The field watches on the market today have a lineage that stretches back to World War I. Soldiers needed accurate, well-built timepieces so that battle plans could be coordinated between units. These watches were designed to be simple as well as long-lasting. There weren’t any bells or whistles, and they were rather plain in appearance. Over time, no pun intended, field watches began to become standard issue to military units.
Field watches tend to have a number of similar characteristics, including a dark face with white numbers, a sturdy case, and a durable band. They usually, though not always, lack luxuries like day/date indicators, compasses, or tachymeters. In this way, they are sort of the direct opposite of the fully loaded tactical watch. But because of their simplistic design, there’s very little that can go awry with them. Here are some of the best field watches to ensure you always have the right time.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Field Watch
When you shop around for a field watch, there are a few basic features you’ll need to consider with each model, based on how and where you plan to use the watch.
Watches operate utilizing one of a few different power sources. Battery-powered watches, referred to as quartz movement, are probably the most common. Mechanical watches need to be manually wound. There are some mechanical watches that are what’s called “self-winding.” These use the motion of your arm as you walk to wind the springs inside the watch, as opposed to having to manually wind it. Solar powered watches absorb energy from the sun or other light sources to operate the watch.
Nylon straps are very popular because they dry quickly when wet and last a very long time, even when routinely exposed to rough conditions. Leather is a bit more stylish and handsome, but they don’t tend to last incredibly long when worn daily. This is particularly true if the band gets wet on a regular basis, whether dunked in the water or just soaking up sweat all day long.
Whatever material you opt for, make sure the band or strap fits your wrist properly. The ideal is for the watch to move not more than an inch up or down your wrist. You should be able to fit your index finger under the band, but not be able to move it from side to side. The watch should fit snug enough to stay in place, but not so tight that it leaves any sort of imprint in your skin when you remove it. If the watch is so tight that it constricts, it will be uncomfortable as well as look ridiculous.
Where a tactical watch is often like a minicomputer on your wrist, almost by definition a field watch is a slim affair. However, there is still a range of sizes and weights with the different models, and you should keep those dimensions in mind as you shop. If you have slim wrists, you’ll want to avoid the larger, heavier models as they might look odd. Related to this, if you’re not accustomed to wearing a watch at all, no matter how slim it is the watch might initially feel awkward. Give it a little time and you’ll get used to it.
For more info on the history of the field watch, check out this article from Watch Time.
Why It Made the Cut
Combining classic styling with modern sensibilities, the Field Watch 2.0 is perfect for the serious adventurer as well as those who just want to be seen as one.
- Size: 44mm stainless-steel case
- Band: 22mm wide NATO strap
- Weight: 3.3 ounces
- Japanese movement designed for hard use
- Water-resistant to 100 meters
- Phosphorescent hour and second hands for nighttime
- Might be a bit large for some wrists
This is an upgraded version of the original 5.11 Tactical Field Watch. They kept all the best features of the first model but added several others to the package, making this one of the best field watches currently available. The Super-LumiNova® hour and second hands provide for excellent readability at night. The hands are also large enough that you’ll be able to tell the time at just a glance.
The scratch-resistant crystal protects the watch face and is water-resistant down to 100 meters or better. There’s a unidirectional ratcheting dive bezel for those who spend time in the water. The stainless-steel case has a matte Ion-Plated finish. This adds even more durability to the mix.
At a little over three ounces, it is the heaviest watch on our list. But it is hardly a heavyweight timepiece. The 44mm case might not be best suited for those with smaller wrists, but it is still considerably slimmer than many so-called tactical watches. The NATO band is comfortable for long-term wear.
Why It Made the Cut
With a rugged simplicity, this watch is handsome enough to wear for a night on the town but durable enough to take into the field anywhere.
- Size: 38mm stainless steel case
- Band: Green NATO band with stainless steel buckle
- Weight: 2.82 ounces
- Water-resistant to 50 meters
- 80-hour power reserve
- Simple, three-hand display
- Nighttime luminescence isn’t very bright
Hamilton has been making watches since 1892 and this model is a great example of their penchant for combining history with modern materials. In many ways, this is one of the best examples of a standard field watch on the market today. When we call it a “mechanical” watch, what we mean is that it is powered by clockwork, springs, and gears rather than a battery or solar energy. The mainspring is wound, which then powers the balance wheel. This force, in turn, moves the interior wheels, which then move the hands. The second-hand sweeps across the dial, rather than tick-ticking as it would with a quartz movement watch.
The advantage of a mechanical watch is that you only need to wind it on a regular basis to keep it running. There’s no battery to die or electronics to fail. This watch will run approximately 80 hours after being wound. When it stops, all that’s needed is another winding and perhaps checking the time to make sure it is set properly. Then, you’re good to go for another three days or so.
