Updated: May 29, 2015

Compass Reviews:

Finding the Best Compass for You - Compasses have been in existence for centuries, and though perhaps the ancient Chinese who developed them would not recognize the modern devices, they have not changed fundamentally from that original design. Compasses still help us find our way - if we know how to use them, and if we use a reliable one to guide us. Like anything else, there is a glut of compasses on the market with varying levels of sophistication, different designs, and different uses. How do you choose the right one for your needs? Do you need a lensatic compass? What is a lensatic compass? Who's the best, Brunton or Silva? And how much do they cost? We'll guide you to the right compass.

How Does a Compass Work?

This depends on the type of compass you get, but in general, they work by always pointing to the North Pole. This is useful because once you have a set point, you can determine which direction you need to go reliably. You can navigate by the sun, but what if it's nighttime or overcast? You can navigate by the stars, but do you know which constellations point the way north and in which part of the sky they are in during that particular time of year? It is easier, quicker, and more convenient to simply consult your compass. A magnetic compass has a small magnet that is balanced on a pivot point. One end of the needle is usually marked N or colored to help you tell which direction it's pointing. That's all. Again, times have changed, and with it, so have compasses. But at the same time, they remain much the same tool people have relied on for generations. A gyroscope is a type of compass usually used on planes or ships, which are moving. These remain accurate even when moved, which is an advantage over traditional magnetic magnets if you are on a moving platform and need accurate readings.

Which Type of Compass is Best for You?

- Before you buy a compass, it is important to know that there are basic models and then more specialized models. Basic models include features like a magnetized needle, liquid-filled capsule that contains the needle, a rotating azimuth or bezel ring, which is marked in degrees from 0 to 360 (increments of 2 degrees is good) to mark your direction of travel, a base plate, a ruler etched into the side, and orienting arrow and parallel Meridian lines to orient your line of travel on a map. These compasses are good for beginners and casual explorers. If you usually stick to the trail, this is a good option.You can also get more complex specialized compasses, which have a declination adjustment which shows the magnetic declination (difference between true north and magnetic north) in your area, adjustable orientation needle so you can dial in the area you are working in so it automatically adjusts to keep you on target, magnifying lens in the base plate for reading maps, sighting mirror, luminescent indicators for the four directional points, and clinometer to measure the angle of a slope. These are better suited to those with experience and those who want to go off-trail more. You will also see the term "lensatic" commonly. This just means that the compass has a lens at the rear for magnification. These are very common and often are referred to as Boy Scout or military compasses. They are meant for basic navigation on land. The Best Compass for Your Needs - This will depend on your intended use for the compass, your level of experience, and your budget. Luckily, there are a lot of top rated compasses that are available even on smaller budgets. You can browse the best selling compasses online here.

Best Budget Compasses:

One of the premiere names in compasses is Silva. You will find a wide selection, and many are very reasonably priced. The Silva Lensatic 360 Compass is a good example of a basic compass. It has a classic military style, black powder-coated aluminum case, sighting slit, sighting arm to magnify dial reading, and luminous points on the rotating bezel. It is a liquid-filled compass and is marked in two-degree increments. A top quality lens provides magnification for the compact 3.1- x 1-inch, 3-ounce compass. An Amazon reviewer called it "affordable and very well made." It is perfect for a basic, starter compass. The Silva Lensatic 360 Compass costs about $20. Brunton is another name you will see often as you are looking for a compass. In fact, Brunton has been acquired by Silva, but they still make their compasses in their top quality facility in Wyoming. One of the most popular is the Adventure 16 Brunton Basic Compass. This reviews very well on Buzzillion and is one of the top recommendations for basic compasses. One reviewer on Buzzillion said he keeps it in his pack as a backup to his GPS. If technology fails, the basic compass is always ready to go, and it has an adjustable declination for convenience. You can find the Adventure 16 Brunton Basic Compass through sources like eBay. If you are looking for a more multi-function compass, the Eddie Bauer Digital Compass is a top pick from Associated Content. It is made of plastic and features an alarm with snooze, temperature display, digital readout display, a clip-on function, and weighs .15 pounds. It is ideal for backpacking, camping, hiking, and other basic applications. This can be found at retailers like Target and eBay for about $20 to $25. Brunton, Silva, Coleman, Stansport, and Suunto are all top brands. Check out the most popular compasses as listed online here.

Best Specialty Compasses:

If you're ready to go to the next level in your exploring, you need a compass that can keep up. About.Forestry selected three of the top picks of foresters, and they are the Silva Ranger 15, the Suunto KB, and the Brunton Conventional Pocket Transport. These are very high-end compasses, but they have features that will help you navigate with ease. Let's take a look. The Silva Ranger 15 Compass - this is the least expensive of the three at $80. It provides a Swedish steel jewel needle bearing with one degree accuracy, adjustable declination, and bearing setting or azimuth, rugged construction, and a mirror site. One Cabela reviewer said that for the money, the Silva Ranger 15 is as good as it gets.

There are more expensive models, like the ones we'll look at in a minute, but this is a great value. On to the Suunto KB. This is much more expensive than the Silva Ranger 15, costing about $140 and $180 with declination adjustment (see all Suunto compasses here). The Suunto model has a reading accuracy of 1/3 of a degree, 1/2 degree graduation, 0 to 360 reverse scale, adjustable declination, built-in light source, flat, compact aluminum housing, water and corrosion resistance, polished sapphire pivot point, anti-static treatment, horizontally restricted lens aperture, cotangent table, and a threaded camera tripod adapter. About.Forestry warns that you need two good eyes to use this, which may take some getting used to, and it is a bit pricy. The Brunton Pocket Transit Conventional Compass is pricier still at $246. It offers a die-cast aluminum body, Alnico II rear earth magnets, V-cut sapphire pivot point, vertical angle measurements to +/- 90 degrees in 5-percent grade increments, balanced, rugged design, and declination adjustment. It is suitable for professional use; an Amazon reviewer said it was a nice tool for an engineer or geologist. You can find the right compass for your needs, and you can find it in your price range. Look for the big names we've mentioned like Silva, Brunton, Coleman, Suunto, and Stansport, and you should have a handy tool that will guide you there and back again.