As survivalists, all of the gear we purchase or invest in is necessary, but some of it just isn’t that exciting. Water purification system? It’ll save you from contracting nasty parasites, but it’s not exactly a conversation piece you show off to all your friends. A lighter, stronger groundsheet to place under your tent? Meh. Other objects, thankfully, smack of high adventure and exploration, of manifest destiny and blazing a trail. The compass, clearly, falls into the latter category.

If you still question why you’d ever need a compass since your phone has Google Maps and GPS, then this probably isn’t the article for you. If, however, you’ve ever gotten lost in the woods because your phone (or handheld GPS) ran out of batteries, lost signal, or fell into a creek, then settle in and read up on the latest offerings we’ve collected.

We explore six different compass models in this buyer’s guide, ranging the entire spectrum from basic backpacker to professional off-grid adventurer. Our hope is that this guide assists your decision-making process the next time you consider supplementing your survivalist land-nav tool belt. If you’re still wondering how exactly to use one, please refer to Ryan Cleckner’s article on land navigation from Issue 29.

Brunton Conventional Transit

Materials

Aluminum

Weight
6.8 ounces

Dimensions
3.1 by 2.8 by 1.3 inches

MSRP
$440

URL
brunton.com

Survival compass buyers guide review navigation declination map Brunton 2

Everything about this precision compass exemplifies high quality and durability — and for its stratospheric price, it’s about what we’d expect to see. From the oiled leather case that it arrives in to the heavy (nearly 1/2 pound) cast-aluminum body, it definitely looks the part of a tool designed for serious and long-term use.

Designed in 1894 by Canadian-born mining engineer David W. Brunton, the Transit is widely used to this day by professional geologists and engineers. The movement of the needle is smooth and very fast, with immediate dampening and ability to “lock on” to magnetic north faster than any other compass we tested. This is because rather than being filled with fluid like most compasses, the Brunton utilizes magnetic induction damping and a sapphire jewel bearing, contributing to smooth movement through 360 degrees.

Survival compass buyers guide review navigation declination map Brunton 3

Its locking clamshell design helps to protect its sensitive components; however, we found it could be difficult to open with shaky or cold hands, and impossible (for us) to open with gloves on. This drawback isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but it’s indicative that it was designed more for use by professionals in relatively pleasant weather conditions — not so much for survival in frigid environments.

Unlike some of the other models we tested, the Transit has no tritium or glow-in-the-dark inserts; therefore it isn’t as easily readable in low-light conditions. Again, this isn’t really a design flaw since it was designed for professionals reading the compass during the day, at a time that’s convenient for them. However, for survival purposes we have to consider it a drawback.
Would we take it with us if our lives depended on it? Probably. Would we want to pay $400 for it? Not really. The product is basically unparalleled, but it may be a bit more than we really need or want to plunk down money for. Published accuracy +/- 0.5 degrees.

Survival compass buyers guide review navigation declination map Brunton 1

Pros:

  • Extremely high craftsmanship
  • Proven durability when cared for
  • Impressive to look at and hold

Cons:

  • Heavy
  • Expensive
  • Not useful for map reading

Cammenga 3H (M1950)

Materials
Aluminum

Weight
5.3 ounces

Dimensions
3 by 2.25 by 1 inches

MSRP
$105 to $141

URL
cammenga.com

Survival compass buyers guide review navigation declination map Cammenga 1

More than 60 years after its original design as specified by the U.S. Army, the Cammenga 3H is also known as the M1950 compass, which began production in 1950. It’s been relied upon by generations of soldiers through all environments, including the frozen Chosin Reservoir in Korea, the jungles of Vietnam, and present-day service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It took its design cues from lessons learned with the M1938 compass used in WWII. The Army liked the basic blueprint but wanted to give it a tougher and heavier housing as well as a damping mechanism to prevent wild swinging of the needle. With these modifications, a legend was born.

Like the Brunton model, the 3H is made in the United States and uses a non-liquid filled needle housing. The movement of the needle is very smooth, although it doesn’t turn or settle in quite the same confident or reassuring manner as the Brunton. We liked that we were able to open and use the compass using our whole hand, not just our fingertips as with the larger Brunton. Opening and sighting was faster and more intuitive, and the seven tritium micro-lights assisted in low-light acquisition.

Survival compass buyers guide review navigation declination map Cammenga 2

From a durability standpoint, there’s no question that the 3H is hard to kill. It’s waterproof and shockproof, and tested in temperatures from -50F to 150F (-45C to 65C). The aluminum frame, although not quite as tank-like as the Brunton Transit, is still substantial and didn’t have a problem with being dropped or stepped on.

Even in 2018, any combat veteran who has actually had to rely on his or her gear will tell you that some of the Mil-spec articles they’re issued are complete junk. With a sterling track record and a more than half-century of abusive field testing behind it, the 3H is a well-loved exception. We wouldn’t hesitate to place our lives in its hands, and there aren’t many sub $100 tools we can say that about. Published accuracy: +/- 2.25 degrees.

Pros:

  • Basically the same compass your father (and/or grandfather) used
  • Unrivaled reliability record
  • All-temperature performance

Cons:

  • Without a clear baseplate, may not be quite as easy to read maps
  • Compass card divided into 5-degree increments; not as precise as some other compasses

Coleman Engineer Lensatic Compass

Materials
Plastic

Weight
3 ounces

Dimensions
2.2 by 1.1 inches

MSRP
$10

URL
coleman.com

Survival compass buyers guide review navigation declination map Coleman 1

Our first impression was that we’d found this as a “prize” in the bottom of a Cracker Jack box or it was the one Morgan Freeman bought at the pawnshop in Shawshank Redemption. The thin plastic housing felt like it might snap in two as soon as we opened the case.

