Compasses have been used for navigation and orienteering for centuries. They are an essential tool for anyone who wants to find their way around in the wilderness, or even just in an unfamiliar city. Different types of compass can be used for different purposes, depending on what you need them for.
In this article we will take a look at every known type of compass, from the traditional ones to the most modern and advanced compasses. We will also recommend several specific compasses, based on our personal experiences with them. Let’s begin.
What types of compass are there?
1. Magnetic Compass
A magnetic compass is a type of compass that uses the Earth’s magnetic field to determine direction. The magnetized needle on the compass points in the direction of the Earth’s Magnetic North Pole.
How does it work? The Earth has a natural magnetic field caused by the flow of molten iron in its core. This field extends from the planet’s surface into space and interacts with any objects containing iron, including compasses. When you hold a compass level, the weight at the end of its needle aligns with gravity and points toward Magnetic North. The housing orients itself so that its straight edge lines up with True North — the geographic North Pole, located in northern Canada — and marks that angle on its dial or bezel as 0 degrees (360 degrees circle). To find your heading, simply read where 0 degrees falls on the dial when holding your compass level and oriented with respect to True North.
Although we take them for granted today, compasses were an extremely important invention which helped mariners safely navigate around oceans and coasts from very early times onwards. The first magnetic compasses were made from lodestone, a naturally magnetized stone. The first recorded use of a lodestone compass was by Shen Kuo during China’s Song Dynasty between 1040 – 1044 AD. However, there is evidence that compasses were used in China much earlier – perhaps as early as 1000 BC.
If you’re looking for a reliable magnetic compass for your next outdoors adventure, then look no further than COSTIN Multifunctional Compass. It’s very affordable, but also highly accurate. It’s made from military grade metal, which makes it waterproof and impressively sturdy. Comes with a bubble level, which eliminates any errors in navigation. See prices and additional reviews by clicking here.
2. Liquid Damped Compass
A liquid damped compass is a type of compass that uses a fluid to dampen the movement of the magnetized needle. This makes it more accurate than other types of compasses, as the needle is less likely to be affected by external factors such as vibration or movement. Liquid damped compasses are often used in navigation and surveying.
The liquid itself is usually one of the following:
- Purified kerosene
- Lamp oil
- Mineral oil
- Mineral spirits
- Ethyl alcohol
3. Baseplate Compass
A baseplate compass, also known as an orienteering compass, is typically used for plotting and navigating in the outdoors. It consists of a magnetic needle that is mounted on a transparent baseplate, which has rulers and markings for directions and scale. The user aligns the needle with their desired heading, and then uses the markings on the baseplate to navigate.
The baseplate compass was invented in Sweden in the 1930s, for the purpose of saving time while copying bearings from a compass to the maps. The baseplate is usually made of Perspex or clear plastic. It’s intentionally see-through, which helps reading the map under it.
Baseplate compasses are simple to use and relatively inexpensive, making them popular among hikers, campers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. They are also small and lightweight, making them easy to carry around.
The absolute leader in baseplate compasses is the SUUNTO Company. For instance, SUUNTO MC-2 Compass is widely recognized as the most versatile and helpful compass on the market. Among its many features is a professional mirror that increases the navigational and plotting accuracy. The MC-2 Compass functions even in the low light. It’s engineered to be highly durable while also extremely easy to use. SUUNTO MC-2 Compass has about 4000 positive reviews on Amazon, which you can read by clicking here.
4. Thumb Compass
A thumb compass is a type of a baseplate compass that attaches to your thumb, allowing you to use it without having to hold it in your hand. This makes it ideal for map-reading and orienteering, as you can keep your hands free while still being able to see the compass needle.
Thumb compasses typically have a smaller body than regular baseplate compasses, as they don’t need to accommodate all the fingers of your hand. The dial is also usually smaller, making it easier to read while on the move. Some models even have an adjustable strap so that you can get a snug fit around your thumb.
One advantage of using a thumb compass over a regular baseplate compass is that you can more easily take bearings from objects around you (such as landmarks or features on the ground). With a baseplate compass, you would need to stop and hold the compass with both hands in order to do this accurately, whereas with a thumb compass you can simply point at the object and read the bearing off the dial without stopping or disrupting your momentum.
