The best compasses you can buy

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the best compass

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Shutterstock/Business Insider

  • If you love to hike and go off the grid, you need a great compass.
  • The Suunto M-3 Leader is our top pick for your go-to compass because it has a practical Finnish design, a durable baseplate protractor, a quick and highly accurate steel needle, and good price tag.

You’ve probably used your smartphone’s GPS to find your way around on more than one occasion. Many phones today even have built-in magnetometers that allow the phone to effectively function as a compass by pointing you toward magnetic north. When you’re in the wilderness far away from civilization, however, your electronics can run out of juice, get wet, lose their signal, or fail in other ways, and getting lost in the great outdoors can be a serious hazard.

Even if it’s not a matter of life and death, being unable to find your way around can quickly ruin an otherwise enjoyable camping or hiking trip. It, therefore, behooves the modern scout to invest in a good analog compass and to learn how to use it. Aside from practical safety concerns about not getting disoriented in the wild, land navigation can offer a lot of plain old fun for those who enjoy practicing and mastering old-fashioned skills.

Modern compasses used for land navigation fall into two general categories: Baseplate compasses and lensatic or prismatic compasses. Baseplate compasses feature a needle suspended in a liquid-filled housing on top of a flat see-through protractor marked with various measurements for calculating distance and plotting a course when placed on top of a map. Some also feature mirrored lids for added sighting and signaling functionality.

The lensatic/prismatic compass is a slightly more old-school design: Favored by a number of military forces including the US Army, lensatics use a rotating disc instead of a floating needle and feature a lid with a sighting notch. This allows the navigator to align the sight with a distant landmark while establishing a bearing (or azimuth) using the dial. No matter which design you favor, any well-made compass will be durable, accurate, and feature precise gradations to help you plot a good course.

The biggest compass brands today are Suunto, Brunton, and Cammenga. Another name you may see is Silva, but the US-based maker is completely different than the original Swedish-made Silva compasses, and so we don’t recommend these. You’re good to go with any of the “big three” compass makers, but which type you need depends on your intended use and budget.

We’ve rounded up the top five compasses you can buy, from a basic budget-friendly baseplate to a military-grade lensatic.

Here are the best compasses you can buy:

Updated on 05/02/2019 by Les Shu: Updated links, formatting, and prices. Added related outdoors guides.

Keep scrolling to read more details about our top picks.


The best compass overall

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Suunto

The Suunto M-3 Leader sets the standard for modern baseplate compasses with its quick and accurate steel needle, metric or imperial protractor measurements, and declination adjustment.

When choosing your first compass, you might be tempted to buy a high-end model with all the latest bells and whistles. But unless you intend to actually use all of these features, it’s generally a good rule to keep things simple. When researching compasses, Suunto is a name you’re going to see a lot, and our top recommendation for most people is this historic Finnish company’s excellent M-3 Leader Compass.

Its baseplate design features a steel needle with a jewel bearing suspended in liquid for quick and stable readings. The clear baseplate has a handy magnifying lens along with scaled distance measurements in both kilometers and miles. The rotating bezel, or azimuth ring, is also marked in 360 degrees with two-degree increments to help you set a precise bearing.

Luminescent dial markings allow for use in low-light conditions, although you should still keep a good flashlight handy for using your map in the dark.

Made in Finland, the M-3 Leader boasts an ever-important declination adjustment as well. This allows you to correct for the difference between true north (the northernmost geographic point on the globe) and magnetic north (the magnetic pole towards which the metal compass needle is drawn). Built-in declination correction is nice to have, as the exact location of magnetic north shifts around and is relative to your location.

You can always manually correct for declination while making your calculations, but the M-3 Leader’s built-in adjustment makes this easier and gives you one less thing to worry about on the trail.

Like many Suunto compasses, the M-3 is available with two needle options: One for the Northern Hemisphere (NH) and one for global use. The global model is a bit expensive at around $50, but if you’re a globetrotter, that’s the one you should get as the standard needle will not read properly when you’re south of the Equator. The NH M-3 is highly affordable at roughly $30, however, making the Leader compass a solid value given its build quality, great design, and excellent suite of features.

