For hikers, backpackers and survivalists around the world, the compass is old world tech that continues to thrive in the modern age thanks to its trustworthy utility and practicality.
Unlike GPS units or mobile phones, a good old compass and map can’t run out of batteries, lose signal or die in a rainstorm.
Compasses are also preferable to GPS units as they are extremely lightweight, pocket-sized, simple to use and infinitely cheaper.
Purchasing a decent compass will provide you with a survival tool that could really be the difference between life and death.
Below we’ve reviewed our favourite options on the market, in order of price. If you’re wondering what traits will be important for you, scroll down to our buying guide.
Weight: 30 grams
The Suunto Field Compass is robust, easy to use and compact, making it the perfect option for recreational use.
If you’re looking for a compass that is functional and lightweight, with minimal features, the A-10 is for you.
Suunto’s entry-level compass delivers a clear base plate, declination adjustment and a black and white bezel.
The measurements feature both metric and imperial scales for help with distances on maps and the steel needle with jewel bearing is balanced for the northern hemisphere.
The precision movement comes to rest at magnetic north far quicker than any other compass in this price range and is pretty spot on.
Focussed on value and utility, it is a no-frills navigation device that is good for hikers, scouts and teens that are getting into wilderness adventuring. It’s durable, and the baseplate is large enough to draw lines on a map to triangulate your position.
The ergonomic design fits snugly within your palm and included lanyard comes in handy whilst hiking.
You won’t get the same accuracy from this as you would from an orienteering compass, meaning it is a good fit for users hoping to quickly expand their navigation skills but you’ll outgrow its abilities quickly for anything more complex.
All said and done, it is a basic cartographic compass with everything you need for guidance but nothing more.
Weight: 5 grams
Weighing in as the lightest (and joint cheapest) compass on our list is the Suunto Clipper.
As the name suggests, this tiny navigational aid is designed to clip onto your watch, bag strap or map edge – freeing up your hands.
The build is solid, there’s no bubble in the liquid and the needle is fast. A bonus is the use of luminescent markings, which makes it operable in low light.
Without any additional sights or lenses to confuse you, the Clipper provides key information only – keeping you moving in the right direction without slowing you down and is ideal for beginners.
Suunto guarantees its functionality underwater, with no reaction to changing pressure, meaning that it could be used for diving purposes.
That said, we would recommend keeping it for hiking as the interference of salt water or condensation could affect its performance.
It doesn’t work particularly well on bikes as the compass is balanced and when the centre of gravity changes (for example when accelerating or cornering), the needle will change quickly. Equally, the metallic body of a car interferes enough to make it totally unusable when driving.
Whilst a perfect addition to your kit, we aren’t sure we’d trust this tiny compass as a primary unit for navigation.
It lacks the protractor baseplate that is so useful on full sized Suunto and Silva compasses, so is best used as a complementary compass whilst on the move.
For anyone that wants simple analog navigation at a glance, Suunto’s Clipper compass is a good choice.
Brunton’s TruArc3 Baseplate is a basic hiking compass that has received a few modern tweaks over the years to enhance performance.
With a global needle, metric and imperial scales, plus tool-free declination adjustment, this compact base plate fits the bill for simple navigation.
The compass’s outer bezel reads in two-degree resolution and has a strong, accurate pull toward north that is more pronounced than more expensive competitors.
As such, we’d say it is a good alternative to battery-based locator systems.
Small and sturdy enough, it will withstand a few bumps or being sat on but it’s certainly not a military level of durability.
We did find that the needle often doesn’t settle quickly, making it confusing to read in a hurry. There are other compasses that are better in this respect, without bouncing around or getting stuck like this one seems to.
However, with an accurate north pull and sturdy design, it’s a good buy for those who are budget-conscious and the adjustable declination is a deal-maker.
Weight: 36 grams
Silva is a go-to in terms of navigational devices and their Expedition 4-360 model is a middle of the range option for intermediate navigators and explorers.
With a sapphire jewel bearing for friction-free movement of the compass needle, this compass is as reliable as it is easy to use.
Silva’s Expedition 4 has all of your standard baseplate features including easy-handling compass housing, silicon rubber feet for precision map work, luminous markings for night navigation, a magnifying lens and map-measuring scales (both metric and imperial).
We found the needle to be both responsive and accurate, and between the markings and magnifier, it is easy enough plot and gauge distance with the romer scales.
The ruler line, which most other mid-range compasses don’t have, can be used to line two points up on the map to take a bearing.
Although it doesn’t have a secondary direction measurement scale, it does come with a lanyard and five-year guarantee.
Silva’s entire Expedition series has been a long-time leader in compass accuracy, precision and durability, making it a reliable choice.
Weight: 175 grams
Sportneer’s Military Grade Compass is a tough military-construction compass that is built to last.
The lensatic function increases the reading’s accuracy with a lens on the rear sight that magnifies the card dial, giving you a more accurate reading than those listed above.
The compass’ interface glows in the dark, for when you’ve not made it to camp by sundown. The belt loop, carrying case and addition of an inclinometer are all a bonus.
