There’s something strangely reassuring about a traditional compass. In today’s modern world where technology rules supreme, it’s surprising but also comforting to know that the compass hasn’t quite yet become extinct or relegated to being an antiquated relic. That said, how many of us actually know how to use one? In theory, they’re a basic enough concept. It’s all about magnetic fields and alignment and of course, knowing which way is North. Once you’ve figured that out, the rest as they say is simple! A primitive tool perhaps but with one big advantage. No batteries that need re-charging. From hardcore survivalists to backpackers, hikers and boy scouts, many are still proud to have legit compass reading skills. So let’s put our marker in the sand, head due South, and run you through our pick of compasses that might see you out of a life and death situation.
The Best Compass
When it comes to compass making Suunto are one of the best brands around so makes sense that we are kicking off our best compass review with something from their extensive range. Made in Finland, the company is known for producing high-quality, accurate orienteering compasses and super reliable navigation equipment. Suunto MC-2 compass is a fully global compass and has been modified so that it delivers a high degree of accuracy no matter where in the world you might be located. It has plenty of advanced features that the intrepid explorers among you will appreciate including a sighting mirror and a highly convenient wrist locking lanyard. One of the stand out features is that glow in the dark bezel which means you can navigate both day and night. There’s adjustable declination too, plus sighting holes which increase the accuracy of this device no matter what the conditions. Surely one of the very best orienteering compasses you can hope to buy, and for that reason, it gets our Best Choice feature today. If you love camping, check out our guide to the best large camping tents.
Takes highly reliable and accurate measurements
Manufactured in the compact mirrored compass style
Global needle works anywhere in the world
Base plate features magnifying lens
Luminous bezel for precise nighttime reading
- Brand Suunto
- Weight2.56 ounces
Night time use
Up next we’re taking a look at the Eyeskey Multifunctional Military Compass which we can only hope performs as good as it looks. The camouflage detailing and rugged construction certainly seems the real deal, and it’s engineered from high strength metal so capable of withstanding punishing weather conditions. With its specially designed fluorescent lighting, you can also easily read where you’re going even in poor light conditions, and it’s highly accurate thanks to that built in a bubble level. While it’s durable and easy to carry or if you prefer, can be conveniently fixed to a tripod. It’s waterproof and shake proof and suitable a wide range of outdoor navigations needs from boating to mountaineering, hunting to motoring. With this magnetic compass by your side or in your backpacking backpack, you can’t get lost!
Thermoelastic liquid filled capsule dial
Rotating bezel ring and adjustable diopter setting
Built-in bubble level
Tripod screw hole on base
Sighting lines on cover
- Weight7.2 ounces
Easy to use
If you take your orienteering and survivalist skills seriously and you are looking for a top-notch compass that’s premium in features and functionality, but that isn’t going to break the bank, then the Silva Ranger 515 might be just the ticket for you. With a highly visible luminous bezel that you can read and adjust whatever the light conditions, you can confidently use the Silva Ranger 515 both day and night. Not just that, but if you have to put your compass down, then with that bright yellow illuminated bezel, you’ll quickly be able to relocate it again. Being a mirrored sighting compass ensure that this is an accurate device and one which is perfect for supporting any adventures who love to head off the beaten track. The declination adjustment tool is conveniently located on a lanyard, so you won’t lose it and once set up, the compass will automatically adjust itself. Other noteworthy features of this exceptional compass include an inclinometer, multiple navigational scales as well as a magnifying glass. If you love nature and outdoors, check out our guide to the best sleeping bags.
