Navigation in nature can be tricky due to poor visibility and/or indistinct landscape characteristics. Handheld GPS devices, watches with built-in GPS or Smartphones of course come in handy but can be useless if out of battery or signal. Therefore, there is nothing more reliable than an “old-school” compass. Compasses have many advantages over electronic navigation devices; they are lighter, not dependent on batteries and more durable. They show the four cardinal directions (North, East, South and West), bearing and other measurements important for navigation. You can also use it to do a triangulation to determine your location; a compass can be a very powerful tool together with an appropriate map. However, you do need some basic navigation skills to successfully use it.
In this article we selected and reviewed the best compasses for hiking. We hope that this review will make your buying decision a little easier.
1. Buying a Compass for Hiking – What is important?
Stability and speed:
The faster the needle shows north, the better. Older compasses are slow and thus they can slow you down. Some might say that the speed is not important when hiking or mountaineering because you are not in a rush – unlike for example participants in orienteering races. However, if you are in the mountains in bad weather you definitely want to find your way (down) as fast as possible.
A compass for hiking must be durable because there is a high possibility it will get bumped in your backpack or fall on the ground at some point. This happens more often than one might think, especially because you will probably also be fiddling around with a map at the same time. Add a bit of strong wind and a pair of gloves to the equation, and the risk of dropping it increases significantly. In this selection we only included very durable products.
A compass for hiking should have certain features, such as a declination scale, rotating bezel and a base plate with ruler. A declination scale helps you make declination adjustments for different areas so that the compass points to true north instead of magnetic north, while the rotating bezel allows you to easily measure azimuth. A ruler comes in handy when measuring map distances.
Other useful (but non-vital) features include a sighting mirror, magnifying lens, clinometer and luminescent indicators. A sighting mirror is a handy feature as it reduces possible errors when moving the device from eye-level after sighting to waist-level for reading the dial. A clinometer allows you to measure slope angles (steepness) and is useful for assessing the heights of objects as well as avalanche hazards. A magnifying lens helps you to spot minor details (e.g. symbols) on a map. Luminescent indicators allow you to easily use the compass in the night.
Compasses are in general hemisphere-specific which means that you need one kind of compass for the northern hemisphere and another for the southern hemisphere. However, some Suunto compasses are equipped with the so-called global needle (developed and patented by Suunto) which works perfectly no matter the location and thus these devices can be used anywhere on earth. This is possible because the needle handles tilts of up to 20 degrees and therefore doesn’t drag on the top or bottom of the capsule due to variations in Earth’s magnetic field in different locations.
Compasses with a global needle are particularly suitable for those who often travel and do outdoor activities in different compass zones (there are five different zones which approximately encompass: 1) North America, Europe, Caucasus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Japan and northeastern China; 2) Mesoamerica, North Africa, the Middle East, India and the rest of Asia except the Indochinese Peninsula, which instead belongs to; 3) together with sub-Saharan Africa until equator and South America minus Chile and Argentina; 4) Sub-equatorial Africa, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Chile and Argentina; 5) Australia).
An additional benefit of such compasses is also that they don’t have to be completely leveled for precise measurements (the needle handles tilting). However, they are also pricier. Suunto products which feature a global needle have names ending in a G (see below).
We only list top-tier products. Read how our selections of best hiking products differ from others here.
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2. The Best Compasses for Hiking Review
The Best Compasses for Hiking – List
|Feature/Product||Suunto MC-2G||Silva Ranger S||Suunto A-10||Suunto M3-G||Silva Guide|
|Weight||2.65 oz.||2 oz.||1 oz.||1.55 oz.||2 oz.|
|Weight (Metric)||75 g||58 g||30 g||44 g||58 g|
1. Suunto MC-2G
- Military use
- Any other outdoor use
The Suunto MC-2G offers great functionality and is thus highly popular among hikers, mountaineers and other outdoor enthusiasts. It has a very robust construction and therefore offers great resistance against shock, dirt and water. When it comes to features you won’t be disappointed – it is equipped with a rotating bezel, ruler, clinometer, magnifying lens and sighting mirror. The declination can be easily adjusted with the adjustment key which is attached to the lanyard. Additionally, the Suunto compass is equipped with a global needle so that it works in all compass zones and doesn’t have to be completely leveled for precise measurements. As it is equipped with luminescent indicators, it can easily be used in the night. The Suunto MC-2G is best for those who need a highly accurate and reliable navigation device for their outdoor adventures in all corners of the world.
