Compass Watches for Mountaineers and Explorers: Sporty Digitals to Luxury Automatics
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Compass Watches for Mountaineers and Explorers: Sporty Digitals to Luxury Automatics

Watches with compasses are a rare breed among tool watches, mainly because — unlike chronographs, dual time zone functions, and calendars — their usefulness in everyday circumstances is rather limited. Generally, in the era of GPS and Google Maps, one rarely has a pressing need to identify True North on a hand-held (or wrist-worn) device. However, like other “niche” watch functions that serve mainly as aesthetic curiosities in quiet business or domestic environments, compasses — which can be as low-tech as a movable bezel with orientation markers or as high-tech as a digital readout that takes control of the watch’s display at the push of a button — have a special appeal to active, outdoorsy enthusiasts. Avid hikers, mountain climbers, spelunkers, and others devoted to adventure in environments where one is often bereft of modern conveniences like reliable wifi, tend to gravitate toward a more rugged, utilitarian style of watch, often with built-in tools that go beyond timekeeping. This is why you’ll often find compass-equipped watches with other useful indicators for factors like temperature, atmospheric pressure, and altitude.

IWC Porsche Design Compass Watch

The relative rarity of compass watches could also be traced, at least in part, to a handful of truisms. One is that as an additional indicator on a watch, it’s basically superfluous: any analog watch with an hour hand, hour markers, and reliable accuracy can be used for orientation, at least while the sun is out. Simply lay the watch on a flat surface, rotate it so its hour hand is pointing toward the sun, and bisect the distance between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock marker to calculate north. Once you’ve made that calculation, south, east and west can easily be determined from your position. (A compass bezel with orientation markers helps make such a calculation much more accurate, but it’s good to know in a pinch when you’re lost and all you have is a basic three-hand watch, right?) The other inescapable fact is that compasses, which use magnets, and watches, whose movements are rendered less accurate by magnetic fields, usually do not mix. One of the first compass watches (above), made for IWC by the Porsche Design Studio during their brief but fruitful partnership, dealt with this issue by replacing many vital components in the watch’s movement with non-magnetic alloys and installing the compass in a separate chamber of the double-decker hinged watch case. 

Richard Mille RM 25-01 

Actual magnetic compasses like the one IWC installed in its 1970s experimental piece are not common in today’s compass watches (the ones with mechanical movements, at least), despite the great strides many watch manufacturers have made since then with battling magnetism. Richard Mille’s extremely limited and extremely expensive RM 25-01 “Adventure” watch (above) is one of the very few; designed in collaboration with action star and cinematic “Rambo,” Sylvester Stallone, its detachable compass is bayonet-mounted in an antimagnetic carbon-TPT-coated case, and accompanies a host of other mission-oriented features requested by Stallone, including a chronograph, a bubble level to ensure the watch is perfectly oriented when the compass function is used, and even a special compartment for water-purification tablets. Below are eight other notable compass watches on the market now, in a variety of styles and in ascending order of price, all of which are decidedly more attainable than Stallone’s Richard Mille.


Timex Intelligent Quartz Tide Temp

Price: $136, Case Size: 45mm, Thickness: 13mm, Lug Width: 16mm, Crystal: Mineral, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Timex Intelligent Quartz Caliber

What mass-market Timex may lack in horological prestige, it makes up for in clever utility with its Intelligent Quartz Tide Temp Compass. What makes this watch’s quartz movement “smart?” Basically, it’s an open-ended tech platform that uses onboard sensors and microprocessors in the movement to drive individual functions on analog displays, providing an array of information from perpetual calendar to world clock to flyback chronograph to this watch’s array of nautical-navigation features, which include a tide tracker, compass, and thermometer. The compass incorporates an adjustable declination angle for superior accuracy, and thanks to the steel case’s 100-meter water resistance, the thermometer can be used to measure both air and water temperatures on an analog scale. Another scale counts down from high tide to low tide, while Timex’s proprietary IndiGlo night-light feature, which uses an electroluminescent panel to backlight the entire dial at the push of a button, makes nighttime navigation a breeze.


