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Silva, Suunto, or Brunton

Silva, Suunto, or Brunton?

All three of these companies make good handheld compasses for land navigation and all three also make some low end compasses that I would not recommend. At the top end, it is difficult to say which company builds the compass that will perform the best or last the longest, so I would focus on the getting your favorite features for the best price rather than reputation because just who is making the compass that you are inspecting is not as straightforward as you might expect.

In 1932 Silva became the first manufacturer of the baseplate (orienteering) compass, and built a reputation for quality around its Silva Ranger and other models.  However, in  1985 , Johnson Worldwide Associates (now Johnson Outdoors Inc.) bought the North American side of the Silva company, and beginning in the late 1990s, compasses like the Ranger are no longer manufactured by Silva.  Over the past few years I have seen an increasing number of negative reviews of the Silva Ranger, so there is some question about quality control since the transition to Johnson Outdoors.  However, there is also an indication that the Suunto company manufactures compasses for Johnson Outdoors, so I am not sure I believe in any huge discrepancy between the quality of these two brands.  I have used both for many years.

The original parent company of the Silva Ranger is now called Silva Sweden AB and it still sells compasses under the Silva name outside the U.S., but get this, it has owned Brunton since 1996.  So the Brunton Model 15 sold in the U.S. could be considered a more direct descendant of the Silva Ranger than the Silva Ranger that Johnson Outdoors produces.  To make matters more confusing, some of the original Brunton-designed compasses are sold under the Silva brand name outside the U.S.

Suunto brand compasses were not involved in the acquisitions and legal dealings that produced today’s complicated brand identification, but the company apparently manufactures some compasses for Johnson Outdoors to be sold under the Silva name in North America.

Cammenga Lensatic Compass Review (Models 27, 3H, B3H, C3HRT)

If you are interested in purchasing a high quality lensatic compass the choice is easy.  Cammenga (any model) is THE brand to get.  I have had a couple cheap ($10-$20) lensatic compasses over the years that I would not recommend. My advice is don’t bother until another company decides to challenge Cammenga’s dominance in the lensatic compass field. Click on the links to take a look at (or buy) these at Amazon.com.

Cammenga Model 27 Lensatic Compass

Cammenga Model 27 Lensatic Compass

Cammenga Model 27

The Cammenga Model 27 is the basic (and, in my opinion, best) model that Cammenga makes.  It uses long-lasting (1-2 hour) phosphorescence to illuminate some of the markings on the compass for reading it at night.   It’s a heavy (well, less than 6 oz. at least) and bulky-not something you want to have in your front pocket while hiking around, but those are the same characteristics that make it a nearly indestructible instrument that is likely to last as long as you do.

The compass card (lensatic compasses use cards rather than needles) is marked in degrees and mils. Mils, which are finer compass increments than degrees, are used by the U.S. military for, among other things, precise targeting.  The military is a major purchaser of Cammenga compasses.

Another feature of the compass is the electromagnetic induction dampening system.  This set-up eliminates the need for a fluid-filled capsule and the risk of losing the dampening system when you drop your compass on a rock.

These compasses cost around $50 and come in an olive drab color and with a 1 year warranty.

Cammenga Models 3H, B3H, and C3HRT

The 3H is essentially the same compass as the Model 27 with two differences.  First, it uses radio-active tritium to produce nighttime luminosity (for about a decade) with no need to “charge” from sunlight. The second difference is the price.  It costs about %40 more than the Model 27.

Personally, I prefer to be in my sleeping bag after the sun goes down, but if you do extreme cross-country expeditions or other “activities” that require some nighttime navigation, you might consider going for the tritium.

The  B3H is the black version of the compass.  Cammenga markets these to agencies whose employees are very color coordinated and like their gear to match their outfits (S.W.A.T., D.E.A, F.B.I. etc.).