2. Silva Ranger S
- Military use
- Any other outdoor use
The Silva Ranger S is a good alternative to the Suunto MC-2G. However, the Silva Ranger S doesn’t have the clinometer or the magnifying lens. Nevertheless, it has many features and is protected against shock, dirt and damages by its snap lid. The Silva Ranger S is liquid filled, has a rotating bezel, ruler, luminous points (for low visibility) as well as a sighting mirror for more accurate measurements. The declination can easily be adjusted. The best thing about the Silva Ranger S is its speed, accuracy and durability. This Silva compass is perfect for those who want a reliable navigation device for hiking or any other outdoor activity.
Where to buy?
3. Suunto A-10
The Suunto A-10 is a very inexpensive and simple compass. Therefore, it is easy to use and perfect for beginners. It is equipped with a declination scale, ruler and rotating bezel. It is relatively durable and made of scratch-resistant plastic. It is also liquid-filled and therefore the needle settles quickly. Unfortunately, this Suunto product doesn’t have a clinometer, magnifying lens or a sighting mirror. However, it does come with a lanyard for easy handling. The Suunto A-10 is all in all a great compass for beginners and other outdoor enthusiasts who need a navigation device without too many advanced features.
4. Suunto M3-G
The Suunto M3-G is best for outdoor enthusiasts who need a reliable but simple compass. It features a baseplate that is anatomically designed and equipped with anti-slip rubber pads. This product is less protected than the compasses listed above because it doesn’t have a lid, but the anti-slip pads at least assure it stays firmly in your hand. The Suunto M3-G is equipped with a clinometer, ruler and global needle. The M3-G compass is liquid filled and has a magnifying lens for easier map reading. Unfortunately, it is not equipped with a sighting mirror which does otherwise reduce errors when moving the device from eye-level after sighting to waist-level for reading the dial. Nevertheless, Suunto M3-G is a great compass for those who need a simple and reliable navigation device for their outdoor adventures in various corners of the world.
5. Silva Guide
The Silva Guide is a very compact mirror compass with a fixed declination scale. Its mirror lid locks open at 45° degrees and remains securely shut when the lid is closed – thus protecting the compass against dirt and damages. It is durable and extremely accurate which makes it perfect for activities such as hiking and mountaineering. The Silva Guide has a ruler, rotating bezel and is filled with liquid. The sighting mirror can also be used for emergency signaling. Unfortunately, this Silva compass is not equipped with a clinometer or magnifying lens. This can be a problem if you are planning to measure slope angles and it might also take you longer to read map symbols. All in all, we think this the Silva Guide is a great option for recreational hikers and outdoor enthusiasts who need a robust navigation device with basic features. The best thing about the Silva Guide is its durability and quality/price ratio.
- Missing some advanced features
- Declination correction is not adjustable
Where to buy?
Also available at:
3. Questions and Answers
What is declination on a compass?
The arrow on a compass points to magnetic north. The declination is the angle between the magnetic north and the true north. True north is the direction along the earth’s surface towards the geographic north pole. The declination varies depending on your location on earth.
Which direction does a compass needle point to?
The compass needle points to magnetic north. The declination tells us the difference between the magnetic north and the true north.
How do you set a compass’ declination?
It depends on the compass. Some compasses don’t require any tools while others require a metal key or a special screwdriver. The declination is set once you turn the north arrow on the compass to the angle that corresponds with your local declination. Note that some compasses don’t allow you to adjust the declination.
What is a base plate compass?
It is a type of compass where the compass itself is placed on a rectangular base made of plastic or similar material. The plastic is typically transparent so that a map can be seen when you place the compass on it.