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When I’m hiking, I always try to pack light. That said, I can also never resist taking along a set of good binoculars. Although they do add a bit of heft to my load, they help to bring the world around me into sharper focus—and isn’t that what hiking is all about? Take a look at this roundup to learn more about the best binoculars for hiking and backpacking trips.
The Best Binoculars for Hiking and Backpacking Reviewed
How do I choose the best binoculars?
As with any purchase, it helps if you know what to look for. Here are our designated criteria for finding the best lightweight binoculars for hiking.
First and foremost, you’ll want to make sure that the binoculars will magnify whatever you’re focusing on. The more powerful the magnification, the larger the target object will appear.
It’s easy to determine how powerful the binoculars are. All you have to do is check the first number listed on the focus dial. Most handheld binoculars feature a range of 7 to 12. This means that they’ll make your target objects will appear 7 to 12 times larger than normal. There are more powerful sets available, but if the magnification is any stronger, you should use a tripod. When the images appear more than 12 times larger, even the faintest tremor can disrupt them.
Objective Lens Diameter
Next, take a look at the lens diameter, also known as the objective diameter. This number follows the “X” on the focus dial, and can range from about 22mm to 150mm. For hiking purposes, however, you should be fine with a range of 30mm to 50mm. Look for higher numbers whenever possible. A broad objective diameter allows the lenses to harness more light, which will result in crisper images.
Lens Quality and Coating
Magnification and objective diameter are important, but they aren’t the only components to consider. The lenses should also be clear enough to allow you to view your target images properly.
Although lenses are designed to filter light, they’re also naturally reflective, which means that a portion of that light is lost as soon as you focus the binoculars. That’s why most quality binoculars are equipped with an anti-reflective lens coating to improve the clarity of the images.
When it comes to lens coating, manufacturers have several options. Coated optics add a single layer of the anti-reflective material to at least one glass surface. The term fully coated means that all of the exposed glass surfaces have been treated with a single layer.
If the lenses are multi-coated, then at least one surface has been treated with multiple layers, while the fully multi-coated designation carries the assurance that all the air-to-glass surfaces have received multiple coats. Look for the fully multi-coated label whenever possible, as it will result in images that are nearly as sharp as life itself.
Field of View or Exit Pupil
As the name suggests, the field of view refers to the area that can be viewed through the hiking binoculars. Check the labeling to find out how far away you need to be for the images to focus properly. Typically, manufacturers define the field of view as the width (in feet) of the area that will be visible from 1000 yards away, but it’s best to be sure.
A wide field of view is useful if you enjoy watching moving targets, while a narrower field is preferable for zooming in on smaller objects. For example, if you want to track the progress of a flock of geese flying across a pond, you’ll want a wider field of view. To get a better view of a bald eagle sitting on its nest, a narrow field is preferable.
In addition to the width of the field of view (sometimes shortened to FOV), you should look for the exit pupil diameter as well. If you’ve ever aimed a pair of binoculars toward the light with the eyepieces held away from your face, you may have noticed bright circles in the center of each one. This is known as the exit pupil, and it indicates the overall brightness of the field of view.
If no exit pupil diameter is offered in the list of specifications, you can figure out the number yourself by dividing the lens diameter by the magnification level. For instance, a pair of 12×42 binoculars would have an exit pupil of 3.5mm.
Weight and Eye Strain
The best backpacking binoculars will be lightweight and easy to carry. Ideally, they would fit inside your pocket, but tucking them into a compartment on your backpack also works. Just make sure that the compartment is readily accessible, so you don’t have to dig around for the binoculars every time you want to use them.
Are smaller binoculars less powerful than larger sets? Not necessarily, although hiking binoculars do tend to stick with a smaller lens diameter than the models used for star-gazing. That number, coupled with the magnification, is what you want to pay attention to. Size alone is no indication of quality.
Another aspect to focus on (literally!) is eye relief. This refers to the amount of space that needs to be between your eyes and the ocular lens in order to view the images without squinting. If your eyes are closer or farther from the rear lenses, your field of vision will appear darker or blurry around the edges.
