7 Best Survival Compasses – Complete 2023 Review & Guide

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Video best compass for surveying

We reviewed and tested over 25 compasses and found that the Sunnto MC-2 is the best survival compass.

A compass needs to do a lot more than just point North to be considered a good compass for survival. With so many options out there called “survival compasses”, it is hard to know what to choose.

Our buying guide explains what to look for in a survival compass and how the Sunnto MC-2 is the perfect choice – not only as the best survival compass but also the best for any other outdoor activity when getting lost is a possibility.

Best Survival Compass 6 different compasses on a topographical map

I have over 40 years of experience using compasses and purchased my first Silva baseplate compass when I was 10 years old in Boy Scouts. My family has a combined 40 years of military experience using compasses, with one of them being a navigator. My grandfather was a pipeline surveyor, and I have his 1940s model compass.

So, we have used a few compasses over the years.

I based this review on our experience and also the experience of other experts that teach wilderness navigation classes. Our goal is to present the best survival compass available that can help you get to safety (or away from harm) in an emergency.

If you need a compass to get from A to B while hiking, bushcraft camping, or just in case you face a survival situation, keep reading.

Quick Comparison of our Favorite Survival Compasses

Best Survival Compass

Suunto MC-2 – The Best Survival Compass

  • Type: Orienteering Mirror Sighting Compass
  • Size: 2.5” x 4” x .7”
  • Weight: 2.6 ounces
  • Declination Adjustment: Yes
  • Glow in the Dark Indicators: Luminescent Marks

The Suunto MC-2 Compass is our top pick for the best compass for survival.

This compass has all of the features I need to navigate a survival situation. It is a sighting compass that I have used to keep me traveling in a straight line over long distances. I can simply sight an object in the distance at the correct bearing and hike to that object. After reaching that object, repeat the process.

The mirror is great to have in case I need to signal for help or for personal first aid.

I like the fact that this compass is also a baseplate compass for use with topographical maps. I have the USGS version of this compass, and my maps are USGS scale maps. This allows me to measure distances easily on a map without having to do any math. Even if you don’t have USGS maps, the inch ruler is universal for other maps.

The built-in declination adjustment is excellent as well. I can simply read the adjustment on the map and then turn the adjustment screw on the back of the compass. I like that a small adjustment tool is included and attached to the lanyard, so I never have to look for a screwdriver.

The baseplate also has a magnifying lens, which I have used to see small details on my maps and to start fires.

A clinometer and a slope ruler are also built into this compass. While I personally don’t usually need these features, I have them.

I also like that the bezel has all 8 directions printed on it (N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW), as well as degrees. This makes it easy to use since you don’t have to remember the bearing for E or W in a stressful situation.

When ordering one, there may be some confusion about which configuration to get. I personally recommend the Northern Hemisphere version with USGS UTM scales (which is linked above.)

This compass has everything that I need in a compass. Many other survivalists and outdoorsmen also agree. It is affordable, so there is no reason not to recommend it.

Recommended for:

The Sunnto MC-2 Compass is the best compass for any outdoor activity. It is especially suited as the best compass for survival situations. If you only plan to buy one compass, get this one.

Suunto MCB Mini Compass – Best Backup Survival Compass

  • Type: Mini Mirror Sighting Compass
  • Size: 2.2” x 2.68” x 0.7”
  • Weight: 1.27 ounces
  • Declination Adjustment: No
  • Glow in the Dark Indicators: No

The Suunto MCB Mini Compass is a compact mirror sighting compass that is a great backup compass to keep in your pack, vehicle, or boat. Sunnto calls it their “Safety Compass”, so it was designed to be a backup to your primary compass.

This compass is similar to what I call an orienteering compass, except it does not have a clear baseplate.

It does not have declination adjustment or a magnification lens either, so mapping capabilities with this compass are somewhat limited.

It has a straight edge on the sides with mm and 1/20 scales, so you can use it with a map if necessary.

The lanyard has a built-in whistle, which, combined with the mirror that can be used for signaling, makes this a great multiuse survival tool.

