How to Choose the Right Hiking Compass for You
Why is It Important to Bring a Compass
Despite being originally published over 80 years ago, a map and compass are still listed as one of the mandatory components of the updated Ten Essentials. Even despite the large number of electronic devices with GPS these days.
Technology fails, batteries die and for this reason, even if you normally use a GPS device to navigate, you should always take a compass and map as a redundancy so you can always find your way.
As the saying goes “never trust your life to a battery”.
Anatomy of Compasses
A basic understanding of the key components of compasses will quickly alleviate the belief that a navigational compass is just a needle on a board. Being able to navigate successfully (and safely) requires knowledge about what each of the components is for, and how to use them correctly.
The most typical form of compasses for hiking are baseplate compasses. These have a flat transparent base that supports the bezel and needle housing. The base plate compass will have a wide variety of navigational markings and typically a ruler along one edge to for measuring distances on a map. The straight ruler edge of the baseplate is great for drawing straight lines when triangulating your coordinates.
The rotating bezel (or azimuth ring) is the moveable ring that forms the outer part of the compass housing (liquid capsule). This ring will be marked in degrees from 0° to 360° around its outer edge. You manipulate (rotate) the bezel to take bearings relative to magnetic north (read on to find out how this differs from true north).
The most easily recognizable element of a compass is, of course, the magnetized needle. The needle floats in a damping fluid and is attached to the baseplate with a jeweled bearing (which it pivots on).
The damping fluid is present to help steady the needle, making it more accurate than a needle sitting in air alone (especially if combined with shaky hands). This fluid won’t freeze, but you may over time see bubbles appear within the fluid – these won’t negatively affect the compasses accuracy (unless the capsule becomes more air than liquid).
The magnetized end of the needle (typically painted red) will pivot along the Earths magnetic field, resulting in the needle constantly rotating to point to magnetic north. NEVER leave your compass near strong magnets or items that have strong magnetic fields (such as car speakers) as this could demagnetize the needle, rendering its readings inaccurate. If this happens, the check our our article to learn how to fix a compass.
Orientating Arrows and Lines
The orientating arrow and lines (also called meridian lines) are found in the compass housing (sitting on top of the baseplate) and will move with the bezel as you rotate it. These assist in carrying out several basic navigational jobs.
Magnifying Lens (Optional)
Not essential to finding where you are going, but many compasses have a magnifying lens built into the baseplate. Handy for reading small, or crowded map details.
Important Features to Consider
When deciding to buy a compass, several features are more important than others, and depending on the intended use these may vary. To help make sure you pick the right compass for you, here is a breakdown of the most common features, and to whom they will be most beneficial.
Unfortunately, using a compass isn’t as easy as just pointing it in a certain direction and it’ll tell which way the north pole is. Depending on where you are located on the earth’s surface there can be a substantial difference between the north your compass is pointing at (magnetic north) and the actual North (True North).
This difference between True North and Magnetic North is known as magnetic declination, and is caused by local variations in the earths magnetic field. If you typically do your hiking/backpacking in the one region, you can normally adjust your compass to reflect the areas magnetic declination (found in the legend on good topographic maps) and forget about it.
However, if you do a lot of traveling, or you live in an area where the declination changes rapidly, then you’ll need to adjust your declination more frequently to account for the difference.
Wait. Magnetic declination changes over time as well as from area to area?
Everyone remember the science project where you had to build a model of the Earths interior layers? No? Well, I won’t revisit the agony of it in detail, but suffice to say the interior of the earth is comprised of multiple layers. The molten metallic region of the outer core is constantly moving fluids around. It’s this constantly moving distribution of fluid metals (some of which are magnetic) that causes variations to the earths magnetic field that we see at the surface.
Moving away from geology and back to navigation device – Not all compasses allow you to adjust for declination, and I would never ever recommend a compass that does not have this feature. Most compasses that I have used typically set the declination compensation by turning a small screw in the back of the baseplate with a declination adjustment key to create an offset between the orientation lines/arrow and the north arrow.
You could (in theory) do the declination adjustment every time you take a bearing by simply adding/subtracting from the measured bearing. However, in my opinion, this is really setting yourself up for a monumental error that one time you forget.
