|Sportneer Military Lensatic Sighting Compass
|Eyeskey Military Compass
|Sunto MC 2 Pro
|REI / Amazon
|Beileshi Multifunction Compass
An article about compasses. What is this, 1701? Are we planning an exploratory sea voyage to confirm that the world is flat?
I’ve got a compass on my smartphone, thanks. Oh, plus an expensive GPS navigation device that bounces beams off satellites (or something like that) to determine my precise coordinates on the globe. This is the 21st century after all.
What’s that you say? What will I do if my smartphone battery dies because it’s too cold for it? Or too hot!? What will I do when I can’t get a signal on my GPS-thingy? Or if its batteries die?
Well, I’ll… – I’ll just… – I’ll…
Some things never go out of fashion and a survival compass is one of them. Whether using it as your primary navigation tool or as a backup when modern technology fails, compasses are an essential part of a hiker’s kit – so essential that they remain a constituent part of every ten essentials for wilderness survival list going.
This article will take a look at the features that make up a reliable hiking compass and review some of the leading survival compasses on the market. Good compasses weigh next to nothing and fit in your pocket. Sometimes throwback technology outperforms the new stuff.
The Features That Make Up a Survival Compass
Unless you’re a really hardened outdoors type, someone who gets a kick from finding new ways to skin animals they’ve brought down with their bare hands, you’re unlikely to feel the same excitement about choosing a compass as, say, choosing a new car. Nonetheless, it’s no understatement to say that it could mean the difference between life and death. Here are the kind of features you’ll want to look out for when making such an important choice.
Size and Weight
They come in all shapes and sizes. Hikers probably won’t be too concerned about the shape as long as it’s light and compact. Every ounce of weight you carry on the trail matters. The ideal one will fit neatly in your pocket (or a rucksack pocket) when it’s not being used and in the palm of your hand when it is being used. Its weight will be kept to a minimum while still ensuring…
The lightest on the market look as frail and transparent as the rulers you used to break over your classmates’ knuckles at high school. These should be avoided for pretty obvious reasons. If you’re banking on it to live up to its name and help you survive, buying one that’s likely to shatter at any significant impact would be a risky strategy, to say the least.
A survival compass should have sturdy enough construction to survive the thrills and spills of the trail.
Many of the thrills and spills of the trail involve water. Wading through streams, stumbling into bogs and getting monumentally poured on by nature are more or less constituent parts of the hiking experience. A key feature to look out for is, therefore, a waterproof rating that shows it will be able to deal with what nature and, potentially your own clumsiness, throws at it. Trust me, if you can drop your phone in a puddle you can drop your compass in one, too!
A life and death navigation situation could arise at any time. Because of this, a compass equipped with lights that allow the dial to be read in darkness could prove extremely handy. Okay, theoretically you could shine a torch and use a compass at the same time, but you’ve only got so many hands – and what if one is injured?
Tritium Micro Lights and Phosphorescent Lights are two ways of lighting one. The Tritium Micro Lights provide the better performance of the two. They glow constantly and last for a long time (presuming you consider 12 years a long time; it’d certainly be a long hike), whereas Phosphorescent Lights will only glow after they’ve had a bright line shone upon them and produce light for a much shorter period.
Dry or Liquid
No less a source than the Encyclopedia Britannica confirms that there are two main types, dry and liquid, and that the liquid variety became “decisively advantageous” in 1862 as technology advanced. Be wary, however, that any liquid compass you purchase has sufficient tolerance to the cold – i.e. the liquid within won’t freeze when the temperature goes below zero.
The Technical Stuff
Any compass you purchase should have a declination scale, rotating bezel and a base plate with a ruler.
The declination scale will help you correct readings from “magnetic north” to “true north” (told you this was technical!) to allow you to navigate as accurately as possible.
The rotating bezel should be marked zero to 360 degrees in increments. Again, this will allow you to navigate accurately.
A ruler on the base plate is a useful feature as it allows it to be used in conjunction with a map. The measurements on the ruler can be used to track distances on the map.
Know How to Use Them!
Hands up those of you who read the above section and said what the $%# is a declination scale and a rotating bezel?
Blame your smartphone. On phones all you have to do is hold the compass flat and a needle will point to the direction you’re facing. A real compass requires a little more work. Using one isn’t rocket science but is a skill that requires learning.
Check out this in-depth guide and/or watch this helpful YouTube tutorial to pick up the basics, including info on declination scales and rotating bezels.
Learning how to use a compass is a life skill that could save your life, so it’s well worth putting the time in to pick up the basics. Trust me, you don’t want to learn this stuff on the job – trying to teach yourself how to use one in a survival situation would be extremely stressful!
Sportneer Military Lensatic Sighting Compass
As its name suggests, this Sportneer product is military grade and is built to last. It also comes in army green so if camouflage gear is your thing this one will blend right in! The sturdy construction ensures that it is waterproof and shakeproof – perfect for surviving the rigours of the trail – but comes at something of a price: weighing in at the best part of half a pound it will add substantial weight to your pack.
