While all GPS receivers can tell where you are, entry-level models have no way of ascertaining which direction you are facing. So you have to start moving and walk a few steps at a good pace before it can accurately point you towards your destination. This is why mid-range and high-end units have an electronic compass — to show the direction you should travel even while standing still.
Not only does this make routine navigation easier, it also helps with orienting paper maps and makes sight n’ go possible. Units with an electronic compass usually have a barometric altimeter as well.
Even better, almost all recent models have a tri-axial (AKA 3-axis) electronic compass, meaning you don’t have to hold it level, which was required with earlier models.
Calibrating the compass
But there is a downside — an electronic compass is very sensitive to magnetic field variation, so any unit with this feature should be re-calibrated anytime you change the battery. Not only that, but they should be calibrated again once the charge has dropped significantly – if you are actively using the compass (e.g., navigating line of site to a geocache or waypoint).
Here are some screenshots showing the process on a Garmin GPSMAP 62s:
And here is a video of the process:
On another note, while it has been cited as a concern, I’ve seen no evidence that an electronic compass significantly impacts battery life. You’d do much better to focus on your backlight and brightness settings if that is a concern.
Models with an electronic compass
Here is a list of current handheld GPS receivers sporting an electronic compass (most also offer a barometric altimeter):
|Garmin Astro 320 dog tracking system||3-axis|
|Garmin Dakota 20||3-axis|
|Garmin eTrex 30||3-axis|
|Garmin Foretrex 401||2-axis|
|Garmin GPSMap 62s||3-axis|
|Garmin GPSMAP 62sc||3-axis|
|Garmin GPSMap 62st||3-axis|
|Garmin GPSMAP 62stc||3-axis|
|Garmin GPSMAP 78s||3-axis|
|Garmin Montana 600||3-axis|
|Garmin Montana 650||3-axis|
|Garmin Montana 650t||3-axis|
|Garmin Oregon 450||3-axis|
|Garmin Oregon 450t||3-axis|
|Garmin Oregon 550||3-axis|
|Garmin Oregon 550t||3-axis|
|Garmin Rino 650||3-axis|
|Garmin Rino 655t||3-axis|
|Lowrance Endura Sierra||3-axis|
|Magellan eXplorist 610||3-axis|
|Magellan eXplorist 710||3-axis|