Last updated: August 18, 2021

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Every good explorer knows that you need a compass to find your way in unknown territory, because a compass needs no power and is small enough to slip into a pocket, purse or as I said on a necklace, there is no reason to go exploring without one.

Sure, some might think they don't need a good compass if they can download an app on their smartphone, but is it worth wasting a phone's power for that when you can save it for an emergency call? A compass doesn't need batteries so it's more reliable than an app when camping.

To make this buying guide we studied the best compasses on the market to find out all the factors that make them so good, what their price ranges are and the ideal places to buy them, so you can think of this article as a compass to find the best buying decisions.




Summary

  • A compass is a navigational instrument used to determine the cardinal points. It consists of a needle with magnetic properties placed on a diagram with the cardinal directions North (N), South (S), East (E) and West (W), where the needle will point to the magnetic north of the earth.
  • There are a number of different types of compasses, but the most commercially available are lensatic compasses (known as military compasses), which are compact and collapsible, cartographic compasses, which have a transparent plate with multiple markings for different uses, and multi-purpose compasses, which are a combination of the above.
  • Check how well constructed the compass you like is, and if you're buying online, get expert opinions from hikers and campers on how accurate it is. If you're buying one for camping, make sure it can be seen in the dark.

The Best Compass: Our Picks

A compass watch might be enough for a toddler to play with in the backyard, or a compass keyring might be a nice gift for someone who never leaves their office, but if you're thinking of buying a compass for camping or exploring you'll need a tool that's accurate and durable, here are our recommendations.

Buying Guide

To be able to use a compass with certainty it is good to know how they work and which are the most commercially available types, which we will explain in this section. We will also help you find your way when it comes to buying compasses, as we will explain where you can buy them and the prices you can expect.

A keyring compass is no substitute for a real compass (Photo: Denise Jans / unsplash.com)

What is a compass?

A compass is a simple tool that works by using the earth's magnetic field, which runs between the north and south poles. It consists of a magnetised needle or disc that will point to magnetic north, so you can determine the 4 cardinal points to know which direction it points to.

The design of modern magnetic compasses uses a needle suspended in a liquid, usually mineral oil, ethyl alcohol or purified paraffin. The liquid increases the stability of the needle by reducing its oscillatory movements, and also protects it to some extent against adverse temperatures.

What are the advantages of a compass?

Compasses, although simple, have many advantages, starting with the fact that they do not require any preparation or energy to function fully, which is why they are used as a location tool in many different fields, from boy scouts, campers, military, hikers and trekkers.

Although it takes a little extra knowledge to be able to accurately locate a geographical position using a compass, its simplicity of use allows you to easily determine the direction in which you are walking, making it a learning and orientation tool that will serve both children and adults.

Advantages
  • Easy to use
  • Easy to locate geographically
  • No power required
  • Lightweight and portable
Disadvantages
  • Requires advanced knowledge to use accurately
  • Other devices can serve the same purpose

Lensographic, cartographic and multi-purpose compasses - what should you look out for?

Although they all look similar at first glance there are different types of compasses designed to serve different purposes, so it is a good idea to get to know them before you buy one to avoid spending too much on a product that you will not be able to use to its full potential unless you have specialised knowledge.

Lensatic compasses. Also known as military compasses, they have a case to protect the compass, some have a mirror to help with the reading. The lensatic compass is designed to guide the user while exploring, as it offers a very precise sighting mechanism to know the direction of the aimed target.

Cartographic or planimetric compasses. These are compasses placed on a transparent base or plate, where different markings are placed to determine the geographical position of the user. These compasses can be thought of as advanced compasses, as they incorporate different measuring guides for use with maps.

Multi-purpose compasses. These are a combination of cartographic and lensatic compasses, also called military compasses or engineer's compasses. They incorporate different tools and measuring guides like the cartographic compasses, and are protected by a case like the lensatic compasses.

Lensatic Compass Cartographic Compass Multipurpose Compass
Protected by case Yes No Yes
Additional measuring tools Generally no Yes, has scales for use on maps Yes, has scales for use on maps
Visual guides for using the compass Sights for aligning compass with target Scales for locating using maps Have guides found on lens and cartographic compasses
Primary use Orientation and guidance during exploration Determining geographic location and points of interest on maps Combination of lens and cartographic compasses

Buying criteria: Factors that allow you to compare and rate different models of compasses

Although the primary function of a compass is to direct you to the earth's magnetic north, the best compasses on the market are capable of much more than that. Don't get carried away with cute models that might as well be children's toys, high-end compasses will help you navigate with the greatest of ease wherever you go.