Timex Promaster Eco-Drive Altichron

Price: $446.25, Case Size: 47mm, Thickness: xxmm, Lug Width: 21.65mm, Crystal: Mineral, Water Resistance: 200 meters, Movement: Citizen Eco-Drive Caliber J290

To commemorate the 30-year anniversary of its high-tech, tool-oriented Promaster line, Citizen released a trio of Promaster models, one each for land, sea, and air, all powered by the proprietary light-driven Eco-Drive movements. Representing “Land” is the Eco-Drive Altichron Promaster 30th Anniversary, equipped with an analog altimeter function that measures from 10,000 meters above ground level to 300 meters below sea level; combined with the 360-degree rotating compass bezel, the altimeter makes this tough watch a practical tool for hiking, climbing, and cave exploration. Its case is constructed from stainless steel with an ion-plated coating that protects its surface from scratches and other damage. The dial’s three hands serve to display the hours, minutes, and altitude readouts, in an intuitive analog fashion, simultaneously. The strap is made of sturdy black polyurethane, the crystal over the dial is  The Eco-Drive Caliber J290 inside the watch is accurate to +/- 15 seconds per month and runs for 11 months on a full charge.


Seiko Prospex Alpinist

Price: $725, Case Size: 39.5mm, Case Height: 13.2mm, Lug to Lug: 46.4mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 200 meters, Movement: Automatic Seiko Caliber 6R35

The Alpinist, the first dedicated Seiko sports watch, traces its long history back to 1959, with an original model that was targeted, as its name implies, to outdoorsmen such as mountain climbers. This modern version, added recently to the Japanese watchmaker’s Prospex series and taking its aesthetic cues from the now-classic SARB017 reference, reimagines that vintage piece with a contemporary spin. Faithful to the historical model are the cathedral hands, gold accents on the markers and numerals, and magnifying lens over the date at 3 o’clock. New in this model are the dark green dial that contrasts attractively with the golden details, the “X” logo above 6 o’clock identifying the timepiece as a member of the Prospex family, and the 6R35 automatic caliber. A bonus for actual mountaineers and other adventurous explorer types: the inner rotating compass bezel, operated by the additional crown at 4 o’clock.


G-Shock Mudmaster

Price: $800, Reference: GWG 2000-1A1, Case Size: 61.2mm x 54.4mm, Case Height: 16.1mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 200 meters, Movement: Quartz Solar

Casio’s G-Shock watches are known for being both multifunctional and rugged enough for lots of outdoor activities, including the types of expeditions in which a compass would play a useful role. Uniquely suited for such adventures are the Mudmaster models from the adventure-oriented Master of G collection, whose array of functions include a digital direction-finder. The GWG2000 pictured here is one of the thinnest in the G-Shock collection and features a forged carbon bezel that is derived from kneading finely crushed carbon fibers into a resin and then heat-pressing it into a mold. The bezel is impressively lightweight while also adding a layer of ruggedness to the Carbon Core Guard case, which is engineered to be highly mud-and-dust-proof for its intended wearers, i.e., those who work in extreme environments and encounter daunting levels of debris. In addition to the full range of G-Shock functions and technology, the watch has a new, more resistant structure for its knurled side buttons — one of which can be pressed to put the watch’s hands into compass mode for orientation — and comes on a textured strap that resembles the hand grips on heavy machinery.


Alpina Alpiner 4 GMT

Price: $2,495, Case Size: 44mm, Thickness: 15mm, Lug Width: 22mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100m, Movement: Automatic Caliber AL550

In 1938, Alpina launched the original Alpina 4, which the brand dubbed the “first modern Swiss sports watch” and whose numeral referred to its four essential elements: antimagnetic properties, shock-resistance, water-resistance, and a case made of stainless steel. Today’s Alpiner 4 collection carries on the robust properties and adventurous spirit of that watch, particularly the GMT model, whose original versions incorporated a 360-degree rotating compass bezel (numbered 03 to 36), which was coupled with a 24-hour scale on the dial’s outer ring to allow the wearer a simple way to set the compass. The watch contains the automatic, Sellita-based Alpina Caliber AL550, which controls a GMT function with an independently adjustable hour hand that moves in one-hour increments to set a second time zone and a red, arrow-tipped 24-hour to display the home time. For those who spend more time at a desk than in the wild, Alpina offers the “Business Timer” version, with a red-and-blue “Pepsi” GMT scale whose bicolor scheme represents business-opening hours around the world, allowing a traveler to check at a glance if his home time zone is open for business.


