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The Best Compasses

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Always know where you're headed

 Jamie Street / Unsplash

By Dan Goldstein, OnRamp

The irony of that awesome compass app on your iPhone is that cellular devices rarely have coverage when you’re lost in the mountains. This is where the skilled (though nearly forgotten) analog art of the compass comes into play. Whether you’re a professional surveyor or an amateur backpacker, a professional-grade compass is a handy, if not necessary, tool. After diligent research, we've chosen a few of our favorite compasses currently available on the market. If this is your first time shopping for a compass, we also suggest you “get directions” from a good eBook or external resource covering the basics of compass use before you head out on your adventure (see what we did there?).

Suunto MC-2G

Playtime is Over

Best Overall: With nearly thirty different compasses in the Suunto line, the MC-2G Global may be one of the most costly, but it's the highest-rated and most professionally-respected model.

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Suunto has become a household name among adventure enthusiasts for its line of compasses, dive products, sports watches and more. Their Suunto MC-2G in particular occupies a sweet spot between being feature-rich, affordable, and dependable. With its globally-balanced needle, the MC-2G is especially useful for mountaineers who plan on traveling to both the northern and southern hemispheres.

Pros:

  • 20-degree tilt margin for easier readings

  • Adjustable declination correction

  • Liquid-filled capsule for stable operation

  • Jewel-bearing needle

Cons:

  • Lid doesn’t shut easily

Coghlan’s Map Compass

For The Price Of A Latte, You'll Never Get Lost Again

Best on a Budget: Used by Boy Scouts and professionals alike, this is a workhorse compass from a trusted leader in outdoor accessories.

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The Coghlan compass was designed for everyday – and everyone. One feature we especially like is that it’s long enough to reach between most map points when plotting. While it is most useful for map reading, its other features are worth noting too, like its see-through liquid-filled base, or its jeweled needle with a luminous pointer for nighttime adventures. In addition, the price is so reasonable, you could buy a couple of these and slip them into all your camping gear, so a compass is always close at hand.

Pros:

  • Magnifier lens for more detailed map-reading

  • Incredibly accurate for the price

Cons:

  • Needle isn’t liquid-dampened

  • Bezel rotates too easily

  • No magnetic declination setting

Peco Silva Ranger 2.0

The Swedish Know Their Way

Best Surveyor's Compass: A reliable, durable journeyman compass and the flagship of the Silva company, the 2.0 is a staple piece of equipment, especially for land surveyors.

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Another outdoor equipment company with nearly 90 years of experience, Silva was founded by the three brothers who invented the first liquid-filled compass, the first marine compass, and the first mirror-sighting compass. The Ranger 2.0 is the latest incarnation of Silva’s advanced, mirror-sighting compasses created for experienced users and professionals. It’s important to note that the Clinometer reads to 90 degrees in all four quadrants, which is great for surveyors, but will require a little extra math for other forms of map-reading.

Pros:

  • Distance lanyard with 1:25 and 1:50 scales

  • Rotating compass dial has gradations every 2A degrees

  • Built-in magnetic declination adjustment screw

Cons:

  • Design makes azimuth angles difficult

  • Global needle comes with a different model

Cammenga S.W.A.T. Tritium Lensatic

S.W.A.T. Do You Mean We’re Lost?

Best Value: Tested and used by law enforcement, the military, and other government agencies, the Cammenga Tritium Lensatic compass is designed for the most rugged and adventurous outdoor enthusiasts.

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For serious hikers, surveyors, and cartographers ready to throw down a cool Ben Franklin for their gear, the Cammenga Tritium Lensatic can handle whatever nature dishes out. Features include a climate capacity of 50 degrees below zero to 150 degrees Fahrenheit as well as seven Tritium microlights for navigation in low-light conditions. The microlights remain luminous for over twelve years, requiring little to no maintenance. The compass even includes a patented Copper Induction Damping System, which slows the rotation of the magnet without the use of liquids. Combine that with a solid aluminum casing, and you’ve got a compass that excels like few others.

Pros:

  • Can withstand rigorous shock

  • Durable aluminum frame and waterproof housing

  • Magnifying lens and sight wire included

Cons:

  • Glow is faint

  • Complex features not suitable for beginners

Brunton USA 1894 Gentleman’s Compass

Brunton's Design Leads the Way

Best Design: The super-cool design of the 1894 Gentleman’s pocket watch-style compass is matched only by the features and quality that Brunton is known for.

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We can’t exactly say we cheated on this one, but we may have chosen this compass for its cool factor over things like, say, practicality. Modeled after an original design by its namesake, D.W. Brunton, the USA 1894 Gentleman’s Compass features the classic cardinal direction points and a lift arm that helps extend the compass’s life by stopping unnecessary needle movement. A lightweight aluminum housing protects this well-crafted unit, assuring years of reliable service.

Pros:

  • Made in the USA

  • Makes for a great gift

Cons:

  • Casing face is plastic, not glass

  • No declination

Frequently Asked Questions

Will my compass be adjusted when I receive it?

For the most part, yes. Although many factors can create deviation, most of these involve magnets being too close to the compass. We recommend that, upon the package’s arrival, you perform a compass adjusting procedure by using a known directional reference (i.e. a sun azimuth or a known land bearing).

When should I consider purchasing a new compass?

Although broken compasses can be repaired, the smaller, mobile, portable varieties typically should be replaced when the following occurs:

1. When there are noticeable cracks in the dome.

2. When fluid levels are low (for example, when you see a bubble) or the fluid is empty from the casing.

3. When the dial or card is discolored or yellow.

Is a cheap compass dependable?

Generally speaking, even an inexpensive compass is going to give you an accurate indication of direction (as opposed to an accurate bearing). It really depends on how you want to use the compass. If you’re looking for a general idea of where the magnetic north is, even the cheapest compass is helpful. More expensive models get you faster needle orientation, better damping, better handling of magnetic variation, and features that allow you to work in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

Daniel is a freelance writer covering the latest in technology and musical equipment.

The Active Times partners with OnRamp for informational product guides. OnRamp and The Active Times may earn a commission if you make a purchase through OnRamp product links. The Active Times is not involved in OnRamp content creation.

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