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The 8 Best Hunting Binoculars for Spotting Wildlife

Popular Mechanics Logo By Justin Park of Popular Mechanics | Slide 1 of 8: Binoculars are likely the most popular optics in the world (aside from corrective lenses, aka eyeglasses) and with good reason. They’re intuitive to use and comfortable for longer viewing periods, and they’re popular aids for hunters, wildlife enthusiasts, birders, and boaters.Because high-quality binoculars are not easy to manufacture, the price points are generally in the hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Given the amount of money on the line, purchase decisions require some homework first. Thankfully, most options outside of the budget class are at least really good, and paying more simply gets you something great.What to ConsiderMagnificationThe magnifications of most consumer binoculars are fixed (ie. not zoomable) and range between 8x and 18x. Much less than 8x isn’t enough of an effect to bother with for most applications, while much more than 18x becomes difficult to use without a tripod. In general, lower-power binoculars are a better fit if you’re mostly glassing shorter distances, such as in forests, and don’t need precise detail. Higher-power binoculars make sense if you’re looking to avoid also carrying a spotting scope and glassing longer distances up to a mile or in need of precise detail such as when you need to determine if an animal is a legal target.Objective Lens DiameterObjective lens diameter is the size of the lens farthest from your eyes and impacts the field of vision you get as well as how bright the image is since, generally, bigger lenses capture more light. Jeremy Bentham, Senior Manager of SRO Sales & Operations for Nikon, explains the trade-offs associated with objective lens size. “One of the key things that needs to be decided is brightness versus weight,” he explains. “Larger objective lenses allow more light into the optic but are also heavier to pack and carry with you.” Objective lens sizes in binoculars range anywhere from 20mm to 100mm, but the common sizes are mostly in the 30mm to 60mm range. I find ultracompact binoculars of less than about 30mm annoying to use for more than a quick look at something relatively nearby since the field of view is small and it can be harder to keep in position on your eyes. On the other end of the spectrum, most binoculars larger than about 55mm become heavy and unwieldy if used without a tripod.Binoculars are listed by size spec, where the first number is magnification and the second is objective lens diameter. Probably the most common size is 10x42, which permits a big enough field of view and magnification for viewing things as near as 15 feet but still allows you to spot larger objects such as wildlife as far as a mile away. Every selection here is 10x magnification, but we’ve included a few different objective lens sizes other than 42mm.WeightFor backcountry hunters and hikers, weight is one of the most important considerations in a binocular. You need to balance the desire for a larger, brighter optic with your ability and interest to carry it around your neck over long distances. For me, anything heavier than about 35 ounces is too much to carry in a chest harness when actively hunting and covering several miles a day. If you’re a hunter or hiker who doesn’t need ready access to your binoculars and can keep them in a pack until you need them at specific spots, you may be able to tolerate heavier options.Even folks that mostly use binoculars at home or from a vehicle need to consider weight. Heavier binoculars are harder to use for longer periods of time, since your arms and shoulders do eventually fatigue and become shaky. If you’re mostly using binoculars on a tripod (a must for higher-magnification binos), you may want to prize optical quality over weight savings.Tech FeaturesAside from range-finding binoculars, most have surprisingly little tech as we usually think of it in terms of electronics and connectivity. What makes great binoculars hasn’t changed much over the years and still boils down to quality glass and craftsmanship.Where tech does show up is in the glass quality and the coatings used. High-tech coatings are used to make colors true, enhance brightness, and protect your expensive lenses. Coatings and glass often use nonstandardized terms such as ED, HD, and UHD glass or proprietary branding such as LotuTec or SWAROBRIGHT, making it hard to compare apples to apples when talking about something as subjective as optical quality. What you can look for is if lenses are “fully multi-coated,” meaning that all glass surfaces have multiple coatings for durability and performance, whatever the branding.How We SelectedMost people willing to spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on binoculars are obsessed with spotting wildlife, whether big-game hunting, birding, or just observing nature. I’m one of those people. I’ve used the best and the worst binoculars on the market, and I spent time hands-on testing several models during fall big-game hunting seasons in Colorado. I also spoke with optics dealers and shop owners, fellow hunters, and brand representatives to get a full sense of all the different binoculars available. My picks—all 10x magnification with objective lens sizes ranging from 32mm to 54mm—are meant to give options for each type of end user, from brands old and new.

