One of my favorite things about backpacking is the absence of time constraints, you eat when hungry, sleep when tired and sort of track how much time is left until dark.

Would there be any situations while backpacking where it would be detrimental to not have a means of telling time very precisely?

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    and sort of track how much time is left until dark This would be my most important use for a watch. Also, sometimes you need to get up at 2 am or something on summit day, so you need an alarm.
    – user2169
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 6:16
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    "Backpacking watches do more than just tell time" .. but I'm not going to tell you what. Mwuuuhahahahaha
    – Mawg
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 15:03
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    You can use the arms-length fist method to determine time till dark. Don't need a watch for that. But if you're lost, a watch can tell you which way is north. Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 18:37
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    What If you encounter someone who asks you politely, "excuse me, what time is it?"
    – Valorum
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 19:07
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    I absolutely love sunrises and sunsets. Having a watch is useful to know how much time I have to "get in position".
    – Shan-x
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 11:00

14 Answers 14


I don't backpack, but I canoe camp and I used to do it with small children. We took a watch and used it for three things:

  • we need to have all the work done and food eaten by the time it's dark, say 9pm, so we need to land by [whatever] pm to set up camp and cook.
  • this food needs to cook for 20 minutes (or this bread needs to rise for 2 hours)
  • that portage took 35 minutes, paddling the length of that lake took 4 hours - we tend to record that sort of thing to help with trip planning in the future.

If your evening routine is very quick and you don't mind eating in the dark if you felt like going long, if all your cooking is based on "looks done to me", and if you won't do this same route or even a similar route again another year, then I guess you don't need a watch. (I can also guess you aren't bringing small children or perhaps even any other person.) I don't wear mine, it's in a pocket of my bag, but I like having one with me.

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    I've always been able to anticipate time until sunset by looking at the position of the sun in relation to the horizon. But that's just me...
    – Phil Frost
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 18:14

While doing the West Coast Trail in Vancouver, Canada I had to buy a watch for the first time.

I had a table with the tides for that week and I needed the watch to tell if high tide was going to get me while going through different parts of the track. I knew how long hiking through the tide-dependent section would take me and needed the watch to tell at the starting point if I had enough time.

Sometimes I had to wait for an hour or so, other times I had to camp. It was great fun!

Of course there were alternative routes, but they were ugly and muddy compared to the gorgeous ones by the ocean shore.


I'd argue that a watch is a fairly important device for backpacking and I generally never leave without one.

Monitor progress

If you do multi-day hikes you generally have a plan or schedule you should more-or-less stick to. This schedule can be dictated by your entry/exit procedures (e.g. public transport), by the food you brought (e.g. you have to walk at least X km a day), by available camping spots, etc.

  • A watch will help you keep a pace which fits your overall schedule.
  • A (digital) watch/alarm can help you wake up/break camp early enough, giving you enough time/daylight for your planned route.
  • A watch will help you be in time for any kind of public transport that you'll try to catch on your way in or out of TGO.

Performance and Nutrition

Sometimes it can be hard to monitor and pace your performance if all you have is your gut feeling. For some people it is also difficult to judge their personal hydration and 'power reserve' levels.

  • A watch will help you pace yourself over a daily route.
  • Keeping track of time using a watch can help you do regular breaks, eat and drink enough/often and keep a regular sleep cycle. (Note: if you only drink when you're thirsty or eat when your hungry that's already a bit too late.)
  • Keeping track of your progress this way will also help you when planning future hikes as you have a better idea of the distance/elevation you/your group can manage in a certain amount of time.


Depending on where you are hiking, dawn can come very suddenly and walking at night might be extremely dangerous.

  • A watch will make sure you can plan ahead for nightfall and set up camp or adapt your route early enough.
  • Specifically a watch will tell you the remaining daytime when the suns height is not visible due to weather/mountains/foliage/... (thx @DavidCullen)


Plenty of foods require specific cooking times (rice/pasta/...).

  • Instead of monitoring/tasting constantly a watch will just tell you when your food is ready.
  • If you are purifying water using tablets the water generally has to sit for a while until you can consider it 'pure'.


A watch can be an important navigational aid in dire situations where visibility or orientation are restricted (see for example Dead Reckoning):

  • Instead of counting your steps (try this once for 5 minutes without losing track, it can be hard) a watch can help you tell the distance you have travelled.

Emergency compass

If you clearly see the sun a watch can second as an improvised compass in an emergency situation. See for example here. (You should still bring a decent compass though!)

