Will compasses keep you on track? Land navigation is an essential skill to learn for wilderness survival. Therefore, the compass is a critical part of successful land navigation. People navigated by the stars, dead reckoning, and terrain association before the invention of the compass or the nautical sextant astrolabe. There are many kinds of compasses available to the modern outdoorsman. Compasses fall into two categories based on the method of needle stabilization, also known as damping: liquid-filled and magnetic induction. Thus, purchasing a quality compass for use in the field is as important as having an accurate topographic map.

1. Liquid-filled Compasses


The most common type of compass on the commercial market are those with liquid damping. Liquid damping is the method of stabilizing needle movement by immersing it in an enclosed, liquid-filled housing chamber. Several types of liquid are in use for this method. Mineral oil, kerosene, or ethyl alcohol are the most common. Minimizing needle movement in a compass ensures maintaining a direction while trekking over land. An example of a liquid-filled compass is the Suunto Clipper Wrist Compass or the Suunto M3 Baseplate Compass. A quality liquid-filled compass is an excellent option for those who enjoy the outdoors recreationally or you are living in an urban-suburban survival zone.


The advantage of a liquid-filled compass is the retail cost to the consumer. Many of the budget-friendly compasses on the market are those that have liquid damping. Commercial button and wrist compasses use the liquid dampening method for needle stabilization. Therefore, compasses manufactured with this dampening method make them accessible to the average consumer. Examples of budget-friendly compasses using liquid-filled dampening are those by Coghlan’s and Coleman.


A disadvantage of compasses with liquid damping is that the liquid can form bubbles. These bubbles can affect compass accuracy. Another problem with these kinds of compasses is that the liquid can thicken in arctic temperatures. Consequently, the thickened oil restricts needle movement. This characteristic of oil-filled compasses limits there use to non-military applications. Moreover, the high temperatures in the summer in arid environments can cause the liquid to expand or evaporate. Consequently, if the housing becomes cracked, the liquid will leak out. Thus, the compass becomes inoperable.

2. Magnetic Induction Damping Compasses


Compasses using magnetic induction damping are the second most common compasses available to the outdoorsman. A compass utilizing magnetic induction is one in which the needle is stabilized through a magnetized field created within the needle housing. The most common way that this happens is by a magnet passing through an electromagnetic field.

However, magnetic induction damping in a typical lensatic compass occurs when the magnetized needle is moving through a copper needle housing. The U.S. Army M-1950 lensatic compass is an example of this kind of compass. Magnetic induction damping compasses are the preference of most militaries around the world.


The significant advantage of a compass using magnetic induction damping over liquid damping is its use in extreme temperatures. The compass with magnetic damping is usable in extreme arctic and extreme tropical or desert environments. The absence of the liquid in the needle housing eliminates the concern over the liquid freezing or expanding due to extreme temperatures.

Another advantage of these kinds of compasses is they tend to give a more accurate and stable reading when shooting an azimuth. The stability of the needle enables their use for land navigation in both night and day situations. Most military compasses copy the lensatic sighting mirror compasses first introduced by the British on the eve of the twentieth century. You can learn more about the U.S. Army lensatic compass in my article, “A Short History of the U. S. Army M-1950 Lensatic Compass.”


A disadvantage with compasses that have magnetic induction damping is that they can be more expensive to the average consumer. The process that creates the magnetic induction damping feature of the compass is more complicated than merely filling the needle housing with liquid. Furthermore, the compass housings must be of metal construction for the magnetic damping to work. Consequently, the cost increases to manufacture these compasses.

The second disadvantage of a compass using magnetic induction damping is that it can be complicated to use. For example, complaints often heard against the U.S. Army’s lensatic compass is that it is hard to use to take an azimuth and for land navigation. By contrast, those trained and experienced with these compasses use them as well as a person favoring the Suunto MC-2 Compass. Furthermore, the U.S. Army lensatic compass was designed to meet the specific needs and standards of the military and for military operations. They were not designed for use to survive the apocalypse, SHTF, or grid-down scenarios. Therefore, it is understandable why there are complaints about lensatic compasses.

