Before the Magnetic Compass was discovered, early map makers would draw a small 16 pointed circle on the map, and place an “N” to point to North. These were the 16 Cardinal Points from which the winds were thought to blow. This drawing was called a “Wind Rose.” When the magnetic compass came along, it was usually set on top of the Wind Rose pattern in order to help face the nautical chart in the proper direction. The wind rose started to become known as a COMPASS ROSE.
Since the 1100s, compass bearings have been split into 16 different directions:
North – North North East – North East – East North East – East
East – East South East – South East – South South East – South
South South West – South West – West South West – West
West North West – North West – North North West – North
This was all the accuracy a Mariner’s Compass had to offer then. By today’s standards, it was not very accurate. As spherical mathematics improved, it became more customary to give bearings in units of “Degrees” from Geographic North. In the 1920’s, it became an accepted practice to indicate direction, called HEADING or BEARING, by a single number (0 to 360) representing degrees of a circle as measured clockwise from True North.
The development of the compass instrument itself represents quite an achievement, however the actual use of this instrument is more of an art form. The Compass is not by any means a complex instrument. Anyone from 9 to 90 should be able to learn compass operation with just some practice and understanding a few simple principles.
Understanding how to use a compass is relatively easy. However, before you can learn the fundamentals of navigation, you’re going to need a good instrument. Even during the digital age, a regular compass should be a part of your boating kit along with a modern GPS device. These are the best compass models out there!
Best Overall Choice
1. Suunto M-3 NH
Suunto is one of the leading compass manufacturers out there. Their products are always rated highly on outdoor and navigation-focused listicles, so it makes sense that we have one on ours too. The Suunto M-3 NH is our favorite. It’s practical, accurate, and inexpensive. It may not have some of the top features found on premium models, but if you’re looking for a simple navigation tool, then this won’t let you down.
This compass is mounted on a see-through baseplate, with clear markings in both metric and imperial. The needle is made from steel, and the compass comes equipped a magnifying lens and a rotating azimuth ring. The dial has luminescent markings for easy reading in darker conditions.
Suunto’s M-3 NH compass has a declination adjustment feature too. This useful feature allows users to account for the differences between magnetic north and true north, depending on your location. The M-3 adjusts automatically, so you don’t have to worry about manually changing it.
The M-3 NH is set up with a Northern Hemisphere needle. There’s also a Global variant but it comes with a higher price tag. However, if you’re regularly in the Southern Hemisphere, it’d probably worth shelling out the extra for a compass that you can actually use.
In summary, this is an accurate compass that does everything that a compass should, at an affordable price point. We love it.
Compass Type: Baseplate
Weight: 1 oz
Features: Steel needle, metric and imperial measurements, declination adjustment and luminescent dial markings.
Best Budget Choice
2. Brunton TruArc 3
Next, we have another budget-friendly model. This is the Brunton TruArc 3; a base plate compass that can fit in your pocket and give you accurate readings, all for a cheap price. Brunton is an American company and all of their compasses are made in the USA right at the company’s home facility in Wyoming.
Again, this isn’t the most advanced compass in the word, but it’s perfect for those new to navigation. It’s ideal for basic orienteering, mapping, and mountaineering. For boaters, it’s essential to keep a small compass like this on your person, just in case your digital GPS and navigation tools go haywire.
The TruArc 3 is equipped with a Global needle that works for both hemispheres. It’s designed to resist magnetic interference, claiming to be better than any other competitor, giving accurate readings without losing polarity. It has adjustable declination for finding true north, metric and imperial measurement markers, and a practical hole to attach it to a lanyard.
While it’s not the best for mapping course lines or for use as a map protractor, this entry-level compass is a cool and compact piece of every day carry that all budding explorers, maritime or otherwise, should keep with them at all times. It’s hard to beat for the price.
Compass Type: Compact baseplate
Weight: 1.12 oz
Features: Global needle with adjustable declination, magnetic interference resistance, and both metric and imperial markings.
3. Cammenga US Military Tritium Lensatic Compass
If you’re in need of a heavy-duty compass with maximum versatility, then you can’t go wrong with the Cammenga US Military Tritium Lensatic Compass. It’s a professional grade device built to military specifications. It’s rugged, dependable, and versatile, and not as expensive as you’d think. It’s an ideal compass for boaters who like to explore on land as well, since it’s not particularly marine-specific. Still, it will point you in the right direction wherever you are.
