Compasses are a tried and true technology that travelers and outdoorsmen have relied on since the 12th century. Despite the advent of modern smartphones and GPS systems, the compass nonetheless remains an essential piece of kit for any outdoor adventure and can be a literal lifesaver should your phone or GPS unit break or have its battery die. Because these devices have now existed for more than 900 years, a slew of different types of compasses have been invented, all offering their own unique strengths and weaknesses.
While this gives buyers an enormous variety of types and models to choose from, it can make shopping for one of these vintage-style items a rather difficult and confusing experience, only further compounded by the enormous fluctuations in price from model to model. So, with this in mind, we’ve thoroughly pored over the space to deliver this guide to the best compasses. In addition to counting down our picks for the dozen best models on the market, we’ll also be delving into the various types that currently exist, along with what to look for and consider when shopping.
Getting A Bearing On Compasses
A Guide To Different Compass Types & Subgroups
Because every compass, regardless of type, serves the same inherent function, it can be difficult to wrap your head around the finer points that differentiate these different kinds of items. In an effort to simplify this space, we’ve broken down the ten main types of compasses that comprise today’s market.
The oldest type of compass on Earth, magnetic units rely on a needle or card to align themselves with the planet’s magnetic field in order to deliver a bearing. Despite the fact all magnetic compasses share this quality, there are several different types of magnetic compasses that are used today. Below, we’ll provide a quick explanation of the various types that exist.
Baseplate Compass: Also known as an “orienting compass,” baseplate compasses are almost certainly the most widely-found and commonly-used type in the world — as well as being the most affordable. This type of compass features a liquid-filled housing that’s typically transparent so it can be laid over a map. These are great entry-level options and are a stellar choice for anyone interesting in learning to plot.
Mirrored Baseplate Compass: Also frequently called a “sighting compass,” a mirrored baseplate compass is basically a more robust version of a baseplate item and features a cover and a hairline for sighting purposes. This style of compass is often equipped with an inclinometer as well, allowing the user to measure heights or the angle of a slope.
Liquid Compass: An offshoot of the baseplate compass, a liquid compass is essentially a regular compass that has its magnetized needle submerged in a fluid (often an oil or alcohol). This setup can mitigate wobble and movement, allowing for a more accurate reading while simultaneously lessening wear over time.
Card Compass: Also commonly referred to as a “marine compass,” a card compass features a fixed needle and a compass card that’s usually housed in a fluid and can rotate in relation to the needle to relay orientation. As its moniker would suggest, this style of compass is widely used on boats and in marine applications as the moving cards have the ability to absorb motion from a ship out on the water or waves.
Prismatic Compass: Frequently used by military personnel, Prismatic compasses — which are also known as “Lensatic compasses” — are extremely precise units that pack a prism sighting arrangement that allows the user to get a compass bearing while looking at distant objects or landmarks. This type of item boasts a prism or lens made from glass and a clamshell lid with a “hairline” (or sighting arrangement”). Modeled after old school US army compasses, Prismatic compasses routinely feature a liquid or electromagnetic induction damping system and are often bestowed with tritium or other types of lume.
Thumb Compass: Thumb compasses are essentially a subcategory of the base plate compass though are much smaller, usually worn on the user’s thumb (hence the name), and are typically used while in motion, such as when riding a bike or piloting a raft or canoe. This type of compass is also referred to as a “competition compass.”
Qibla Compass: And, while not exactly relevant to our discussion on outdoor and navigational compasses, there are also Qibla compasses, which are a special type used by Muslims to display the direction of Mecca for the five daily prayers.
While the vast majority of traditional compasses rely on the earth’s magnetic field, quite a few innovative thinkers have conjured up non-magnetic devices over the years. Below, we’ll briefly touch on some of the most common types of non-magnetic compasses.
Gyrocompass: First produced in early-1900s Germany, gyrocompasses are extremely unique. Instead of using the earth’s magnetic field, these items feature spinning internal wheels or balls (i.e. “gyroscopes”) that have a rotation that interacts with that of the earth’s axis. As a result, gyrocompasses — which rely on the law of conservation of angular momentum — point to earth’s rotational poles, and as such give accurate readings of true north.