Final Thoughts

A quality compass is a must-have item in the packing lists of your various bags. The two most common types of compasses are the liquid-filled and those using magnetic induction damping. Additionally, the compass that you adopt is one that should be accurate, durable, and magnetized for the proper hemisphere. You do not want to stake your life on a compass of lower quality.

Most survival experts advise spending money on a good fixed-blade knife. The same recommendation is valid for the purchase of your compass. Furthermore, if you are a world traveler, there are quality compasses available for use in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Suunto and Brunton have compasses that meet this need. A quality compass is an instrument that will enable your survival should you get lost on the trail or the backcountry. Therefore, choose your compass wisely and deliberately.

Have you ever heard about how to create a tactical land navigation kit? Land navigation is critical to emergency wilderness survival. The U. S. Army has a vested interest in the vital skill of moving on the battlefield. Navigation over familiar and unfamiliar terrain in all types of weather conditions during daylight or evening hours makes our military a formidable force. An essential element of this task is training individual soldiers, Commissioned Officers, Warrant Officers, and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) to be proficient at land navigation with a map, compass, and map protractor. Our sergeants prohibit the use of GPS devices during individual training on land navigation.

One of the techniques that I picked up in my military career was to have a personal land navigation kit in your rucksack as part of your packing list. It was during my time at Fort Benning, Georgia, that this technique first came to my awareness. Leaders are to be ready at all times to plot accurate map coordinates, mark accurate azimuths, and calculate and covert map and compass azimuths at all times. Of course, some did that better than others, as the old puns demonstrate regarding “butter bars” and land navigation. I still have my land navigation kit. It continues to have the original items that I used over the years. In this article, I will discuss how you can create your own Land Navigation Kit.

The Pouch


Spec-Ops Brand® Pack Rat Drop-In Organizer


The starting point for creating your land navigation kit is to purchase a tactical administrative pouch. The one that I use is the Spec-Ops Brand® Pack Rat Drop-In Organizer pouch. It has been around for a while and is now only offered in two colors: Black and Multicam®. The one that I used was initially in olive drab, and then I changed it out for the ACU digital camouflage version. This pouch is a little bulky for the average outdoorsman. However, it holds all of the items that I will identify for the packing list.

Description: 10” high, 7.25” wide x 3” thick. Total Capacity: 217.5 cubic inches.

The Packing List


1. Staedtler® Lumocolor® Permanent Markers, Super Fine Point



The Staedtler company makes the most excellent tools and equipment for draftsman, architects, and engineers. These markers are unique for using with laminated topographic maps. The recommendation for using permanent markers is that the ink will not run or bleed when it gets wet. Thus, this makes these markers and valuable tool for marking maps in rainy or wet conditions outdoors.

The super fine tip is excellent for making small marks and notes on a laminated map. For example, if you find a stream that is not on your map, the blue super fine tip marker can be used to mark it. You can also make small notes and labels near key terrain features as you navigate over your chosen route.

2. Staedtler® Lumocolor® Permanent Markers, Fine Point


These fine point markers from Staedtler are superb for making larger notes or markings on your map. These markers are great for marking roads or trails or other larger items on your map. The eight-count pack has all of the colors usually associated with maps. The fine-point and super fine-point markers are valuable writing instruments for your land navigation kit.

Note: Staedtler also makes an alcohol marker for removing lines and marks made with these pens. Thus, you can purchase this item if you are going to use permanent markers. Additionally, some people like to use hand sanitizer to remove lines, markings, or notes from their laminated maps.

3. Staedtler® Lumocolor® Permanent Marker 350 Wide Chisel Tip


The Staedtler broad-tip makers are great for marking tactical or operational boundary lines on a map. However, there is little application for tactical markings on a civilian map. So why the wide-tip markers? These markers are a great back up in case you need to make notes on objects like rocks if you become lost in the wilderness. The waterproof qualities of these markers allow them to be used as an alternative to the Sharpie® Industrial Permanent Markers.

4. MGRS-UTM Map Protractor


Map protractors are a must if you have a topographic map. My kit has typically at least three protractors. My kit has at least three protractors stored in the interior pocket of the pouch. You should always carry extra map protractors. If you are not sure about which ones to purchase, check out my previous article on map protractors.

