Everyone needs a good survival compass

In early history there were four great inventions considered responsible for changing the world: printing, gunpowder, paper making, and the magnetic compass. In this modern age the magnetic compass is still just as important as ever and may actually be the most unique and essential item we can ever carry into the wilderness. Using a compass allows us to harness one of the Earth’s powerful, unseen forces and to use it to our great advantage.

For that to happen it is important that we not think of a compass as something we carry only for emergencies but, rather as an invaluable tool. Learning how to use a compass well means that we not only learn to navigate in the back country, but we also learn to become more self-reliant and confident. That is just one way the simple magnetic compass can be a great help to anyone who ventures into the wild.

With a compass we can plan and determine the route to our destination, and confidently rely on following each magnetic heading to reach places that lay beyond the immediate horizon. The compass lets us find any bearing from north to a distant visible target or landmark. With a compass we can establish true directions and from that determine the time of day using the sun. With practice we can also triangulate on multiple ground features like a tall tree, a mountain peak, or a bend in the river which then enables us to locate our position on a map. Most importantly by using compass headings and tracking each leg of our travel, especially when off trail, a simple magnetic compass can prevent us from ever getting lost.

Never waste money on a cheap compass like the $5 kind found in discount stores. They are neither accurate nor rugged enough for active use. Such a poor quality compass can easily get a bubble in the fluid or have a loose bezel that will not stay centered and will not give accurate readings. I’ve even seen some that have the North needle magnetized in reverse. A cheap, inaccurate compass is pretty well unusable and certainly not worth betting your life on. Finding a quality compass is not difficult but does require knowing what to look for. For starters look for a quality maker with a good reputation like Brunton, Suunto or Silva. I typically carry a Suunto MC-2 sighting compass for backpacking, hunting, and orienteering. I’ve found it reliable and accurate. In class I sometimes have students use a Silva Ranger sighting compass which has a rubberized bezel making it easier for students to grip when turning.

A good sighting compass will have a luminous bezel, a lanyard, and a declination adjustment that allows you to dial in the magnetic declination shown in the margin of a topographic map. The adjustment is easy to use and configures the compass so that the compass heading matches the true heading measured on a map. This will save time and the frustration of making heading conversions for each leg of a long trip involving multiple waypoints.

Sighting compasses also have the advantage of a hinged mirror making it easy to sight the compass on a distant target while keeping the North needle aligned with the North arrow. The mirror tilts to provide a view of the magnetic needle and target at the same time. A line down the center of the mirror makes sighting even more accurate. At the center of the hinge is the direction of travel indicator. On the Silva Ranger I enhance that indicator with a dot of day-glow used to enhance my gun sights. The mirror doubles as a rescue signal mirror and having the hinged case helps to protect the mirror when not in use. Both the Silva and Suunto are readily available online.

A good quality compass also has the distinctive advantage of not needing batteries or an unobstructed view of the sky. That’s one reason I always rely on my compass more than smart phones or GPS. Learn more about wilderness navigation and finding the right kind of outdoor gear at www.mountaineerwilderness.com.