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    Well, you're Swiss - obviously you never leave without a watch :D
    – imsodin
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 20:06
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    @imsodin: Hahaha, well done :D
    – fgysin
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 7:12
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    +1 for the emergency compass. That was my first thought when I read the question :)
    – Arsak
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 19:25
  • Might want to mention that a watch can be used to know daylight times in situations where the sun is obscured by weather, terrain, or foliage. Also, knowing daylight times can be important in emergencies such as injury or loss of food. Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 21:11
  • @DavidCullen: Good input, I updated my answer.
    – fgysin
    Commented Feb 26, 2017 at 12:41

Scheduled Transport

If you are catching scheduled transport (e.g. bus or ferry) then you need a watch.

There might only be one trip a day. If you miss it, you are stuck for an extra night. You might be ticketed on one particular time, so if you are late, the next bus or plane won't pick you up.

For example, the Milford Track Great Walk in New Zealand. There are only two boat trips a day in summer, and you are ticketed for one specific time. If you miss that, the other ferry that day will only take you if there is space available.


If your transport is a boat that can only get in at high tide, then you need a watch.

If you are making a crossing that can only be done at low tide, then you need a watch.

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    @DavidRicherby If you've ever hiked in rural america, you'll know you are extremely luckly if you can get even ONE bus per day in the vicinity of your trailhead
    – Ken
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 17:04
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    Half an hour? Where I go, there's usually one bus or boat a day. In the situations where there is two, the second is useless to you because your ticket specifies which one you have to catch. Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 19:46
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    Where do you guys hike that there's busses to pick you up? Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 21:46
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    @Azor-Ahai Almost anywhere in Europe. Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 3:49
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    In Switzerland I did a walking trip that involved bus, train, chairlift and gondala travel. Some of those ran every half hour but some only ran a couple of times a day. In New Zealand, where I live, I have used planes, boats and buses at both the start and the end of trips. Most boats are one or two times a day. most inter-city buses are once a day or less. Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 21:52

Navigation. Assuming you know which hemisphere you are on, and assuming your watch is set to local time (even better if set to local solar time, rather than the locally observed time zone), and assuming the sun is visible (weather is not overcast), a watch can be used as an improvised compass.

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    Though (obviously) an actual compass is a better idea. If you have a compass (which you should if you need to know your location) then the watch doesn't add anything.
    – user2766
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 11:43
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    I was going to make the same comment about navigation, and to address @Liam's criticism, it can be a useful backup if your compass is lost or destroyed (always have some sort of backups for cutting, firemaking, and navigation). But a watch can also be useful for pacing (if you get lost in fog in a place you can't easily stop or set up camp, and need to accurately measure your velocity to estimate distances). You can also use it as an emergency signalling mirror to reflect sunlight, if you have nothing better.
    – flith
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 12:46
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    I live in England. Could you explain the concept of "the sun is visible" to me? ;-) Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 16:00
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    @DavidRicherby - It's that big yellow thing you see in the sky when you go on holiday.
    – Valorum
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 19:08
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    I live in America, could you explain this concept of 'Holiday' to me? :D Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 20:19

To know when it's going to get dark!

Losing track of time is great unless you're in the wilderness, unclear of your location, and the sun goes down.

It's one thing planning on walking in the dark. It's quite another to be caught off guard (maybe even without a torch). I know you can possibly see how low the sun is, but that only gives you a rough estimate of the amount of daylight you have left (especially if the terrain blocks your view, etc).

  • Once, I very nearly got lost in a Sequoia grove when I lost track of time and then couldn't find the footpath for a while. A quarter-hour later and I'd have had to bed down in the leaf-litter and pitch darkness. I almost wish I had had to (warm, dry, but possible large wildlife).
    – nigel222
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 16:36
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    You can use the Sun to estimate dark within 15 minutes. Don't need a watch for that. Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 18:43
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    Even in ideal conditions, judging daylight is tricky if you need something other than "it's getting dark". If you're on the second day of a three-day loop hike, knowing when noon is is very useful to decide if you're making good enough time to finish the loop, or if you need to turn around. (I wasn't. Dusk would have seen me at "This section of trail is sparsely blazed. Don't be misled by the game trails as you exit the meadow".)
    – Mark
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 2:21
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    If you can see the sun @DonBranson If your in a wood or on the north face of a high mountain you may not be able to see the sun.
    – user2766
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 9:05

To enforce time constraints on activities:

  1. I'll walk until 1 pm, have lunch, and then continue until 4
  2. I'll fish until 10
  3. I'll take a half hour rest until I need to start again

While you're outside, it's easy for a task or activity to suck up way more time than you expect, leaving you less hours of daylight for the rest of the days tasks.