5. ACCO® Banker’s Clasps


Banker’s clasps are used to hold your map to a map board. Some people still use map boards. These are exceptional items to help keep your map or other things in place. An alternative to these clasps is paper binder clips. Paper binder clips have other uses besides holding a map to a map board. However, I used the clasps during my military career, and they were great for my land navigation needs.

6. Westcott® Metal Ball Bearing Compass with Pencil


A pencil compass has limited applications outside of military map use. They are useful items for drawing arcs from a known point. The military use for a pencil compass is to identify distances and ranges from a known location, like your patrol base. However, there are a few instances where these would be helpful to land navigation for civilians. The most likely use would be to draw a communications arc for your handheld radio (HHR) from your bivouac site or bugout location on your map. Another use for the pencil compass is to help determine the range for line-of-site (LOS) considerations. Additionally, the golf pencil on the compass can be a backup writing utensil in an emergency.

7. Zebra® M-701 Stainless Steel Mechanical Pencil


A Zebra mechanical pencil has its best use on a non-laminated paper map. The permanent markers mentioned above will smudge or bleed through a paper map. The mechanical pencil is useful for drawing accurate azimuth lines and plotting grid points. It is also helpful for making marks or notes on the map as you use it.

8. Zebra® F-701 Ballpoint Stainless Steel Retractable Pen


The Zebra® pens are the best on the market for general use considerations. As with the mechanical pencil, the ballpoint pen is best for making notes and lines on a paper map. It also can be an emergency writing device should you need one. The other advantage of a ballpoint pen is that the ink is waterproof. A good alternative for the Zebra® is the Skilcraft U.S. Government pen.

9. Sharpie® Accent Pocket-Style Fluorescent Yellow Highlighters


The next item in the land navigation kit is a yellow highlighter. The highlighter is a versatile item. It not only highlights important or critical information on your map, but it also glows in the dark when a blue-filtered light shines on the marked item (Tscherne, “A Map Marker Lighter,” Ranger Digest No. VII, Paradise, CA: Loose Cannon, 2017, 117). Incidentally, this technique does work. I tried it by highlighting something on a note card that I had laying around my office and using the blue filter on my L-light flashlight.

Final Comments

A land navigation kit is a great item to consider adding to your loadout. The kit discussed in this article is a little bulky for most outdoorsman. However, I would recommend that you use this article to come up with your own user-friendly land navigation kit. The items in this kit have been used in a multitude of environments and scenarios. They work for their intended purposes and help make the task of map reading and land navigation more efficient. Therefore, enjoy experimenting with your own personalized land navigation kit.

There are three outstanding map protractors to consider for your land navigation needs. Land navigation is an essential part of both emergency survival and enjoying the outdoors. Many people prefer to use GPS devices such as those from Garmin®. Other people prefer to use some kind of GPS and Map application on their smartphone or tablet. However, land navigation with a paper topographic map can be cumbersome without the aid of a map protractor and a compass. Therefore, it is good to know the two basic kinds of map protractors.

Map protractors have some essential functions regardless of their calibrated scale. The three primary functions of protractors for map reading are plotting points on a map, measuring distances and determining azimuths (angles). They are helpful tools for navigating on air, land, or sea. There are different types of protractors for each of these applications. This article will focus on those protractors used with land navigation and topographic maps.

1. Military Map Protractor



The most recognizable map protractor is the one that is in use with the U.S. military. They are scaled to the Military Grid Reference System (MGRS). They use the metric system for measuring distance and feature both compass degrees and mils around the edges. These protractors are for use with the military topographic maps. This style of the protractor is available on the civilian market. However, some are scaled for commercial maps, like a UTM map, rather than military maps. Also, you can find military protractors sometimes being sold in military surplus stores.

The significant difference between the genuine military protractors and the civilian copies is labeling. There is a label on the military-issued ones that reads something like this:

GTA 05-02-012, June 2008

There are military style map protractors available by civilian vendors online. However, they are prohibited by law from putting the above label on them. Why? Because once a company does that, the product becomes the property of the U. S. government. Since they may not be under contract with the Department of the Army to supply these products, they would be in violation of the law if they put the U. S. Army label on them.