The Lid folds down to make an excellent compact package that will fit almost anywhere. While not the best primary compass, it does make a great backup. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you may not believe your primary compass, a backup will help you verify your doubts. Peace of mind is cheap.

Recommended for:

The Suunto MCB Mini Compass is for someone looking for a backup survival compass for their pack, vehicle, or boat. If you do not venture out very far, it makes a good backup for a GPS unit as well.

Cammenga US Military Compass – Most Durable Survival Compass

  • Type: Lensatic Compass
  • Size: 2.25″ x 3″ x 1.1″ (closed)
  • Weight: 16 ounces
  • Declination Adjustment: No
  • Glow in the Dark Indicators: Tritium

The Cammenga US Military Compass is the same as the government issue M-1950 compass for the military.

The biggest benefit of this compass is it is very durable and battle-tested. If you are concerned about damaging your compass, this is the most durable compass available.

Our team has seen this compass dropped over a cliff and ran over during military operations. Afterward, it still functioned fine. Simply put, we have seen it survive tough times.

I feel that using this compass is not as straightforward as a mirror compass. However, using this compass is second nature if you are military-trained.

It does not have a mirror, so this is a disadvantage from a survival perspective. While it does have a magnifying lens for sighting, it is not strong enough to start a fire.

The tritium inserts are great and will stay illuminated for years. This makes this compass the best on our list for navigating at night.

This compass can be used with maps. However, using it is a little different from traditional baseplate map compasses. Again, anyone that is military-trained will not have an issue. It does not have a declination adjustment, so you will have to consider it in your bearing calculations.

Recommended for:

The Cammenga US Military Compass is for anyone who has had military training and is comfortable using this compass. It is also very durable, so if you are hard on your equipment, this is one to consider. For people that are not military trained or understand compasses very well, this is not the best choice for a survival compass.

Silva Ranger 2.0 Compass

  • Type: Orienteering Mirror Sighting Compass
  • Size: Approx 4” x 2.5” x 1”
  • Weight: 4.8 Ounces
  • Declination Adjustment: Yes
  • Glow in the Dark Indicators: Luminescent Marks

The Silva Ranger 2.0 Compass is a mirror-sighting compass with all the features I look for.

It has a sighting mirror to sight objects in the distance for traveling in a straight line. It has a clear baseplate for use with maps and a magnifying lens to start fires if needed.

I like the fact that it has multiple map scales printed on it. In my experience, you come across different maps with various scales, so a compass with multiple scales is great.

The lanyard also has map scales marked on it. Since the lanyard is flexible, you can lay it on a map and bend it around curves for more accurate distance measurement. This is great if you want to know the distance you will travel on a curvy hiking trail.

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There are a few things that I do not like about this compass. The bezel only has degrees and no directions like the Suunto MC-2. During a stressful situation, it could be hard to remember the bearing for East, for example.

I also don’t care for the shape of the baseplate. It is curved on the ends and not straight, which makes it more challenging to line up on a map.

The lid of this compass seems just too large to me. It is noticeably larger than the Suunto. Also, the compass does not have a tool for adjusting the declination.

I have owned Silva compasses for over 40 years, so I am a fan. Unfortunately, they moved manufacturing to China in 2005, which is another negative for me.

Recommended for:

The Silva Ranger 2.0 Compass is for anyone looking for a survival compass, and our top pick is unavailable. If you are an avid hiker, the lanyard is convenient when mapping out a hike.

Brunton TruArc 15 Compass

  • Type: Orienteering Mirror Sighting Compass
  • Size: 4” x 2.5” x 0.6”
  • Weight: 3.2 ounces
  • Declination Adjustment: Yes
  • Glow in the Dark Indicators: No

The Brunton TruArc 15 Compass is made in the USA and checks all of our boxes in what is needed in a compass for survival.

It has a sighting mirror, magnifying lens, and a baseplate with USGS scales. I like the three scales on the baseplate. It has a 1:24,000 scale for miles, meters, and feet. This makes it easy to measure any distance you want on a map. The only downside is you must have a USGS map to use it without doing any math.

