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Best Compass: Choosing a Reliable Navigational Tool for the Great Outdoors

Best Compass review
Sean Nelson
Written by Sean Nelson

Have you used this navigational tool before? If so, you understand the importance of carrying one and most importantly, knowing how to use it effectively – especially in a wilderness setting. If this is your first time buying a navigational compass, you are probably asking yourself: how does one shop for the best compass?

Just like any other outdoor gear, compasses are available in various shapes, styles, colors, design features and more. Their overwhelming variety can result in confusion, especially among first-time buyers. Luckily for you, we have a comprehensive guide about the features that you should look for when shopping for a compass. On top of that, we have taken the liberty to recommend some of the best products that you can get in the market today. Let’s get to it.

Product NameDegrees IncrementClinometersScale Liquid-filled dialDeclination scalePrice
Brunton 8099 Eclipse Compass1Yes1: 24,000YesAdjustableCheck price on Amazon
SE CC4580 Military Sighting Compass5Yes1: 24,000 &
1: 5,000
YesFixedCheck price on Amazon
Suunto MB-6 Matchbox Compass5Yes1: 24,000YesAdjustableCheck price on Amazon
Huntington MG1 BLACK Military Compass2Yes1: 24,000YesAdjustableCheck price on Amazon
Silva Ranger 515 Compass2Yes1: 24000 or
1: 50, 000 & 1: 25,000 (roamer scale)
YesAdjustableCheck price on Amazon
AUFO Tactical Multifunction Military Army compass5Yes1: 75,000YesFixedCheck price on Amazon
Silva Lensatic 360 Compass2Yes1: 24,000YesFixedCheck price on Amazon

Features to Consider When Buying

As with every product, compasses with varying features, design, style, shapes, and brands have flooded the market. Thus as a buyer, you should strive at familiarizing yourself with the key features and brands available. With that said, here are the features to consider when shopping for an outdoor compass.

Bezel

Bezel, commonly known as azimuth ring is a gyrating enclosure with bearings calibrated from zero to 360. The markings express the azimuth, bearing or the direction of navigation. In some models, the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west directions) are indicated too.

Compass features in the hand

As a rule of thumb, the smaller the interval of the markings the easier it is to use the device. This can be a key guiding point as the degrees increment varies by compass. In the market, compasses are calibrated in a range from 5 degrees down to 0.5 degrees, however, the lesser the better. According to experts, you should refrain from purchasing bezels calibrated in more than 2 degrees increments.

The bezel encompasses the outer brim of the compass making it easier to spot. While at it, it’s advisable to go for a compass whose calibrations are clear, readable and well written in large numbers for ease of use.

Accuracy

Outdoor activities come with numerous challenges. You have to deal with weather changes, dampness, wild animals etc. Now imagine adding to these the frustration that comes with being lost in thickets and caves or just due to poor visibility and indistinct landscape characteristics.

Compass Accuracy

Luckily, the latter can be avoided by carrying an accurate compass. In general, compasses with features such as clinometers and mirrors are more accurate, thanks to their precision.

However, additional features do come at a cost thus you should evaluate your activity, expertise, and budget to gauge the level of accuracy you’ll require. Experts recommend highly accurate compasses (for safety purposes) to individuals who rarely navigate off trails regardless of the price.

Base Plate & Ruler

This is a rectangular plate that houses the compass’ capsule. The base is transparent or translucent which makes its use easy especially in conjunction with a navigation map. It’s wise selecting compasses with rulers (calibrated in either inches or centimeters) marked on the outline of the base plate. The scaled rules are useful in distance determination.

Checking Compass for directions

It’s of great importance purchasing a compass whose ruler scale correlates to that of the navigation map you’re likely to use. In addition, opt for a base plate with a straight edge as it can be helpful in marking out bearings and directions on the map. However, as a backpacker, you can go for either the base plate or an orienteering compass.

Sighting Mirror

A sighting mirror is a plane/curved surface that folds out allowing for improved accuracy. It allows the user sight both the compass capsule and the target simultaneously which translates to precise readings. In addition, the mirror surfaces double as an emergency signaling device.

Compass Sighting Mirror

Based on its reflective properties, when shone in the light, the resulting beam of reflected light can serve as a signal to the rescue team. Moreover, in non-emergency situations, the mirror can serve as an individual mirror (beauty purposes).

Declination Scale

Compasses come with a fixed or an adjustable declination scale where the former is the majority. The scale simplifies the user’s need to perform computations so as to determine the declination of their present location. For instance, the angular difference between true north and the horizontal trace of the magnetic field where you are located).

Declination Scale of Compass

Adjustable declination scales allow for declination compensation – a sophisticated arrow which can be oriented in the direction of the magnetic fields in the area of travel. Such compasses are available with a tiny tool for adjustment purposes.