The C3HRT is also the same 3H tritium compass but with a Real Tree Camo finish.  I wonder how many of these have been lost in the woods so far…

Brunton 15TDCL Compass Review

The Brunton Model 15 TDCL is manufactured by Silva Sweden AB, the original manufacturer of the Silva Ranger (see Silva, Suunto, or Brunton? for details on this confusing branding issue). Like its competitors, the Silva 515CL and the Suunto MC-2D, the Brunton 15TDCL is a mirror compass with adjustable declination and clinometer, luminous points, rubber feet, and 1:24,000, 1:25,000, and 1:50,000 scales. The Brunton 15TDCLQ is the quadrant version.

Brunton 15TDCL Compass

Brunton 15TDCL Compass

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of this compass is the red bezel (compass dial). Whether the color enhances performance is debatable, but it sure looks cool. Another interesting feature is the rounded corners giving the compass a sleek look and making it just a little easier to slip it out of a cargo pocket, but the rounded corners don’t do anything to reduce the weight which is 3 ounces (compared with 2.65 for the Suunto MC-2D and 2.2 for the Silva Ranger 515CL).

The features of this compass are competitive, but three additional benefits really make the Brunton 15TDCL stand out—it’s price is as good or better than comparable brands, it is made by Silva Sweden AB, the original, highly respected manufacturer of the Silva Ranger, and it comes with a lifetime warranty. Hard to beat!

Silva Ranger 515CL Review

The Silva Ranger 515 CL is one of the most popular handheld baseplate (orienteering) compasses on the planet.  It has been my compass of choice over a 20 year career as a park ranger and forester. I have had one of my Silva Rangers for 15 years.  I have broken or lost others.

This compass has a bright, easy to read bezel (compass dial), adjustable declination, a cool sighting slit in the mirror, a clinometer and all the right map scales. It’s also the lightest compass in it’s class, weighing in at 2.2 ounces (compared with 2.65 for the Suunto MC-2D and 3.0 oz for the Brunton 15TDCL).

Silva Ranger 515CL

Silva Ranger 515CL

Unfortunately, the reliability of the trusted Silva brand is not enough for me to recommend that you buy this compass without even looking at the competition.  In 1998 Silva’s U.S. operations changed hands (see Silva, Suunto, or Brunton?) and there have been some concerns expressed about a slip in quality.  I have purchased two of these models in the past few years, and I had some POTENTIALLY quality-related issues with both of them.

One, I bought in about 2003 and I noticed the bezel (compass dial) felt a little loose.  I have seen other reviews that mention this issue.  However, the play in the dial felt much larger than it really is.  I’m a forester, not a surveyor, so the 1/10th of a degree of accuracy that I might be loosing with the loose dial is a non-issue. Local magnetic anomalies are a much larger concern than a little play in the bezel anyway.  The real question is whether it is indicative of some greater lapse in quality.  So far this does not seem to be the case and I still use the 515 CL each summer in the field and it works great.

A more recent experience with this model came in 2009 when I purchased a Silva Ranger 515CL for a Map and Compass video I was creating.  Within a week the compass developed a huge bubble, and within a month all the liquid had leaked out.  On the surface this seems like an indication of poor quality, but I have no evidence that the rate of leaky compass production is any greater with this model or brand than with its competitors.  I have bought at least 30 of the pre-1998 Silva Rangers when I managed equipment for my fellow park rangers, and a couple of those developed leaks too, but I also had a Suunto compass with a leak a few years ago.  So I am not ready to make any accusations about quality based on my experiences with the new Silva Ranger.

My recommendation is to check out the prices of competitive models and, if you like it and get a good deal on it, give the Silva Ranger 515CL a try.  If you have lingering doubts, get your hands on one at an outdoor store before buying sight unseen.

Suunto MC-2G Global Mirror Compass

Suunto MC-2 Global Compass

The Suunto MC-2G Global compass (called the MC-2G Navigator at some stores) is my favorite choice for serious outdoor adventures, especially if they will take you around the globe.  Suunto’s patented global needle design enables the compass to work when crossing compass zones where needle dip would normally be an issue.  A side effect of the global needle design is that you can be fairly sloppy, holding the compass at up to a 20° angle, and still get an accurate reading.  Technique is still important with this, and all handheld compasses, but the robust design makes it a little more forgiving.

