Hiking and Binoculars
It is a duty of every Kiwi to climb Aoraki / Mt. Cook at least once in their lifetime. At least that’s what local patriots and most ardent of mountaineers would have you believe. But, putting those peculiar sentiments of moral obligation aside, they’re not exactly on the wrong track here. The view from the top is simply marvellous.
Hikers can appraise the neighbouring stone giants like Mt. Sefton (rather aptly named the Guardian of Mt. Cook) that stands amidst the icy hills of the sun-dappled Hooker Valley and trace the pyramid-like shape of Mt. Walter or the magnificent Minarets with their snow-capped summits. Moving beyond the languid slopes of Sealy Tarns and further down East, hikers and climbers can marvel at the picturesque white peaks of the Nun’s Veil. As the morning fog dissipates, the mighty mountain ranges of the Southern Alps come into the view. Those lucky ones who conquered the usually clouded-over Aoraki on a perfect day are in for a special reward. When the weather is crisp and bright, the eye can travel all the way over the frozen ridges of the Zodiac Glacier and land on the lovely jade arch on the far South that is the Lake Pukaki. Truly, it’s a sight for sore eyes.
But what if “as far as the eye can see” simply isn’t enough? It wasn’t that long ago that a pair of binoculars was a staple of every journey. It didn’t matter if that journey was a simple half-day trip spent with the family at a nearby lake or an extensive trek through the picaresque Bedouin cities hidden among sand dunes of Negev Desert. Not only were people excited by the heightened experience this optical device could offer, but a pair of binoculars was also a symbol of culture and education. Therefore every respectful household simply had to own one.
It’s a real shame that today, the potential of classic binoculars remains untapped as users forget that the chance to see the world anew lies right at the tip of their fingers. Imagine seeing high mountain ridges with snow-capped peaks, glaciated cornices pouring life into frosted lakes and evergreen forests through a pair capable hiking binoculars; in razor-sharp details and vivid colours. Pure, unbridled nature as it should be seen - without the obvious limitations placed on the human eye - represented in all its diversity and raw beauty. There is nothing like it. Whether you’re planning a birdwatching trip or hike to see mountainous animals in their natural habitat, a set of good binoculars will considerably enhance your hiking experience.
Priority: Small Mass (26-Diametre Lens)
When it comes to packing for a hike, it’s easy to go overboard. Adding extra equipment like a spare pair of fuzzy socks or - better yet - the entire inventory of your bathroom medicine cabinet might make you feel prepared for the journey ahead but after a few hours - let alone a few days or weeks - of trudging around with an overflowing backpack, you’ll likely regret every single gram of surplus. That’s where pocket binoculars come into play.
Pocket binoculars are the best-loved choice for hikers who prioritize practicality over optical performance. As their very name suggests, these binoculars are small enough to easily fit them inside your pocket or carry around attached to a neck strap. But don’t let their size fool you. These devices can pack quite a punch and make great companions for hiking, birdwatching (insofar as they offer magnification powers of 10x and above), general travel and any outdoor activity that calls for packing light.
The majority of pocket binoculars employs Roof system of prisms to ensure smaller dimensions and compact design. As far as the materials used are concerned, lightweight materials like aluminium and polycarbonate are the preferred options, with the added protection of rubber-armoured housing. Since their primary use is in the field, the interior is normally purged with dry nitrogen or argon gas to make pocket binoculars waterproof and fogproof, thus preventing any inside fogging or water damage when exposed to the harsh natural environment with its extreme temperature fluctuations and rough terrain.
Of course, there is no point of investing in expensive and heavy equipment if it’s only going to gather dust on the shelf. After all, you only want to add a little bit of fun to the long trek in the great wide open but don’t see yourself taking long breaks for nature observation to really justify packing what is likely to become an unwelcome deadweight in your backpack. Lucky for you, there is no need to debate yourself on whether to bring your pocket binoculars with. They’re so light and compact, you’ll barely know they’re there.
So, if fancy yourself an occasional peek through the magnifying glass to check out what the world that expands around you looks like up close and personal, consider what the market of pocket-sized binoculars has on offer.
With 228 grams to their name, near feather-light Steiner Safari Ultrasharp 8x22 are a foolproof choice for every pocket and will fit in it quite nicely, too. With the magnification power of 8x, these binoculars made by the famous German brand offer great image clarity and a surprisingly wide field of view. Thanks to these characteristics, the super-fast focus is just an added bonus and the next time you spot a great crested grebe diving for a fish, be right on its tail with these non-slip grip Steiner binoculars that feature a durable, rubberized housing. You don’t need to worry about getting a splash either since this model is purged with dry nitrogen gas and with that, fully waterproof and protected against internal fogging.
