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Embarking on outdoor adventures mandates a trustworthy compass; it’s an indispensable tool for every explorer and survivalist. The ability to navigate unfamiliar terrains with the aid of a compass and map may mean the difference between survival and catastrophe. This write-up will explore top-grade compasses ideal for survival scenarios, putting their durability, precision, and user-friendliness into consideration.

The Basics

When it comes to compasses, there are three main types to consider: button compasses, orienteering/baseplate compasses, and military/lensatic compasses. Each type offers distinct features and suitability for specific needs.

For a large number of users, the clear baseplate compass offers the most practical choice. While button compasses are cost-effective, they often fall short on power and functionality. Conversely, military/lensatic compasses, being designed for specific applications, maybe an overkill for common usage.

While button compasses can serve as a budget-friendly backup option, it is important to note that they often lack the essential features that can make a significant difference between success and frustration or failure. Therefore, relying solely on a button compass may compromise your navigational abilities in challenging situations.

It’s not the best move to go for cheap compasses as they are prone to malfunction or have issues such as liquid leakage in field settings. It’s advisable to set aside at least $10-15 for a more reliable and higher quality compass. You can find plenty of functional and affordable compasses in the bracket of $20 to $50.

Getting a handle on the various compass types available and considering your individual needs will help you make an enlightened choice about the ideal compass to accompany you on your exploration outings.

Suunto MC-2G Global Compass

The Suunto MC-2G Global Compass is a strong contender in the survival compass line-up. Designed to function accurately across Northern and Southern hemispheres, it stands out for global use. Its mirror sighting system and built-in clinometer guarantee exact navigation. The compass is durable, made from high-grade materials and features luminous markings for easy reading in poorly lit conditions.

Price: $75

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Silva Ranger 2.0

The Silva Ranger 2.0 attracts seasoned outdoor enthusiasts and survivalists. Equipped with a 1:24,000 and 1:25,000 map scale, a built-in magnifying lens, and tool-less declination adjustment, it promotes precise navigation. Its robust design, easy-to-read markings, and sighting mirror boost accuracy, making it fitting for various survival needs.

Price: $58

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Brunton TruArc 3

Those seeking a simple, reliable and affordable compass will find the Brunton TruArc 3 perfect. This lightweight yet robust compass embodies a global needle for universal use and a tool-less declination adjustment for easy calibration. It also features a metric and imperial baseplate scale for precise map navigation.

Price: $24

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Cammenga 27CS Lensatic Compass

The Cammenga 27CS Lensatic Compass, a military-grade compass, is designed for those requiring sturdy and dependable navigation aids. With a glow-in-the-dark dial and shock-proof, waterproof housing, it withstands extreme conditions. The compass incorporates a magnifying lens, a sighting wire, and lensatic design to enhance accuracy.

Price: from $75

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Suunto A-10

The Suunto A-10 is an affordable yet reliable compass that is perfect for beginners or those on a tight budget. Its simple design includes a fixed declination correction scale, a baseplate with metric and imperial scales, and a snap-lock lanyard for easy attachment to a backpack or belt loop. The A-10’s lightweight construction and easy-to-read markings make it an excellent choice for those new to map and compass navigation.

Price: $24

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Types of Compasses

In the realm of survival compasses, numerous types and configurations exist. Let’s delve into the most prevalent ones commonly marketed for survival purposes:

  • Button Compass: This type of compass can either function as a standalone device or be integrated into other gear, such as a waterproof match container, to enhance its “survival” appeal.
  • Clear Baseplate Compass: Featuring a transparent plastic base that can be either rigid or foldable, the clear baseplate compass reigns as the most popular choice for orienteering enthusiasts. It is often simply referred to as an orienteering compass.
  • Lensatic Military-Issue Compass: With a folding mechanism resembling a clamshell, this compass exhibits a rugged construction. It is meticulously designed to provide highly accurate bearings tailored to meet the demanding requirements of military applications, such as facilitating precise artillery strike coordinates.

Minimum Compass Features

A rudimentary button compass provides general direction awareness. However, we believe the following features are vital for efficient emergency navigation:

  • Magnetic North Seeking Arrow: This prominent arrow, often highlighted in red, spins freely to align with the direction of Magnetic North. An easy-to-remember mnemonic like “red in the shed” is commonly employed to associate the red tip with Magnetic North.
  • Direction of Travel Arrow/Lines: Positioned outside the rotating compass compartment, this fixed arrow or line indicates the direction in which the front of the compass is pointing.
  • Stationary Index Line: A thin, non-spinning line located within or near the spinning compartment that aligns with the direction of travel line.
  • Rotating Bezel Ring: This ring encircling the Magnetic North seeking arrow displays degree numbers from 0 to 360. It allows for precise measurement and adjustment of bearings.
  • Orienting Arrow/Lines: Incorporated into the compass face, these features correspond to the 360-degree markings on the rotating bezel ring. They rotate along with the bezel, indicating the chosen direction. The space within the orienting arrow is commonly referred to as the “shed.”
  • Clear Base Plate with Straight Edge and Scale: A high-quality compass, regardless of whether it folds or not, possesses a transparent base plate with a long straight edge. This enables the creation of lines and the measurement of distances on a map. If you are aware of the scale used in your map preparations (e.g., 1:24,000 on USGS maps), you can seek a compass with a matching scale.

