What is the best type of compass for a beginner?

I hear Silva makes a good one. What say the TM?


It kind of depends on what your ultimate use is. If you are going to be doing a lot of back country traveling and heavily relying on a good compass and map to get you to your destination and back, I would pick up something like a Silva Ranger (although I have heard Silva’s quality is starting to slip so you might want to try similar option in a different brand). It is more than what you need as a beginner, but once you learn the basics, you will appreciate some of the extras.

If you just want to pick up the basics of compass use and won’t seriously end up relying on your orienteering skills, just get whatever is the cheapest compass you can find that has a transparent rectangular base plate and a compass needle. This would also be the case if you just need something to back up gps use (which you should always have a backup for).

What exactly are the “good features?”

Here in New England, you can’t see more than a few hundred yards, so I tend to use more of a “general bearing” approach. I’m not trying to reach exactly precise locations either, though.

I’d imagine that out west, crossing large open distances, it’d be better to have a more accurate bearing.

Actually, here ‘out west’ you really don’t need that under good weather conditions. Visibility is generally good on a clear day and you can see landmarks like mountains that are 70 or 80 miles away, and usually there is enough elevation differnce or lack of trees blocking your view that closer landmarks are usually visible to help you keep your bearing.

On a good day.

On a bad day, with fog or heavy snow, none of that helps since visibilty can be only a few yards. I carry a small inexpensive Silva (it was under $10) to keep me heading in the right direction. Like you, I’m not trying to find a precise location. If I know that the road I parked on is to my east, then all I need to do is keep walking east to get to the road. Now, which direction to go when I get to the road is another problem, but just being at the road is good enough for me. But like Jorge said, depends on what you need it for.

If you really want to learn to navigate, at a minimum you will need a compass with adjustible declination (adjustment for the different between the magnet north pole and geodesic north). Boy Silva and Brunton make decent compasses at a variety of price points; a cheaper flat-base compass is suitable for map use and basic navigation, but for serious ortienteering you’ll want a compass with damping fluid and a sighting mirror like the previously mentioned Silva Ranger, as it allows much faster and more accurate sighting. While you can navigate in the open-range Southwest largely by sight, if you are trying to hit a specific r.v. without an obvious landmark a precision compass is still necessary. Those novelty compasses you clip to your lapel or find inside of a knife handle are basically useless for any real purpose.

I have had the Silva Ranger break or leak several times, but REI always replaces it, so no big deal. I just carry a spare. REI also has some decent intro classes, or there are plenty of books on navigation, like the venerable Be Expert with Map and Compass.


I think my current one is a Suunto M-3, but Silva and Suunto both make good basic models.

It’s funny, I was expecting those “good compasses” to be something special. Those are basically the standard compass that I’m familiar with. I do want the Silva Ranger now, as it has an clinometer. Basically the standard Boy Scout compass set.

I have a couple of those in the basic edition in my hiking gear, though I do use the bubble compass that you “clip to your lapel” quite a bit in hunting & hiking. It lets me build a map in my mind quickly as I walk in the woods. Not appropriate for traveling large distances, but great for a meandering couple of miles through a small section of woods.

Actually, I just looked on the REI.com site and it appears that the Silva Ranger CL is no longer made by Silva, but instead is a cheap Chinese-made product imported by Johnson Outdoor. My Ranger (last one was from five or six years ago) is one of the original Finnish-made products (white letters on bezel). You may want to look at a comparable Suunto or Brunton instead.

The inclinometer on all of these is basically worthless, not much better than your own best guess, as you can only use it effectively from a profile approach. For a real slope measurement you’ll want an inclinometer or at least a good pocket transit with an integrated inclinometer, like the Brunton 5010, but that gets you up into the several hundreds of dollars range instead of ~USD50.


I’m not going to say what I mis-read that as at first.