Updated Jun 23, 2022 12:41 PM
If you spend a lot of time outdoors, then you understand the importance of navigation. Whether you’re a hunter, angler, hiker, or camper—knowing how to use a compass is one of the most critical skills to have as an outdoorsman. When you venture out of cell service range and google maps isn’t useful anymore, having the best compass can help you return home safely.
A compass is essentially a magnet that spins freely to align itself to the Earth’s magnetic fields. This lets the user determine magnetic North and true North and figure out their directional orientation.
A compass is not only a useful tool for people who like spending time outdoors, but it is also a critical piece of safety equipment. You can’t rely on service in the backcountry or trust that your phone will hold a charge long enough for when you need it most. Understanding how to use and read a compass will not only make you a more well-versed outdoorsman—it can potentially save you from a dangerous situation.
Below are some of the best compasses on the market and things you should consider before buying to make sure you find the right one for you.
Things to Consider Before Buying Compasses
Selecting the best compass depends on several factors. Your budget is a consideration, but where and how you’ll be using it is more important. The best compass for camping, for example, isn’t necessarily the greatest option for those who are heading out on a thru-hike along the Appalachian Trail.
Also, consider your experience level. While all sorts of bells and whistles can be interesting, if you don’t know how to use them, all they do is cost extra with little practical gain. Naturally, the more time you invest in practicing your navigation skills, the more you may appreciate some of those additional features. No matter where you’re headed, a good compass is absolutely one of the best pieces of survival gear, it’s just as important as a knife and a fire kit.
At first, going out and buying the best compass on the market might sound foolish. After all, there is any number of the best GPS apps you can install on your phone. Those work very well and can be a lot of fun to boot. Here’s the thing, though. A compass won’t run out of battery power. It won’t fall victim to soaking in the rain, and a decent one won’t shatter if it falls from your hand. A magnetic compass needs nothing special to keep you on the right path, other than perhaps a little bit of practice with reading it and understanding what it is telling you.
Selecting the best compass can be confusing, with so many options available on the market today. However, we’ve done most of the work for you. We’ve culled through the various options available and narrowed them down into the ideal selections in several categories. While any compass in your pocket is better than the one you left at home, you will dramatically increase your chances of success if you select one based on how you plan to be using it. A simple pocket compass might be all you’ll need for a short camping trip. But if you’re headed out on a lengthy trek, you’ll want something a little more substantial.
Best Overall: Suunto MC-2
Why It Made the Cut: Suunto is one of the best-known brands in the world today when it comes to compasses, so it only made sense to select one of their most popular models to lead off.
- Dimensions: 2.56 x 3.98 x 0.71”
- Weight: 2.61 oz
- Operating temperature: -22°F to 140°F
- Loaded with useful features.
- Hinged mirror can be used as an emergency signal
- Clear baseplate for map use.
- Requires a fair amount of practice.
Suunto was founded in 1936, and ever since, they have been one of the biggest names in the compass world. While today Suunto is largely known for its line of GPS-enabled watches, they built their reputation with the best compasses available. The MC-2 is one of the best products in their compass line and is popular worldwide for hiking, mountain biking, trail running, skiing, and much more.
It includes a sighting hole and notch so you can get accurate bearings, as well as a clinometer and a declination adjustment tool. A high-grade steel needle points the way, swinging smoothly through the liquid-filled capsule. Luminescent markings enable you to use the compass in low light conditions. A detachable snap-lock lanyard keeps the compass close at hand, but out of the way until you need it. The lanyard can easily be removed when you’re working with a map, too. A magnifying lens in the baseplate is useful for seeing small details on your map. In a pinch, you could even use it to concentrate the sun’s rays on your tinder to get a fire going. The MC-2 is made in Finland and comes with a limited lifetime warranty.
Best for Hiking: Cammenga Lensatic Compass
Why It Made the Cut: Robust and military-styled, this is a great option for those seeking a lensatic compass that will withstand a fair amount of use and abuse.
- Dimensions: 3.25 x 2.25”
- Weight: 7.2 oz
- Operating temperature: -50°F to 150°F
- Perfect for use in extreme temperatures.
- Same model as used by military forces around the world.
- Copper induction ring steadies needle quickly.
- Much heavier than other models on our list.
Founded in 1992, Cammenga has risen to become the world’s largest military compass supplier, including the official U.S. military compass supplier (as Defense Logistics Agency, DLA). When you’re headed out on the trail, the best compass for hiking is one that’s designed to overcome anything Mother Nature can throw your way. This model is damage-resistant and waterproof to considerable depths. It is sandproof and will perform quite well from -50°F to 150°F.
Its housing is not liquid-filled—thus, there’s no worry about anything freezing up. A copper induction-damping ring will slow, settle, and steady the compass needle in a hurry. The powdered-coated aluminum frame is built to last. It has seven Tritium micro-lights that will provide illumination for over a dozen years. These small lights are self-powered, needing no recharging and certainly no batteries. This compass is equipped with a magnifying lens, sight wire, and dial graduations in degrees and mils. It is accurate to +/- 40 mils. If you’re going to be traveling on foot far from groomed trails and easy-to-find rest stops, you can rely on the same simple but robust compass design used by U.S. military troops stationed around the world.
Best for Children: Suunto A-10
Why It Made the List: Simple and straightforward, this model is great for helping children learn the basics of land navigation without being distracted by too many bells and whistles.
