One of the smallest things in my gear list is a micro compass. Before I will tell you why I prefer a micro compass above a normal magnetic baseplate compass for backpacking, let see how the thing looks like.
The micro compass I own is the Clipper from Recta. It is really tiny by only measuring 30x25x10mm and has a weight of only five grams. So the weight savings over an usual compass, being it only marginal, is a nice bonus. It has a clip attachment which makes it possible to clip the compass on a strap on your backpack, a sleeve of a jacket, on the edge of a map or most preferable on the wrist band of a watch. The clip attachment is intended for straps and wristbands not wider than 22mm. However I find that this locking mechanism does fix the compass also really well on many straps wider than 22mm, a map or a sleeve, even though it may fall off if you’re not cautious. It has a rotating bezel with scale markings every ten degrees. The compass needle is very responsive which is necessary I think for such a small compass. Otherwise an “accurate” reading becomes even more troublesome seen the scale markings and size of the compass. More on this later. The only small disadvantage I have noticed while wearing it on the wristband of my watch is that it started to irritate on my skin if I tighten the wristband too much on my wrist. So I keep my watch a bit more loose on my wrist what stops the irritation.
Micro compasses don’t seem to be a wide business so to speak and the other tiny compasses you find usually lack in basic functions the Clipper still has. The Commet from Recta is the only other micro compass on the market comparable to the Clipper I am aware of. Suunto used to offer the same micro compasses like Recta (Suunto Comet and Clipper), but they are no longer in production these days. The Comet is exactly the same compass as the Clipper. It only differs from the Clipper by not having the clip attachment. It has a small thermometer with short ruler attached to the compass instead.
Now, why have I ever considered choosing such a small thing and don’t use a normal baseplate compass or a GPS for backpacking in three season conditions? While GPS devices seem to have become quite popular these days, a map and compass should remain the tool everyone could handle for navigation in my opinion. GPS devices undoubtedly have their benefits next to a map and compass in extreme winter conditions and for off trail hiking in vast dense forests or in fog on vast plains, though a GPS also has its limitations. For me being weight and the possibility of empty batteries as the two main concerns not choosing a GPS device for normal three season conditions. Furthermore solely relying on a GPS without a map and compass as a back up can bring you in an unpleasant situation or even the worst in danger. So in summary, orientation and navigation skills with a map and compass are rather essential for backpacking, especially when going off trails.
This I was also learned on a mountaineering class I followed years ago. Needless to say there was a large chapter dealing with orientation and navigation, including a day of practicing the theorie in the field. Everyone attending the class was obliged to own a transparent baseplate compass with a least a rotating bezel with north lines and markings at least every two degrees (mine had a three degrees interval so I did not follow the rule). A declination scale or a prismatic compass was optional.
Now, it seems obvious that such a compass what allows an accurate reading is necessary for mountaineering or specific orienteering. For normal backpacking, even off trail, the need for a sophisticated compass may be different in practice. That is what I learned myself while backpacking over the years. For years I’ve been using a baseplate compass before switching to the Clipper.
The Clipper micro compass has a rotating bezel where the markings have an interval of only ten degrees. Together with the very small size of the compass, this doesn’t sound like you can make an accurate bearing with it. That is indeed the main disadvantage you have to deal with when using such a micro compass. For me however, I don’t really feel the need for very accurate bearings in the field. Let’s explain my findings. I’ve noticed that in practice it is just impossible for a solo hiker or even for a group of hikers to keep walking in a straight line while trying to maintain the same direction with the compass in fog or dense forest. Many people seem to deviate from the direction they try to follow even without noticing it. Furthermore terrain obstacles like rocks, trees, bush, swamps can make it impossible to keep walking in a straight line. Circumventing those obstacles by making additional bearings is only inducing new errors and is often in practice time consuming if you want to do it as exactly as possible. Moreover, usually I don’t need to follow a direction accurately while hiking off trail. Deviating a bit usually doesn’t make a serious problem. In case of orienteering where you have to find a specific object on an exact location this becomes another story, but not for normal backpacking.