A high-quality thumb compass is often based on rare-earth magnets. This helps the needle to settle within 1 second.
Elite Thumb Orienteering Compass is one of the most recommended thumb compasses, which is why it was chosen to be an Amazon’s Choice product. It’s shockproof, waterproof, and has a luminious display, making it easy to use in the low light hours. The needle settles quite quickly, making the Elite Thumb Compass perfect for orienteering and other types of navigation. You can see the current prices and reviews for this model by clicking here.
5. Prismatic Compass
A prismatic or lensatic compass is a type of compass that uses a liquid-filled capsule with two perpendicular glass plates to magnify the card and needle inside. The capsule is attached to a folding metal frame, which can be used to sight objects in the distance.
Prismatic compasses are more accurate than regular compasses because they allow you to see the dial and needle more clearly. They also have an adjustable eyepiece so you can focus on the reading. Lensatic compasses have a built-in telescope, making them even more accurate for long-distance measurements.
To use a prismatic compass, first align the front sight with the object you want to measure (this could be anything from another person’s head to tree top). Then, look through the rear sight and turn the knob until the target is in line with the hairline on the narrowest part of the rear sighting slot. Read the direct bearing by looking at the degrees marked around the outside edge of the compass housing. North will always be at 0/360 degrees (or marked as “North”), south at 180 degrees, east at 90 degrees, and west at 270 degrees.
A gyrocompass is a type of compass that uses the Earth’s rotation to determine true north. The device consists of a spinning wheel or disc that produces a steady stream of pulses. These pulses are sent to a computer, which uses them to calculate the rate of rotation and the direction in which the gyrocompass is pointing.
Gyroscopes were originally used in navigation before electronic sensors were invented. They work by sensing changes in angular velocity, meaning they can keep track of how fast an object is rotating and in what direction. This makes them ideal for use in compasses, since they can maintain their accuracy even when there are external forces acting on them, such as waves or wind.
While traditional magnetic compasses are still widely used today, gyrocompasses have some advantages over them. For one, they’re not affected by magnetic fields, so they can be used near metal objects or in areas with high levels of magnetism without losing their accuracy. Additionally, because they don’t rely on magnets to function properly, gyrocompasses continue to work even if the Earth’s magnetic field changes over time (as it has been known to do). They can be found on particularly big ocean ships who use them to steer. Because of their large dimensions, gyrocompasses are not suitable for smaller seagoing vessels.
Here is a great video from Casual Navigation that explains how gyrocompasses work:
7. GPS Compass
A GPS compass is a type of electronic compass that uses satellite signals to determine your location. It usually consists of a handheld device with a display and can be used to find your way around when you are lost or in unfamiliar territory. GPS compasses are becoming increasingly popular, as they offer many advantages over traditional magnetic compasses.
One advantage of GPS compasses is that they are not affected by magnetic fields, which can interfere with the accuracy of traditional compasses. This means that you can rely on them even if you are near power lines or other sources of electromagnetic interference.
Another advantage is that GPS compasses can give you your exact coordinates, rather than just pointing in the general direction like traditional compasses do. This can be very useful if you need to call for help or meet up with someone in an unfamiliar area.
Finally, most GPS devices come equipped with maps and other features that make them much more user-friendly than traditional compasses that simply point to the north.
Garmin GPSMAP 64sx is a great example of this technology. This handheld GPS has a 3-axis GPS compass that can navigate you in any environment. But that’s not all. Garmin GPSMAP 64sx is packed with awesome features, such as a barometric altimeter, wireless Bluetooth connectivity, preloaded TopoActive maps, satellite imagery. It’s even suitable for geocaching fun and has a messaging system. You can compare prices and see reviews from satisfied users by clicking here.
8. Solar Compass
A solar compass is a type of compass that uses the sun to determine direction. The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west, so by finding where the sun is in relation to you, you can figure out which way is north, south, east, or west. Solar compasses are simple to use and don’t require any electricity or batteries.