GPS Compass: This type of compass uses global positioning satellites that are in geosynchronous orbit above the earth to relay an exact coordinate and direction back to the device. These GPS-equipped items are incredibly easy to use, though require a battery to function and are admittedly a bit more prone to breaking or being damaged.
Solid-State Compass: Often used in smartphones and tablets, solid-state compasses are a type of digital compass that rely on a number of magnetic field sensors which provide data that is run through a microprocessor to calculate an accurate directional reading.
Astrocompass: Rather than utilizing traditional magnetic forces, an Astrocompass uses the positions of various celestial bodies to determine the direction of true north (instead of magnetic north). This type of compass is popular in polar and arctic regions in which gyrocompasses and traditional magnetic compasses typically have issues.
Magnets & Needles 101
The Main Factors To Consider When Purchasing A Compass
Now that you’re up to speed on the different types of compasses that exist, let’s explore half a dozen of the most crucial areas to take into account before pulling the trigger on your purchase.
Type: Now that you know about the different kinds of compasses that exist, you should be able to determine which type will be best for your particular needs based on your intended use, as well as the region or locale in which you plan on using it. While you really can’t go wrong with a classic baseplate compass, we’d recommend reviewing all of the different available types before making your decision.
Durability: Compasses aren’t just relied on for navigation, but also for survival, and as such a compass’s level of durability is of extreme importance, Alongside the housing and its construction type, other elements that contribute to how rugged a given compass will be is whether it not it is liquid filled or has some other type of damping mechanism. Fortunately, the vast majority of outdoor compasses are designed to take a beating without any issues.
Accuracy: Considering the fact that the whole purpose of a compass is to give a directional reading, accuracy is wildly important. The reality here is that the precision of a compass will largely boil down to the type of compass, rather than the manufacturer or model.
Size: Compasses can hugely vary in terms of physical dimensions, and include everything from massive dash-mounted units to handheld items to tiny devices that mount onto a watch band or zipper-pull. Even if you don’t think you’ll need it, we’d recommend investing in a small, budget-friendly compass to keep on hand.
Price: Compasses can run anywhere from a few dollars all the way into the hundreds. And while there’s nothing wrong with opting to spend a lot on a compass, we’d urge any interested parties to fully comprehend the differences that result in higher prices before simply opting for the most exorbitant item on the market, as the most expensive compasses aren’t always the best choice, especially depending on the application.
Power Source: Digital compasses and GPS systems offer unparalleled levels of convenience and ease of use, however, these items are ultimately useless without a charged battery. As a result, a lot of outdoors enthusiasts chose to rely on traditional magnetic compasses — or at the very least keep one on hand as a backup – as they’ll work under almost any conditions.
A Map’s Best Friend
The 12 Best Compasses On The Market
Now that you’re all caught up on the various types of compasses that exist, what distinguishes them from each other, and what to consider when shopping, let’s dive into our picks for the dozen best models currently on the market.
Coleman Company Compass
Coleman’s Company Compass is an eight-way directional digital GPS compass that’s powered by a single (replaceable) coin cell battery (one of which is included with the compass). Weighing just 0.1lbs (or 1.6oz), this non-magnetic compass also features a backlit push-button LED light and a rotating bezel that enables users to mark this item in two-degree increments.
Brunton 9077 Lensatic Compass
Constructed around a hardwearing painted metal frame, this military-style Lensatic (aka prismatic) compass offers stellar accuracy and reliability in a surprisingly affordable package. The folding compass sports a built-in sighting lens, a liquid-dampened compass, a straight edge for plotting and use on maps, and glowing luminous paint adorning parts of the dial.
SUUNTO Clipper L-B NH Compass
Though SUUNTO is best-known today for its cutting-edge outdoor smartwatches, the Finnish firm actually got its start producing compasses back in the 1930s, and it’s continued this tradition through modern times with items like the Clipper L-B NH Compass. Tipping the scales at only 0.01lbs (0r 0.18oz), the Clipper L-B NH compass boasts a liquid-filled capsule with a rotating bezel that houses a hardened steel needle, guided via a jewel bearing.
