If you’re looking to buy one of the best field watches available, there’s probably no better choice than a classic analog field watch. Don’t get us wrong, there’s definitely a place for modern GPS watches in the great outdoors too, but if you want a timepiece that keeps things simple, one you can rely on no matter what, it’s worth considering a field watch.
For one thing, there is beauty in their simplicity. After all, you don’t always need to track heart rate, calories burned, barometric pressure or your “most played” songs on Spotify. Indeed, for many people, escaping into the great outdoors is all about leaving modern gadgets behind, relying instead on your own skills, knowledge and experience – in conjunction with tried-and-tested equipment like a good old-fashioned map and compass. And, of course, a classic analog watch.
As the name suggests, a field watch is designed for use 'in the field' – originally, on military maneuvers or in combat. Indeed, field watches originated in the trenches of the First World War, when the military realized that synchronized infantry attacks and artillery barrages only worked if everyone knew what the time was. Up until then, most men wore pocket watches, usually hung from a fob on the waistcoat. They were elegant but delicate timepieces, which made them somewhat impractical for muddy modern warfare.
Thus, the field watch was born – a robust, accurate and reliable watch, designed to be worn on the wrist, with a simple but highly legible dial that told the wearer the exact time at a glance. The clean, simple and robust designs proved their worth and were subsequently adopted (and adapted) by armed forces across the globe.
Officers and soldiers wore field watches throughout the Second World War, as well as in Korea, Vietnam and throughout the Gulf War. They’re still a popular choice amongst military personnel today, though many civilians are also attracted by their functional style and go-anywhere, do-anything practicality. For that reason, field watches are also a favored choice for outdoor adventurers, from weekend warriors to extended expeditions in the wilderness.
Best field watch overall
Citizen Promaster Titanium Tough
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Reasons to avoid
We’ll admit that as a piece of wrist candy, this watch isn’t perhaps the most striking-looking timepiece out there. It’s definitely a function-first design, with a matte dial, large numeric indices and a simple handset, all housed in a compact monobloc case.
But the watch’s specs and build quality are seriously impressive. The case is made from “Super Titanium”, which is lightweight yet extremely strong, with excellent anti-magnetic, hypoallergenic and corrosion-resistant properties. It has an impressive water resistance of 300m, while a flat sapphire crystal offers plenty of scratch resistance. Even the strap incorporates Kevlar fibers – the same stuff used in bulletproof vests – to further emphasize its hard-as-nails credentials.
Inside, it runs on Citizen’s famous Eco-Drive movement, a solar quartz assembly powered by sunlight that is a great choice for off-grid adventures and means never having to worry about replacing a battery.
Being compact and lightweight yet rugged and robust, the Promaster Titanium Tough ticks all the boxes for a field watch. The dial is easily readable by both day and night, thanks to an anti-reflective coating on the crystal and generously applied lume on the dial, which ensures excellent legibility in low-light situations.
All in all it’s a great multi-activity watch for use in the water or on land, and one that feels as solid as a G-Shock or a Victorinox INOX, despite being half the price of either of those rivals. The Citizen is also significantly lighter and smaller on the wrist, which arguably makes it an even more practical proposition for many activities.
Best classic field watches
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Although the Alpinist isn’t a military-derived field watch in the strictest sense, it has plenty of authentic outdoor heritage. The design first appeared in the 1960s and was inspired by Japanese Yama-Otoko 'mountain men'. As its name suggests, it was intended to be a robust tool watch for use at high altitudes.
It is a compact and wearable piece, even if you don’t have huge climbers’ wrists. It’s also surprisingly elegant, with some dressy design flourishes. The latest version also has upgraded specs such as a highly scratch-resistant sapphire crystal with a cyclops date window, as well as Seiko’s in-house 6R35 automatic self-winding movement, which boasts an impressive 70-hour power reserve.
Then there’s the internal compass bezel, a distinctive feature which is operated by a secondary crown positioned at 4 o’clock. And despite being primarily made for use on terra firma, the watch still has an excellent water resistance rating of 200m – as good as many of the brand’s specialist divers’ watches.