This compass has a global needle as a standard. This makes it nice if you want to travel near the equator or to the southern hemisphere with this compass. It also has a built-in clinometer and toolless declinometer adjustment. While the toolless design sounds good, many people have issues adjusting it.

There are a few negatives with this compass. The bezel is set up in reverse from most other compasses and has a magnifying window over the bearing markings. If you practice and exclusively use this compass, it may not be a problem. But, with most other compasses being the opposite, it is very confusing to learn from someone with a different compass.

Sighting with the compass is also not intuitive. It is easier to see the bearing marks at the top of the bezel through the mirror. When you read the bearing this way, it is 180 degrees off and does not align with the “shed” markings on the baseplate. This just makes it confusing to me.

Recommended for:

The Brunton TruArc 15 Compass is for someone looking for a made-in-the-USA compass. It fits all of our criteria for a survival compass but is not as easy to use as others.

Sunnto MB-6 Compass

  • Type: Mirror Sighting Compass
  • Size: 2.6” x 1.85” x 0.9”
  • Weight: 1.94 ounces
  • Declination Adjustment: Yes
  • Glow in the Dark Indicators: Luminescent marks

The Sunnto MB-6 Compass is a unique compass that folds into a metal matchbox-style box. This makes it very durable and compact.

This compass has a mirror that folds down underneath it when you open it. It has gun sight-type sights on the top that you can use to sight targets in the distance. It is a little different than most mirror compasses but works similarly.

The main advantage of this compass is how compact it is. If folds up into a nice box that will fit into your pocket.

The main disadvantage is this compass is it can’t be used with maps. You will need a separate baseplate compass if you need to do any map work. However, it does have declination adjustment, so this will help when translating bearings from your mapping compass.

While I can’t consider this compass the best for most people, it should be considered for someone who doesn’t like the standard orienteering compass and doesn’t plan to use maps.

Recommended for:

The Sunnto MB-6 Compass is for someone who wants a rugged, compact, and durable survival compass and does not plan to use a map. This is a great backup compass for a hiker or a boater.

Silva Mini Compass

  • Type: Mirror Sighting Compass
  • Size: 1.6” x 1.86” x 0.8”
  • Weight: 1.6 ounces
  • Declination Adjustment: No
  • Glow in the Dark Indicators: Luminescent marks

The Silva Mini Compass is a small mirror sighting compass that is very compact. It is the smallest compass on our list. It is also the cheapest.

This compass should only be considered a backup compass. It is compact and lightweight, so it is a great choice for a backpacker or hiker when weight is a concern.

It does have a mirror, which is unusual for such a small compass. It is also affordable, so keeping a backup won’t blow your budget.

It is made from thinner plastic, so it is not the most durable compass.

You could use this compass with a map if you had to, but since it is so small it is not easy. It does have an inch scale on one side.

This compass made it to my list because it has a mirror and is very small. You can stick this in a small survival kit; it will be good enough to help you travel in a straight line when you have no other option.

Recommended for:

The Silva Mini Compass is for someone looking for a small, compact mirror compass for their survival kit. This should not be considered your main compass for survival situations but rather an emergency backup.

Best Compass for Survival – Buying Guide

To select the best survival compass, it is essential to understand a few basics about compasses. Don’t just buy any cheap compass advertised for “survival.”

There are a few different types of compasses. Some are good in a survival situation, and some are not. Below we will discuss the differences, and then we will put it all together so you can decide which is the best for you.

Price

While, usually, you can find an excellent lower-priced option for most survival gear, this is not the case for a compass. As they say, “You get what you pay for.”

Stay away from anything that is under $25. These are cheap inferior copies. Most cheap compasses are inaccurate and are more difficult to use.

If you just want something to play with, cheap is fine, but a survival compass should not be something you just play with. Since your life depends on it, it needs to work correctly.

Brand

A reputable company should make your survival compass. I found many cheap knockoffs with strange brand names that are made in China. While they look like the more expensive compasses, they are different.

Cheap compasses are made from inferior materials that are simply not reliable. The needles can be inconsistent between readings, causing you to travel in the wrong direction. While a small error is negligible, it really adds up over a long distance.

