How To Choose Binoculars For Hiking & Backpacking (Best UK Guide)
If you’re planning a backpacking or hiking excursion don’t forget to pack a decent pair of binoculars. There will be lots of opportunities to watch the local wildlife as you trek across unknown terrain, but most of the animals you see will be from a distance. This is a necessary survival tactic for most wildlife, and although you would never harm an animal, they don’t know that.
So the best chance you have of seeing any amazing wild creatures in detail is through the lenses of a decent pair of binoculars. To get great close up views you don’t need a massive pair of binoculars that weigh a ton and won’t fit into your pack. There are many great compact binoculars available nowadays that will be perfect for taking trekking without breaking the bank.
What To Look For In Hiking Binoculars
There are a number of things to consider before making the final decision on which binoculars to take backpacking with you. They include;
Bigger isn’t necessarily better, especially when it comes to binoculars. The thing to remember about large binoculars is, they weigh a lot too. It’s all to do with the size of the objective lens (the one closest to the object you’re looking at), a large objective lens can be of great importance for image quality and clarity but, the larger the objective lens diameter, the heavier the overall weight of the binoculars will be as well.
Compact Binoculars – objective lens diameter below 30mm
Mid size binoculars – objective lens diameter of between 30 to 40mm
Full size binoculars – objective lens diameter of greater than 40mm.
When your only possessions have to fit into one small pack, it’s easy to get carried away and squeeze in too many unnecessary possessions. Cut everything down to a bare minimum and pack a small, lightweight pair of binoculars. The most you can afford to allocate in weight for binoculars is around 1kg (2lb), many decent binoculars weigh in at half of this.
Consider investing in a binocular harness; these are designed to redistribute the weight as evenly as possible so you won’t suffer from achy muscles or joints. The harness also prevents the binoculars from flapping or swinging about which will prevent damage to you or your binoculars.
Most people assume this is the most important feature in the world of binoculars, how far can they zoom? How much closer will everything be? I want the highest magnification possible right? The answers to these questions might surprise you, for example too much magnification is a bad thing and will help you see less not more.
That’s because we’re only human and with humanity comes frailty. You see, whenever we hold a weighty object out in front of our arms for extended periods of time (like binoculars to watch the wildlife), our arms shake slightly. Under normal circumstances that shake is unnoticeable but under high magnification that shake is exaggerated to the point of blurry images through the binocular lenses.
Any magnification of 10x or below is fine for hand held binoculars, but above 10x and you’ll need a tripod to steady the image. As we’re talking about travelling binoculars, a tripod is out of the question. So we need lower magnification.
The Objective Lens Diameter
We touched on this earlier, but the objective lens diameter is an important factor when it comes to binoculars. Not only does the objective lens diameter determine the size of the binoculars, it is also responsible for how much light can gather in the binoculars. This is responsible for how bright the image you can see through the binocular lens is. The objective lens plays an active part in the overall performance of the binoculars.
The larger the objective lens diameter, the brighter the image will be, this is far more important than the magnification size. Although they are always shown together as they are both quite important factors, you’ll see a series of numbers on the binoculars separated by the letter X, something like 7×25, 8×32, or 10×42.
These numbers tell us the magnification times (7x means 7 times magnification) and the objective lens diameter in millimeters (25mm) so in our first example 7×25 we have a magnification of 7 times with an objective lens diameter of 25 mm.
What Are The Best Size Binoculars For Backpacking/Hiking?
There are many schools of thought on the best size binoculars to take backpacking/hiking, many backpackers would recommend compact binoculars (with an objective lens size below 30mm). Others say mid size binoculars (with an objective lens between 30 to 40mm) are better for backpacking. Here at Binocular Base, we like to keep an open mind on most things and what’s best for some won’t suit others.
The arguments for compact and mid size binoculars have their merits, they quote overall size and weight as their main reason. However, due to modern technological and optical advancements, we would recommend getting the best from your backpacking binoculars and for us, that means a decent pair of 8×42 roof prism binoculars will suit all of your backpacking requirements. They are light enough (around ½ kg) small enough (12.5×14.2 cm) powerful enough (8x) with a large enough objective lens (42mm) to allow plenty of light to gather, a FoV of 7.4°. This makes them perfect for everyday usage, and small enough to carry in your backpack without compromising on optical ability.
Field Of View
The field of view (FoV) is everything you can see through the binocular lens from left to right and everything in between without moving your head. The important thing to remember here is, the field of view narrows as the magnification increases. For instance, if you look at a horse in a field with a tree to either side of the horse.
Then close in on the horse to see it in finer detail, you won’t be able to see the trees anymore, because you increase the magnification and narrowed the FoV.
Which Type Of Binoculars Are Best For Hiking?
Binoculars come in two main types, they both have good and bad points, and to save time let’s just go through the highlights.
Porro Prism Binoculars
These look like a capital M and have been around for centuries (literally). They work using two offset prisms in each lens to magnify and send the image upright. Due to these offset prisms they’re fairly easy to damage which would lead to headaches and eye strain. Porro prism binoculars are heavier, bigger, weigh more, bulkier, easier to damage, harder to waterproof, but cost cheaper for similar quality optics than roof prisms.