The build quality is as solid as you’d expect from Seiko, too. So, this is a reliable outdoor companion, but one that’s far more than just a tool, with an eye-catching dial that offers both style and elegance. In that sense, this is a versatile watch that could go easily from office work wardrobe to adventurous weekend wear.
Read our full Seiko Alpinist review
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This Swiss-made field watch is already a bona fide classic. But with this latest release, Hamilton have sought to add another dimension to the iconic Khaki Field Mechanical. This version has a gorgeous bronze case that will develop a unique patina the more you wear it, as the metal darkens and oxidizes with age. It means that the watch on your wrist will do more than tell the time – it will also tell a story of all your adventures too.
Of course, with its vintage looks and hand-wound mechanical movement, this watch is undeniably a bit of a throwback. But it’s still surprisingly practical: the dial is highly legible, while the movement has an impressive 80-hour power reserve, meaning when fully wound, it’ll run for just over three days before you’ll need to wind it again. The sapphire crystal is highly scratch-resistant, and that bronze case is fairly tough yet very light. A titanium case back cuts further weight.
In short, it’s a great-looking piece with plenty of heritage appeal. If you’re attracted to the idea of owning a mechanical watch and are willing to splurge a little on a daily wearer with oodles of charm and character – one that’ll dress up for the office or down for weekend adventures – this little Hamilton will be a cherished companion.
Read our full Hamilton Khaki Mechanical Bronze review
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The Bulova Hack is a modern update of an authentic military-spec field watch that was originally issued to US soldiers back in World War Two. It retains the compact proportions and vintage looks of the original, but now has a modern automatic movement housed in a stainless-steel case with a handsome gunmetal finish.
If you’re wondering why it’s called the Hack, the name is a tribute to a feature that was once an essential prerequisite for a military issue field watch: a hacking movement. This means that when you pull the crown out, the seconds hand stops. In wartime, this was vital, since it enabled soldiers and officers to synchronize their watches when planning coordinated attacks.
Given its bona fide wartime heritage, it should come as no surprise that the Hack works pretty well as a modern field watch too. The high contrast dial is simple yet functional, with a 24-hour military time track and a luminescent finish to ensure good nighttime readability. It feels unobtrusive on the wrist, making for easy everyday wear. But the watch is still hefty enough to deliver good wrist presence, aided by a high-quality leather strap that is both comfortable and stylish.
All in all, it’s a well-built, good-looking timepiece that carries similar vintage military appeal to the Hamilton Khaki, without such a steep price tag.
Best tough field watches
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Okay, whether it’s technically a field watch is debatable, but the G-Shock Mudmaster is arguably the archetypal outdoor watch. And it is much loved by military types, so it has probably seen more field service than most rivals. Plus, the latest flagship model in the Mudmaster series, the GWG-2000, is tougher than ever and ought to outlast even the most rugged smartwatch – as will its solar quartz movement, which will run for up to six months even in total darkness.
And while it’s not quite as clever as a GPS-equipped smartwatch, it’s still pretty sophisticated, with a host of built-in tools such as a compass, altimeter, barometer and thermometer. The burly case is made from carbon fiber resin, providing impressive shock and impact resistance as well as water resistance up to 200m / 20ATM.
Admittedly, it’s a bit of a brute on the wrist, and there are few concessions to style or looks, though the overbuilt design will undoubtedly appeal to some. It might also carry more functionality than many users will need. But if you want all the features of its on-board tech and appreciate its über-tough build, then there’s probably no better all-round outdoor watch out there.
Read our full G-Shock Mudmaster GWG-2000 review
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Swiss brand Victorinox certainly didn’t hold back when creating this rugged yet thoroughly modern tool watch. Want proof? Well, during the design process it was subjected to over 130 endurance tests, including being driven over by a 64-ton tank and tested in extreme temperatures ranging from -57C to 71C (-70F to 160F).
With its stainless-steel case (or inoxydable in French, hence the INOX designation), sapphire crystal, screw-down crown, shock-resistant movement and 200m / 660ft of water resistance, it’s intentionally overbuilt, ensuring it is suitable for any adventure, no matter how demanding.
