Hiking Compass: Backcountry Navigation 101

Handheld hiking compass
Bradley Page
Written by Bradley Page

Compasses date way back and are still of great use even in present times. Whether you are planning to go for a hike, fishing or simply backpacking, you can agree with me that the need for a compass, for the purposes of survival, is quite evident. With your hiking compass and map properly tacked with you, you’ll be in a position to tell your location, the features around your location and where you would like to go to.

Just to take you back in history, in 1930 a non- profit organization in the outskirts of Seattle connected and educated people about outdoor activities. They came up with Ten Essentials list of items to be tagged along with for safe back country travel and compass was among top items in the list.

Some might argue that the current civilized society does not need a compass because of the GPS devices such as watches with in-built GPS and smart phones with GPS. And yes GPS receivers as well as smart phone apps are indeed amazing tools but they should not be entirely depended upon to find your way out of the wilderness and into civilization.

Hiking compass on rock

This is because GPS receivers could lose signal, your smart phone could run out of battery or your phone could even get damaged if it gets wet. Now you understand why the compass found its space in the Ten Essentials list?

In this informative review, we enlighten you about the best compass for hiking to make your purchase decision a little bit easier.

What to look out for when buying an outdoor compas


Durability is key in any item you want to acquire. When shopping for a hiking compass be certain to confirm its durability. This is because during hiking escapades, one is likely to have it bumped into the backpack or it might even fall out of your hands to the ground at one point.

Compass on sand

This is quite a common scenario especially if you are also fiddling with the map as well. The risks of falling your compass are endless and that is where durability comes in.


Some people ask whether speed is really a crucial issue when it comes to a hiking compass. Well, guess what, the answer is yes. Imagine yourself in the mountains and from the look of things the weather appears to be terrible and you are trying to locate the direction you should head to but your compass seems to be terribly slow.

Won’t you be in tough situation? For the best hiking compass, go for one that is relatively new. This is because as time goes by older compasses tend to be slow and as such slow you down. The faster the needle of your compass shows the right direction the better.


Important features of a compass include a base plate, sighting mirror, luminescent indicators, magnifying lens, clinometers, declination scale and a rotating bezel. Looking at what some of the features do, declination scales enables one to make declination adjustments for different locations so that the hiking compass actually points to the true north rather than the magnetic north.

Features of travel compass

Clinometers enable you to assess avalanche hazards as well as measuring the gradient of a slope. With luminescent indicators you get to use your compass easily even in the night.

Types of Compasses

Floating Needle Compass

This kind of a compass uses a magnetized needle so as to align with the magnetic field of the earth. Floating needle compasses are filled with a liquid to enable stabilize the needle to provide the precise reading.

Traditional hiking compasses are grouped as follows:

Basic Compasses

These are often the choice for fresh hikers and entry level backpackers as they are inexpensive. However, these are not the best choice as they do not have extra features such as declination adjustments. All in all, they have all the necessary features of a properly functioning compass.

Basic Compass

A good number of basic compasses have the following features:

  • Rotating bezel – A ring that surrounds the outer edge of the hiking compass capsule. It is indicated with notches that run from 0 degrees to 360 degrees.
  • Magnetized needle – Normally the pivoting of a compass has a red tip. The red tip is the magnetized needle. It is often called the magnetic north pole because it directs to the strongest magnetic field of the earth. This should not be confused with the true north. These two are separated by more than 1,000 miles. This is a crucial point to note especially when using a map.
  • Base plate and ruler – Transparent and a rectangular shaped base that has been marked with a ruler.
  • Liquid filled capsule – This is the housing that has the needle and the non-freezing fluid. It is indicated with the four compass points. However, older compasses are not fitted with a liquid filled capsule.
  • Index line – This is where the bearing of the compass is read. It is found on the end of the base plate.
  • Orienting arrow – A basic compass has a red arrow at the bottom its compass dial. This is what is known as the orienting arrow. Normally it has meridian lines and helps when working with a map.

Advanced compasses

These kinds of compasses make it easier to navigate as they give more accurate readings when compared to basic compasses. If you are a regular backpacker or hiker, investing in an advanced hiking compass will be worth your while.

