How To Choose The Right Compass

Whether you’re exploring the backcountry or just planning a short day hike, a compass is one of those must have essentials that you should always bring with you. Unlike your phone or GPS device, a compass and a map won’t die on you, which make it one of the most reliable navigational tools that you can buy.


Basic Features

If you’re a new hiker or plan on sticking pretty close to the trail a simple compass is all that you’ll probably need. These more basic compasses have all the most important safety essentials and are relatively inexpensive with a simple design that’s easier to use.
magnetized needle

Magnetized Needle

The magnetized needle is usually red, and it’s the marker that will point you towards the magnetic pole. Most compasses have the magnetized needle sitting in liquid so that it can move freely for a more accurate reading. If you plan on going somewhere cold, make sure that the liquid in your compass won’t freeze.
compass bezel


The bezel is that ring around the magnetized needle that is marked with degrees from 0° – 360°. The more degree markings that the bezel has, the more precisely you’ll be able to navigate. Luminescent bezels are also a great thing to look at. These bezels glow in the dark so that reading your compass is easier in low light conditions.
compass baseplate


The baseplate is that clear, flat base that you’re compass housing sits on. The baseplate usually features a ruler to help measure map distances, an orienting arrow, parallel median lines, and a magnifying lens.


Advanced Features

If you plan on exploring off trail or going deep into the backcountry a more advanced compass is the way to go. While you still want everything that the basic features list has, there are a few extra things that you’ll want to make charting your own course as easy as possible.

Declination Adjustment

Before I get into the declination adjustment I want to quickly go over the different terms for north. When it comes to compasses and maps there are three north’s that you need to be aware of.

True or geographical north is referring to the actual North Pole and doesn’t really matter much for navigation.

Grid north is referring to the top of your map. This doesn’t refer to a certain point on your map, grid north is the entire top line of your map.

Magnetic north refers to the earth’s magnetic field.

The declination on your compass is the difference between true and magnetic north, and it can vary or change depending on where you’re located, which is why an adjustable declination is important. Being able to adjust the declination on your compass means that you can use the same one in a variety of regions without having to worry if it’s accurate or not.

Sighting Mirror

Having a sighting mirror with a notch can help with navigation and can also double as a signal in case of emergency. Similar to a compact, the mirror on your compass flips up and features a sighting notch on top. When you look through the notch at a particular landmark the mirror allows you to see the bezel at the same time for a more precise reading.

Luminescent Indicators

Having a luminescent bezel and other luminescent markings on your compass allows you to still use the compass in dark or low light situations. If you happen to get lost after dark or just want to get a couple more hours in before you set up camp, luminescent indicators are an important addition to your compass.


If you need to figure out the height of an object or are trying to calculate avalanche hazards a clinometer is a great addition to have. The clinometer is there to measure the tilt or vertical angle of an object or slope.

Global Needle

If you’re adventuring outside of the Western Hemisphere you might want to look into getting a global needle compass. Most compasses are North or South American specific and the global needle on your compass helps to compensate for the variances in the magnetic field.

Jewel Bearing

Jewel bearings help to reduce friction to help give you faster and more accurate measurements.

Extra Features

Anodized Metal Housing

If you’re worried about the durability of your compass or if you plan on hiking over some rough terrain it might be worth looking at a more durable compass. Getting a compass with an anodized metal housing means that your compass will be a lot more durable and the housing will be resistant to corrosion.


Some compasses come equipped with a whistle for emergency situations. A whistle can be a great way to get the attention of rescuers or other hikers that might be out there with you. For communication purposes it’s good to know that one loud, sharp whistle means “stop now”, two sharp whistles mean “come here”, and three sharp whistles mean “emergency, come quickly”.


Digital Compasses

Digital compasses can be a tempting replacement for the classic needle-style compass, but nothing beats the reliability of the original. Digital compasses can malfunction or the battery can die, leaving you stranding without a way to figure out your location. The classic map and needle-style compass combo is the most reliable way to navigate through the wilderness.

Another thing to be aware of are accessory compasses. Accessory compasses can be found on zipper pulls, key chains, or watches and are usually nothing more than fashion accessories. They’re fun to look at and play with, but not accurate enough for actual use.
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