Do You Really Need A Compass For Hiking? (Explained)

Security authorities always receive reports about lost hikers. One of the reasons hikers get lost other than falling prey to wild animals or falling off a cliff is losing direction. How can someone lose direction in this day and age of the GPS, you may ask?

You will get lost if you are unfamiliar with using a traditional compass. You may have your phone or a digital navigator, but what if they fail? How do you regain direction as a hiker? Compass navigation may sound outdated, but a necessary skill for any hiker; it can save your life.

Here’s if you need a compass for hiking

Typically, a compass is an essential item when hiking. When hiking, you can get lost, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar region. A compass, though rarely used equipment nowadays, comes in handy, supplemented by a map. The compass helps orient a map and guide you to geographical features or landmarks.

It may be old school, but it’s an alternative solution when your electronic GPS-enabled equipment fails.


When to bring a compass for hiking & backpacking

For your hiking expeditions, a compass is necessary because it will help you be aware of your location. It would be best if you supplemented it with a topographical map to facilitate your navigation in a non-familiar territory.

A compass is a light, small, and sturdy equipment that can withstand harsh weather conditions when you carry it properly.

For instance, when hiking during winter, electronic gadgets might be prone to failing due to accumulated moisture, losing signal, or accidentally falling on a rock.

Ensure that your compass isn’t together with any metallic or electronic item in your rucksack to avoid interfering with its reading.

Also, please keep it away from any magnetized items not to tamper with declination and maintain its accuracy. Declination is the angle difference between the Geographic North (True North) and the magnetic North.

Most of the time, when hiking, using established routes or trails is a rule of thumb. You can count on your compass if you take a wrong turn to regain your direction. Having a compass is prudent to reduce the number of hikers lost yearly.

How to use a compass

To effectively use a compass, you need to know the parts and their use. Most of them come with standard calibrations but vary in how detailed each is. But the basic parts are as follows.

  • Baseplate: A clear base that allows you to see the map. The calibrated edges help you to get bearings and triangulation.
  • Index line: This is what helps you read the degrees (bearing) on the bezel accurately.

  • The direction of travel arrow: Shows you the direction to point (a landmark or geographical feature) that’s your destination when getting your bearing.

  • Rotating Bezel: Also called the compass dial. It’s circular and calibrated clockwise from 0 to 360 degrees.

  • Orienting arrow: It’s permanent and assists in orienting the bezel.

  • Magnetized needle: it’s mostly red (usually floating) and points towards the magnetic North. It also has an extended needle identical to it (can be black or white) pointing south.

  • Orienting lines are lines inside the bezel to align with the map’s vertical North lines.

  • Map Scale: This is a scale calibration of mostly 1:25 000 and 1:50 000. The scale helps you convert the distance on your map to kilometers or miles.

  • Declination scale: Not all compasses have it. But it makes it easy to adjust declination.

You also need to be aware of the basic terms when using a compass-like:

  • Map setting: This is aligning the map with your surroundings
  • Heading: The direction you are traveling in
  • Bearing: Getting the direction of your destination or landmark from your location
  • Follow a bearing: Follow the straight line of your bearing.

After understanding the basic parts of a compass and the terms, you can attempt to use it. But note that you will be good at it with more practice. So, this is the basic procedure of using a compass.

  1. Place the baseplate compass on a flat surface and your map and align your points. The points are where you are on the map and your destination.

    The direction travel arrow on the compass should point towards your destination. Ignore the direction of the floating red needle at this point.

  2. Holding the compass firm and still, turn the bezel or the compass dial on top of the map until the orienting arrow (red and fixed) aligns with the “N” on the bezel. Confirm if the North “N” of the compass is pointing North on your map.

    Also, ensure the orientation lines inside the bezel are parallel to the horizontal north lines on your map.

    After confirming, check the index line and read the degrees on the bezel. The degree will be the bearing to your destination. Still, ignore the floating needle (magnetic needle).

