A compass doesn’t tell you which way you’re going. Nor how far you’ve gone. For that matter, unless you’re off the west coast of Florida, it doesn’t even point north. So why even bother with one?
If you paddle on a little pond within constant sight of your house you might not need one. However, if you want to venture onto new waters, locate your own position, or pick out a specific landmark against a crowded horizon, a good compass is essential, and surprisingly fun to use.
Compasses come in two flavors: marine or hiking. Hiking, compasses feature a moving needle that points to magnetic north, within a case marked with the 360 degrees of a full circle. The case has to be rotated to align the needle with north, and directions are read from the outer face of the case. Many can be adjusted for local variance or declination, so that they indicate true rather than magnetic north. That’s how most topographic maps are oriented.
Marine compasses have a disk within their case, magnetized and marked with 360 degrees. The outer, unmarked case can rotate around the disk-or compass card-which points to magnetic north. Deck-mounted compasses have their cases fastened to your kayak’s deck, so that the case is permanently aligned to your keel line. Few marine compasses can be adjusted to correct for local variances. That’s no big deal, however, since marine charts all include a magnetic north rose and virtually every saltwater navigator determines course on the basis of magnetic north.
One big advantage of a deck-mounted compass is that you can read it while paddling. To hold a hiking compass, you must stop paddling.
Most deck-mounted compasses look like a high-crowned fried egg, with the compass disk inside the clear housing instead of a yolk. They’re best mounted directly in front of your cockpit, close enough to wipe away spray. A “lubber line,” aligned with your keel and facing you, provides a quick and accurate reference line to see which way you’re headed.
You can permanently mount your deck compass, and that means you won’t forget it nor will it fall off. On the other hand, you can’t remove it for security. It’s also in danger of being munched on a car-top carrier or at the beach. The advantage of a demountable compass is that you can remove it. The disadvantage is that you’re not the only one who can do so.
Your last consideration involves paddling when the sun’s not in the sky. Some compasses have battery-powered internal lights, a few have luminescent markings (dim and hard to see), and some use a mini Cyalume lightstick. Or you could use a headlamp or hold a flashlight in your teeth, which ruins your night vision.
All of the compasses reviewed are solid navigation tools, and will guide you across the waters. The rating system starts with one point for an adequate job, up to four points for outstanding. NA? Not applicable. It goes without saying that the ratings are subjective. What works for one paddler may not work for you.
Readability: how easy is it to read the numbers?
Mounting: how easy is it to install, or remove, while staying in alignment?
Switchability: how easy is it to use the same compass on different kayaks?
Versatility: is the compass designed to perform a single task, or can it perform several different functions?
Value: how much performance are you getting for your buck?
What’s the best compass? Needs are different, boats are different, and tastes differ. Here is a collection of compasses that can do the job for you, with all the features you need and want.