Classic bezel design for smooth rotation and grip
Luminous face that won’t degrade over time
Illuminated bezel for easy day and night time reading
Features a clinometer as well as map magnifier
1-piece mirror with etched sighting line for precise results
- Weight6.4 ounces
Easy to use
Night time use
Declination compensation tool required
We’ve cherry-picked this Brunton Tru Arc to be our Best Value compass choice because it is a seriously compact base plate compass, perfect for backpacking and hiking with simple but nonetheless accurate navigation. It features a global needle and is therefore calibrated to work the world over. The outer bezel reads in 2-inch resolution and portability, especially given the budget-friendly price point, it features an adjustable declination which can be interpreted as well as adjusted without the need for additional tools. In our opinion, this makes the Brunton Tru Arc one of the best compasses for hiking. If it’s important to you, then you’ll also be reassured to know that this compass is made in the USA. For compact reliability and pinpoint accuracy, this best value compass will take some beating. If you love camping and survival situations, make sure you bring a camping blanket as well.
Reliable entry level compass perfect for basic orienteering
Doesn’t lose its polarity delivering advanced navigation
Global needle for accuracy in both hemispheres
Made in the USA and quality assured
- Weight1.12 ounces
Metric and Standard Scales
Complaints that air bubbles develop over time
Our next best compass for land navigation comes from Suunto again, and it’s their A-10 Recreational Field Compass. This one is lightweight and minimalist, compact and easy to carry. It’s not packed with extensive features but the ones it does have are functional and practical and what it does deliver is declination adjustment with an attractive looking black and white bezel. You certainly won’t get the same level of accuracy as you would from an orienteering compass but its inexpensive and competent and should still help you to get out of tight spot. This makes a good entry level compass for someone starting out learning to orient a map. Be sure to also check out our list of the best camping chairs for more great items like this.
High-grade steel needle accompanying jewel bearing
Balanced for Northern Hemisphere
Stable to operate and liquid filled
Easily detachable snap-lock lanyard
Fixed declination correction scale
- Weight0.6 ounces
Easy to read
This official military compass from CMMG has been licensed and produced for the United States military and has been designed to withstand all eventualities. It’s fully spec’d to meet military requirements and adheres to MIL-PRF-10436N certification plus it’s pretty much everything proof! We’re talking waterproof, sandproof and shockproof. If you want to take this bad boy, super accurate and reliable compass out into Death Valley, be our guest! Likewise, headed on a polar expedition and expecting temperatures of sub 50 and below, again, this CMMG Official Tritium Lensatic compass will be your ultimate guide. Featuring tritium microlights, you can navigate even in low light conditions plus it conveniently also comes with a magnifying lens, sight wire as well as precise graduations for accurate and straightforward navigation. Our handy guide to the best wearable sleeping bags features more great products like this.
Tritium Lensatic Compass built to withstand rigorous conditions
Tritium microlights for visibility in low-level light conditions
Copper induction damping system
Aluminium frame and waterproof housing
Comes with carrying pouch, belt clip and compass box
- Model 3H
- Weight5.6 ounces
Up next, again from popular brand Suunto, we have a wearable piece of navigational tech in the form of this direction compass designed to be worn around the wrist like a watch. The Suunto M-9 wrist analog compass is super handy and reliable too and can be read from the top or the side and is perfect for navigating both around town or out on country hikes. The reading window is clear, and that serrated bezel is easy to operate even if you are wearing gloves. While it does come supplied with a perfectly adequate adjustable black wristband, it can easily be removed to use either on its own or attached to another favourite strap you own. It’s also water resistant and features a luminous face. It provides a reliable reading in the Northern Hemisphere only and comes with a jewel bearing. It’s a great option for basic navigating and orienteering. Love this product? Check out our review of the best camping stoves for our top picks.
Can conveniently be worn around the wrist
Can be read from top or the side
Features Suunto two-zone system for reliable readings
Easy to operate serrated bezel even when wearing gloves
Supplied with a wristband but can be removed and used with another
- Brand Suunto
- Weight 1.28 ounces
Easy to read
Easy to operate
No global needle
This next best compass from Cammenga is their Phosphorescent Clam Pack Lensatic which has been seriously tested to the most rigorous of conditions to ensure that it’s suitable for military grade operations. It’s excellent quality, durably constructed and features a hard aluminium casing that can more than take a pounding, no matter what the conditions you put it through. It’s also waterproof to significant depths so whether you’re pitting your navigational skills against the outback or the mountains, it won’t let you down. It’s shockproof and sand proof too. It delivers accurate results and comes with a bi-directional rotating bezel. Find more great products like this by checking out our guide to the best tent heaters.