Advanced compass features

Some of the features of an advanced computer include:

  • Clinometers – As earlier mentioned it enables you to determine the gradient or steepness of a slope.
  • Declination adjustment – It enables you to adjust the reading on the compass to match the magnetic inclination.
  • Lanyard – This is a string or others may come with a cord that enables you to attach your compass to the loop of your belt or to your backpack or to a string that you can put on your neck.
  • Magnifying lens – It is often mounted on the base plate and is used for reading tiny text on the map.
  • Luminescent indicators – With these you are able to read your compass even at night. They can be found on the magnetized needle, the four cardinal points and on the orienting arrow.
  • Global needle – If you live in the southern hemisphere, this is going to be really helpful. It compensates for any variances in the magnetic field of the earth.
  • Sighting mirror – It helps you to see a direction or any other item using the compass capsule visible at the same time.

Accessory compasses

Although these kinds of compasses will still point the four cardinal points, they are more used for a quick reference rather than for navigation while hiking.

Compass Material Travel

You will mostly find them on key chains or on watches or such like accessories.

Hiking compass tips

The following tips should not be ignored when it comes to hiking compasses:

  • Before anything, it is imperative that you learn how a hiking compass is used. You can do this by enrolling for a class in a local outdoor organization. Just before you buy a compass for your lessons, inquire from your instructor what is needed.
  • When traveling, you are bound to bump up and down. This may make the rotating capsule turn from its original position. To avoid this kind of scenario, it is advised that you keep on checking your compass from time to time just to be certain that you are moving in the right direction.
  • Beware of ferrous metals. Ferrous metals can distort the reading of your compass. Do not use your compass near your car or metallic objects such as metallic tables and metallic posts. Electrical fields such as a running car engine may as well distort the accuracy of your compass.
  • Another important point to note is that you should always keep in mind that the magnetic needle always points to the magnetic north whereas the direction arrows show the direction in which you will be moving.
  • With time, exposing your compass in magnetic or electric field demagnetizes the needle. Also do not place your hiking compass together with your cell phone in your pocket as radiations from the cell phone will demagnetize the needle.

Top-rated compasses for hiking

After going through how compasses work and what to look for when buying, let’s see some of the best products on the market.

Suunto A-10 A10 Recreational Field Compass

Weight: 2.4 oz

Dimensions: 1 x 3.6 x 7 inches

Best Use: Mountain Climbing, Hiking, bike riding

This hiking compass is very durable and clear because it is made of scratch resistant acrylic. It comes fitted with a ruler that measures both in centimeters as well as inches.

The Suunto A-10 A10 Recreational Field Compass has a dimension of 2.2 *3.5”. It also comes equipped with a fixed declination correction scale. It is well balanced and thus can be used by anybody in the northern hemisphere as well as in the southern hemisphere.

Check the price on Amazon

Silva Ranger 515 Compass

Weight: 0.25 lbsSilva Ranger 515 Compass

Dimensions: 0.7 x 5.1 x 7.8 inches

Best Use: Hiking, mountain climbing, camping

Features: It comes equipped with a classic bezel, a lid to protect it from dirt and damages. The compass also comes with a mirror that has more knurling for easier rotation and grip.

It has a 1- piece mirror with etched sighting line down the center for a great read out of bearing when sighting in the wild. Silver Ranger 515 Compass has a great new luminous capability. Its luminous power is actually 4 times more than that of a watch grade and the best part is that it does not degrade even as huge amounts time passes.

It has a 0º to 3600 dial and 20 graduations with luminous cardinal points for usage at night as well as in the dark. It just doesn’t end with that. This is known to be one of the best hiking compasses because it is an advanced compass thanks to the clinometers and the magnifier which can be used when using a map so as to check out the tiny symbols and readings.

Check the price on Amazon

Brunton Nomad V2 Pro Digital Compass with Barometer/Altimeter

Weight: 4.8 ozBrunton Nomad V2 Pro Digital Compass with Barometer Altimeter

Dimensions: 1.1 x 4.3 x 8 inches

Best Use: Hiking and camping

Brunton Nomad V2 is a compact digital compass with a weather center combination. It has a lanyard and thus allowing you to string it to your neck, belt, back pack or wrist. The digital compass has grips on the sides to help you get a proper hold of it while hiking.

This is a special hiking compass because it provides altitude pressure, barometric pressure and up to the minute temperature readings. It offers accurate compass and directional bearings thanks to its 1- degree resolution.