Breitling Endurance Pro Ironman

Price: $3,500, Case Size: 44mm, Thickness: 12.5mm, Lug Width: 22mm, Lug to Lug: 52.4mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100m, Movement: Breitling 82 SuperQuartz

Breitling introduced its Endurance Pro collection in 2020 as “the ultimate athleisure watch,” and rolled out the Ironman editions a year later as part of the Swiss watchmaker’s partnership with the Ironman series of endurance sporting events. The 44mm case is made of Breitlight, a proprietary polymer material that is significantly lighter than both steel and titanium but harder and more resistant to corrosion and scratching. The Breitling 82 “SuperQuartz” movement (10 times more accurate than standard quartz) powers the hours, minutes, seconds, calendar and chronograph functions displayed on the black-and-red dial along with the Ironman logo at 6 o’clock. The ratcheting Breitlight bezel is inscribed with compass indications for an additional layer of sporty functionality, and the logo appears again on the solid caseback and the textured rubber strap.


Bremont Supermarine Endurance L.E.

Price: $6,395, Case Size: 43mm, Lug Width: 22mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 500 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber BE-93-2AE

U.K.-based Bremont has paid tribute to many British historical milestones with a series of limited-edition watches, one of the most notable being the Supermarine Endurance from 2020, which takes its name from the ship captained by Sir Ernest Shackleton in his now-legendary expedition to the South Pole in 1914-1917. The model was worn by (and received design input from) British polar explorer Ben Saunders in his record-breaking solo east-to-west crossing of Antarctica in 2017. The case is made from tough-yet-lightweight titanium and features a bidirectional rotating bezel made of black sapphire and inscribed with a compass scale (with orange markers for the east, west, and south indications and a red triangle for north) for ease of navigation. The compass bezel can be used in concert with the dial’s orange GMT hand for orientation: simply point the GMT hand toward the sun and align the “north” indication on the bezel with the hand. The movement inside the emblematic three-part Bremont “Trip-Tick” case is the automatic, COSC-chronometer-certified Caliber BE-93-2AE, a modified ETA 2892-A2 with a 42-hour power reserve and a specially modified, skeletonized rotor. 


Montblanc 1858 Geosphere L.E.

Price: $6,500, Case Size: 42mm, Thickness: 12.8mm, Lug Width: 22mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber MB29.25

Luxury pen maker Montblanc, which started making watches in 1997, derives its name from an Alpine peak and has recently been infusing the aesthetic spirit of mountain climbing and exploration into its 1858 series of vintage-inspired timepieces, particularly its distinctive world-timer, the 1858 Geosphere. Famed mountaineer Reinhold Messner’s solo trek across the Gobi Desert in 2004 provided the inspiration for this edition of the watch, with a desert-toned fumé dial and a brushed bronze case. The case features the bidirectional compass bezel characteristic of the Geosphere family, also in bronze, with a brown ceramic insert. The dial’s unique world time display has two turning half-globes representing the northern and southern hemispheres, at 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock, respectively, complementing the vintage-look, gold-toned cathedral hands, a dual time-zone subdial at 9 o’clock, and date at 3 o’clock. The movement is Montblanc’s automatic Caliber MB 29.25, based on a Sellita SW 300-1 and fitted with an in-house module, which beats behind a caseback engraved with an image of the Gobi’s Flaming Cliffs.

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Paul F.

I would include the original G Shock Rangeman or at least give it an honorable mention.

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