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A compass allows you to determine direction with the aid of a magnetized pointer that moves in relation to the Earth’s magnetic poles. There are many different kinds to choose from, whether you're looking for a base plate compasses with a free-spinning needle or marine compasses with a fixed needle and a floating compass card. Of course, digital compasses are becoming increasingly popular with many people relying on compass apps to help them navigate. Each type of compass is best for certain activities, whether you’re a competitive athlete, a keen hiker, or an urbanite looking for the quickest way to get across town.
Here, our favorite compasses on the market now.
Our Top Picks
Best Overall: Cammenga Official U.S. Military Tritium Lensatic Compass
Lensatic compasses are designed for precision navigation and can be used to set course bearings and follow courses over unmarked land. For serious orienteering, it’s hard to imagine a better option than the Cammenga Official U.S. Military Tritium Lensatic Compass. Used in active combat all over the world, it has an exceptionally durable powder-coated aluminum frame and is shock-, sand-, and waterproof. The non-liquid filled needle housing is unaffected by temperature, offering flawless accuracy from -50 F to 150 F; while a copper induction-damping ring allows the needle to settle quickly.
Use the sight wire in the lid to line the compass up with a distant object and determine its bearing. A magnifying lens makes it easy to read while dial graduations are displayed in degrees and mils for unparalleled accuracy. Another key feature is the compass's tritium micro-lights, which provide continuous illumination for over 12 years without the need for batteries, recharging, or a flashlight. The compass comes with a carry pouch and lanyard.
Best Budget: Magnos Somnia Multipurpose Magnetic Compass
Casual hikers or teachers who need to buy compasses in bulk will appreciate the affordability of the Magnos Somnia Multipurpose Magnetic Compass. At just under $5, it’s a fraction of the price of other compasses on this list. It also makes a great backup for those using GPS or smartphone apps to find their way in the wilderness. Its simple base plate design means that it’s mounted on a rectangle of clear plastic so you can place it on top of a map for easy course determination.
The jewel bearing spindle is painted red on one end to denote which way is north. Use the fixed declination correction scale to work out the difference between magnetic and true north, and the dual measurements on either side of the base plate to compare distances on the map with the scale at the bottom. These measurements come in centimeters and inches for greater compatibility. Lastly, this ergonomic compass fits comfortably in your palm and comes with a lanyard and LED light.
Best Base Plate: Silva Ranger 515 Compass
Intended for professional use (and with a price-tag to match), the Silva Ranger 515 Compass is a good fit for serious outdoorsmen. It boasts a mirrored lid with a sightline for precise bearing readouts on distant landmarks and a clinometer for measuring angles of inclination. The bezel is heavily textured to make it easier to rotate and there are luminous points on the 0-degree to 360-degree dial and the northwards end of the red-painted spindle. The luminosity will not degrade over time.
The base plate features a map magnifier and three scales for measuring distances (1:24,000, 1:25,000 and 1:50,000). Silicone feet prevent it from slipping on the map. A highlight of this compass is the adjustable geared declination, which allows you to set the variable between true and magnetic north according to your location. In this way, the compass is constantly compensating for the difference so that your bearings are as accurate as possible. The included lanyard comes with a screwdriver for setting the declination.
Best for Diving: Oceanic Wrist Mount Compass
The Oceanic Wrist Mount Compass is purpose-built for scuba diving. It’s waterproof, saltwater-resistant, and capable of withstanding increased pressures at depth. Instead of a free-spinning needle, the compass features a printed card that floats in liquid and rotates according to your orientation. This design compensates for your movement and the motion caused by surge and current, making it much easier to read. A side window allows you to view bearings while keeping the compass level on your extended wrist.
The bearing indicators are large and easy to read, while direct and reciprocal index points come in handy for swimming out and back on the same heading. A bright red lubber line indicates your direction of travel. The compass also has a luminescent display, which glows approximately seven times faster and longer than other materials. On night dives, charge the display with your flashlight for optimum visibility. Other dive-specific features include a glove-compatible ratchet bezel and an extra-long strap that fits over your wetsuit.
Best Thumb: Silva Race 360 Jet Compass
Thumb compasses are designed with competitive athletes in mind and fix onto your thumb leaving your other hand free. The Silva Race 360 Jet Compass tips the scales at just 1 ounce, keeping your overall weight to a minimum. It offers amazing stability so that even when you’re cycling or running over rough ground, your reading remains accurate to +/- 1-degree. The 360-degree turnable capsule houses a jet needle that settles in record time—crucial in a race when every second counts. The capsule’s small size means that it’s less susceptible to volume changes as a result of extreme temperatures and therefore less prone to bubble formation.