Adjustable declination scales have an advantage in that they eliminate the need for manual adjustments and any inconveniences associated here with. However, they come at an extra cost thus, select accordingly.

Clinometer

This is an advanced feature and thus come at an additional cost. However, it’s a crucial feature as it enables you to determine the degree of steepness (vertical angle) of a slope. Its results indicate the vertical distance of objects and can also be used to assess the possibility of a landslide or other hazards based on the knowledge of the angle of repose/stability of the slope in question.

Compass clinometer

For first timers and inexperienced hikers, a clinometer is a necessity for safety purposes. The feature does come in handy too for individuals with heart problems such as bronchitis, asthma and heart attack. This is so as the user can be in a position to avoid slopes that are too steep than the doctor’s recommendation which they wouldn’t have otherwise noted with naked eyes.

As earlier noted though, the feature come at an added cost thus it’s up to you to evaluate your needs, expertise, activity and select accordingly.

Whatever outdoor activity you put your mind into, a compass is a mandatory gear. However, that doesn’t mean you have to buy just about any product that comes your way. Rather, consider the features outlined above on top of purchasing from a reputable brand and shop your way up to a suitable and accurate compass that suits your needs and budget.

Best Products on Today’s Market

You feel you can’t be bothered shopping for a compass on your own? Here comes the best part – some in-depth reviews of the top compasses in the market. We recommend that you check out these models and you’re bound to find something that you will like.

Brunton 8099 Eclipse CompassBrunton 8099 Eclipse Compass

Price: approximately $63.00

Weight: 3.7 oz

Dimension: 4.1 x 2.5 x 1 inches

Special features: Magnified read-out; 1° graduations; contains 3 inclinometer systems; USGS map scale 1:24k, ft., UTM. Mile; “Circle over circle” alignment system map magnifier; lanyard; waterproof field reference cards

Best use: hiking, camping, search & rescue

Designed by Brunton to be of a professional, search and rescue quality grade, the Brunton 8099 Eclipse Compass is outfitted with an inclinometer, declination adjustment, magnified read out, and lots more useful and even some surprising features. It features a “Circle over circle” alignment system, designed to be simple to use, quick, and reliable.

However, some owners do not prefer this alignment system and believe that it allows room for error when used out in the field by hand. This is because it is impossible to guarantee that you will hold it at the same level every time while viewing it through the mirror.

Buyers who have never used this type of alignment system will want to be sure to familiarize themselves with it thoroughly before using it out in the field. This compass also boasts tool-free declination adjustments, comes with handy field reference guide cards, and is outfitted with a rubber base. Although some users feel that the base gets in the way of opening the top. All in all, this is a solid compass that offers several great features.

PROS:

  • Highly accurate with gradations 1° increments
  • Durable
  • Reliable as no batteries are required
  • Contains useful information included in the field reference cards

CONS:

  • Inaccurate mounting of the mirror to about 1°
  • The sighting window is too narrow
  • Relatively hard to use
  • Expensive

Related: If you are interested in the features, quality, and durability of the aforementioned compass but you are in need of a smaller and cheaper model, the Brunton O.S.S. is the ideal alternative for its tool-free declination and 2 degree resolution.

Check the price on Amazon

SE CC4580 Military Sighting CompassSE CC4580 Military Sighting Compass

Price: Approximately $9.51

Weight: 3.7 oz

Dimension: 3 x 2 x 5 inches

Special features: Floating dial; rotating bezel ring; built-in bubble level; folding thumb ring; tripod screw hole on base; adjustable sighting lens; includes lanyard and water resistant nylon pouch

Best use: Camping, light outdoor adventures, daytime use

SE Brand is committed to serving as the best source of value to their customers, and SE CC4580 Prismatic Sighting Compass is no exception. Look for the SE genuine logo on the packaging to ensure you are receiving the genuine article. Although this compass may not be as precise as some others, for an inexpensive (less than $20) option, its level of quality just might surprise you.

It is of the direct sighting compass variety and has one-degree accuracy. It is also very simple and quick to use. Its luminance is not the best, but as is the case with all direct sighting compass, it is not really the best choice for using in pitch dark conditions.

Overall, this is an accurate, reliable, and durable choice for getting your bearings outdoors. However, there are better options out there if you are seeking advanced features and precision, but it means you may need to spend a little more.

PROS:

  • Highly affordable
  • Easy to use with rulers on either side
  • Durable
  • Has a water-resistant nylon pouch

CONS:

  • Non-adjustable sighting aperture
  • No means to handle declination

Related: Outdoor pursuits require fewer items to minimize the weight of the backpack. That’s why SE brand has you covered with an SE CCT10 10-IN-1 Survival Camping Tool as an alternative. The toolkit contains a compass, fire starter, mirror, whistle, hygrometer etc. – it’s an all-in-one package. It’s also way affordable, compact and lightweight, making it best for hunting, boating and fishing.