A few years ago I participated in a mountaineering course in the Austrian Alps were we made a week long trip on glaciers walking from mountain hut to hut while climbing peaks during the day. On several days the weather was not always ideal and we crossed a few glaciers in a white out. This was off course the ideal opportunity to test the theorie in practice. So we crossed those glaciers, each roped team on its own, by letting the last person in the team walk with the compass, giving instructions to the person in the front to maintain the right direction. Afterwards when we crossed the glacier the weather improved and we climbed a peak above the glacier. From the summit we all had a view on our tracks over the glacier and were surprised by what we saw. None of our tracks went in a straight line! Seen over the entire length all of them deviated to either right or left from the proposed direction and some even not by a negligible amount. Even one team had made an insanely meandering track. It was so exaggerated that we even couldn’t believe they had not been crossing the glacier carelessly. However the guys in the team claimed they really had not been making a joke. Navigating in a straight line and trying to keep the same direction seems to be very hard in a group. Now if exact navigation is impossible in a group, then it is even so for a solo hiker. I’ve tested this myself a few times on the snow by trying to navigate on the compass in good visibility while keep looking at my feet over a long stretch so I couldn’t correct my track by orienting on the surroundings. My track usually slowly deviates to the left. So that leads me to think why should I make use of an accurate compass if practical use proves these accurate bearings often don’t come into its own?
Furthermore before I was using the micro compass I noticed I often didn’t use my baseplate compass at all. I developed the habit to hike with the map in a ziploc bag to protect it from rain. This I keep in a pocket somewhere in my clothes when I don’t need the map while walking. Sometimes I put the compass on the map in the plastic bag, but I soon noticed I found this annoying every time the compass obstructed the view onto that part of the map covered by the compass each time I wanted to throw a quick look on the map. So I often ended with the compass put in the plastic bag on the other side of the map, in another pocket in my clothes or even in my backpack and in all these circumstances not even using it for the entire trip. This made me think why taking the weight of this compass with me while I am not actually using it? Furthermore, if I have to think about every situation where I really needed a compass to navigate over all the years, I can only remember a few situations and all those situations were winter trips in the snow where I did not have a GPS with me. In all those situations dense fog or vast forest were the elements that made orientation and navigation a hard task. On all other trips in three season conditions where orientation has been difficult, eventually I could always find an object somewhere in the field which could make my position on the map at least approximately correct without using the compass.
On this winter trip on the forested Austrian Dachstein plateau I didn’t have a GPS with me. I tried to navigate with map and compass even though the dense forest and complex karst topography on the plateau made it impossible to know my exact location. At the end I was snowshoeing for two days without knowing exactly where I was. But by just keep going northeast I finally reached the edge of the plateau where I continued along the edge until I found a place where I could start descending down. An accurate compass does not come into its own in such a situation.
Now I could not justify going completely without a compass, so eventually I tried switching to a micro compass which now has the great advantage for me I can clip it on the wristband of my outdoor watch so I can consult it immediately when needed while it never hinders while walking or doing any other task like checking the map. I’ve been using this micro compass for two years now and I must say I even enjoy walking with it. I notice I check the direction regularly while hiking off trails just by lifting my arm before my face while keeping the compass horizontally, while before I even didn’t bother spending the time with looking at my baseplate compass. It has not only changed the frequency I use a compass now, it has also changed my style of navigating off trail in a positive way.
So if you ever find you have comparable experiences like me when you take a compass with you while walking and actually almost never make use of it, maybe you can consider a micro compass if you don’t feel the necessity for very accurate bearings. For me this micro compass is obviously an improvement on my gear list since at least I now use a compass regularly while walking and I don’t have an arguable item anymore on my gear list which doesn’t seem to justify its weight. For those interested, the Clipper can be bought from Ultralight outdoorgear.