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Lightest functional compass?
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christopher smead
(hamsterfish) - MLife

Locale: hamsterfish
Lightest functional compass? on 08/31/2012 17:06:24 MDT Print View

Hi all,
I'll need to go off trail a bit for my next trip. So I thought it's about time I learn to use a compass as my primary means of navigation. (gps will be my backup)

I'm looking for the lightest functional compass. I've read through previous posts, and I'm having a hard time deciding given all the options.

Any input would be great. Thanks!

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Lightest functional compass? on 08/31/2012 17:16:11 MDT Print View

You need to decide how much of a compass you need based on your past experience with them. For example, there are big folding baseplate models that cost an arm and a leg. There are digital fluxgate compasses that need battery power. Do you need a sighting mirror? There are simpler models that fit more easily in a pocket. Then there are button compasses that aren't that great, but they are the size of a fingernail.

Some people know that they need one with magnetic declination adjustment built-in, and some people prefer to do the math in their head. Some people wouldn't know magnetic declination to save their neck.


Jim L
Light compass on 08/31/2012 17:16:39 MDT Print View

Maybe it's just me. I would look for the best light compass rather than the outright lightest. There are quite a few basic compasses at about 1 oz.

The lightest is probably a magnatized needle floating in a puddle.


David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Start with a classic. Learn. Then get small/light. on 08/31/2012 17:29:16 MDT Print View

If you're learning to use a compass, I'd spurge and spend $8.95 on the simplest, lightest Boy Scout / Silva / Brunton that has a clear base and rotating bezel. Then all the books on maps & compass use will be totally applicable. And you'll control one source of error - the difficulty of reading a tiny button compass accuractely. That's important as you are learning, so you make fewer avoidable mistakes.

It's akin to waiting to learn to shoot a .44 handgun from scratch. Start with a .22 rifle for ease of use, accuracy, and to develop good habits. Then go on to the more difficult-to-use equipment.

Once you get good with a standard compass, then, sure, try a tiny button compass or zipper pull compass for $1-$2 (75 cents last time I ordered a dozen). Using a compass isn't just pointing towards 140 degrees true. It is recognizing terrain from the map, tracking time and distance, and making adjustments as you go. With those other skills honed, you don't need a medium-sized, easy-to-read compass.

In between would be some of the wrist-watch style compasses designed for orienteering. You can skip the wristband to save weight and/or mount it on a watch band you'd wear anyway.

christopher smead
(hamsterfish) - MLife

Locale: hamsterfish
Not sure what I need. on 08/31/2012 17:29:33 MDT Print View

I've always relied on gps. I've researched how to use it, and I understand declination and such. But since I've never used a compass in the field so I don't know what I need and what is just a luxury.

Something to get me from Evolution lake over Lamarck Col and back to North lake if that helps ;)

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Not sure what I need. on 08/31/2012 17:46:57 MDT Print View

As always, there is good news and there is bad news.

The good news is that your local REI store has a land nav class on Sunday, so they would likely teach what is needed in a compass. Oddly enough, that will be some model that they sell in the store.

The bad news is that the class costs $. I've never heard of anybody paying such an outrageous price for a short class.


michael levi
(M.L) - F

Locale: W-Never Eat Soggy (W)affles
yep on 08/31/2012 17:48:44 MDT Print View

+1 on a basic compass from a namebrand company like silva, suunto etc.

Heres the one I have: Silva starter 1.2.3 its less than $10.

Edit: the weight is .9oz with the addition of some spectra guyline I used to make a necklace.

Edited by M.L on 08/31/2012 17:49:58 MDT.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
Boy scouts on 08/31/2012 17:53:28 MDT Print View

Get something that a boy scout would use ... The basic models will be light and cheap enough ... Yr using it as a learning tool

Dont worry about every save gram in this case

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: Lightest functional compass? on 08/31/2012 17:53:45 MDT Print View

Get a basic Suunto baseplate compass. The Silvas, Bruntons are inferior.

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
Declination setting on 08/31/2012 18:15:26 MDT Print View

I dunno about others but the "lightest" FUNCTIONAL compass to me is one with a declination setting screw. My choice is the cheapest Brunton with declination setting.

That way I don't have to do mental math (or forget to do it).

Also I don't want a compass with greater than 2 degree increment markings on the dial. i.e. 5 degrees or higher is too coarse for me.

Robert Blean
(blean) - MLife

Locale: San Jose -- too far from Sierras
Emphasis on map reading on 08/31/2012 18:24:15 MDT Print View

And now for a different point of view ...

First of all -- on the type of compass -- whatever else you do, get one that settles quickly -- that usually means liquid-filled. IMO there is no need for any compass features beyond a basic simple liquid filled compass for back country land navigation.

Next -- the original request was about navigating off-trail in the mountains. For that sort of thing, I would strongly suggest good map skills are FAR more important than compass skills. There is no reason that you should need a compass for much other than (perhaps) orienting a map (although you should normally be able to do that visually, without the compass). I would go so far as to say that if the OP has any doubts about his map reading skills, then that is the first thing he needs to fix and he has no business doing much off-trail travel until he does so.

