Which are the best compasses – and do you know how to read a real compass? We’re not talking about the GPS one in your phone, but the type you need when you're kitted out in the best hiking boots, your best waterproof jacket and with a paper map in hand. Yes, when you're heading off-road, especially in hills and mountains, there really is a vital need for an old-school, aligned-with-the-planet compass.
If you can’t read a compass, you need to ask just how prepared you are for a proper adventure? Imagine yourself on a misty mountain, with a phone that needs charging or has no signal, a paper map flapping in the breeze, and navigation via real-world landmarks. If you can navigate without a phone, you’ll be able to go further, stay longer and be more ambitious than if you’re relying on technology.
Not all compasses are made alike, though – there are the cheap and cheerful transparent plastic models you may remember from school, but there are also all-singing and dancing models that will do just about everything except order pizza, once you’re within striking distance of home.
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How to choose the best compass for you
At their heart, all compasses do the same thing – point you northwards irrespective (pretty much; many of the compasses here are calibrated for use in the northern hemisphere) of where you are. That way, you can line your compass up with the map you have with you, or with real-world landmarks, or both, to give you a reasonably precise idea of where you are.
That’s where the homogenous features of a compass end – so how do you decide on the best compasses? Well, it depends what kind of hiking you you have in mind, but we have found there are a few other features worth paying for.
- Shatter-proof: Durability is the big one. Even if you’re not too much a klutz, accidents happen, and your compass is going to meet solid ground at some point.
- Waterproof: Even more likely, it’s going to meet water, which means it shouldn’t rust if it’s made of metal, and any moving parts outside the needle (already waterproofed as the needle is floating) keep moving freely.
- Folding: A folding design allows you to line your compass up with landmarks in the distance more accurately.
- Magnification: If you’re using a small-scale map, you will appreciate a compass with a built-in magnifying glass.
- Night vision: Navigation at night adds an extra layer of difficulty to any expedition, and needing to use your torch to take a bearing will play havoc with your night vision, so a glow-in-the-dark compass will be the ticket for those expecting to return after sundown.
- Global needle: Finally, the truly globally-minded will want to look out for a compass with a global needle. These use a precisely-weighted needle to account for the fact that the Earth’s magnetic field tilts differently depending where you are, which means compasses calibrated for only one hemisphere will often give inaccurate results when they’re in the “wrong” hemisphere.
The best compass you can buy right now
The Silva Ranger SL is the best little compass for most people. It will make almost the smallest imaginable dent in your budget, yet brings with it a load of really handy features. It's ideal, whether you’re instructing a Duke of Edinburgh award or just going for a fairly ambitious tramp. Impressively, for the price, it comes with a mirror sight for easier navigation, luminous dial markings, a lanyard and a safety pin system (so you can keep your compass accessible without needing to hold it). A 40mm (1.5in) ruler allows you to take accurate measurements from maps.
It’s small – under 4cm (1.5ins) wide – and the all-plastic construction might not feel disaster-proof but it’s a rugged little number, with little to break. Unlike some other compasses, the base isn’t completely see-through. The window containing the needle is transparent on both sides and also works as a magnifying glass, but you might end up moving your compass around the map to see if the opaque bits are covering anything important.
The Adventure Warehouse Navigation Compass looks as if it has come straight from your childhood memories of being in the Scouts, Guides or Summer Camp. It demonstrates what happens when somebody sets out to make the most affordable compass possible. That means it is also super-affordable, so this is a fantastic bit of kit for those who want to become better phone-free navigators. It is also one of the best compasses for kids who are just starting to do their Duke of Edinburgh Awards.
Don’t worry, this is not simply a Christmas cracker grade piece of equipment. the Adventure Warehouse Navigation Compass might lack the bells and whistles more expensive compasses, but it does everything you need to follow most routes from A to B. The tip of the needle is luminescent, there’s a magnifying glass for easier map reading, and the transparent base makes it easier to use than some pricier models.
The Suunto MC-2 NH Mirror Compass is not the cheapest unit here, but it certainly is the best-featured compass in our T3 guide to the best compasses 2020. The MC-2 has pretty much everything you need to navigate as accurately as possible. It glows in the dark, has a fully transparent base for less fiddly placement on a map, and the lid unfolds to reveal a sighting mirror. It has scales in both Imperial and metric measurements, allowing you to work from both 1:2500 and 1:5000 maps, and there’s a magnifying glass to the bottom left of the needle to provide better visibility of fine details. As if all that wasn’t enough, Suunto puts your money where its mouth is and provides a lifetime warranty. So this a compass that will truly stand the test of time.
The Brunton 9077 Lensatic compass is an example of the old-school Lensatic compasses; military-style units which fold neatly away. It folds neatly down into a compact, tough-feeling metal case, that feels as though it will survive almost anything. When it’s closed, the Brunton 9077 Lensatic compass measures about 7.5 x 5.5cm (3in x 2in), which is eminently pocket-size, and the almost-square shape means there isn’t a long edge to get snagged on in your pocket. When it’s folded out, the straight edge works as a ruler, handy for working on 1:2500-scale maps. When you start to fold it shut, to use it as a sighting compass, there is a handy magnifying glass, that allows you to see the dial with greater accuracy. Luminous dial markings are another solidly good plus-point. Unlike other compasses, no part of the 9077 Lensatic is transparent, which makes it a touch more fiddly to use, if you’re working from a map.
How much do you need from your compass? The other compasses in our T3 guide to the best compasses are for the well prepared, the exact, those who are prepared to do battle with an unfolded acre of 1:2500 Ordnance Survey map, atop a blowy hill in Wales. The Paracord Survival Bracelet, on the other hand, is for those who are expecting their best-laid plans to go severely awry, and want a back-up plan for when they do. Forget about a transparent base, an adjustable clinometer or even numerical bearings to help you orient a map. The Paracord Survival Bracelet tells you which way is north – and not much else.
Fortunately, that’s not the only thing it does: there’s a whistle on the clasp, and an integrated fire-starter for those who truly are lost in the woods. The Paracord you wear on your wrist is tough stuff as well – rated to hold up to 550lb (250kg). You can use it for just about anything. I can imagine parents buying this compass for their adventurous teenage children. It's a fantastically useful addition to the wrist of any (accident-prone) explorer.