The Survival Watch

In our first collaboration with Instructables, we're heading into the woods with a few handy hacks for your timepiece
November 1, 2015Words by Liv Combe

Ever gone out into the woods, wandered off the trail, and found yourself a little.... turned around? First of all, been there. And second, the fact that you’re here reading this means it turned out al right in the end. Still, we can hardly overestimate the importance of being savvy, prepared, and ready to use the tools you have at hand to get through a tricky situation out in the wilderness. 

“No one sets out to get lost,” says Mike Warren, a maker and one of the main men behind Instructables, a fellow San Francisco company and our go-to site for getting crafty (and sharing the results). “But when it happens, you still need to make the most of what you have on hand — or, in this case, on your wrist.”

Enter the Survival Watch. 

“We wear watches to tell time, but in a survival situation, there’s plenty more that the humble wristwatch can do,” says Warren. Straight from the Instructables workshop, we’ve worked out four hacks to use an analog watch (in this case, a perennial Huckberry favorite: the Timex Weekender) to help you survive in the wilderness.

Pro tip: these are designed in order of least destructive to most destructive, but the bottom line is that you're going to do some damage to your watch, so maybe reconsider wearing your Rolex out into the wilderness.

In the event that your watch battery dies while you're in the field, you can actually still use it to tell time in the most old-school way: as a sundial. Carefully dismantle the watch and remove the face from the watch housing, complete with minute and hour hands. From there, you need to calibrate the gnomon, the arm that extends out from the dial plate and casts the shadow. To get an accurate read, you need to set the gnomon at different angles depending on where you are — it needs to be parallel with the earth’s axis and should point toward true north. 

“It would help if you knew your approximate latitude before you set out,” says Warren, “since this will be the approximate degree that your gnomon should be set at. For example, if you're camping somewhere in Northern California you could approximate your latitude as 40º, therefore your gnomon angle for your sundial should be 40º. Obviously this isn't going to give you precise time, but can help you keep track of the day while you are stranded.”

Why it’s useful: “Telling time is just as important when lost in the woods as it is when you're running late for a meeting. Knowing how long until the sun sets, or when it's going to be the hottest part of the day are critical when in a survival situation.”

Just like honing a straight razor at a barber shop, your leather watch band is perfect for honing an edge on a blade. Remove the watch strap from the watch and wedge one end securely anchor one end into a log or a large boulder crack so you can pull the leather strap taught without dislodging it. With the strap pulled tight, gently run the blade back and forth on the strap at a shallow angle with the cutting edge on the trailing side. Alternate sides, and soon you’ll have honed the knife sharper than it was before. Heads up: this technique will sharpen a still-sharp blade, but can’t bring a dull blade back from the dead.

Why it’s useful: “Most hikers worth their salt are prepared and carry a small knife with them when they hike in the woods,” says Warren. “However, most do not carry a whetstone to sharpen their knives. After a few days in survival mode, you may find your sharp knife needs a little refreshing. Keeping a sharp knife will allow you to worry less about how your most trusted tool will perform upon getting back to civilization. 

No pocket knife? No problem. Once you've removed the watch's crystal, lay it on a flat surface (we'd recommend covering it with a cloth, and wearing protective eyewear here, just in case pieces go flying) and give it a solid whack with a rock or the thick end of a branch. Collect the largest shard and use this as a glass blade to cut strips from the leather strap, which you’ll then use to lash the shards to a makeshift handle. To make the handle, find a sturdy stick with an opening on one end, insert the glass shard, and tie it tight with the leather strap.

Why it’s useful: Regardless of whether or not you already have a knife on you, it’s useful to have another blade handy. “In a survival situation you might need another blade for different uses,” says Warren. “Perhaps you want to preserve your good knife for things that need a refined and sharp edge. While it's certainly not as sturdy as a real knife, this blade can easily cut through many materials.”

That reflective caseback of your watch is a pretty handy way to get the attention of passing aircraft or far-off hikers. Try buffing the watch back with a cotton cloth to maximize shine, then point the watch back to face the sun and reflect its light. Practice directing sunlight to somewhere nearly to hone your technique, then aim for targets farther away. Depending on the crystal shape and dial of your watch, the front can often be used as well (also effective for driving pets and small children crazy) for the same purpose. It's also probably worth noting that neither of these methods require any destruction or disassembly of your watch, so use accordingly. 

Why it’s useful: “Using a shiny object as a reflector is one of the most basic things to know when you’re stranded,” says Warren. “Anything that can reflect light can be used to signal people from very far away by flashing the reflector toward them to get their attention — and hopefully get saved! If you’re feeling really confident, you can even flash out Morse code to send a message.” [H]

For more watches, check out the Huckberry Watch Shop.
Check out the Instructables story here.

Images ©: 1, 6; Jeff Masamori. 2-5 and video; Instructables

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