter and set up camp in Lower Chinquapin at 9000'. The low was 38 F and the high was 54 F (3 to 12 C).
Dave and I went to Fish Creek trailhead and took the Pacific Crest Trail 15 miles (24 km) to the top of a ridge north of the Whitewater River and back. (This met the stopping point of the first hike above.)The temps ranged from 57 to 86 F (14 to 30 C). This is a picture along the PCT.
Jenn and I went to Limber Pine Bench in the San Gorgonio Wilderness for an overnighter. The trails were fine, dirt and rock, until just above 8500' (2590 m) where we started hitting lingering snow. Temps were from 67 F to 40 F (20 to 4 C) with enough wind to keep the mosquitoes away. We had 3680' (1122 m) of elevation gain in 6 miles (9.6 km) and a total of 12 miles for the trip (19.2 km). I started with a 41 lb (18.6 kg) pack weight.
I used it on a 41-mile (67 km) extreme dayhike on the Pacific Crest Trail through the north-east end of the San Bernardino National Forest and into the Angeles National Forest. This hike had 8600 ft (2621 m) of gain on terrain that ran the gamut of sand, packed dirt, shale, loose rock and even some snow. Temps ran from a chilly 45 F to almost 80 F (7 to 27 C) in weather that went from wet mist (in clouds) to bright, hot sunshine.
I have been able to really put the TraiLeader through its paces over the past two months. It has taken me a while to get used to going through all the menus to get things set or calibrated. This is probably just because I have been so used to other instruments with more intuitive systems.
Durability has not been an issue. It showed how tough it was on the trip to San Jacinto State Park. This from my hiking log:
"While bushwhacking north of Round Valley I fell going over a big dead-fall and landed very hard on my left side with my arm under me. I snapped my carbon fiber trekking pole in half. The back of my hand got 5 cuts and 6 punctures, and my elbow, hip and knee were banged up. The TraiLeader watch got 2 scratches on the face but survived otherwise."
The compass has worked very well, the best digital style of any I have used. I would expect that seeing as who the parent company is. I trust it enough now that on my last trip I put the back-up liquid-filled compass back on the shelf and relied on the TraiLeader for all compass duties.
The altimeter has proven to be extremely accurate also. It keeps close to actual elevation better and over longer periods of time than any of the six digital and one analog altimeters I have used over the past 16 years. An example of how well it does is the trip to San Jacinto saw me calibrate (set) the altimeter at the ranger station in Long Valley at a known elevation of 8500' (2591 m). After hiking for two days I went home to near sea level where I switched gear, grabbed a few hours of sleep and took off for Fish Creek trailhead at 8600' (2621 m). I dropped down to 3000' (914 m) and back up to 4300' (1311 m) where I checked the TraiLeader. It was only 40' (12 m) off over four days and constant elevation change. Normally I would never go this long between recalibrating, but the areas I was hiking were either well known to me or well marked to such a degree that I did not need my maps.
I checked out the thermometer function against my brother-in-law's very nice portable stick Fahrenheit thermometer. I hung them both on a tree branch in the shade. At first I was concerned when it seemed the TraiLeader was 4 to 5 degrees higher than Dave's but it just needed about 20 minutes to get the sensor stabilized it seemed. After that we could not discern more than a half degree difference. This too is the best performance outside of my portable weather station, and better than all the other watch-style units I have owned.
The accelerometer sensor does not work well or backpacking. As a test of it I set a GPS to track us at the same time I started the distance function on the TraiLeader, then hiked non-stop back to the trailhead. A map and GPS gave the distance at 12.5 miles (20 km), but the TraiLeader said it was 16.1 miles (26 km). This could be due to the extreme mountainous country I normally hike in.
I took it with me to flat Minnesota to try it on some day hikes that I take, mostly on dirt farm roads in the country. The first one I measured with both mapping software and my car as 8.1 miles (13 km). This jived with what I know is my walking pace on flat surfaces as I was just past 2 hours doing it. The TraiLeader showed it as 8.4 miles (13.5 km). So I adjusted the stride down to 35 in (89 cm) and tried it again the next day. I have it pretty good now.
One thing that is way off is the calories burned. It said that I am burning 148 calories per mile but a 200 pound (91 kg) person walking at 4 mph (6.4 km/h) on flat terrain burns 114 calories per mile (1.6 km).
There are a few things that I am not thrilled with. The band is very uncomfortable in hot weather. The strap-keeper will not hold the extra strap length in place. It either slides away letting the strap end fall free, or it slides in close allowing the strap end to flap around only somewhat less.
For some reason the TraiLeader will not keep the degree reading in Fahrenheit. I swear it has reset itself to Celsius at least two times. It later switched the pressure units from inches of mercury to metric by itself. My wife thought I had to be bumping a button or something until I showed her what I have to do to set the units. Very strange... (Cue eerie music here.)
The large mode buttons are easy to hit with the back of my hand changing the mode or view on the fly and forcing me to stop and put it back where I wanted it to be.
The thing that bothers me the most could be fixed with a software change. It is the calibration/setting of the altimeter. The TraiLeader goes to the last setting for the starting point of calibration instead of using the current reading as the starting point. This is a major pain for me because of the gain and loss I typically experience over the course of a day's backpacking. Here is an example of what happens.