It might not matter, but if you don't leave enough time to get water/firewood before it gets dark, you might regret spending six hours whittling a paddle....

You'd also need one to note the time of death of your unfortunate hiking partner

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    In particular, some activities should have a "turnaround time". An example is hiking/climbing a peak where light or weather or strength can go bad later and you need to go back even though things seem good.
    – bmb
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 18:49

As a safety factor to track when it's the last safe time turn back: If we don't summit by 2:00pm, it will be difficult to make it down safely.

Also for it's alarm: We need to wake up at 2:00am so we can get a hot meal and be on our way to the summit by 3:00.


An important part of navigation while walking is how much distance to the next attack point or objective, especially in poor visibility or at night. If the distance isn't very great, say 100 to 200m (or yards) then counting paces will be the method to use. For distances greater than that, timing is important. Knowing what your average walking speed is, the type of terrain and what height will be gained, will let you estimate how far you have walked by measuring how long it has taken. And for this you will need a watch (or some other means of measuring the time).

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    Adding to this, it gives you a useful check on whether your navigation was right. If the map says you'll come to a river in 2 miles, and you've been walking for an hour and you've not hit the river yet, you're probably not where you think you are. This may be because you screwed up taking a bearing or headed down the wrong path, or it may be because you weren't actually where you thought you were when you followed that bearing/path. Either way, if you have an idea of where you should be by when, then you have a chance to reorientate yourself sooner before you go more wrong.
    – Graham
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 13:55

Well, you did say "require" a watch. I've been hiking nigh on 35 years now, and have never had a "need" for a watch. I will say a watch is desirable, but on most of my hikes - whether in groups or solo - I tend not to carry a watch, except for recently when there was a requirement.

In that case, we had a young hiker who required timely medications.

I also wonder if you mean to distinguish between a real wrist-worn watch and a cellphone. (and what of the new Apple watches...)

Also, "required" is different for some, and not for others. Recording your adventures by logging, for example. Some may require a log to be timestamped, while others just use relative time and sequence of events - time be damned.

For navigation, I suppose if I lost my compass, a watch would come in handy; but I'd have to say that my orienteering skills are not very strong without knowing how to orient a map properly with a watch. So even with a watch, I don't think it would help in this case. Anyway, a compass is a better navigational device than a watch, and a smartphone is better than a compass. As a backup measure, I'd have both a smartphone and a compass. A watch might make a good backup device, but this doesn't seem to fit the definition of "required".

Some here suggest a watch is good for knowing when to take breaks and when to eat, and so on. Here, I think "want" is the more important factor - not "need". Knowing that darkness is going to set in in, say, 2 hours: what does that do for you? Wouldn't you hike until it got dark? Or stop now and enjoy the company or vista for the night?

One need I can think of is in first aid: you apply a tourniquet, you should record the time. (Ah, but this is a recommendation, not an absolute requirement, so not sure if this meets your requirement or not).

On the other hand, if your party wants to split up and meet again at some point in the future, then, having a watch is mandatory: not being on time could be grounds for calling in rescue.

Some say a watch is required for cooking. I don't agree. Who "cooks" on hikes? If your menu includes poached or hard boiled eggs, then perhaps a watch is needed. But all the hikes I've been on, boiling water was needed, and did not require precise timing. So this is a subjective answer: some insist to cook, while others stop at the boiling point.

And then there are some who would like to record their blood pressure and pulse. For medical purposes, I'd say - yes, absolutely. But for recreational purposes - watching your exercise - then no, this fits into the "want" category, not "need".

And finally, there are those who like to keep logs of their adventures. Here, a timepiece would be nice to have, but altogether not "required", I think.

So there you have it: timely medications, the uncommon first aid procedure, medical procedures, and rendezvous. All else seems to me that a watch is for "want" and not "need". Even in navigation.

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    In many areas, dispersed camping is restricted or prohibited, so knowing it gets dark in X hours is useful for being able to estimate whether I can make it to the next campsite before dark. While I've certainly set up my tent in full dark (and in the raining dark!) I would really prefer not to... Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 3:56

First Aid/Emergency Scenarios

This was mentioned in Wigwam's answer, but an emergency or first responder situation could easily bump a watch up into the "Required" category. While these (hopefully) will not be applicable to most hikers, and a certain level of medical training might be required, the fact that this has the "safety" tag and the overall importance of accurate time keeping in an emergency warrants a separate answer.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical professional and I am not providing medical advice, this is simply a list of emergency conditions that require precise time keeping.