You can typically find a declination scale on most modern topographic maps, next to the map legend.
Depending on which hemisphere you spend most of your time trekking around in the backcountry, you need a compass that is designed for north or south of the equator. Using a southern hemisphere compass in the northern hemisphere (say in the U.S.) will see the needle dip substantially into the baseplate causing it to stick and for the needle movement to be jerky.
Alternatively, some compasses have a global needle (known as a global compass). This sounds fancy, but it is basically a feature that allows the compass needle to tilt more (up to 20 degrees) without it sticking on the baseplate. Thereby, allowing for smoother navigating whichever hemisphere you are in.
To aid in more accurate compass readings, some more advanced models, known as a sighting compass have a mirror located within the hinged lid of the compass. This works by allowing you to hold the compass away from you at arm’s length, and then tilting the mirror down at an angle so you can simultaneously see the needle/orientation arrow (in the mirror) and the landmark you are trying to sight. This simple feature substantially improves your ability to accurately read off bearings.
A clinometer, typically found on an advanced compass, is used to measure the steepness of slope angles (or rock bed for you geologists out there). Clinometers are often a small free moving arrow inside the liquid capsule, below the magnetized compass needle.
This feature is more geared for backcountry skiers and mountaineers to assist in assessing avalanche hazards. If you hike on well-maintained trails, then this is likely a feature you will be unlikely to use. Finally, for any and all geology students, this is a must-have feature for your fieldwork.
Navigating in dusk or near dark is tricky. Some models of compass have luminescent paint on the compass needle, bezel markings etc to assist you if the light is beginning to fade.
Thankfully something that I have never really had to worry about, nor should you if you stick to the more reputable manufacturers such as Suunto compasses, Silva or Brunton.
Durability correlates strongly with cost and I think it goes without saying “that your compass is your ticket home on every trip”. As such your navigational system (compass & maps) is one area I wouldn’t try to save money on.
Learning to Use a Compass
It should be pointed out that owning a compass, and knowing how to use one correctly are two completely separate things.
Every year, an estimated 1500 people get themselves lost in our National Parks. Tack on other wilderness areas and the number becomes even larger. Many of these incidents could have been easily avoided by knowing proper navigational skills. In fact, in innumerable cases, the “lost hikers” have been found in close proximity to trails and tracks that could have led them to safety if they had the equipment and the skills.
Don’t become a statistic. Learn how to navigate properly!
You can get a head start by reading our article on how to use a map and compass but as with most practical things you only really learn by doing. Start out easy, such as practicing your navigational skills in an area you know well until you become more confident. In addition, there are many orienteering classes around the country, such as those provided by R.E.I.
Storing & Caring for Your Compass
As we touched on earlier, do NOT store your compass near any magnetic or electrical fields. These can demagnetize the needle rendering it useless when out in the field. In fact, its good protocol to double-check your compass is working correctly before you head out on any trip.
Similarly when you’re out on the trails, do not keep your compass together with your cell phone, as this can also demagnetize the needle. I find it’s best to keep your compass near the top of your pack, in a large ziplock bag with the topo maps.
Frequently Asked Questions about Compasses
Q: My compass has a bubble – will it still work?
Probably. The liquid inside the compass will expand and contract with temperature changes. You can check out our article on air bubble in compass for more details.
The Best Hiking Compasses Reviewed – The Results
Silva Ranger 2.0 Compass
Best Hiking Compass
- See main description
- Item Brand: Silva
- Item Number: 37037
- department name: mens
Our top award for best hiking compass goes to the Silva Ranger 2.0, pulling in good scores across the board.
Silva is known to produce some of the best mirror compasses on the market, and they don’t disappoint with the Ranger 2.0. Just flip up the mirror and align the sighting hole to accurately determine your bearing over long distances. This model comes with scales printed onto its lanyard to help accurately measure distances on your map.
Additional features include rubber grips to keep it slipping from your grasp, luminous markings on the base plate and bezel that’ll help you navigate up to 4 hours after the sun sets and declination adjustment.
The one downside to the Ranger 2.0 is the occasional reports of bubble formation within the liquid capsule. However, unless it becomes severe this shouldn’t impact it’s accuracy greatly.