Stay with these reputable brands:

  • Suunto has been making compasses in Finland for over 80 years. Their specialty is compasses, and they are continually updating their processes to make their products more accurate and durable. They include a lifetime warranty and make some of the best compasses available.
  • Cammenga is a US-based company that has been making the military’s standard issue M-1950 lensatic compass since 1992. They must meet all the military standards in their processes so their products are top-notch.
  • Silva began in Sweden and made their first compass in 1928. They made compasses in Sweden until 2005, when they moved production to China. Since then, they have been bought and sold a few times. Since 2018 they have re-established themselves as a Swedish company. However, their manufacturing facilities are still in China. Their quality has improved in the past few years.
  • Brunton is a US-based company that was founded in 1895. They began by making a pocket transit that was used by surveyors that included a compass and clinometer. It was often just called a “Brunton.” In 1996, they were acquired by Silva but were sold in 2006 and again in 2009 to another Swedish company. Manufacturing is still done today at its Riverton, Wyoming facility.
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Different Types of Compasses

There are a few different types of compasses, each with a specific purpose. This is where it gets confusing when buying a compass.

First, we will review each type of compass.

Button

A button compass is what the name suggests. It is a small compass, not much bigger than a button. They are usually around 1” in diameter and are circular with no other baseplate or cover.

A button compass gives you an overall direction with no absolute accuracy. If you want to move North, it will give you a general Northerly direction.

These compasses cannot be used with a map, and they cannot be used to sight a bearing accurately.

While one of these is better than nothing, there are ways to determine the overall direction of the environment. The location of the sun, the moon, and moss on trees and rocks can tell you which way North is more reliably than a cheap button compass. Don’t waste your money.

Baseplate

A baseplate compass is a circular compass mounted to a thin rectangular base plate. The baseplate is usually a clear plastic.

Baseplate compasses are designed to be used with maps to determine bearings and distances. They will have a ruler or scale printed on the side to measure distance on a map. They will also have a rotating bezel that is used to measure a heading between points on a map.

While these compasses will show you a bearing, they do not have any type of sighting mechanism. These can be used to navigate somewhat when there are prominent landmarks to follow. However, if there are no prominent landmarks or you do not know where you are, they will not be accurate enough to travel in a straight line.

Lensatic

A Lensatic compass is a circular compass inside a case with a lid and a sighting device. An excellent example of a Lensatic compass is the standard military M-1950 compass.

These are used to sight objects or landmarks in the distance so that an accurate bearing can be determined or followed. These compasses are the best for traveling in a specific direction and allow you to move in a straight line.

While they are not specifically made to use with maps, some have a flat base that can be used with a map when opened.

Transit Compass

While not as popular today with GPS and modern electronics, a transit compass is used by surveyors and map makers. These compasses are usually 3 inches or so in diameter, have a metal case and lid, and are very accurate and expensive.

While you can’t find many of these sold new today, they are often sold as antiques. I have one from the 1930s that was my grandfather’s. He used it to survey while installing pipelines.

Orienteering or Mirror Sighting Compass

The term orienteering compass is often used a lot for baseplate compasses. This is likely a marketing tactic since it sounds “cooler.”

An orienteering compass or mirror sighting compass looks similar to a baseplate compass. However, it has a top-hinged cover that has a mirror. It also has a gun sight-type feature that allows you to sight objects in the distance.

An orienteering compass can be used the same as a baseplate compass for determining direction and distance on a map. It can also be used like a Lensatic compass to sight objects in the distance accurately.

This type of compass is usually the best overall since it combines the baseplate and Lensatic compass.

Parts of a Compass

Understanding the parts of a compass is critical before purchasing one. Below, we will step through each feature while referencing this diagram.

Needles

The needle is the heart of the compass. Compass needles will have two sides, one painted red or another color and the other painted black. The painted side of the needle points to “magnetic North.”

Some compasses have two types of needles available. The most common in the US is called ” Northern Hemisphere” or just “NH.” The other type is “Global.” If there is no indication, they are usually NH needles.

Since the Earth is curved, the magnetic field is different depending on where you are on the planet. If you are in the northern hemisphere, a compass needle is attracted to the poles at a different angle than in the southern hemisphere.

