Guide To Choosing (and Reading) A Compass

Many of us take for granted having near immediate directional help at just the push of a button. But what happens in an emergency when you don’t have access to a phone or you’ve lost service? In the event you get lost while hiking or backpacking, having the ability to use a compass could be lifesaving.

There are two types of compasses: floating needle compasses and digital compasses. Floating needle compasses are the kind you really should have on hand for when all hell breaks loose (read: the apocalypse, wrong turns, etc.) and they work through the implementation of a magnetized needle that works with the earth’s magnetic field. On most floating compasses, the red end will point towards the strongest magnetic force, which is most always the magnetic North Pole. The Magnetic North and True North are not one in the same, and are separated by more than 1,000 miles, which is an important distinction to keep in mind when using a map. The calculation between the two is termed “adjustable declination.”

Ensuring the compass is held flat and using the turntable, or compass housing, you can determine which direction you need to go by using the degree notations (0-360, or 0-400) and the directional indicators N, S, E, W. Always make sure the red end of the needle points north within the compass housing before setting off in any direction! You may also want to minimize any magnetic interference by making sure you’re not carrying any metals or using the compass near anything with additional magnetic attraction. Here’s a few options to consider when you decide to purchase a compass.

The Suunto A10 is a great basic compass designed with a liquid-filled capsule, tungsten steel needle and a “sapphire-jeweled” bearing to help provide accurate readings. The non-freezing fluid in these types of compasses work to slow the needle’s movement and helps to bring it to a resting place more quickly than air-filled housing.

Silva Ranger CL#2
Compasses like the Silva Ranger CL are slightly more advanced and include adjustable declination accounts (that key distinction mentioned above, needed to calculate the difference between Magnetic North and True North on a map) and sighting mirrors, which helps improve the ability to make precise readings by allowing the user to see both the bearing and sight on a faraway landmark simultaneously. The Silva Ranger CL was the winner of the 2003 Backpacker Magazine’s Editor’s Choice Gold Award.

CMMG Phosphorescent Lenstastic Compass Clam Packcammenga
Contained in a rugged, clamshell body—and with a very similar body-style used by the US Army for decades—the CMMG Phosphorescent compass is a battle-tested piece of gear that is shock, water and sand resistant. The compass also includes a ruler, clinometer and magnifier, making it useful for survivalists, foresters, mountaineers and a range of other outdoor enthusiasts. However, it may be helpful to note the design of the CMMG’s body makes this a heavy model, which may be a deterrent for those looking to keep their gear weight to a minimum.

REI Therm-o-Compassrei
Working double-duty as both a temperature gauge and a locational device, accessory compasses like the Therm-o-compass from REI are appealing to backpackers, hikers and other adventurers attempting to keep their carry loads as light and streamlined as possible. This keyring device displays temperature in both Fahrenheit and Celsius, has a liquid-filled compass with illuminating dial for reading in low light and a nifty wind-chill chart to help calculate temperature differences.

Brunton World’s Best Compassburton
Built with an “ever-north” magnet and including declination adjustment, Brunton’s claim to “World’s Best Compass” may not be too far off. This model’s ever-north magnet resists magnetic interference to help maintain polarity and was designed with precision-aligned mirrors for see-through sighting. Meanwhile, its silicone-sealed body and carrying case works to prevent water and shock damage. The company, which been designing and producing high quality precision instruments since 1894, has been a trusted source for individuals of many diverse backgrounds, from military land navigation to geology.

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