Lensatic compasses have their degree numbers inside the housing, rotating with the North seeking arrow. But instead of orienting lines and arrow, there’s a single orienting line (the “shed”) inscribed into the glass that moves as the bezel is adjusted.

Additional Features

Liquid-filled chambers

Excluding lensatic compasses and Cammenga’s D3T, most market compasses feature a liquid-filled needle chamber. The liquid dampens the needle movement and hastens the compass needle’s settling to North – improving rotation and functionality.

While the liquid-filled feature is beneficial, it can have drawbacks. Cheaper, older, or damaged compasses are susceptible to fluid leakage leading to air bubble formation inside the compass chamber. These bubbles can interfere with the needle’s functionality, and while smaller ones can be manageable, they still affect the compass’s reliability. If the chamber is completely drained, although usable, the compass becomes less practical for accurate navigation due to prolonged needle sway.

Despite these considerations, experts continue to recommend using liquid-filled compasses due to their overall effectiveness. However, it is crucial to purchase compasses from reputable brands to minimize the risk of leakage and ensure long-term reliability. Additionally, conducting regular checks during your annual preparedness review to detect any signs of leakage is essential. By proactively addressing potential issues, you can avoid unwelcome surprises during emergency situations.

Declination adjustment

It is important to distinguish between magnetic North and the geographic North Pole, also known as the “top of the world.” To delve deeper into this topic, you can explore the map and compass lesson. However, it is worth noting the impact this has on compass readings, often necessitating a few degrees of offset known as “declination.”

Certain compass models offer an adjustment feature where you can set the declination once and avoid recalibrating it each time. This feature can be convenient for frequent hobbyists, and if you are already accustomed to using it, there is no need to change your approach. However, experts in preparedness believe that for most individuals in this context, it is not necessary.

One reason is that magnetic declination undergoes changes over time, meaning you cannot simply set it once and disregard it for several years. Additionally, if you do not use your compass regularly, you may forget that it has been automatically adjusted, resulting in unintentional deviations of several degrees in your headings without realizing it.

Fortunately, manually adjusting for declination as you use your compass is not overly burdensome. In fact, retaining the skill of adjusting for declination serves as a valuable reminder of the fundamental principles of compass usage.


Certain compass models are equipped with a printed-on or fold-out degree scale specifically designed for assessing slope angles. However, for the majority of users, this feature is considered unnecessary. Even if you frequently venture into high-alpine backcountry environments where avalanches pose a risk, utilizing clinometers to measure slope angles can be challenging and require substantial practice. Furthermore, once you have gained sufficient experience, your judgment alone is likely accurate enough.

While it is commendable if you possess the knowledge and proficiency to operate a clinometer and your compass happens to include this feature (such as the more expensive Suunto models), it is not advisable to purchase a compass solely for the purpose of having a clinometer.

For most individuals, the standard functionality of a compass, such as determining cardinal directions and navigating terrain, is sufficient. If you find yourself in situations where slope angle assessment is critical, it is recommended to rely on alternative specialized tools and techniques or seek professional guidance.

Global needle

Imagine placing a compass on a flat surface and holding a magnet above or below. The compass needle not only aligns with the right direction but also tilts towards the magnet – an effect that can affect the compass reading’s accuracy due to the increased friction as the needle settles.

Though this effect is mostly a nuisance, compasses with larger chambers are preferred as they tolerate greater tilt. These “global” compasses handle stronger tilting across the Earth better and provide smoother, quicker, and more reliable functionality compared to other compasses – even if you stay in one location.

Magnifying glass & mirrors

Many compasses incorporate a small “bubble” on the baseplate made of plastic. This bubble magnifies small map details, proving useful for people with poor eyesight. Nevertheless, the magnification ability of many compasses is minimal and has scarce practical value.

Compasses often come with built-in mirrors, enabling you to read the compass while sighting a landmark – a handy navigation feature. Besides, mirrors serve as useful signaling tools, especially when you’re lost, or double as vanity mirrors for personal grooming and medical care.

The Competition

Here are some other compass models that were considered as top picks but didn’t quite make the final selection:

  1. Cammenga D3-T: This compass attempts to combine the durability of a dry lensatic needle with the user-friendliness of a baseplate design. However, design quirks prevented it from making our shortlist. Future improvements could make it an ideal compromise.
  2. K+R Alpin Compass: This German-made baseplate compass with a mirror is well-designed, but numerous reviewers complained about the supposed leakage of the “thermo-elastic” fluid-filled needle housing.
  3. Suunto A-10: This baseplate compass from Suunto is very similar to the A-30 model. However, it lacks a magnifying lens and illumination, making it less desirable. Rather than a slight cost savings of around $5, we would recommend opting for the A-30 instead.


A trustworthy compass is vital in your survival kit when venturing outdoors. The Suunto MC-2G Global Compass, Silva Ranger 2.0, Brunton TruArc 3, Cammenga 27CS Lensatic Compass, and Suunto A-10 offer excellent options, accommodating various needs and budgets. When selecting a survival compass, durability, accuracy, and user-friendliness are significant considerations. With the right compass, you’ll be well-equipped to navigate through any wilderness adventure confidently.