Compasses are one of the most important tools in the history of the world. They allowed early navigators to sail unknown seas and explore hidden realms of discovery. Nowadays they’re an essential part of any serious hiker or bushcrafters kit. We spent some time using different compasses and put together a list of the best compasses for hiking to help you pick out one that suits your needs.
- 1 Best Compass
- 2 Best Compass Apps
- 3 Compasses Vs Compass Apps – Pros and Cons
- 4 Best Compass Buyers Guide
- 5 Final Thoughts
A common question we hear in relation to compasses is are they really still necessary. Everybody has a GPS unit in their phone, and you can buy a purpose built hiking GPS for a very reasonable price.
Should you really buy one?
A high quality hiking compass lets you get just about anywhere with just it and a map. As long as you know what you’re doing you can find out exactly where you are and get where you need to go. Not only that, using a proper orienteering compass is a lot like solving a navigational puzzle. Picking up orienteering is a lot easier than most people think. Just by taking a simple lesson you can figure it out with just a bit of practice.
To that end we picked out 8 of the best compasses on the market today to review.
Suunto MC-2G Global Compass
Suunto is a Finnish company that manufactures some of the finest navigational, diving, and precision outdoor equipment in the world. Their MC-2G is a jewel bearing compass with a global needle for go anywhere navigation.
It’s a baseplate style orienteering compass that has a fold up sighting mirror for easy landmark sighting. The rotating azimuth bezel allows for full declination adjustment and is coated with luminous material. The body of the compass is made from durable polymer and it includes a detachable lanyard for easy carry.
The baseplate has full metric and imperial markings and an included clinometer. If you’re looking for a great orienteering compass that’s durable and easy to use the Suunto MC-2G is an excellent option.
Silva Ranger 515 Compass
The Silva Ranger 515 is an orienteering style baseplate compass with all the bells and whistles. It’s made from sturdy polymer and is designed to resist damage from drops.
The Ranger 515 has a rotating azimuth bezel and the ability to adjust for magnetic declination. It has a full 360 degree rotation in 2 degree increments for the taking of highly precise bearings. It has a flip up sighting mirror with an orienting arrow contained within. All the indicators are coated with a 4x brighter luminous material to aid in night time navigation.
The baseplate itself has metric and imperial markings as well as a map magnifier to aid in finding your location. There are also silicone feet built into the bottom to prevent it from slipping on a map.
The Silva Ranger 515 is a fully functional orienteering compass that can help you find and follow a bearing quickly and efficiently.
The Eyeskey Military style compass is a rugged navigation tool that allows for the full range of navigational tasks. It has an all steel body with a flip up sighting mirror and additional sighting eyepiece.
The compass itself is a liquid filled magnetic card style compass contained within a luminous fluorescent dial. It doesn’t allow for declination adjustment but the design allows you to account for it manually.
The metal body is etched with rulers and useful tables to aid in navigation. The Eyeskey compass also includes a bubble level and a clinometer to help you figure out the elevation of various slopes.
If you’re looking for a compass that’s a bit beefier and more durable than the traditional orienteering style the Eyeskey Military Navigation Compass deserves serious consideration.
Brunton TruArc 3 Baseplate Compass
The Brunton TruArc 3 is a baseplate style compass designed for folks just getting started with orienteering and navigation. It lacks many of the high-end features of other compasses but lets you work on the fundamentals of navigation without distractions.
The TruArc 3 uses a global needle design with a tool free declination adjustment system. The bezel rotates fully and is set on a baseplate with metric and imperial rulers for map scaling. At just over 1 ounce this is one of the lightest functional orienteering compasses available.
Whether you’re looking for a learner’s compass or a compact EDC tool the Brunton TruArc 3 gives you a lot of bang for your buck.
Suunto A-10 Recreational Field Compass
The Suunto A-10 is a Finnish made introductory orienteering compass. It’s designed to fulfill the basic needs of navigation at a value price.
It’s a baseplate style compass with a northern hemisphere balanced needle. It doesn’t allow declination adjustment but does include an easy to use fixed declination correction chart. The clear baseplate has both metric and imperial rulers and the bezel rotates a full 360 degrees.
The A-10 isn’t the best compass on the market, far from it honestly. What it is though is a really good value priced compass that gives you the basics you need to figure out where you are and how to get where you’re going.
Silva Explorer Pro Compass
The Silva Explorer Pro is a baseplate style compass with a bright orange bezel design. It comes with a detachable lanyard strap for secure carry out in the wild.
