Hello! As someone who tends to accidentally go off-trail from time to time, I'm planning to rely less on  trail apps (which have sometimes been the cause of off-trail adventures) and technology and go old school with paper maps and a compass this year. What compass do hikers tend to use? I've looked over the ones offered on REI.com and other outdoor sites and am not sure what I truly need. Should I get one that accounts for declination (which I still don't really understand but saw another post on this topic and will check it out)? Is a basic one enough? Any input would be fantastic. Thanks!

If you actually want to navigate with it from a map get one with a declination adjustment.  Personally I wouldn't bother with a magnetic compass that does not have this unless it is just for emergency backup...even then.

Declination adjustment allows you to set up the compass up to point to true north for your current area.  In some places this difference is quite large.  Maps are always oriented to true North.  Declination is the local difference between magnetic North and true North so if the compass does not have this adjustment you have to do the arithmetic to add or subtract the value from the Compass reading to get the true bearing.  It is easy to get wrong with potentially disastrous results.  You do have adjust the declination to your current location and it does vary over time so you need to use recent data to do this and adjust it yer to year.  But you have to know what it is anyway.   Always test your compass against your map using a known bearing to verify you have set the declination adjustment correctly.

Other features are less important but can be useful depending on your need.

The scales on the baseplate vary and are more convenient if they match the maps you use but I have found recreational maps tend to use somewhat arbitrary scales.  For the US having an inch scale is generally useful.   A mirror adds weight but makes taking bearings much easier.   The clinometer measure slope and can be useful for identifying features but is most useful in the winter for judging avalanche risk. The Global needle allows the compass to work in both Northern or South hemispheres.  Otherwise it will typically only work in the Northern hemisphere.

Seems REI only really carries SUUNTO which is a well regarded brand.  Of the ones they carry  this seems a reasonable choice...


I have the SUUNTO MC2 USGS because I wanted all the features to try...


BRUNTON and SILVA are two other well known brands although I'm not familiar with their current models. 

Get a book or take a class....The two "classic" books are

Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter & GPS, 3rd Edition (Mountaineers Outdoor Basics)

I have this and its ok...I found it to be a bit over thought and poorly organized as a book to learn from.  It has good information though


Staying Found: The Complete Map & Compass Book

which I have not read.  Both are available at the usual outlets

REI carries this one...I have no particular opinion but NOLS is probably a good source.


There are lots of others


I have mentored quite a few of my companions in land navigation skills. In my experience, most problems in land navigation come about from over reliance on resources held in pockets.

No matter how accurate, maps may not reflect what is happening on the ground today. Oftentimes map users will misinterpret their maps and make decisions based on their misinterpretations. I have found many online resources to be inaccurate in describing if a trail exists currently or its location. AllTrails is notably suspect.

Let me get to the point: The most important skill in land navigation is a continuing chain of present day awareness of your surroundings. That's also the most difficult to accomplish for most distracted people these days.

I don't recommend listening to engrossing podcasts while you are walking in terrain you are unfamiliar with. Keep looking behind you to see what it looks like from the other direction. Have an awareness of what your walking rate is and what time of day it is.

The most immersive 3D experience I can imagine is being the primary navigator and leader through off-trail terrain that I have never navigated in before. Thrilling.

In review, the most important skill in land navigation is increasing your awareness of your surroundings. Good luck.

hearty agreement with Solace Easy.  Topo maps are quite accurate with respect to topography, almost always, but the cultural features, especially trails, can be off considerably.  The current maps for an area I frequent were published in 1943, based on aerial photogrammetry accomplish in 1938.  The cultural features are hugely outdated, but the topography is spot on.  A later publication by national Geographic maps uses the 1943 topography and the cultural features are more nearly up to date, but change is inevitable.

Terrain association and awareness of your surroundings  is your best bet, at least where topographic relief is present and the weather is decent.  In sixty years, I have looked at my compass exactly twice in all my excursions.  Still you should have one and it should be adjusted for declination.  Even more insidious is local error which can e anything from your knife blade or another compass to local magnetic anomalies in the surrounding bedrock.  Check your compass by finding the North Star 9Northern hemisphere) or Southern Cross (down under).

Declination does change at a usually, steady rate, but it is usually fractions of a degree.  For hiking and travel purposes, that is insignificant.  But do check the date of your map - change can add up.

