LAST UPDATED: December 5, 2019
Best Compasses for Hiking: Find Your Way in the Great Outdoors
These top compasses for hiking will help you navigate through the wilderness with ease
The Review Team
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PUBLISHED ON December 5, 2019
Being able to navigate with a compass and a map is a vital skill that can save your life. A hiking compass can help you determine your location and the best way to get to where you want to go. If you like exploring the great outdoors, grab one of these hiking compasses and navigate through the wilderness.
This bright lensatic compass functions excellently when you're in the great outdoors. It's resistant to water, shock, and sand. It works well in places with extreme temperatures.
The compass is used all over the world by the military, government agencies, and outdoor enthusiasts. It is fitted with a magnifying lens, dial graduations in both degrees for accurate readings, and a sight wire.
Its locking mechanism may lock permanently when you least expect it. Its lens and bezel ring is made of plastic, instead of aluminum, and are not durable. It is only ideal for general direction and can’t be used with a map.
Hikers and military members alike use this professional-grade compass, which has a lensatic function and a lens on the rear sight. It's also waterproof and shockproof.
It's portable, can attach to your belt loop, and glows in the dark. It comes in a handy carrying pouch. It's also very solid and can take a lot of abuse.
It is slightly heavy for light backpacking, and it doesn't work really well in extremely cold temperatures. The strap may also break prematurely.
This compass stands out for three reasons: its housing has a liquid-filled case that dampens the needle’s jerkiness, its transparent baseplate has different rulers, and its scale is standard on U.S. Geological Survey maps.
Weighing just 27 grams, this is a compass you can take with you anywhere. It is balanced for the Northern Hemisphere and features a high-quality steel needle with jewel bearing. It also has a lanyard hole.
The needle usually takes a while to settle before it finds the magnetic north. The compass is not durable and breaks easily. When it does, it produces a kerosene-like smell. It does not glow in the dark.
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Benefits of Compasses for Hiking
- Navigation. The best compass for backpacking features important measurements for navigation, including the four cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. No matter where you hike in the backcountry, you can return to your starting point.
- Lightweight and don't need batteries. Old-school compasses are much better than electronic navigation devices because they don't weigh very much, they don't require batteries, and they're very durable.
- Multiple features. When used with a map, the best compass for day hiking can be a very useful tool. Many even glow at night. However, you need basic skills in order to use it to the best of its ability.
Types of Compasses for Hiking
This is the most common and affordable type of compass and is popular with backpackers. It is fairly basic and only has a few features; however, it often features a magnifying lens to read a map. Baseplate compasses typically have clear acrylic base plates that allow you to read a map through the device.
Lensatic compasses have three parts. The body/base features the needle, dial, and rotating scales. The cover, which protects the compass, has a sighting wire. This type of compass also has a rear lens that flips out and reads the dial. Lensatic compasses are durable and often used by the military.
Electronic compasses are very accurate and provide a numerical readout. They typically have a lot of features. For example, they can save bearings in their memory and let you know if you hike off course. The downside to digital compasses is that they don't work well with maps. Also, they require a charge.
Finnish adventurer Tuomas Vohlonen founded Suunto in 1936. The company is headquartered in Vantaa, Finland, and designs a variety of products, from watches and dive computers to compasses and other instruments. We recommend the SUUNTO Recreational Field Compass.
Canadian-born geologist and mining engineer, D.W. Bruton created the Pocket Transit Compass in 1894. The company, based in Riverton, Wyoming, designs a variety of recreational compasses as well as survey instruments and other navigational equipment. One of its best hiking compasses is the Brunton Pocket Transit Conventional Compass.
Cammenga, based in Dearborn, Michigan, was founded in 1992. It is a leading designer of military-grade tactical and navigational supplies. Many of its products include tritium, a self-illuminating light source. One of its popular products is the Cammenga Lensatic Compass.
Compasses for Hiking Pricing
- Under $20: There are many basic yet reliable compasses at this price point. They get the job done but don't typically have any extra features. They may not be waterproof or glow in the dark, for example.
- Over $20: If you are a serious hiker or more experienced orienteer, you need a compass with more advanced navigational capability. These multifunctional devices can cost upwards of several hundred dollars.
True north (the North Pole) is not the same as magnetic north. The angle between the two is known as declination, and depending on your location is either east or west of magnetic north. Adjustable declination allows you to use the compass needle, which points towards magnetic north, to navigate towards true north.
This is also known as the azimuth ring, and you use it to take a bearing in the field. The ring is characterized by the zero to 360 degrees that surround the outer edge of the needle's compartment. If you want to navigate more precisely, look for devices that have a smaller interval between each degree. The bezel should also be easy to turn.
Longer is better when it comes to reading bearings from or to a map, or if the map is larger in scale. The vertical grid lines will be much farther apart on larger maps, for example, and it's ideal to align the orienting arrows with the vertical grid lines. If you have a short baseplate compass, it can be nearly impossible to align the arrows.