A few examples of times where precise time keeping would be important include:

Taking vitals:

Measuring a patient's heart rate and respiration rate without a watch would be very difficult, seeing as one would have to be counting "One Mississippi, Two Mississippi..." while also keeping count of heart beats. In addition, it is very important to take the vitals at regular intervals in order to get an idea of if/how the patient's condition is changing (e.g. going into shock, heat stroke, etc.)

Time Sensitive Treatments:

This was also briefly mentioned in wigwam's answer, but certain treatments are very much dependent on precise time keeping.
-Tourniquets, which once applied, allow a very limited window (on the order of hours) in which they can be removed before loss of limb becomes an almost certainty. When someone's limb is on the line, it is very important to know EXACTLY when the tourniquet was applied.

-Certain types dislocations, which should not be reduced in the field after a given amount of time, or else you risk nerve damage. (Disclamer: never reduce ANYTHING without proper training, you can do serious and permanent damage!!!)

-Frostbite treatments are very much dependent on the length of time the digit has been frozen. The decision to try and treat in the field vs extract with frozen appendage is strongly influenced by how long the appendage has been frozen or will remain frozen.


Once again expanding on wigwam's answer, certain medications need to be taken at precise intervals (e.g. taking nitrates for chest pain too soon after taking any kind of E.D. medication can kill a person, or pain killers too frequently can lead to organ damage).


As terrible as this is, it is often recommended that CPR be administered for a full 30 minutes before leaving a patient to get help.

Source: I am a certified Wilderness First Responder, and will try to post appropriate source links as necessary

P.S. This is just a list of examples, please don't necessarily take any of it as medical advice.


It depends on what kind of a watch we are referring to. I typically rely on cellphones only for GPS/Tracks if at all I am tracking a route, otherwise my cellphone is on flight and used just for taking pictures and/or videos.

I have a LadWeather which is capable of informing me about:

1. Time, of course: Believe or not, many a times Backpacking, Hiking or any outdoor venture for that matter, is time critical. I need to know how much time I have before it gets dark.

2. Temperature: Don't know about others, but when outdoors I am sort of keen to know about whats the temperature. I don't know what good does it do to me, but I keep checking it.

3. Altitude (Digital as well a line graph): Again, I usually have an idea of the altitude I am getting at, or planning to climb to. But, checking altitude periodically keeps me boosting for climb higher whenever I get tired. On a difficult, lengthy ascend I keep uttering, okay buddy, a 100 m more and then rest for some time. I can agree that this virtual milestone for a pit-stop doesn't require a gadget that measures altitude, but that is the fun part for me personally.

4. Direction (A digital compass): Not always, but one needs a compass at some point in time.

5. Weather forecast: Once outdoor, the scene around and the sky/clouds tell you more about weather than what a this wrist watch possibly can. But, again, its a feature and I don't typically rely on it, because, its not connected to grid/internet by any means and there is no way it can predict if its going to rain, or something like that. But, while drenched in rain, I halt and I take a look at the wrist watch, it shows the raining icon, and so far it hasn't misbehaved.

6. Alarms: Again, personal opinion. There are people who want to sleep long and wake up whenever they want to, but plan/schedule tells otherwise. I usually setup an alarm for waking up, because by any chance I don't want to miss that sunrise.

7. A Stopwatch and a Down Counter: I have this habit of challenging myself over a climb. I set up a either of these two (depending upon my moral and physical state of course) and set up a distance and/or climb challenge. Okay, Climb this and reach that col by x minutes, done. If I am absolutely positive about the what I can do, its the down counter so that I can increase the speed looking at how much time is left. Else, a stopwatch, and let it roll.

Again, I am not claiming that all these features are necessary, but some of these add fun. And to be honest, that may not be the case for every other hiker, mountaineer, climber, cyclist, trail-runner.

We all know that possibly a cellphone can do these things I listed, and do a lot more. But doesn't a wrist watch look cool?


Tidal causeways

You need to know the time, the time of the tide and the range of times when you can safely cross.


If you're treating water with chemicals or boiling it, you better know how long it takes to do it right. A watch is the only way to know exactly.

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    Most people can't judge 3 or 30 minutes to the second, but most protozoa don't don't drop dead on the tick of 3 or 30 minutes either. The need to Boil water for any length of time is highly debated, and time for chemical treatments to be effective is highly variable based on water quality and concentrations.
    – user5330
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 23:04

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