If you’re like us, seeing wildlife is a big part of the thrill of travel and we’ve had plenty of exciting wild animal encounters throughout the Americas including an amazing array of birds in Belize, penguins in Antarctica and these guys in the Galapagos Islands. It helps that Karen inherited eagle eyes from her dad. It also helps to have a good pair of binoculars, like our new Steiner Optics Navigator Pro 7X30 binos made by the only company in the world that focuses solely on binoculars (buy on Amazon or from B&H). Of course, price matters. However, no matter what your bino budget is here are the basics about how to buy the best binoculars for travel.
How to buy binoculars: key terms
All binoculars come with a confounding set of numbers, such as 8X42. Once and for all, here’s what those numbers mean.
The first number refers to the power of magnification. In the case of 8X42, those binoculars have the power to make things look eight times bigger than they would with the naked eye. So, if you’re looking at something that’s 800 feet away it will look like it’s only 100 feet away.
The number that appears after the X refers to the size of the objective lens in millimeters. The larger the number, the larger the objective lens. Why does that matter? Because larger objective lenses let in more light which means you see brighter images. This is especially important in low light situations like dense forests, cloudy days or at dusk or dawn.
How to buy binoculars: lens coatings
Like cameras, binoculars are only as good as the lenses and one of the key elements of the lenses is the coating on the outside. This coating controls how you see wave lengths of light which affects how you see color when using the binoculars. Low end binoculars often have lens coatings which drop some wave lengths which can result in color distortion.
Higher end binoculars, like Steiners, apply multiple coatings to ensure all wave lengths reach your eye ensuring that you see all colors true to life. Steiner actually created a new lens coating process for its binoculars.
How to buy binoculars: focus
It’s true that different binoculars are suited to different needs because seeing a small close object in low light conditions, like spotting a bird in dense jungle, requires different performance than seeing a large object far away in bright light, like a whale in the ocean at distance. For most people, it’s not practical to buy binoculars for each and every situation. That’s where a little something called Sports Auto Focus, offered on many Steiner binoculars models, comes in.
Our Steiner binoculars have Sport Auto Focus and it’s terrific. Karen set the focus of the binoculars one time and the Sport Auto Focus now maintains her settings between 60 feet (20 meters) and infinity. This means she can be looking at a blue footed boobie on the shore of a nearby island one second, then whip around and look out to sea at a pod of dolphins in the far distance without the need to change the focus at all. It’s honestly our favorite thing about our Steiners.
How to buy binoculars: durability
In recent years it’s become easier to find lighter binoculars that are still high quality, which is good news for travelers. But the truth is that quality lenses and a durable body add weight. Our Steiners, for example, weigh 18.5 ounces, in part because they are housed in tough rubber which guards against damage from drops and bumps and provides a comfy, grippy surface in your hands.
For us, a bit of extra weight was worth it for better lenses and better body protection and carrying our Steiners has never been an issue thanks, in part, to the nifty strap we talk about in the next section.
Besides dropping, the other big travel threat to binoculars is moisture inside the binoculars. We’ve taken our Steiners into many super humid situations with confidence because most Steiner models have a nitrogen pressure system which uses dry nitrogen inside the binoculars to reduce the internal oxygen content (and, therefore, any humidity in the oxygen) to a minimum.
How to buy binoculars: worthy accessories
Since Eric almost always has a camera to his face, Karen is the one most often using the binoculars and she’s been carrying binoculars around her neck for decades but she never went for the cross-chest strap accessory because, well, they just scream “bird geek!”. However, we got a cross-chest strap for our Steiners and it makes a world of difference.
First, the weight of the binoculars is evenly distributed, so neck ache is eliminated. The chest straps also means that Karen can walk quickly, run or even gallop on horseback without having a pair of binocular banging against her chest because the cross strap holds them in place. Yes, she looks like a bird geek, but the benefits are worth it.
Another smart accessory to consider is a small, detachable external floatation device that will keep your binoculars afloat if they fall into the water.
There are many more math-intensive things to consider–like field of vision, zoom configurations and prisms–when buying binoculars, but these binoculars basics should get you started. This hyper-detailed binoculars buying guide from B&H is a great resource if you feel like studying up even more.
Steiner Optics supplied a pair of binoculars for us to use and review out here on the road