Compass Options For Tramping

While it is very easy to just think that a GPS can replace a compass for many outdoor adventures, there are still some very valid reasons to carry a map and compass.


Compass Options For Tramping

While it is very easy to just think that a GPS can replace a compass for many outdoor adventures, there are still some very valid reasons to carry a map and compass. I personally wouldn’t want to place 100% faith in anything requiring batteries and it’s amazing the number of people I see using GPS units, that don’t really know how they work. If anything unexpected happens, they are stuck with something that isn’t giving them the correct information, or even worse, is being misinterpreted by them.

Personally, I carry both – using the GPS to confirm what I have calculated on the map and compass. There is also something just a little more satisfying about using a compass and a traditional map to figure out where you are. Learn to use both.

With that in mind. This article is a quick comparison of the options available to trampers – what to look for, what you need, what is nice to have. The ‘how to’ of compasses will be in another article. This is more of a comparison of features to look for.

The Basics – what is a compass?

Essentially, a compass is a device that lets you walk in a straight line.

It is a device that’s lets you know the direction you are walking in.

For the purpose of this article, we are going to be talking about the floating needle compass. This is a magnetised piece of metal that floats on a bearing, often encased in a fluid, that by its nature will align itself with the earth’s magnetic field. While a lensatic compass, which is often seen to be used by the military and while it is also a magnetic compass, we won’t be addressing it for the purposes of this article as they aren’t overly common in tramping circles. Another post maybe.

The different types of compass

In their simplest form, the button compass is a small compass, that may do little else other than provide the direction of north. It needs to be remembered that these are often only made with the intention of being a novelty item and can prove a little unreliable in use. While it’s always important to take multiple references to determine where you are, if using a button compass, be extra cautious in relying on what it is telling you. In addition, they normally won’t have anything in the way of a rotating bezel (or azimuth ring) – which serves to make things a lot easier when taking bearings off or putting bearings onto a map.

What the button compass will do though, is make sure you can head in a direction and stay heading in that direction. So it is still going to be better than the best guess. Especially in low visibility situations where you may not be able to see any significant landmarks to use as a reference.

At a bare minimum, for any outdoors work you should carry a basic compass – often also referred to as the ‘base plate’ style of compass. These are generally a magnetised needle encased in a liquid capsule, surrounded by a rotating bezel (or azimuth ring) and mounted onto a base plate that will have measurements (normally to scale) and orientating lines and a direction of travel indicator.

For the majority of backpackers, this is all they will ever need – it will let you take bearings off a map so you can follow those bearings.

However, for those that like a little more functionality – we have a range of advanced compasses.

The advanced compasses, often known as the Sighting Compass, will have generally have a mirror and method of visually taking accurate bearings off distant locations. In addition, you are likely to see Declination Adjustment, an easy method of semi-permanently adjusting your compass readings to allow for declination. Use with caution. Another feature likely to pop up at this point is glow-in-the-dark or Luminescent indicators. These make navigating in the dark a lot easier. A Clinometer may also be included, which is a tool for calculating vertical angle – useful for determining slope – especially important in areas prone to avalanches. These extra features do come at a cost, both in regards to money and additional weight.

Regardless of the type of compass you end up getting, there are a couple of basic features that are quite important.

  • A lanyard. The best place for a compass, if not in your hand, is easily accessible around your neck. Walk. Check bearing. Walk.
  • A global needle – especially important if you buy an overseas compass for use down in the southern hemisphere – some of the cheaper variants may not compensate well for variances in the earth magnetic field and stick. This also applies to units purchased in the southern hemisphere, which are then taken north.
An interesting note here is on build quality – take two compasses – both ‘sighting’ compasses – both from Silva – but one purchased via America  and one locally. I have read online that Silva compasses from America are often made to a cheaper standard in Indonesia, compared to the ones sources from most other places in the world.

Compass Differences, in summary

There are quite a few different options out there for compasses – and your choice is going to depend a lot on it’s intended purpose. For example – in my BOB/Emergency pack – I have packed a lightweight sighting compass (the one with the grey base in the main photo). It’s light, simple, but still incorporates the mirror, which gives me additional options in regards to signalling. The basic base-plate model (bottom) is what I use on day-walks, or figuring out routes at home. The ruler is a decent size, so makes working our measurements easy, and it does most of what I need. If I am heading out for a couple of days, I take the expedition (right top) – its a combination of both – mirror, decent base-plate for measuring off the map, but, it does way more than the other two. Not massively different, but once you start measuring grams, it all adds up. However, the convenience and multi-functionality of it justifies the weight (to me anyhow).

Regardless of what compass you end up with, it’s pointless if you don’t know how to use it. I strongly suggest taking a course on it – like the MSC Navigation Course – as they will teach you good habits, as well as test your understanding before you have to rely on it.