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Updated January 2022
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and all opinions about the products are our own. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and all opinions about the products are our own. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
Bottom line
Pros
Cons
Best of the Best
SUUNTO MC-2 NH USGS Mirror Compass
SUUNTO
Clipper Compass
Check Price
Best for Experts
Bottom Line

Best for experienced hikers and backpackers, this compass is reliable and durable for more lengthy and rugged adventures.

Pros

Ideal for use within the northern hemisphere. With a sighting hole for accurate bearings, it's sure to point you in the right direction. Equipped with a declination adjustment tool, this compass is trustworthy and the clinometer assists in navigating slopes, so you can spend more time hiking and less time questioning your compass.

Cons

Other navigators thought the placement of the SUUNTO logo made it difficult to read the smaller print and lines on the compass.

Best Bang for the Buck
Coghlan's 9685 Map Compass
Coghlan's
9685 Map Compass
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Best for Everyday Use
Bottom Line

Made with a novice navigator in mind, this lightweight compass is great for moderate hikes, backpacking trips or cycling.

Pros

Built with a compact design, this map compass includes a built-in magnifier to enlarge smaller print or lines and comes with a lanyard upon purchase, allowing you to wear it while you hike! Set into durable hard plastic, this compass is built to last and won't break the bank.

Cons

While this is an affordable choice for those learning how to use a compass, it's not intended for more experienced navigators who need the most accurate readings.

Explorer 2.0 Compass
Silva
Explorer 2.0 Compass
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Feature-Packed
Bottom Line

This compass has everything you need and more to get you outdoors and headed in the right direction.

Pros

A good overall choice to help you navigate the great outdoors. With a built-in declination scale, it provides precision and accuracy to get you where you want to go, and a rubber grip makes it easy to handle. Light-up markings on this compass allow it to be used at night or in dark conditions; simply shine a light on it prior to use to illuminate markings.

Cons

The declination scale on this compass is not adjustable compared to other compasses available.

SUUNTO MCB NH Mirror Compass
SUUNTO
MCB NH Mirror Compass
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Trusted Brand
Bottom Line

While similar to other SUUNTO products, this model stands apart from others with its feature-packed, durable, and accurate design.

Pros

This compass is built with a floating mirror design to provide ultimate sight bearings that can also be used for signaling. Equipped with a lanyard and whistle, this model is an all around safe-hiking gadget.

Cons

Some users noticed the hinge on the cover became worn or broken with long-term use.

Ritchie Surface Mount Compass
Ritchie Navigation
Surface Mount Compass
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Best for Boats
Bottom Line

This compass is a great option for taking your navigating off land and into the water.

Pros

Able to attach to most flat surfaces, this compass is compact and offers a push-button removal for the compass module, so it can be easily stored when not in use. Built-in green light allows for it to be used at night or in low-light conditions. It’s made with a deviation compensator to keep accurate readings.

Cons

While this mountable compass is also great for motor vehicles, some buyers noticed it had a hard time adjusting to quick changes of direction.

HOW WE TESTED

We recommend these products based on an intensive research process that's designed to cut through the noise and find the top products in this space. Guided by experts, we spend hours looking into the factors that matter, to bring you these selections.

54
Models
Considered
130
Consumers
Consulted
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Researched
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Buying guide for Best compasses

A compass is an essential piece of gear for anyone hiking on or off a trail. If your smartphone loses connection to a tower or your GPS battery goes dead, this trusty, low-tech device can help you find your way home.

Despite being a necessary addition to every outdoor equipment list, whether for a day hike or a month in the backcountry, using a compass is a mystery to some people. Even an experienced backpacker may scratch their head when told to shoot an azimuth. (Hint: it’s not a furry critter.)

For something that seems so simple — essentially a floating magnet with indicators for north, south, east, and west — there’s a lot to unpack in this little device. While you’re looking, you’ll want to check the type, features, and which one would be best for the kind of trek you’re planning.

compasses
A compass is one of the ten necessary emergency items all hikers should carry even on a short day hike.

How to buy the best compass

How it works

The strength of a compass is in its simplicity. Unlike GPS devices, which require electricity to operate and rely on triangulated signals from orbiting satellites to pinpoint your position, a compass takes advantage of Earth’s magnetic field to confirm the direction you’re facing. The floating needle inside the housing (typically painted two colors) orients itself along Earth’s north and south magnetic poles.

The smallest and most basic compass has indicators on its housing for north (N), east (E), south (S), and west (W). These are known as the cardinal points. They are important for figuring out the general direction you’re heading.

More complex devices have a bezel face with 360° markings. They may also include additional direction indicators like NE, SE, SW, and NW. They’re designed to complement a topographical map and be used together to pinpoint your location and direction of travel. For more on how to use a compass, scroll down to our Tips and FAQ sections.

What kind of exploring will you be doing?

