Every famous adventurer, from Sir Edmund Hillary to Buzz Aldrin, had virtually one thing in common: Each of them, whether they traveled to the highest peaks, the most remote places on the earth, or the final frontier, has done so with a watch strapped to their wrist. It’s the quintessential piece of gear for the adventurer, who can use it to tell time (important for, say, catching a helicopter ride out of the wilderness), check the altitude and even get a compass bearing. Watches built for the backcountry must be, above all else, durable. These are the toughest watches we could find, each with a set of unique features suited for backcountry use.
Bertucci A-3T Navigator
Just want a simple, durable way to tell the time? For a couple hundred bucks, Bertucci watches are a great option. Made from titanium, the A-3T is tougher and lighter than stainless steel, and with a dial loaded with SuperLuminova, you should have no trouble telling time in the dark. The supple Horween strap is a classy touch on an otherwise no-nonsense watch, but know that military-inspired nylon is also an option for less.
Seiko Prospex SRPA95
Similarly, the Seiko SRPA95 is a simple and affordable field watch. But if you forego titanium, for around the same price you get an automatic movement. Additionally, the Seiko features an internal rotating bezel that, when properly aligned with the position of the sun (here’s how you do that), can be turned into a compass.
Citizen Promaster Altichron
In 1989, Citizen debuted the Altichron, the first climber’s watch with an altitude meter. Today, the newest version still can detect the wearer’s altitude at the press of the button — perfect for mountaineers and high-altitude hikers. The watch also features a compass function activated via pusher (as well as a rotating compass bezel) and is water-resistant to 200 meters. Further, the watch is driven by Citizen’s durable, solar-powered Eco-Drive technology, so don’t expect it to crap out on you when you need it most. [The Altichron pictured is new for 2017 and won’t be available until the fall. You can still order last year’s variant (with the same functions) at a considerable discount. — Ed.]
Oris Big Crown ProPilot Altimiter
Of course, if you want the handy altimeter feature but with some old-school mechanical craftsmanship, the Oris Big Crown ProPilot Altimeter is the first automatic watch ever to feature a mechanical altimeter function. Further, with SuperLuminova, a 100-meter depth rating and a comfortable nylon strap, the Big Crown is plenty suited for just about any outdoor excursion.
Nearly $16,000 for what’s essentially a quartz watch may seem like overkill, but the Breitling Emergency could very well mean the difference between life and death. Since 1995, the watch has purportedly saved dozens of lives, and while you should always have a PLB beacon with you on dangerous trips, the Breitling will always be right at the ready.
Hard-Wearing Technologically Advanced, Wrist-Mounted Information Centers
If you’re a surfer or a snowboarder, you’re probably familiar with the Mission. It can be programmed to alert you when your ideal conditions are going off either at the beach or on the mountain. Perhaps the most interesting feature, however, is its built-in microphone for voice commands; the microphone can also be locked out, allowing the watch to be submerged and giving it a waterproof rating of up to 10ATM. As far as rugged smartwatches go, the Mission offers plenty of awesome features without totally breaking the bank.
Casio Protrek Smart WSD-F20RG
Take Android Wear 2.0, add a barometer, altimeter and a compass, and you get Casio’s Protrek Smart. But beyond the basics, it will also tell you the sunrise and sunset times for your current location, the ideal fishing time and the tide graph for the past 12 hours and the next 12 hours — all wrapped in a rugged, weather-proof case. It’s a bit bulky, but those accustomed to Casio’s G-Shock series will find it pretty similar on the wrist.
Garmin Fenix 5
The Fenix 5 does virtually everything. It’s a sport watch, running watch, activity tracker, outdoor watch and lifestyle watch, all in one. If you want a watch that works for more than just your backcountry pursuits, the Fenix 5 is a great option. It’ll track cycling, running, swimming and a whole host of other workouts with to its many sensors, which include a top-class heart rate sensor.
Suunto Spartan Ultra
No guide to backcountry watches would be complete without an inclusion from Suunto. The Spartan Ultra is the most advanced all-sport watch that Suunto has ever made. It has a battery life of up to 26 hours and is waterproof to 100 meters. It has built-in GPS and GLONASS sensors that allow for extremely accurate route navigation; the watch even leaves a real-time digital breadcrumb trail so that you can retrace your steps.
Timex Ironman Classic 30
At roughly $35, you can’t go wrong with the Ironman Classic. It’s pretty basic; it comes with a timer, backlight and alarm functions. But it’s also nearly indestructible and waterproof to 100 meters. For many backpackers, this is still the go-to for its lightweight simplicity.