Roof Prism Binoculars
These look like a capital H and have the prisms set up in the roof of the lens tubes. They are smaller, lighter, easier to pack, easier to conceal, easier to waterproof, more compact but cost considerably more than comparable Porro prisms.
This term is used to describe how close to an object you can be and still see it clearly through the lens of the binoculars. There are specialist close focus binoculars that will stay in focus at 18 inches, but they don’t feature too well at regular distances.
This means that if you do require close focus as a feature you will lose out on regular magnification however, a decent pair of backpacking/trekking binoculars will have an average close focus of around 6ft 6 inches. Which for most of us is more than sufficient.
Other Considerations For Backpacking Binoculars
We’ve covered the basics so far, now let’s get onto other features that could distinguish a good pair of binoculars from a great pair of binoculars.
Waterproofing & Fog Proofing
A decent pair of binoculars is going to cost you over £100.00, there’s no getting away from that. So it makes perfect sense to protect your investment wisely. We live in one of the wettest countries in Europe (London has an average of 557.4mm of rain per year ) so waterproof binoculars are a good idea.
There is an industry coding system that is slightly confusing  so we’ve narrowed it down for you. Basically any binoculars with an IPX6 or above will protect your binoculars from the worst of the British weather.
Binoculars fog up when exposed to rapid changes in temperature, like exiting a warm coach to stand on the cold roadside watching a herd of deer. To prevent this fogging up, the air is removed from the lens tubes of the binoculars and replaced with an inert gas. Nitrogen or argon contain no moisture and so cannot react during extreme temperature fluctuations.
Dust Proof Binoculars
Most decent brands include waterproofing and fog proofing as standard but it’s well worth checking. Another interesting point about fog proofing binoculars is that once the gas is sealed into the lens tubes, it cannot escape, and by the same token, no dust or debris can enter. This protects your lenses from dust dirt and microbial detritus including mould spores that could cause viewing problems.
Not necessarily an issue if you’re backpacking in the UK or around Europe, but if you are venturing further afield to say, Africa or some other extremely hot country, heat can be a problem for binoculars. You’ll need a pair that are hermetically sealed to protect the inner workings from heat damage. Never leave binoculars on car seats, dashboards or parcel shelves as the sun’s UV rays and the extreme heat can cause internal and external damage.
Binocular Lens & Glass
The most important part of any optical equipment, binoculars included, is the glass that’s used to make the lenses and the prisms. Optical glass, like any other product, has varying degrees of excellence. The absolute top quality optical glass is BAK-4, and you’ll find this used on the very top quality binoculars from the best brands of binocular manufacturers. There is another, more common glass used for binoculars which is BK-7.
BK-7 is still premium quality optical precision glass but it has slightly more imperfections than BAK-4 glass. However, if you see either of these terms in the specs for the pair of binoculars you are considering, they will be top quality optics.
If you see Ed glass written in the specs it refers to the glass used in the prisms. ED or Extra-low Dispersion glass allows for a clearer, crisper image with full retention of colours and no haloing around the image. ED glass is another sign of top quality precision optics.
Decent binoculars should include coated lenses to cut down on glare, improve light transmission, contrast and brightness. There are a number of various lens coating claims but the best in our opinion is Fully Multi-Coated Lens Coating. This ensures that all of the lenses, internal and external, have been fully coated with multiple layers that will give you a lifetime of decent viewing.
To prevent accidental damage to your binoculars in the case of dropping, or colliding with rock faces etc it’s a good idea to have a protective coating on your binoculars. Either rubberised or a shock resistant polycarbonate body. The top brands have this all covered and included in the price but be sure to check before purchasing.
All of the top quality binocular manufacturers give a limited lifetime warranty on their products. This means that for as long as you own the binoculars and treat them with respect (don’t deliberately damage them), they will repair or replace them in the event of any problems arising.
Backpacking/Hiking Binoculars Price
To get a decent pair of binoculars suitable for taking on backpacking or hiking expeditions, that will withstand any of the rigours you’re likely to encounter, you can expect to pay at least £150.00. We would strongly recommend the Hawke Nature-Trek 8×42 Binoculars they have everything you’ll need and more besides and all for the reasonable price of £149.00.
Binoculars For Hiking/Backpacking 10 Point Checklist
To be absolutely sure you’re on the right track when looking for binoculars for hiking or backpacking you should consider the following points;
- Magnification & Objective Lens Diameter
- Binocular Type
- Lens & Prismatic Glass
- Lens Coatings
- Waterproofing & Fog Proofing
- Protective Coating
Frequently Asked Questions
We would recommend a roof prism 8×42 binocular size to be the best size for hiking.
To get the best from your backpacking expedition you should bring binoculars with you.
When not in use you should carry your binoculars in your backpack, but whilst hiking a harness is the most convenient way to carry your binoculars.
HD binoculars are better as they give a clearer, brighter image with no loss of colour or haloing.