When it comes to tool watches (defined quite simply as watches that are meant to be used as real-world tools), divers seem to be the king, followed by pilot watches and racing chronographs. Somewhere in the mix are field watches. While there are plenty of serious field watches on the market, they tend to be ignored, mostly because their definition is a bit more ambiguous than their fellow tool watches.
So, what makes a field watch? For starters, they take inspiration from early Army-issued wristwatches like the US A-11 spec and MoD W10 watches. They needn’t be actual military watches, but they certainly should have the same chops: for extended use in the field, features like lumed hands and markers, hacking seconds, and an unobtrusive build are highly valued; they need to be rugged and robust, and easily read any time, day or night.
Which, obviously, is why they’re the perfect timepieces for expeditions all the way from simple camping to scaling Everest. These five are particularly excellent candidates for all sorts of bumps and bruises, be they from scree-scrambling, brush-clearing or desk-bumping.
Sinn 556 A
The Sinn 556 A is as straightforward as they come: steel case, restrained and legible dial, a tried-and-true Swiss automatic movement inside. Based in Germany, Sinn is widely known for their over-engineered tool watches, made with tough-as-nails Tegimented cases made to keep working in extreme temperature ranges. The 556 A drops all the fancy stuff, opting for a more accessible plain steel case (still made in-house), and simple dial design. Measuring 38.5mm in diameter, the Sinn 556 A presents little drama on the wrist, while packing all the functionality you need in a field watch.
Filson Mackinaw Field
Filson’s first line of watches actually hails from Shinola in Detroit, where their Swiss quartz movement and other world-produced parts are assembled by hand. The Mackinaw is sizable at 43mm, with a tough brushed-steel case, screw-down crown, and scratch- and glare-proof sapphire crystal; its hands and numerals are painted with SuperLuminova for nighttime visibility. Overall, it’s the complete package from two great American companies.
Seiko 5 SNK803k2
The Seiko 5 is a full-service field watch, built entirely under one roof in Japan and priced in the “Well, maybe I’ll get a few extra to toss in my bag” bracket. The dial is easy to navigate, even within the confines of its 37mm steel case; the cream coloring matches effortlessly with pretty much any earth-toned NATO strap you can throw at it; and the brushed steel makes a perfect backdrop for dings and scratches. Inside beats an automatic movement, built by Seiko, that provides a day/date complication for added functionality. The best part? It’s less than $90.
Lum-Tec Combat B19 Bronze
Lum-Tec is based in Ohio, where they design and assemble a range of sport watches that feature their own proprietary luminescent material on the dial. Their Combat B19 makes for an ideal field watch thanks to its highly legible dial, practical design and automatic movement. The dial takes full advantage of the significant 45mm bronze case, with big Arabic numerals and prominent hour and minute hands, plus a huge amount of lume material for great brightness in the dark. The coin-edge bezel is a unique touch, and the case shape will easily accept any manner of nylon, fabric or leather strap.
The Stowa Partitio has a throwback Bauhaus design with timeless appeal and practicality. Founded in 1927, the German company is best known for its Flieger watches, which means its field watch stands out at 37mm in diameter and just 11mm tall. Inside is a Swiss-made automatic movement, making the sub-$1,000 price tag all the more impressive.
Luminox has earned a solid reputation among law enforcement and military personnel over the course of its 25-year history thanks to a strongly built range of land, air and sea watches. Its A.1801 ($641) pairs classic aesthetics with a modern 43mm case. Powered by the ETA 2878 (the 2824’s day/date brother), the 1801 ticks the field watch boxes with hacking seconds, good resistance to the elements, and Luminox’s hallmark tritium tube lume.
Hamilton Khaki Field Titanium
As we mentioned, the field watch can be a vague category. But Hamilton has a whole “Field” line, making things easy for everyone. One of their latest entries is the Khaki Field Titanium, which wears nicely on the wrist and can take a beating thanks to its lightweight titanium case. That 42mm case has also been treated with a black PVD coating, making it a great option if you’re lusting for a murdered-out look. As per usual, Hamilton uses the reliable ETA 2824-2 calibre, which makes this watch the whole package: light, tough and dependable.
Tudor Heritage Ranger
Tudor’s revival has been almost purely driven by bringing back former references — or at least the design elements of former references. With the new Heritage Ranger ($2,800-$3,000), they pumped life and a little extra bulk into a seemingly lost legend. Increased from 35mm to 41mm wide, the new Ranger maintains its field watch roots while adapting to modern tastes. It’s a particularly great remake because vintage Rangers are some of the most faked Tudors, making it very difficult for anyone other than experts to get their hands on a legitimate example. What’s more, the Heritage Ranger sits at the low end of Tudor’s lineup when it comes to price.
Victorinox Alliance Mechanical
Known best for those iconic red multi-tools, Victorinox also puts out an impressive lineup of tough quartz and mechanical tool watches. One of their 2014 releases, the Alliance Mechanical ($750), is an attractive self-winder with a firm grasp on the classy sector of the field watch market. It looks not far off from a dressed-up Rolex Explorer I but still carries useful field watch traits like luminescent hands and markers and a 24-hour scale on the inner dial. Like an out-of-work male model, the Alliance is handsome and inexpensive — and it proves Victorinox is good for way more than just sharp objects.
Rolex Explorer I Ref 1016
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with big, modern watches and all their complexity, sometimes simpler is better. If that’s your philosophy, vintage might be the way to go. One of the best examples of a simple field watch is the Rolex Explorer I reference 1016. This classic Rolex brings trail cred to the table with a direct lineage to the Explorer that summited Everest — arguably (thanks to Smiths) the first watch to do so. If you needed another (less legitimate) reason, James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, wore the 1016 as his watch of choice. Prices for 1016s have been steadily rising, but good examples still sell for $6,000 and $8,000. Steep, to be sure, but many people said the same about Google’s stock when it hit $200.