A compass is a crucial piece of equipment in any survival situation. It can help you orient a map, pinpoint your exact position, or identify features in terrain. Whether you are hiking, fishing, or backpacking – there is always the risk that you can get turned around and lost. Without a compass, finding your way back to civilization becomes much more difficult. But how do you go about finding the best compass for hiking?
In this article, I’ll explain the history of the compass, the components that make up a compass, how to use a compass, differences between simple and advanced compasses, and reviews of the best compasses.
History of the Compass
Compasses are considered one of the “Ten Essentials”. The Ten Essentials list is a list of 10 items recommended by hiking organizations for safe backcountry travel.
The Ten Essentials list was first created in the 1930’s by the Mountaineers, a non-profit organization based out of Seattle, who seeks to connect and educate people about all things outdoors. In 2003, the Ten Essentials list was updated to reflect advancements in technology, and aims to take more of a “functional” approach to wilderness survival instead of relying on ten survival items.
- Navigation. This includes a topographic map, a magnetic compass, altimeter(optional) or GPS receiver.
- Sun protection. This includes sunscreen, appropriate clothing, hats, or eye protection. At minimum, carry a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks UVA and OVB rays.
- Insulation – Be prepared for unexpected changes in weather conditions. Clothing will depend on destination, season, and likely weather conditions. Items include things like a hat, gloves, jacket, and extra clothing for coldest possible weather during the current season.
- Illumination – Getting lost or turned around in darkness is a very real and very scary situation. You could easily trip and become injured, fall in a hole, or slip off of a cliff. This includes items like a headlamp or flashlight.
- First-aid supplies. Bandages, insect repellant, water purification tablets, paperclip[.
- Fire. Waterproof Firestarter, matches, or flint and steel.
- Repair kit and tools. Includes items such as knife, hatchet, paracord, and tarp.
- Nutrition. Dry food is lighter to carry. If you’re going out for 3 days, pack for 4-5.
- Hydration. Bring emergency water supply, or carry a Lifestraw.
- Emergency shelter. Tarp, bivouac sack, plastic tube tent, jumbo trash bags, space blanket or insulated sleeping pad.
Why You Should Carry A Compass
The ability to navigate a compass is a crucial wilderness skill, and a skill that everyone should spend the time to learn.
In today’s day in age, there are other alternatives to compasses such as GPS devices or smartphone GPS. However, those aren’t nearly as reliable as a trusty compass. GPS’s can lose signal, you phone can run out of batteries, or your phone may become damaged if wet. There’s a reason compasses are considered one of the Ten Essentials.
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Types of Compasses
A floating-needle compass is a compass that uses a magnetized needle to align with the Earth’s magnetic field. Floating-needle compasses, as opposed to digital compasses, are filled with a liquid to help stabilize the needle to give the most precise reading.
Traditional compasses can be categorized in three types:
A basic compass is an inexpensive choice for entry-level backpackers or hikers. They lack additional features such as mirrors or declimination adjustments, but still have all the essential components of a functional compass. An example of a basic compass is the Suunto A10 compass.
These compasses are very full-featured, and can make navigation much easier by providing more accurate readings. Additional features include mirrors, magnifiers, or clinometers. If you backpack or hike regularly, advanced compasses are well worth the additional cost. An example of an advanced compass is the Silva Ranger CL.
These are the types of compasses you see on keychains or watches. While they still do point North, they are more designed for a quick reference rather than serious navigation.
Features of a Basic Compass
Most basic compasses will include the following features:
- Magnetized Needle – This is the red tip on the pivoting needle. It points to Earth’s strongest magnetic field and is subsequently called the “magnetic North Pole”. This is different than the geographic North Pole, which is called “true north”. Magnetic north and true north are separated by over 1,000 miles, which is important to know when working with a map. True North is the geographic location in which all lines of longitude meet, while magnetic north lies in a chain of islands in the Canadian Arctic.
- Liquid Filled Capsule – This is the dial(housing) that holds the needle and the non-freezing fluid. It is marked with the four cardinal points (north, south, east, west).
- Rotating Bezel – This is the ring that encircles the outer edge of the compass capsule. It’s marked with notches from 0 to 360 degrees, and are typically it’s displayed in 2° intervals.
- Base Plate & Ruler – This is the transparent, rectangular shaped base marked with a ruler.