As you might expect then, the result is a watch with rugged, no-nonsense looks and a chunky, muscular appearance. That won’t suit everybody, but while it may not be the most elegant timepiece out there, it should withstand a lifetime of hard knocks.
And if you’re looking for an utterly dependable and unapologetically rugged watch with genuine Swiss-made heritage, look no further.
Read our full Victorinox INOX Autumn Spirit review
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
If you’re looking for a field watch with a difference, it’s worth turning away from the major watch brands and instead checking out some of the offerings from up and coming independent watch 'microbrands'.
The Sector Field from US manufacturer Nodus is a case in point. It’s a robust and readable daily wear timepiece, but with stylish and eye-catching looks too. However, despite its modern flair, it’s built just as tough as the original field watches that inspired it. The case is made of 316L stainless steel with an unusual, stepped bezel surrounding a flat sapphire crystal.
The dial is full of color, texture and depth thanks to its sandwich-construction 'sector' design. Hands and indices have an attractive blue lume at night. The watch has a screw-down crown and case back too, giving the Sector Field a practical water resistance of 100 meters or 300 feet.
It is powered by a Japanese automatic movement that is known for being reliable, shock-resistant and inexpensive to maintain. And every Nodus watch has also been regulated to improve its accuracy. That shows impressive care and attention to detail from the LA-based brand.
In fact, with the Sector Field, Nodus has crafted a fresh and modern-looking watch that has all the practicality of a traditional field watch. Compact and wearable, with great dial legibility, a water-resistant construction and a 24-hour military time track, it’s well worth a closer look.
Read our full Nodus Sector Field Marina review
How we tested these field watches
We wore each watch for at least two weeks straight, both day and night. They came with us on a variety of outdoor adventures, from hiking and hillwalking to wild camping, scrambling and climbing. Where a watch guaranteed a minimum water resistance of 100m (10 Bar or 10 ATM), which is generally considered to be the benchmark for a surface-water swimming watch, we also plunged into various lakes and rivers.
Though we didn’t set out to test each watch to destruction, daily use came with an inevitable series of bumps and knocks. We assessed how well the watches fared when subjected to such typical use, paying particular attention to durability of the case, strap and crystal, as well as general timekeeping performance.
|Field watch||RRP||Weight||Water resistance|
|Citizen Promaster Titanium Tough||£299 (UK)||133g / 4.7oz||300m / 990ft|
|Seiko Alpinist||$725 (US) / £650 (UK)||84g / 3oz||200m / 660ft|
|Hamilton Khaki Mechanical Bronze||$825 (US) / £720 (UK)||65g / 2.3oz||50m / 5 ATM|
|Bulova Hack||$316 (US) / £289 (UK)||67g / 2.36oz||30m / 100ft|
|G-Shock Mudmaster GWG-2000||$800 (US) / £699 (UK)||106g / 3.7oz||200m / 20 ATM|
|Victorinox I.N.O.X. “Autumn Spirit”||$650 (US) / £549 (UK)||133g / 4.7oz||200m / 660ft|
|Nodus Sector Field Marina||£450 (UK)||74g (160g with steel bracelet) / 2.6oz (5.6oz with steel bracelet)||100m / 10 ATM|
How to choose the best field watch
All of the best field watches are designed to provide rugged and reliable timekeeping. Some clearly draw on the field watch’s military heritage, being faithful to original early 20th-century designs, while others present a more modern take on the field watch concept. But every watch is slightly different – and wears differently too, depending on its case size, weight, movement and functionality.
When it comes to watches, prices vary greatly. Luxury watches can cost thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, we’ve capped our selection of best field watches at $1,000, recognizing that most adventurers probably won’t be making for the mountains with a luxury timepiece strapped to their wrist.
How much should you spend? Only you can decide that, but without trying to sound cliché, in general you get what you pay for, in terms of build quality, finishing and also residual value. But bear in mind that most field watches ought to last you a lifetime, and they start to look like a very good investment.