These pocket-sized Nature-Trek binoculars are really good value for money - a common denominator of Hawke products. They sport a single-hinge design and will easily fit into the palm of your hand. The rubber armouring ensures further protection of the optics contained within the ultra-light polycarbonate body that is tightly sealed and filled with nitrogen. Thanks to this neat combination of physical features, Nature Trek Compact 8x25 binoculars are more than good enough for a wide variety of outdoor adventures but truly excel in situations where every gram extra is deeply felt. This includes hiking, camping and travelling, especially in difficult weather conditions. Not to neglect the performance quality of this product, Hawke used the same optical system as in their full-sized models by simply scaling it down a notch.
Thanks to the diamond-patterned rubber armouring, Vortex Vanquish 10x26 immediately catches the eye. This ergonomic design enables a secure grip even when you carry in one hand. That will come in handy for hikers who enjoy challenging and complex terrain but don’t want to miss out on the raw beauty of nature. This long-range observation specialist was made for outdoor adventures where keeping distance is sometimes a necessary precaution. Surely, it’s better to look into the eye of a Cape buffalo through the eyepiece from a safe distance than try your luck with an eye-to-eye meeting, right? Unlike the majority of pocket binoculars that use Roof prisms, Vortex Vanquish models a reverse Porro prism design. This will give you an incredibly rich depth of field, ability to observe objects up close and a true to life 3D image. Should anything happen to your binoculars, the manufacturer will repair or replace them free of charge. Thanks to Vortex’s now famous lifetime VIP warranty, that’s one thing less to worry about.
Zeiss Terra ED Pocket 10x25 are premium binoculars, defined by the optical excellence that comes in a small package. Hydrophobic multi-coating on the objective lens maximizes light transmission so that even when there are clouds in the blue sky, nature enthusiasts can still enjoy very bright images with incredible resolution at an affordable price. These pocket-sized binoculars made in China are nitrogen purged, thus protected from internal fogging and water damage. Now add other desirable features like the easily foldable double-hinge design or the incredibly low weight of 310 grams and you’ve got yourself a sound companion for a walk on the wild side.
This is one of the two models in Kowa BD 25 series. With the ultra-compact body and a comfortable central focusing knob, these Japan-made binoculars are very user-friendly. What is more, Kowa BD 10x25 binoculars provide a clear and bright view-through, especially when used in optimal to medium light conditions. The magnification power of 10x makes it an ideal option for relaxed hikers who like to take their time observing finer details but just don’t see themselves using binoculars frequently enough to consider an investment purchase. As always, Kowa lets their products do the talking. The company’s vision focuses on building a loyal customer base with the help of best-in-class optics rather than be reliant on cheap marketing tricks. A fresh breeze in the world of aggressive ad campaigning.
Produced in Europe since the early 80s, these double-hinge binoculars gathered somewhat of a cult following among hikers. Out of all the binoculars mentioned, Leica Trinovid BCA 10x25 are the most compact ones. When it comes to just how foldable they are, seeing is believing. The fully multi-coated lens of BCA 10x25 model provides a great light transmission rate, razor-sharp details and brilliant colours. Thanks to the 10x magnification, they are a great choice not only for general nature observation but also birdwatching and extended hikes. The generous field of view makes scanning the landscape easier but if you’re more interested in finer things like butterfly wings, or mountain bluebird nests, don’t worry as Leica has got you covered. With the closest focus distance of 5 metres and Leica’s premium optical performance, you could study the vivid red swirls that decorate the bark of a Tanyosho pine without ever touching the tree. Not that anyone would stop you, of course - it’s not a van Gogh painting or anything. It just looks like one.
This model is made in Austria and, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the very best compact binoculars in the world. It’s an all-rounder that makes the decision of adding the meagre 345 grams to your hiking gear a no-brainer. Indeed, it doesn’t matter what the journey has in store in you because Swarovski CL Pocket 8x25 B is always good and ready for oodles of activities in the great outdoors such as hiking, birdwatching, safari trips and camping. The wide field of view is great for hikes who are interested in wildlife and other fast-moving objects. Then there’s the highly capable close focus for macro observations. The ergonomic double-hinge design is easily foldable, making the device super practical to store inside your pockets, while the rubber armouring guarantees a secure grip with one hand. With this optical giant in a pocket-sized format, you can simply do no wrong.
If you’ve got your sight set on travel-friendly binoculars that have been engineered for the highest quality image from the ground up, then Leica Ultravid BL/BR 8x20 is the answer to your needs. This device ticks off all requirements found in the category of pocket binoculars: it’s small in size and weighs only 240 grams, while the robust housing design and nitrogen purged insides render Ultravid 8x20 waterproof and insulated against internal fogging. As always, Leica clearly paid attention to every detail in the development of these premium binoculars and it shows. Twist-up eyecups, adjustable interpupillary distance and rubber armouring are just some of the factors that contribute to the top-notch ergonomics. Finding another binoculars in this category that offer this plentitude of high-end features for a comparable price is an impossible feat. The device is manufactured in Europe, using only the best cutting-edge technologies and materials. Fluoride glass, multiple lens coatings and an extremely precise focusing mechanism all contribute to the optical excellence achieved.
