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When venturing into the great outdoors, a reliable compass is an essential piece of equipment for any adventurer or survivalist. Navigating through unfamiliar terrain with a map and compass can be the difference between life and death, making it crucial to choose the right one for your needs. In this article, we’ll discuss the best compasses for survival situations, taking into consideration durability, accuracy, and ease of use.

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 the majority of individuals, investing in a clear baseplate compass is the most practical choice. Button compasses, although inexpensive, tend to lack the necessary power and functionality. On the other hand, military/lensatic compasses may be excessive for everyday use, as they are designed for specialized applications.

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 is advisable to avoid purchasing cheap compasses, as they are more likely to fail in the field or experience issues such as liquid leakage. Aim to spend a minimum of $10-15 to ensure better quality and reliability. For most individuals, a budget ranging from $20 to $50 will offer a suitable range of options to choose from, striking a balance between affordability and functionality.

By understanding the different types of compasses available and considering your specific requirements, you can make an informed decision when selecting the right compass to accompany you on your navigational endeavors.

Suunto MC-2G Global Compass

The Suunto MC-2G Global Compass is a top contender for the best survival compass on the market. Its global needle system enables it to work accurately in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres, making it an ideal choice for worldwide adventures. The mirror sighting system and built-in clinometer ensure precise navigation, while the luminous markings on the bezel make it easy to read in low light conditions. With its rugged construction and high-quality materials, the MC-2G is designed to withstand the harshest environments.

Price: $75

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Silva Ranger 2.0

The Silva Ranger 2.0 is a popular choice for experienced outdoorsmen and survivalists alike. It features a 1:24,000 and 1:25,000 map scale for accurate navigation, a built-in magnifying lens, and a declination adjustment that can be set without tools. The compass also includes a sighting mirror, which helps to improve the accuracy of your bearings. Its durable design and easy-to-read markings make it a reliable option for various survival situations.

Price: $58

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Brunton TruArc 3

The Brunton TruArc 3 is a compact, lightweight compass that is perfect for survivalists looking for a reliable, no-frills option. It features a global needle, making it suitable for use anywhere in the world, and a tool-free declination adjustment for quick and easy calibration. The TruArc 3 also includes a metric and imperial baseplate scale for accurate map navigation. Its durability, simplicity, and affordability make it a top pick for those seeking a basic, yet trustworthy compass.

Price: $24

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Cammenga 27CS Lensatic Compass

The Cammenga 27CS Lensatic Compass is a military-grade compass that is perfect for those who require a rugged, dependable navigation tool. It features a phosphorescent dial, which allows for easy reading in low light conditions, and a shock-resistant, waterproof housing that can withstand extreme temperatures. The compass also includes a magnifying lens, a sighting wire, and a lensatic design that improves accuracy. Trusted by military personnel and survivalists alike, the Cammenga 27CS is built to last.

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

While a basic button compass can provide a general indication of the cardinal directions (North, South, East, West), we believe that the following features are necessary for convenient 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 exhibit some variations. The degree numbers are typically located inside the housing, rotating along with the North seeking arrow. Instead of orienting lines and arrow, a single orienting line (the “shed”) is usually etched into the glass, which moves as the bezel is adjusted.

Additional Features

Liquid-filled chambers

With the exception of lensatic compasses and Cammenga’s D3T, the majority of compasses on the market feature a liquid-filled main needle chamber. This design incorporates liquid to enhance smooth rotation and reduce needle sway until it settles on North.

This liquid-filled feature is highly advantageous; however, it can also present certain drawbacks. Cheaper, older, or damaged compasses may be prone to fluid leakage. This can result in the formation of air bubbles within the chamber, which have a tendency to float near the compass needle or even adhere to it, hindering its functionality. While bubbles occupying less than 25% of the chamber’s size can typically be worked with, they still compromise the reliability of your readings. In cases where the chamber is completely drained, the compass can still be used, but the prolonged needle sway makes it impractical for accurate navigation.

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

Visualize placing a compass on a level surface, such as a flat table. Now, imagine holding a magnet a few feet above or below the table’s surface. As the magnetic force interacts with the compass needle, it attempts to align itself with the correct direction, but it is also pulled slightly upwards or downwards towards the magnet. This inclination introduces a degree of friction as the needle rotates and settles, potentially impacting the accuracy of your reading.

While this phenomenon is generally more of an annoyance than a significant issue, compasses with larger chambers are preferred as they allow for greater tolerance to tilt. These compasses are often referred to as “global” due to their enhanced capacity to handle stronger tilting in various locations across the globe. Even if you remain in a fixed location, opting for a compass with a larger chamber offers the advantages of smoother, quicker, and more dependable functionality.

Magnifying glass & mirrors

Frequently, you’ll find a small “bubble” incorporated into the plastic baseplate of a compass. This bubble serves as a magnifier, enabling you to see small details on underlying maps. It can be particularly useful if you have poor eyesight. However, it’s worth noting that many compasses have such a tiny magnifier that it offers minimal practical value.

Another feature commonly found in compasses is a built-in mirror. Mirrors serve the purpose of allowing you to read the compass while holding it up to a landmark, aiding in navigation. While this functionality is indeed helpful, we appreciate compasses with mirrors for an additional reason: they provide a convenient signaling mirror as a backup option when you’re lost, or they can even serve as a vanity mirror for grooming and attending to medical needs.

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.


Having a reliable compass in your survival kit is essential when exploring the great outdoors. The Suunto MC-2G Global Compass, Silva Ranger 2.0, Brunton TruArc 3, Cammenga 27CS Lensatic Compass, and Suunto A-10 are all excellent options, each catering to different needs and budgets. When choosing a compass for survival situations, consider factors such as durability, accuracy, and ease of use. With the right compass in hand, you’ll be well-prepared to navigate your way through any wilderness adventure.