- Orienting Arrow – This is the red arrow located on the bottom of the compass dial. It’s usually coupled with meridian lines and helps to orient the compass on a map.
- Index Line – This is located on the end of the base plate, and is where you read your bearing at.
Features of an Advanced Compass
- Declination adjustment – This is a more sophisticated orienting arrow. You should always buy a compass with a declination adjustment. This helps you adjust the compass’s readings to reflect the “magnetic declination” in your area of travel, which is the difference between true north and magnetic north.
- Magnifying lens – Handy for reading small text on a map, and is mounted to the base plate.
- Sighting mirror – Allows you to sight a direction or object with the compass capsule visible simultaneously.
- Luminescent indicators – These help you read your compass at night. Luminescent indicators can be on your magnetized needle, orienting arrow, or on the four cardinal points.
- Clinometer - Helps you assess the steepness of a slope.
- Global needle – Global needles are especially helpful if you live in the Southern Hemisphere. They compensate for variances in the Earth’s magnetic field and work accurately in any part of the world.
- Lanyard – Cord or string that allows you to attach the compass to your backpack or belt loop.
How To Use A Compass With A Map
- Determine your bearing. This is the direction you need to travel.
- Place your compass on the map so that the longer edge connects the starting point with the destination point.
- Make sure the direction arrows are pointing towards your destination; not the other way around.
- Optional: Use your compass’s scales to determine travel distance.
- Hold the compass steady on the map.
- Turn the rotating capsule until the North-South parallel lines of the map are lined up with the North-Souuh lines on the compass.
- Make sure the North-South arrow points in the same direction as the map.
- If you need to make adjustments for declination, follow this guide.
- Hold the compass in your hand at a horizontal angle, with the arrow pointing in front of you.
- Rotate your body until the north-south arrow on the bottom is lined up with the magnetic needle. The red needle point will be facing the same direction as the arrow.
- The directional arrows on the compass baseplate will determine the direction you need to travel.
For the last step, you need to maintain an accurate bearing so you don’t lead astray. Find an identifiable object in the distance that is still in line with your destination, and walk towards that. This will allow you to travel in the correct direction without having to constantly look down at your compass.
Here’s a helpful video to help explain the basics of how to use a compass.
Sometimes the rotating capsule can become turned while traveling. Double-check your compass from time to time to make sure you are still traveling in the correct direction.
Also, don’t forget that the magnetic needle points to the magnetic north, and the direction arrows show the direction you will be traveling.
How To Choose the Best Compass
Choosing the best compass is dependent on a few things. Are you looking for a basic compass, or an advanced one? Are you looking for the best compass for survival or the best compass for hiking? Are you looking for a military compass or the best compass watch?
Many modern compasses include a clear baseplate with a magnetized needle enclosed in a fluid-filled housing. They are usually comprised of ethyl alcohol, mineral oil, or lamp oil. The fluid helps ensure the needle is displaying an accurate bearing as well as
Cheap compasses that don’t include fluids should be avoided.
Baseplate compasses are typically divided into two categories; standard baseplate and sighting/mirror. The standard baseplate compasses are the most common and are suitable for basic outdoor navigation and general purpose use. The larger versions include a longer orientating needle which makes them more accurate. Some sighting/mirror compasses have a folding mirror which allows you to sight your landmark and read your compass at the same time. Others include adjustable declination. The adjustable screw is usually attached to the lanyard.
Some of the most full-featured compasses include a clinometer to help you assess the steepness of a slope in case of possible avalanche.
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Best Compass for Hiking and Navigation
Suunto A-10 Compass
Many hikers prefer this compass over others because it is both cheap and reliable. The needle orients very quickly, and there is an additional scale under the needle which helps with declination adjustments. It can be read in both centimeters and inches. There is a hole located in the back of the compass to allow you to slip a lanyard though, allowing you to string it around your neck if needed.
It weighs just 27 grams, and is made out of durable scratch-resistant plastic. This compass has all of the necessary features for skilled hikers, but maintains enough simplicity for any entry-level hiker as well.
If you like this compass, you can see the price and reviews here.
Silva Trekker 420 Compass
This compass also includes a mirror, which helps you read the bearings without having to look down at your compass at all times.
It also has measurements in centimeters and inches, and includes a declination scale.The mirror has a 4-stop positioning (in the V-shape) which helps with the bearing. The compass has 2-degree gradations for more precision.