Check the price on Amazon

Suunto MB-6 Matchbox CompassSuunto MB-6 Matchbox Compass

Price: approximately $52. 96

Weight: 4 oz

Dimension: 1.3 x 5.2 x 11.8 inches

Special features: Combination hand-bearing and base-plate compass; matchbox style case; luminous needle for easy reading in poor lighting; built-in clinometer; fixed declination adjustment.

Best use: backpacking, camping, hiking, hunting

The Suunto MB-6 Matchbox Compass is suited for a wide variety of climates and settings. It is an analog compass which provides specific navigational directions and the clinometer will let you know how steep that particular hill you are approaching.

It comes outfitted in a durable matchbox which is actually slightly larger than a standard size matchbox and can be a little noisy when opening. It also has a mirror to make navigation easier, although some users have found that the mirror rattles slightly.

The markings on this compass are luminescent to assist with readings in darker conditions. As a compact compass, it does not include scales and map tools. Thus, if you require those for more serious mapping, you may be better off with a full-sized base plate compass. But nonetheless, it is still a very well made, well designed, and reliable product.

PROS:

  • Accurate
  • Durable
  • Two-zone system
  • Has a highly resistant pouch/case

CONS:

  • Relatively expensive
  • Relatively heavy when compared to other compasses

Related: For individuals who prefer smaller items, Suunto Clipper Watch Band Compass is the right pick. It’s relatively cheaper, lighter and contains similar features as the ones in the aforementioned compass above.

Check the price on Amazon

Huntington MG1 BLACK Military CompassHuntington MG1 Black Military Compass

Price: Approximately $8.59

Weight: 8.50 oz

Dimension: 4.6 x 3.2 x 1.9 inches

Special features: Metal body with folding cover; diopter adjustable lens system; rotating bezel ring; built-in bubble level; folding thumb ring; tripod screw hole on base; includes water resistant pouch and lanyard.

Best use: Backpacking, camping, hiking, hunting, geology, outdoor activities

In addition to being useful and practical for checking your bearing, Huntington MG1 Black Military Compass is a sturdy and all-metal compass product which also has a sighting window and viewing prism lens system. This allows the user to also take precise measurements and get directions from the side.

For the price, it also boasts some surprising features which are well-executed and useful. Some of these features include a bubble level which ensures that the compass is flat and in the optimal position to rotate, a thumb loop, and a 16-page mini manual.

Most users appreciate the price point and accuracy of this compass, but some complaints state that the paint and markings wear off easily. For that reason, it is recommended that you carry it in a case for protection (it comes with a water-resistant nylon with belt loop). All in all, this compass is a great value for one that is so sturdy, solid, and reliable.

PROS:

  • Highly affordable
  • Easy to use

CONS:

  • Easily worn out
  • Too heavy

Related: The Huntington MG2 Black Military Bearing is the best alternative to MG1. Why? It includes all the features present in the aforementioned item, it’s relatively light and is fully metallic for increased durability. However, it is also slightly expensive.

Check the price on Amazon

Silva Ranger 515 CompassSilva Ranger 515 Compass

Price: approximately $41.95

Weight: 2.4 oz

Dimension: 0.9 x 5.5 x 11.6 inches

Special features: Classic bezel, lid, and one piece mirror; luminosity that is four times more intense than watch grade and will not degrade over time; 0-360 degree dial with 2-degree graduations, clinometer, map magnifier, includes lanyard with screwdriver

Best use: Backpacking, camping, hiking, hunting

The Silva Ranger 515 Compass provides excellent accuracy even in the most rigorous of conditions. It features a split-sighting mirror for accuracy even when navigating on distant landmarks.

It also features a baseplate with three scales which lends to easy and fast plotting using a topographic map. It has silicone footing to help it grip on a map, which also prevents it from sliding across the surface of an incline. It also has a clinometer that allows the user to measure angles of inclination, and heavy duty luminous markings for night time use.

Although it has a cover that snaps over the dial, this compass does not come with a protective pouch or case. Most users are impressed with the quality of this compass product. The thoughtful design really makes this a great outdoor compass.

PROS:

  • Durable
  • Accurate
  • Easy to use

CONS:

  • Declination screws are often wobbly
  • Pricey compared to other Silva compasses

Related: If you are contented with the features present in Ranger 515 but are in need of a cheaper model, the Silva Guide 426 Compass  is the ideal pick for its full-sized sighting mirror and 2-degree graduations.

