Suunto Ambit3 Peak
Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire
Your beacon, shovel, and probe are mandatory in the backcountry. GPS watches like the Suunto Ambit3 Peak or the Garmin Fenix 3 are not, but they're still nice to have because both are aces at navigation. You can upload a pre-determined route to make sure you follow the proper ridgeline to that peak you're looking to bag, or use the gadgets to help you get un-lost if you somehow get turned around in the woods.
Unlike the GPS apps on your smartphone, which might last a day if you're careful, the GPS units on these watches will go a whopping 50 hours—enough for a weekend hut trip with multiple days of skiing. They also find a GPS signal quickly, which means less time standing around like an idiot with your hand in the air waiting for the satellite.
On top of the GPS, both watches feature built-in altimeters and compasses. If you've read the avalanche report that morning and it says the snowpack is sketchy above a certain elevation and in a certain aspect, you'll have all the info you need to make smart decisions and come home safe.
For those who like to stay inbounds, both watches do things like track the total number of feet you've descended, total distance you've traveled, and your fastest speed. Plus they both pair with your phone and will show incoming calls, texts, and other push alerts on the watch face so you don't have to look at your phone every time it buzzes.
It's more gimmick than anything else, but you can upload your GPS tracked activity from the Ambit3 Peak to Suunto's Movescount App on your phone and then create a 3D flyover animation of the route you just skied. The animation isn't something you'd use to guide people but it does help you explain the terrain. If you want, you can also embed photos from the trip in the animation to give a more accurate description.
The Fenix 3 stands out because of its color display, which helps with reading the screen. There's also an ultra scratch-resistant sapphire lens version that comes with a metal band and makes you look less like a ski bum and more like a business professional, if that's your thing. (I've been using my sapphire unit with the regular rubber band, which comes included).
Neither watch is cheap, but remember that you're not just paying for something you'll use in the winter. Both models have bike, run, or swim functions that will track metrics like speed, distance, and pace so that you can optimize your workouts this summer and be in tip-top shape for when the flakes start falling again next fall.