  3. Adjust for magnetic variation: You have the option of doing this before you start using the compass based on your current location.

    The variation in countries like the UK is significantly less, between -1° and 4°. But it can be as much as 20° in some parts of the continental US.

    For instance, subject to where you are in the US, the declination will be to a certain number of degrees to the east or west. Washington State has a declination of -22° while Massachuttes is 15°.

    To adjust variation to the east, rotate the bezel anticlockwise to get positive magnetic variation (ADD). Turn the bezel clockwise to get negative magnetic variation (SUBTRACT) west.

    To get the declination, check your map (legend section), which should indicate when the declination was recently revised.

    Revising the declination is necessary since the magnetic North is usually affected by the earth’s tectonic adjustments. Using old maps with old declination will lead to wrong directions.

  4. Lay your map aside and ensure you don’t move the bezel. Place the compass flat on your palm with the direction travel arrow pointing away from your body. Turn your body around while monitoring the “floating red arrow” until it aligns by sitting inside the orienting arrow.

  5. Once you spot the alignment, check the direction of the travel arrow. As you look at the direction of the travel arrow, identify a distant landmark in line with it. Remember the degrees you read in point number 2? That’s where the travel arrow is pointing, your destination.

    Head towards the direction of the landmark. Once you get to the landmark, repeat the process by identifying another landmark as you point the direction travel arrow straight on and proceed. Do that until you get to your destination.

    While walking, ensure that the bezel (compass dial) stays still; interfering with it will make you lose direction.

Can you use your phone as a compass for hiking?

Yes, you can use your smartphone as a compass for hiking with the assistance of a GPS app. All you need to do is install a suitable app. Digital Field Compass will suffice for Android or Gaia for Android and iPhone.

With the app, phones can consistently update you on your location without the help of cell signals. The app, connected to the satellite, quickly transforms your phone into a navigation tool.

Different types of compasses

There are different types of compasses. Most will be suitable for a unique setting like military, sports, marine, land surveying, etc. Some of the compasses include:

  • Baseplate compass: The compass is liquid filled on a clear rectangular base

  • Lensatic compass: It features three main parts and is widely used by the US military

  • Card compass (marine compass): Uses a fixed needle and a preference in boats and ships.

  • Prismatic compass: Uses a lens to read a map.

  • Electronic compass: their display is numeric and has an option of saving bearings in a memory chip

  • Gyro compass: Uses basic physical laws like harnessing gravity and channeling it to a gyro wheel that moves fast. It always finds the true North and is never affected by surrounding magnetic fields.

  • Thumb compass: Less complex than a baseplate compass. It hooks on the thumb and is prevalent with hikers and runners.

  • Astro compass: It’s unique since it uses the celestial bodies to establish the true North.

Good hiking & backpacking compass options

When you want to go hiking, carrying along a compass is necessary. Some of the best for hiking is not the pricey and complex ones. In this case, your best options are:

  • Suunto M-3 G Global compass
  • Suunto A-10 Compass.

Suunto M-3 G Global compass

Suunto M-3 G Global compass is the most affordable of the compasses in the market and the best for hikers.

Since you will not be hiking every other day, the M-3 Global is a good option because of its simplicity and practicability. You can use it globally and may also be curious to know that it’s the best in the market overall.

Suunto A-10 Compass

Suunto A-10 Compass comes with two models and is handy for hiking. It comes from the same manufacturer of the M-3 Global.

You have to choose whether you are in the Northern or Southern hemispheres. Ultimately, it’s affordable and worth every cent.

A compass is still relevant.

With all the technological advancements, it’s easy to gloss over the relevance of the traditional compass. Recently, the availability of GPS and a smartphone make it irrelevant whether you know how to use a compass or not. But for your guaranteed safety as a hiker, have a backup.

Electronics can fail you when you least expect it, sometimes in the middle of unfamiliar territory and the cell signal reception out of reach. You will make it if you are adept at using a compass and map. Instead of worrying, you will transition and make the expedition count.