Whether hiking, traveling, or backpacking, having the best compass available will keep you on track. This review and buyer’s guide will ensure you can always find true north.
Even in this technology-filled world, a good outdoorsperson knows the importance of having the best compass possible when adventuring outside. Yes, there are compass apps, but there’s no beating the reliability of a tried and true compass when you head off the beaten path.
We’ve found the best compasses to fit every budget and use. Scroll through to see all of our recommendations, or jump to the category you’re looking for here:
For information on compass types, features, and usage tips, check out our buyer’s guide at the end of this article.
The 7 Best Compasses of 2021
Best Overall: Suunto M-3 D Leader Compass
Finnish company Suunto is best known for its GPS fitness watches. It also makes excellent analog navigation devices. The M-3 D Leader hiking compass ($44) is the best example of this expertise. Simple yet effective, it contains everything you need to find your way and nothing you don’t.
Built for hiking, the M-3 D leader is popular with backpackers and hunters for its reliability and toughness.
It sports Metric and Imperial scales and is balanced for use in the Northern Hemisphere, with 2-degree increments. The adjustable declination orientation is smooth for easy adjustment but is firm enough to keep its orientation while you move.
A baseplate with a magnifying lens and glow-in-the-dark markings make it easy to use on a map, even in low light. And the detachable locking lanyard allows you to keep it handy and prevents drops while moving over rugged terrain.
- Weight: 1.6 oz.
- Pros: Luminescent markings, handy wristlock lanyard
- Cons: Small degree markings can on the device can be hard to read, especially in low light
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Best Budget: TurnOnSport Orienteering Compass
Learning orienteering can be a daunting proposition to the uninitiated. And some of the more feature-rich compasses on this list can be intimidating for someone looking to learn to navigate without GPS devices. For beginners, we recommend a simple and inexpensive option on which you can learn the basics.
This orienteering compass from TurnOnSport ($10) has all the features needed for learning compass-and-map navigation without the restrictive cost of higher-end compasses. The durable acrylic baseplate sports an adjustable bearing, a compass ruler, a magnifying glass, and a 1:24,000 scale.
The liquid-filled needle case provides a quick, responsive magnetic north bearing, and the waterproof bearings mean you can use it in any weather.
This is the most complete compass we’ve seen for $10 — a perfect blend of price point and features to make for learning basic navigational skills with minimal investment. At this price, you can upgrade to a more feature-rich compass and keep this as a backup, or buy a dozen and teach a Scout troop as a group.
- Weight: 1.6 oz.
- Pros: Excellent price point
- Cons: No declination feature, no direction box
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Most Durable: Sportneer Military Lensatic Sighting Compass
Built based on military designs, the Military Lensatic Sighting Compass ($20) is designed to be that hiking partner who always knows where you’re going.
The first feature is obvious: Its metallic cover keeps the compass safe from damage and scratching. A clear cover window lets you see the compass without exposing it to the elements. The window also features crosslines for more accurate readings. The read sight features a magnifying lens that magnifies the card dial. This makes it easier to get an accurate reading.
The fluorescent directional arrow and dial let you maintain your readings when the sun goes down. A shockproof, waterproof case keeps the compass intact if you drop it and kick it down the trail. We also appreciate the integrated belt loop attachment, so you can stow it quickly while you scramble up a steep incline, then whip it out and get your bearings when you reach a viewpoint.
- Weight: 6.4 oz.
- Pros: Sturdy metallic cover keeps bearing preserved during hikes
- Cons: The table of measurement on the back is handy but tiny and hard to see in low light
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Best for Travel: Suunto MB-6G Global Compass
Balanced for both Northern and Southern hemispheres, Suunto’s MB-6G ($104) is built for use wherever your travels may take you. The high-grade steel needle provides specific navigational directions, and the integrated clinometer tells you the steepness of the hill you’re climbing, which comes in very handy during avalanche season.
We love the matchbox design, which adds durability by not only protecting the compass from cracks and scratches when tumbling around in your pack or down a rock face, but also by doing away with the weak point of the hinges that hold flip-top compasses together. Additionally, the matchbox features a sighting mirror, which allows you to view the compass dial and the background at the same time, making it easier to take accurate bearings.
