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How To Buy A Compass

How to buy a compassIn this day and age of GPS and iPhone apps and Google Maps, some people might wonder why anyone would even need an old fashioned compass in the outdoors. Most experienced outdoors folks, however, would argue that it's one of the essential pieces of equipment in their pack for any backcountry excursion. Map and compass skills are necessary, fun, and can save your life. If you know how to properly use a compass, measure distance, determine where you are, and read a topo map, you will never find yourself completely lost in the wilderness. And although there are some incredible navigation tools available, relying completely on these tools can lead to a disaster if they ever malfunction or lose battery power. Below are a few tips for how to pick a hiking or orienteering compass and how the different compass features are used. 


As long as you aren't winning your compass at the State Fair, most brands carried at outdoor stores are good enough for a backpacking or hiking trip. If you are a beginner at orienteering, simple compasses are better and easier to use. One of the key features to look for is that your compass has a clear base plate, so that you can see the map. If you don't have a topographic map, the compass will not be nearly as useful to you. For hikers, the stability of the compass needle matters less, however of you are planning on running (orienteering racers, adventures racers) then look for a compass with the most needle stability. Doing a needle stability test is fairly simple. Match the needle to magnetic north. Once it's still, move your body, and the compass needle to the right at least 30 degrees and see how quickly the needle returns to the N. The quicker, the better, but if you are comparing two high-quality compasses, it might be difficult to tell the difference.

Compass Features:

  • Clear base plate - some are mirrored, but the clear ones are better because you can see the map through it
  • Rulers - on the side of the base plate, in inches and millimeters
  • A magnifier - helps you read the fine map details more clearly
  • Direction-of-travel arrow - the best ones have an arrow engraved in the base plate
  • Declination marks and an adjustable declination arrow - learn how to set declination (the difference between Magnetic North and the North Pole) before trying to use this feature
  • Magnetic needle - make sure it is contained in liquid to help with needle stability

Some compasses come with more advanced features such as a mirror, a sighting feature (for aiming at distant objects), a clinometer, and other more complex features. Almost all hiking, backpacking, orienteering, and wilderness travel can be done with a simple compass, so if you plan on getting a more advanced compass, look into taking an orienteering class as well.

Even if you have a high-tech GPS unit, it's still a great idea to get your map and compass skills up to par and always carry a decent compass when you head into the wilderness. 

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