This lensatic compass is built inside a tough aluminum casing that keeps it protected from hard knocks and bangs. It’s also fully waterproof which makes it ideal for a wide range of situations. Since it’s a lensatic compass it doesn’t have a needle that floats in liquid. Instead, it uses copper induction to keep the needle accurate.
Ideal for chartplotting and mapping, this compass can withstand harsh weather conditions and tough situations. Since it’s based on a military design, you can trust in this product’s quality. It’s not without downsides though: it does need to be manually adjusted for declination, and it’s also quite heavy too. But on the plus side, it does have tritium self-illumination which allows you to read it in low light level situations.
It’s an expensive compass but if you’re regularly outdoors and need to get your bearings, this is a great tool to have in your arsenal.
Compass Type: Lensatic
Weight: 6.4 oz
Features: Rugged military-grade design with copper induction, tritium illumination, and a waterproof casing.
4. Silva Lensatic 360
If you’re looking for a military-style sighting compass like the one above but can’t spare the expense, then this model from Silva is an economical alternative. It’s a basic lensatic compass that will help you find your way in the wilderness and a serious contender for the best hiking compass for adventurers on a budget.
Constructed from tough aluminum with an oxidation-resistant powder coating, the Silva Lensatic 360 is outdoor-ready! The actual compass features a global needle in a liquid-filled compartment. Surrounded by a rotating bezel, this compass features 2-deree incremental bearings, a sighting arm with a magnifying lens, and luminescent points.
Like most of these military-style compasses, it does require constant adjustment if you want to find your way accurately, since it doesn’t have an automatic declination adjustment setting. However, it’s an excellent choice for newbie adventure lovers who want to get their hands on a military compass without bankrupting themselves in the process.
If you like the sound of this compass but want something a little more comprehensive, then we recommend searching for the Silva Ranger—it’s another great product from this company.
Compass Type: Lensatic
Weight: 3 oz
Features: Budget-friendly, lightweight military compass with a magnifying lens, rotating bezel, and luminescent accents.
Best Premium Choice
5. Brunton International Pocket Transit Compass
Next up, we have this premium compass from Brunton. If you’re buying a compass and you want the best, with no expense spared, then we’d recommend the Brunton International Pocket Transit Compass. It’s a pocket-sized sighting compass with a global needle, designed for use anywhere and everywhere, on land and on sea.
This stylish compass is compact, practical, and incredibly precise. It’s built upon Bruton’s special international suspensions system that the brand first pioneered in the 1970s. The Brunton International Pocket Transit Compass builds on top of that legacy.
The body is made from a tough cast aluminum which protects the compass from damage whilst looking stylish at the same time. The actual compass is mounted onto an aluminum base plate, and features a global needle that can find north thanks to Alnico V magnets that deliver directional accuracy up to half a degree.
Readings can be measured using the Pocket Transit’s azimuth with 1-degree increments for precise navigation. Other smart features include magnetic declination adjustment, short and long sights, with a sighting mirror for precise alignments.
Each Brunton International Pocket Transit Compass ships with a sophisticated leather carrying pouch, an in-depth user manual, and a one year warranty directly from the manufacturer. If you want a premium piece, then this is the compass to buy.
Compass Type: Lensatic
Weight: 6.8 oz
Features: Sophisticated aluminum compass with Alnico V magnets for greater accuracy, and a one year warranty.
6. GWHole Military Lensatic Sighting Compass
Next up, we have another budget-style military compass. This unit from GWHole is a sturdy lensatic compass that will make sure you’re traveling in the right direction. It’s a very cheap compass, but with a price tag this low, there’s not reason not to have one aboard. Or any other manual compass at all, for that matter.
This lightweight compass is made from a lightweight metal that’s decorated in a classic army green color. It weighs only 6.1 ounces and comes equipped with a useful 18 inch lanyard. Since it’s a lensatic compass, it features a number of exciting features, starting with an accurate compass.
The compass itself features a needle that’s encased in a thermo-elastic liquid-filled capsule, with a floating dial, that’s surrounded by a rotating azimuth. Other features include a bubble level, a folding thumb ring, an adjustable diopter sighting lens, and ruler measurements in both metric and imperial.