This model is quite handsome, with a black dial and white numerals. The band is green with leather accents that not only add a touch of flair but provide reinforcement. The stainless-steel buckle is a single-pin style.
Why It Made the Cut
With a wallet-friendly sub-$50 price tag, the Men’s Expedition Scout 40 watch is perfect for those looking for an entry-level field watch that looks great.
- Size: 40mm brass case
- Band: 20mm wide genuine leather
- Weight: 2.24 ounces
- Dressy enough for evening wear, durable enough for field use
- Available in numerous colors and styles
- Has a date window
- Water-resistant to 50 meters, but not suitable for snorkeling or diving
A casual watch that’s geared for adventure, the Men’s Expedition Scout 40 won’t break the bank. Timex is legendary in the watch industry and known for reliability. This model has everything you need and nothing you don’t.
It is a quartz watch and the included battery has a five-year lifespan. Rather than having dimly glowing numbers, this model is equipped with the Timex Indiglo feature. What this does is light up the entire watch face, rather than just having glowing hands and numbers, so it can be read very easily. The watch also has the Timex QuickDate feature, which allows you to set the date easily.
This model has a great quality leather band, but the watch is available in a number of different configurations, including various colors of fabric bands as well as different colors and styles of watch face. With a 40mm case, the watch isn’t overly large and will look great on any size wrist.
Why It Made the Cut
Converting any light, natural or artificial, into power, the Citizen Chandler charges continuously and thus can run essentially forever with little to no maintenance or upkeep.
- Size: 37mm stainless-steel case
- Band: green nylon strap
- Weight: 1.7 ounces
- Impact- and shatter-resistant crystal
- Water-resistant to 100 meters
- Easy to read day/date display
- Nighttime display is dim without a recharge
Citizen has a long-standing reputation for developing and producing high-quality timepieces, and the Chandler is a perfect example. This is a great watch for those who lead active lifestyles. It is water-resistant to 100 meters, so you can take it swimming, though perhaps not scuba diving. It charges continuously so long as it is exposed to any light source, solar or manmade. This means you’ll never need to worry about it losing power. There are no batteries to change or other maintenance necessary to keep it running.
The stainless-steel case and nylon band are durable and made for real world use. This isn’t a watch you should be afraid to take out into the field, far from home. The luminous hands and markers do glow in the dark, but some users report needing to “charge” them briefly with a flashlight for that glow to last through the night.
The 37mm case is slim and lightweight, so you won’t feel like you’ve strapped a brick to your wrist. The crystal is scratch-resistant and will neither crack nor shatter easily. You don’t need to baby this watch in the least.
How I Made My Picks
I grew up the son of a watch collector. That wasn’t his occupation, but it was certainly his passion. He owned far more watches than any single person could ever possibly need. One of the upshots of his hobby was me learning, at first just through osmosis and then later from actively paying attention, what to look for in a watch and how a good quality one differs from one that might not be up to snuff. It is fairly easy to produce a watch that looks all sorts of awesome but is actually a combination of shoddy materials and poor workmanship. But, with just a little practice and some guidance, it isn’t difficult to discern good from bad, or at least less good. Now, I can confidently tell exactly what features and construction details the best field watches have.
The desired features in a field watch include durability, comfort, and reliability. If the watch doesn’t work right, or if it is a pain to wear, you’ll just leave it at home. If you’re going to spend your hard-earned money on a field watch, it should be on one that you’ll enjoy wearing and using. Thus, each watch on our list ranks highly in those key areas. On top of that, looks are also a factor, of course. An ugly watch won’t get worn.
Q: Can you wear a field watch with a suit?
Can you wear a field watch with a suit isn’t really the proper question. You can wear any watch you want with any sort of attire. But is it going to look proper? That’s the question to ask. And in this case, the answer is absolutely yes. While they are generally designed for rough use outdoors, there are many field watches that look quite handsome with a jacket and tie.
Q: How do I know if my field watch is too big?
There is an easy way to determine if a field watch is too big. The general rule of thumb is if the distance from lug to lug on the watch is greater than the width of your wrist, the watch isn’t for you. The lug is where the watch band is attached to the case. Basically, if the watch face and case extend beyond the wrist, the watch is too large. Not only will it look odd, but it will also likely be uncomfortable to wear.
Q: Are field watches shock-resistant?
A field watch is designed for rough use, typically in an outdoor setting at least part of the time. As such, it needs to be at least marginally shock-resistant or it will quickly become worthless to the wearer. Now granted, few if any watches can withstand hammer blows and other similar abuses. But a field watch should easily hold up under rough and tumble activities.
With the advent of smartphones and their ubiquitous use, more and more people are eschewing a watch and just relying on their phones to keep track of time. As such, a field watch might not be seen as a necessity for everyone. However, not only is a traditional field watch a classic look, but it also doesn’t rely on you remembering to plug it in to charge overnight in order to work the next day.