There is a small half-moon window in the base of the mirror that helps when sighting, or when you are plotting directions on a map.  Other standard features on the MC-2G:

  • Anti-slip baseplate that keeps the compass on a map when you are plotting a bearing
  • Clintometer to measure slope angle, handy for mountaineering, backcountry skiing, or rock climbing
  • A luminous two-color dial (bezel)
  • Magnifying lens
  • Lanyard
  • Map scales

The Suunto MC-2G weighs 2.65 oz (74g). American scale (/IN) or international scale (/CM) models are available.  The MC-2G/IN has map scales of 1:24,000 and 1:62,500 and the MC-2G/CM has 1:25,000 and 1:50,000.

Suunto MC-2D Compass

Suunto MC-2D Compass

Suunto MC-2D Compass

The Suunto MC-2D (called the MC-2D Navigator at some stores) is an excellent choice for serious land navigation. The D in the model number indicates the adjustable declination setting, which I consider to be an essential feature.

This is a two zone compass, so those sold in the northern hemisphere have compass needles balanced differently from those sold in the southern hemisphere. If most of your travels are restricted to the northern hemisphere and perhaps the tropical zone of the southern hemisphere, you should be just fine with the northern hemisphere model. If you are planning an expedition in Patagonia, you might consider getting the southern hemisphere model (designated with a /sh in the model number). If you tend to range far and wide where compass needle dip could be a problem, consider purchasing a compass with a global needle design (see the Suunto MC-2 Global).

There is a small half-moon window in the base of the mirror that helps when sighting, or when you are plotting directions on a map. Other standard features on the MC-2D:

• Anti-slip baseplate that keeps the compass on a map when you are plotting a bearing.
• Clintometer to measure slope angle, handy for mountaineering, backcountry skiing, or rock climbing.
• Magnifying lens
• Lanyard.
• Map scales.

The Suunto MC-2D weighs 2.65 oz (74g) and is 2.5″ x 3.9″ x 0.6″ (65 x 101 x 18 mm) with the lid closed.

Before you purchase the compass, make sure you shop around for the optional features which include luminous compass dial (bezal) denoted by a /L in the model, and an American scale (/IN) or international scale (/CM). The MC-2D/IN has map scales of 1:24,000 and 1:62,500 and the MC-2D/CM has 1:25,000 and 1:50,000.

Suunto M-3G Compass

Suunto M3-G Global Compass

Suunto M3-G Global Compass

The Suunto M-3G Global (or M-3G Leader in some stores) is a non-mirrored baseplate compass with a global magnetic needle, which makes it usable in all the planet’s magnetic zones. The lack of a mirror makes this compass compact and light (1.6 oz, 44g)—a great choice for ultra light weight backpacking.
Standard features include:

• Anti-slip baseplate that keeps the compass on a map when you are plotting a bearing.
• Magnifying lens
• Lanyard
• Luminous markings

This model comes with inch and centimeter scales, and map scales of 1:24,000 and 1:62,500. Starts at just under $50.

Suunto M-3D/L Compass

Suunto M3-D/L

Suunto M3-D/L Compass

The Suunto M-3D/L is a non-mirrored baseplate compass that offers a great combination of light weight, adjustable declination, and affordability.  Versions of this compass sold in the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere have different needle balances to correct for needle dip.

A serrated compass dial, or bezel apparently makes it easy to set when you are wearing gloves.  I have never had a problem setting a compass in cold weather, but this feature could potentially be helpful.

Standard features include:

  • Anti-slip baseplate that keeps the compass on a map when you are plotting a bearing.
  • Magnifying lens
  • Lanyard
  • Luminous markings

The Suunto M-3DL weighs 1.6 oz (44 g) and comes standard with CM measuring scales, and 1:25,000 and 1:50,000 scales at large on-line retailers.  For some reason, the American version is only available at smaller stores.  Try, OpticsGiant.com or Campingsurvival.com