Optics: what you need for success in the West

The right binoculars — and other optics — for this varied landscape

Brady Miller

Western hunters deal with long distances and a wide variety of terrain types. Perhaps more than any other piece of hunting gear, with optics you really get what you pay for. You may have heard this advice before, but we have to say it again: Spend as much as you can on the best optic quality you can afford. You want optics with good ergonomics and bright, crisp images; cheaper optics are likely to have hazy images and lead to lots of headaches.

Quality optics will last a long time. High-end optics have definitely improved over time, but a quality optic is like a Rolex watch. “Is my Rolex going to be outdated 20 years from now? Heck no! It’s a masterpiece of a timepiece. It’s always going to function the same way,” explained Joel Harris of Zeiss Optics. “I still have a pair of [Zeiss] 10x40 binoculars with rubber armor coating and still use them. The steps that we take forward in light transmission, optical quality, and color … a lot of that you’re not experiencing all the benefits through the human eye. A lot of those improvements can only be measured by spectrograph.” In other words, investing in a great optic now means you’ll be using on your hunts for years.

Here are our picks for the optics western hunters should pack on their next hunt, as well as what should be on their wish lists.

Essential for Every Western Hunt:

Every hunter needs a pair of 10x binoculars that hang around the neck. The 10x magnification is ideal for the open spaces you’ll be glassing because of their wider field of view (FOV) than higher levels of magnification. Most quality 10x binoculars will also give you enough brightness and light to see at dawn and dusk. Although more powerful than 8x or 6x binoculars you’ll typically see out east, 10x binoculars can still be easily handheld for long glassing periods.

If you plan to do most of your hunting in the densely forested areas of Oregon, Washington, Montana or Idaho, 8x binoculars are just fine. If you already have a good pair of 10x binoculars, invest in some quality rain gear before shelling out for a second pair of lower-powered binoculars. There is no one right answer.

Buying Tips: What Binocular Magnification Means

Take a pair of 10x42 binoculars. Here’s how the math works:10 is the power of magnification. The objective lens (that’s the one that’s farthest from your eye) is 42. You divide 10 into 42, you get 4.2 mm. This is the diameter of light that’s being transmitted to the eye. The most an average young man’s eye can dilate is to 6 or 7 mm. So there’s still some wiggle room for more light to get in.

Now take 8x42 binoculars.Divide 8 into 42, you get 5.25 mm. That’s a bigger beam of light coming to the eye.

Now do the math for a pair of 15x56 binoculars.See how the light diameter is still close to 4 mm? Higher magnification levels often have a bigger objective lens to not lose on light transmission. The trade-off is a heavier, bulkier binocular.

No matter the magnification level of a binocular, they will be easier on your eyes to look through for long periods of time than a monocular or spotting scope. Our brains can process details better with two eyes than one. This means you’ll see more detail through a 30x optic using two eyes than through a 40x optic using just one eye. But be warned: anything over 20x is extremely uncomfortable to look through at first. It will take some time to get used to that level of magnification.

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For a Hunt in Country Where You Can See a 1/2 Mile Away or More:

You will want some higher-power magnification to see animals with precision. Time for high power binoculars and/or a spotting scope plus a quality tripod. What to look for:

  • High power binoculars include 12x, 15x, even 20x magnification. The higher power means a higher price tag, quality brands like Zeiss now have some accessible options that don’t compromise quality. Glassing at a higher power means you can find animals bedded down just by the twitch of an ear or small part of the body.

  • A spotting scope let’s you zoom in to see the details of that buck you’ve glassed. The zoom eyepieces on these can be anything from 15-45x or 20-60x magnifications. You’ll be able to pick a single animal out of a herd or track down that buck you’ve had your sights on much more easily. Advances in optics mean that lightweight and compact spotting scopes are now the norm. Even better? Digiscoping with your cell phone mounted on your spotting scope with something like a Phone Skope adaptor. Shooting stills and video will allow you to review what you’ve seen that day once you head back to camp.

  • A quality tripod provides steady, non-vibration for comfortable glassing with your binoculars or spotting scope. These higher magnification levels mean you’ll be able to pull objects out of the brush and find what you’re looking for, from elk to deer. When selecting a tripod, look for something with good stability and height made from metal or carbon fiber. If you prefer to glass standing, make sure the tripod is tall enough to glass comfortably. The tripod’s head is the most important part for smooth glassing. Invest in a professional grade tripod that has a head with ball bearings, such as those made by Manfrotto. The ball bearings will allow you to pan right and left smoothly and easily. Make sure you have the correct mounting plates for all your optics, including your camera, for pictures after the harvest.

Buying Tips: Extras That Are Worth Every Penny:

  • Waterproofing: Here again, you get what you pay for. Choose fully coated, waterproof optics. Those filled with nitrogen will remain clear, no matter the weather conditions. A hunt is not the time for fogged optics.

  • Ergonomics: Optics need to feel good in your hands, especially when you’re looking at hours of observation.

  • Smart lens coatings: Good coatings make for better light transmission through the optic, meaning a brighter image. Coatings will also increase contrast or allow a lens to better shed water and dust.

For a Backcountry Hunt or Any Hunt Where You Will Be Hiking in over 1 Mile:

If you’re going to climb or go long distances with a heavy pack, you want optics that are light and small. Choose multi-purpose optics like a binocular or riflescope with an integrated rangefinder. Vortex Fury HD 10x42 rangefinding binoculars or Zeiss Victory 10x42 rangefinding binoculars or a great option if you're looking to save some weight and have an optic that is a combo of a rangefinder and a binocular.

For a Hunt Where Your Truck or Quad Is within Easy Reach:

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Photo credit: Marlon Holden

Time to reach for some ultra binoculars, also known as “big eyes.” Kowa’s Highlander and a range by Docter Optics offer incredible magnification for both eyes at once. These giant binoculars are like having two spotting scopes mounted side by side. Of course, these optics are hefty in both price and weight, so don’t plan on carrying them far.

For a Desert Hunt:

Typically a desert hunt will be on open terrain. Desert mule deer and Coues deer are smaller animals that move less in the heat. Bring the magnification because precision glassing is more necessary than in the mountains.

Buying Tips: Try Out Optics to See What Feels Good

Try out different optics. Optics differ in “the quality of materials and design, but mostly by the amount of hand work and degree of care in their making,” Harris says. Good optics offer crisp, sharp and bright images, allowing you to hunt at a higher level. We can’t wait to see the optics of the future and what that will bring.

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