In a world where technology is increasingly taking over our everyday lives, there may come a point where compasses are an antiquated relic of human history.
Wait a second… that day is already here! Almost.
In practice, the principle is simple – just take a magnetic piece of metal, suspend it in a nearly frictionless environment, and allow it to align with the magnetic field of the earth.
Once it’s aligned, all you need to do is figure out which way is north, mark it red, and then you’ll be able to tell where all the other directions lie relatively speaking.
For hikers, backpackers and survivalists alike, the compass is a primitive survival tool which can really make the difference between life and death in many situations and the best part?
No batteries! Ever.
Best Hiking Compasses
Quick Answer: The 5 Best Rated Compasses For 2020
- Suunto MC-2G In Global Compass
- Silva Expedition S Compass
- Brunton TruArc 3 Base Plate Compass
- Suunto A-10 Recreational Field Compass
- Silva Explorer Pro High Visibility Compass
Let’s take a look at the top rated hiking compasses and then we’ll talk about choosing one for you in our guide below.
Hiking Compass Reviews
Suunto is one of the best names in compass making. They’re known for high quality products made in Finland and reliable navigation equipment from digital wrist computers to highly accurate orienteering compasses.
Suunto’s new global compass needle has been modified to maintain a higher degree of accuracy from anywhere in the world.
With advanced features like a sighting mirror, multiple rulers, and a wrist locking lanyard you’ll be able to navigate with accuracy in any conditions.
I love the 2-degree bezel increments and glow-in-the-dark bezel ring for added functionality at all times of day.
Adjustable declination is a must-have for any decent compass and the MC-2G is not going to let you down there.
Sighting holes like the one on this compass are a game changer for accurate and reliable navigation in all conditions. In my opinion this is the best orienteering compass you can buy.
If you’re looking to pick up a top-quality orienteering compass at a reasonable price, then this is the compass that belongs in your backpack.
I love the high visibility bezel for reading and adjustment in any lighting condition. It’s also helpful if you happen to set down or drop your compass. You’ll be able to find it much more easily with the illuminated yellow bezel.
This is a mirrored sighting compass for extreme accuracy and would be a perfect pick for those planning to do lots of off-trail navigation, orienteering, or adventure racing.
While it does require a tool for declination adjustment, the tool is integrated on the lanyard.
One advantage of tooled declination adjustment is that once it’s adjusted, you don’t have to calculate it in to your navigation again. The compass automatically adjusts for it.
With a inclinometer, magnifying glass, and multiple navigational scales for map reading and measuring you’ll be able to take this compass all the way from beginner to expert tasks and is the best compass for survival in the backcountry.
This is a seriously compact base plate compass for accurate but simple navigation. With a global needle, like the MC-2G, this compass is calibrated to work appropriately all over the world.
This compass’s outer bezel reads in 2-degree resolution and features both inch and cm scales on the outer rulers.
One of the most important features for accurate navigation on any compass is an adjustable declination which Brunton delivers on the TruArc 3.
Video: Overview of the TruArc 3 Compass.
I really like that the declination can be read and adjusted without any tools. Some compasses require a special tool to adjust declination which can be a pain in the butt on the trail and make the Brunton TruArc probably the best compass for hiking.
This compass is made in the USA – if that’s an important buying factor for your decision making. You’re not going to get pinpoint accuracy from this compass, but you will get compact reliability for just about any situation.
If you’re looking for a compass that’s functional but lightweight, compact, and minimalist then this just might be your choice. With a bare minimum of features, the A10 compass delivers clear base plate, declination adjustment, and black and white bezel.
This is a compact compass for minimal map orientation and navigation. You won’t get the same accuracy from this compass as you would from an orienteering compass.
However, it’s inexpensive and functional for minimal navigation and is probably the best compass for the money. It has enough features to get a competent compass user out of a tight situation.
I would recommend this compass to someone looking for a compass that will serve to orient a map and provide basic navigation. This won’t be a good fit for users hoping to quickly expand their navigation skills – you’ll outgrow its abilities quickly.
Silva packed in all the features of the Ranger 515 but without the mirror or sighting hole. This means you’ll have a lighter and more compact compass with robust features and slightly less accuracy overall.
For the experienced and adept navigator, however, this should present few issues. You’ll get the same gradient 2-degree bezel and high visibility navigation ring along with the magnifying glass for map reading.
Again, you’ll have to adjust declination with the built in screwdriver but that comes with its own set of drawbacks and convenience. This would be a great choice for those looking to get a compass that’s great for beginner to intermediate users.
With plenty of features to accurately navigate for the novice or expert, this compass would be a great middle-ground choice for general backpacking where accuracy is important.
This must be balanced with compact and lightweight navigational equipment. The Silva Explorer Pro is perfect for on-trail hiking and moderate navigational needs.
The Silva Explorer Pro may the best survival compass with its Hi-Vis color 4X luminous dial for navigating in low light conditions.
