The compass is a fairly simple piece of technology. If you’re in the market for your own, it will be hard to spend more than $100. But choosing between consumer-grade and “professional” models can be confusing.
No hiker should leave the trail without a detailed topographical map of the area and at least a basic compass. At minimum, if you’re going to be outdoors for longer than a few hours, or traveling routes you’re unfamiliar with, you should carry a basic floating-needle compass. Preferably one such as the Polaris 177, which has inch and millimeter rules to use in conjunction with maps, and a declination scale to account for the difference between true north and magnetic north.
As you climb the (very gradual) price ladder, your compass will come with more and more accoutrements. Although the primary utility of any compass lies in the needle, any degree of heightened accuracy in orienteering and navigating you can give yourself is worth the investment, especially if you find yourself in a survival situation.
At the higher end of the consumer niche, compasses like the Explorer 203 come with built-in magnifying glasses for reading more details on maps (as well as helping in plant identification and even firestarting) and ruler measurements that more easily facilitate use with maps that aren’t in the standard USGS 1:24,000 scale. A further upgrade to a compass that comes with a clinometer, a tool used to gauge the angle of a slope, is worth it if you are hiking in montane areas. The Explorer Pro (Hi-Vis) is a great choice, not only for the clinometer but also for its high-visibility coloration and glow-in-the-dark points, which allow you to use it at night.
Anyone who is embarking on a long-term backpacking trip, or who is hiking in unfamiliar and potentially disorienting terrain, would probably be wise to invest in a higher-end compass. A model like the Ranger CL offers two substantial advantages over standard compasses: a mirror and an adjustable declimator. The mirror allows you to sight landmarks more accurately and serves as an emergency signal. And being able to set the declimator once and leave it, instead of doing mental math to adjust every time, is a great time saver. It also has 1:25,000 & 1:50,000 romer scales and silicone feet, to make it easier to use with a map.
There are many more variations on these features, but these are the basics. If you’re just going for a stroll through the woods and want a bit of extra insurance just in case something goes awry, you don’t need to spend more than $30 for the added security. But if you’re going to be blazing any trails or tracking down wayward explorers deep in any jungles, your compass is one of the last places you want to cut corners. If you have any more insights or anecdotes about what makes a great compass, please leave a comment below.