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Navigation Buying Guide

by Staff Writer

Hikers use a compass navigation system to find their way

Whether you're hiking, camping or simply walking in unfamiliar areas, navigation, including a compass, can help you reach your destination safely. Compasses, which don't rely on batteries or other gear that can wear out, are still on the top 10 list of Navigation and essentials for wilderness travel and exploration. Being able to navigate with just a map and pocket compass is an important skill for anyone, regardless of how often you trek into the wilderness. This buying guide will help you find the right compass, including a compass watch or a wrist compass, for any activity.

Types of Compasses:

  1. Accessory compasses: These compasses are often used as a fashion accessory and are generally worn for fun or used as a quick reference. They include the clip-on compass and the compass watch; they can also be found on key rings and in some jewelry. Accessory compasses are small, round compasses with no base plate. They behave just like any other compass and point accurately at magnetic north.

  2. Basic compasses: Basic compasses are inexpensive, but they do quite well for use in wilderness travel. Basic compasses, including a small handheld compass or orienteering compass, are often the compass for the beginning navigator, such as a boy scout. Basic compasses have all of the components a compass needs, but they usually lack the extra features.

  3. Specialized compasses: These are the compasses of serious navigators. They have all of the features of the basic handheld compass, plus the extra features that are great for backcountry exploration and for those who have experience in wilderness exploration and mapping. If you are a frequent off-trail explorer, spending the extra money on a specialized magnetic compass will be well worth it.

Basic Compass Features:

  1. Magnetized needle: This is typically the red end of the magnetic compass needle. This end will point towards the strongest magnetic field: magnetic North Pole. The needle can be confused by other magnetic fields, such as those created by magnets, so it is best to leave magnets or other items that will interfere with your compass at home when you journey into the wilderness.

  2. Liquid-filled capsule: This is the housing, or dial, that contains the needle and its pivot and a dampening fluid. The dampening fluid is designed to protect the needle in a wrist compass from jarring movements and to minimize the needle's movements while you're trying to obtain a reading.

  3. Base plate: The base plate is a rectangular base, usually made of transparent plastic, on which the capsule sits. Some compasses have rulers, in inches and centimeters, that are etched into the straight edges of the base plate. The ruler marks are helpful when you need to measure distances on topographic maps or charts.

  4. Orienting arrow and parallel meridian lines: The orienting arrow is the opposite side of the magnetic arrow; it is usually white or black. The meridian lines, also called north-south lines, together with the orienting arrow, help orient your travel on a map by aligning the meridian lines on a topographical map. Fixed orienting arrows on a pocket compass will require you to figure out the difference between true north and magnetic north.

  5. Index line: Also called the direction-of-travel line, the index line is located at one end of the base plate of a hiking compass and can be used by the planner for practical navigating.

Specialized Compass Features:

  1. Declination adjustment: This is an orienting arrow with more sophistication. It can be aligned to reflect the magnetic declination in an area of travel. A tiny adjustment tool, usually attached to the lanyard, is used to turn a small screw on the compass housing. This adjusts the orienting arrow so that it is no longer parallel with the north-south lines; it will be offset by the difference which you put in with the housing. When the meridian lines are lined up on a map, the adjusted arrow will accurately point toward magnetic north.

  2. Magnifying lens: A magnifying lens will be very helpful when you need to read the small symbols on the map. It is usually a small lens mounted into the base plate.

  3. Sighting mirror: This mirror serves as a personal mirror or a signaling mirror, and it also improves accuracy when gauging readings on distant landmarks.

  4. Luminescent indicators: These will be on your magnetic needle on both sides of the orienting arrow and can be on the azimuth ring at the four cardinal points. They are faintly illuminated for easier compass reading in dim light or on darker nights.

  5. Clinometer: The clinometer allows you to measure the angle of a slope. If you are climbing or hiking, then this will be helpful for assessing hazards, such as an avalanche. You can also gauge the height of objects.

  6. Lanyard: A lanyard is a piece of string or plastic that acts as a necklace or enables you to attach the compass to a belt or backpack.

Compass Tips:

  1. Consider your off-trail skill level and frequency. If you are a beginner, then the best compass can be the basic compass. This compass is free from the extra gadgets that you may not understand or know how to use. A basic clip-on compass is also great for experienced day-hikers or recreational backpackers who stick to trails. They will do just fine with a basic, inexpensive compass. If you are a fan of off-trail exploration and love to trek around the backcountry, look for a specialized compass with the extras you'll use. A specialized compass is great for explorers who've used and owned a compass before.

  2. Store your compass safely. It is important to be careful about where you store your compass. Do not store your hiking compass near magnets, such as on top of a speaker, or near any strong electric currents. The exposure can demagnetize the needle over time.

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