After opening it, we worried that if we stepped on the compass it’d break, yet were pleasantly surprised that somehow it stood up to a 230-pound man putting all his weight on top of it (following the navigational testing, of course).

Trying to sight the liquid-filled compass wasn’t easy, but it was doable. The nail in the coffin, however, came when we couldn’t get the needle to align properly. No amount of tapping or cajoling would yield a consistent reading, and magnetic north consistently wandered between 10 to 20 degrees away.

Survival compass buyers guide review navigation declination map Coleman 2

Although this compass is inexpensive, $10 spent on garbage is still a waste. We wouldn’t even give it to a child as a learning tool, fearing that they might actually try to use it one day for real navigation. Its only real use would be as part of a Halloween costume. Coleman does offer some quality products, but this isn’t one of them. We can only hope that they put this product out of its misery before someone makes the mistake of relying upon it in a life-and-death situation.

Pros:

  • Low cost
  • Surprisingly durable
  • Compact

Cons:

  • Finicky needle with unreliable accuracy
  • Luminous letters aren’t very bright

Silva 515 Ranger Compass

Materials
Plastic

Weight
2.4 ounces

Dimensions
4 by 2.5 inches

MSRP
$50

URL
silva.se

Survival compass buyers guide review navigation declination map Silva 2

As with the Coleman compass, at first we were suspicious of the Silva because of its light weight. When we actually started reading bearings and using it with maps, however, we found the mirror design to be very well-thought-out and clearly marked. And although it’s very lightweight, the plastic is thick in the right places to prevent damage. Three scales, a map magnifier, clinometer, and declination adjustment were additional features that made its value stand out.

In this product evaluation group, its closest competitor would be the Suunto MC-2, so let’s make some comparisons. The design on both of them is very similar, and their appearance, weight, and feel are very close. There are a few differences, as noted in the Suunto section which follows, but both designs have a solid reputation in the backcountry.

Pros:

  • Lightweight compass with precise 2-degree measurement increments
  • Affordable cost and good entry-level value

Cons:

  • Liquid-filled capsule may have issues in low temperatures.
  • Rotating bezel was overly loose.

Suunto MC-2 Compass

Materials
Plastic

Weight
2.6 ounces

Dimensions
2.56 by 3.98 by 0.71 inches

MSRP
$60

URL
suunto.com

Survival compass buyers guide review navigation declination map Suunto 1

This design is quite lightweight, although tougher than what you’d initially expect. As with the Silva, both designs use a clear plastic backing, making it easier to quickly find where you’re going and chart a course on a paper map. They both utilize liquid-filled capsules, which can sometimes create problems when used in low temperatures.

Glow-in-the-dark (non-tritium) markings, which need to be “re-charged” with a flashlight in the dark, are also used on the faces of both compasses. The Suunto, however, features a thick, bright ring around the compass face as well as on the directional markings. This seems preferable, as it helped us to locate it in the dark and provided faster orientation in low light.

Survival compass buyers guide review navigation declination map Suunto 2

An informal polling of our wilderness search-and-rescue associates revealed their unanimous approval of this option from Suunto, although we still weren’t 100-percent sold. While both the Suunto and Silva retail for less than the Cammenga 3H, we’d still pick the Cammenga for its intuitive ease of use and unquestionable durability in all conditions. Published accuracy: +/- 2 degrees.

Pros:

  • Solidly built (for plastic) compass with proven field experience
  • Lightweight frame
  • Limited lifetime warranty

Cons:

  • Suunto logo blocks orientation arrows, making map use more difficult
  • Markings may need to be recharged in the dark

UST High Visibility Folding Map Compass

Materials
Plastic

Weight
2.4 ounces

Dimensions
3.7 by 2.5 by 0.7 inches

MSRP
$10

URL
ustbrands.com

Survival compass buyers guide review navigation declination map UST 2v2

Retailing for $10, the UST mirror compass is in the same price range as the Coleman Lensatic compass, but offers significantly better build quality. It’s also easily readable, even for laypersons who don’t have much experience using a compass. Even if you don’t use the mirror function and just use it for basic wayfinding, it’d still be worth the price of admission to keep on-hand as a backup.
Although the plastic snap closure isn’t as crisp as on the similar Suunto or Silva models, the UST compass still didn’t feel like a toy. The compass needle settled fairly quickly, and the day-glo green backing allowed us to find it quickly in or bag or locate it if dropped on the ground.

The metal pins which hold the plastic clamshell pieces together began to work their way out after a series of openings and closings, raising questions about its long-term durability when used in the field. However, as an affordable model for someone just learning to use a mirror type compass, it’s a worthwhile option.

Survival compass buyers guide review navigation declination map UST 1

Pros:

  • Very low cost
  • Decent functionality for entry-level users

Cons:

  • Lesser build quality than higher-priced models

About the Author

Andrew Schrader is a licensed professional engineer and is certified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Structures Specialist. His company, Recon Response Engineering LLC, educates firefighters and search-and-rescue teams on the subject of urban search and rescue and building collapse. He was deployed on rescue operations for Hurricane Hermine in 2016 and Hurricane Irma in 2017.

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