Of course, for many reasons having a compass with a mirror is much more appreciated by hikers and campers, as a mirror can serve a lot of purposes – from easy navigation, to signaling if lost, and many other needs, including the basic need for a shaving mirror or other such necessities.
If you like this compass, you can find it’s price here.
Cammenga 3H Tritium Military Compass
Eventually you might end up in a place where GPS signal does not reach.
The Cammenga 3H compass is a civilian-issued version of the US military M-1950. Each of these compasses undergo rigorous field testing, with tests ranging from shock resistantance to magnetic accuracy.
This is one of the more expensive models, but is for good reason. The tritium will glow for upwards of ten years without ever being exposed to light, which is perfect for any kind of night navigation. It’s heavier than most compasses, but it is a very heavy duty model.
If you’re looking for a compass that will stand the test of time, and hold up in any condition, this is an excellent option.
If you like this compass, you can read more review and see the price here.
Suunto MCB Amphibian
This is a more advanced compass than the Suunto A-10 compass, as this one includes a few additional features such as a mirror and a whistle. A compass mirror makes an excellent signaling device, and a whistle is useful if you get lost and need to be rescued.
It’s also much lighter and more fragile than most compasses. It’s small, compact, and fits well in the palm of your hand.
If you like this compass, you can view it on Amazon here.
Suunto M-G3 Global compass
This model is just as good as the Suunto A-10. It has a long transparent base for pointing at objects in the distance, with three rubber feet on the bottom to prevent slip. It’s rounded design discourages attempts to accidentally hold the compass backwards, which is a nice feature.
This compass includes advanced features as well, such as a magnifying glass and a declination adjustment. There is also a hole for a lanyard.
The rotating compass needle housing is marked in 2 degree increments, and as the name suggests, it is designed for global use. You can use this compass anywhere since it can be calibrated to any zone. When compass manufacturers begin production of a compass, they build the compass to accommodate of the five zones. If you frequently travel and explore other countries, you will want a global compass such as this one.
This is a very highly-reviewed compass, with hundreds of reviews ranging from beginner hikers, to military personal. It’s reliable, accurate, and built with world travelers in mind.
If you like this compass, you can check it’s price here.
Suunto MC-2 compass
This compass has it all. It is considered a professional compass for navigation purposes. It has a global needle, which means it will work very well in both the northern and southern hemispheres.
Most compasses have a magnetized needle. With this model, instead of magnetizing the needle, Suunto magnetized a small disk and placed that on a gimbal that attaches to the needle. This helpes prevent the needle from hitting the bottom of the compass where traveling in the southern hemisphere. This compass dampens much faster, which means constant bearing-checks become much less of a hassle. It also includes a glow in the dark dial for nighttime travel.
This compass is very highly reviewed as well, definitely raises the bar. It works accurately at varying degrees of tilt. It includes an inclinometer, which helps measure various heights, angles, cliffs, or mountains.
In addition, it is paired with a lifetime warranty. For just a few dollars more, this compass is more than worth the additional cost.
If you like this compass, you can view it’s price here.
Suunto KB-14 360R Pro Compass
This is one of the most precise compasses on the market. It’s extremely accurate at just fractions of a degree. This is a high quality compass for professionals and is manufactured with high quality, durable metals. This compass can withstand any weather condition.
If you’re in the market for a simple compass, this compass is probably not for you. This is a much more sophisticated compass.
If you like this product, you can find it on Amazon.
Brunton Pocket Transit
This is another one of the professional-grade compasses on the market. These are some of the most respected, reliable, and accurate compasses on the market. THis is the best compass for geologists, surveyors, foresters, or mining engineers alike. They all rely on the BRUTON to perform in a variety of environments.
This model contains a NdFeB magnet to reduce the amount of demagnetization. It includes an inclinometer, a trigonometric chart to measure the tangent and sine of an angle. This helps more accurately determine the height and steepness of a slope. It weighs just 6.8 ounces, and includes a sapphire jewel bearing to allow for smoother needle movement.
Although, this compass does not have a hole for a lanyard, so that may be a pretty big downside for some.
If you like this compass, you can check it out here.
There is no “best compass” on the market. You should instead be focusing on the best compass for you. Determine what features you need, your level of expertise, and how long you plan on keeping that compass before upgrading.
A little research will go a long way. If you’re like me and prefer to make buying decisions based on reviews, here is a list of the best compass on Amazon.