Choosing the Perfect Watch for Wilderness and Expeditions

22 May 2024


David – Special Rescue Paramedic, PhD Student, FEWM

David is an experienced special rescue medic and team leader who has worked extensively in remote and hostile environments. He has significant experience in intercultural communication, risk mitigation, and providing emergency medical care in austere conditions.

David is also a published author who has written on topics related to rescue operations and industry issues. His writing draws upon his deep well of firsthand experience and knowledge in the field of special rescue and emergency medicine in challenging environments.

Each year I am privileged enough to be brought in on the first day of class for a new cohort of EMT and paramedic students and address the basics of what their upcoming months and years of training will entail. I also take the opportunity to outline the expectations regarding what they should have on their person at all times, including items such as a pen and notepad, stethoscope, and water bottle. But I also take time to highlight the need for a good watch.

Interestingly, during class last month, a student raised her hand and posed a question that caught me off guard: “I’ve never worn a watch; what qualities define a ‘good watch’?” I’ve never been asked that question before and it took me a few tries to get the answer right. So, today, let’s delve into what constitutes a “good” watch for wilderness and expedition medics.

My Background

I’ve been wearing watches for years, primarily for professional use, but recently I’ve also developed a keen interest in them as an amateur enthusiast. When I began my medical career at 18, I was advised to ensure my watch had a second hand or counter; crucial for tracking a person’s heart and respiration rates. Over time, I discovered more and more applications for the simple wristwatch and it’s a rare day indeed when I’m not sporting one on my wrist. I can’t recall the last patient encounter where I didn’t have one readily available. Today, I find myself with a modest yet respectable collection of watches. Each sees regular wear; I don’t believe in watches merely for show—they’re tools meant to be utilized. Most have accompanied me in some capacity or another and I have a particular affinity for automatic watches, those powered solely by springs and gears which eliminate the need for batteries. While I strive to remain as brand-agnostic as possible, in a market inundated with options I inevitably gravitate towards what I know has served me and my colleagues best in our profession. Hopefully, you’re reading this because you’re curious about what’s available and I may be able to provide some helpful guidance.

The Power Of The Second

To kick things off, a good watch for medical professionals should include a second hand. For the longest time I relied on a quartz analog G-Shock, equipped with an electronic second counter. It served me well—it was durable, reasonably priced (around $100), so if it met an unfortunate demise (or melted, but that’s a story for another time), replacing it was a breeze. G-Shocks are known for their ruggedness, and they certainly look cool (always rule #1), while also getting the job done. However, there are some drawbacks. Their robustness often translates to bulkiness. The case can be quite substantial, particularly for individuals with smaller wrists, making it somewhat cumbersome to manage. There is a smaller version, the Baby G-Shock, which a petite teammate of mine has worn for several years, but it typically only comes out during rescue missions and isn’t everyday wear worthy.

If you’re seeking an everyday watch—one you can slip on in the morning at camp, wear while hiking or adventuring, and forget it’s even there—you’ll want to strike a balance between weight and ruggedness. In environments where every gram counts towards ounces, and ounces add up to pounds, finding this equilibrium is crucial. Timex, particularly their Expedition line, fits the bill perfectly. Affordable and reliable, it comes with a great band and fulfills all the essential functions you’d expect from a watch. Seiko also comes into the picture here. They have multiple variations of field watches across a range of prices. They’re clean, sturdy, and versatile enough to wear casually without the overt
“tactical” appearance of a G-Shock.

I’d be remiss in not addressing the quintessential field watch: the revered Hamilton Khaki. While my personal experience with it is limited, many of my colleagues swear by it. It’s consistently on my Christmas wish list, and I’ve test-worn it before. Lightweight and durable, it possesses a timeless appeal that only improves with age and wear. Citizen also deserves a mention for their excellent field watches, particularly catering to women with smaller wrists who prefer a more modest dial size.

Diving Watches

Most of these watches boast some degree of water resistance—a crucial feature for our line of work given the environments we often find ourselves in. Personally, I tend to opt for diving watches. Not only are they sturdy and easy to read, but they’re designed to withstand extreme conditions. Many military units issue divers, and throughout horological history they’ve been relied upon by countless special operations and medical teams. Brands like Tudor, Casio, Rolex, and Doxa offer a plethora of options in this category.

