Feb 18 2012

Hit By a Zombie Surprise: The New and Not-So-Improved Silva Huntsman Compass

zombie: A soulless corpse said to be revived by witchcraft…. (Oxford American Dictionary)

zombie product: A soulless product revived by corporate witchcraft.

zombie surprise: What the hapless purchaser receives on opening a package containing a zombie product. (With apologies to the Grace & Favour writers, whose inspired coinage I’ve taken the liberty of repurposing.)


Nothing lasts forever, and when a much-loved (and much-used) item of gear packs it in, you’ll need to replace it. In fact, if you’re like me, you won’t always wait for gear to die. Some things are so useful that you’ll want more than one of each, if only to avoid having to shift them around from pack to pack. Of course, if the piece of gear in question is over 20 years old, you can’t count on finding it on any outfitter’s shelves. (Truth to tell, if it’s more than six months old, it may already have disappeared without trace, so frenetic has the pace of “product development” become today—what the auto industry used to call “planned obsolescence.”)

Which is why it’s always a pleasant surprise to discover that something you’ve come to rely on is still for sale, undefiled by questionable improvements. And that explains why I was overjoyed when I found that the little Silva Huntsman compass—a long-term resident in my ditty bag and getaway pack—had not vanished from this earth. It’s never been my principal compass, but it has been a first-rate backup: accurate, sturdy, and compact. Nor is that its only role. Farwell carries one in his bicycle’s ‘bar bag, and he finds it very useful, especially when trying to decide which way to turn at rural intersections on days when the sun refuses to shine. So I’d decided I wanted one for my ‘bar bag, too. I like my Garmin GPS, but I don’t like being completely dependent on any electronic tool. (There’s also some doubt about how long our GPS receivers will work.) In any case, map and compass are as vital for venturesome cyclists as they are for paddlers, hillwalkers, and mountaineers. Sooner or later, all batteries die, but the earth’s magnetic field just keeps on going. And going…

You can imagine, then, just how glad I was to see my Huntsman compass displayed in all its glory on a retailer’s webpage. And I lost no time in ordering one. But I was destined to be disappointed. When I opened the box, just one week after I’d placed my order, I found a Silva compass labeled “Huntsman,” but it was not the Huntsman compass I’d come to know and love. It wasn’t the Huntsman compass shown on the retailer’s webpage, either. It was a Huntsman in name only—a zombie product, in other words—and I’d just received a zombie surprise. It was not a happy day.

Is this much ado about nothing? Well, see for yourself:

Huntsman and Zombie Huntsman

My original Huntsman is the little fellow on the left—a miniature sighting compass, whose diminutive size belies its considerable utility. The zombie Huntsman, on the right, is larger, occupying the dubious middle ground between the original Huntsman and a full-fledged orienteering compass like my Silva Ranger. Why “dubious”? Simple. It embodies neither the compactness of the original Huntsman nor the adjustable declination scale and transparent baseplate of the Ranger.

Zombie Huntsman Compass

True, the zombie Huntsman’s graduations are in increments of 2° rather than 5°, and the compass can be made to lie flat on a map, but neither of these is important for general orientation and on-the-move navigation, tasks at which the original Huntsman excels. (Five degrees is the practical limit of accuracy for all but the most careful compass users, in any case.) Yet, as I just noted, the zombie Huntsman isn’t a substitute for a true orienteering compass like the Ranger, either. For one thing, the zombie Huntsman’s declination scale, which appears at first glance to be adjustable, is in fact fixed, and the opaque baseplate makes transferring bearings to and from a map something of a hit-or-miss proposition, at least when compared to the transparent protractor baseplate of the Ranger.

There are other problems with this zombie product, too. The graduated housing advances by fits and starts. I think the intention was to have tactile detents at the four cardinal points, but if so, this intention wasn’t realized in practice: the stops come at the wrong places. And the hinge—it’s not a true hinge at all, just a plastic extrusion (see photo below)—though indeed allowing the compass to lie flat on a map, springs up as soon as it’s released, effectively negating even this small advantage.

Zombie Huntsman Hinge

And that’s not all. As this bottom view of the zombie product shows, the “sun watch” feature—one of the hallmarks of the original Huntsman—is missing. This isn’t really much of a loss, however, since the sun watch was never more than an approximate timekeeper. Still, it was better than nothing for the watchless traveler in the midlatitudes, at least when the sun shone. And it was a great subject for round-the-campfire conversation. But the sun watch is no more.

Zombie Huntsman Backside

The bottom line? If, like me, you’re looking for the old, tried-and-true Silva Huntsman, this zombie product isn’t it. It’s a good enough compass, to be sure, but it’s no substitute for the original. So don’t rely on catalog photos or website images. Accept no substitutes for the Real Thing—if you can locate it anywhere, that is. Good luck! And what do you do if you still find yourself on the receiving end of a Silva zombie surprise? You may have no choice but to wail and gnash your teeth. The small print on the retailer’s webpage from which I placed my order noted that compasses were not returnable. It seems they incorporate hazardous materials. So there’s another zombie surprise for you. Or have we now moved on to a zombie apocalypse? I’m not sure. But I do know I miss the old Huntsman. Is anyone at Silva listening? I hope so.

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