While it is easy to think of a hand held compass as an antiquity being sharply overhauled by the handheld GPS unit, map and compass navigation is an essential part of any outdoors enthusiast’s repertoire. Among day hikers and multi-day excursion backpackers alike, the best compass for hiking is a debate of both preference and technology. Durability, size, weight and overall functionality are a few basic characteristics one should look for while in the market for a compass. What ultimately determines the best compass is one the user knows how to use, and knows how to use well.
When Would I Need “The Best Compass”?
Imagine this: you are on a multi-day backpacking trip with the intent to summit Huayna Potosí in western Bolivia. After the second day of strenuous hiking you finally reach the summit, becoming privy to amazing glacial views of the Andes Mountains. After a brief stay on the summit, possibly troubling clouds are spotted in the distance and you and your group decide it is time to make the descent. On the way down, a fierce storm rolls in, bringing with it heavy snow and high winds. Whiteout conditions. No worries, there is a trail that is still visible and your hand held GPS unit will make sure you get back to base camp without a problem.
It is then that you notice your GPS lost all signal because of the heavy cloud cover. After an hour or so of slow moving, one foot in front of the other hiking, the snow and fog clear. Sunshine! But nobody else. The constant signal searching of your GPS unit ran out the battery and now it is just a glorified bracelet. This is the point in your adventure when you wish there was a trusty map and compass in your backpack to guide you home.
Certainly, not many instances of map and compass orienteering are due to circumstances as intense as being lost in the Andes Mountains. Nevertheless, just as any important outdoor skill, it is in those instances when you need to be at your best. Being at your best with the best compass you know how to use can be the difference between life and death.
What Makes the Best Compass?
- Weatherproof – Your compass needs to be water/weatherproof. In the wilderness, anything can happen and you do not want to end up with a broken compass because it got submerged in a river.
- Durable – durability is a key component because as with any outdoor activity, hiking can get rough. Your compass will likely be dropped, smashed in a backpack, shaken around, et cetera. It needs to be able to perform, no matter what, no matter when.
- Size – The size of your compass is important because you want to have something big enough that you can see it in adverse conditions, handle it with gloves on, and stay put in the pocket you intend it to.
- Functionality – Functions can include lanyard straps, magnifier lenses, reference tables, distance measurement converters, luminous dial faces and pretty much anything else that can vary but adds to the overall functionality of the individual compass. It is also important to note that the functionality or added functions of the compass don’t interfere with the ability to use it properly and effectively. That being said, a couple of key functions can make your compass using experience very productive and fun.
Before getting into a situation where you would potentially need to use a compass to find your way, it is important to know how to use it. While the mechanics are a simple enough concept, a magnet and needle pointing to magnetic north inside a usually metal case, it is necessary to use it in conjunction with a map. It is very possible that at some point it will be necessary to have to change direction and stay on course while going up the side of a mountain on an unknown trail.
To gain this knowledge, check out a local outdoor retailer. They will have orienteering classes or events. A well-versed friend would also be a good resource if they are willing to take you out and get hands on with the map and compass. Like with anything, practice makes proficient and proficiency is key, especially when dealing with a potentially lifesaving device.
We reviewed three different handheld hiking compasses, weighing the pros and cons. This should help in determining the best compass for hiking, based on the kind of hiking you will be doing.
This army style pocket compass is a great addition to any outdoorsmen’s pack. The classic folding lid design provides a static lens with an adjustable marching line. This is a handy feature for basic “point and shoot” direction finding. When closed, the rugged metal frame and casing of the compass protects it from the elements, including drops, scrapes and water.
The floating luminous dial makes it easy to read in the dark and gives the most accurate reading, as the floating dial cannot be manipulated outside of the magnet. The adjustable marching line is also luminous, making it easier to stay your course during the darker hours.
Also included on the casing of the compass is a distance versus measurement “ruler”, if you will. It allows you to measure the distance between two points on a map and estimate how far it actually is. When used in conjunction with a maps distance measure, it is a good way to get the most accurate measure without the use of a handheld GPS device.
Another important facet of the compass review is size. This was the largest compass, if only by a couple centimeters. While it does not have any trouble fitting into a small pocket of a backpack, that is where it will have to go. The compass does not have any loop or ring for a lanyard to attach to, which would make it easier to access, rather than digging for it every time you need to look at it.