Binoculars are likely the most popular optics in the world (aside from corrective lenses, aka eyeglasses) and with good reason. They’re intuitive to use and comfortable for longer viewing periods, and they’re popular aids for hunters, wildlife enthusiasts, birders, and boaters.

Because high-quality binoculars are not easy to manufacture, the price points are generally in the hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Given the amount of money on the line, purchase decisions require some homework first. Thankfully, most options outside of the budget class are at least really good, and paying more simply gets you something great.

What to Consider

Magnification

The magnifications of most consumer binoculars are fixed (ie. not zoomable) and range between 8x and 18x. Much less than 8x isn’t enough of an effect to bother with for most applications, while much more than 18x becomes difficult to use without a tripod. In general, lower-power binoculars are a better fit if you’re mostly glassing shorter distances, such as in forests, and don’t need precise detail. Higher-power binoculars make sense if you’re looking to avoid also carrying a spotting scope and glassing longer distances up to a mile or in need of precise detail such as when you need to determine if an animal is a legal target.

Objective Lens Diameter

Objective lens diameter is the size of the lens farthest from your eyes and impacts the field of vision you get as well as how bright the image is since, generally, bigger lenses capture more light. Jeremy Bentham, Senior Manager of SRO Sales & Operations for Nikon, explains the trade-offs associated with objective lens size. “One of the key things that needs to be decided is brightness versus weight,” he explains. “Larger objective lenses allow more light into the optic but are also heavier to pack and carry with you.”

Objective lens sizes in binoculars range anywhere from 20mm to 100mm, but the common sizes are mostly in the 30mm to 60mm range. I find ultracompact binoculars of less than about 30mm annoying to use for more than a quick look at something relatively nearby since the field of view is small and it can be harder to keep in position on your eyes. On the other end of the spectrum, most binoculars larger than about 55mm become heavy and unwieldy if used without a tripod.

Binoculars are listed by size spec, where the first number is magnification and the second is objective lens diameter. Probably the most common size is 10x42, which permits a big enough field of view and magnification for viewing things as near as 15 feet but still allows you to spot larger objects such as wildlife as far as a mile away. Every selection here is 10x magnification, but we’ve included a few different objective lens sizes other than 42mm.

Weight

For backcountry hunters and hikers, weight is one of the most important considerations in a binocular. You need to balance the desire for a larger, brighter optic with your ability and interest to carry it around your neck over long distances. For me, anything heavier than about 35 ounces is too much to carry in a chest harness when actively hunting and covering several miles a day. If you’re a hunter or hiker who doesn’t need ready access to your binoculars and can keep them in a pack until you need them at specific spots, you may be able to tolerate heavier options.

Even folks that mostly use binoculars at home or from a vehicle need to consider weight. Heavier binoculars are harder to use for longer periods of time, since your arms and shoulders do eventually fatigue and become shaky. If you’re mostly using binoculars on a tripod (a must for higher-magnification binos), you may want to prize optical quality over weight savings.

Tech Features

Aside from range-finding binoculars, most have surprisingly little tech as we usually think of it in terms of electronics and connectivity. What makes great binoculars hasn’t changed much over the years and still boils down to quality glass and craftsmanship.

Where tech does show up is in the glass quality and the coatings used. High-tech coatings are used to make colors true, enhance brightness, and protect your expensive lenses. Coatings and glass often use nonstandardized terms such as ED, HD, and UHD glass or proprietary branding such as LotuTec or SWAROBRIGHT, making it hard to compare apples to apples when talking about something as subjective as optical quality. What you can look for is if lenses are “fully multi-coated,” meaning that all glass surfaces have multiple coatings for durability and performance, whatever the branding.

How We Selected

Most people willing to spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on binoculars are obsessed with spotting wildlife, whether big-game hunting, birding, or just observing nature. I’m one of those people. I’ve used the best and the worst binoculars on the market, and I spent time hands-on testing several models during fall big-game hunting seasons in Colorado. I also spoke with optics dealers and shop owners, fellow hunters, and brand representatives to get a full sense of all the different binoculars available. My picks—all 10x magnification with objective lens sizes ranging from 32mm to 54mm—are meant to give options for each type of end user, from brands old and new.

© Staff, Courtesy of Zeiss

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