- Weight: 2 oz.
- Pros: Compact, durable, and balanced for use in all hemispheres
- Cons: More expensive than others on this list
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Best for Snowsports: Brunton TruArc 7 Compass
The TruArc 7 pocket compass ($50) sports a design that may look simple, but it offers plenty of features to help you find your way. Along with the standard adjustable declination, 2-degree resolution, and built-in ruler to help you navigate, the TruArc also sports a bevy of features, several of which we loved for snowsports around the world.
First off, the global needle will find magnetic north whether you’re heliboarding in British Columbia or backcountry skiing in Chile. And the included inclinometer is useful for finding the incline of the slope you’re on, which comes in handy whether you’re skiing uphill or downhill. The sighting hole and mirror are easy to flip up and use with gloves on as well.
- Weight: 2 oz.
- Pros: The markings are inside the case, rather than printed on the outside, so they won’t wear off over time
- Cons: More expensive than some on this list
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Best for Kids: Coghlan’s Function Whistle
Keeping an eye on a child while camping is a full-time job. Coghlan’s Function Whistle ($8) is a great way to keep your kids safe and teach them the rudimentary aspects of navigation if they wander too far from the campsite.
The body of the compass is a whistle, with a small compass on the top, a thermometer on the bottom, and a handy clip on the end. The compass is basic, but it will find magnetic north, allowing you to teach your kids how to figure out which direction is which if they get turned around. The bright-yellow body makes it easy to find if they drop it, and the key clip makes dropping it less likely — just clip it onto a zipper, and it’ll always be easy to find.
The key function is the whistle, which makes kids easier to find if they get lost. Just make sure they know to start blasting that whistle, and you’ll be able to zero in on them in no time.
- Weight: 1.75 oz.
- Pros: Yellow color makes it easy to find, shrill whistle makes your kids easy to find
- Cons: No compass features besides finding magnetic north
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Best for Hiking: Suunto MC-2 Global Compass
Compact and feature-rich, the MC-2 ($90) is a great compass for hiking thanks to all its perks packed into a small package. Starting with the global needle, with finds magnetic north in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The MC-2 is also a mirrored compass, sporting a large sighting mirror that allows not only better bearing but is large enough to be used for signaling if you manage to get lost.
The liquid-filled capsule provides stability for the needle, while the clinometer indicates incline and elevation within 2 degrees. The luminescent bezel, orientation markings, and direction of travel make it easier to read in low light, and the clear red direction arrow makes it easy to see your way when moving fast.
- Weight: 2.5 oz.
- Pros: Global needle, protective case doubles as mirror and sighting notch
- Cons: Lid snap takes a good amount of force to lock
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Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose
There are three main types of compasses: the basic compass, the sighting compass, and the baseplate (or orienteering) compass. Some compasses contain elements of all three.
The basic compass has only one feature: a needle that points toward magnetic north. It’s handy for any situation in which you only need to know your approximate direction. They tend to be inexpensive as well, so they can be useful for keeping as a spare.
Sighting compasses have flip-up lenses that allow users to get bearings from a distant object like a nearby peak. Put simply, use the sight notch to identify your desired location, adjust the bezel to align with the needle to identify the direction you need to go to get there, then follow the heading.
Orienteering (baseplate) compasses are designed to be used with a map, as the base lays directly on the map for easy triangulation and orienting.
Many compasses combine a baseplate for map navigation and sighting accessories to combine the two types. This allows for whatever navigation method is most useful at any time.
Basic Compass Features
By definition, a compass will have a magnetic needle that always points to magnetic north. Beyond that, compasses can sport a bevy of features, from liquid-filled needle casings and rotating bezels to whistles and thermometers (some are more useful than others), generally depending on the price range.
For general direction-finding, a basic compass will do. But for more in-depth orienteering, you’ll want a compass with the following features.
A magnetic needle that always points north, this is the most basic and essential feature on any compass.
The mounting case holds the needle. It’s often filled with liquid to allow the needle to float freely and find magnetic north quickly.