For anyone that needs a trusty, life-proof compass then look no further.
Crafted with a rugged metal casing, it is both waterproof and shakeproof – meaning that you can navigate, orientate positions, measure slopes, angles and scales in any sort of weather.
The casing on the whole is pretty resilient but after extensive use the snap button feels as though it’s about ready to rip out.
Despite this, the price and utility, combined with positive online reviews, make it a solid choice for your next outdoor excursion.
Weight: 86 grams
Silva’s Expedition S model is a slight step up on the 4-360 reviewed above with quality and accuracy that are first class.
The high visibility bezel, magnifying glass and inclinometer make it a great navigational aid across any terrain even moorland.
This is a mirrored sighting compass for absolute precision accuracy and is suitable for anyone engaging in orienteering, adventure racing or off-trail navigation. Should you drop or misplace it, the illuminated yellow bezel helps you to find it more easily.
The declination adjustment means that once you’ve rejigged, you won’t need to calculate it into your navigation again.
Although it requires a tool for declination adjustment, it’s not all that difficult and the tool is integrated on the lanyard.
Its one major drawback is that the numbers can be tricky to read, most notably in failing light.
Overall the Expedition S is well-made, easy to use and will last you a lifetime.
Weight: 75 grams
Suunto’s MC-2G is a professional mirror compass with top-of-the-line features for precise directional measurements globally.
Finland-based manufacturer Suunto is one of the best names in compass making and this is the second most expensive compass on our list but is well worth it.
This global compass needle has been improved to maintain a higher degree of accuracy from anywhere in the world. It functions across all compass zones without the hassle of having to completely level it each time for a precise reading.
The sighting holes and mirror are a real game changer for accurate and reliable navigation in all conditions, making it a popular choice with advanced orienteerers.
It is both sturdy and lightweight and the wrist-locking lanyard makes it even more versatile.
The glow-in-the-dark bezel ring and luminous, clear measurements make it easy to read in low-light situations, and users can even check the incline of slopes.
The base plate is substantially thicker than its counterparts, giving it a robust build that can withstand even the toughest adventures.
Two minor points worth noting are the smaller-than-ideal magnifier on the base plate, and the fact that the direction is indicated only in mils. For this price it would be nice if there was a secondary scale showing degrees.
With reliable performance, easy-to-use features and widespread, positive customer reviews, it is a sound choice – particularly for globetrotters.
Overall it is one of the best on the market and Suunto’s comprehensive user guide even gives you a primer on several important navigation techniques.
Weight: 182 grams
Cammenga’s Phosphorescent Lensatic Compass represents the essence of advanced outdoor navigation.
Its improved accuracy and impressive features will almost make you want to toss out your GPS.
Originally developed for the armed forces and government agencies, Cammenga has refined their best-selling compass a number of times.
Now boasting a hard aluminium, waterproof casing, bright phosphorescence, an easy to read dial and a clear sight.
Dial graduations in both degrees and mils ensure highly accurate readings, while phosphorescent paint lights up the face well into the night.
The Lensatic Compass uses an induction method of damping rather than liquid, meaning that it will continue to deliver accurate and actionable information throughout its lifetime.
From an operation and strength standpoint, there aren’t many competitors in this league. The only downside is the cost, coming in at more than triple some of our other contenders. So if you don’t need such a level of accuracy, this might be more than required.
A durable and effective piece of survival kit, this Lensatic Compass is a must for any serious navigators.
What should you be looking for in a compass
Having a decent compass rather than a GPS device means you won’t be weighed down or have to rely on batteries, cellular service, or a Wi-Fi signal.
Compasses use the four cardinal directions – north, south, east, and west – to help you find your bearing and triangulate your location when used alongside a map.
That said, they’re not all created equal, so consider the following key traits before you make your purchase.
Weight and bulk
Compasses are rarely over a few hundred grams, but really vary in terms of bulk.
Looking for a compact option will mean easy carrying – either in a pocket, on a lanyard or clipped to your waist or watch.
If you don’t want the extra material of a mirrored or lensatic compass, then stick to a simple baseplate design.
It’s unlikely that you’ll make it through too many hikes or climbs without getting wet, so choosing a compass that is either water resistant or totally waterproof is important.
Those that aren’t may let moisture in, which will lead to the needle sticking or giving up completely.
Look for a compass with both imperial and metric measurements, so that you’re covered wherever you go and with various types of map.
If you’re going to be working with UK-based OS maps, check to see whether your compass is easy to use alongside them.
If you’ll be doing any hiking in low-light settings, it is important to have readings that glow in the dark, as you won’t always have a torch or phone at hand.
Look for luminescent and phosphorescent features – including the bezel.
Most decent compasses are declination adjustable and should come with their own tool. This adjustment allows for accurate bearings by adjusting for the offset of true north from magnetic north.
If you’re investing in a good compass, it’s also worth having one that you can take across hemispheres so that you can find your way across any country.
A global needle might be a bit more pricey but will keep your readings accurate no matter which side of the equator you visit.
Last update on 2020-11-25 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API