Cheaper sets will typically be outfitted with shorter eye relief—that is, 5mm to 10mm—while quality binoculars will use longer relief. If you wear glasses, you should definitely look for eye relief of 15mm or more. Otherwise, you’ll have to remove your glasses every time you want to look through the binoculars—not practical when you’re on the trail.
If you think that waterproofing doesn’t matter unless you’re hiking on a rainy day, think again. You might encounter a stream that’s running higher than usual or edge too close to a waterfall, in which case you’ll want to make sure that your binoculars can withstand the splashing.
The degree of waterproofing can be determined by the IPX rating. As far as mainstream consumer goods are concerned, this scale runs from 0 to 8, with 8 being the highest. If the binoculars carry an IPX rating of 0, they’re not water-resistant at all, which means they’re probably not the best binoculars for hiking. A rating of 4 or 5 is preferable—this means that they can be splashed with water without suffering any damage.
Don’t waste time searching for a set with a rating of 7 or 8 unless you plan on wading through some intense water. These higher ratings mean that the binoculars can be submerged in deep water for extended periods of time, but this level of protection is largely unnecessary for everyday use.
You might also want to check for fogproofing, especially if you regularly hike in excessively humid weather. Some binoculars have been subjected to a process which replaces the air inside them with nitrogen. Known as nitrogen purging, the procedure blocks the moisture buildup that results in fogged lenses. The process may also use argon, another inert gas, in which case it’s called argon purging instead.
Best Binoculars for Hiking and Backpacking in 2020
What are the best binoculars for hiking? In this product review guide, we’ll take a closer look at some of the top sellers on the current market. When you’ve finished reading, you should have a solid idea of which pair will best suit your needs.
For each model, we’ve provided a numerical rating, with 10 being the best possible score. We factored in the following criteria when determining these ratings: magnification, field of view, durability, eye relief, and price.
What is the best all around binoculars? Some experts believe that it’s this set, which weighs in at just 1.25 pounds and offers 12X magnification. A lens diameter of 42mm gives target images a clear, crisp quality. As if that weren’t enough, the field of view is listed as an impressive 367 feet. You might be tempted to make more stops along the way just so you can marvel at the performance of these high-tech hiking binoculars.
This set offers manual focus, making it easy to zoom in and out without fiddling around with a bunch of buttons. The large eyepieces are outfitted with adjustable cups, so they’re suitable for people who wear glasses on the trail. They’re also equipped with fully multi-coated lenses for quality performance in any light. An IPX rating of 5 means that they can withstand exposure to a low-pressure stream of water over a sustained period of time.
If the Adasion Bird Watching Binoculars sound expensive, be aware that they come with a smartphone adapter. This means that you can snap photos of your images to be shared on social media or viewed at a later date. This features is compatible with most recent iPhone models, as well as the Samsung Galaxy. Should you have any problems with the binoculars or the adapter, the company’s customer service department will be happy to assist you.
12x42 Binoculars for Adults with New Smartphone Photograph Adapter - 18mm Large View Eyepiece - 16.5mm Super Bright BAK4 Prism FMC Lens - Binoculars for Birds Watching Hunting - Waterproof (1.25 lbs)
- Powerful magnification
- Smartphone adaptability
- Generous IPX rating
- Adjustable eye cups
- Impressive field of view
- Not great at taking photos in portrait mode, especially with iPhone models
Best High End Binocular: Vortex Optics Diamondback HD Binoculars
This offering from Vortex Optics doesn’t come cheaply, but if you’re serious about investing in a great pair of lightweight binoculars for hiking, they could be just the ticket.
With 10X magnification and an objective diameter of 42mm, these binoculars are nearly as powerful as the Adasiaon set. The lenses are fully multi-coated with a dielectric compound that sharpens the images, while a secondary coating protects them from dings and scratches. The eye relief is listed as 15mm, which is a good number for backpacking binoculars. Further, the adjustable eye cups allow you to view your target images in comfort, whether you wear corrective lenses or not.
The center wheel can be used to adjust the focus of both barrels, while a second diopter focus tool, found on the right eyepiece, accounts for the smaller differences between one eye and the other. Because the lenses have been argon purged and outfitted with tight O-ring seals, they’re both water-resistant and fog proof.