Check the price on Amazon

AUFO Tactical Multifunction Military Army compassAUFO Tactical Multifuction Military Army Compass

Price: approximately $15.99

Weight: 11.7 oz

Dimensions: 1.9 x 3.1 x 4.5 inches

Special features: Floating compass dial with 360-degree scale, rotary dial, and bubble level; metal construction; luminous display; includes water resistant pouch and lanyard

Best use: backpacking, camping, hiking, hunting

The AUFO Tactical Multifunction Military Army Compass is another example of an outstanding compass product available at a great price. It is not a plastic, lightweight product like you might expect to find at this price point, but rather it is a heavy duty, military-grade metal that is very solidly built. Many who swear by it say it is the best compass for hiking. It opens smoothly and features not a piece of plastic on the case at all. Users of this compass love it so much they would still purchase it, even if it were much more expensive.

It is simple, with only the features you need and nothing extra. However, if you have never used a compass before, you may want to look someplace other than the included instruction booklet, as it does not include much detail on how to use it. This is because it is intended more for the avid and experienced outdoorsman. This is an excellent product and is one of the most highly recommended models in this price range.

PROS:

  • Highly affordable
  • Excellent design
  • Durable thanks to the metal construction

CONS:

  • The luminous display requires 3-4 hours of sun exposure for it to glow in the dark

Related: AUFO outdoor gear are usually crafted using a similar design, style, and technology. Thus, if you’re content in features present in the aforementioned item but are in need of a cheaper, lighter and smaller compass, the AUFO Bronzing Antique Portable Pocket Compass is the right pick.

Check the price on Amazon

Silva Lensatic 360 CompassSilva Lensatic 360 - Compass

Price: approximately $22.95

Weight: 4.8 oz

Dimensions: 9.1 x 5.5 x 1.7 inches

Special features: Black powder-coated aluminum case; liquid-filled compass with two-degree increments; luminous points on rotating bezel, sighting slit unit/ top cover with sighting arm to magnify reading

Best use: fishing, boating, backpacking, camping, hiking, hunting

Originally used by the military for its accuracy in land navigation, the Silva Lensatic 360 – Compass sports the classic military design, with a protective black powder coated aluminum housing. It is easy to notice the quality and well thought-out design of this compass by simply picking it up and opening the top cover. The parts fit together very well, and the hinges are designed to stand up to heavy use and wear without wearing out or snapping.

The lid is of the spinning variety, designed such that some users believe it actually spins too easily, making it easier to take a wrong bearing. The rotating bezel does have a luminescence, however, it must be exposed to at least three hours of sunlight first before being used in the dark.

The sighting lines are engraved on the crystal, eliminating the concern that they could ever wear off over time. Overall, this is another great compass available at a lower price point that does its job well and is built to last.

PROS:

  • Affordable
  • Engraved double sighting lines

CONS:

  • Precision is limited
  • Too bulky

Related: Is too large of a compass cumbersome for you? The Silva Polaris Compass has got you covered. It’s relatively cheaper, lighter, smaller and contains similar features as Lensatic 360 compass mentioned above.

Check the price on Amazon

There you have it! Our in-depth reviews of the best compasses in the market today. The reviews are a win-win as you’re either bound to find a compass that will suit your needs or get a clear guideline on how to select a quality one.

Wrapping up

As we mentioned earlier, all compasses are not created equal. Take the time to test several compasses, learn their features, and be sure to practice, practice, and practice. While you’re at it, address your questions and concerns with a professional before you put yourself in a position where you may need to rely on your compass as a survival tool.

Using and bringing Compass for survival

So what do you think of our selection of the best outdoor compasses? Or perhaps, you have a certain product that you swear by? Be sure to leave a comment below!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sean Nelson
Sean Nelson

Sean was backpacking since he was 7. He was born close to the RMNP and his father was a ranger, so life surrounded by mountains and wildlife is a norm for Colorado. He likes to explore, but prefers to stay in USA. In his opinion, there are too many trails and options in US to go abroad.

  • Wendy Fortin

    I’ve read somewhere about the Suunto A-10 Field Compass. I’m not sure yet if it’s a good recommendation but reviews say it is light, unbreakable and has easy instructions. Even more, it has a cool feature: the luminous needle.

    • Sean Nelson

      Thanks for the input Wendy. As with the Suunto Compass, there are a lot of choices above that will suit individual tastes or preference. As I’ve said, when you’re going trekking or camping, please make sure to invest in excellent tools. A reliable, hardy and accurate compass is still your best bet for survival, aside from your wits of course.

  • Linda Jones

    Hello! Tell me, please, how can I find a way, if the compass has broken? What are some tips to find the way without it? And also I would like to know which very durable compass would you advise me to buy in the future? I’m afraid to go camping without it.

  • Sean Nelson

    The best compass can be found in the list above Linda and I hope you find one according to your needs. Do a quick check on your compass – is the glass broken? Check the floating dial which contains the magnetic needle and make sure it doesn’t stick to the glass. Also, make sure the sighting wire is straight.

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