What time is it when you are on the trail? Does it matter? That seems like a kind of silly question in the backcountry, but on our last trip into the Ansel Adams Wilderness, my wife was disappointed to see that her watch had stopped dead.
Eh, who cares? Who needs a watch anyway?
And then we started to think about how we use our watches when we hike. And it turns out we do that more than you might think.
Now I have a watch with a built in altimeter, so I often check that function was we hike. In fact, I leave that function on as the primary display of the watch during these trips, so the time function is just a small footnote at the bottom. Still, I use it to get an idea of how we are doing on the trail. Navigation is more than just knowing where you are---it's also knowing how far you have to go, and how long it is taking you to get there.
That means knowing what time it is.
There are, of course, other ways of telling the time in the backcountry. The sun moves about the breadth of a hand at arm's length each hour (so does the moon, for that matter) so it's fairly easy to estimate time within an hour or so. If you are worried about making camp before dark, you should be able to do that just by looking at the sun, without the need for a digital watch.
And if you are a musician, you can certainly sing a few songs and keep track of the time that way--Bach's Bourree in E minor is almost exactly two minutes long, for example.
We also like to take pretty regular breaks on the trail, to keep up our water and food intake. Yeah, we could just stop when we are hungry or thirsty---but we've learned over the years that it's usually better to drink BEFORE you get thirsty, so we schedule our stops by the time, rather than by how we are feeling. You need a watch to do that. Otherwise, by the time you think you are getting dehydrated, you already ARE dehydrated.
And it's always helpful to synchronize watches when you are planning to meet again, later...
But where this really got our attention was when we started making dinner.
Those dehydrated meals always require a certain amount of time to regain their form, substance, and texture....and without a watch, my poor wife felt clueless. If you open the pot to check on them, they quickly get cold. Luckily, I was there with my watch, and was able to tell her how long exactly, to the second, the food had been rehydrating,
And I could tell her the elevation of our campsite, too.
Loc: Meadow Valley, CA
I'm like you, I judge distance traveled by how long I have been on the trail. Does not matter too much if on a flat trail or going up Forester Pass. Although I slowed to a little over a mile an hour with lunch, going from Vidette Meadow Jct. Judging too if food has rehydrated is the next best reason. If no watch, get up when I want, eat when hungry, go to bed when too dark.:) Duane
Loc: Portland, OR
I bring a plain old wristwatch and I do consult it, but I don't let it dictate my activities. I find it is an easier way to judge the time than trying to estimate how high above the horizon the sun sits. It gives me another method for estimating the distance I've walked, since I tend to walk at about 2 mph with an almost frightening predictability. It helps time my dinner's rehydration, too.
Altogether it is just another useful tool, and not a high priority one.
Loc: Gateway to Columbia Gorge
I'm also satisfied with a simple watch (with a stopwatch function for timing, used mostly for training walks at home). However, my hiking speed generally averages about 1 mph unless I'm on a relatively long section of level smooth trail. Also, the watch lets me discipline myself so I don't stop (except for picture taking) more often than 5-10 minutes every hour. Otherwise I'd be taking a 20-30 minute break every 40 minutes! Or maybe the other way around--hike 20-30 minutes and stop an hour!
Sometimes I want to get up really early and get on the trail by daybreak if (1) it's going to be a hot day (when I want my dog off the trail and resting in the shade by noon) or (2) if I'm going to be hiking in high exposed places and afternoon thunderstorms are likely. I still haven't found a watch with a loud enough alarm to wake me up! With the unusually cool summer and my having to cancel my planned trip to the Winds for family reasons, it wasn't an issue this year. In the future I'll have to settle for a small travel alarm despite the weight.
Edited by OregonMouse (09/21/1109:32 PM)
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view--E. Abbey
Always like having a watch and when I don't, I feel nekked.
I use an altimeter watch hiking and love having that extra data point. Plus I put it in record mode during the day's hike and it gives me cumulative altitude gained and lost, which I find interesting and occasionally useful. Not to be overlooked is the navigation benefit of knowing when to leave the trail or, say, head north to intersect the trail after an XC excursion. An altimeter can help me do that at the right spot.
Especially on a cloudy day or in heavy forest I don't have to guess the time, not to mention during the night. It's important to know how much daylight there is when deciding whether to press on or find a campsite. More prosaically, if I wake at two a.m. with the urge to heed nature's call, I know I need to do it. But at six I might be able to ignore it for awhile longer and grab a few more winks.
Have never had an alarm loud enough to wake me up, though. I suppose that's only fair, I'm not going to the office after all.
In addition to estimating distance and hours of daylight left I use it frequently to tell direction. Half way between the hour hand and 12:00 is south. In the areas I hike in it is frequently very overgrown and it is extremely easy to get headed in the wrong direction.
A watch is useful for two reasons: keep track of your pacing, and as a backup for the compass. (You can orient yourself with the hands of a watch.)
Altho lately I am using the GPS more to track my speed/packing since it provides three numbers - fastest speed, moving average, and overall average figuring in any breaks I take. (This is really easily skewed however - don't swing the GPS around on the lanyard unless you want to impress someone by showing them a top speed of 9 mph.)
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." Shunryu Suzuki
I find that the only time I care to know about is time to wake up. I usually set my alarm for upto an hour before sunrise if I'm breaking camp to find new fishing ground or about 30 min before if already close to a good fishing hole. Rest of the day I could usually just careless what time it is.
Some peopole live life day by day. Try step by step.
I carry a cheap Timex "indiglo" watch, with hands, about half the time. I'm more interested in "daylight" than knowing the actual time. Overcast days make it harder to judge sundown and a watch makes it easier. I do use the "hands width at arms length" method, even when I'm wearing a watch. Figure about 15 degrees per hour and your hand is about the right width for that. Funny...the indiglo face is actually bright enough to use as a light in my hammock.
One reason I carry a watch is it helps with navigation. My pace is slow, but consistent, so I know every 6 minutes, I'll go 1/10th of my pace.
I find the miles the easiest if I follow a 40 minute routine with a break for just water on the odd ones and water and food on the even ones. About every 3 hours is a longer break at a scenic spot with a quickly cooked meal. At each stop, I mark my position and time on the map and compare it with my SPOT track when I get home. It's not really necessary, but it's fun. My son can glance at the map at the beginning of the day and know exactly where we are through the day. I get lost in WalMart.
We like to have a plan to be off the trail by about 1 as that's when the storms start moving in. Then we have a secondary plan to go further if they don't materialize.
Loc: California (southern)
My Casio timepiece is mated with a compass. It seems to work pretty well, but I have never had to use it in earnest. Actualy, I could dispense with the watch entirely, and rely on my Garmin Foretrex, which gives me location, altitude, pace, etc. as well as time more accurately than any watch. It also gives me sunrise and sunset times for my location.
I always carry a watch for the simple reason that I hike alone (with my dog) and my wife waits back at base camp for me. If on a day hike I tell here I will hike until noon and then start back. On an overnighter I tell here what time I expect to return the following day. In any case, I need a watch.