The minimalist, ultra-transparent design increases map visibility, while the thickness of the base plate makes it capable of withstanding an active lifestyle. It’s also shaped for excellent contact between your thumb and the map. On the bottom of the base plate, rubber friction feet help to prevent slippage. These compasses are right or left-hand specific.
Best Marine: Brunton Dash Mount Compass
Like dive compasses, marine compasses use a fixed needle and a moving card suspended in liquid rather than a conventional jewel bearing spindle. The liquid absorbs motion and allows for accurate readings even in rough conditions, making them ideal for use on kayaks, canoes, and boats. The Brunton Dash Mount Compass is designed to fit into manufacturer-ready recesses on your kayak or boat bulkhead. The flush mount style is secure, stable, and great for maintaining your vessel’s sleek lines.
Additionally, the direct reading disc’s white-on-black color scheme is easily readable with a single glance and features 5-degree graduations for impressive accuracy. Use the reciprocal bearing to chart a return course to the same point from which you started. The compass measures 4” x 3” x 3” and weighs 8.3 ounces.
Best Android App: Compass 360 Pro
The Compass 360 Pro is a free Android app that stands out for its ease of use. It has fewer additional features than most digital compasses, but for many reviewers, its simplicity is part of its appeal. It looks and behaves like a traditional compass, with a large dial and incredibly smooth movements. Like a traditional compass, you will need to hold your phone flat to get the most accurate results. In addition to decimal bearings, it displays cardinal bearings that make it simple to explain the general direction to others.
The app is calibrated to show true and magnetic north and if you change locations, it automatically compensates for the variation between the two. In fact, it is the perfect travel companion, working with equal accuracy in both hemispheres. If your adventures take you off the beaten track, you’ll be pleased to hear that the app does not require any internet connection to work. However, it does use a significant amount of battery so make sure to pack a charger or power bank.
Best iPhone App: Commander Compass Go
iPhone users who like the idea of a more complex offline app will love the free Commander Compass Go app. In conventional compass mode, it can be used in conjunction with different map backgrounds to give an idea of what lies ahead. It also acts as a gyrocompass for finding true north and as a GPS receiver. Other handy features include a horizontal and vertical speedometer, an altimeter, and a gyro horizon calculator that tells you your orientation in relation to the Earth’s horizon.
You can also use the app to mark customized waypoints and navigate back to them later. When traveling to a waypoint, the app tells you the distance to your destination, your direction, traveling speed, and estimated time of arrival. Essentially, it works just like the GPS in your car. Those that like the idea of navigating by the stars can use the app’s star charts to do so; while a sun, moon, and star finder come in handy for romantics in search of specific constellations.
Best Novelty: Survival Paracord Bracelet With Compass
The Survival Paracord Bracelet With Compass is the perfect stocking filler for adventurous types. Available in black or black/red, the bracelet is made from looped paracord which unravels to give you enough rope to create a shelter in an emergency, replace a tent guide rope, or set up a campsite washing line. The paracord is capable of supporting a 550-pound static load and ultimately, its uses are limited only by your imagination.
The miniature compass is set into the bracelet buckle. Due to its small size, its accuracy can’t be compared to that of the professional compasses on this list—but it could make all the difference if you’re lost in the woods. The buckle also conceals a knife/scraper and flint. Use the knife to cut the rope to suit your needs, or scrape it against the flint to create a spark and start a fire. Lastly, the bracelet includes a whistle with a high-pitched frequency that travels a lot further than a shout in case of emergency.
If you're looking for a compass that's durable, accurate, and precise, we recommend the Cammenga Official U.S. Military Tritium Lensatic Compass (view at Walmart). It's used in active combat all over the world, so you know it's made to last whether you're hiking up a mountain or just across town. If you're looking for something you can take underwater, then try the Oceanic Wrist Mount Compass (view at Amazon).
What to Look for in a Compass
Easy to Read
You'll want to make sure that the compass you have is easy to read. You'll want one with a needle or card that is easy to see against the 0- to 360-degree lines. Other visibility features you should look out for, are a transparent baseplate so you can use the compass over a map and luminescent indicators so you can use the compass in the dark.
Other important features to look out for are declination adjustments and a clinometer. The declination adjustment feature will compensate for the difference between true north and magnetic north. A clinometer will allow you to measure the steepness of a slope to help you determine the risk of an avalanche.
Whether you're hiking up a mountain or kayaking in the sea, you need to make sure the compass you're buying will last through your trips. Look for compasses that are shockproof, waterproof, sandproof, and will be unaffected by extreme temperatures.