If you’re spending a couple of hours on a well-marked trail in good weather, a basic compass is handy just in case you miss a trail blaze and need to get back on track without getting lost. Use it with a trail map or topographical map so you can orient yourself to key geographic features.

However, if you’re going on a longer trek, if the trails aren’t well marked and you aren’t familiar with the area, or if you want to try orienteering on your own, look for a compass that is designed specifically for orienteering or survival.

Be prepared for emergencies

Getting disoriented and hopelessly lost can happen to anyone, regardless of their level of experience. The difference is that experienced hikers know this is a possibility and prepare for it. You might want to keep a compass in your car or purse because you’re in an area where your car’s GPS doesn’t work well (I’m lookin’ at you, Vermont) and you need to know the general direction you’re traveling.

Compass models

Baseplate: This is an excellent starter model that incorporates a bezel with azimuth markings atop a see-through baseplate that can be placed on top of a map to match up headings.

Global: This versatile device can be used in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. It can tilt up to 20° while maintaining accuracy, so you don’t have to hold perfectly still to get the needle to settle on magnetic north.

Orienteering: This can be either a baseplate or sighting compass; it contains features like declination, inch, and millimeter scales, and often a magnifying lens to make it easier to read map features like altitude.

Thumb: This small device attaches to your thumb for quick bearings while on the go. It’s often used in orienteering to keep competitors on track without having to stop as often to take exact bearings. A comfortable thumb strap and a needle that settles down quickly (quick dampening) are important qualities to look for in this type.

Sighting: This type allows you to get more precise bearings by sighting a landmark and aligning the compass at the same time. There are four types of sighting compass: mirror, lensatic, prismatic, and optical.

Mirror: Flip up the cover on this type of sighting compass and you’ll see the underside has a mirror surrounding a small vertical notch. This allows you to sight a landmark through the notch and simultaneously read the bezel markings, giving you a precise indication of the direction toward the landmark.

Lensatic: This type trades the mirror and notch for a small magnifying lens and a sighting wire inside a long vertical notch on the cover. Hold the compass to your chin or cheek to sight the landmark and bezel at the same time.

Prismatic: Instead of a lens, this type reflects the bezel into your line of sight through a prism.

Optical: A lens built into the casing is held to one eye and shows the degrees of the compass while you keep your other eye open to sight the landmark.

How to choose the most accurate compass

A combination of features will help you pick a model that’s accurate to within a few degrees.

Quick-dampening needle: This is a needle that stops quivering and settles on magnetic north within a few seconds. Needles that constantly jiggle will try your patience.

More degree indicators: Azimuth and declination indicators with a low separation of degrees between each mark are more accurate. Look for a model with 2° per mark rather than 5°, 7°, or 10°.

Weather-resistant bezel: Freezing temperatures can affect the accuracy of the needle, so look for a thicker bezel that resists temperature changes.

compasses
DID YOU KNOW?
The magnetic compass was developed as early as the fourth century BCE during China’s Han Dynasty.
STAFF
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What features should I look for in a compass?

A good compass incorporates several different features, but there is no single device that includes every possible feature. These guidelines divide the features between the most-used basic ones and specialized ones that may not be present on every type.

Basic features

  • Durable housing: An accidental drop shouldn’t disable your device.
  • See-through baseplate with a directional arrow: This is helpful when using a baseplate compass with a map.
  • Lanyard: Allows you to keep the device around your wrist or neck so you don’t lose it, especially in rough terrain.
  • Easy-to-read bezel: You should be able to clearly see the azimuth marks and degree indicators.
  • Azimuth: The outer numbers and markings on a bezel, indicating 360°, are essential for taking bearings. The fewer degrees between each azimuth marking the better: 2° per mark is more accurate than 5° per mark.

Specialized features

  • Orienting lines: These are vertical and horizontal lines on the baseplate that help to line up a compass with north and south on a map.
  • Declination adjustment: For precision map navigation, being able to adjust the compass to account for true north is an important feature.
  • Clinometer: Optical sighting devices may offer this method of determining the height of a terrain feature or the degree of a slope.
  • Reciprocal scale: Also known as reverse scale, the reciprocal is the exact opposite direction of the way you’re traveling. Knowing the reciprocal is helpful when trying to determine where you are in relation to specific features on a topographical map.
  • Luminous markings: In low light or at night, azimuth and cardinal indicators that glow are very helpful.
  • Magnifier: Often built into a baseplate compass, a small circular lens makes it easier to read markings on a map.

Give orienteering a try! Developed in 1901, this sport has contestants navigate to several control points using a compass and a map.

STAFF
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How do you accessorize a compass?

Storage case

This will protect your device from scratches, drops, moisture, and temperature changes.

Map

This is an essential accessory for any compass and a hiker’s best friend.

Paracord lanyard

Considered a key survival accessory by many experienced hikers, using paracord (parachute cord) as a lanyard can be a game changer.

