Central War Gaming Blog

Central War Gaming Blog


Monday, August 14, 2017

Backup Compasses

The more fully-featured your compass is, the more ungainly and heavy it tends to be. You may then leave it on your pack, in your in web gear, or at home.

When you really need a compass on your body is any time you are more than a few feet from the car, camp, or the rest of your team. So, there's some value in not just having a backup compass, but in having one you trust.

All Compasses Must be Good Compasses

First, everything I said in the article about buying compasses still applies. A small, inexpensive, or low-featured compass cannot also be a cheap or bad compass.

I didn't outline it before, but let's be clear what a bad compass can do:
  • Not be calibrated – The needle is magnetized, but has to be done so properly or it won't point precisely north
  • Dampen poorly – It can be too dampened and then doesn't allow the needle to settle right so it doesn't point north, or it can be not dampened enough and the needle wanders back and forth so long you can't tell where it points
  • Drag – If the geographic calibration is off, or it has bad bearings or any number of other things go wrong, it won't spin well enough so it won't point north accurately, and it won't fail the same way repeatedly so you can't even walk a straight line

So, ignore all those who say you can get one Just As Good for whatever fraction of the price of a good one. Bad compasses will get you killed when you really need them.

If anything, quality of small compasses must be better, due to the size. They are harder to use precisely because of the small distance to sight, and other issues related to the size such as a smaller number of graduations.

Fewer features doesn't mean it's bad, but do get name brand compasses that everyone says work well. Compasses that come free on the butt of a knife, carabiner, zipper pull, or stock of your official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, are not to be trusted.

Suggested Backup Compasses

So what to get? Well, it's hard to say now. The gold standard used to be the Silva model 9. This is the compass shown at the top of the article. Usually sold as the  Carabiner 9, Companion 9 and so on (there's also one with marks to find Mecca), I've had one for about 35 years and it works great. Small circle with a keyring hole on one side, 5° graduations, sometimes sold with a carabiner, etc.

But naturally, the old ones work, the new ones have quality issues. So, get one and try it but do make sure it works before trusting.

Other options:

  • Silva Model 10 - Similar to the 9 but smaller and with a thermometer. Feels a bit gimmicky but doesn't seem ruined with the thermometer which can be useful as well.  
  • Silva Model 40 - A watch compass, but often sold by them as another carabiner compass, with no watch band. Seems fine. Quite small.
  • Silva Metro - Now we're getting too small. Forget the quality, it only has cardinal directions so is not very useful for emergency uses.
  • Suunto has a couple sizes of watchband compass which also can be used alone or strapped to a clip
  • Brunton ZIP - Similar to the Model 9, a smallish, round 5° graduation compass with no features but a lash point to hang it from things. 
  • K&R Orion – Reputed to be a good German brand, they make a small one that folds up (no mirror though) which looks to be a good idea as a backup. Around $20 so not bad but not the under $10 most other backups are. 
  • County Comm Navigator – Watch band compass made by who knows. County Comm is a purported manufacturer, but mostly dealer in products that maybe are government issue but regardless are mostly pretty good and generally for very good prices.
No, we have no special arrangement with any manufacturer or dealer, so no links are provided above for where to buy them that get CWG a kickback. If you find a great deal, share the link in the comments or on the Facebook group. 

Test Them

Really, no compass should be trusted until tested. Now, you have to have a good compass first and assume it works, but as you wouldn't buy a backup compass without a primary, we'll assume you have one.

How to test? Well first, don't put them next to each other. You can try it and see. They interfere with each other. But you can easily sight on something, then see if your two measurements agree.

And, you must check for functional interference aside from other compasses. A compass on a key ring cannot be factory calibrated for all the keys and rings and doodads on your keychain, so will certainly be off.

Full Featured, or Extra-featured Backups

The other thing you can sometimes get out of a backup compass is having a second compass. For example, I also own a Cammenga wrist compass, because it has good tritium at the cardinal directions and on the north needle.

It's not very good to navigate in any other way, but at night I can glance at it to tell approximate direction without tediously using any other night compass. And even the best night compass is pretty slow to use at night. This is easy.

I do also carry a real backup compass. It's in a bag of other little supplies like tapes, wire ties, batteries and goes with me on airplanes and other trips. A true backup. And it's a Silva Model 27.

Yes, it's a tiny mirror compass. It is my backup now because it's so tiny, but also because I know how to use it, and it is pretty full featured. In fact, I used this when I did my outdoorsy times, and I climbed mountains while wearing it.

This one has another feature rarely found, in that it has a safety pin on it. You clip it open to your pack strap and can look down to see your heading. It works.

I also carry this because I had a DEET explosion and sorta ruined my old mountaineering version of the same one. I cleaned it enough it works and is in my other backup bag. The one I actually carry is a Brunton sort of knockoff of it and not as good as the old one. It's called the 27 LU Compact Pin-On Mirrored Compass or the Trooper and when you can find it isn't too expensive ($25), but in addition to being not perfectly awesome, can be hard to find.

There are other small, ruggedized compasses like the matchbox style that may also make you happy. Skulk around and see what is out there.

Now, Learn How To Use It

A tool like a compass is no good without training, and practical experience using it. CWG can get you that. Start planning for CWG's day/night land nav training course in October.

Sign up now

We will also bring a selection of compasses to the the training weekend, so you can try out some of the others and see if anything else thrills you.

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