How to Choose a Compass

Maps and compasses are the absolute essentials for navigating outdoors. While modern technology can be incredibly useful in helping you find your way, it can just as easily run out of battery or experience a glitch. And when you’re far from a signal, deep in the woods or in the middle of the ocean, you’ll want an alternate means of navigation.

Base Plate Compasses

A base plate compass, also known as a protractor compass, is generally considered to be the best compass for plotting. In most cases it will be transparent, with a base made of hard plastic or glass, and see-through compass housing. The rotating dial is mounted on the base plate and holds a free-spinning magnetic needle. These compasses are great when you’re using a map to plot a course, because you can line up the meridian lines onto the map itself.

Digital Compasses

Digital compasses don’t work with maps the way base plate compasses do, and they require batteries to work. It’s best to have a standard compass and understand how to use it before moving on to a digital model.

Bearing Accuracy

Possibly the most important thing to look for in a compass is how accurate and specific its readings are. To get a very specific reading, it’s usually best to have a compass with a large face and many small increments to measure degrees. You should also look for a trusted name brand such as Brunton or Suunto and avoid compasses that are sold more for novelty than function.

Sighting Mirror

One popular addition to the standard compass is the sighting mirror. This feature allows you to have the target and your bearing in your vision simultaneously, making it easier to aim for a destination. However, in cases of low visibility, mirrors become useless. But when you can see the general area that you’re trying to get to, this function can be very useful. Some have even used sighting mirrors to signal for help. Usually, a compass will have a sighting mirror in lieu of the transparent base plate.

Global Needle

If you travel outside the Western Hemisphere, you’ll likely want a compass with what is known as a “global needle.” This feature allows the compass to function regardless of what part of the globe you’re on. Standard compasses are unable to do this, due to magnetic dips (also called “magnetic inclination” ), which can cause the needle to drag against the floor of the housing as it points to magnetic north in Canada. Global compasses are also good for hiking, as they can still function accurately at an inclination of about 20 degrees.


Some compasses come with the additional feature of being able to read the angle of the incline or elevation you’re on.

Temperature Range

If you frequently find yourself in particularly cold weather conditions, you’ll want to ensure that your compass has a temperature range that will suit it. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself with an inaccurate reading if conditions become particularly adverse. You can check the capsule temperature range of a compass either online or in stores.


One of the most important aspects of a compass, aside from accuracy, is durability. Having a compass that can give you extremely accurate bearings is important, but it will be useless if you drop it and it shatters—a likely occurrence. So not only does your compass need to survive in subzero temperatures, it also needs to withstand a fall to the rocks.


If you’re looking for a compass to use while you’re kayaking, consider a model that mounts onto the vessel and can be seen in the dark. Compasses that you’re taking on the water in particular should be able to withstand harsh conditions and work in cold weather, as well as be shock resistant.