There are many so-called “tool watches” out there, but few truly live up to the title. Mechanical diver’s and pilot’s watches may have been indispensable instruments for explorers in decades past, but nowadays, state-of-the-art wristwatches have shifted toward lightweight, battery-powered and largely digital pieces bristling with solar panels and environmental sensors. In fact, to call them mere “timepieces” or even “watches” is to do them an injustice. These are wrist-top computers, designed for wear during mountaineering, skiing, sailing, surfing and flying. We rounded up six of the best multifunction watches for your next adventures — just make sure the arm it’s on makes it back OK.
Tissot T-Touch Expert Titanium
Tissot’s entire T-Touch line has you covered for every activity; there’s a sailing version, a diving version, and even one that tells time by silent vibrations. But the T-Touch Expert is the handsomest of the lot while providing the most versatile functions. Its 43-millimeter case and comfortable link bracelet are hewn from strong, light, and resistant titanium; coupled with the carbon fiber dial, the watch’s look is modern and clean and wouldn’t look out of place under a shirtsleeve on Monday morning, which is more than we can say about most multifunction watches.
Of course, the feature that makes the T-Touch unique and gives it its name is the touch-sensitive sapphire crystal. Tapping it at various points activates the functions — barometer for weather prediction, altimeter, thermometer (take it off your sweaty wrist first), even a compass that you can use in concert with the rotating bezel for navigation. There are also alarms and a digital chronograph to round out the features.
Citizen Promaster Altichron
The new Altichron is not the watch to wear if you don’t want to draw attention; it’s big, it’s bad and it’s colorful. While digital may be the best way to display information, we still have a soft spot for analog, and the Altichron is like wearing an aircraft instrument on your wrist. Press the color-coded buttons and watch the matching hands slowly move around the dial to display altitude in feet or your compass heading.
While the dial looks busy at first glance, it’s actually a cinch to read once you get the scheme. Altitude is displayed across three scales, one for 10,000-foot intervals (which does double duty as a power reserve gauge), one for 1,000s, one for 10s. The maximum altitude tops out at over 30,000 feet, so unless you find a mountain higher than Everest, you’re covered.
The rotating internal ring allows for tracking of altitude change or compass heading; it’s harder to use with an oxygen-starved brain than a digital watch, but you wanted to rough it, right? The massive titanium case and supple long rubber strap are amazingly comfortable, and this is an Eco-Drive, so unlike a lot of other battery-hogging multifunction watches, the Altichron won’t crap out on you as you’re making the summit push.
Suunto Elementum Ventus
Sunnto is the undisputed king of multifunction watches; they pretty well invented the genre with their mountaineering watches back in the 1990s. A few years ago they introduced a more upscale line of watches called Elementum featuring steel cases instead of the usual plastic, leather straps and sapphire crystals. The idea was that you could go from weekend to weekday without changing your watch. Three pieces made up the collection: the Terra (land), the Aqua (diving) and the Ventus, which is the sailing edition.
Ventus means wind, which is appropriate, because when in offshore sailboat racing success comes down to weather and timing. The Ventus may look more suited for the yacht club than the yacht with its leather strap and brushed steel case, but that’s just the icing on one hell of a useful watch. A sensitive air pressure sensor provides accurate weather predictions for skippers: dropping pressure means winds — and possibly, foul weather — may soon increase, while rising pressure typically makes for more tactical sailing. The graph lines printed on the sapphire crystal allow for full 24-hour trending of the barometric pressure; a countdown regatta timer helps skippers synch with the official starting cannon for a perfect start; the digital compass comes in handy should you find yourself out of sight of land. All features are controlled by the knurled button at 2:00, which gives the watch the most traditional and retro look of all the pieces in this buying guide, despite the digital dial.
Casio Protrek Triple Sensor PAG240-1
Casio’s Protrek line may be overshadowed by the company’s ubiquitous G-Shock, but the lesser known set is actually a more capable group of watches. The Triple Sensor technology adds the functionality of an electronic compass, altimeter, barometer and thermometer to an already incredibly filled out timepiece-slash-wrist-top-computer. The entire list the watch’s of functons is long and includes a 31-zone world timer, no less than five daily alarms, a countdown timer, a chronograph with split times, a perpetual calendar good until 2099 and sunrise and sunset data. (Whew.) While you’d expect all of that to suck batteries like an SUV sucks gas, the Protrek is solar charged with a battery that will remain fully juiced for six months, even in the dark. This thing puts the “multi” in multifunctional.
Of course, it’s the Triple Sensor that is most useful when you’re out exploring the world. The altimeter can store altitude measurements (high, low, differentials) and even graph them for you. The barometer will trend air pressure changes so you can play meteorologist and get below treeline before the lightning starts.
The Protrek is a massive watch, measuring a full 50 millimeters across its case. That size combined with its decidedly nerd-tactical aesthetic means it should never be seen with any sleeves other than Polarfleece ones; when you roll into town wearing this one, be prepared to tell some tales about the mountain you just climbed. As of yet, the watch won’t do that for you.
Freestyle Killer Shark Tide
Surfers are a notoriously low-maintenance, laid-back crowd, so it’s hard to imagine a van-living, wave chasing Jeff Spicoli wannabe wearing a watch, much less a multifunction one. But surfing is all about the waves and the waves are all about the movement of the tides. A watch that tells you when the tide is coming in means wasting less time scanning the break and more time riding it. The Freestyle Killer Shark Tide stores tide data for 150 surfside cities world-wide along with pre-programmed sunrise/sunset times and an alarm function to ensure you’ll beat the grommies to the beach at the crack of dawn. Dual time, a countdown timer and a chronograph round out the functions.
Of course, if it’s a surfing watch, it can’t look too much like something a buzzcut Spec Ops guy would wear. The Freestyle Killer Shark Tide has some tropical appeal. The composite case and supple strap are fit for sand and surf, and the neon yellow bezel and strap loop keep it from being taken too seriously. 100-meter water resistance is up for duck dives and wipeouts and a $100 price tag means if you scrape it up on the reef while freediving for your supper you won’t feel so bad.
Breitling Aerospace EVO
Breitling has long been the de facto supplier of watches to real pilots. But despite their popularity, the brand’s nostalgic mechanical chronographs like the Navitimer are little more than quaint museum pieces. Look at the wrists of most aviators flying off the decks of aircraft carriers and you’re more likely to see one of Breitling’s multifunction pieces from its Professional line. The Aerospace EVO is the latest and greatest of those.
The Aerospace EVO gets a new 43-millimeter titanium case with improved water resistance to 100 meters, impressive for a timepiece with a non-screwlocked crown. Speaking of that crown: all the functions of the watch are controlled by pushing and spinning it one way or another. It’s impressive and intuitive stuff. The analog hands make time-reading easy at a glance while the digital displays dig deeper for functions like multiple time zones, chronograph, countdown timers, alarms and a calendar. The display is backlit and compatible with night vision goggles, vital for those night sorties over the Indian Ocean. An optional “Co-Pilot” module can be added to the bracelet, providing additional functionality like UTC time and takeoff and landing times. Timekeeping is chronometer-certified like all of Breitling’s watches thanks to a thermocompensated SuperQuartz movement that is accurate to within seconds per year. The battery is rated for over three years, which should last for a few deployments.