For many outdoor enthusiasts, binoculars are something we have, though not necessarily something we’ve given much thought to. We may not even remember where they came from. A gift, a cheap pair found in a swag bag, an ancient pair our grandma gave us years ago, a battered set of binos that mysteriously appeared in our car’s glove compartment, maybe. Anecdotally, anyway. If not a dedicated birder or hunter or route-spotting climber, a good pair of binoculars are nice to have but not necessarily a mandatory piece of outdoor gear.
Should one choose to invest in a pair of binoculars, there are many things to consider, particularly if you’re not an optics expert. So we talked to Steven Rinella, hunter, author, and host of the MeatEater television show and podcast, about how to choose binoculars. Not hunting binoculars, but binos for the average user. We asked whether it was prudent to find affordable binoculars or high-quality binoculars, do big magnification binos have the advantage over lightweight binoculars with better clarity, and so on. Here’s what Rinella had to say.
First, get a pair with a lifetime warranty. Next, you’ll want a sturdy, protective rubber coating on the external housing. The internal workings should be completely sealed and waterproof. All lenses should be high-definition glass that is coated to get the best amount of light transmission and prevent fogging. The ideal objective lens width is between 40-50mm, which provides a wide field of view. Also, you’ll avoid painful neck and shoulder strain by using a chest harness for carrying your binos, rather than a neck strap.
The level of magnification you have doesn’t really matter if your binos can’t give you a crisp image. In the fall, I spend weeks on end looking through binoculars for far-off game animals, so clarity is super important for a couple reasons. Without a clear image, your eyes will constantly be working to overcome the lack of focus which will lead to severe eye strain and headaches over time. Plus, I’m trying to see little things like a deer’s ear twitching in the brush or the sun glinting off an antler tip from hundreds of yards away. You just won’t pick up that kind of detail with cheap, fuzzy glass. You’re way better off with a pair of 8 power binoculars with crystal clear high-definition lenses than a pair of 18 power binoculars with poor clarity. Binoculars in the 7-10 power range are also much more versatile than high-power versions. You can free-hand them and still hold them steady, but more powerful magnifications are much heavier- it’s nearly impossible to get a stable image unless they’re mounted on a tripod.
Don’t buy “budget brand” binoculars, as you’re likely to get limited performance, poor construction, and a short lifespan. Vortex Optics is one of the best binocular brands out there. They’re a family-owned American company that makes affordable, high-quality binoculars that come with a no-questions-asked lifetime guarantee. I’m running their Razor UHD 10×42 mm binoculars, which are the best they’ve ever made. The Razor UHDs rival the best European binoculars out there at half the price. You don’t need to throw down thousands of dollars to get good binoculars, but spend as much as you can afford. I always laugh when I see a hunter driving a brand new $60K truck using a set of $79 El Cheapo binos.
If my binoculars weren’t waterproof, they’d end up being useless to me more often than not. I hunt in all kinds of nasty, wet weather. The good news is there’s no excuse not to own a pair of waterproof binos. These days, even most entry-level binoculars are built with waterproof seals.
Generally speaking, you’re better off with roof prism binoculars. Roof prism binos have eyepieces that directly line up with the outer objective lens, which makes them slimmer and lighter than offset, bulky porro prism designs. Porro prism binoculars were long considered to be optically superior to roof prisms and you’ll still hear some folks make that claim, but it’s no longer the case due to more advanced engineering and technology.
Everything about binoculars and other optics like spotting scopes and rifle scopes is leaps and bounds ahead of what was available a few decades ago. Today’s ultra-high definition lenses allow me to glass effectively in low light conditions and at very long ranges. Fogproof lens coatings are now standard. And it’s not only the lens technology that’s changed. Today’s binos are lighter and sturdier with way better optical quality than anything your granddaddy ever used.