It comes with a built in bubble level that can store up to 20 altimeter memories and backlit digital display. However, if you are in Catalina Island you may not be in a position to acquire it because it is not sold there.

Check the price on Amazon

Coghlan’s Outdoorsman Digital Compass 

Weight: 1.6 ozCoghlan's Outdoorsman Digital Compass

Dimensions: 1 x 1 x 1 inches

Best Use: Camping, bike riding and hiking

Coghlan’s Outdoorsman Digital Compass has a huge display screen that is easy to read. It also has a multi-line read out as well as an adjustable declination scale. There also is a thermometer measuring temperature in 0C and 0F format and also a 24 hour minimum and maximum.

It can also work with watch batteries. The digital compass also works as a clock and has an alarm with snooze giving time in 12 hour format and 24 hour format. Apart from the clock, it has a calendar that features day, date, month and year.

Check the price on Amazon

Silva Polaris Compass

Weight: 0.05 lbsSilva polaris

Dimensions: 0.6 x 4.7 x 7.6 inches

Best Use: Hiking, hunting, mountaineering, survival and trekking

The Silva Polaris has a slim profile and is known to be durable and accurate. It has a clear base plate with inch, millimeter and 1: 24,000 scales. It is therefore best when reading a map, setting bearings and when planning to go for a trip.

The compass is equipped with a fixed declination scale which makes it easy to make adjustments of map bearings to field headings. Its sapphire bearing that is friction free enables the tungsten steel needle to swing freely. The permanent clear fluid that comes with it keeps the needle steady and thus the accuracy and reliability.

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Brunton TruArc 3 Base Plate Compass

Weight: 6.1 ozBrunton TruArc 3 Base Plate Compass

Dimensions: 1.1 x 4.2 x 8.1 inches

Best Use: Hiking, camping

Features: 2 Degree resolution, Inch/CM Scales, global needle, U-proof warranty

This USA made digital compass has a 2 degree resolution and the ruler has a scale that can be read both in inches and in centimeters. The global needle allows one to use the compass anywhere in the world regardless of the fact that one is in the northern or southern hemisphere.

Brunton TruArc 3 is a scouting compass with the modern bells and whistles, so you can trust that this tool will give your precision even in the most demanding outdoor conditions.

Check the price on Amazon

Suunto MC-2G in Global Compass

Weight: 4.8 ozSuunto MC-2G In Global Compass

Dimensions: 2.56 x 3.98 x 0.71 inches

Best Use: Hiking, camping, bike riding, sports, fitness

Features: Patented global needle, Easy-grip bezel, luminous outer ring

Suunto MC-2G Global Compass has a patented global needle which means it works either in the northern or southern hemisphere. Some of the base plate features include a magnifying lens, straight edge and thanks to its inch markings, one can accurately read a map. These amazing features make the compass to be highly accurate and thus very reliable.

It has an adjustable declination scale thus working out the difference between the magnetic north and the true north. The compass comes with an easy grip rotating bezel which reads in 2-degree increments. It also has a luminous outer ring that can be used to read in low light.

Check the price on Amazon

Closing thoughts

When shopping for a hiking compass, there are a couple of things that need to be looked at before settling on a compass. Ask yourself whether you want a basic, accessory or advanced compass. Are you looking to get a compass for hiking, hunting, forestry, survival, military or mountaineering?

Most modern hiking compasses have a clear base plate with a needle that is magnetized found in a housing that is fluid filled. The fluid is normally ethyl alcohol, lamp oil or mineral oil. The fluid makes sure that the needle always provides a true and accurate reading. Compasses that do not have fluids should be avoided at all costs.

Compass on snow

There are many types of hiking compasses in the market. So many that you may be spoilt for a choice. I hope that the information in this review has helped you know the types of hiking compasses and the best models for your outdoor activities.

Do you still use compasses when hiking? Or do you think you don’t need one with all the modern navigation apps we have? Let’s get this discussion going in the comments!


Bradley Page

Bradley Page

With several decades of experience as a backpacker and outdoor adventurer, Bradley is an open encyclopedia when it comes to gear, clothes, and other items that matter on the trail. He tested hundreds of shoes, pants, jackets, and backpacks in his long career and is always up to date with the new appearances in the niche. His experience makes him one of the authority figures in backpacking and he can help anyone to get prepared for a great adventure!