Compass Comparison Table
|Compass||Sighting Mirror||Luminous||Declination Adjustment||Rating|
|Suunto MC-2G Global Compass||Yes||Yes||Yes||4.5 / 5.0|
|Silva Expedition S Compass||Yes||Yes||Yes||4.3 / 5.0|
|Brunton TruArc 3 Base Plate Compass||No||No||Yes||4.3 / 5.0|
|Suunto A-10 Recreational Field Compass||No||No||No||4.5 / 5.0|
|Silva Explorer Pro High Visibility Compass||No||Yes||Yes||4.0 / 5.0|
How to Choose the Best Hiking & Backpacking Compass
- Orienteering and Adventure Racing
- Building Awareness
- Types of Compasses for Backpacking
- Considerations for Backpacking Compasses
- Storing and Caring for Your Compass
- Protecting Your Compass in the Field
- When to Carry a Compass
- FAQs For Hiking Compasses
Why bother using a compass? We’ve already talked briefly about some potentially valuable benefits of choosing to use a compass over other devices for navigation.
Many people choose to keep compasses around for a backup. Sometimes that in a survival kit, the car trunk, or on the dash of a boat for navigation when the “lights go out”.
We all know that batteries and electricity, no matter the source, may run out in certain situations. You can help prevent that with a solar charger, they can charge up those electronics as long as there is sunlight.
Some hikers choose to keep a small, lightweight compass attached to their zipper or on the top of their hiking pole in addition to the main orienteering compass and a handheld GPS. Of course, not everyone feels the need for three compasses, but you get the idea.
Orienteering and Adventure Racing
Adventure racing may conjure up images of the “Tough Mudder” and similarly orchestrated adventures but what we’re talking about goes a little beyond.
Adventure races can vary in duration from a few hours to several days where participants must use combinations of running, backpacking, paddling, mountain biking, and other outdoor skills to navigate to and find hidden waypoints.
This must all be accomplished with nothing more than a topographic map and an orienteering compass. Orienteering, while a skill involved in adventure racing, can also be participated in as a separate activity.
Some local clubs and groups may have orienteering challenges or races involving substantially less challenge than an adventure race but operating on the same principal – use a map and compass to find waypoints before your competition.
Video: How to use a compass.
If you’re going to spend time in the wilderness hiking, backpacking, or recreating in any way, it can be important to build a base level of familiarity with navigation and orienting yourself to your surroundings.
Every year rescue operations are carried out in seemingly avoidable situations where hikers have gotten lost only to find out that they were mere miles from an easy escape.
You’ll be amazed at how much more confident and comfortable you’ll feel after having some training and practice with a map and compass.
Types of Compasses for Hiking & Backpacking
Simple Baseplate Compass
These compasses are nearly bare-bones devices with only a few features. Almost invariably, they have clear acrylic baseplates so that maps can be viewed and read through the compass.
These compasses are a great all-purpose compass for beginners and will serve most hiking and backpacking needs.
Liquid Filled Compass
Many types of compasses are liquid filled. This is not reserved for a single type of compass but rather a feature found throughout many compasses.
By adding fluid inside of the needle chamber, the compasses are buffered from movement and vibrations. Using fluid helps to dampen the swing of the compass and temper erratic movement when navigating. This is a must-have feature for any navigation purposes.
These compasses may go by various names but they feature advanced level navigational accuracy. With clear baseplates, they’re meant to navigate with topographic maps, often featuring rulers, declination scales, sighting mirrors, and clinometers.
Considerations for Compasses
You never knew there was so much to learn about compasses, did you? Well, just to make sure you’re set off on the correct path we’re going to talk through a few more key points with compasses use and maintenance.
Learning to Use a Compass
It can be quite difficult to learn to use an advanced compass. Check local outfitter stores of basic navigation classes or try some YouTube videos to familiarize yourself with the basics. One of the best ways to become an advanced compass user is to participate in a sport called orienteering.
Storing and Caring for Your Compass
When you’re not using your compass, be sure to store it in an appropriate location. Keep your compass away from powerful electronics or magnets.
Both of these have the propensity to distort the accuracy of your compass over time. Remember that your compass is meant to work outdoors and may also be disrupted or inaccurate in vehicles or buildings.
Protecting Your Compass in the Field
Your navigational accuracy is only as good as your compass. Unfortunately, good compasses can bleed your wallet dry. So, how can you protect your water-filled acrylic investment?
Well… there are a couple ways but in general just managing your gear in the field with a little more intentional care is a good place to start.
Store your compass near the top of your bag. Preferably the brain of your pack would be a good spot to put the compass. That way there’s nothing pressing down on it when you set your backpack down and it’s easy to access when you need it.
Some compasses come with a protective cover. In fact, most orienteering compasses have a cover that flips down which contains the sighting mirror. That’s one step toward good protection!
