What an outdoorsman should look for in a good compass?

My experience has been that most sales clerks in the large box stores and major retail outlets have no experience in the use of a compass. Their assistance is generally along the line of  “… they are on aisle 12, half way down on the right,” and their knowledge isn’t that great. The folks at REI are generally dialed in and best of all, their selection is better. With a little research you will find a nice selection available at REI, Cabelas, and most of your outdoor stores that specialize in hiking and backpacking.

Generally a good, quality compass can be purchased for less than $50.


Consider the following:

  • Brunton, Sunnto, and Silva all make good compasses. There are other companies, of course, but these manufacturers can be found nationwide. Prices start at about $20. Each company has less expensive models but I would pass on those.
  • I won’t buy a compass that cannot be adjusted for declination. Brunton’s models can be adjusted by simply turning two components while the Suunto and Silva models come with a small flat screw driver to make adjustments. The adjustable compass eliminates the requirement to calculate declination. Do remember that the magnetic needle always points to magnetic north and the adjusting accounts for the angular measurement of declination.
  • The compass dial (the circular component with the degree markings) should be “graduated” in two degree increments. Those models with 5 degree increments (or more) fall short when being used for serious land navigation.
  • A compass with a good base plate is very handy. A base plate is essentially a clear, flat plastic rectangular plate.  It is a straight edge when drawing bearing lines or measuring information on a map. I like a large base plate.  The better compass will have good scaling and measuring information etched into its surface. Some models have a magnifying lens in the plate for reading the details on a map. A nice 6 inch, light weight plastic ruler compliments the baseplate nicely.
  • The compass housing should be liquid filled. The liquid inside the housing dampens the movement of the magnetic needle when motion stops.
  • I appreciate a compass that has a small hole in the base plate that allows me to run a short length of parachute cord through it for a lanyard.
  • For more precise navigation, a compass with a sighting mechanism is very useful. The Silva Ranger model immediately comes to mind.

After purchasing your compass, test it out right away. I have sold several hundred compasses and a handful didn’t work correctly. In my navigation classes I’ll use features (roads, trail segments) that I know are laid out in true north to stay dialed in. Faulty compasses jump right out with their inaccuracies when you trek along a route that you know runs true north.


So, now that you have your compass, how do you use it?  

My suggested list of references includes:

  • www.landnavigation.org – This is a great web site that features the US military’s lensatic compass. That’s OK as the concepts presented are universal.
  • Staying Found, The Complete Map & Compass Handbook, by June Fleming. This book offers a simple, straight forward approach to land navigation.
  • Be Expert with Map and Compass, by Bjorn Kjellstrom. This is a common reference and was a text book for me at Oregon State in 1973.
  • www.magnetic-declination.com, This is the site to visit to get the current declination of an area.

Compass navigation is a perishable skill; it takes practice. In my compass classes I suggest that, as a minimum, two weeks before your next outing work with that compass frequently. Practice bearing triangulation and increase your familiarity with a topographic map.

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