Whether you’re hiking to a known destination or going off-trail, having a compass on hand is always a good idea. Compasses can help you locate where you’re at and navigate your surroundings. Even if you don’t end up using the compass, it is good to have as a safety precaution and could save your life if you become disoriented. With some models being as light as 1.1 ounces, carrying a compass is a low-hassle and necessary addition to your hiking supplies.
Phone Compasses Versus Traditional Compasses
A compass is a timeless accessory that will always have benefits no matter the century. So should you purchase an old-school traditional compass or use the e-compasses that are available through most smartphones? Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Phones have the advantage of providing maps, internet, and communication on a single device. This saves space and allows you to quickly switch between each function without having to stop and dig through your backpack. This convenience becomes an issue when a phone’s limited battery dies and leaves you without access to the aforementioned functions. Being unable to send calls or determine your location can be disastrous when lost in the wilderness.
With some phones lasting up to five days and having power-saving options, the chances of a dead battery are low, but the limited window of functionality is worth noting.
Most traditional compasses are not powered by electricity and will not die and leave you without direction if lost. While they do not offer the same helpful apps that a phone can, some traditional compasses come with conversion charts, small telescopes, lights, and rulers in addition to reading your location. Many are also waterproof and will fare far better if dropped in water than a phone.
Traditional compasses rely on the earth’s magnetic fields to sense direction. A compass has a suspended magnetic pin that is drawn to the earth’s North Pole and repelled by its South Pole. This means that a compass theoretically will always point north, though we’ll get to some exceptions.
Phone’s determine location based on three main digital sensors: a magnetometer that measures earth’s magnetic fields like a traditional compass, a gyroscope to measure gravity, and an accelerator to measure movement and velocity. A phone’s GPS is also commonly used to provide location.
While some phones have a compass and GPS preinstalled, others will need these features manually downloaded.
Due to the complex process of a phone combining the values found by the magnetometer, gyroscope, and accelerator to calculate your location, inaccuracies are known to crop up from time to time. Some people have gotten different readings on their location based on if they were indoors or outdoors, and such slip-ups are not ideal when lost in the wilderness.
The GPS function of phone compasses is even less reliable, as they can only sense direction when you are moving. Because of this, if you stop to check which way is north and turn to the right, the GPS will not detect that you changed positions.
Traditional compasses measuring earth’s magnetic fields run into the issue of said fields constantly shifting and changing based on where you are in the world. Also, the earth’s North Pole is not the same as its geographic North Pole, or “true north” that attracts the compass point and can result in inaccurate readings. Luckily, traditional compasses combat the initial unreliability by calculating the difference between the geographic north and the magnetic north through declination to provide a more accurate reading.
It should be noted that both traditional compasses and phone compasses can be negatively influenced by the magnetic properties of metal. Metal water bottles, wristwatches, steel screws, and keys can all override the earth’s magnetic fields and make a compass point toward them instead of north to provide an inaccurate reading. Whatever compass you are using, be sure to keep it away from these items.
Do I need a compass for hiking? Having a compass available while hiking is a smart investment and safety net to help guide hikers if they get lost. Traditional compasses and phone compasses each offer strengths and weaknesses for the hiker during their journey. Having one of each with you is the best way to be prepared in a worst-case scenario. Here are the best hiking compasses that can help increase awareness on your next hiking trip, cease your worries, and put you in the right direction.
Written by Charlene Pepiot