Say I start at an elevation of 100 where I set the altimeter. (I will not use units as it does not matter if it is feet or meters here.) I then climb to a pass at 5000 and want to recalibrate at this known altitude as the TraiLeader is reading 5090 and I want to be "right on". It takes me back to 100 instead of starting the adjustment at 5090. So I have to hold the button in the "adjust upward" position for a long time to get it to scroll through the single digits, then faster into the double digits, then faster into the triple digits. By the time it gets to the 1000s it goes wildly by stopping spot unless I try to stop early where I have to plod through the process again. If it started at the last reading I would have only needed to adjust downward 90, instead of 4900 up. And when I leave the pass and hike down to my campsite at a river in the valley below at an elevation of 2000 I have to start at 5000 to adjust it again. I hope that made sense, but it really bugs me.
Another thing that is very perplexing to me is the barometer. It is very accurate in its forecasts and readings, as long as I adjust for the inexplicable difference from true pressure and what it shows. I live at 40 ft (12 m) above sea level. When I am in Minnesota I am at 900 ft (274 m). I use the airport barometric pressure data to check the TraiLeader. When I put the altitude in, it gives a reading that is way off from what the posted data shows. It is so far off that when I tried to adjust the barometer (even though they warn against it) I could not do it, as it would not go that far off what the TraiLeader called "right". When I took it to as close as it would go the altimeter was so far off the correct elevation that I just put it back where the elevation was supposed to be. Once there, and allowing for the difference in numbers, the TraiLeader has been right on. It moved with the airport readings for eight straight days in storm ridden Minnesota where the pressure swings wildly. It was just consistently off the actual number. Since it does not affect the altimeter (the function I use the most) and the forecasting works great, I am not going to worry about it.
Here are the trips I took the TraiLeader on. I forgot it in California for one of my weeks in Minnesota. Oops…
I used it on a trip to Round Valley in San Jacinto State Park for an over-night trip with lots of boulder climbing for the children (three nine-year olds). We hiked six miles (10 km) with 300 ft (100 m) of elevation gain and loss. The temperatures ranged from a low of 55 F to a high of 80 F (13 to 27 C).
Next was a two-day trip with Jenn taking the South Fork Trail to a camp site at Lodgepole in the San Bernardino National Forest. This 11 mile round trip hike had 3400 ft (1036 m) of gain and loss. It got up to 83 F and only down to 59 F (28 to 15 C).
Then Dave and I did a tough two-day 11 mi (18 km) trip to the top of Mt San Jacinto by way of the Marion Mountain Trail. I spent the night in Little Round Valley, elevation 9850 ft (3000 m). This rough hike gains over 4400 ft (1341 m) of elevation in 5.5 miles (9 km) in temps that topped 80 F (27 C). (Can you say sweaty?)
The next weekend I took Jenn to the same place, but made a three-day trip out of it, stopping the first day at Little Round Valley where we made a base camp. Temps ranged from 54 to 81 F (12 to 27 C).
I used it with Emma and Ray on a three-day backpacking trip to Maplewood State Park in Minnesota. We stayed at the Beers Lake Backpacker site the first day and at the Grass Backpacker site the second. The weather was great for two days then rained the last. The temperatures were from 79 down to 61 F (44 to 34 C). We backpacked for 6 miles (10 km) with another few miles (5 km) of exploring. The elevation was 1340 ft (408 m) above sea level.
Since the Field Report I have continued to use the TraiLeader on every trip I take. And it continues to work just the same.
It is still on the original batteries and shows no sign of weakening. The backlight remains bright when needed in a dark tent.
I have only seen one instance of the phantom metric change taking place over the past two months. I still am in the dark as to how it happens.
I have really come to appreciate the accurate barometer and temperature functions. As it is pretty uncomfortable to wear being as large as it is, I always take it off as soon as I get into camp. I recalibrate the elevation if needed, then hang it on a branch or protruding piece of bark on the shady side of a tree. I keep the screen to the Barometer display with the temp and time showing above and below the pressure reading. This lets me have all the in-camp info I need. Here is a picture of it hanging in Little Round Valley, and no, I did not pound the titanium stake into the pine tree.
This function has been especially useful on my trips with the kids in Minnesota where the summer weather changes at the blink of a weather man's eye. On the last trip we took I did not have much of a window to take them and as we drove to the park the forecast changed to start raining the day we got there. The children elected to go for it so we packed in to our first camp location where I set the TraiLeader up as my personal weather station. It told me that the pressure was staying stable. Sure enough the called for rain did not develop, indeed we had beautiful clear skies all day and night. But our last day, while clear the Traieader showed the pressure dropping. A check of the weather forecast icon showed clouds. An hour later the wind started picking up and the temp dropped. I told Em and Ray to get it in gear and maybe we could beat the rain that was coming. Just before we got to the truck the unmistakable smell of rain hit us. Shortly after piling in and heading out of the park the storm hit. Here is a picture of it still attached to me as Emma helps me set up the tent the first day.
On the trail the Altitude mode rules and the compass has worked fine in each occasion I needed one. While I really like the accuracy of the altimeter, the calibration sequence still bothers me a lot. I hope they change this in the future.
The alarm is pretty much useless for me. Even though I am a light sleeper I can not hear the tiny chime of the TraiLeader in my tent. As it is often windy at the elevations I camp at the noise from the wind may be covering it. The one time I needed to hear it for a 4:00 AM wake-up I slept right through. Even sitting here listening to it as I write I wonder how it could possibly wake me.
All in all this is a very good first try for Silva and I look forward to their follow ups. I personally would rather see a clip-on unit that I could carry where ever I want instead of stuck on my wrist. I thank Tech4o and BackpackGearTest for the chance to use the TraiLeader over the past four months.
This report was created with the BackpackGearTest.org Report Writer Version 1.
Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.
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