Do You Still Need a Compass for Hiking: Magnetic vs E-Compasses

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In today’s day and age of technology, do we still need magnetic compasses? Most of our smartphones have a compass feature installed on them, and we have GPS 2 way radios that also give us our location. It can seem that magnetic compasses are no longer needed. We’re going to take an in-depth look at magnetic compasses vs modern technology and determine which one wins.

A benefit to compasses is they are not running on batteries nor are they powered by anything at all. A smartphone or GPS device, on the other hand, is powered by a battery of some sort. This can cause serious complications when having to survive in the wilderness.

What is a Compass

In its simplest terms, a compass is a device that determines direction. When holding a compass level, the needle will turn to the direction of North. The way this is possible is because the earth is basically one big gigantic magnet. Since the earth is one gib gigantic magnet, it can interact with other magnets!

There is a small magnet located in the compass’ needle that aligns it to the top of the earth’s magnetic field, which is North. Each direction you travel in can be determined by a degree on the compass. A compass has a total of 360 degrees split up into 4 cardinal points. Basically, this means all the degrees on a compass can be split up into 4 parts, like cutting a pie into 4 equal slices.

The four cardinal points are all 90 degrees apart, with East being at 90 degrees, South at 180 degrees, West at 270 degrees, and North at 360 degrees (or zero degrees).

However, did you know that compass does not point you in the direction of true North? More on this later…

Brief History of the Compass

So, when was the compass first invented? The compass was first invented in China during the Han Dynasty. In fact, the magnetic compass was not used for navigation when first invented. In was used instead for geomancy and fortune-telling by the Chinese.

Magnetic compasses were first used to determine places to build a house, farm crops, and they were also used to help find rare gems.

The Chinese finally started using compasses for navigational purposes somewhere in the 9th and 11th century. Slowly, compasses started morphing into the devices we know of them as today.

True North vs Magnetic North

A compass doesn’t always point true North. This is because the Earth’s magnetic North Pole is different than the Earth’s geographic North Pole. In fact, the magnetic North Pole lies almost 1,000 miles south of true North inn Canada!

Things even get worse. Magnetic North isn’t even a stationary point. As the Earth’s magnetic fields change, the magnetic North moves. Did you know that in the last century magnetic North has shifted more than 620 miles toward Siberia?

Is a Smartphone Compass Reliable

Smartphone compasses have a long history of being unreliable. A smartphone uses a magnetometer to determine North. Partially why smartphones are so off in the magnetic readings, sometimes up to 45 degrees off, is because the magnetometer in the smartphone is having to deal with multiple radios within centimeters emitting EM radiation.

The metal in the smartphone doesn’t help much either. The metal causes a ton of reflections. Basically, a smartphone trying to determine North is like you trying to hear someone whisper to you while listening to a concert.

Are 2 Way Radio/GPS Devices Reliable

2 way radios/GPS devices are a lot more accurate than a smartphone. However, are they more accurate than a magnetic compass?

One of the biggest manufacturers of GPS devices that can be used in situations such as hunting, hiking, and survival situations, is Garmin. Garmin says the following about the accuracy of their devices:

Generally, users will see accuracy within 5 to 10 meters (16 to 33 feet) under normal conditions.

Certain atmospheric factors and other sources of error can affect the accuracy of GPS receivers. From time to time your accuracy will drop. GPS works on ‘line of sight’. If the device does not have a clear view of the sky your accuracy will drop and sometimes you will lose reception altogether. This is because the GPS signal is not powerful enough to travel through most solid objects. This holds true for all GPS devices.


New GPS devices, such as the ones Garmin make, are pretty accurate, but they can be unreliable as Garmin themselves have pointed out.

Magnetic Compass vs Modern Technology: Which is Better

So which one is better? A GPS devices such as the ones Garmin makes (view Garmin prices on Amazon), or traditional magnetic compasses?

The answer is they both tend to be pretty accurate, aside from smartphones. So which one should you carry? Both! The benefit of a magnetic compass is it is not powered by any batteries or anything. This is very important if you’re having to survive in the wilderness.

E-compasses such as Garmin devices like the Garmin inReach Explorer+, have to be powered by batteries. In a survival situation, this can be deadly. If you’re lost in the wilderness and your e-compass goes dead, you’re going to have a hard time surviving.

If you’re looking for a compass and want to go with a traditional magnetic compass, I would suggest the CMMG Official US Military Tritium Lensatic Compass (View the current price on Amazon).

If you’re wanting to invest a little bit of money into a GPS device, I would suggest you go with the Garmin inReach Explorer+ (View the current price on Amazon). It’s a great combination of quality, but not as expensive as other Garmin GPS devices.


In the end, I would say yes, you still need a magnetic compass. So I would have to say the magnetic compass wins. With GPS being fairly unreliable at times, it’s important to have a compass that is reliable. However, I wouldn’t fully throw away devices such as Garmin because they can be extremely helpful. But it is still a good idea to carry a magnetic compass as a backup.

If you have enjoyed this article, be sure to share it! What compass to you use? Do think electronic compasses can fully replace magnetic compasses?

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