Do I Really Need a Compass When Backpacking or Day Hiking?

We’ve all heard of the huge laundry list of items that we’re supposed to bring on hikes and backpacking trips. It can be hard to keep track of everything we need, especially when it comes to items that may or may not actually be essential. One common item that is recommended for hiking is a compass, but do you really need to bring one?

You should always bring a compass when you will be navigating trails or wild areas. A reliable compass and a map can help hikers avoid getting lost. It can also help people navigate new areas and be aware of their location. Compasses are light, so they should never be excluded from your supplies.

In most circumstances, you won’t need to use a compass if you stick to pre-established trails. But in case of an emergency or a detour gone wrong, you’ll be glad you brought this little directional aide! Learning how to read a compass could end up saving your life and could prevent you from becoming one of the many hikers that get lost each year.

The Importance of a Compass

Many hikers and backpackers nowadays might not think that they need a compass. Phones and other GPS devices are very effective and can often show you where you are much more accurately than a traditional compass. Hpwever, these devices are also prone to running out of battery or losing their signal. They may fail to provide an accurate reading of your location or direction as well. In addition, they can also be quite expensive. If someone is just a casual hiker, they may not want to invest that much money into something that they won’t use often.

On the other hand, traditional compasses are quite sturdy and will work under pretty much any conditions. You won’t have to worry about charging them or looking for a signal either!

It should go without saying, but a compass is important because it will help you find your bearings in unfamiliar areas. Some people can navigate by looking at the position of the sun or stars, but this can get difficult if there are clouds or tall trees in the way. It’s also not an exact science, so there is greater potential to get lost.

A compass will always point North and can help you find your way back to safe areas. Directions on their own can only get you so far, but a compass is a reliable way to help you navigate your way back to safety. If you have a map of the trails around you, that’s even better! Topographic maps (aka topo maps) are ideal for hiking because they can help you identify landmarks and other noticeable features of the region.

In addition, compasses are usually quite small, light, and cheap. Even if you never end up using it, it won’t take up much space in your bag. Maybe it’s more of a “just in case” item, but you’ll be glad to have it if you get lost!

Many hikers will stick to the existing trails, but some are more adventurous and like to travel in heavily wooded areas. It’s especially important for these groups to carry a compass because there is greater potential for them to get lost.

How To Use a Compass

Of course, a compass is useless if you don’t know how to read it. I know the first time I had to use one with no training, I just ended up getting more lost!

It’s fairly simple once you understand how it works though. The needle of a compass will always point North. The way to find North is to place the compass flat and hold it straight in front of you. Then, rotate your body until the needle aligns with the red marking on the base plate. This indicates that the compass is facing North now.

Next, consult your map and determine the direction that you want to travel. For instance, if you know you need to head East, you would hold the compass in the same position and rotate your body until the needle is pointing straight to your right. It’s important to remember that you’re not following the direction of the needle (because it will always be North) but instead you’re using that as a stable reference point.

Many compasses have the cardinal directions marked, as well as a variety of middle points and degrees. For more guidance on how to read a compass (as well as a visual guide) check out the video below.

Note: Traditional compasses are attuned to the magnetic field of Earth. They are designed to point to the North pole, but they can be faulty if you store them improperly. If you place a magnetized object next to a compass, you can throw off the reading and potentially damage it forever! Solid metal objects nearby can also affect the reading, so keep your compass away from keys, watches, and metal furniture when you are trying to read it.

Best Compasses

TurnOnSport Orienteering Compass

This is a classic compass that is simple and straightforward. It’s attached to a flat base that includes a magnifying glass, ruler, and a compass scale to assist in map reading. It also comes with a lanyard, which means this lightweight compass can be easily worn around your neck.

Eyeskey Tactical Survival Compass 

This compass is a bit more fancy, but it’s built to endure tough conditions. For extra protection, it comes with a waterproof pouch and a lid that flips open. The compass is also designed to glow in the dark, which is very useful if you get lost at night. Rulers and a conversion chart are also built into this compass, so you can use it with a variety of maps. It’s got a few more bells and whistles, so this one is a bit more expensive, but should still be affordable.

Final Thoughts

On most of your hikes and backpacking trips, you’ll find that you don’t need your compass. However, it’s an important piece of backup equipment that could end up saving you a ton of time (and maybe even your life). They are small and light, so they won’t be a burden to anyone’s bag. Bringing a compass on the trail and understanding how to use it can end up making all the difference in the world if you get lost. Don’t leave home without one!

Related Content:

Hiking and backpacking can be more dangerous than you might think. In fact, thousands of people get lost on trails each year, and it’s vital that they have the equipment they need to stay safe and/or find their way back to civilization. Once you learn more about the dangers of backpacking and how to avoid them, you might be convinced to take a few more safety precautions on your next excursion.

Compasses are important pieces of hiking gear and everybody should have a good one that they know how to use. Another small but essential item is a whistle! These can alert others to your presence and help you be found more easily if you are lost or in trouble. Learn more about the importance of hiking whistles in our article here!

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