Shockproof and damage resistant sturdy design
Waterproof to considerable depths
Uncompromised by temperature changes
Features a copper induction-damping ring
Constructed with aluminium frame for optimal endurance
Some QA issues
If you like the appeal of being able to attach your compass directly to your watch so that you have it quite literally on hand for all eventualities then take a look at this Suunto Clipper Compass. It’s lightweight yet durable and provides basic navigational information that will keep you on track or have you back on track if you’ve veered off course. It’s a functional analog compass, simple to use with no bells and whistles but it certainly does the job. There’s a rotating bezel, luminous directional indicators so that you can view in dimly lit conditions and it’s budget friendly too. If hands-free operation is the name of the game, then this Suunto is for you. Don’t forget to also check our guide to the best camping cots.
Convenient clip-on design
Clip to a watch, sleeve or a backpack
Directional rotating bezel
Luminous directional indicators on the face
Provides handsfree operation
Easy to use
Basic functionality only
Another military compass up next from the SE Survivor series. It’s their CC4580 Military Lensatic and Prismatic Sighting Compass, and it’s perfect for those emergency survival situations when you need something that is both rugged and reliable. Presented in its own convenient travel pouch, you’ll be able to navigate with ease thanks to this durably constructed compass which has been favoured for years by the military. Being Lensatic ensures more accurate and reliable readings, and while this compass might initially take a bit of getting used to, once you have you’ll never want to leave home on an expedition without it. There’s a rotating bezel as well as handy tripod screw holes on the base. It also features a sapphire bearing system with an integrated index line and magnifier for even more accurate results. Make sure you also have your emergency radio handy when going to the wilderness.
Rotating bezel ring
Thermo-elastic liquid filled capsule for enhanced visibility
Easy tripod connection and paracord loop
Sighting lens with adjustable diopter
Heavy duty digital camouflage printed cover
- Weight3.68 ounces
Tripod Screw Holes
Compass Buying Guide & FAQ
Features To Look For In Compasses
Below is a non-exhaustive list of some of the key factors to consider when selecting a compass.
Type - There are lots of different kinds of compass you can go for including Card, Tubular, GPS, Solid State, Trough, Astro, Gyro, Prismatic, Thumb, Lensmatic and Baseplate.
Fluid - We highly recommend that you only go for a compass that features a fluid-filled housing, especially if you want to be guaranteed to accurate results. The presence of liquid is crucial when you are on the go as it dampens the motion of the needle to deliver a precise reading.
Declination Adjustment - You’ll see this term used a lot concerning compasses. Accurate navigation is all about True North versus Magnetic North and declination is an angle that measures the difference between the two. It’s not a fixed measurement and will change according to your location as well as the time of year. On short treks that level of attention to detail won’t put you off kilter, however, on a much longer navigational trip, ignoring the declination could send you miles off route. If accuracy is important, then you need to invest in a compass with a declination adjustment function.
Sighting Mirror - This is a handy feature that allows you to view your surroundings and the compass simultaneously. A sighting mirror ensures more accurate orienteering and is perfect for advanced navigation plus it can also double up as an emergency signal.
Luminosity and Backlighting - If you intend navigating at night or in poorly lit conditions, then you will need a model of compass that is either backlit or which features luminous features on the face so that you can read your compass no matter what the current light is like.
Durability - It goes without saying that you should invest in something that is durable and reliable and has been built to last. You may be trekking in all kinds of conditions, and you don’t want your compass to let you down at the last minute. Go for something that is robust and sturdy and which has been engineered to last.