When to Carry a Compass
Generally speaking, I think a compass has a place on any hike. Whether you’re going out for a day or a week you can stand to benefit from a compass.
If you’re good at navigating you’ll probably learn to orient and navigate with you map using dead reckoning, or simply looking around you. When the going gets tough, or you psych yourself out and start second guessing, then a compass has to be the solution.
To be totally honest, I will usually skip the compass if I’m on a short hike with cell phone reception in a local area I know. The real risk level is very low and I know I am safe in these situations. When that’s not the case, however, I’m always carrying a compass (and good map).
For simple afternoon hikes at the local park with the kids, a small pocket compass is probably all you need for backup at most. If you’re off-trail backpacking in the Wind River Range, however, you need at least a high quality baseplate compass if not an orienteering compass.
Tossing a decent baseplate compass into your bug out bag, emergency bag in the trunk, or prepper-style survival kit is a must-do as well. When the poop hits the fan that compass, and your mastery of it, can mean life or death.
FAQs For Hiking Compasses
Q: Can my compass really be thrown off by ____?
A : I hear this one all the time. People want to know if their compass is inaccurate because of their car, cell phone, magnetic rocks, or magical aliens. While I don’t know about the aliens for sure, I will say that yes, it is possible for many other things to affect compass accuracy.
One of the biggest problems to watch out for in the field is compass accuracy around power lines. Let’s say you’re following a remote powerline route to get out of an emergency situation. Yet somehow your compass seems to be acting strange… are you just imagining it?
Nope! Power lines, among other phenomenon, can cause erratic compass behavior. In general you want to be in the open and clear of large nearby metallic or electrical objects when using a compass.
Don’t be paranoid about it -- just remember in the field to keep an eye open for things that might be messing with your compass.
Q: What other techniques work for finding North if I’m lost?
A : There are tons of old wives tales, misinformation, and straight up lies about how to navigate without a compass. While entire books can, and have, been written about emergency navigation that’s outside the purpose of this article. Instead I’ll just briefly mention a few I hear a lot.
Things that work:
- Using a magnetized paper clip and a floating leaf
- Using an analog watch face to bisect the sun
- Using the path of the sun as a rough E-W line
- Using regional constellations
Things that don’t work:
- Finding moss on the north side of the tree
- Trying to remember which way you were heading last
- Looking for constellations in the wrong hemisphere
Q: What kind of compass do I need to triangulate my position?
A : Ideally you’d better have an orienteering compass with a good sightline indicator. That’s going to radically improve your accuracy.
Barring that, a fluid filled compass with a good, long baseplate will get you close enough. There’s something that makes triangulation almost impossible in some parts of the world, though…
Here’s the rub, if you can’t see very far you can’t really triangulate. In order to accurately triangulate your position you need three (or more) visible and discernible topographic features within sightline.
Usually this only happens on open mountain balds or aggressive terrain where you can see a long distance. If you’re deep in the hardwood forests and flat lands of Northern Michigan -- think again! You can’t see more than 50 yards!
Q: What extra features should I look for?
A : If you can find it, a good UTM grid reader is nice on your compass. Also, a scale that can convert contour lines into slope angle is quite handy.
If you can’t find a compass that has these tools built into the baseplate, you can often buy little helper tools or print them off at home. Be sure to get the map tool you’re looking for to match the scale of your map and the units of measure you prefer.
If you’re doing really accurate map-based navigation you’ll want some serious training and practice first. It’s easy to do it wrong. I always bring a GPS as backup because it’s cheap insurance for not dying scared, alone, and starving in the woods if you read the map wrong.
Q: What’s the best way to learn how to use a map and compass?
A : Ideally, I’d take a class or learn from someone knowledgeable. It’s a skill best learned through hands on practice.
Look for classes at your local outfitter or REI store.
You could also learn a lot by reading through a good book with a map and compass in hand. There are tons of book options out there but I can personally vouch for the NOLS Wilderness Navigation manual written by my friend Darran Wells.
After you’ve given it a read, or consecutively, you can learn a lot by watching some how-to videos on YouTube and following along with your own map and compass.
If you still have questions after that, try signing up for an adventure race sprint with an experienced partner. You’ll learn a lot by doing it in the field and these short adventure races are a great way to test yourself.
There are compasses made to suit anyone’s needs. From ultra-basic to highly advanced feature-rich navigation tools. If analog compasses aren’t your tool, you can always find advanced watches and GPS tools today that will assist with navigation.
Remember that compasses never run out of batteries and can be just as accurate or more accurate then modern replacements. Learning to read a map and compass and navigate properly will instill a sense of self-reliance and skill that you won’t get from following the arrow on a GPS.
For any hiker, backpacker, or survivalist, a command of map and compass skill is critical to growth.
I hope this guide was helpful for finding the best hiking compass to fit your needs. If you want to comment or recommend a compass I didn’t include, please use my contact form to get in touch.
Have fun and be safe out there!