If you love to go into the great outdoors, you know how much fun it can be to get immersed in the natural beauty and wonder of our world. However, as you reconnect with nature, it’s easy to get lost. Not metaphorically, we mean, but literally. In fact, hikers every year have to call in park rangers to fish them out of tough spots because they couldn’t find a way out.
You would think that with high-quality GPS systems in place that wouldn’t be as big of a problem, but fortunately, there is a decidedly old-school method that you can use to make sure that you won’t make a wrong turn and wind up in Albuquerque.
Having a compass and map with you means that you can figure out where you are and where you’re going. Also, many hiking compasses give you the ability to orient yourself freely, based on landmarks and the sun. Having this skill will come in handy as you traverse the trails, so be sure to familiarize yourself with reading a compass and orienting yourself on a map.
Once you’ve mastered that, you can take on any “uncharted” territory. So, with that in mind, here are some of the best hiking compasses that you can find, as well as a quick “how-to” guide to help you find the right one for your needs.
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If you are planning on day trips or heading out for the weekend, then you probably don’t have to worry too much about compass size or weight. However, for those who want to spend a week or more out in the wilderness, it will be imperative that you get one that won’t be too bulky or cumbersome, as every inch counts.
Also, with regards to size, you should pay attention to how large the needle is and how easy it is to read from a distance. Having a larger model could mean that you can orient yourself faster and more efficiently, which is always a good thing. Plus, having more surface area usually means that the readings are more accurate.
Most flat compasses are made of plastic or acrylic, which is durable but can break if not treated properly. If you don’t want to have to worry about losing your compass after a tumble or fall, then we would suggest getting a military-grade model that will stay intact even after taking some abuse.
One of the most important parts of the compass is the bezel, as that’s how you will determine your declination and position relative to magnetic North. You will want a compass with a fluid, easy to use bezel system that can be placed easily but won’t spin on its own, either. Also, a nice touch is to get one that will be luminous at night (glow-in-the-dark) so that you can find yourself in low-light conditions.
Not everyone will need this kind of option on a compass, but it is handy if you plan on hiking up steep trails and mountains. A clinometer is designed to tell you the angle of the slope of any surface, so it will help you determine how to proceed when planning your route. If you’re not going to hike steep trails, however, then a clinometer is probably not something you’ll have to mess with much.
One nice feature that many sighting compasses have is a bubble level to tell you when you’re as flat as need be. If you hold the compass at an angle, then it will throw off your measurements, which can have devastating effects on your plan and route. This handy addition will ensure that that doesn’t happen.
Whenever you are orienting on a map, it’s helpful to have a magnifying glass present to help you spot your location. Many flat compasses will include this feature, but most sighting compasses won’t, so you will have to determine which kind of orientation you will be doing the most to decide if having a magnifying glass is imperative or not.
When talking about compasses, there are a few things that you have to keep in mind. First of all, the needle won’t point to “true North,” but rather magnetic North, which is where the Earth’s magnetic field is strongest. This will result in a disparity between the compass point and the map. The name for this discrepancy is called declination. The further North you are the more obvious it is.
Second of all, you have to understand that compasses are calibrated for the area in which they were made, so a model that was calibrated for the Northern Hemisphere won’t work as well in the South, and vice versa. To avoid that, you will want to get a “globally balanced” compass that can work anywhere in the world with equal results.
So, now that we’ve got that out of the way let’s see what these compasses can do for you.
So far, we’ve seen compasses that are made with acrylic casings, which means that they are susceptible to breaking if you don’t handle them carefully.
The Clam Pack Lensatic Compass from Cammenga, however, is built to withstand anything, meaning that it’s ideal for the rugged, rough and tumble hiker.
What we like about this model is that it comes with a waterproof metal case and all of the components are military-grade, making it ideal for field work and free orientation. It has a sight window with a line for easy spotting, a magnifying glass for map charting, and a durable carrying pouch so you can keep it protected on the trail.
This company is well known for making some high-quality compasses, and the MC-2G is one of the best ones that they sell. What we like about this compass is that it’s super easy to use, provided that you have some experience with them.
If you’re not used to things like scaling or mapping, then you might have to learn how to read this particular model.
One of the best features about this compass is that it’s globally balanced, meaning that you can use it anywhere in your travels. It also has a sighting mirror, which you use to position yourself based on landmarks. You hold the compass in front of your face and then see which direction you’re facing, using a small divot to pinpoint yourself exactly.
The best thing about the mirror is that it can also be used for signaling if necessary. As for orienting on a map, this compass comes with a magnifying glass to help you see better, and it has a luminous rotating bezel for low-light conditions. The bezel is the part of the compass that you spin to match your location and line up the compass needle to your direction.
Other features of this compass include an adjustable declination scale, a lanyard for easier carrying, and a soft grip.
Here we have another high-quality company and model, which means that if you’re looking for something rugged and dependable, this could be a great option.
While the material of this compass is acrylic, which means that it can break, it is both lightweight and sturdy and should hold up to most conditions.
This is another sighting compass, meaning that you can use it for both map orientation and positioning yourself relative to natural landmarks. This particular model has a mirror with a line down the center so you can orient yourself much easier when spotting your trajectory.
