If nothing else, 50 years of big-game hunting has taught me the value of using my eyes. While that might seem obvious, many hunters, myself included, don’t get near the value out of their eyes that they should. Great hunters have mastered the art of “seeing.”
That’s not to say you must have 20/20 vision. It simply means you need to know how and when to use your eyes. You also need to choose the right binoculars for the job. Here’s how to choose the best binoculars for the way you hunt.
Binocular Features to Consider
When choosing binoculars for hunting, the most important factor may be durability. One good whack on a rock or tree can knock a binocular out of alignment. I’ve had a couple of binoculars that worked fine out of the box, but they proved fragile when used in the field, which essentially made them worthless.
Price alone can’t guarantee durability in a hunting binocular, but it plays a part. If you drop down into the “bargain” price range, you’ll probably regret it. Most rugged binoculars have rubber armoring to absorb pounding, and they’re nitrogen purged to make them waterproof and fogproof — essential qualities. Always insist on these durability features.
Also insist on quality glass and lens coatings. As light enters a binocular, it bounces off each of the internal glass surfaces. Some of that light never reaches the human eye. Quality glass not only forms a sharper image but it also transmits a higher percentage of light. Look for binoculars that offer premium-quality HD extra-low-dispersion (ED) glass.
Equally important to quality glass is what it’s coated with.
Good lens coatings reduce light reflection off the glass surfaces to further enhance the image. With uncoated lenses, light transmission from objective to ocular lenses could be 70 percent or less, whereas good lens coatings could raise that to 95 percent transmission. For the sharpest, brightest image possible, buy binoculars with “fully multi-coated” lenses, which ensures that lenses are covered with multiple layers on all of the lens surfaces.
Further, regarding brightness, I would never advocate buying so-called mini-binoculars for hunting because they are never as bright as full-size binoculars. That’s because exit pupil size largely dictates brightness, and by definition, mini-binoculars have smaller exit pupils.
To calculate exit pupil size, divide the objective lens size by the power of the binocular. For example, a 10×40 binocular has an exit pupil of 4mm (40 ÷ 10 = 4 mm), while a 10×24 mini-binocular has an exit pupil of 2.4mm (24 ÷ 10 = 2.4).
In any conditions other than bright sunlight, 2.4mm exit pupils make a scene appear darker than it actually is, because the exit pupil is actually smaller than the pupil in your eye. I would not recommend any binocular with an exit pupil smaller than 4mm, and 5mm is preferable. Good binoculars actually make a scene appear brighter than it is, one of the major advantages of any high-power glass.
Best Binoculars for Close-Range Hunting
Some hunters overlook the value of binoculars in a treestand, but I find them invaluable for picking out detail, such as an antler tine amid twigs and branches, or the tip of a deer’s nose in heavy brush. Above all, they’re priceless in game recovery. When you shoot an animal, you can’t always tell precisely where your bullet or arrow hit, but a quick glance through your binoculars will often reveal precise shot placement. And binoculars are irreplaceable in tracking and looking for downed animals.
For brush hunting, binoculars are not needed so much for long-range spotting as for identifying detail in dense, dark conditions. So, high magnification should not be your first consideration. In fact, in close quarters 10X and higher magnifications could be more of a handicap than help because the higher the magnification, generally the narrower the field of view, the shallower the depth of field, and the shakier the binoculars will be when hand-held. All of these can hamper your ability to quickly check a buck weaving through trees or fleeing through the brush.
As I have often written, for close-quarter hunting, 6X, 7X and 8X offer ample magnification, and these relatively lower powers have inherent benefits over higher powers, including a wider field of view, greater depth of field, longer eye relief, and larger exit pupil for greater brightness.
In my opinion, in close quarters and deep shadows or when glassing in dusky light, brightness always trumps magnification. For treestand hunting, I would go no higher than 8X. Cabela’s Intensity HD 8×42 Binoculars offer a perfect combination of 8-power magnification with a 42mm objective, which offers a wide field of view and excellent light-gathering capability thanks to HD glass.
Treestand hunters can’t mount these on a tripod, of course, but you can still hold them steady. Whenever possible, press the binoculars against the trunk of your stand tree, or, if that’s not possible, lean against the tree to steady your body for a more stable hold on the binoculars.
Best Binoculars for Long-Range Viewing
Without question, for western and mountain hunting, the most popular magnification these days is 10X. It’s powerful enough to reveal distant details, but it’s modest enough for quick, off-hand glassing when necessary. So, if you’re buying binoculars primarily for western hunting, think 10X first. If you have really steady hands, you might even consider binoculars with 12X magnification.
While you can hand-hold such binoculars in a pinch, you’ll see far more game by using a tripod. Steadiness is almost as critical as power in game spotting. I would go so far as to say you will spot far more effectively with a 7x binocular on a tripod than with a 10x hand-held. Magnification is not the critical variable, but steadiness is.
Tips for Steady Binocular Glassing
Today it’s a rare binocular of any power that comes factory direct with a tripod mount, but plenty of after-market mounts work great. Vanguard’s BA-185 Binocular Tripod Adapter screws in between the objective lenses to ensure a stable mount. Wrap-around adapters like the BOGgear Binocular Rest from Cabela’s are also quick, easy, and effective. I’ve used both styles for years.
You cannot always use a tripod, of course, but you can easily find ways to steady your binoculars. For a quick-but-solid glassing platform, sit on the ground, brace your elbows on your knees, and press your binoculars against your eyes.
Here’s another option: While hiking I often carry a trekking pole for hiking stability, but I find it just as valuable as a glassing monopod.
For this use, I plant the tip of the trekking pole solidly in the ground and rest my binoculars on the handle. This works great either sitting or standing. As another option, I use my hunting pack as a glassing platform. Whatever it takes. When it comes to glassing big game, steadiness is godliness, but good glassing starts with adding a quality pair of binoculars to your hunting gear.
Depth of field — Distance between the nearest and farthest objects that appear in sharp focus.
Field of view — The widest area you see when looking through binoculars.
Eye relief — Maximum distance from eyepiece at which your eye can see the entire field of view.
Ocular lens — Also called the eyepiece. The lens closest to the eye when glassing.
Exit pupil — The point of light you see in the ocular lens.
Objective lens — The big lens on the front of binoculars, measured in millimeters. For example, a 10×40 has 40mm objective lenses.