- Sighting mirror
- Adjustable Declination
- Scales on lanyard
- Very accurate
- Somewhat prone to bubbles
Suunto MC-2G Navigator Compass
Best Orienteering Compass
- Compact mirrored compass for taking highly accurate and reliable…
- Global needle works anywhere on the planet; base plate with magnifying lens
- Fixed declination adjustment system is ideal for areas with large magnetic…
- Extra sighting hole for added precision; luminous bezel and markings for…
The best compass for orienteering is the Suunto MC-2G Navigator, which in our opinion is the most accurate compass we have trialed. The MC-2G has a large mirror with sighting hole, luminous bezel ring, and a global needle, enabling it to be used anywhere in the world.
The bezel is easy to grip and reads in 2-degree increments. As you would expect the baseplate has a magnifying glass and has a straight edge ruler with scale markings.
While we feel this is the most accurate model on our list, in our opinion, it isn’t as durable as the Ranger 2.0. Some users have reported cracked covers, and the markings on the bezel wearing off with frequent use.
- Great accuracy + sighting notch in mirror
- Global needle
- Adjustable declination
- Luminous outer rim
- Numbers may rub off the bezel
- Cover is not the most durable
Brunton TruArc 3 Compass
Best Cheap Compass
- RELIABLE – Entry-level compass for your basic orienteering and mapping that…
- ADVANCED NAVIGATION – Resists magnetic interference better than any…
- GLOBAL NEEDLE – With the TruArc Global Needle system that is accurate in…
- MADE IN THE USA – Made in Brunton’s own facility in Riverton, Wyoming.
- EASY TO USE – Imperial and metric scales, tool-free declination makes the…
The American company Brunton is well known in orienteering circles, and its TruArc 3 Compass picks up our award as the best compass for the money.
A relatively inexpensive no-frills compass, it still features a rotatable bezel with orientation arrow. Straight edge rulers, both with metric and standard scales, and a global needle. The most impressive feature, however, is it has a tool-less method for adjusting the declination.
The no-frills design does come at a cost though, and (understandably) as it is a cheaper model, the compass has no sighting mirror, nor luminous numbering.
- Tool-free declination adjustment
- Rotary Bezel
- No Sighting Mirror
- No Luminosity
Suunto A-10 Recreational Field Compass
- High grade steel needle with jewel bearing
- Balanced for northern hemisphere
- Fixed declination correction scale
- Liquid filled capsule for stable operation
- Detachable snap-lock lanyard. Easy to detach for working with the map
The Suunto A-10 recreational compass is a very basic compass which has a very straightforward design. The base plate has straight edges with the typical rulers in metric and standard scales for map reading. The rotating bezel is measured in 2-degree increments.
The biggest drawback of this model is the inability to adjust the declination, thereby requiring the user to mentally include this in every bearing they take. Additionally, the lack of a sighting mirror renders the accuracy a little diminished.
Finally, we have heard of many instances of the A-10 breaking from simple drops, so it isn’t the most durable model on our list.
- Straightforward design
- Easy to Use
- No sighting mirror
- Fixed declination
- Don’t drop it – prone to break
Eyeskey Multifunctional Military Lensatic Tactical Compass
Best Compass for Survival
- WATERPROOF AND SHOCKPROOF FOR ROUGH USE – The base and cover are…
- EASY AND ACCURATE READINGS – The floating compass dial has a 360 degrees…
- TAKING BEARINGS EASILY – Build with an optical eyepiece for sighting…
- ALLOW FOR CLEAR READING AT NIGHT – When exposed to enough light, the north…
- MORE FEATURES – A conversion chart for angle, gradient, and distance appear…
The last compass in our list is the Eyeskey Multifunctional Military Lensatic Compass, which picks up our award for best survival compass.
The Eyeskey compass is in one word. Durable. Make that two words. Durable and accurate. You can really feel the quality in the build, and it in the unlikely event that you do somehow break it, the manufacturer offers a full lifetime warranty.
The biggest downside with this compass is that it is almost double the weight of the other models in our review, weighing in at over 8 oz. This is unlikely to bother most folks, but for the ultralighters out there, picking one of the previous entries will save you some weight.
- Sturdiest compass in the review
- Great Accuracy
- Lifetime Warranty
Last update on 2020-05-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API