I’m a birder and nature lover and always travel with binoculars and camera. But, I also dislike checking luggage. I’m left with the choice 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 compact binoculars for hiking and travel. I found lightweight binoculars that combine great optics in a packable size, and I haven’t taken a trip since without them!
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Why Invest in the Lightweight Binoculars for Travel or Hiking?
Most nature and outdoor enthusiasts have binoculars at home, but many don’t even consider packing them on a trip. Quality binoculars are heavy, and bulky. Who wants to carry 3 pounds of optics when they’re walking around a European city, hiking in Hawaii, or on a cruise?
But without binoculars you’re limited in what you can examine and enjoy. Binoculars are not just for nature and outdoor activities. Watching a sports match is much more enjoyable if you can actually see the play. And binoculars can be used to examine architecture. 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
In the same way, the best binoculars are the ones that are with you! Travel and hiking binoculars should be lightweight, compact, and effortless to carry. If they it into your pocket, purse, or backpack, you’ll have them when you need them.
How to Choose Your Best Binoculars for Travel and Outdoor Activities
There are three things to consider –
Budget – unfortunately this is probably the biggest factor in buying binoculars. The high-end optics are ridiculously expensive. And not necessary for most people. There are quality binoculars at every price point.
Use – are you a bird watcher, a hiker, 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
- Hiking or general outdoor adventures – focus on durability and waterproofing.
- 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.
Travel style – where are you planning on taking your binoculars and how do you pack?
- If you travel to big cities, you likely don’t need high magnification in your binoculars. Hiking in the National Parks? You might want those long lenses to safely view wildlife.
- If you pack carry-on, space is a premium. Opt for compact binoculars. This is especially important when choosing the best binoculars for an African safari or river rafting trip. Going on a world cruise with a steamer trunk? Take your full-sized binoculars to be the first to see land!
Beginners Guide to Understanding Binoculars
There are many factors in categorizing binoculars, but for the general population, these – Magnification, Lens Diameter, Field of View, and lens coatings 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 number 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 image. This is very important if you expect to use the binoculars in low light conditions like in the evening or under dense forest cover.
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. When in doubt, go for a wider field of view.
When shopping for binoculars you’ll see references to multi-coated lenses, etc. What is a lens coating and why is it important? When light hits a glass surface some light is lost to reflection. Manufacturers use anti-reflective coatings (up to 80 layers!) to improve light transmission and improve color and image quality. Optics can be listed as ‘coated’ (one lens surface coated) to ‘fully multi-coated’ (multiple layers of coating on all lens surfaces).
Other considerations in selecting the best binoculars for your activites
Durability – the essential piece of binoculars is the glass. Drop your binoculars while hiking, or get stuck birdwatching in a rainstorm, and the binoculars can be ruined. Consider the weather conditions you anticipate seeing when shopping. It may be worth the extra money to purchase waterproof binoculars or a rubber armor set.
Size and Weight – keep these in mind when you’re shopping for a set of travel 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 Compact Binoculars for Hiking, Birding, and Travel
$ – 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. Many travelers swear by the Nikon Travelite line which are compact, great quality, but a bit heavier.||.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 an affordable 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 and perhaps the best choice for hikers.||1 lb.|
$$ – Midrange Price ~$200 +
|Athlon Optics Midas 8×42 – super durable, bright view, crisp imags, and easy to focus. These binoculars are rated high by experts and users alike!||1.56 lb.||426 ft.|
|Opticron Discovery WA ED 8×32 – waterproof, eye relief for glasses wearers, ultra-light for the quality.||.86 lbs.||420 ft.|
|Vortex Diamondback 10×42 – great optics for birding. Waterproof, durable and with Vortex’ great customer service An earlier version, the Vortex Talon, is my at-home basic – always ready for an interesting bird.||1.33 lbs.||330 ft.|
$$$ – High End Binoculars ~$500+
One afternoon I was in a sporting goods store when I heard two people talking about the Swarovski optics. I asked to try them and one of the men said to me, “don’t try them if you’re not ready to buy them”. He was not joking! Seeing the clear images through the lens was 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 – the same high-quality optics in a pair of compact binoculars. These are now my go-to travel set.
|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 the ideal choice 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 – using the quick focus wheel 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.|
Best lightweight binoculars for children
Binoculars for kids – shockproof and perfect for small hands.
These are the binoculars used by the Beach Ambassadors, our local family nature program.
How to Use Your Binoculars
Our first lesson with the children in our local nature program is on how to use binoculars. It sounds simple but it’s not as easy as you might think! Finding a bird in a tree is difficult with the naked eye, but try finding the bird through binoculars if you have no idea where on the tree to start looking! Here’s a quick start guide to binoculars.
- Put the neck strap around your neck before doing anything else. (I recommend this for cameras as well.)
- Adjust the eyepieces for your vision.
- Most binoculars have adjustable eyecups. If you wear glasses, leave these retracted. If you don’t wear glasses, twist the eyecups up.
- Adjust the small focusing ring until the image is clear in your left eye.
- Find your target. Locate the object you’re looking for with your naked eye, and hold that pose, before raising the binoculars to your face. Use the focus dial (in the center of the binoculars) to bring the object into focus.
- Always replace the lens covers (eyepiece covers) before putting the binoculars away.
I hope this A list guide has given you some help in choosing binoculars. Let me know if you have more questions.
Are you a bird watcher, or an outdoor enthusiast? Do you hike with binoculars? Let us know your go-to favorite in the comments.
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