The mounting for the compass housing, a baseplate is generally printed with tools that help find direction and distance. It provides a straight edge for identifying your location via triangulation.
A rotating ring that surrounds the housing, the bezel is printed with direction indicators (N, S, E, W) and varying points in between.
Fixed within the compass housing, these lines are designed to align with the vertical grid lines on maps.
Also fixed within the compass housing, the orienting arrow aligns with magnetic north.
Fixed parallel to the sides of the baseplate, the direction-of-travel arrow shows the direction you want to travel.
Fixed on the bezel. The index line is an extension of the direction-of-travel arrow. It marks the direction you set via rotating the compass housing.
Many baseplates feature a small magnifying lens for easier map-reading.
Located on the edges of the baseplate, the compass scale allows you to measure the distance on maps.
Key Features & Considerations
Besides the basic features mentioned above, these additional features can serve to make navigation easier or more accurate. They allow you to measure height and slope and to find north on any part of the globe.
Declination adjustment allows you to adjust your compass for the varying difference between magnetic north and true north. Magnetic north (where a compass needle points) follows the direction of north in the Earth’s magnetic lines, and true north represents the direction of the North Pole.
Magnetic declination varies from place to place due to the changing nature of the Earth’s core. To compensate, many compasses allow you to adjust your compass readings to accommodate the magnetic declination for your location.
Sighting mirrors are mirrors on a hinged lid that attach to the compass body. They allow you to see a direction or an object and your compass capsule at the same time. This allows you to orient your direction to a location and maintain that direction even when you can’t see the marker.
Clinometers measure the angle of elevation, the slope, or the height from the ground. Clinometers measure the height of objects and the steepness of hills (useful in avalanche country). They also gauge the height of your bear hang when you’re setting up camp.
Because the Earth’s magnetic field varies in different locations on the planet, a compass needle that balances well in one location may dip and drag or stick in a different location, making it completely useless. A compass with a taller dial allows the needle to tilt without hitting the casing, preventing that drag.
In the past, caring for a compass would just mean not dropping it or crushing the casing. Now, people need to consider the plethora of electronic devices that can threaten a compass’s lifespan. Be sure to store your compass away from computers and other electronic devices — the magnetic fields can damage it.
The speakers in these devices can demagnetize the needle, rendering it useless. Also, keep it away from fires, heaters, and other hot places like a hot car. Any warping of the casing can affect the needle’s accuracy.
Photo credit: Suunto
What Is the Most Accurate Compass?
The most accurate compass depends on several factors. Most important is whether or not you know how to use it. Every compass can find north, but it’s up to you to know what to do with that information.
Your ability to read your bearings and follow them, or transfer a compass’s information to a map to find your location and put it to use accurately, is paramount. For more information on how to get the most out of your compass, check out our article on orienteering basics.
How Much Does a Good Compass Cost?
A good compass can cost anywhere from $10 for a simple compass with basic orienteering features to over $100 for a compass with a global needle, clinometer, mirror sight, and a plethora of other features. Consider the features you need versus what you’re willing to pay when choosing the right compass for you.
What Is the Best Lensatic Compass?
In addition to the standard needle and rotating bezel, look for a cover with sighting wire and luminous lighting dots for evening navigation, a flip-up sighting slot and lens (or rear sight), and a thumb loop for stability while sighting your visual marker.
Although a good lensatic compass is great for finding bearings, we prefer one that also incorporates the features of a baseplate compass. Look for a compass that combines the two to give you several methods of finding your way.
What Is the Best Compass App?
While compass apps may be less accurate than traditional compasses and rely on a battery, they’re very convenient. Most people already have their phones with them on adventures, and smartphones can sport a wide range of features that a traditional compass does not, like barometers, altimeters, and, of course, GPS.
We’re fans of the Altimeter GPS Pro app (free for iOS and Android) because of its map integration, which allows you to use topo maps, aerial photos, or a hybrid of the two. It also shows your altitude, allows you to share that data to keep others informed of your location in case you get lost, and tracks data like speed, time, location, and direction. It can also estimate your GPS accuracy to let you know if you start going off course.
Have a favorite compass we missed? Let us know in the comments below for future updates to this article.
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