Question: I'm looking to move to a thumb compass. I'd like some advice on some of the various models available. If you can, tell me what and why you like and dislike about the various models, including any I've left out. For example, what advantage do I get with the $120 Brunton 6Spectra over the $45 Suunto Arrow5?

  • Suunto Arrow1, $25
  • Suunto Arrow5, $45
  • Brunton Spectra, $60
  • Brunton 6Spectra, $120

What do you like / dislike about a thumb compass vs. baseplate compass? What are some good baseplate compasses for orienteering, i.e., good stability/needle dampening?

On thumb compasses, which hand to you put yours on and why -- weak or strong? I know most people put theirs on their weak hand (i.e., on left hand for right handed people), however, with my baseplate compass, I'm right handed, and typically hold the map and compass in my right hand.


Note: Locally, REI has a good selection of baseplate compasses. Online, "The Compass Store" has an assortment of thumb compasses and baseplate compasses ranging from $9.95 to $100+.


I own several, including the 6Spectra. If you are going to be doing A LOT of orienteering and the ONLY reason you're losing time is because you're stopping to wait for your needle to settle, then the 6Spectra is the way to go. Its needle settles quickly and the color coding makes it easy to read on the fly or determine your next bearing at a waypoint or control.

If you don't meet that definition or your orienteering is part of an adventure race, stick with a good baseplate compass. Get one with a "Global Needle" because they are less sensitive to being held level and the needle seems (to me) to settle more quickly. I use a Suunto M3-G for adventure racing and as my general use compass for backcountry adventures.

If you decide to go with a 6Spectra, search the net for sales. I bought all of mine on sale and found them within a couple weeks of starting my search. The same was true while helping a friend find one a couple years ago so I'd guess it's still the same now.

As for which hand, it's simple: the compass goes on the hand you use for thumbing the map while on the move. The point of the baseplate becomes the tip of your thumb while thumbing.

The Suunto Arrow 1 and Arrow 5 only come in left hand versions. I am on my third Arrow 5. I broke my first one and my second one was defective and Suunto replaced it. I have also had an Arrow 1. I like the simple and fast needle offered by Suunto. Brunton's needles are smooth and fast, too. The Arrow 5 is similar in size to the Bruntons (if I am picturing the correct models) and is less bulky than the Arrow 1. I think the Bruntons offer a choice between a fixed color-coded dial and a typical rotating dial. Bruntons come in either left or right hands versions. I hold my compass and map in my weak hand. I think if you are used to holding your map and compass in your strong hand, stick with that.

So, I suggest you go with a right-handed Brunton (or Silva. I think Brunton and Silva are connected in some way.)

-- Troy Bozarth

Or Moscow for $60.

Most people hold a thumb compass and map in their "bad" hand, or with a baseplate, it's compass in the good hand, map in the bad hand. I'm unusual in that I hold the thumb compass and map in my good hand.

-- J-J Coté

Thumb Compass positives:

  • They don't cover up much of your map.
  • They're a lot harder to drop in the woods.
  • There are people who don't "set" their thumb compasses so they can get by with one hand operation. Personally, I "set" my compass so I don't gain that advantage.
  • When you want to use your thumb compass, it's already pointed in the direction of travel.
  • If you also hold your map in your compass hand your map is probably oriented, too.

Baseplate positives:

You have a lot of different scales available if you are inclined to use scales. (I don't find this to be that much of a plus. If you look at everything as if it was metric, 1 cm is more versatile than 1 inch. On a 1:15000 map 1 cm = 150 meters. On a 1:24000 map 1cm = 240 meters. 1 inch = 2000 ft which equates to...well, I don't know. Some distance.) A baseplate compass can be used on either hand. This is actually a lot more important than it sounds.

Use of thumb compass:

This will sound strange: I've found that I make a lot more errors if I use a compass on my left hand. I figured out that this is because I'm "right eye dominant." Having the compass in my left hand and having my meager brain working from my right eye, I get a "parallax" error. What seems to be parallel to the compass is actually several degrees off. I borrowed a right handed compass once and stopped making those errors. I bought a right handed compass that afternoon. I think it makes a big difference.

Brands of compass:

Personally, I like "Moscow" compasses. I have two of them, though I'm currently in exile in a foreign state and only have one with me. It's in my glove compartment. The advantage is that it has bearing both top and bottom. It also has a transparent disk about 1 inch in diameter which helps to make the needle much more stable than anything else I've ever used.

-- Bob McBride

What I like about a thumb compass is that I'm not always having to realign it with my route every time I look at the map. I also don't have to worry about dropping either the map or compass, since the compass is now attached. I don't personally see the need to worry about how fast the needle dampens, I'm not shaking that much for it to not settle quickly. The reason I went with a left hand compass is because I punch with my right. I think most people can deal with a compass on either hand, but just try to punch with the other hand!

-- Michael Rounds

Suunto Arrow 1
Suunto Arrow 1

Suunto Arrow 5
Suunto Arrow 5

Brunton 6Spectra
Brunton 6Spectra (left hand and right hand)

Silva Baseplate Compass
Silva Baseplate Compass

Go to top
JSN Boot template designed by