The compass has been around for centuries and is still the most reliable navigation device for use off the grid and for survival. Sure, we have GPS devices and smartphone compass apps but the old school combination of a paper map and analog compass is still unbeatable. Batteries die and signals aren’t available everywhere but no matter where you’re, you can always rely on a compass and map to understand your surroundings, figure out where you are, and find your way.
As a traveler or outdoor adventurer, it is important to invest in the best compass for hiking and travel to accompany you on your adventures and help you safely and accurately navigate the great outdoors and unfamiliar locations. With the best compass as your companion, you can confidently venture into uncharted territories and discover new trails. Plus finding your way the old fashioned way is engaging and fun! Below are our top ten picks of the best compasses currently available and a buying guide to help you pick the right one for your needs.
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How To Choose A Compass – Buying Guide
The ease, accuracy, and safety of navigation when out there will depend on the kind of compass accompanying you. Different compasses have specific features that make them suitable for certain uses. It is important to understand what you need in a compass then understand the features and functionality of each compass so you can settle on one that suits your needs and will serve you well. When you are buying a compass, the features you should consider in order to determine the best compass to buy for your activities include:
There are different types of compasses so the first step towards finding your best compass is to determine the type that suits your needs best. Here are some of the different types of compasses you will come across:
Baseplate compasses have a transparent base, which makes map reading easy. They are all-purpose navigation compasses that suit beginners and recreational explorers.
Liquid filled compasses have fluid inside the needle chamber. The fluid acts as a buffer that steadies the compass needle ensuring the readings aren’t off due to erratic movements and vibrations.
A lensatic/prismatic/sighting compass features a floating dial and has a lid with a sighting notch. The user is able to align the sight with a distant landmark and establish accurate bearings using the dial.
Orienteering compasses are meant for advanced navigation and deliver a high level of accuracy. A compass for orienteering will have a clear baseplate and various measurements for reading topographic maps.
The needle is a very important component of a compass and should be of good quality and properly functioning. For outdoor adventures, a compass with a stable needle is essential and a fluid-filled needle chamber helps with stability and accuracy. A large needle is a good thing because it makes the compass easy to read and interpret accurately even from a distance.
Most compasses have a magnetized needle that responds to the Earth’s magnetic field and points towards the magnetic North. Since the magnetic needle is affected by Earth’s magnetic field and the Earth’s magnetic field varies in different locations, compasses are generally hemisphere-specific. A compass calibrated for use in the northern hemisphere won’t work accurately in the southern hemisphere and vice versa.
Globetrotters are best served by travel compasses equipped with a global needle. A global needle enables a compass to work smoothly and accurately worldwide by accounting for magnetic variances based on location. You can rely on it no matter where you’re in the world. A compass with a global needle is also able to deliver precise measurements even when not completely leveled. You can take readings on the move without having to stop to allow the compass needle to settle.
Many compasses have the magnetized needle floating in a fluid-filled housing. This fluid enhances the accuracy of readings by steading the needle’s movement. The fluid reduces unwanted movements and vibrations of the needle that can distort readings.
Ensure that the liquid is sufficient and clear to enable accurate readings. The liquid should also be non-freezing. In frigid conditions or very high elevation, you may notice bubbles within the fluid but this is no cause for worry as the bubbles don’t interfere with the needle’s movement and go away as conditions improve.
How you intend to use the compass will dictate the best compass for you. Before picking a compass, you should consider the outdoor activities you’ll be engaging in and the requirements you have so you can get a compass with everything you need.
For mountain climbing or backcountry skiing, a navigation compass with a clinometer will enable you to assess the steepness of slopes as well as avalanche hazards when navigating steep trails.
For exploring the outdoors, an advanced baseplate compass will help you find locations easily and accurately. Orienting lines that align with your topographical map make navigation easier. A compass for orienteering or racing should have a superior needle stability.
The key to using a compass correctly for navigation is knowing the difference between the magnetic north and the true north. The true north points towards the geographic North pole. The compass needle points to the magnetic north pole where the Earth’s magnetic field is strongest. Declination is the difference in degrees between the magnetic and true north.
In order to navigate accurately and safely, you have to account for this difference when using a compass for navigation. For long hikes and traveling off the trail, ignoring this variation could send you way off route.
The best compass for hiking has an adjustable declination adjustment, which makes it easy to calculate the difference between the magnetic and true north, determine which direction is the true north and adjust the compass reading. Because declination varies with location, you have to set it every time you travel to a new area.
A sighting mirror on a compass is a handy feature to have especially if you plan to venture off the beaten path or need a high level of navigational precision. A sighting mirror makes it possible to view the surrounding or an object and read the compass simultaneously. It enhances the accuracy and precision of readings and navigation. In the event of an emergency, a sighting mirror can also function as a signal.
Luminosity and Backlighting
While exploring the great outdoors, it is inevitable that you’re going to find yourself needing to use your compass in low light conditions. Whether you want to start the day’s hike before sunup or need to find your way back to camp after sunset, you’re going to appreciate a compass that you can easily read in the dark.
This is why you should ensure that the compass you order has luminosity or backlighting. These illumination features make it possible to read a compass in low light conditions or at night without having to rely on any other source of light such as a flashlight.
