I’m suffering from a bit of binocular envy after our recent trip to the Pacific Northwest. We were standing amid a field of unbelievable wildflower beauty studying the glaciers on Mt. Rainier in the distance. Brad kept describing what he was seeing on the glacier through his binoculars, and I was missing the show while fighting to focus my cheap set. His old Bushnell Powerviews are one of the best compact binoculars for hiking I’ve ever used.
Which got me thinking, I know Brad has some of the best compact binoculars for hiking. But alas, that model which he has had in his pack forever is no longer available. So if I was going to buy a new pair for myself, maybe I could find something even better! (Yes, in case you were wondering I am a little competitive.) And that led me down the spiral of researching for the best binocular reviews and best binoculars under 100 that I could use too. To better help you with your own search, this post contains affiliate links to make it easier for you to find products I have mentioned. You don’t pay any extra and in some cases I could earn a small commission.
So if you’re looking for some travel binoculars and not sure about which ones to pick, here’s what my days of research on the best hiking binoculars has revealed.
Things to Consider to Find the Best Compact Binoculars for Hiking
There’s a lot to look at while choosing the best binoculars for hiking or trekking trips – power, weight, durability, cost, waterproofing, etc. Let’s look at what really makes a difference when selecting your compact binoculars.
Magnification, that’s the reason we use binoculars! So that we can see things at a distance without having to squint like we’re staring at the sun looking for a tiny speck on it. Here’s where the magnification and lens diameter come in.
The magnification or power of the lens is denoted by a single number that shows how many times larger you will see your target. For handheld binoculars, to compensate for the effects of shaking hands binoculars normally range from seven times (7x) to twelve times(12x). For magnification much above that, you’ll probably want to use a tripod because the slightest movement can disturb your view. Astronomers and the military have the most powerful binoculars with magnification going up to 25x. But for hiking we’ll do okay with something from 7x to 12x.
The lens diameter or objective diameter is the number after the x on the focus dial. The diameter can range from as low as 22mm to as high as 150mm. The larger the diameter, the more light your hiking binoculars will gather, resulting in a sharper image. Of course, again here the 70mm to 150mm range is for astronomers while us simple hiking folk can get by with a range of 35mm to 50mm.
Say for example, we want to compare binoculars with powers of 8×40 and 8×56. Since the magnifications is the same here – 8 in both – the binoculars with a lens diameter of 56 will let more light in and hence be more powerful.
You’ll find the magnification and the lens diameter on the focus dial which is on your end of the binoculars.
Field of View
The Field of View of your binoculars is the total area you can see through your binoculars. It is usually inversely proportional to the magnification. Most manufacturers will specify the field of view as how many feet you can see at 1000 yards.
If you need to zoom in a lot, you’ll need a narrower field of view which gives you a sharper focus. But a narrow field will be more difficult to find moving targets. On the other hand the wider field of view is perfect for looking at targets on the move, but has a lesser focus. An easy comparison would be watching deer sleep under a tree (narrow field of view) versus watching deer run across the park (wider field of view).
It’s time to decide between the Sumo wrestler and the boxing lightweight champion. If you go on a safari to Africa, you can carry those bulky binoculars with their larger objective lenses and set them up on tripods. If you’re going hiking however, lugging heavy binocular accessories around will be a problem.
There are some amazing lightweight binoculars and small powerful binoculars out there. So look for something lightweight and compact, something that you won’t feel like leaving at home every time, and something that could fit in your pocket. Depends on the size of your pocket, of course!
In terms of durability, we have to measure each brand or binocular on it’s own. Some of the cheaper brands provide amazing power and are lightweight, but one crack from a rock and there’s $50 down the drain.
Look for binoculars that are made from lightweight alloys like magnesium for strength. Many have rubber coatings to withstand rough use and wear and tear.
Other features that matter while choosing the best binoculars for hiking include water resistance, fog proofing, anti-slip armor, eye relief, and good quality lens coatings.
Compact waterproof binoculars are a real necessity while hiking or trekking. Even if you don’t get drenched by rain you may well have to walk through streams on your hike. You don’t have to buy the best waterproof binoculars, but try to buy one that will survive a few splashes at least.
Look at the IPX rating on your binoculars. An IPX rating of 0 means it isn’t water-resistant, 4 can resist splashes, and 8 can be submerged under a meter of water.
Binoculars can steam up in humid conditions and make it difficult to see. Fog proofing is essential to good binoculars. Many manufacturers use nitrogen purging or argon purging for this. In both these methods, the air inside the binoculars is replaced with an inert gas. Nitrogen being a cheaper gas is more commonly used, while argon is used for expensive binoculars that require superior performance.