It allows 2 degree dial graduations and has a fully adjustable declination. The baseplate is made from clear plastic and has several useful rulers and scales to aid with navigation. There’s also a built in map magnifier to make very small scale maps easier to use.
The body is made from robust plastics and is designed to be very impact resistant. The markings are all coated with a luminous material that charges up in the sun for easy night time navigation.
The Silva Explorer Pro lacks some of the top of the line features of other compasses but is a great middle range hiking compass that’s easy to use.
Suunto Clipper Compass
The Suunto Clipper is a backup compass that’s designed to be clipped to your watch band, lanyard strap, or onto a map itself. It has very limited navigational features but does provide reasonable value for its size.
The Clipper isn’t capable enough to be relied on as your primary navigation source for serious backcountry orienteering. It lacks declination adjustment, a sighting tool, or even a rotating azimuth bezel.
What it does have is an accurate magnetic card that lets you take a basic bearing and follow it. It’s great as an EDC piece as it will clip right onto your watchband or other strap for all day carry. You can easily use it to get an idea of where you’re going and find a general landmark to get there.
The Suunto Clipper isn’t going to be the only compass you need. In an emergency situation though it is probably going to be the only compass you have with you.
Brunton Pocket Transit
The Brunton Pocket Transit is a professional grade compass for tasks that require pinpoint precision. It’s made from die-cast aluminum for maximum durability.
The Pocket Transit allows highly precise measurements. The rotating bezel takes azimuth measurements of up to .5 degrees accuracy. It also has see through sighting of its precision aligned mirror. The design incorporates a bubble level as well as a 90 degree clinometer for vertical angle measurements.
We’ll be honest, most people don’t need the degree of accuracy and durability the Brunton Pocket Transit provides. If you’re looking for a very high-end compass that won’t let you down though, this is an excellent contender.
Best Compass Apps
Nowadays most people would rather lose a finger than leave home without their smartphone. This allows for interesting possibilities where navigation and compasses are. Several companies have released compass apps for both Android and IOS devices.
Compass Galaxy (Android)
Compass Galaxy is an Android app available for download on the Play Store. It’s a basic compass that lets you find magnetic north. The design works well with a map as you can lay your phone right on top of it.
To sight a landmark just line up the top of your phone with the direction you want to go then look down the length of it. The startup process involved a little bit of calibration to get the right reading but was easy to complete.
Commander Compass Go (IOS)
For IOS users Commander Compass Go is a full featured navigation app that includes a compass. It’s designed to simulate both an orienteering compass and a topographical map. You can superimpose the compass image above downloaded maps and line them up with the direction you wish to travel.
It allows you to adjust the setting just to your liking, including units, display format, day/night mode, and much more. You can even program in waypoints and drop markers on your map for later use.
The best part about Commander Compass Go though?
Compass 360 Pro (Android)
Compass 360 Pro gives you a basic compass with the ability to adjust its appearance and functionality. You can choose from a range of compass dials and measurement types as well as movement actions.
One really cool feature is the ability to switch between magnetic and true north with just the flip of a switch. It works online or offline and is available for download free of charge.
Compasses Vs Compass Apps – Pros and Cons
The biggest differences between compasses and compass apps relate to ease of use and longevity. Compass apps are designed to be totally idiot proof. All you need to do is turn them on and move them around to figure out where different directions are.
That being said they’re usually a bit less accurate overall than a physical compass. The actual electronic compass is highly accurate but the display doesn’t always convey this. Most compass apps also lack the added tools like sighting mirrors or clinometers needed for true orienteering compasses.
Another point to consider is that if you have your compass app on your phone you also probably have a fully functional GPS app.
The last point, longevity, has to do with the nature of any app. They’re on a phone. If your battery is dead you can’t navigate. A physical compass doesn’t suffer from that.
Best Compass Buyers Guide
When looking at compasses you have to consider where you’ll be using them and what features you need. Basic compasses may work fine for certain tasks but you wouldn’t want to bet your life on one.
We’ve gathered all the factors that go into a great compass to help you figure out what to look for in the best hiking compasses.
A quality compass is a piece of precision navigational equipment. You can get a dinky little toy compass for under a dollar. If you want a real hiking or orienteering compass you’re going to need to spend some money.
Entry level models will run you around $20-$50 while high-end versions can cost several hundred. For that though you get a durable and highly accurate tool that can save your life in a survival situation.
