Do I need a compass for hiking?

Best Hiking Compass

We all know and love all these new era gadgets that can tell at any time, accurately (most of the time, anyway), where you are on the surface of the Earth. Of course they are useful, but none of them can replace a detailed topo map or a compass- the primary tools when it comes to exploring the wilderness.

The compass tells you how to place your map, pinpoints your current position and you may not need it daily when hiking. But, when you take the wrong turn, it’s the tool that tells where to go next.

But, having a compass and a map doesn’t necessarily mean you know what to do with them and you need to practice a bit before going into the wild.

The basics on hiking compasses

There are several types of hiking compasses and you need to know a bit about them before getting yourself one.

The floating-needle compasses use a magnetized needle that aligns with the earth’s magnetic field. The housing for the needle is typically filled with a liquid that steadies the needle, giving accurate readouts. But this is the traditional type of compass and it divides in several other types.

The low priced model, suited for any beginning hiker, is the basic compass that has all the main components, but has no other features like a mirror or declination adjustment.

The advanced compasses have all kinds of features and many extras (mirror, magnifier) that are functional, giving precise readings. If you go very often hiking, they are the compasses to get.

The extras that your compass has, are not aesthetic, and they have a specific role that helps you take accurate readings.

What counts the most in a hiking compass?

The stability and speed of your compass are highly important and the faster the compass needle tells you where north is, the better. When you go mountaineering, having a fast compass is not that important as you move fairly slowly and you’re not in a rush. But, if a storm gets in the way, what use is a slow compass then?

The endurance of your compass has to be pretty good as chances are the compass is going to take at least a few dropdowns and get lost in your backpack a lot. The durability of your compass is therefore essential. You might be careful with it on a nice, sunny weather, but what happens on a heavy wind when you also need to hold the map? It’s almost impossible for a compass not to be dropped at least once in its lifetime…

Some features are more important than others on your compass, like a declination scale and a magnifier. The magnifier is helpful when reading small symbols on the map, whereas a ruler measures the distance.

You should go for a large bezel so that you can use it with gloves and keep in mind that a mirror minimizes errors when moving the compass from eye-level after sighting to waist-level for reading the dial.

You can measure slope angles with a clinometer, but this is already information for the more experienced hiker.

When you travel at night, some luminescent indicators are more than useful, on both sides of your orienting arrow or even on the bezel’s 4 cardinal points.  And, if you travel in the Southern Hemisphere, a global needle is a feature to have for more accuracy. The compass needle spins freely in North America and it may tilt or drag in other parts of the world.

And, for practical uses, get a compass that comes with a lanyard. This piece of cord lets you attach the compass to a belt, your backpack or even on your wrist.