Since the needle floats around its center inside a capsule on the compass, you have to hold the compass level so it is free to rotate.

So, a compass with a needle tuned for the Northern Hemisphere will need to be held at an angle to rotate in the Southern Hemisphere freely. This makes it challenging to use on a flat surface.

In the US, both NH needles and Global needles will work. Global needles have more room for the needle to tilt inside the compass.

While some say that Global needles are better since you can walk and still use the compass, I am not sure who is trying to hike in the woods without watching where they go. This is the same as texting and driving. You cannot accurately use a compass, not trip over your feet, and track landmarks simultaneously.

Global needle compasses are more expensive than NH compasses, so again, this is just a marketing ploy to get you to spend more money on something you don’t need.

Unless you plan to travel to the Southern Hemisphere (that’s a long hike), an NH compass will work fine for you.

Rotating Bezel

A rotating bezel is needed to measure and follow bearings. Make sure your compass bezel has markings in degrees from 0 to 360. Some military compasses are marked in Mils, which is not helpful unless you were trained in the military.

Also, make sure your compass bezel is at least marked with “N” to indicate North. While North is basically 0 degrees, having this on the bezel is better so you don’t get confused in a stressful situation. The best compasses have N, S, E, and W marked for clarity.

Declination Adjustment

Declination is a complicated subject that could be its own article.

There are basically three directions for North depending on your reference point. There is true North, magnetic North, and grid North. Maps are a flat representation of a curved surface.

The declination adjustment is printed on the map to make up for the differences between the North direction on a map and the magnetic North that your compass reads. This adjustment will be different depending on where you are on the earth.

A compass with declination adjustment makes it easy to adjust for this difference and measure bearings accurately on the map. If your compass does not have a declination adjustment, you can still use it, but you must add or subtract the declination from every measurement you take.

Having built-in declination adjustment on your compass is the best and makes calculating bearings easier.

Orienting Lines

The best baseplate and orienteering compasses will have orienting lines printed on the baseplate so you can line them up accurately on the map. Aligning the grid lines on a map is an essential first step to measuring bearings.

They will also have what is often called a “shed” or “doghouse” printed behind the needle. This area visually indicates where the compass arrow should be when you are taking or measuring a bearing.

It is often said to “put red in the shed” or “put the dog in the doghouse” as a way to remember how to align the compass needle.

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Needle Chamber

Most newer compasses (except the Military compasses) have a liquid-filled needle chamber. The liquid in the chamber helps to dampen the amount of movement the needle makes. It makes it smoother and quicker to get an accurate reading.

Cheaper compasses will not have a liquid-filled chamber, and the needle will constantly move around as you hold it. This makes it hard to get an accurate bearing since the needle constantly moves.

Over time, bubbles can form in the chamber (like in my 40-year-old Silva). This does not affect the compass’s accuracy but makes it harder to use since you must wait for the needle to stabilize. If the bubble is over 25% of the chamber, it is time to get a new compass. My Silva has been officially retired.

Clinometer

Some compasses will have a built-in Clinometer. This is used to measure the slopes of hills. Surveyors and map makers used this tool to do their work historically. Today with modern GPS devices, they are no longer used much.

There is no need for a Clinometer on your survival compass, either.

Scales

The scale printed on your baseplate or orienteering compass can be confusing. This is used for measuring the distance on a map.

Most compasses come with at least inches or centimeters printed on the baseplate. At a minimum, this, along with the scale printed on the map, can always be used to measure distance on a map. You could use a piece of string if you had to.

Most topographical maps today come with a standard scale. USGS maps are always 1:24,000 scale. Some compasses, like our top pick, come with a variety of scale options available.

If you know the type of map you have, try to match your compass with your map. For example, if you have a USGS map, get a USGS compass. This will just make it easier to take distance measurements. Otherwise, just use the typical inch or centimeter ruler that comes on all baseplate compasses.

Glow in the Dark Marks

A compass with luminescent or Tritium markings glows in the dark, making using your compass at night much easier. Tritium is the best and will usually last for at least ten years. Luminescent paint has to be “charged” by sunlight or a flashlight and will glow for a few hours afterward. Some glow better than others.