Overall, this is a very solid, basic compass with little drawback besides the lanyard loop. It has a nice feature in the marching line to ensure straight travel and the floating needle/face combination will give accurate readings no matter the situation.
Another military style compass, the Eyeskey Multifunction Military Sighting Compass is a fantastic little compass. It includes all of the basic aspects of a compass you would want, as well as a few bonus characteristics that push it above and beyond. Aesthetically, it comes with a camouflaged, military grade paint job.
The compact, folding metal frame fits perfectly into the included carrying pouch. The pouch has a belt attachment, making it easy to situate on your body and makes the compass readily accessible while you’re on the move. The metal frame and secured dial of the compass make it very durable, including shake and waterproof. Another aspect of this compasses design that makes it stick out amongst the others reviewed is its 1-degree rotation dial. With the 1-degree rotational dial, comes a magnification peephole. These two features combined ensure maximum accuracy when dialing your compass into the map.
Like the Military Lensatic Compass with Foldable Metal Lid, the Eyeskey Multifunction Military Sighting Compass has a distance versus measurement ruler on the side, although the Eyeskey has both inches and centimeters. Again, ensuring maximum accuracy when finding your way. Engraved on the back of the compass is a calculation table to go along with the distance versus measurement rulers.
Another nice accessibility feature of the Eyeskey compass, along with the pouch, is the attachable lanyard. Place the lanyard around your neck to ensure that you don’t drop or lose the compass when it is being used regularly. For longer term storage, utilize the pouch. Two very good options that are included straight out of the box, plug and play ready for this hiking compass.
Another military style hiking compass, the Multifunction Sighting Compass offers many of the same qualities as the other compasses reviewed. The compass is encased in a metal and glass casing with a luminous dial and pointing hand. This compass features a leveling bubble with a center ring to make it easy to tell that your compass is flat, and giving the best possible reading.
Like the Eyeskey Multifunction Military Sighting Compass, it is both waterproof and shake proof. The folding lid employs a cutaway style, much like the Military Lensatic Compass, allowing for a sight line when the compass is closed. Also on the lid of the compass is a magnified view port. This allows for the compass to be read when the lid is closed.
This compass has many features that allow it to be used, albeit less accurately, with the lid closed. It has a sighting line, a measurement device, a dial, and leveling bubble, all able to be used without opening the lid. A quality that can come in handy if it is a simple, quick look at the compass you are after.
Handling-wise, while the compass does not come with a carrying case, it does have a spot for a lanyard to be attached. This provides both safety and convenience. All in all, it’s another very good starter compass with a few differences from the other compasses we looked at.
So Which is The Best Hiking Compass?
When looking for the best compass for hiking, you can’t go wrong with any of these three options. The Military Lensatic Compass with Foldable Metal Lid provides an adjustable marching line, which is key for quick directional changes. The Eyeskey Multifunction Military Sighting Compass comes with the most accessories in the lanyard and a carrying case. It also provides a floating face with adjustable dial. The Professional Multifunction Sighting Compass combines a couple different elements from the previous two, but does not come with a carrying case. The magnified view port is a unique feature to this compass.
For the hiker interested in getting the most bang for their buck, the Eyeskey Multifunction Military Sighting Compass is going to be the best bet because of the accessories and functionality it provides. It offers the security of a carrying case and a lanyard. For the hiker just starting out, not having to rely too much on their compass, the Professional Multifunction Sighting Compass is going to work wonderfully because it has the sightline advantage of the Military Lensatic compass, and delivers the added functionality of an engraved measurement reference table as well as a spot for a lanyard.
All in all, these are all three great compasses and will not lead any hiker astray. After purchasing a compass for your upcoming backpacking adventure, remember: it is very important to learn how to use the compass first. Take a class or have a friend teach you the basics. Then test it out in an environment where you are comfortable and will not get lost. Remember that even if you are setting out on a backpacking trip with a hand held GPS, a compass is not going to run out of batteries or have the signal cut out by a storm. If you know and understand how to use your compass before you set out, you will be a Magellan type in no time.
Be safe, and happy hiking!!