Types Оf Compasses
Simple Baseplate Compass
What you might describe as being the bare bones of a compass, simple baseplate compasses come with limited features and will normally feature an inexpensive clear acrylic baseplate so that your map can be read through the compass. They make a great entry level compass for someone new to map reading and should be more than adequate for the needs of most casual backpackers and hikers.
Liquid Filled Compass
Lots of different types of compasses can be liquid filled so it’s a standard feature that you will find across different brands and styles. The purpose of adding the fluid is to create a buffer against vibration and movement. By adding liquid, it dampens the swing of the compass and limits any erratic movement.
A more advanced style of compass, better suited to advanced level navigators down to the superb accuracy delivered. Orienteering compasses will feature clear baseplates so that they can be used to navigate topographical maps so they will typically also features additional extras like rulers, declination scales, sighting mirrors and clinometers.
Considerations For Compasses
Analog VS. Digital Compass
If you are looking for more bells and whistles, then Digital will undoubtedly have more features, but crucially they also need to be battery powered which means you will have to charge and change your device regularly. If you forget to bring along spare batteries or a charging device, then you’re stuffed! That’s where good old fashioned analog comes to the rescue.
When to Carry A Compass
A compass is just an all-around handy, compact and useful emergency backup tool to have on any hike. If you’re familiar with the location and you are in an area that has good GPS, you may find yourself going for the easy option and referring to your mobile device but if you fancy a challenge, get the compass out! We recommend that you always throw a reliable baseplate compass into your emergency bag, survival kit or trunk of your car just so that you know you have a backup should you ever require it.
Protecting Your Compass In The Field
Your ability to successfully navigate absolutely depends on the accuracy of your compass, so it’s essential to protect and take care of your investment. We recommend you store your compass towards the top of your bag or in any protective zipper pocket that you have. You don’t want to have any weight bearing down on your compass that might break it plus you need it somewhere that’s easy to accessor demand. If your budget allows it, go for a compass that features a protective cover and makes sure that you use that feature or even better still, purchase one that comes with a carry case, to additional prevent unwanted scratches to your baseplate which will hinder the readability.
Q: What are the advantages of carrying a compass?
A: The single most significant advantage of a compass is that they don’t require batteries or electricity, so no matter what situation you find yourself in or where you might be a compass will always be able to give you a reliable reading. They’re also lightweight, compact and portable so can easily be attached to your hiking poles for example as a convenient backup to your main orienteering compass or a handheld GPS. Basically, a compass is the ultimate back up plan!
Q: Can I just use my phone’s compass?
A: Depending upon how old your phone is, most Android phones these days are fitted with a magnetometer, and some actually have a compass app or tool built in. Just remember that your phone needs to be charged to use it, so it’s still a good idea to have a good old fashioned analog compass as backup.
Q: What’s the best way to learn how to use a map and compass?
A: If you are intending spending time in the wilderness or recreating the experience and pitting your navigational wits against some new location, then it’s a good idea to build up a base amount of familiarity with orienteering and navigation skills. You can join local clubs that offer orienteering challenges and get involved as part of organised group activities where you can learn how to use a map and compass in a controlled and safe environment. Alternatively, YouTube is an excellent source of information where you should be able to learn the basics.
Q: Can my compass be thrown off?
A: It’s certainly possible yes. If there are lots of power lines in proximity, these will affect the compass accuracy as well any nearby large electrical or metallic objects. Just keep a lookout for things that might have the potential to cause your compass to be a little erratic.
Q: What other techniques work for finding North if I’m lost?
A: Plenty has been written on this subject, much of which is straight up nonsense and what we’d jokingly call nothing more than old wives tales. The following though are tried and tested and verified ways of finding North without a compass:
- Use an analog watch face to bisect the sun
- Use the path of the sun to establish an East-West line
- Use the regional constellations
Q: How to store and care for my compass?
A: The most important point to note when you are not using your compass is to ensure that you keep it away from any magnets or powerful electronics. Either of these could end up affecting the accuracy of your compass so be sure to store in an appropriate and safe location where your compass won’t get damaged.