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  • Writer's picturePaul Burrows

How to buy a Compass, Get you bearings!

Updated: Jun 25

How to pick the right navigational aid for you.

2 hikers looking at a map and holding a compass

Choosing the right compass is essential if you're going to go off the beaten track when you Trekking and hiking. Even before you get out of the car to start your adventure you may find yourself in green lanes and unnamed roads and in need of direction. For accurate map reading and map orientation a compass is essential.

Why do you need to buy a compass?

A compass is a crucial tool for navigation and orientation, particularly when venturing into unfamiliar terrain or wilderness. It provides valuable information about direction and helps you maintain a sense of bearing. Here are some reasons why you might need to buy a compass:

  1. Orientation and Navigation: A compass allows you to determine your direction relative to the Earth's magnetic field. By finding north, you can establish other cardinal directions (south, east, and west) and navigate accurately. This is especially important in areas with limited landmarks or when visibility is poor, such as dense forests, deserts, or during nighttime.

  2. Accurate Bearings: A high-quality compass will have bearings marked on its outer bevel, enabling you to determine precise directions when planning a route or following a specific bearing. This feature is particularly useful for hikers, mountaineers, and outdoor enthusiasts who rely on accurate navigation.

  3. Silva Compass and Reliability: While there are various compass brands available, the Silva compass is widely recognized for its reliability and accuracy. It has established itself as a trusted brand in the outdoor community. However, there are other compasses that follow the Silva style and can perform the necessary functions effectively.

  4. Additional Features: Many compasses, especially those with plastic base plates, offer additional features to aid in navigation. These may include a magnifier, which helps with reading smaller scale maps or fine details, and a ruler on the side for measuring distances on maps. These features enhance the versatility and functionality of the compass, making it a valuable tool for planning and executing journeys.

  5. Safety and Preparedness: Carrying a compass and using it regularly during your travels helps you stay on course and prevents you from getting lost. By constantly checking your direction and comparing it with your intended route, you can make necessary adjustments and avoid potentially dangerous situations. Attaching a lanyard to your compass ensures that it remains securely with you, minimizing the risk of misplacing or losing it, which could lead to disorientation and difficulties finding your way back.

In summary, purchasing a compass is essential for anyone who engages in outdoor activities, adventure sports, hiking, or exploration. It provides reliable direction and helps you maintain a sense of orientation, enabling safe and accurate navigation. Features such as bearings, additional tools, and a secure attachment ensure that you have a trustworthy and functional tool to guide you in your journeys

Types of compass

In addition to the Silva compass and Silva-style compasses, there are other types of compasses available on the market today. One such example is the button compass. As the name suggests, button compasses are small, compact compasses, often no larger than a button.

The primary purpose of button compasses is to serve as a backup or emergency compass. Due to their small size, they are convenient to carry in a pocket or include in an emergency survival kit. These compasses were initially issued to military personnel to provide them with a means of basic navigation if they found themselves behind enemy lines or in other emergency situations.

While button compasses can be useful in certain scenarios and might help you out of a tight spot, they are not designed to be relied upon as your everyday navigational tool. Button compasses typically have limited functionality, with their primary function being to point north. They often lack additional features such as bearings, which are essential for accurate navigation.

It is important to note that button compasses are not intended for extensive navigation or long-term use. Their small size and limited capabilities make them best suited as a backup option or as a temporary solution when other compasses are not available. For regular navigation and reliable direction finding, it is advisable to use a more robust compass, such as the Silva compass or other compasses designed for accurate and comprehensive navigation.

In summary, button compasses are small and portable compasses primarily intended for use as a backup or emergency compass. While they can provide a general sense of direction by pointing north, they lack the features and functionality necessary for extensive navigation. For everyday navigation, it is recommended to use a more capable compass that offers accurate bearings and additional tools

Digital compasses and GPS

A hand holding a garmin digital compass

Digital compasses used to be reserved for those with plenty of money to spend on their adventures, often found in the hands of serious mountaineers. Now prices tend to vary from around £30 for a basic Digital compass to around £220 for the latest Garmin E-Trex model which incorporates mapping as well as a barometer function allowing you to consider the weather. In addition there is an altimeter function which allows you to know how far above sea level you are. This is particularly useful as it lets you know how far from the top of a mountain or ridge you are. One downside is that these devices run on batteries. Despite offering up to 24 hours of operation time you may find yourself carrying quite a few heavy batteries over a week or more trek and if conditions are wet it may be difficult to find a suitable spot to switch them out. I would always recommend that you have a backup compass and a paper map of the area you are hiking in just in case your digital compass fails.

Simple outdoor compass

Simple outdoor compasses are available from a number of companies and are the best for a beginner. They tend to be made from durable Perspex and come engraved with measuring tools to allow you to make measurements on your map. These compasses are available from as little as a few pounds from Amazon up to around £50 for a good quality Silva compass.

Clamshell compasses.

Some clamshell compasses on the market are very basic. Although many look good they sometimes lack the functionality needed for accurate modern navigation. The purpose of a functional clamshell aka mirrored compass is to allow the user to take an accurate bearing from a distant object. The compass has a fold out mirror with a sighting notch at the top and a line down the centre. These compasses are ideal if you are in very open terrain where you need to navigate over long distances. The Silva Ranger SL is a perfect example of a robust and functional compass and it also includes a built in sun dial which can help you to estimate the time using the sun's position.

A clamshell compass being held up to the light

Whatever compass you settle on I would recommend that you buy the best one you can and ensure that before you go out into open terrain you know exactly how to use your compass.

Need more help getting started with camping and trekking. check out our guide on what to take camping here


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