Selecting a Hiking Compass

Hiking CompassWhat has become of the hiking compass, orienteering and navigation?  It has become very easy for today’s backpacker to rely on modern technology.  Unfortunately, many have become too reliant and have lost their orienteering skills.   The GPS has replaced the paper map and compass.  But what do you do when your batteries go dead or you drop the GPS in the lake, river or ravine?  What if you are under a dense tree canopy and cannot get a good set of signals?

Enter the age old compass.  With the proper navigation knowledge, the compass with a good map can get you out of any lost situation.

But, what are you looking for when you purchase a compass?

Types of Compasses:

  • Super Basic Compass: These to me are more of a fashion accessory than a true helpful tool.  They can be a simple novelty on a watchband or glued to the top of a walking stick.  They will give you the direction to true magnetic north, but not much more.
  • Basic Compass: If you love to stay on a trail and don’t bushwack, this would be the hiking compass for you.  It has all of the basic parts of a compass without some of the more advanced functions.  These will have a bezel (azimuth ring), direction of travel arrow and a clear base plate, but not much more.
  • Expert Compass: This is the true outdoorsman item.  It has all the bells and whistles that you would need for extreme navigation.  These can have a locking declination adjustment, mirror, magnifying lens and more.

Parts of a Compass:

  • The Housing: This is a liquid filled raised area which houses the needle.  The liquid that fills the housing will not freeze under most cold situations.  The liquid may cool enough to the point where an air bubble forms inside the case.  This is a normal occurrence and it will go away as soon as the liquid heats back up and expands.
  • The needle: This is a magnetized arrow inside a liquid filled housing.  One side is painted red and the other white.  The red side of the arrow always points to magnetic north.  Magnetic North is not really the North Pole, it is actually a location in the Hudson bay area.  This is about 1300 miles away from true north.  The difference between these two angles is called the declination and it is different depending on your location.  A USGS map will tell you the declination that you must use in order to compensate for this difference.
  • Rotating Azimuth Ring (Bezel): This is a ring attached to the round housing of your hiking compass.  It has the degrees of a circle imprinted on it, 0 to 360.  This bezel will rotate so that you can set up your bearing.
  • Orienting Lines and Arrow: these are lines underneath the magnetic arrow that rotate with the bezel.  These are set up to help you orient your current location with a map.  When lined up, they point north and south.
  • Base Plate: This is a clear plastic base underneath the main part of the compass.  This base plate can have a standard ruler as well as rulers for standard map scales (1:24,000, 63,360 and 1:25,000).  One with long straight sides is very useful when marking bearings on a map.
  • Direction of Travel Arrow and lines: This part of the hiking compass is at the end and is for setting and pointing at your destination.
  • Declination Arrow: This is an adjustable feature found of more expensive compasses.  It allows the user to adjust the compass to the local declination setting.  It can be changed for each hike.  If your compass does not have this option, then you must perform some math to figure out the difference between true north and magnetic north when finding each new bearing.

Other Nice Options:

  • Glowing Points: This is very beneficial if travelling in low light conditions.
  • Sighting Mirror: This is a folding top to the compass that allows you to see your bearing and sight on your object at the same time.  This gives you a greater degree of accuracy.  It can also double as a signaling device if you cannot find your way out.
  • Clinometer: This device can help you measure the steepness of a slope.
  • Magnifying Lens: This is a small round area able to magnify small writing on your map.
  • Global Needle: When traveling outside the U.S., the magnetic field can vary.  This may cause a normal needle to stick, tilt or drag.  If your hiking compass has a global needle, then it can be used throughout the world and stay accurate.


The needle in a compass can be affected by small magnetic fields as well as by other metal objects.  In order to get true readings, keep all metal (belt buckles, fire arms, cameras) away from it.  Also, when storing your compass, do not leave it near any device that has electro or natural magnets, (i.e. Speakers).  Also, if you are keeping it in your pocket while hiking, keep it away from your cell phone.  This can change the compasses properties over time.  A compass can also be affected by a car that is running.

When choosing your next hiking compass keep all of these items in mind.  Also remember to take it out for a test drive.  Find a local park, get a USGS map and navigate your way around.  It is better to figure out how to use it now rather than in a tense emergency situation.

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