With the advent of GPS navigation systems, smartphones, and personal locator beacons, the lowly magnetic compass may seem an antiquated piece of equipment. All the same, the ability to use a map and compass is still a vital part of keeping yourself oriented and on track in the backcountry.
In the desert, knowing where you are and how far you are from the trailhead or a water source is critical. When electronics fail or batteries die, a good magnetic compass and a thorough knowledge of how to use it can mean the difference between life and death.
A field compass suitable for general hiking and backpacking is one that is lightweight, reliable, easy to use, and is designed to rapidly orient its owner when used with a map. Suunto of Finland’s M-3G (Global) Compass not only fits these requirements, but is also designed to give accurate readings in all magnetic zones throughout the world.
The M-3G is a baseplate or protractor compass, a popular style for general wilderness land navigation. It uses a large, easy-to-read compass dial marked in two-degree intervals, yet it weighs only 1.6 ounces (44 grams). When used with a standard USGS quad topographic map, the large bezel makes a very good protractor for measuring course bearings. The fairly long baseplate helps when drawing course lines, and is equipped with scales to aid in measuring distances.
The global needle uses a non-magnetized needle and a separate gimbal-mounted center magnet. Since the needle itself is not magnetized, it does not respond to vertical magnetic forces, and swings freely regardless of latitude. Perhaps more important is the fact that the global needle is designed to settle very quickly, and without wobble. The gimbal mounting gives accurate readings even if not held perfectly level, allowing you to take an accurate compass bearing under virtually any condition, such as when you’re out of breath after climbing a steep trail.
Also included in the feature list: adjustable declination, which permits the user to preset the difference between magnetic and true north headings, a clinometer for measuring slope angle, and a heavily serrated dial that can be easily operated with gloved or sweaty hands.
For 99% of most desert navigators, the Suunto M-3G is all the compass you’ll ever need. With a rock-steady needle, easy-to-read compass dial, adjustable declination, and excellent materials and workmanship, it’s a winner. The M-3G retails for about $56, and can be found at many outdoor sports and recreation stores.