A compass with a sighting mirror allows you to more precisely follow a bearing on a particular landmark. Typically, the compass will feature a folding mirror that lets you see the compass capsule while you're looking at your target. Some compasses even use this feature to provide accurate clinometer readings. A sighting mirror can also be used to signal help in an emergency.
- Rubber Feet: When you align the orienting lines on a map, you don't want the compass to move. Some maps are slicker than others, and the rubber feet on a compass can keep it in place. This may seem like a small detail, but it can become very important when you're out in the field.
- Night Visibility: At one point you may find yourself navigating at night or in low light conditions. Look for devices that feature luminous dots on the needle. The index mark/pointer and the edge of the orienting arrow should also be luminescent and glow in the dark. That way, you can follow a bearing without using a flashlight.
- Global Needle: Not all compasses will work accurately in all locations on earth. One that balances properly in North America may stick in South America. A global needle permits the device to work accurately all over the world by compensating for magnetic field differences.
Best Compasses for Hiking Reviews & Recommendations 2020
This phosphorescent lensatic compass is water-, shock-, and sand-proof. It functions in areas with extreme temperatures from minus 50 to above 150 degrees Fahrenheit. It's used worldwide by the military and government agencies, as well as outdoor enthusiasts. It features an aluminum frame, waterproof housing, magnifying glass, dial graduations in both degrees for accurate readings, and a sight wire.
This compass is reliable, nearly indestructible, and useful in a variety of conditions. It feels sturdy and well-made and has most of the features you need in a compass. Overall, it makes you feel comfortable when you're hiking on a trail.
One problem with this device is that the locking mechanism may inadvertently lock permanently. Also, its lens and bezel ring are made of plastic, not aluminum, and they are not as durable as the aluminum components. In addition, while it points you in the general direction, it can’t be used with a map.
This professional-grade compass is designed for military use, camping, hiking, and a variety of other situations. It features a lensatic function and a lens on the rear sight for more accuracy. It's waterproof and shockproof, which provides peace of mind when you take a particularly difficult hike.
The compass is portable and includes a belt-loop attachment, so it's nearby if you need to keep your hands free when you're scaling a precipice. The interface glows in the dark, so you can read it at night. Overall, it's solid and sturdy, and the carrying pouch is well-made. It can take a beating, and the laser sighting is good to have when you're trying to get a bearing on altitude, landmarks, and so on.
However, it's a bit heavy for light backpacking. It can also get a little sluggish when it's really cold outside, and the strap that attaches to your belt loop may fail after a short period of use.
This compass features a liquid-filled housing that inhibits the needle’s jerkiness. It has a transparent base plate with different rulers and a scale that's standard on U.S. Geological Survey maps. It's lightweight and is balanced for the Northern Hemisphere and also features a high-quality steel needle with a jewel bearing.
This compass is really easy to use, accurate, and everything is clearly legible. It is simple to read at a glance, and it's not too expensive so you won’t worry about breaking or losing it. It also comes with instructions so you can use it with a map.
One problem with this compass is that the needle may take a while to stop before it finds magnetic north. It's also not particularly durable and can easily break if mishandled. If it does break, it produces a kerosene-like smell. It also doesn’t glow in the dark.
- Get a compass that meets the basic requirements of a standard compass. It should have a magnetized needle, a rotating bezel, a baseplate, and an orienting arrow. There are many counterfeit products on the market, and the last thing you want is to get stuck in the wilderness because you bought a low-quality compass.
- To take a bearing, hold the compass flat and point its arrow toward your destination. Rotate its bezel until the orienting arrow is at the same point with the magnetic needle. The needle’s north end should point to N. Locate where the degree markings around the rotating bezel line up with the orienting arrow. The degree mark is your bearing.
- Do not store your compass near a magnetic field or an electric field. Magnets can demagnetize the needle in the compass, causing it to give incorrect readings.
Q: Which compass can help me to triangulate my position?
A: To triangulate your position, you need an orienteering compass with an excellent sightline indicator. A liquid-filled compass with a long baseplate can also do a good job. However, it is worth noting that natural elements can make triangulation impossible in some parts of the world.
Q: If I’m lost and my compass doesn’t work, how can I find north?
A: In case your compass stops working and you get lost, you can do the following to find north: use the face of an analog watch to bisect the sun, use original constellations, use the sun's path as a rough E-W line, or use a magnetized paper clip with a floating leaf.
Q: What does declination mean?
A: The orienting arrow on a compass usually points to the magnetic north. Declination refers to the angle between the magnetic north and the true north. It typically varies based on your location on the earth. True north is north according to the earth's axis.
We love the Cammenga Lensatic Compass because it’s specifically designed to withstand outdoor elements and works well in extreme temperatures. But if you don’t have a big budget for a compass, get the Sportneer Military Lensatic Sighting Compass with Carrying Bag.