Whether you are counting puffins near the coastline of the Shetland Islands or just taking a short hike through the local vineyard, there is always a way to enhance your sensory experience - thanks to the near-endless potential of the great outdoors. With that in mind, Zeiss engineered high-performance binoculars that will have you action ready in virtually any observation situation. Hikers who value optical performance will be pleased to find that this little device packs quite a punch. Hydrophobic LotuTec® varnish protects the lens from dirt and dust particles, while the T* multi-layer coating helps them deliver brilliant image quality. The unparalleled field of view (130m/1000m) allows you to take in the landscape in all its glory. As far as the compact and lightweight design is concerned, these binoculars may not seem anything out of the ordinary but it’s their asymmetrical folding that shows Zeiss’ penchant for innovation. Unveiled by the prestigious German brand in late 2017, these binoculars are also the most recent launch of the listed bunch.
Priority: Optical Performance (32-Diametre Lens)
Experienced hikers who embark on the journey uphill with a specific goal in mind are not the ones to sacrifice optical performance in the name of practicality. They see little point in travelling light if that means their backpack lacks the one item that would allow them to truly take in the glorious scenery. Just imagine spotting what promises to be a group of Tibetan antelope or chiru, lying in the shade of rocks on a faraway slope and grabbing your pocket-sized binoculars, only to find out that they are simply not up to the task. You can just imagine that sinking gut feeling as the opportunity of a lifetime slips right through your fingers.
If you’re looking for capable binoculars that won’t disappoint you through longer periods of nature observations, yet are still convenient enough to store inside your backpack, then compact binoculars are the way to go. With lightweight housing and the ergonomic, non-slip design there is no concern of fatigue. You also don’t have to mount them on a tripod since they offer steady images due to their wrap-around size. These are also the most versatile type of binoculars, a dependable choice for any and all outdoor activities. Most compact binoculars are made of lightweight materials, with rubberized housing to endure the rough and tumble of long hikes in the wilderness.
It’s important to point out that in the category of sports optics, a higher magnification power doesn’t necessarily mean “better” and that is twice as true when it comes to hiking. Not only are higher magnification powers more susceptible to a shaky image effect when held in unsteady hands, those binoculars will also limit your field of view. Compare that to binoculars with a moderate magnification power of 8x, these are optimal for scanning for smaller and fast-moving animals that are harder to track like the black-lipped pika or colonies of the hoary marmot darting past surprised hikers on their mission to conquer the snow-line of North American mountain ranges.
Compact binoculars are the industry’s answer to bridging the gap between the practicality of pocket binoculars and the performance of full-sized ones. The best of both worlds.
This model offers the classic 8x32 configuration, the classic setup for moderate power compact binoculars. The 8x magnification makes it easier to maintain a steady image (compared to 10x and above) and will serve you well even during long observation periods, reducing the unnecessary eye strain. Thanks to the soft eyecup material and the generous 17-millimetre eye relief, Sightron SII Blue Sky 8x32 offers a pleasant seeing-through for people who wear glasses and those without them. The open bridge design is a rare find in this price range and we couldn’t be happier that Sightron decided to make a statement. Premium build that is still accessible to a wider audience. Note that this model is not suitable for hikers interested in macro observations as the closest focus distance of 18 metres is just not up to snuff.
The extremely lightweight Hawke Nature-Trek 8x32 binoculars are built of a polycarbonate wrapped in rubberized armour. Combine that with the ergonomic non-slip design and you’ve got yourself capable hiking binoculars that you can rely on when moving through harsh terrain and less than agreeable weather situations. The remarkable closest focus distance of 2 metres makes this model a top pick for bird watchers and people who explore stone giants because they find joy in little things. There’s nothing quite like the rush of spotting a shock of yellow against the hostile backdrop of limestone. But it’s only with a pair of capable binoculars that you’ll be able to truly appreciate the rare beauty that is Rhaetian poppy and its gentle petals braving the harsh mountain winds. The 18 millimetres of eye relief are practically unbeatable in this category, making this model also a favourite of users who wear glasses.
For enjoyng the great outdoors on a budget, this compactly built Diamondback model has little to no competition. With only 440 grams, this is the lightest model in this category of products. Vortex Diamondback 8x32 makes it easy to follow fast-moving objects due to the wide field of view (130 metres) and the quick but smooth central focusing wheel. Though this model was not specifically engineered as close focus binoculars, it sports a closest focusing distance of only 2 metres, providing great macro observations of indigenous plants and insects. If you’re on the hunt for inexpensive entry-level binoculars that can still showcase all the possibilities of hiking optics, this little piece is a perfect try-out.
