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It’s only a magnet with a circle attached

I bought myself a new compass yesterday, which was another Silva Field 7 baseplate compass, identical to the one that I lost last October [1]. It’s the most basic Silva compass on the market. It’s often marketed as being “ideal for youth and beginners”. For me it seems to do the job perfectly well and while I’m not a navigation supremo, I’ve been working on it for a while now and I’ve not yet had any issues with having only the basic features. I guess they market it that way to drive people towards the more expensive parts of their range.

For several months I’ve been using a baseplate Coleman compass that I found at Rebel Sport for a quarter of the price, and for me at least it works just as well as the Silva Field 7. It’s slightly larger though, if only because it includes extra features like a magnifier that I never use, and ultimately that’s why I decided to replace it. It’s only after I’d been using a smaller Field 7 compass for a while that I noticed the Coleman compass was actually quite heavy, and that’s why I bought myself another Field 7.

It’s a shame they’re priced at about $35 for something so basic, which I think is more of a branding thing than anything else. If I could get a cheap un-branded compass of similar specifications then I would, but they’re hard to find on short notice. I suppose that all you really need is a magnetically sensitive needle inside a nicely divided circle. It probably helps some people to have a few features like a better grips on the dial thingee and a magnifier for maps (which I’ve personally never used), but I’ve yet to see anyone using something like a typically expensive sighting compass for tramping navigation in New Zealand. Perhaps it’s a consequence of the circles I associate with. They’re in the shops a lot so they must sell, and I’m quite interested to know what sorts of activities people use them for.

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "It’s only a magnet with a circle attached"

#1 Comment By Markus On 7 April, 2009 @ 11:54 pm

Hi Mike, I do quite a bit of tramping and never without my Swiss Recta compass DP6 [9]

It’s the type of compass I used many years ago while living in Switzerland and doing Swiss Army service. Later, after participating in a three-day map and compass course in the Swiss Alps, I decided to buy a Recta DP6.

Obviously, while tramping on marked tracks and routes, there’s no need for a compass. Venturing off the beaten track into the wilderness, however, I frequently use my compass. Usually to pinpoint my exact position, or to find out the names of the mountains I’m looking at. Then there have been instances when, thanks to my compass, I was able to successfully navigate along open tops in whiteout. I have also used it to keep my bearings during long stretches of bush bashing.

Sure, these days you can fancy GPS gadgets that tell you exactly where you are. I still like using my compass though. It’s such a simple device, incredibly accurate, doesn’t need any batteries, and is fun to use. The prerequisite is, of course, knowing how to use a compass in conjunction with maps, and vice versa.

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 8 April, 2009 @ 9:48 am

Hi Markus. Thanks for the comments and I hope I didn’t sound as if I was saying that extra features were meaningless.

Out of interest, do you find the mirror adds much? I’ve used a simple base-plate compass off-track for quite a while now… I don’t own my own GPS and I never want to going presuming to rely on it for the reasons you mention. So far I’ve found a base-plate compass useful enough (line up the edge on the map, point the arrow at the bearing, red end pointing at 22 or whatever the offset is, etc), although I’ve never been in a situation where it makes much of a difference to be off by a degree or two.

I don’t actually know anyone who uses anything much different from a base-plate compass, apart from the odd orienteering people who use those thumb compasses, so I haven’t seen anything more complex than a simple base-plate compass in use. I guess I’m wondering what I’m missing out on.

#3 Comment By Markus On 9 April, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

Hi Mike, if my compass didn’t have a mirror I would definitely miss it. The mirror allows me to hold the compass at eyelevel, giving me a more accurate reading than when I look down onto the compass at waist level.

The other great thing is that I can set the magnetic declination (22° east in the northern South Island) and forget about it. When I go further south, say to Stewart Island, I adjust the declination to 25° east.

Whether one needs those extra features is debatable. Any compass is better than none, I guess, as long as the user knows how to use it and is aware of magnetic declination.

One other thing to consider is weight. My compass weighs 55 grams which may be a few grams too many for ultralight trampers.