Sunday, March 18, 2012

Do you need a GPS with an electronic compass?

Electronic compass

Electronic compass display on the Garmin Montana 600

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:

Garmin GPSMAP 62s compass calibration

Calibrating the tri-axial electronic compass on the 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):

Model Type
Garmin Astro 320 dog tracking system 3-axis
Garmin Dakota 20 3-axis
Garmin eTrex 30 3-axis
Garmin fenix 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
Magellan SwitchUp 3-axis
About Rich Owings

Rich is the owner, editor and chief bottle-washer for GPS Tracklog. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus.


  1. Yes! Love my Oregon 550.

  2. This is the most informative website I have found so far Thank you! This will be my first handheld GPS purchase and I’ve never used one previously. I intend to use it for hiking and would like to try Geocaching. I can’t decide between the eTrex 20 and the eTrex 30. (Until recently, the Oregon 450 and the GPSMAP 62s have been under consideration, but are more expensive.) I think I need the wireless sharing or a barometric altimeter. However, the electronic compass, I am not sure about. Sight-N-Go might be a nice feature to have. I just don’t know if it is worth it for me to spend $90 more for the eTrex 30 or not. If I get the eTrex 20, is there any reason to think I might be sorry and wish I had gotten the 30 instead?

    • I meant to say I DON’T think I need the wireless sharing or a barometric altimeter.

    • Glad you’re finding it useful! First of all, be sure to check this out, especially the handheld GPS 101 section:

      There are plenty of geocachers who get by without an electronic compass. Just realize that the eTrex 20 won’t point towards your destination until you start moving…

      • Thanks. I had looked at those pages before writing to you. I bought the eTrex 30 at REI over the weekend. The guy who helped me there said it was definitely worth it to upgrade for what I wanted to do. He was pretty enthusiastic about the eTrex models.

        Now that I have it and have played some with it, I have another question for you that I haven’t found in any posts here. I have learned how to shut off the track log so it doesn’t add miles, but how do I get the stuff under Trip Computer to stop counting? It just counts all the time until reset, then immediate begins again. I guess that is fine if one remembers to reset it before beginning a new trip, but for some reason it really annoys me.

        Thanks again for an awesome website. Your tips allowed me to get an unpublicized free 30-day premo membership to I checked into GPSFileDepot, but the MO map I want seems to have issues with Windows 7. Since this is all new to me, I think I will take the advice you have given to others who want to purchase something and get a subscription to Garmin’s Bird’sEye TOPO. I think you said you can print those out from Basecamp, correct?


        • I suggest going to the trip computer page and then pressing Menu > Reset at the start of each trip. The trip computer will accumulate mileage any time the GPS is on.

          You can indeed print from BaseCamp but the controls are somewhat limited.

  3. Are you aware of any dashboard mounted GPS systems that have the option of just displaying a compass on a full screen?


    • You can get mounts for handheld GPS receivers, but as far as auto units go, the old Garmin nuvi 500 and 550 have compass screens. Some auto units can display a pointer on the map.

  4. Wally Kimball says:

    Good site. Can the electronic Compass be disabled? Can the barometer be disabled?

  5. on the screen of the model 62 /64 (without compass), is not show the small arrow (blue triangle) on the head of the track line (like the 62s /64s) ?? // ? Need to DRAW some track on the screen by trying walk in one direction just for find the good direction ?? (that’s no good, like a blind man)
    // on the 62 /64 the background map on the screen have not the option for rotation by direction where you walk ? (like the 62s /64s)
    I want to save money buying 64, not 64s (because many functions of the last-one are useless for me -like the wireless or the UStopo maps from model ST -I don’t live in the US)

  6. I’m looking for an inexpensive, automotive style GPS that has an electronic compass. I intend to use it on my Powered Parachute aircraft for simple aerial navigation to pre-set way points. Does an anyone make a GPS like this? I intend to RAM MOUNT to my aircraft. Thanks for helping.


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