Your compass is an important part of your navigational tool kit.

Without this ancient invention you can easily find yourself lost while walking through the hills and mountains so you have to make sure it is protected from damage.

At the heart of your compass is the magnetic needle. This delicate and sensitive pointer swings freely through 360 degrees on a tiny pivot magically aligning itself to the Earth’s magnetic field allowing you to quickly find North and it is the sensitivity of this element that has to be protected from damage when you are storing it away.

Accuracy matters….

Your compass has to be accurate and any deviation from Magnetic North cause cause problems especially over long distances as you can easily find yourself off course by hundreds of metres or, in extreme cases, several miles so making sure your compass is kept in good condition is a must.

Protecting your compass

There are a few things you have to consider and avoid when storing your compass be it on the trail in your pack (or pocket) or at home sitting in a drawer in readiness for your next adventure.

Metal – do not store your compass next to anything metal especially ferrous metal (iron).

Metals containing iron can easy deflect your compass needle and you can see this happening yourself by moving you compass near to a metal object. The needle will deflect away from Magnetic North and move towards the object instead. This effect is something to be wary of not only when storing your compass but when using it as well.

Keeping your compass in close proximity to ferrous metals for a prolonged period of time will eventually demagnetise the needle completely rendering your compass useless as navigational tool.

Electrical Devices – all electrical devices generate and emit a magnetic field. Having you compass exposed to this magnetic field can cause the needle to deviate wildly. Avoid storing your compass next to electrical devices especially when you are out walking eg mobile phones, walk talkie radios, GPS devices etc. and make sure that when you store it at home it is kept away from similar electrical devices.

When I mentioned that I was writing this post, one of the Walk Fife team admitted that he used to keep his compass in the door pocket of his car right next to one of the car’s stereo speakers and was surprised when day he took it out and discovered it had switched polarity and the needle instead pointed South. This is a repairable problem and some manufacturers will correct the needle for free under warranty but it still needs to be avoided.

Temperature – compasses should be stored away from extremes of heat and cold. Prolonged exposure to low or high temperatures can cause damage to the liquid filled capsule and could cause the capsule to leak allowing air bubbles to form within it.

The formation of tiny air bubbles are normal in a capsule type compass and are often caused by changes in heat and atmospheric pressure (height) and normally they disappear when the compass is returned to sea-level and a typical ambient temperature.

When a capsule leaks there is a risk of large air bubbles forming which can prevent the needle from pointing North. Bubbles that measure over 5mm in diameter are most likely to cause this kind of issue and the compass will need to be replaced.

Magnets – it is surprising how many magnets surround us and we don’t even realise that they are there. Magnets can often be found in clothing fasteners, key fobs & watch straps and all of these will all have an effect your compass both while in use and when stored so make sure you check to see if you have any hiding away.

A lifetime of adventures…

Provided you properly store and care for your compass, it will last you a lifetime. I still regularly use a Silva compass that I was given as a Scout back in 1986 and it remains as accurate as it was the then and there no reason why your compass won’t last as long as mine with the correct care and attention.

Please comment below if you have any additional advice on caring for your compass or alternatively, you can send a email to and we will share it with the Fife Walking Community.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Paul

    What is the purpose of the pointer lock? Do I lock it during non-use? Thanks

    • Walk Fife Admin

      Hi Paul
      Yes that is exactly what the pointer lock is to be used for. It tended to be a feature of old style prismatic or lensatic compasses but also can sometimes be found on delicate pocket compasses where the pivot has to be protected when in transit. Thanks for the comment

  • Freek

    How do I check that an old compass with unknown storage history still points true north?

    • Walk Fife Admin

      Hi. The traditional way is to seek out another compass or two that are known to be accurate, some port towns had a calibrated compass to which you could compare (many years ago). Today in the world that is inhabited by smartphones you can use technology. Many smartphones have GPS assisted compass apps installed on them. The iphone is a good example of this. Start the compass app up and then check the settings to ensure that the needle is pointing to True or Magnetic North and not Grid North. Once the setings are checked this should give you an accurate indication if your old compass is still pointing to True North. You can also do this on various handheld GPS devices. I hope that this helps – Thanks, Sean

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