Even in this technology-filled world, a good outdoors person knows the importance of having the best compass possible when adventuring outside.
Yes, there are compass apps, but phones can break or die and there’s no beating the reliability of a tried and true compass when you head off the beaten path.
The GearJunkie team is composed of arctic explorers, competitive orienteers, and accomplished long-distance thru-hikers. We’ve ventured far beyond the bounds of well-traveled trails and 5G-LTE. We rely on compasses to maintain our bearings and remain in touch with our path of travel in white-out blizzards, dense forests, and barren featureless deserts.
A reliable compass can be the difference between efficient backcountry travel and potential disaster. Through rigorous testing of dozens of compasses, the selections of this list have proven themselves as bonafide navigation tools fit during far-flung adventures.
We’ve found the best compasses to fit every budget and use. Scroll through to see all of our recommendations, or click ahead to the product you’re looking for. For information on compass types, features, and usage tips, check out our comparison table and buyer’s guide. If you still have questions, take a look at our list of frequently asked questions at the end of this article.
Editor’s Note: We updated this article on December 15, 2023, to dial in our selection of recommended products, provide additional buying guidance, and include new photos of our testing process in the field.
- Best Overall Compass: SUUNTO M-3 D Leader Compass
- Best Budget Compass: TurnOnSport Orienteering Compass
- Best Compass for Most People: SUUNTO A-10 Compass
- Best Travel Compass: SUUNTO MB-6G Global Compass
- Best Compass for Kids: Coghlan’s Function Whistle
- Best Thumb Compass for Orienteering: SUUNTO AIM-6 NH
- Best Hiking Compass: SUUNTO MC-2 Global Compass
Handy wristlock lanyard
Small degree markings on the device can be hard to read, especially in low light
No declination feature, no direction box
Easy to use
Balanced for use in all hemispheres
More expensive than others on this list
Yellow color makes it easy to find
Shrill whistle makes your kids easy to find
No compass features besides finding magnetic north
Attaches to thumb for use on-the-go
Specialized for racers
No measurements or sighting tools
Protective case doubles as mirror and sighting notch
Lid snap takes a good amount of force to lock
Compass Comparison Table
|M-3 D Leader Compass
|4.72″ x 2.4″ x 0.55″
|TurnOnSport Orienteering Compass
|8.23″ x 3.9″ x 0.67″
|SUUNTO A-10 Compass
|4.09″ x 2.2″ x 0.39″
|SUUNTO MB-6G Global Compass
|2.64″ x 1.85″ x 0.87″
|Coghlan’s Function Whistle
|3.35″ x 1.18″ x 0.98″
|SUUNTO AIM-6 NH
|3.15″ x 2.76″ x 0.43“
|SUUNTO MC-2 Global Compass
|3.9″ x 2.5″
How We Tested Compasses
The GearJunkie team is composed of hunters, anglers, climbers, backpackers, and paddlers. When our adventures take us away from the beaten path, reliable compasses become an essential tool. And our founder, Stephen Regenold, is one of the top adventure racers in the country and an avid orienteer. As such, he uses map-and-compass navigation extensively during race scenarios and has experience with many compasses.
We tested the compasses on this list while recreating in the field. Like all compass users, we prefer models that are accurate, durable, and intuitive. While roaming between waypoints and hugging long-distance bearings through featureless terrain, we paid careful attention to each compass’ precision, durability, versatility readability, and overall value. The compasses on this list held up to our scrutiny with flying colors. They’re the best of the best.
As new compasses hit the market in future seasons, we’ll be sure to test them in consideration for this product roundup. And if you’re wanting to get more digital with your navigation solutions, check out our guide on the Best Handheld GPS units.
Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose a Compass
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 the 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, and 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.
How to Use a Compass
The short lesson on compasses is very simple: The compass needle always points to magnetic north. With that knowledge, you can maintain a consistent direction of travel relative to north.
The longer version of compass use is much more nuanced and complicated. Check out our full explainer on how to use a compass here.
Basic Compass Features
By definition, a compass will have a magnetic needle that always points to the 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 is the most basic and essential feature of any compass. One of the more important features of a good compass is a quick but stable needle that finds north fast and consistently.
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 liquid also dampens the motion of the needle.
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 to the 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 terrain). 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.
The most accurate compass depends on several factors. Most importantly, you should 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.
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 best compass for you.
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.
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 Gaia GPS 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.
Remember, if you’re relying on an app for navigation, you’re also counting on the performance of the technology. We recommend always having a traditional compass on hand in case your phone ends up at the bottom of a lake.