To use a solar compass, first find a level spot outdoors where there is no shade from trees or buildings blocking your view of the sky. Then position yourself so that the shadow cast by your body falls directly on top of the needle of your compass (this may take some trial and error). Once you have positioned yourself correctly, look at where the tip of your shadow points – this will be true north! You can then orientate your map accordingly and start planning your route.
Solar compasses are an ideal tool for backcountry hikers, as they are lightweight and easy to use; however, it’s important to remember that they only work during daylight hours when there is direct sunlight (so they won’t be much help if you’re trying to navigate at night). Additionally, solar compasses can be affected by weather conditions such as clouds or fog which might obscure views of the sun – in these cases another type of compass would be more reliable.
An astrocompass is a type of compass that uses the position of celestial bodies to determine directions. The device usually consists of a telescope, which is used to sight the sun, planets, or stars, and a calibrated dial that indicates direction.
Astrocompasses are used by surveyors, navigators, and others who need to determine directions without relying on magnetic compasses. Unlike magnetic compasses, which can be affected by local conditions such as iron deposits in the ground, astrocompasses are not affected by these conditions. This makes them more accurate for determining direction over long distances.
Astrocompasses are also quite helpful in the polar latitudes, where gyrocompasses and magnetic compasses are unreliable, due to the proximity to the magnetic pole.
Astrocompasses were first developed in China during the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). They continued to be used throughout Asia and Europe until they were replaced by magnetic compasses in the late Middle Ages.
North Star (Polaris) is the celestial body most frequently used for navigation, due to its well-known location in the night sky. Early explorers used a technique called “shooting” to find their latitude (north or south position) by measuring how high above the horizon Polaris appeared at nightfall using a sextant. By knowing both their latitude and longitude, sailors could pinpoint their precise location anywhere on Earth.
Here is a very informative video that demonstrates the use of an astrocompass during flight:
10. Card Compass
A card compass, also known as marine compass or steering compass, is used on ships to help the captain steer the vessel in the right direction. It works by showing the ship’s heading, or course, relative to north. The needle of such compass is fixed, but the card with degree markings moves, because it’s damped in a fluid. The captain can then use this information to make sure the ship stays on course and doesn’t veer off into dangerous waters.
Card compasses are usually mounted on a pedestal in the wheelhouse so that they are easily visible to the captain while the ship is being steered. It’s advisable not to have any metal parts nearby, so that no other magnetic fields tamper with the compass’s functioning. The marine compass typically has a stronger magnet than a regular compass, and it may be built to reduce the effects of waves and ship movement.
The top part of the compass is a transparent hemisphere that sometimes magnifies the markings for easier reading. The card compass may also be equipped with lights so that they can be seen at night. Some steering compasses even have alarms that go off if the ship strays too far from its intended course, as well as advanced features, like GPS integration.
11. Surveyor Compass
A surveyor compass is a tool used by surveyors to measure bearings and angles. It consists of a needle that is free to rotate on a pivot point and is marked with gradations in degrees or radians. The user can align the needle with their desired bearing, and then read off the angle measurement.
Surveyor compasses are highly accurate and are commonly used in surveying applications where precision is required. They are also relatively easy to use, making them popular among both professionals and hobbyists alike.
12. Solid State Compass
The solid state compass uses magnetometers to measure magnetic fields. By measuring the strength and direction of Earth’s magnetic field, it can determine which way is north. This type of compass is commonly found in smartphones, digital clocks, and other devices that use GPS for navigation purposes because it is small and does not require moving parts like traditional compasses do.
So there you have it, the most comprehensive list of all types of compasses. Choose the one that fits you the most and use it in your next adventure!
If you need more help selecting the right compass, check out my guide on how to choose a compass. It goes into more details on specific parts of a compass, and how you can tell which compass is the most trustworthy and durable.
There are additional ways to navigate in the wild. Several prominent stars in the night sky can guide you in the right direction. To learn about them, please see my post on how to navigate by stars.
And finally, there are many more challenges you may face when travelling outdoors. You need to be prepared for multiple scenarios and learn many survival skills. Which is why I warmly recommend taking with you one of the most popular survival books. These books have everything you need to know about surviving in the wild, and then some.
May you have a safe journey, my friend!