Pros: Quick and accurate steel needle, metric and imperial distance measurements, 360-degree rotating azimuth ring with precise increments, a declination adjustment, and it’s available with both NH and global needles

Cons: Global needle model is relatively expensive

Buy the Suunto M-3 Leader compass on Amazon for $30.22 (NH) or the global version from REI for $80


The best budget compass

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Brunton

The US-made Brunton TruArc 3 offers a full range of features typically found on baseplate compasses that cost two or three times as much.

If you’re on a tight budget, or if you just want a basic compass that’s well-made and has the modern features a 21st-century navigator needs, don’t settle for some cheap generic thing you found on Amazon. American maker Brunton has your back with its TruArc 3 compass, a no-nonsense baseplate design that offers an impressive suite of tools for its size and cost.

The fact that it’s made in the United States is surprising enough at this price, but the value of the Brunton TruArc 3 really becomes apparent when you look at its many features. The rotating azimuth rings features 360-degree markings in two-degree increments, the compass has a tool-free declination adjustment, and the global needle is responsive, accurate, and good to go in either of Earth’s hemispheres.

The only things this compass really lacks, at least when compared to other popular baseplate models like the Suunto Leader, are luminous markings and distance measurements. Although the TruArc 3 has rulers in inches and centimeters, they aren’t scaled for map grids, so you’ll have to do these calculations manually. This is hardly a deal breaker. Just be prepared to do a little basic math when figuring out the distance and plotting a course with your map.

Less than $20, you’re simply not going to find a better value for a global compass than the Brunton TruArc 3. This baseplate model would be a great choice for a beginner or perhaps a young scout you know, but it’s also perfect for any navigator looking for a good American-made compass that’s easy on the wallet.

Pros: Metric and imperial baseplate measurements, accurate global needle, tool-free declination adjustment, an incredible value for its features and build quality

Cons: Non-luminous markings, baseplate measurements are basic inches/centimeters rather than scaled distance markers

Buy the Brunton TruArc 3 compass from REI for $15.95


The best mirrored compass

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Suunto

The Suunto MC-2 has a complete set of measurement tools along with a sighting mirror that makes quick land navigation a breeze.

Standard baseplate designs dominate the field of land compasses, but more advanced mirrored models are another popular choice, especially for experienced scouts with more demanding tastes and for those who need a compass built for quick navigation. A mirrored compass is essentially just a regular baseplate design with a mirrored lid that allows you to get a precise bearing and make quick course corrections using your natural surroundings.

A mirrored compass is used in like a lensatic, in that you are aligning the compass itself with a landmark and then using this reference point to set your bearing. Instead of a lensatic sight, a mirrored compass features a simple notch on the lid for alignment with your chosen objective.

Our pick, the Suunto MC-2, also has an additional sighting hole at the base of the mirror for use at high elevations, such as when you’re referencing a low-lying landmark while standing atop a hill.

When you’ve aligned the compass with your target, hold it at eye-level with the lid tilted so you can see the dial in the mirror and rotate the bezel until the north marker is lined up with the needle. The straight vertical line running through the center of the mirror should at this point be lined up with your objective. Take note of the position of the mirror’s sighting line relative to your azimuth ring and bingo – you’ve got your bearing.

Along with the sighted mirror, the Suunto MC-2 offers all of the tools you’d expect to find in a modern well-made compass: A steel global needle, a jewel bearing for smooth and stable needle movement, a 360-degree rotating azimuth ring marked in two-degree gradations for precise calculations, a declination adjustment, and Imperial and metric distance measurements on the clear baseplate protractor for plotting an accurate course with your map.

The MC-2 baseplate also features a clinometer for determining the incline or decline of a slope you’re navigating. Like all Suunto compasses, the MC-2 is sturdily built in Finland and made to last. Although the mirrored lid is a potential weak point, it’s far less likely to break with regular use.

Pros: Declination adjustment, global steel needle with a smooth-moving jewel bearing, metric and imperial distance measurements, clinometer for calculating inclines, durable Finnish construction, mirror with two sighting notches for quick and easy navigation

Cons: Mirrored lid is a potential breakage point

Buy the Suunto MC-2 mirrored compass on Amazon starting at $41.90


The best compact compass

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Brunton

Although it won’t replace your full-sized baseplate or lensatic, the pint-sized Brunton Tag Along Zip is a great backup compass.