Tru-Nord Zipper Pull Compass
This item from Tru-Nord replaces a hiking jacket or backpack’s standard zipper pull so you always have a quality compass nearby and at the ready. Backed by a lifetime warranty, this fully-sealed compass relies on a space-age cobalt steel magnet and features a watch-style case that’s been machined from solid brass and sports a 1” thumb tang and luminous glow on the dial.
Available in multiple color options, MecArmy’s CMP-2 model is an objectively top-shelf take on a mini pocket compass. IPX5-rated, this compass features a precision-machined titanium construction housing with a special encapsulation tech, a sandblasted finish, and a lume dial that can glow for up to six hours. This half-ounce compass also boasts a D-type keyring attachment and is sold with an included beaded chain.
Prometheus Design Werx Expedition Watch Band Compass Kit
PDW’s Expedition Compass is comprised of a rugged silicone carrier — that can easily loop around a belt or connect to a watch band — that houses an even more hardwearing acetyl cellulose-bodied oil-filled compass in a 6AL-4V titanium case with a black PVD finish. Cushioned in a GID silicone gasket, this compass also features a luminous glow on the dial and is rated to depths of 300 feet.
Cammenga US Military Tritium Lensatic 3H Compass
The longstanding official compass of the United States Military, Cammenga’s classic Lensatic 3H model is made in America and features a powder-coated aluminum chassis, a copper induction-damping ring, and seven Tritium micro-lights that can provide solid glow for more than 12 years. Extremely rugged, this compass is shockproof, sand and dust-proof, weatherproof, and can operate in extreme temperatures ranging from -50° F to 150° F.
SUUNTO KB-14 Compass
Protected by a multi-year warranty, SUUNTO’s KB-14 model is a bonafide professional-grade bearing compass that’s crafted around a durable anodized aluminum alloy housing and sighting lens. Made in Finland, the liquid-filled KB-14 compass is equipped with a bevy of advanced features such as a sapphire bearing, a globally balanced needle, an adjustable declination correction, and a directional scale in quadrant degrees.
Bushnell Bear Grylls Edition BackTrack GPS Digital Compass
Touted by Bushnell as “the easiest-to-use personal navigation device” currently on the market, the Bear Grylls Edition BackTrack is a high-sensitivity GPS unit with a self-calibrating digital compass and the ability to store and remember a trio of different locations. Running off of a pair of AAA batteries, this digital compass collab between Bushnell and the noted celebrity survivalist also boasts an LED-backlit grayscale LCD display and comes with a rescue/signaling mirror.
Dalvey Grand Voyager Compass
A decidedly dapper and unmistakably luxe interpretation of a pocket watch-style compass, Dalvey’s Grand Voyager model boasts a 3.14″ precision-engineered, mirror-polished stainless steel half-hunter-style fob case with a rotating bezel and a glazed window covering an iridescent blue mother-of-pearl dial. Taking ample inspiration from the high-end watch sector, this compass also comes sold in a special gift box and can be custom-engraved (and/or gift-wrapped).
Sir Jack’s Sterling Silver Pocket Compass
While most pocket compass models sport an old-school aesthetic, the UK’s Sir Jack’s have taken this classic device in a new, more contemporary direction with its sterling silver pocket compass. Individually made by hand in England from genuine .925 sterling silver, the case on this heirloom-quality offering houses a liquid-filled compass from Swedish premium outdoor brand Silva and is protected via a hinged lid decorated in various logos and Sir Jack’s branding.
Brunton Pocket Transit Geo Compass
If you’re simply after the finest handheld magnetic compass and aren’t particularly concerned with pricing then Brunton’s Transit Geo model is almost certainly the compass for you. Built around an ultra-rugged and completely waterproof chassis that’s been machined from aluminum billet, the Transit Geo Compass features an induction damped needle with a sapphire jewel bearing, a precision-aligned mirror, a hinged inclinometer for measuring slopes or height, a ball-and-socket tripod mount, and a single ultra-powerful neodymium magnet. Sold with an included leather case, this compass is also made in Riverton, Wyoming, and comes protected by a lifetime warranty.
How To Navigate Without GPS
Net yet privy on how to negotiate the backcountry sans smartphone or GPS unit? Then be sure to check out our guide on how to navigate without GPS for a robust explanation on how to read a topographical map, use a compass, read the stars, use natural landmarks, and more.