  • Most common uses
  • Additional parts of a good compass
  • Construction
  • Additional features

Common uses

Before you buy a compass think about what outdoor activities you will be doing with it, as you may already know there are different types of compasses that will be better suited to certain activities. Here we will tell you the most common activities in which they are used, as well as the most recommended compass for each of them.

Outdoor sports. There are certain activities where you can benefit from having a compass on hand at all times, literally. If you engage in activities that involve moving at high speed, such as cycling or kayaking, you may benefit from having a small compass that you can attach to your thumb.

A finger compass will allow you to see where you're going without making too many movements, so you won't waste a second on more important things, or waste time pulling it out of a bag or pocket. These compasses are very small and simple, so they are not recommended for long excursions.

Hiking and camping. For these activities you will need a slightly larger compass, such as a lensatic or multi-purpose compass. Its larger size will help you read it more easily, it will also allow you to carry some extra items that may be useful during your outdoor adventure, and its protective boot will also help.

Hiking. Unlike hiking and camping, hiking involves going into uncharted and unmarked terrain, which would make a map compass or multi-purpose compass the best choice. The transparent plates of these compasses have scales and tools intended to be used for navigating with maps.

Additional parts in a good compass

Lensographic, cartographic and multi-purpose compasses have a number of additional tools for survey and navigation tasks, so it's a good idea to know each of these extras when shopping so you know if a compass will meet all your outdoor needs.

Declination adjustment. Be aware that the north displayed by compasses is not true north. Some factors can cause the compass to deviate and a compass that allows you to adjust the declination will prevent problems. With it you can make adjustments so that the compass will point you to true north instead of magnetic north.

Clinometer. A compass with a clinometer will allow you to determine the inclination of features in the terrain, which is useful if you are mountaineering or ski mountaineering. A clinometer will help you determine how steep a hill is, or how likely an avalanche is to occur, things that will increase your safety.

Global needles. Not all needles work the same in all parts of the world, as factors such as the hemisphere you are in will affect their performance. A compass with a global needle will allow you to use it anywhere in the world, perfect if you plan to travel the world with your compass.

Better needle material. The needles of the best compasses are usually made of high quality magnetic materials, these help the needle to move more smoothly and have greater stability, which you will notice even more if it is inside a compass filled with liquid.

Transparent base plate. The transparent plate on which the cartographic and multi-purpose compasses rest has a series of markings and measurements, these are used together with topographic maps to perform measurement tasks and reconnaissance to points of interest, this will allow you to locate yourself on maps and perform triangulations.

Things that can affect a compass

Don't be put off by the solid appearance of a compass, as it is a delicate precision tool whose performance can be affected by accidents, such as drops and bumps, as well as by objects in close proximity to it. It is dangerous to guide yourself using a damaged compass, so pay attention to the following risk factors:

Bumps and falls. Compass needles are surrounded by glass or plastic domes and a blow could break or crash the dome, which can cause the liquid inside it to escape, affecting the functioning of the needle. For this reason multi-purpose compasses and lensatic compasses have housings that protect the compass.

Some compasses also incorporate anti-shock technology in their housings to prevent their calibration from being affected by shocks. If you plan to go hiking or trekking, make sure you carry a compass that can withstand the most demanding use, as your navigation in emergency situations will depend on it.

Magnets and electric fields. Avoid storing your compass near magnets or places with a high magnetic field. Even simple devices such as mobile phones or portable speakers can adversely affect the performance of your compass. It can also be affected by radio antennas and electrical towers.

Additional features

These are things you can do without in an ordinary compass, but they can help in very specific cases so we have grouped them together in this section. They are things that generally do not affect the purchase value of your compass very much but will add good utility value.

Hanging loop. If you're worried that storing your compass in your backpack or bag will cause it to get bumped, scratched, or worse, have its performance altered by being near other items, look for one that you can hang around your neck. This will not only keep it away from other objects that could damage it, it will also put it within easy reach.

Luminescent indicators. If you want an extra precautionary measure in your compasses, buy one with indicators made of luminescent materials, this will allow it to be used in low light situations, such as during power outages, night hours and very cloudy skies. A perfect aid for unexpected situations.

Magnifying glass and mirror. If you are navigating with a map a magnifying glass will help you to have a better view of the map to see details and annotations, and can also serve as an alternative way to make fire. A compass and mirror will help you look at your target while navigating, and can also be used for long distance signalling during emergencies.

(Featured image photo: Nietjuh / pixabay.com)

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