Another nice touch on this budget compass is the addition of a tripod mounting hole underneath, for easy mounting. It also has luminescent details to make reading easier in low light levels.
This compass is by no means the most advanced unit on the market, however, it is accurate and affordable, and when it comes to navigation, it’s better to have a cheap compass than no compass at all.
Compass Type: Lensatic
Weight: 6.1 oz
Features: Budget-friendly military compass with a rotating azimuth, adjustable features, and luminescent details.
7. Suunto MC-2
Lastly, we have another example from Suunto. This is the Suunto MC-2, and it’s an advanced compass with everything you need for easy and accurate navigation. It’s a base plate compass with a few extra features that separate it from the competition.
On the surface, it looks like a regular baseplate model but it also features a mirrored section that operates in a similar way to a lensatic compass. The mirrored lid allows for more precise bearings but it doesn’t use a lensatic sight, instead it just uses a sighting hole.
The Suunto MC-2 comes equipped with more than a fancy mirror system. It also boasts a universal global needle that operates on a jewel bearing, a 360-degree rotating azimuth, with detailed reading increments with 2-degree gradation. It also has declination adjustment, a base plate protractor, and both metric and imperial measurements.
One unique feature is the Suunto MC-2’s clinometer function. It’s a tool that’s used for working out the gradient of an incline or decline. Granted, that’s not particularly useful for a voyage at sea but it’s a nice feature to have for when you take your compass on land.
All in all, this is a great compass for those looking to navigate their way from A to B, on land or on sea. It’s more expensive that other similar products, but it does pack a lot more features in.
Compass Type: Mirrored base plate compass
Weight: 2.56 oz
Features: Smart compass with declination adjustment, global needle, clinometer, and mirror sight.
Finding The Best Compasses: A Buying Guide
Compasses may seem like basic navigation tools, with needle that points to magnetic north and not a lot else, but there’s more to them than that. A good compass will have a wide range of features that can help you to determine your heading, map a trajectory, and help you orient yourself. Find north is great, but without a few other key features, you won’t be getting far. In short: if you’re going to buy a compass, but a good one. But what features should you look out for?
Features To Look Out For
The magnetized needle is arguably the most important part of a compass. The compass needle points to a magnetic pole, either floating in a fluid or using a clever suspension system. Generally, they come in three variants: a Northern or Southern Hemisphere needle or a Global needle. The Northern or Southern needle is only accurate within its hemisphere. A Global needle works in both.
The Azimuth ring is also known as a rotating bezel. This is the circular ring that surrounds a compass, usually market from 0 to 360 degrees. This ring is used to determine a bearing. The most accurate compasses have smaller intervals between the degree markings for the most precise readings.
No matter what kind of compass you choose, there will be some markings accompanying it. These markings can include a ruler for measuring map distances, distance and direction markers, and other navigational aids. For the best results, find markings in both metric and Imperial.
Declination refers to the difference between magnetic north and true north. The difference changes depending on where you’re located on the planet, so it’s important to find a tool with declination adjustment so that you can have reliable readings wherever you go—after you make the adjustments of course. The best compasses have automatic declination adjustment so you never have to worry about it.
Thought it’s not particularly necessary for maritime travel, a clinometer can be a useful feature for compasses to have. This measures the steepness of slopes, allowing you to work out the angle of incline or decline.
Extra Features To Look Out For
Other interesting features found on modern compasses include magnifying lenses that allow you to read map details without straining your eyes, luminescent details that help you see your readings in low level light conditions, and a sighting mirror, which allows you to make more accurate measurements by focusing on faraway landmarks.
Always remember that compasses can be affected by ferrous metals. For the most accurate results, try taking a reading away from any large deposits of ferrous metals. Even electrics can throw off a needle, and it’s a wise idea to keep your compasses stored away from anything that could transmit electrical interference, such as a cell phone, so make sure to take care before taking a measurement.
Lastly, stay away from toy compasses and accessories with compasses on them. Key rings, zips, suitcase handles, et cetera. Sure, they look like compasses but they’re not going to be much use in a real situation. If you need something to point you in the right direction, don’t ever rely on those little gimmicks.