Compass buying tips
- Be generous. Some day, your life may depend on your
compass. If you find a good compass for less than 80 EUR,
be glad that it is so inexpensive. Even if you use the compass
only for fun and learning, it is still much more fun to use a
good compass than one that gets stuck frequently or is
- On the other hand, high price does not necessarily indicate
good quality! There are some
astonishingly bad expensive compasses that
make it hard to even take a bearing. This includes compasses
where the needle has the same colour as the background, or
where essential elements are obfuscated by others.
- I recommend you buy a compass with a global needle
system. This means that it will work on the
Northern and Southern hemisphere. In such compasses,
the magnet can tilt independently of the needle, or the needle
has enough leeway in the vertical direction so that it does
not get stuck due to touching the capsule when subjected to
different values of magnetic inclination around the world. As
a very useful side-effect, such compasses therefore are also
more tolerant to tilting while taking a bearing.
- Use graph paper to verify the alignment of all markings and
scales on the compass.
- Make sure that the two ends of the needle can be clearly
seen and distinguished also in weak light and red
light, which is frequently used at night.
- Markings on the base plate or casing should
be engraved, not simply painted. This ensures that the
markings will survive all climate conditions and frequent use.
The compass should be convenient to open, also when wearing
gloves. I recommend a compass like
MB-6 global for this reason: You can open it easily by
pulling on a loop. A drawback of this design is that you need
a separate ruler for serious measurements on a map. This is
because the box is opaque and comparatively short. In
contrast, the base plates of other models are larger and
transparent so that you can see the map through the base plate
when the compass is placed on the map. On the plus side
though, the available markings are engraved on this
very nice general-purpose compass. Unfortunately, more recent
issues of this model have declined in quality due
to cheaper production of various parts including the needle.
KB-14 is a good and more precise alternative, even though
it is heavier and provides fewer features.
- A mirror compass is useful also because the mirror can be
used for signaling in emergency situations. A drawback
of some mirror compass designs is the potential of small
clanking noises when you are moving, which can announce your
presence and scare animals away.
- Many good compasses feature a built-in inclinometer,
also called clinometer, which you can use to measure
slopes and heights. An inclinometer also lets you check
whether you are on the same height as another
object—such as the top of a distant mountain—and
thus can help a lot for orientation.
- An included magnifying glass is an additional bonus, both for
reading maps in weak light and for small surgeries like
- Take into account the current declination map of the earth's
magnetic field. Some compasses feature adjustable declination
corrections, but that is not strictly needed: You can also
perform the very simple additions and subtractions yourself.
- Liquid damped compasses can freeze or develop bubbles in
extreme temperatures, at higher altitude or with unsuitable
damping fluids. Condensation and more erratic needle behaviour
are common problems with other types of compasses.
- Provide redundancy by carrying a second compass. As a
robust secondary device, I recommend a tough solar watch with
built-in compass, such as the Casio GW-9400-1.