It’s worth noting that dive watches typically come with a higher price tag. However, as the saying goes, you often get what you pay for. While price doesn’t always correlate directly with quality and functionality, in the realm of dive watches, investing in a higher-quality timepiece can be worthwhile. A Seiko submariner may set you back as much as an Apple Watch but it’s an investment that can genuinely last a lifetime—and, in my opinion, looks far better doing so. One downside common to dive watches is their size and weight. However, as with any equipment designed for rigorous environments, trade-offs are inevitable. This holds true in the watch world as much as it does in the backcountry. Typically, the more you invest, the higher the quality, the lighter the equipment becomes.

On a personal level, two dive watches tend to dominate my wrist. First is the venerable orange-faced Doxa—a true powerhouse. It’s bold, easily readable (another essential aspect of a “good” watch) and has shrugged off 80-foot falls onto basalt rock. Designed with input from none other than Jacques Cousteau himself, it exudes adventure and versatility. Whether on a mountain rescue or at an art gala, it’s equally at home. The second watch holds more sentimental value and is an homage piece: the Benrus Type-1. Crafted initially as a military diver for MACV-SOG special forces teams in Vietnam, it boasts simplicity, readability, and crucially, a low profile, effortlessly slipping under wetsuits or long sleeves without snagging.

(If you’re intrigued by horological history, particularly the watch history of the world’s special forces and intelligence communities, I highly recommend checking out the blog Watches of Espionage. Run by a former CIA case officer, it’s a fascinating read and wonderfully researched.)

The Bezel

One of the standout features of dive watches is the rotating bezel—a rim on the watch that can be turned. Most divers sport this feature, and for medical providers it can be incredibly useful. Upon arriving at a scene, I quickly align the 12-o’clock position to a point fifteen minutes in the future, enabling me to monitor my on-scene time with a swift glance at my wrist. This aids in making prompt decisions about patient transport which helps to manage scene times effectively. The bezel can also be utilized for simple countdowns or to track elapsed time. On GMT watches, the bezel can be set to different time zones, useful for tracking long transports such as flight evacuations or coordinating with a home office in a different part of the world. Personally, I often synchronize the time with my significant other’s whereabouts during their adventures, ensuring I reach out at an appropriate time.

A Note on Smartwatches

Now, onto smartwatches—perhaps the most prevalent type encountered in the wild. The majority being worn today are made by Apple, Garmin, and Suunto. These devices offer extensive capabilities beyond simple GPS tracking and health monitoring. One of my most-used features is the ability to instantly start a 10-minute timer for command scene management. I can utilize mapping features during pre-plan operations and some models even provide dose calculations and protocols. However, their biggest drawback is battery life; once depleted, you’re out of luck. Additionally, some lack ruggedness and may not withstand significant impacts.

The “Good” Watch

So, what defines a “good” watch, especially for wilderness medical providers? It should be easily readable, track seconds accurately, be genuinely waterproof, and durable enough to endure rough treatment. It shouldn’t be overly bulky, ensuring it doesn’t hinder other equipment or clothing. Ideally it should be unobtrusive and lightweight, allowing you to forget you’re wearing it. Your choice may vary depending on your daily work environment—while a G-Shock is excellent for search and rescue missions, it might be cumbersome in the emergency room. Personal preferences also come into play; some prefer digital readouts, while others find analog faces more grounding, particularly during hikes.

Ultimately, the best watch is the one that suits your needs and that you wear. During my 2023 deployment to Ukraine, I sported the Garmin Tactix-Delta, a rugged smartwatch tailored for military use, while my partner opted for a $10 digital Casio from Walmart. It had a second hand, could tell him the time and occasionally the date was right. Talk to him and he’ll tell you he’s never had a better watch. When I asked him about it, he simply said, “It’s a good watch, what else do I need?” I couldn’t agree more.

→ To dive deeper into David’s experiences and insights; listen to his recent appearance on The World Extreme Medicine Podcast where he discusses the crisis in Ukraine.

→  Read more from World Extreme Medicine.

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