Look for models that are backlit or have luminescent elements such as the orienting arrow, compass needle, the four directions or the bezel ring. Some absorb light and glow in the dark. The illumination could be powered by sunlight, artificial lights, or luminescent substances like tritium.
For a device you’re going to be using outdoors and exposing to difficult terrain and elements, ruggedness and durability is a must. You should be able to rely on it in any situation including at high elevation or in severe weather conditions.
A compass for hiking should be shock and impact resistant, as a crack will cause the fluid to leak rendering it inaccurate or useless. It should be well-sealed and capable of resisting damage if exposed to water, snow, cold, or wind.
A metal housing is solid and durable. Plastic or acrylic is also tough but can break in some situations. If you want the toughest compass that can survive a fall, get a military-grade model. Make sure that the other basic components such as the needle, bezel, and base plate are high quality. It is also important to handle and maintain the compass properly so it can last.
In addition to luminosity and backlighting for low light and night reading, the compass should be easy to read in daylight including when the sun is shining bright and causing glare. You shouldn’t have to squint in order to see and read your compass.
It should be large enough to read easily and accurately. The needle should be easy to read even from a distance. A clear base plate with markings makes it easy to read maps and determine distances when placed on top of a map. Some compasses also have a magnifying lens set into the baseplate to make it easy to see and read small texts and details on maps.
Q: What Is The Difference Between Digital And Analog Compass?
A: A digital compass is powered by batteries. It is easy to use and typically has some other handy features such as a whistle for signaling. The downside is that it is useless without charged batteries or a portable charger that can work off the grid.
Analog compasses are the old school compasses. They don’t rely on external power sources such as batteries so you don’t have to worry about the battery dying in your hour of need. This makes them the most dependable navigation devices in the wilderness.
Q: What Are The Advantages of Carrying A Compass? Can I Just Use My Phone’s Compass?
A: In the great outdoors where navigation can be tricky due to unfamiliarity, lack of beaten paths, poor visibility, and indistinct terrain, a compass is a time-tested and proven navigational tool. It is compact, lightweight, dependable, and durable. It doesn’t rely on satellite signals or powered batteries. It only relies on the Earth’s magnetic field, which is unfailing, and your navigational skills.
Far away from civilization, an old-school analog compass is the most reliable navigational device. Together with a map, a compass can be a very powerful tool that can save your life. You can use it to do a triangulation to determine your location, understand your surroundings, and find your way to your destination.
Your phone’s compass is convenient and also handy, but you should never rely on it exclusively when off the grid. If your phone’s battery dies and you have no way of charging or you find yourself in a remote place without a signal, you won’t be able to access or use the compass. Always carry a map and compass in your backpack, survival kit, or bug out bag, even if it’s just a backup.
Q: Do I Need Some Special Lessons For Using A Compass?
A: Using a compass and map to navigate the old-fashioned way does require some skills. However, you don’t need to take special lessons to learn how to use a basic compass. It is not overly difficult to learn the basics. You can teach yourself by watching instructional videos on YouTube or reading books and articles on map and compass navigation with your map and compass in hand so you can put what you watch or read into practice. You can also learn from an advanced navigator. The compass you get will also come with a manual on how to use it.
Learning how to use an advanced compass accurately on your own can be difficult though. In this case, it is a good idea to take special lessons. You can take a class with an outdoor organization. You can then perfect your skills through practice by signing up for an adventure race sprint or orienteering sport with an experienced and advanced navigator as your partner.
Q: Can My Compass Be Thrown Off?
A: Yes, there are many things that can throw a compass off and lead to inaccurate readings. Vehicles, buildings, cell phones, power lines, lava fields, and metallic objects are all examples of things that can cause your compass to behave erratically.
The best place to use a compass is in an open and clear area away from any of these or other metallic, magnetic, or electrical objects. It is also important to store your compass away from these objects, as prolonged exposure can demagnetize the needle and ruin your compass completely.
Q: What Kind of Compass Do I Need To Triangulate My Position?
A: If you will be doing triangulation to determine your location, you need a compass with a high level of accuracy. The ideal kind of compass to use is an orienteering compass equipped with a good sightline indicator. A fluid-filled compass with a quality baseplate is also good. Even with the best compass for triangulation, you will need to be able to see a good distance away in order to triangulate your position successfully.
Out there in the wilderness where there are no street signs or clearly beaten paths, navigation can be tricky due to unfamiliarity, difficult terrain and poor visibility. It is easy to get lost and there is nothing more dependable than an old-school compass and map to orient yourself and find your way. Handheld GPS devices or smartphone compass apps won’t work without power and signals aren’t always available off the grid.
A compass and a map are very powerful tools but are only as good as your skills in using them. For any outdoor adventurer or survivalist, the ability to navigate the old fashioned way using a map and compass is an extremely important skill. One that can be a lifesaver. In addition to having the best compass that is accurate and reliable and a map for your location, you should also learn how to read them accurately before you venture into the wilderness.
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Which of the compasses in our compass reviews is your top choice? We would love to read your thoughts or experience with the travel compasses we’ve reviewed! Feel free to share in the comment box below!
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