Primary Use

Moreover, military protractors and maps are for use in training and operations. Thus, genuine military protractors and military topographic maps have to be updated often. The purpose of these updates is to account for the changes in the magnetic declination of the earth. For example, if you have a genuine military protractor with a date from the 1990s, it may not be as accurate as one with a more current date. For civilian use, this factor is not as critical to land navigation.

2. UTM Map Protractor



A commercial version of the military map protractor is the UTM map protractor. UTM stands for Universal Transverse Mercator. UTM is based on the metric grid square system of measuring distance. It has similarities with the MGRS system. These protractors have two basic styles: the military style and the nautical style. The maritime version of this protractor incorporates both topographic map scales and marine navigation tools. The sailing version looks complicated to read. However, it is not that much different than the military MGRS protractor.

Primary Uses

The UTM map protractor is most useful with civilian topographic maps, such as the ones that you can purchase from map stores. In some cases, the UTM protractor can be used with non-topographic maps. However, these protractors may not be compatible with your typical road atlas map book. So be careful about how you use one of these protractors on maps purchased at your local store.

UTM maps and protractors are mostly used for hiking and backpacking. A common way of reading UTM coordinates is “Northing and Easting.” UTM squares are further divided into kilometers similar to the MGRS system. UTM is similar but different from the MGRS system in the way that it is read and annotated on a map.

3. Corner Rulers



The third kind of map protractor are the corner ruler protractors. These look similar to the UTM and MGRS military-style protractors. However, some of the features are different. Corner Ruler protractors do not have any compass degree markings around the edges. Next, the grid-square scale is upside down. They are designed to find a coordinate with a known grid quickly. They are not intended to find grid azimuth readings on a map and route plotting.

Primary Use

The Corner Ruler map protractor has a primary use in two applications: aerial photography and adventure racing. Their use for aerial photos is to quickly find a point on the photo within an identified grid square. Adventure racers operate on predetermined routes. Therefore, they do not need a tool that helps them traverse over open terrain by plotting a course. They just need a protractor to help find where they are on a known grid-square.

Some Final Thoughts

Map reading and land navigation are vital skills for those who love the outdoors. It is also an essential skill for emergency survival. I have found that some trail maps that are available at a trailhead or ranger station are little more than sketches. They are not to scale and are not very accurate. If this is your only map in your backpack and you get lost, a map like that might be your worst enemy.

It is vital to have an up-to-date and accurate topographic map of the area you are operating in. Along with that map, you should also have an excellent manual compass and map protractor. The MGRS and UTM protractors are the two most common kinds of protractors available. Some companies sell map protractors with both MGRS and UTM scales. Therefore, shop around and find the protractor that you are most comfortable. Then, use it regularly with your hard-copy topographic map.

The best compasses for your kit considerations are those of proven quality, durability, and accuracy. The compass that you choose to include in any level of survival or outdoor packing list is one of the essential items in your loadout. As well, there are strong feelings among many about what brand or type of compass is the best on the market. However, the best compass on the market is the one that you have used and are the most confident with when you are in the field. However, the best compasses for your kit are the following:

1. U. S. Army Lensatic Compass

The U. S. Army Lensatic Compass conforms to the military standards published in MIL-PRF-10436N. Also, the military lensatic compasses are made in the United States. The current manufacturer of this compass is the Cammenga Company in Dearborn, Michigan. Of note, the previous maker of these compasses is Stocker & Yale, Incorporated in Beverly, Massachusetts. For example, the two lensatic compasses that I own are from Stocker & Yale. Moreover, you can purchase one of these Cammenga military lensatic compasses at the Sigma 3 Survival Store.


A lensatic compass is a magnetic compass that uses a magnifying glass to read its scale or dial. The U. S. Army lensatic compass is an induction-damped, handheld, north-seeking instrument with an internal, self-exciting light source, in other words, it is self-illuminating (tritium or phosphorous). The baseplate construction is of high-grade aluminum with a powder coating. The needle moves within a non-liquid filled needle housing. Thus, the military lensatic compass is one of the best overall compasses on the market.


Cammenga makes this compass with two options: model 3H with a tritium luminous dial (NSN: 6605-01-196-6971) or model 27 with a phosphorous luminescent dial (NSN: 6605-01-571-6052). Interestingly, Cammenga produces these compasses in the following colors: Olive Drab, RealTree® Camo, Black, and Coyote Brown. The compasses have a free-floating needle instead of the needle floating in a liquid (water or oil). They are also waterproof and dustproof under most field conditions. They will function in temperatures between -50°F (-46°C) and 150°F (66°C). The compass is also shockproof is dropped from up to three feet (90 cm). Additionally, they also have two needle options: Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere.