A full-sized compass is a must-have tool for making detailed calculations and plotting a precise course. Nonetheless, there will be many times when all you need is a basic reference tool for staying on track and a lensatic or baseplate might be overkill. A good compact pocket compass like the Brunton Tag Along Zip is a great alternative here, letting you gain your bearings at a glance.

The Tag Along is, admittedly, very basic. Measuring at two inches across, this palm-sized compass features a simple north-pointing needle surrounded by a non-rotating 360-degree azimuth ring marked in two-degree increments. Don’t expect any declination adjustments or precise measurements here, although the two-degree markings are definitely a nice touch for a compass of this size given that similar models are typically marked in 5- or 10-degree gradations.

But what the Tag Along Zip does, it does well. It will point you towards magnetic north quickly, accurately, and reliably thanks to its fluid-filled housing and jewel bearing that keep the compass working smoothly. The lanyard hole lets you mount the compass onto a zipper, length of paracord, or any other attachment point that keeps the Zip handy. The needle housing is also see-through, so you can place it on your map and plot a rough course if the need arises.

At about the size of a silver dollar, it’s highly usable without being too small, but the Brunton Tag Along Zip isn’t a replacement for a standard baseplate or lensatic compass and it’s not intended to be. What the Tag Along is, however, is a great backup or compact navigational tool for dead reckoning and keeping track of your bearing when you’re moving and don’t need (or don’t want to bother with) all the complications of a full-sized compass.

Pros: Light and compact yet tough enough for rugged environments, accurate and responsive despite its size, two-degree bezel increments, and it’s made in the U.S.

Cons: Azimuth ring does not rotate, made only for the Northern Hemisphere

Buy the Brunton Tag Along Zip compass on Amazon for $12.99


The best military-grade lensatic compass

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Cammenga

If you need a tough compass built for quick land navigation, then the military-grade Cammenga CMMG Official US Military Tritium Lensatic Compass is the one to get.

When it comes to hiking and camping, many people favor mil-spec kit, and for good reason: This gear tends to be very functional and built to incredibly demanding standards for use in notoriously harsh environments. A lot of USGI stuff, like the super-rugged CMMG Official US Military Tritium Lensatic from Cammenga, is also manufactured right here in the US without the fat price tag that often accompanies name-brand professional-grade equipment.

Pretty much all baseplate compasses have a housing filled with liquid, which helps to dampen needle movement for quicker and more accurate readings. Instead of a needle suspended in fluid, the Cammenga lensatic uses a flat dial that is kept stable using copper induction. This works in such a way that if the compass is damaged, the dial will likely still function just fine, whereas a fluid-filled compass might be rendered less operable (or entirely inoperable) if its housing cracks and fluid leaks out.

Liquid-filled compasses are also more prone to going wonky in extreme temperatures due to fluid expansion and contraction, another instance where a lensatic compass shines. It should come as no surprise, then, that lensatics are favored by military forces including the US Army owing to their resilient design.

One look at the OD green Cammenga is all you need to know that it’s purpose-built for serious use. It’s bulkier and heavier than your standard baseplate, but if you want a “go to war” compass (figuratively speaking), this is the one.

Aside from its tough-as-nails design, the Cammenga lensatic is also favored by troops due to its utility for navigating quickly through rough and potentially hazardous terrain. “Lensatic/prismatic” actually refers to the built-in sight, which you align with a distant landmark while calculating your azimuth using the flip-up magnifying lens to read the dial which is marked in both degrees and mils. Once you have a bearing, you move to the objective, similar to how a mirrored compass operates.

One drawback to this design is that it lacks a declination adjustment, so you’ll have to control for this manually when plotting a course. It’s easy enough to do: Know the local difference between magnetic and true north and factor this into your bearing.

It does have bright tritium self-illumination that never needs to be charged. At $70, the Cammenga lensatic is fairly expensive compared to our other picks, but it’s worth every penny and competes with professional-grade compasses that cost twice as much or more.

Pros: Built like a tank, made in the US to demanding military specifications, lensatic sight is great for quick navigation, long-lasting tritium illumination makes it usable in the dark without charging

Cons: Heavy, lensatic design lacks a declination adjustment

Buy the Cammenga CMMG Official US Military Tritium Lensatic on Amazon for $86.71


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