The watch’s movement is another one of the key factors to consider. This is the internal mechanism that operates the watch. Movements can be either quartz or mechanical. Quartz movements are very accurate and powered by a long-life battery, with few moving parts. This means they are usually more rugged than most mechanical movements. Typical battery life for a quartz watch is two to three years.
Some watches use solar quartz movements, which feature solar cells embedded into the dial to power the watch. This eliminates the need for battery changes and makes solar-powered watches a great choice for outdoor adventurers.
A more traditional alternative is a mechanical watch. Mechanical movements use energy from a mainspring to power the watch. This spring stores energy and transfers it through a series of gears and smaller springs. Mechanical movements can be manual (hand-wound) or automatic (self-winding). In theory, provided you wear it or wind it regularly, a mechanical watch will run forever – though in practice, they’ll usually require servicing every three to five years.
An easy way to tell a quartz from a mechanical movement is by looking at the seconds hand. Quartz watches have a regular “ticking” seconds hand, while mechanical watches have a smooth, sweeping seconds hand. All modern movements, quartz or mechanical, are usually shock-resistant, designed to pass a minimum standard, which is to survive a drop of 1m onto a hard floor. But additional shock absorbing components can be added to further protect the movement from more extreme impacts.
Remember that most field watches were primarily designed for use on terra firma. Many have modest or even good water resistance, but if you spend a lot of time in or on the water, you might be better served by the other classic tool watch – a dive watch. On the other hand, if you like the rugged, no-nonsense military aesthetic of a field watch, and their generally modest and wearable proportions, they make a great “daily driver”.
Parts of a watch
The case or body of a field watch is usually made from a strong material such as stainless steel. The most common choice is 316L or marine-grade steel, which provides good resistance to corrosion, as well as being anti-magnetic. However, lightweight alternatives to steel include titanium, which has an incredibly high strength-to-weight ratio, and even carbon fiber, though impact-resistant thermoplastics and other metals such as bronze are sometimes used too.
Traditionally, field watches are relatively slim and compact, so they are lightweight and unobtrusive on the wrist. This usually means a case diameter of between 36mm and 42mm. There are exceptions to this, of course, and overbuilt watches like the ubiquitous G-Shock are known for their large proportions.
Though they’re primarily designed for use on terra firma, most field watches usually have a screw-down or bolt-down case back with an inner waterproof seal or gasket to ensure some degree of water resistance.
The transparent face of a watch is called the crystal. Most are made of either acrylic, mineral glass or synthetic sapphire. All have different benefits – acrylic tends to bend under pressure rather than cracking or shattering, but scratches easily. Glass, especially hardened mineral glass, is more scratch-resistant and highly impact-resistant. Sapphire crystals are the most expensive, generally reserved for premium watches. It is an incredibly hard material, which makes it highly scratch-resistant. All crystals are usually finished with an anti-reflective coating to reduce glare and reflection, enabling you to see the dial even when viewed from oblique angles.
The bezel is a metal ring surrounding the watch face that protects the crystal. On tool watches, it often has additional timekeeping functionality, for example with 0 to 60 or 24-hour scales.
The crown is used to set the time and date, and also to wind a mechanical watch. Field watches usually have an easy-grip crown, but it is often recessed or protected by crown guards to avoid damage. In addition, a screw-down crown may be fitted, typically with internal gaskets to boost water-resistance.
The primary function of a watch is to tell the time, obviously. Field watches are designed to be clearly legible and readable even in low light conditions or in bright sunshine. This usually means a high-contrast dial with few decorative elements. Field watches often have a 24 hour scale too, reflecting their military origins. Lumed or backlit dials also ensure good nighttime performance, enabling you to see the time even in pitch black.
An outdoors writer and editor, Matt Jones has been testing kit in the field for nearly a decade. Having worked for both the Ramblers and the Scouts, he knows one or two things about walking and camping, and loves all things adventure, particularly long-distance backpacking, wild camping and climbing mountains – especially in Wales. He’s based in Snowdonia and last year thru-hiked the Cambrian Way, which runs for 298 miles from Cardiff to Conwy, with a total ascent of 73,700 feet – that’s nearly 2½ times the height of Everest. Follow Matt on Instagram and Twitter.
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