This durable piece of optical prowess comes in a waterproof and fogproof housing that is rubber-covered and thus well-equipped for the rough and tumble of outdoor activities. The central focusing knob is big, easy to manipulate. Whether you’re observing fast-moving hordes of the Himalayan Tahr or appreciating the upslope backdrop of New Zealand, the fully multi-coated objective lens and the wide field of view (131m) have got you covered. Kowa gathered quite a following among wildlife enthusiasts and birdwatchers in particular, as the Japanese company has a long history of producing top-notch optical devices for ornithology. With that in mind, the close focus of 1.8 metres comes as no surprise.
Thanks to the lightweight aluminium chassis and compact construction, the smallest model of Zeiss Conquest HD series won’t take up much space in your rucksack. It’s suitable not only for hikers who travel light but also for birders. The outstanding field of view (140 m) allows you to follow small and fast-moving objects without any effort, while the stunning close focus (1.5 m) allows for crystal clear macro observations of local flora and fauna. Because Zeiss uses only the best technology, a powerful HD lens system and ED glass, you’ll be able to enjoy all the finest details in natural colours. Zeiss Conquest HD 8x32 binoculars are engineered and manufactured in Germany.
Living up to the expectations set by the rich legacy of the Trinovid brand, Leica released the multi-faceted Trinovid HD 8x32 binoculars. With the ultra-light magnesium housing and premium optical performance, this device is a stellar example of sometimes untapped potential the category of compact binoculars truly presents. Time passes differently in the safe haven of green earth, away from city life. So the next time you find yourself catching the last glimpses of its splendour before the night falls, the superb 90% light transmission rate of multi-coated HD glass lens will surprise you with their performance in low light situations. Really, the only shortcoming of this device is the relatively narrow field of view (124m) but with the close focus of only 1 metre and zero-tint image clarity, we just don’t have much room for complaints.
With 655 grams of weight, this Nikon model is quite a bit heavier than its competitors but it more than makes up for it with its outstanding characteristics. Looking at the sturdy and rubberized housing, this device is ready for the unpredictability of hiking expeditions. The 18.5-millimetre eye relief ensures comfortable observations, without putting too much strain on the eyes. Hikers who enjoy wildlife observations can rely on the generous field of view (130 metres) and shake-free image that comes with the moderate 8x magnification. Nikon EDG 8x32 DCF model is produced in Japan.
Of course, experienced hikers know that nothing can compare to touching the crystal clear waters of glacial lakes or entering the thick foliage of primaeval forests, unmarred by human experience. But when we’re advised to keep a safe distance, a view through the Ultravid 8x32 HD-Plus lens is the next best thing. Utilizing only the best SCHOTT HT™ glass and multiple lens coatings, these binoculars offer an incredibly high light transmission rate and will amaze you with vivid colours due to the creme de la creme colour fidelity. The magnesium housing, twist-up eyecups and smooth focusing mechanism contribute to the superb ergonomics of the Ultravid series. As far as the field of application is concerned, these binoculars are incredibly universal but engineered to satisfy even the most demanding of users. All of this optical prowess is neatly wrapped in the timeless and understated Leica style.
By engineering the CL Companion 8x30, Swarovski created a middle ground between the super practicality of pocket binoculars and the superior optical performance of compact ones. The polycarbonate and aluminium body weights only 500 and forms a single-bridge design, wrapped in rubber armouring. Fluoride-containing HD lens are multicoated for an improved light transmission rate. Of course, the smaller size has some downsides like the relatively narrow field of view (124m) and the closest focusing distance of 3 metres.
For hikers, who are willing to size-up, Swarovski EL 8x32 is definitely a preferable option. For just 110 grams of added weight, you get multi-coated and fluoride containing HD anti-reflective lens that provide improved light transmission rate and colour fidelity. Then there’s also the much more generous field of view (140m) and closest focus distance (2.1 m) that will the most versatile of hikers. Both models are made featuring the famous field-flattening Swarovision lens that optically remove the curvature of the Earth and guarantee a rather surreal view-through.
Find the Right One
As we can see, binoculars are not to be missed on any exploration in the great outdoors. The optics market is brimming with devices of all shapes and sizes, so consider your wants and needs before purchasing the best hiking binoculars for you. Beyond that challenging decision lies a world just waiting to be seen through zero-tinted glasses.
This review is not sponsored and is completely unbiased. It is made simply out of our own interest in the optics and provides an objective opinion on tested binoculars. Big thanks to Optics-Trade who kindly offered us their products for testing and review.