This is a rugged and durable set, equipped with rubber armor to give you a firmer grip. While we prefer not to bring a tripod along on hikes, they can be adapted for mounting as well. There’s also a harness included with the purchase, so you’ll have a safe place to store the binoculars at all times.
10x magnification & 42mm objective lenses, these Diamondback HD binos are optimized with select glass elements to deliver exceptional resolution, cut chromatic aberration and provide outstanding color fidelity, sharpness and light transmission.
- Durable construction
- Fully multi-coated lenses
- Fogproof and water-resistant
- Lightweight and portable
- High price point
- GlassPak harness is on the bulky side
Best Mid Range Binocular: Nikon Trailblazer 8×25 ATB
Nikon’s reputation for quality and high performance is well-deserved. With these binoculars, they deliver a good middle-of-the-road option that should appeal to a broad range of buyers.
The fully multi-coated lenses feature nitrogen purging and O-ring seals for fog- and waterproofing. A central knob gives you excellent control over the focus, so you can zoom in on your targets quickly and efficiently. While the magnification level and objective diameter are a relatively low 8X25, the quality lenses make the images appear closer than they are.
The field of view is listed at 429 feet—ideal for viewing deer or elk on the move. Rubber armor provides you with a secure hold on the casing, even in wet conditions. Be forewarned that the eye relief is a mere 10mm, so if you wear glasses, you might want to seek out other options.
Fully multi-coated optics maximize light transmission for brighter views and improved color fidelity and contrast.
- Affordable price point
- Sleek design
- Fully multi-coated lenses
- Generous field of view
- Not as powerful as some of the more highly rated models
- Relatively low eye relief
Best Super Lightweight Binocular: Skygenius 8×21 Small Binoculars Compact
These some of the best binoculars for backpacking on account of their compact size, but they also fall under the category of the best inexpensive binoculars out there. Set at a price point low enough to satisfy bargain shoppers, this set makes it easy to enjoy the beauty of nature without breaking the bank in the process.
As advertised, these binoculars are exceptionally lightweight, weighing in at just over 6 ounces. By way of comparison, that’s only slightly heavier than most smartphones. They also feature a folding design that makes them easy to tuck into a pocket or backpack.
The 8X magnification and 21mm objective lens make these the least powerful binoculars on our list. However, these ratings are still high enough to provide you with reasonably sharp images, especially when the light is good. The field of view is 369 feet, making the Skygenius set suitable for viewing moving targets from up to 1000 feet away.
The lenses are multi-coated, with manual focus that’s easily controlled by a center knob. In fact, these are simple enough for children to use. The company offers reliable customer service and even includes a 12 month warranty with every purchase, which makes the low price tag even more impressive.
For Concert Theater Opera Mini Pocket Folding Binoculars with Fully Coated Lens For Travel Hiking Bird Watching.
- Low price point
- Convenient folding design
- 12-month warranty
- Relatively weak magnification
- Not as durable as some pricier models
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you test a set of binoculars?
Start by checking the magnification and objective lens diameter. Then check the waterproof rating and make sure the construction is durable enough to withstand long days on the trail. Also, find out how much they weigh, so you’re not stuck lugging a heavy set of binoculars around.
If you’re testing out the binoculars in person, choose a target object that’s a reasonable distance away–for example, a picture on the wall across the room. Peer through the eyepieces and use the center focus knob to home in on your target. If you find yourself having difficulty with the process, you might want to keep looking until you find a set you’re comfortable with.
What strength of binoculars is best?
It depends on what you’re doing. For example, astronomers prefer the highest magnification that they can get, but that’s because they’re viewing celestial objects, often from a stationary tripod. However, if you’re bird-watching, you don’t want the effect to be too intense, because you’ll have a harder time orienting the magnified field of vision with the tiny bird you’ve just spotted from afar.
Moreover, your target objects aren’t the only things that get bigger when you peer into the binoculars. Your hand movements are amplified too. That means that if your hands are a bit shaky, you might give yourself motion sickness by peering into binoculars with a magnification level of 12 or higher.
The best backpacking binoculars are lightweight yet sturdy, powerful yet easy to operate, and feature a reasonable degree of resistance to water. The more you learn about hiking binoculars, the easier it will be to choose a set that’s right for you.