Types of Compass
There are lots of different types of compasses available, but only a few that are useful to the average hiker. Most compass types are highly specialized tools used for professional tasks like marine navigation. These are too large and complex for the average user.
Button Compasses – For smaller compasses you can find the standard small button style compass. This will usually have just a moving needle without any adjustable or orienteering tools attached. Most are pretty inaccurate.
Lensatic Compasses – The next level up is a military style lensatic or prismatic compass. Many of these use a magnetic card design that moves a round metal disc around a fixed needle. This can make them faster and easier to use while on the move.
They have a sighting tool and usually have tritium or other luminous dials. They don’t have an adjustable azimuth ring but are designed to allow you to quickly get your bearing just using the sighting tool.
Orienteering Compasses – The modern orienteering compass was designed for recreational and light professional use. It allows you to take very precise bearings using a topographical map and landmarks. Most models will include a sighting mirror, declination adjustment, clinometer, and azimuth ring as well as numerous other high-end features.
Electronic Compasses – If you’ve ever downloaded a compass app or used a GPS navigation system you’ve used an electronic compass. Officially these are called solid state compasses and they rely on minute magnetic readings that are then processed by a computer.
They’re in all kinds of different systems but are almost never found on their own.
Not all compasses are created equal. Simpler varieties are basically just a round watch-like tool with a magnetized needle and basic bearing points. As you get up to higher quality models you have all kinds of advanced navigational tools that assist you in finding and following a bearing.
Too much complexity can be very intimidating to new or even intermediate navigators. Find a compass that has the features you need and know how to use.
Baseplate – The baseplate of a compass is the metal or plastic base that sits under the compass ring. It makes it easier to place on a map to help get your bearings and usually has a things like rulers, map scaling tools, and a direction of travel arrow.
Azimuth Ring – Any true orienteering compass will have a rotating bezel, also know as an azimuth ring. It’s an essential part of taking a bearing or traveling along a known bearing.
It allows you to quickly orient your map towards your desired destination and make sure you’re moving in the right direction without having to pull everything out again.
Orienting Lines and Arrow – Orienting lines and arrows are often found on better quality compasses. They serve a variety of navigational tasks and assist you in locating and following a bearing.
Many first time navigators don’t realize that true north and magnetic north aren’t the same. Adjusting the declination of your compass allows you to compensate for this. Any good topographical map of an area will give you the current declination adjustment you need to input for your region.
As an aside, make sure you always have maps that are as up to date as possible. The difference between true and magnetic north changes over time.
First things first, if your compass doesn’t accept declination adjustments it’s probably not good to take as your primary compass. It can work as an emergency backup but it’ll take longer to get your bearings every time you stop.
Compasses that accept declination adjustment do so in different ways. Make sure to check out how a manufacturer designs their adjustment system and if you need any special tools to do so.
A sighting mirror is a multi purpose addition that will be present on any really high-end compass. It lets you exactly match your desired course to a landmark by looking over the map and sighting it through the mirror. In an emergency it doubles as an effective signalling device.
If you’re planning to do any mountaineering or winter hiking you should definitely get a compass with a clinometer. It allows you to measure the vertical angle of a slope and is very helpful in predicting avalanche risk. You can also figure out the height of distant hills or other landmarks for planning your route.
Luminosity and Backlighting
Compasses with luminous indicators or dials can be extremely helpful in low light or night time conditions. They allow you quickly find your bearings without needing to break out a flashlight.
One of the most important parts of a working compass is the balance of the magnetized needle. Most compasses are balanced for North America and will drag if you try to use them places like Africa or South America.
Compasses with a global needle are balanced in such a way that they’ll function anywhere in the world. Unless you’re a frequent world traveler this may not be an important consideration but it definitely bears mentioning.
Durability and Build Quality
Good compasses are expensive. You don’t want your compass to fall apart with a single drop or jar in your hiking pack. Look for ones made from sturdy plastics or metal.
One thing to keep in mind is that compass needles can be delicate. Try not to drop your compass too often or against hard ground. A really bad jar could dislodge the needle and render your compass useless.
Buying a good compass takes knowledge and experience. You need to know enough about navigation to pick out the features you need.
We suggest you only buy as much compass as your skills require. You can definitely buy more if you’re working on expanding your knowledge but you don’t want to wind up out in the wild with a compass you can’t figure out how to operate.
Keep these factors in mind and you’re sure to pick out the best compass for hiking.