Yes, I can buy the occasional need for a compass, such as whiteout conditions, so I do carry one even though I rarely need it. I can also see one for off-trail navigating through terrain where it is hard to see enough to stay located on your map, but that is rare in the mountains.

All you really need to do is keep track of where you are. Following your progress on a map enough to always know where you are it not that tough -- and it's far easier than locating yourself once you have become disoriented (regardless of the type of compass you may have). It's also less time and fuss.

I have always wondered why everyone emphasizes precision with a compass, even though my initial compass work was with a lensatic compass. (We just blew away the other Boy Scouts at compass events at Camporees!)

Over the years I have found well-developed map skills far more valuable. Yes, I understand the neat things you can do with a base plate and with a sighting kind of compass. But in all my years, ranging from Boy Scouts to artillery forward observer out on patrol to extensive backpacking I have found the ability to read a map FAR more important than any compass skills.

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Re: Emphasis on map reading on 08/31/2012 18:52:54 MDT Print View

Robert: +1 on map reading skills. I debated that getting into that whole issue. If you don't have a compass there are many ways to fake it (use a watch, watch the sun, stars, plant growth patterns, etc). If you don't have a map or can't use it - you at risk of getting lost and have no hope of locating yourself if lost with only a compass.

I rarely bring a compass.

I always bring a map to a new-to-me area.

Robert Blean
(blean) - MLife

Locale: San Jose -- too far from Sierras
Small is good on 08/31/2012 18:53:22 MDT Print View

Thinking about compasses brought back a memory of one of my favorites. As you know from my previous posting I favor a simple liquid-filled compass -- I do not need precision, just general direction.

I had a small round (perhaps 1" or 1.5" diameter) liquid-filled plastic compass that I eventually broke :( I was out in winter, above treeline, and in whiteout conditions. I put the compass inside the mitten I was wearing, so that it would be as accessible as possible. That worked well, but I did eventually break it -- I think it got in the middle one time when I pressed on my ice axe head.

Another compass that worked well for me in winter conditions was a liquid-filled ball compass that I hung from a zipper pull on my parka. It was always accessible and, since it was a ball compass, I did not have to worry about holding it level.

As you see, I do believe in compass use. But for the OP's interest -- routine cross-country navigation -- I stand by my assertion that solid map skills are far and away more important than compass work. Also, I personally do not care for a base plate, because I cannot do things like the two I cite above -- I recognize that is just my personal preference, though.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Emphasis on map reading on 08/31/2012 19:33:54 MDT Print View

"I rarely bring a compass."

I nearly always have a compass in there somewhere, although I rarely pull it out.

Even when the batteries in my GPS receiver went dead, all I used was the map. Then I lost my map somewhere on the last day, but I had it memorized by then.


Doug I.
(idester) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: Re: Emphasis on map reading on 08/31/2012 19:41:36 MDT Print View

"If you don't have a compass there are many ways to fake it"

Ah, David, thank you, that explains it. My first wife didn't have a compass......

michael levi
(M.L) - F

Locale: W-Never Eat Soggy (W)affles
- on 08/31/2012 19:58:24 MDT Print View


Tjaard Breeuwer
(Tjaard) - MLife

Locale: Minnesota, USA
If you are going to get one, get a decent one on 08/31/2012 20:03:53 MDT Print View

I would suggest a liquid filled (all serious compasses are) and declination adjustment. I know you can do the math in your head, but when you really need to use it in a stressful situation, you are very likely to screw up the math. Declination adjustment weighs very little. Better safe than sorry, not to mention easy.

Sighting is nice, but rarely needed and makes it heavier, so a baseplate only compass seems like decent compromise.

Indeed, a compass is not often needed in the mountains, an altimeter comes in handier and is quicker to use.

michael levi
(M.L) - F

Locale: W-Never Eat Soggy (W)affles
. on 08/31/2012 20:16:10 MDT Print View

I use my compass all the time, it helps me confirm that I am on the right trail heading in the right direction in unfamiliar terrian especially solo.

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Re: If you are going to get one, get a decent one on 08/31/2012 20:27:13 MDT Print View

Tjaard: +1 on an altimeter. You can gauge your progress much more accurately and if you know you are on an ascending trail, a river or a ridge AND you know your elevation you know exactly where you are day or night, rain or sunshine. You can also track the weather.

However, a good mechanical one (e.g. Thommen) was $200 decades ago, probably much more now. I love mine.

Alas, unlike most digital electronics, altimeter watches haven't reduced in price much. $200-500 20 years ago. $140 to $500 today. It ought to be free in a box of cereal by now.

Of course it's got a full-sized Swarmy kinfe attached to it, but the Victornox knives with altimeter are on ebay for $50-90.

ed hyatt
(edhyatt) - MLife

Locale: The North
If you are going to get one, get a decent one on 09/01/2012 00:24:10 MDT Print View

After 30 years I navigate mainly with my eyes (still good)...the squishy grey stuff that sits behind them (variable function); next comes a GPS often in conjunction with a map (which I always carry).

I do carry a Silva compass (just the pointer unit popped out of the baseplate - 12g) - I might have used that perhaps twice in the last few years.