Compass Watches

When most of us think of compass watches, we think of ‘outdoor’ watches. These are models that are specifically designed for trekkers, backpackers and other outdoor enthusiasts. As the name suggests, these watches come with a compass but their appeal goes far beyond that.
For people who are looking to buy one, the reliability and durability factor play a huge role in choosing the right kind of compass watch.

Finding Your Way

Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast or not, everyone knows what it’s like to be lost and how helpful a good set of directions can be. In the great outdoors, a good map and compass are all the more important – losing your way in the wilderness is quite different from losing your way in the city. Thats why the accuracy and reliability of these compass watches are often carefully scrutinized.

There are currently two popular types of compass watches availabledigital and analog. The digital type are also known as electronic compasses, since they use electronic sensors to measure magnetic fields.

When comparing digital and analog versions, manufacturers have quoted the digital ones as having a plus minus 11 degrees error. Analog compass manufacturers claim to have a 1 to 2 degree error. In general, the watches with an electronic compass are a great option for people who don’t normally carry or rely on a compass.
While they are fine for getting a sense of direction, they lack the accuracy of analog compasses.

They also cannot be used for extended periods of time because they run on batteries. They are also prone to things like magnetic interference which can affect their readings.
The serious outdoor enthusiast would probably do better by opting for an analog type.


There are two types available, one has a compass bezel which you use in conjunction with the sun to find direction, such as the Seiko Map Meter the other incorporates a compass into the watch itself, either as part of the watch display or as in the case of the Wenger sliding out beneath the watch face.


Wenger watch with analog Compass

How to use a watch with a compass bezel.

By using the position of the hour hand and the position of the sun you can determine direction.

The direction will be an approximation and its important to consider that some discrepency can occur due to different latitudes and seasons.


Holding the watch horizontally, align the hour hand of the watch with the suns direction.

The central point between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock position approximately indicates
South. If you then rotate the compass bezel so that its south indicator matches this will allow you to read other compass directions.

Incidently as its name implies, the Seiko Map Meter can also be used to find route distances. To do this you use the crown located on the left side of the watch, which you roll along to trace the route on the map, maps using the 1:50000 M scale can be read directly.


Seiko Map Meter

It’s interesting to note that many people mistakenly think of this as a ‘dive’ watch – while it is water-resistant to a certain extent(200m), this model is definitely better suited for land use.

Another option is having a compass attached the strap, Suunto makes a liquid filled one.

So can you rely on the average compass watch on your next trekking expedition? Opinion on this does seem to be divided. But there seems to be a consensus on the fact that digital compasses still have a lot of room for improvement.
Apart from that, it’s best to go in for a quality watch brand rather than a cheap one if you’re serious about getting a durable compass watch.


A good example of an electronic compass watch would be one from the Casio Pathfinder series which display compass readings, aswell as altitude and atmospheric pressure.


Casio Pathfinder PW-5000

Other electronic compass watch manufacturers include:



Some watches with electronic compasses display the direction digitally, that is using digits 1-360 degrees, this type of display can be harder to visualise the actual direction.

On-time display is often limited in order to conserve battery power, for example the compass display on a Suunto watches shuts off after 45 seconds.

Calibration- electronic compasses need to be recalibrated, especially if it has come into close proximity to a magnet or an electromagnetic field, for example Casio reccomends that their compass watches be re-calibrated every 3 months for accuracy.

Analog Digital

Timex makes a number of watches with a compass function, with both Analog and Digital displays. Interestingly the Analog compass watches they make, such as the Timex ” E-Compass” use a fourth hand which is powered electronically and uses a sensor in the watch to measure direction, with an accuracy of 10 degrees.


The Timex Expedition E-Tide

Both Swiss watchmakers Wenger and Vicorinox have released analogue watches with digital compass readouts.


The Wenger “Nomad” and Victorinox ST-5000

GPS watches are also useful watches for navigation.