Additional Comments:

Moreover, the lensatic compass is the standard compass in all my backpack load outs. I have other compasses, but my U. S. Army lensatic compass is the one that I keep coming back to when I need reliability, durability, and accuracy. Most of all, I do not have to wait for satellite synchronization or linkage with the lensatic compass. There are no extra batteries that need to be carried in a pack because it is an analog magnetic compass. In addition to these features, the military lensatic compass also fits comfortably into the LC-2 ALICE First Aid Pouch or the MOLLE Grenade Pouch.

Best Uses:

Advanced and Tactical Day and Night land navigation
Hiking & Backpacking
Game Hunting

2. K&R Alpin Sighting Compass

The next type of compass that can be part of your loadout is the mirrored sighting compass. One of the best on the market is the K&R Alpin Sighting Compass. The compass is a product based on input from the German Mountain Rescue Service. These compasses are made in Germany.


A mirrored sighting compass is a compass in which the compass dial can be viewed using a mirror while simultaneously sighting an object through the sighing notch or slot on the compass lid. That is why these kinds of compasses are not in the category of being a lensatic compass. The sighting compass is sometimes called the hand compass, forester compass, or cruiser compass. They are one-hand use compasses. Their easy use quickly found them being a favorite of the geology, marine, and forestry professions.


The Alpin Sighting Compass has several convenient features. The sighting mirror is polished stainless steel. The baseplate, compass lid, and compass capsule are made of high-impact plastic. The result is a compass that is very durable and lightweight. The needle moves within a liquid filled needle housing. The bezel is self-luminating with two large sighting notches (12 and 6 o’clock positions) on the bezel for night navigation. It also has a clinometer to measure incline while traversing uneven or mountainous terrain. K&R has three measurement options for this compass: standard, metric, and mils.

Additional Observations:

This particular compass is an excellent alternative to the military lensatic compass. The large glowing bezel makes it user-friendly for trekking at night. It is easy to use and probably a better option for those unfamiliar with using the military lensatic compass. A rival to the Alpin is the Suunto MC-2 Sighting Compass. Both of these compasses fit comfortably into the MOLLE Gen II Flashbang Grenade Pouch. The K&R Alpin and the Suunto MC-2 compasses represent the best of the mirrored sighting compasses on the market.

Best Uses:

Advanced Land Navigation
Hiking and Backpacking
Game Hunting
Emergency Preparedness

3. Suunto M-3 G Compass

Finally, a third type of compass option for your outdoor activity concerns is the simple baseplate compass. The baseplate compass is the most common type on the market. One can purchase these kinds of compasses with various levels of quality and in various price ranges. The primary use for the baseplate compass is in conjunction with a map.


Baseplate compasses have a clear plastic base upon which the compass mechanism sits. The sides of the baseplate usually are marked in standard increments. These markings allow the baseplate to function as a ruler for measuring distances on the map. The baseplate also has a magnifying glass embedded for observing small map details. The needle mechanism usually is liquid filled and jewel bearing.


The Suunto M-3 G Compass has several useful characteristics. The bezel is luminescent. The G model has a globally aligned needle so it can be used anywhere on the earth in both hemispheres. This model also comes in just a northern hemisphere (NH) needle orientation and a southern hemisphere (SH) needle orientation. It is incrementally marked in metric and imperial UTM scales. The compass also has a clinometer for determining the slope of an incline. This compass originates in Finland

Additional Observations:

The baseplate compass is one of the most versatile compasses that one can own. The Suunto M-3 compasses offer the basic navigational needs for most scenarios and applications. They are small enough to fit easily into a MOLLE Flashbang Grenade Pouch. They come with a lanyard which allows attachment to the shoulder strap of most backpacks. These compasses are easy to use and are an excellent option for the occasional outdoorsman or weekend hiker or backpacker.

Best Uses:

General Land Navigation
Hiking and Backpacking
Game Hunting
Emergency Preparations

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