Either way, some glow-in-the-dark markings are nice but not essential.

Sighting Lens or Mirror

A Lensatic compass will have a sighting lens, while an Orienteering compass will have a mirror.

When using a Lensatic compass, you hold it close to your face. As you focus on an object in the distance through the sighting window, you can look down without moving and see the needle and the markings on the bezel through the lens. Since everyone’s eyesight is different, the position of the lens may have to be adjusted. You may also need to remove your glasses depending on your eyesight.

When using an orienteering compass, you hold it extended away from your face, much like a handgun. As you focus on a distant object through the sighting window, you can adjust the mirror to see the needle and bezel.

Essentially, the mirror and lens are accomplishing the same thing in different ways. In my experience, the mirror works best and is easier to use.

What makes a good Compass for Survival?

To find the best compass for survival, you must first determine what the compass will be used for.

The main items to focus on are:

  • Assist with traveling in a straight line over a long distance.
  • Be able to find a position and navigate with a map.
  • Have multiple other uses like signaling and fire starting.

Lateral Drift

First and foremost, a survival compass must assist you with traveling in a straight line for a long distance. Everyone experiences what is called “lateral drift” while they are walking without a clear target in the distance.

When you are in the woods, and all the trees look the same, you tend to walk toward your dominant side without realizing it. This is why you hear of lost people walking in one big circle.

To walk in a straight line, we need a compass that allows us to sight targets in the distance to walk towards. This can only be accomplished with a Lensatic or orienteering compass.

Map Navigation

A survival compass should be able to be used with a map. Finding your way to safety or around hazardous locations is one of the main objectives in a survival situation.

Even while bushcraft camping, navigation is an essential bushcraft skill that could be used to find a body of water to fish or a location to hunt. It would then help you find your way back to camp.

To navigate with a map, a baseplate or orienteering compass is needed. Some Lensatic compasses can also be used with a map.

Multi-Use

For any piece of survival gear, it should have multiple uses to be considered. We are limited in how much gear we can carry in a survival kit, bug-out bag, or get-home bag, so each item must be valuable.

An Orienteering compass has a mirror. Mirrors can be a signaling device to others in the air or on the ground. They can also be used for hygiene or to see areas on your body that you can’t usually see for first aid.

A baseplate compass and an orienteering compass also have a magnifying lens. A magnifying lens can be used to start a fire with the sun. This massive advantage over the other compasses should not be ignored. It is very easy to practice starting a fire with a magnifying lens before you need it. While you should have a fire starting kit, this is a resource that never runs out except on a cloudy day.

Best Survival Compass

Considering these factors, the best compass for survival is an orienteering compass like our top pick, the Suunto MC2. It has all the criteria needed in a survival compass.

Most people that are using a compass are doing it because they are traveling in a remote area. An argument could be made that all compasses are survival compasses. Before buying a cheap compass to take hiking or camping, this should be considered. If you get lost, was saving a few dollars worth it?

A good survival compass is essential for any survival kit or as a backup to a GPS unit or survival watch. Learning how to use a compass to navigate is similarly just as important. There are many books, classes, and courses available on navigation. I recommend purchasing a map and practicing with your compass before venturing out on a long hike.

The best way to avoid a survival situation is to never get in one to start with.

Video Guide to the Best Survival Compass

Dave Canterbury discusses the best compass for bushcraft and survival.

What is the Best Compass for You?

I see many recommending cheap baseplate compasses as the best compass for survival. After understanding the criteria above, would you consider one? It is not practical to try and constantly watch a compass while walking through the woods, trying to get to safety. This will only get you more lost or, even worse, injured.

The best compass for survival is the Sunnto MC2, without question. Its features, quality, and ease of use are ahead of competitors. In my experience, it is also the best compass for hiking, bushcraft, camping, hunting, and any other outdoor activity. There is no reason to own a different compass.

Now that you have the best compass, look at our other survival guides and gear reviews. As you build out your survival kit, we have you covered no matter the outdoor activity.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>