Although rare used, I always have a good compass with me.  When you need one, you really need it.

Aerial photos are occasionally useful, especially if they are current.  You ought to be able to download them to your cell phone, but I am hazy on details....Anyone???


Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

@hikermor alludes to the second most important skill: Matching landforms to map depictions. Keep the map close to reinforce this skill.

I have highly developed map and compass skills and can teach them. I can recall having to use them together as a necessity one time. This is primarily because I travel in country that has recognizable features that are somewhat easy to see while you are moving around.

If I lived or traveled in a dense forest, I would have to use some of my more highly developed skills that I am less practiced in, like maintaining a bearing. I would probably carry an altimeter then.

I stopped carrying my Silva Ranger compass many years ago. I can use my phone as a primitive compass and that serves me nowadays for where I travel.

I typically spend hours researching the area I'm going to be visiting, including looking at satellite pictures and Google Earth depictions. I usually have a pretty good feel for where I am going before I get there. Might be a good idea for others to consider as well.

Just one caveat to what @hikermor said.  While magnetic north has historically moved very slowly, about 15 km per year, in the last 2 decades that speed has greatly increased to between 50 and 60 km per year.  The layman's version of the article can be found here.  There are also lots of other references to it if you google.  What this means is that the annual offset listed on your map may be wrong depending on when the map was published.  A couple of calculators are available on the web for determining declination based on the current World Magnetic Model.  The one put out by NOAA can be found here.

But I agree totally with @Former community member that the best way to stay found is to be present in the moment and pay attention to what is going on around you.  Lose the need to be plugged in at all times and instead, enjoy the birds, insects, moving water, falling rocks, and calls of the animals.  And don't forget the scenery.

The book that I have found really useful is "The Essential Wilderness Navigator: How to find your way in the great outdoors" by David Seidman and put out by Ragged Mountain Press.  Its short, good explanations and lots of diagrams.

Found Myself Outside

I totally agree with  this answer.  Learn to see what's going on around you. After all isn't one of the main reasons to hike just to get the heck away from all the electronic day to day distractions. Back to basics Folks! It doesn't require batteries!!!!


Ah, this is a topic I love to discuss! It does not hurt at all learning to navigate without software, since in many beautiful and remote natural environments you won't have cell phone signal.

I have an electronic compass on my wrist watch (an inexpensive Casio, ~$50), but I also carry a simple analog compass (a "military" compass, ~$20), that will never run out of battery or signal. I wholeheartedly agree with SolaceEasy and Hikermor that the most important skill is being aware of your surroundings and the lay of the land; knowing where the north is won't help you if you lost track of where you approximately are. I would add another skill that is very helpful: learning to estimate (guesstimate is fine) the distance you cover on foot, since this impacts directly the ability to locate your position on a map. The most precise analog way is knowing the measure of your steps and counting them, but most of the time such precision is not really necessary.

For hikes covering a lot of terrain you should always have a topographic map, with elevations, for you will use prominent heights to triangulate your position on the map. But for most hikes you can even do with a "flat" map and a simple compass, or no compass at all provided that you can locate the position of the sun and more-or-less know the time. I'm pretty good at navigating almost unconsciously with the sun or the stars, but I have been in situations where it has been overcast and I have had a hard time finding my bearings. Also, I have been in places where my compass was no working at all (interestingly, one place was called "Iron Mountain"), so being able to use a mix of techniques for orienting yourself is absolutely necessary.

Farther. Higher. Longer.

I chuckled when I read about "Iron Mountain" - don't plan on your compass  working is such a place! 

Years ago, we were climbing Orizaba, getting an early (2AM) start from our high camp.  My companion, looking at his compass, state we were traveling NE.  I looked at the north Star, quie visible at this early time, and opined that we were headed due east.  Checking, he finally agreed.  Does "Orizaba" translate to "Iron Mountain"? - proably only when it comes to magnetic variation.

Thank heaven for starry nights.  Piloting a power craft at night, i have found it ueful to pick a star, any star, that was on the compass course and steer by that -easier than glancing at the compass.  Since all stars, except North, change position, just reassess with the compass from time to time.

Declination is at times irrelevant.  If you plot your course using the current magnetic reading - taking a compass reading on your objective before heading into the timber, declination is not a factor.

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.