Orienteering course kit

For anyone interested in the sport or those who want to teach others how to navigate by map and compass, an official course kit has marker flags and punches to set up your own course.

How much does a compass cost?

Inexpensive

Beginners can start learning navigation with a baseplate-style compass that costs from $4 to $19. Devices in this range may have higher azimuth degree markings, lower accuracy, and less durability than pricier models.

Mid-range

Those looking for a feature-packed baseplate compass or who want to try out lower-end versions of lensatic sighting compasses can expect to pay $20 to $48.

Expensive

More specialized devices like optical sighting compasses, clinometers, and military-grade cases cost between $49 and $129 depending on the included features.

compasses
DID YOU KNOW?
Use a compass every time you stop on a hike. It’s an opportunity to keep building your skills and you’ll always know where you are.
STAFF
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Tips

  • Test a new compass before your hiking trip. Head to a local park or a trail you’re familiar with to try out your device and brush up on your skills if it’s been a while.
  • Check older devices before using them. Go on a short test hike with the compass and your GPS device or smartphone. Compare the compass readings with those of the GPS to make sure it’s still accurate.
  • Store your compass when it’s not in use. Keep it in a water-resistant case or pouch.
  • Avoid depolarizing the needle. Do not place the device near anything that emits a magnetic field. Don’t place it on your dashboard over a car speaker, which has a strong magnet. Smartphones and GPS devices also emit magnetic fields, so don’t store them in the same place as an analog compass.
  • Set true north before starting your hike. At the trailhead, or even before you leave home, look up the declination angle on the map you’ll be using and turn the bezel to match that angle. You’ll save a little time on the hike when taking bearings.
  • Always use the lanyard. Wear the compass around your neck or wrist while using it to prevent accidental drops. That way you won’t damage the device or lose it in a lake or ravine.
compasses
Did you know that Earth’s magnetic poles shift continuously by about 55 kilometers per year? That’s one reason to use the most recent topographical maps and leave grandpa’s old maps at home.

FAQ

Q. How do I use a compass?

A. There are two main uses for a compass: to determine which direction you’re heading and to pinpoint your location on a map. For basic direction finding (locating north, south, east, and west), hold the device in front of you at about chest height, making sure the directional arrow on the baseplate (or cover) is pointing away from you. Hold still while the magnetic needle settles, and let it naturally drift around to point toward magnetic north. Slowly turn your body, holding the compass still, until you’re lined up with the needle and it’s pointing away from you.

The next skills you need to learn are taking a bearing from the terrain around you and pinpointing your location on a map. These are essential for figuring out exactly where you are outdoors and which way you need to travel.

There are many instructional videos available online. You can also take a class at a local outdoor shop or through organizations like the Sierra Club, Green Mountain Club, or Appalachian Mountain Club.

Q. Is a compass only good if used with a map?

A. While using a compass and map together is the best way to navigate accurately, avoid hazards like cliffs or rushing rivers, and get back on a marked trail more quickly, a compass can be used by itself too. For example, if you know that you need to head for a landmark that is west of your current position, and that landmark is obscured by clouds, darkness, or higher terrain, a periodic check of the compass will keep you moving in the right direction.

Q. How do I locate true north versus magnetic north on a compass?

A. True north is the geographic North Pole. It’s always at the same point on a map. Magnetic north is the location of the north magnetic pole. The magnetic poles (north and south) continually shift by a tiny bit each year; the north magnetic pole is now more than 1,000 kilometers away from the geographic North Pole. The degree of difference between magnetic north and true north is called magnetic declination. To make things even more confusing, magnetic declination is different depending on where you’re located on the planet.

Fortunately, cartographers have figured this out for you. Topographic maps include a declination chart for the area on the map. Plus, you can look up magnetic declinations for specific locations and even calculate declination yourself on the NOAA website. Once you know the local declination, you can adjust your compass. Orient the device to magnetic north. Locate the degree of declination on the declination dial (the second set of marks on the inside of the dial; each mark is equal to 2°). Slowly orient the magnetic needle until it points at the declination mark. Now you’re facing magnetic north. The N marking on your compass is pointing toward true north.

Q. Why is it important to always orient the compass and yourself north when navigating?

A. Finding north and orienting your body and compass so that both face north is important to build a visual reference to the other cardinal points (west, south, and east) of the compass. It’s also important because all maps are oriented toward true north, so that your points of reference are the same whether you’re scanning the landscape or matching it up on the map in front of you.

Q. Do compasses wear out?

A. Yes! Over time, the parts surrounding the magnetic needle can get chipped, frayed, cracked, or broken. Rough use and careless storage will accelerate the process.

The needle itself will slowly demagnetize over several years. However, the needle can be demagnetized or even reverse its poles if the device is placed next to items that contain strong magnets, such as your car speakers. Taking good care of your compass will ensure that it lasts for years and maybe even decades.

 

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