Compasses aren't the most exciting piece of kit, or the most expensive, but, with a good map and the skill to use both together, they can be the most valuable tool an adventurer can carry, whether hiking, camping, mountaineering or otherwise enjoying the great outdoors.
As regular hikers, and delivering Duke of Edinburgh's Award expedition training on a daily basis, we are frequent users of the ubiquitous baseplate compass and have taught many others how to use them effectively to navigate their own adventurous journeys. By default, though, we use Silva. Why? Well, I suppose the Silva Ranger is so well known that recommending it is almost a reflex reaction. DofE and Scout troop leaders the world over likely do the same. It has never let us down and we've had no reason to doubt its capabilities.
However, we were recently sent a free tester sample of the Suunto A-30 baseplate compass, courtesy of our friends at Access Expedition Kit - specialists in supplying camping and expedition equipment to schools and outdoor groups.
Suunto is a long-renowned and respected Finnish manufacturer of many navigational devices, recently becoming a common name in the world of sports wearables and activity trackers. Their compasses aren't something we've tried before. We were intrigued.
We asked Iain, Product Advisor at Access Kit, why they are selling the Suunto in direct competition with the Silva Ranger, at the same price, and include the Suunto in their pre-packaged leader kit bundles, rather than any of the four different Silva models they stock. Here's what he told us:
"We have been selling only the Silva brand for over 20 years, and they’ve obviously been the market leader in the UK. Their quality was always great when produced in Sweden, however they switched production to China and a lot of our customers are getting so many fail… mostly bubbles and de-polarising. This caused us to bring in an alternative brand as a test. The Suunto is still made in Finland."
So, although we hadn't noticed any quality issues with Silvas ourselves, we have to admit we don't personally own any manufactured in recent years. Access Kit say they listen carefully to feedback from their clients - real world users of the kit they sell - and we've found this to be evident in the Endurance branded tents and rucksacks which Access have developed specifically for their market of schools and youth groups. Many clever and thoughtful design tweaks, clearly based on user experience, have made the Endurance equipment better suited to use by inexperienced teenagers than standard off the shelf products. We'll be reviewing some samples shortly.
The Suunto arrived in the standard plastic blister-pack. We understand the marketing practicalities but big manufacturers really should cut plastics in their packaging and use recycled card instead.
A red and white reflective lanyard
A black plastic lanyard clip
A reasonably good set of basic usage instructions
A Suunto sticker
No frills, really, but what more could we expect? The sticker went straight on my flask with all the brand self-promotion stickers I've received in other product packaging. I spent a moment glancing over the instructions. Basic introduction to the key functions of a baseplate compass. I wouldn't use them for training my DofE Bronze participants but they might be handy as a pocket-able refresher crib sheet for a Gold team.
Straight out of the packet the compass itself feels like a decent piece of equipment. Any reasonably priced compass is going to be an item to handle with some degree of care but the A-30 feels like it could be thoughtlessly shoved in a rucksack pocket or swung, bouncing around a neck all day long without having to worry it might suddenly fall apart.
No bells and whistles here but there is everything we would need - measuring scales for centimeters, 1:25,000 and 1:50,000. There's the standard circle and triangle stencil cutouts and a large magnifier. We rarely use the magnifier for the 1:25,000 Editorial Alpina maps we work with daily, not even noticing it's there most of the time, but that's on a Silva Ranger, or similar. This magnifier seems noticeably bigger and we found we wanted to use it because doing so was easier as a result.
We immediately noticed the red print on the baseplate scales and arrow. Time will tell but this seemed instinctively better than the black text standard to Silvas. Baseplate compasses are designed to sit on top of a map, with a transparent base to show the map features below. Red text seems like it will stand out better from the map behind than black, hence being easier to see. Similarly, the black letters and numbers for bearings stand out clearly on the white bezel background. The design seems simple and uncluttered compared with the Silva Ranger (not that it's exactly a frenzy of crazy patterning on that compass either), which seems very conducive to using this for beginners. We did notice the lack of vertical guide lines or a long directional arrow. Whilst we teach students to line up the edge of the baseplate with the grid lines on their maps, they often reference the long, vertical printed lines when moving the compass across the map. Lastly, a number of (genuinely) glow in the dark paint spots help usefully in low light situations.
The included lanyard is nearly as basic as they come. Many Silva models come with a fancy lanyard that has the measuring scale printed along it. We like those for measuring curving footpaths on maps. The Suunto's is just a piece of red, thin nylon cord with some white reflective patterning. Tie the two ends in your preferred knot to make a loop and then... and then... well... we must confess we had to confirm how to connect the lanyard to the compass, via the black plastic clip, with the aid of a video on the Suunto Youtube channel. For the record, we were doing it right, it just didn't feel right. Still doesn't. The lanyard clips in to a very thin plastic hook inside the clip. Why this isn't a loop we're not sure. It doesn't feel secure enough. The other end of the clip then pushes on to the corresponding hole on the compass - made easier by gently squeezing the clip to open the jaws slightly. It seems that this design is to enable quick and easy unclipping of the lanyard so that the compass can be used more than 3 inches from your face, without having to untangle it from around your neck. This is a good feature for a sensible adult hiker. For us, we see a weak point in a piece of gear we'd be considering for use by novices. Teenaged novices, largely. It will be pulled. It will come off. It might snap. Losses and drops ensue. If bulk buying these for teaching participants, we'd bin the black plastic clips right out of the packet and tie the lanyard straight through the baseplate hole.
Overall the Suunto A-30 is a compass which feels like it has been well made. It's a plastic product but there are no unpleasantly sharp edges, the foot curves upward nicely so it can sit flat on a map with the lanyard attached and the top corners aren't so sharp that they become a potential 'shank', unlike many cheaper options. Close examination revealed that the bezel attaches to and rotates around the mount with a number of plastic clips, unlike the copper ring clip used on most Silva compass models, but this is simply an observation, at this stage.
So, have we been won over to the dark side, seduced away from a life of Silva compasses? Well, we haven't really used it yet. We haven't taken it out in the real world. Our one attempt to get an opinion from some DofE participants resulted in grunts to the effect of, "izza compass innit, right?"
The lack of fuss, simplicity and clear to read text, along with an overall sense of dependability mean than we'll leave any other compasses at home for a while and take this up to the Sierra de Tramuntana, or wherever else we go adventuring, then we'll report back here. Watch this space...
Have you used this compass? What do you think of it? Are you a die-hard Silva fan or have you suffered quality issues with Silvas in recent years? Have you a preferred compass model you think beats everything else? Join in on the comments below.
Access Expedition Kit sent us a bundle of free samples we had requested to test their gear. They included the Suunto A-30 as an unsolicited free sample for us to try out, in return for feedback. We receive no incentive for writing this post and have no obligation to either Access Expedition Kit or Suunto.
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