The best travel binoculars from the best brands cost a lot, sometimes as high as $500 or more. But given the somewhat rough nature of hiking as a sport and the increased chances of it falling or being dashed against rocks or trees, it’s sometimes a good idea to opt for the best inexpensive binoculars.
When light enters a lens, it gets reflected on the surface of the lens and a part of the light is lost. The application of a thin chemical anti-reflective coating reduces reflection of light, improves transmission and gives us better image clarity.
The different types of anti-reflective lens coatings are:
- Coated optics, with one or more surfaces covered in a single layer.
- Fully coated, with all air-to-glass surfaces being anti-reflective coated.
- Multi-coated, with one or more surfaces having multiple layers of coatings.
- Fully multi-coated, where all air-to-glass surfaces are coated with multiple layers.
Eye relief is the distance that your eyes need to be from the ocular lens to look at something clearly. Longer eye relief distances are more comfortable when using binoculars.
If your eye is too close or too far from the ocular lens aka rear lens of the binocular, the view will be vignetted or darkened at the sides. Learning about Binocular Eye Relief was an “ah-ha” moment for me! The cheap binoculars I’m currently using only have an eye relief of about 5 mm. And I always find them uncomfortable to view through. I thought it was just my lack of experience with binoculars!
Brad absolutely hates taking his glasses on and off when using binoculars so for him it is important to have the best binoculars for hiking with a good eye relief distance. Then he can leave his glasses on. Eye relief can range from a few mm to 25 mm, but anything over 15 mm is good for glasses.
Brands sometimes play a big role in the quality of goods you purchase. With binoculars, if you buy a Nikon, Vortex, Steiner, Swarovski, or Bushnell, you can’t go wrong. But there are other players in the market that are great too; Wingspan, Celestron, Aurosports, Vanguard, Leika, Zeiss, and more. Read the reviews and pick the best one for you.
Our Top Choices for the Best Compact Binoculars for Hiking
Bushnell Legacy WP 8×42 are a real steal for great wildlife viewing:
The Bushnell Legacy WP 8×42 could very well be one of the best binoculars under 100 dollars. With a magnification power of 8, a lens diameter of 42 mm, and a wide field of view ranging from 199 to 126 feet, it is also one of the best binoculars for wildlife viewing.
The binoculars are fully multi-coated, waterproof and weatherproof. Weighing 34 oz, these are one of the heavier pocket binoculars I like but it has some great features that make this pair worth serious consideration. They can also be used with a tripod and is a real steal at well under $100. The eye relief of 14 mm, twist-up eyecups, and center focus system complete the package.
Vortex Optics Diamondback 10×32 super wide range of view is perfect for really long distances:
The ultra-wide field of view of 340 feet found in the Vortex Optics Diamondback 10×32 makes it easy to cover more ground. They come with adjustable eyecups and interpupillary distance (IPD), which is the distance between the centres of the left and right eye. That means they will be easy to adjust when sharing among your family. Weighing in at only 15 oz these are an easy addition to your backpack. With a neck strap, fitted case and lifetime Vortex warranty, these high powered binoculars are definitely worth the extra investment.
Nikon Trailblazer ATB Waterproof 8×25 are super lightweight binoculars
Although these are not auto focus binoculars, the smooth central focus knob provides quick and effortless viewing; while the multi-coated optics provide excellent brightness and perfect resolution. With an eye relief of 10 mm, field of view of 429 feet and weighing just 10 oz, these are one of the best compact binoculars under 100.
Celestron 71330 Nature Binocular has super cool extras:
Want something super cool? For just a few more dollars you can add an iPhone adapter that lets you shoot pictures and videos through the binocular lenses. Use the tripod connection and you have some amazing film!
Wingspan Optics Spectator 8×32 are perfect for the whole family:
Celestron Nature 10 x 25 Monocular for when pack weight is critical
Now that you know a bit more about backpacking binoculars and how to choose them based on field of view, power, eye relief, weight and more, you can buy the best compact binoculars for hiking. Isn’t that perfect? A great pair of binoculars also make an amazing gift for guys who love hiking.
Don’t forget to Save this to your Hiking Ideas Board! And if you have a favorite Compact Binocular for hiking, please share with us in the comments below. We’ll take a look and just maybe add to our favorite list too!
This post was originally published on September 4, 2019. It was updated on 6/21/21 in order to provide the most current information for you.