- Dimensions: 2.2 x 4.09”
- Weight: 1.06 oz
- Operating temperatures: -22°F to 140°F
- Inexpensive without sacrificing quality or needed features.
- Durably built and easy to use.
- Can easily be worn on a lanyard.
- Very basic model with no added features.
The A-10 is a minimalistic compass, perfect for those who aren’t well-versed in the more technical aspects of orienteering. It is a baseplate compass, designed for use in conjunction with a map. It has a liquid-filled capsule and a steel needle with a jewel bearing. This model is balanced for use in the northern hemisphere with both inch and centimeter scales and a fixed declination. It is quick to settle and fix on a direction, perfect for young hands with little patience. The all-plastic construction is sturdy and will easily handle even moderate-height falls.
The lack of bells and whistles works in your favor as there’s less you need to teach the youngster to do. This also means there are fewer features that could confuse them when they’re just starting out with the basics. The compass is accurate to about 2.5°, which is just fine for most people to get from Point A to Point B. It will work fine in cold weather down to -22°F, so there’s no need to leave it home in the winter. It has a lanyard attachment, making it the best compass for children so your young hiker can keep it with them at all times and refer to it often as they travel.
Best Budget: TruArc 3
Why It Made the List: This is a great option for those who don’t need anything more than just the basics to get from Point A to Point B and back again.
- Dimensions: 4.1 x 2.4”
- Weight: 1.3 oz
- Resolution: 2° for 0-360°
- Accurate anywhere on the planet you travel.
- Tool-free declination adjustment.
- Lanyard hole designed so compass will still lay flat.
- Baseplate is too small for use as a straightedge on a map.
There’s little need to spend a ton of money on a high-end compass for someone who is just starting out with learning orienteering and related skills. This best compass on a budget from Brunton will do all you need it to do in order to find your way, whether you’re looking for a new campsite or just trying to get back home. The TruArc needle tilts up to 20° for balanced use anywhere on the globe. It has tool-free declination adjustment, so you can quickly and easily orient magnetic north to true north. It is even made right here in the USA, in Riverton, Wyoming. The small size makes it great for EDC (everyday carry). It also resists magnetic interference better than just about any other compass on the market, so you won’t lose your way following the wrong bearing. It operates on either standard or metric measurements, so you can use it with any map without difficulty. This isn’t the compass to choose if you’re headed way out into the great beyond. But it will be just fine for short trips or as a backup to something a little more robust.
Learning land navigation isn’t an easy task, and it can be extremely difficult when you’re relying on compasses that are little more than toys. While you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on something that amounts to basically a magnetized needle resting on a spindle, the more accurate the compass model has proven to be, the easier it will be to find your way from one location to the next and eventually making it home safely.
In examining the different models available on the market, we took into account the following considerations.
- Quality: The components used must be sturdy, and the design must be robust enough to handle the rough-and-tumble outdoors. The last thing you want is something that is likely to break the first time you drop it. And yes, you are going to drop it, probably more than once.
- Reputation: This is not an area of survival planning where you want to try counting on some off-brand that might have just started a business last month. Knockoffs have no place when it comes to your safety and well-being.
- Value: No matter how inexpensive or pricey the compass may be, for it to be worth purchasing, it needs to perform, no matter what. It isn’t just a matter of price, but what you’re getting with your money.
On top of all that, there’s practical experience. Each of the models I chose to include here has been used extensively by myself and my colleagues over several years. We know they work because we’ve used them. We’ve relied on them to keep us on track and moving in the right direction. And we’ve made it home safely each and every time.
Q: Do I need a compass for hiking?
First and foremost, understand that a compass is really only half of the navigation equation. It will tell you which way is north, from which you can deduce other directions. However, a map is necessary to help you determine where you are and which direction you need to move to find camp, help, or just get back to the trailhead. Whether it is a simple pocket compass or something more elaborate, you should have a compass with you when hiking. But you should also have a good map of the area so you can use the two tools together.
Q: Are cheap compasses accurate?
Most of the base models from known brands are accurate enough to get you moving in the right direction. However, the small button compasses you can find cheap online are more than a little suspect. Many of them either get stuck or will move very easily when bumped. Having a compass that’s drastically inaccurate may be worse than having no compass at all. Always test a compass at home, in a known and safe environment, before relying on it in the field. Get to know its quirks, if any, well ahead of needing the compass to get you home again.
Q: What compass does the military use?
Most military forces are trained in the use of a lensatic compass. This is a model that is equipped with, well, a lens that will aid in the orienteering process. This type of compass has three basic components – a base, cover, and reading lens. The base has the compass dial itself and the bezel. The cover protects the compass and also has the sighting wire, which helps you to determine direction. The reading lens helps to secure the cover when it is not in use. Using a lensatic compass does require some practice or training, so take the time to become familiar with its use before heading off down the trail.
Choosing the best compass isn’t always easy, but it shouldn’t be a mind-boggling dilemma, not if you take into account our recommendations. Fortunately, even the highest-grade orienteering compass isn’t ridiculously expensive, so you can invest in a high-quality product without breaking the bank. That said, you can pick up a compass that’s perfectly suited for camping or short hikes for very little money. Above all else, though, you need to invest time and effort into learning how to use any compass you purchase. The skills are easily transferable to any other model you purchase down the road.