A Practical Guide to the Best Travel Binoculars

I’m a birder and a nature enthusiast and always travel with binoculars. Unfortunately I also enjoy photographing with a dSLR and dislike checking luggage. So I’m left with the dilemma of what to bring – gear or clothing? After one trip when my bag wasn’t allowed in the overhead compartment, I began researching how to save space and weight in my carry-on. I invested in quality travel clothing, lighter gear, and researched the best travel binoculars. I found lightweight binoculars that combine great optics in a packable size, and I haven’t taken a trip since without them!

Collection of binoculars including some of the best travel binoculars
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I began birding with a pair of binoculars from my mother, ca. 1940. They were a bit scratched and very heavy. So, despite the sentimental value, I put these aside for a reasonably priced Leupold model – the Leupold Yosemite. When the kids were out of college and we’d freed up money for travel, I invested in a Vortex Talon. Love these binoculars! The Vortex is always by our window where we can quickly catch a view of an interesting bird. The Vortex came along on our first safari, functioned well, but were really heavy at almost 3 lbs. (1.33 kg)!

But one afternoon I was wandering in a sporting goods store when I heard two people talking about the Swarovski optics. I asked to try them and one man said to me (I thought jokingly…) “don’t try them if you’re not ready to buy them”. He was not joking. The quality of the Swarovski, and the clarity of the Zeiss lens, were amazing! But so was the price tag… Fast forward two years to a Christmas morning when I was surprised with the Swarovski CL companion binoculars. These are now my go-to travel binoculars. But let’s backtrack  a bit…

Why Invest in Travel Binoculars?

ceiling hieroglyphs in Dendera Temple, Egypt

Most nature enthusiasts have binoculars at home, but many don’t even consider carrying them on a trip. Quality binoculars are heavy, bulky, and may spend much of the trip packed away. Who wants to carry 3 pounds of optics when they’re walking around a European city, or on a cruise? But without any binoculars you’re limited in what you can examine and enjoy. And that’s not limited to nature observation. Our guide in Egypt shared my binoculars with our tour group every time we visited a temple. He was thrilled to be able to show everyone the intricate hieroglyphics on the ceilings and high walls.

The best camera is the one that’s with you.”

Photographer Chase Jarvis

For the same reason, the best binoculars are the ones that are with you! Travel binoculars are lightweight and compact. My set fits easily into my pocket, purse, or the waistbelt of my backpack. It’s effortless to carry them.

How to Choose the Best Binoculars for Travel

There are three things to consider –

Best binoculars for travel based on budget, use, and travel style
  1. Budget – unfortunately this is probably the biggest factor in buying binoculars. The high-end optics are ridiculously expensive. And not necessary for most people.
  2. Use – are you a birder, a sports person, or just like to get a close view of vistas while traveling?
    • Birders – choose magnification between 7x and 12x and a wide field of view
    • Sports enthusiasts – similar, wide range of view and 7x to 10x magnification
    • Theater buffs – no need for the high magnification, 4x to 8x is sufficient. Look for a compact model so as not to annoy your neighbors.
    • Hiking or general outdoor use – you might want to focus on durability and waterproofing.
  3. Travel style – where are you planning on taking your binoculars and how do you pack?
    • If you visit big cities primarily, you likely don’t need high magnification in your binoculars. Visiting the National Parks? You might want those long lenses to safely view wildlife.
    • If you pack carry-on, then space is a premium, look for compact binoculars.. This is especially important when choosing the best binoculars for an Africa safari; weight is very limited in your safari duffel.  Going on a world cruise with a steamer trunk? Get full-sized binoculars to be the first to see land!
Binoculars on a book
Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Beginners Guide to Understanding Binoculars

There are many factors in categorizing binoculars, but for the general population, these – Magnification and Lens Diameter, and Field of View are probably the easiest to understand and use in choosing a set. For more detailed information see the REI guide.

Magnification and Lens Diameter – each set of binoculars has two identifying number (8 x 25, 10 x 30, etc.) The first number is the magnification number – how much closer you can see than with the naked eye. The second is the aperture, or the size of the objective lens diameter. This number is important, as the diameter of the lens determines how much light gets to your eyes and thus makes a brighter view. This is important if you expect to using the binoculars in low light conditions. You will want as much light as possible getting to your eyes.

Field of View – FOV – width of what you can see from a distance of 1000 yards (or meters). If you’re examining the ceiling of Pantheon, you won’t need as wide a Field of View as if you are trying to find a bird in the bush or follow a soccer ball down field.

Size and Weight – keep these in mind when you’re shopping for a travel set of binoculars. We carried our day-to-day favorites to Egypt and, though they performed well, we wished we’d had a lighter and smaller pair. This is especially true if you’re choosing binoculars for an African safari as you’ll be likely carrying some serious cameras, etc. Getting great optics in lightweight and compact binoculars can be expensive, but we’ve done well with some of the budget priced ones below.

Best Travel Binoculars for Safari and Wildlife Viewing

$ – Budget Priced (~$50-100 USD)

Bushnell H2O Waterproof/Fogproof compact binoculars – 100% waterproof, lightweight and economically priced..75 lbs.
Nikon Aculon A30 10×25 – ultra-lightweight and compact, but with Nikon quality..6 lbs.
Leupold Yosemite 8×30 – these are rugged, easy to use binoculars. They are smaller than some and fit well into smaller hands. I keep these in my car and use these with my grandchildren.* These are a fantastic option for basic binoculars, good optics at a reasonable price.1.7 lbs.
Kowa YF Porro Prism 8×30 – lightweight, completely waterproof and fog proof and with a wide field of view, these are great in low light conditions. Great compact travel binoculars!1 lb.

$$ – Midrange Price ~$200 +

Athlon Optics Midas 8×42 – super durable, bright view and easy to focus. These binoculars are rated high by experts and users alike!1.56 lb.426 ft.
Opticron Discovery WA ED 8×32 – waterproof, eye relief for glasses wearers, ultra-light for the quality..86 lbs.420 ft.
Vortex Diamondback 10×42 – great optics for birding. Waterproof, durable and with Vortex’ great customer service An earlier version, the Vortex Talon, is my at-home basic – always ready for an interesting bird.1.33 lbs.330 ft.

$$$ – High End Binoculars ~$500+

Zeiss Terra ED Compact 10×42 – waterproof, fast focusing, lightweight binoculars with Zeiss glass!,7 lbs.330 ft.
Nikon Monarch Wide Field of View 10×30 – rugged, lightweight, water and fog resistant, these are terrific optics for bird watching and wildlife viewing.1 lb.362 ft.
Swarovski CL Companion 8×30 – Exceptional quality in a compact size. These binoculars are a joy to use – focus is fast and easy, and the image is amazing.
Also a bit less expensive, but with the same glass quality – the Swarovski CL Pocket 8×25
17 oz.396 ft.

* Recommended for kids

Binoculars for kids – shockproof and compact

These are the binoculars used by the Beach Ambassadors, our local family nature program.

Are you a birder, or a wildlife enthusiast? Do you travel with binoculars? Let us know your go-to favorite in the comments.

Related Posts: Packing for Safari: cameras, gear and gadgets

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