It comes with both centimetre and inch scales marked on the baseplate and promises luminescent lighting “after being exposed to natural, fluorescent, ultraviolet and other forms of lighting for an extended period of time.”
- Low price point
- Sturdy construction makes this close to indestructible
- Contains all the key dial and baseplate markings required to successfully navigate alone or in tandem with a map
- The heavy weight will be a no-no for many hikers
- The description of the night light system suggests it is powered by phosphorescent lights rather than the longer lasting and more reliable tritium micro lights
Eyeskey Military Compass
Another military grade offering with sturdy construction, this Eyeskey compass is considered so solid that it comes with a “lifetime guarantee” from its makers! A metal body and a shakeproof and waterproof rating should keep it going, no matter how many times you drop it on stones or into muddy puddles (or is it just me that’s so clumsy?).
The liquid filling in the capsule is described as “thermo elastic”, which basically means it won’t turn to ice in cold conditions, and it comes with a “bubble level” so you know when your holding it flat enough for an accurate reading. The night lights are “phosphor” powered, meaning they will only work if exposed to light for a long period first, so if you plan on using the compass solely as a backup, buried deep in the blackness of your pack, this may not be the one for you.
- Low-to-mid price point
- Sturdily built with an aluminium alloy faceplate that contains cm and inch measurements to aid map reading
- Weighing in at 5.7 ounces this is another relatively weighty offering
- Phosphor lights will only work at night if they’ve been exposed to light beforehand
- Users suggest it can be a little fiddly to use – especially if it isn’t completely flat
SUUNTO A-30 Compass
This Suunto compass is the first truly lightweight offering on the list. Its aesthetic couldn’t be much further from that of the Eyeskey and the Sportneer military compasses. Weighing in at less than an ounce, it is made from thin, transparent acrylic and looks more like a piece of high-grade high school stationery than a rugged military tool.
Of course, function should be well ahead of fashion when it comes to selecting a compass and, by all accounts, the Suunto A-30 performs well. The navigation needle is said to be quick to react to changes in direction (a feature you’re likely to appreciate when you’re in a rush to find your bearings) and the acrylic is durable and scratch-proof.
- Light enough to be carried on any expedition, either as a primary means of navigation or as a failsafe if your GPS/Smartphone dies.
- Users suggest it is easy to use and a reliable means of navigation
- The most expensive of products reviewed so far – mid-price
- Perhaps unsurprisingly due to its lighter construction, it doesn’t appear to be as sturdy as the previous two – a few users have complained of breaks in the acrylic
Suunto MC-2 Compass
This high-price offering is Suunto’s top-of-the-range compass and comes with a built in mirror to allow for more advanced navigation techniques (e.g. taking sightings). The mirror could also be used to signal for help, but hopefully the many other features would help you avoid the need for rescue in the first place.
It comes with a 20 degrees “tilt margin” to allow for accurate readings even when it isn’t held absolutely flat and a magnifying lens built into the baseplate to help with map reading in poor visibility. As befits its hefty price tag, it is substantially more pleasing on the eye than the previous Suunto, but more than twice as heavy.
- High-quality with numerous additional features
- The built-in mirror allows for advanced navigation techniques that wouldn’t be possible with others on this list
- Though heavier than the previous option it’s still significantly lighter than the military compasses
- High price point will be seen as prohibitive by many
- User reviews suggest that the Suunto logo has been unfortunately placed and interferes with the ability to make some readings
Beileshi Multifunction Compass
The final product for review is another military style offering – and may be the best of the three. Weighing in at four ounces, it is the lightest military compass of the three under review, though still four times heavier than the Suunto A-30.
As per the “multifunction” in its name, it comes with a number of additional features such as a clinometer that can help you measure the steepness of slopes you see ahead of you – a feature we all wished we’d had when we started up that “gentle incline” that ended up taking several hours to get up!
- All the usual advantages of a military grade compass – sturdy construction and the standard features required to orient yourself in the wild
- Again, the heavy weight will be a concern for those who like to trek without a back-breaking burden on their back
And the winner is…the Suunto A-30 Compass.
As the lightest on the list and with a reasonable price point, it ticks a couple of important boxes right away. While it lacks the close to indestructible sturdiness of the three military compasses on this list, it still possesses a robust build and should be strong enough to withstand the travails of the trail.
When it comes to packing for a hiking trip everything is a balance and the Suunto compass looks to have the best weight-to-robustness combination of all reviewed. Moreover, as the trend towards lightweight hiking continues apace, this allows users the flexibility to travel light without sacrificing safety.
Those prepared to spend big money may prefer to go with the Suunto MC-2 Compass, with its additional features and stronger, heavier build, while those who don’t mind carrying additional weight and like the heft and security of high-grade military equipment should be happy with any of the three military compasses reviewed.
Whatever direction your finger of choice points in you’ll find a good compass. However, the Suunto A-30 Compass looks to be the best bet for modern hiking.