The best part about this compass is that it also comes with a clinometer to tell you the surface grade of mountains and hills. Knowing how steep they are will give you a much better idea of how far it will be to your next location, as well as showing you if they are too dangerous or prone to things like mudslides or avalanches.
What we also like about this compass is that it comes with silicone feet for better stability when orienting on a map and that it has a magnifying glass on the base. Overall, this is a great product.
Next, we have another mapping compass from Suunto. The A-10 Field Compass is designed to work with maps, meaning that you won’t be able to locate yourself freely with a sighting lens.
That being said, this particular model is not as high-tech as the M-3 above. Overall, this is a great compass for anyone who likes to chart courses, rather than adjust on the fly.
What we like about this particular model is that it is super easy to read, with large markings on all sides. Scaling is easy (if you know how to do it) and it comes with a fixed declination correction scale for your convenience.
The sides are smoothed out for comfort, and it comes with a lanyard for easy carrying. Finally, this model uses a two-zone system for charting in the Northern hemisphere to make it more accurate. If you’re in the Southern hemisphere, however, you will need another compass.
As we briefly mentioned, there are different types of compasses out there. The ones we’ve seen so far can be used for free orientation or mapping equally.
In this case, however, the Suunto M-3 G Compass is designed solely for map reading, so it won’t necessarily help out in the field unless you can provide a stable flat surface.
Technically speaking, this is a geologist’s compass, but it can work when hiking if you plan accordingly. What we like about this compass is that it is globally balanced and it has clear, easy to read markings. The bezel movements are smooth, and it’s super easy to do things like scale and adjust declination. Also, the design of this compass is ideal as it has rounded edges to make it easier to store in your pocket.
Next, we have yet another military compass for you to try, which gives you a lot of the same features and benefits of others that we’ve seen.
After looking through each of these models, you may find that while the features are similar, the designs are slightly different, so feel free to pick one that works best for you and won’t be too big or bulky to carry around.
What we like about this compass is that it comes with a thick nylon lanyard for easy carrying, and has a thick, durable case as well. The sight window, luminous bezel, and reference table on the bottom are all top notch, but the only significant detraction here is that you don’t get a clinometer. Overall, this is a great buy, but it'd be good if we could determine slope as well as distance and orientation.
Finally, we have yet another military navigation compass from ARINO. While the ones we’ve seen so far have a lot of the same benefits, ARINO seems to take things up a notch, making this one of the better models overall.
First of all, we like that the compass is globally balanced to work anywhere, and we always appreciate having a rugged metal casing that is both waterproof and shock resistant.
This compass comes with clear sighting window, a clinometer on the side, and a fixed declination scaling system. Measurements are in inches, millimeters, and centimeters for easier charting, and it does have a graph on the bottom for reference. Finally, it has a luminous display to help with low-light reading.
When comparing the USCAMEL Dial Compass to the Army Sighting Compass above, you may be forgiven for thinking that they are the same thing.
The design and performance of both of these are remarkably similar, but it seems like the USCAMEL comes out slightly on top with regards to durability and clarity of the sighting window.
Also, this compass is shockproof, which is great if you accidentally drop it in the field. As with most military sighting compasses, one side allows you to orient yourself freely (with a built-in level, no less), and the other includes a clinometer for measuring slopes and steepness.
The measurements are in millimeters, centimeters, and inches so that you can scale accurately and efficiently. Like the model above, this compass comes with a handy chart engraved on the bottom to help you make calculations faster and more reliably. Overall, this is a fantastic field compass that will last you for years.
If you’re still new to orientation with a compass, then you might be wondering if it would be worth it to get a “high-tech” model that allows for inclination, declination, and sighting.
Thankfully, however, this compass is designed with beginners in mind, so you can buy this to help get you started and then upgrade if you feel that it’s necessary.
The main selling point of this compass is that it has smooth movements and clear, easy to follow instructions for orientation and positioning. It tells you how to use the bezel, the declination scale, and the measurements to your advantage so that you can properly orient yourself in no time. While this particular model is still designed for mapping (no sight window), it’s an excellent way to get familiar with all of the uses of a compass.
The exterior of this model is thick metal, which makes it extra rugged and fully waterproof. Everything on this compass is military-grade, so you know it’s built tough. The sighting window has multiple lines for better accuracy, and the other side has a clinometer for measuring slopes and steep terrain.
What we like about this compass is that it’s super easy to scale things, and there is even a chart engraved on the bottom to help you figure out your calculations in rapid time. This particular model even has an adapter so you can attach it to a tripod if you were so inclined. Finally, it comes with a luminous bezel for low-light reading, which is helpful.
After comparing these compasses, we decided it would be better to pick out the best sighting compass and the best mapping one so that you can select a model that best suits your needs. So, with that in mind, the best sighting compass is the ARINO Marching Navigation Compass, and the best mapping model is the Silva Polaris.
We like the rugged dependability and performance of the ARINO Compass, as it will help you find your way anywhere you go. As for the Silva Polaris, we like that it is super easy to use and provides instructions so that you never forget how to to use it. Both of these are our top picks of best hiking compass, but the rest are all high-quality compasses, so don’t think that they won’t be valuable in the field.
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A passionate blogger! Editor at Chooserly, and a regular author at HuffingtonPost, LifeHacker & Forbes!