When packing your bags for that much needed vacation, it’s not always practical to be weighed down by your best set of optics. When selecting a pair of binoculars for traveling, size is everything. But before you reach your destination and pick up the cheapest pair of compact binoculars you can find, there are numerous things to consider. Read on to see some of our recommendations for good travel binoculars.
One of the greatest challenges faced by travelers is the age-old question of what to pack. While in years past this has been a tricky exercise, in these days of airlines charging for even a single normal suitcase, and imposing penalties higher than a traffic ticket for that suitcase being overweight, the decision of what to bring and what to leave behind has taken on a whole new level of importance.
As anyone who has ever set out their belongings across a bed or table in preparation for a trip knows, looking at the assembled items causes a thousand questions to run through the mind:
“Will I really get any time to use the pool and need my swimsuit?”
“If the weather is as warm as the reports predict do I really need that jacket?”
“I wonder if I’ll get any time to (see that monument, do any bird watching, take in a ballgame) and want my binoculars with me?”
That last question is a particularly tricky one. For anyone interested in an activity that requires binoculars or a telescope to fully enjoy – bird watching, arena sporting events, sightseeing – travel binoculars are the answer. There’s always the option to dash off to the local sporting goods store at your travel destination and pick up a cheap pair to tide you over. But this means an additional expenditure of time and money, and the optic obtained will most often be less than satisfactory for the purpose. Still, unless the trip itinerary has time included for participation in one’s favorite optic-requiring activity, bringing along a standard binocular (not to mention a spotting scope and tripod) is likely to be a waste of effort, space, weight, time, and possibly even money should it be lost, stolen, or damaged during the trip. Of course, with a standard binocular, if you do bring it along it will likely be back at the hotel when you most want or need it.
There is a solution to this conundrum – obtain an optical instrument in advance that is suited to your particular activity or activities and also ideally suited to traveling. What constitutes ideally suited to traveling? If it is to be an optic that will not take up valuable space in, or add potentially expensive weight to your luggage, but will also be an optic that can be carried with you at all times during your trip, it must truly be pocket or purse-sized. It must also be of sufficient optical quality to allow it to perform at a level that makes it worthwhile to bring along. For that reason, maximize your optical value by looking to a monocular as an option for your designated travel optic.
Due to their single optical channel design, monoculars employ fewer total lenses and other materials than binoculars, and don’t require some of the manufacturing and assembly processes common to binocular production. Because of this, companies producing high quality monoculars can invest more into the materials they do use, including better glass, higher quality lens coatings, and sophisticated designs to produce an optical instrument that performs on par with a binocular often costing hundreds of dollars more.
One of the finest monoculars presently on the market and one that all travelers should seriously consider is the Minox Miniscope 8x25mm monocular. This palm-sized optic offers many features not commonly found in conventional monoculars, including a twist-up eyecup, 3-1 objective lens diameter to magnification ratio, and even a discretely positioned tripod mount, perfect for use on table-top camera tripods or the camera mounting studs atop trekking poles. Its ingenious front-mounted focusing ring that encircles the entire objective lens makes one-handed, as well as fine detail focusing very easy. With an 8x magnification, a 6.5 ° field of view, and a stated close focus distance of 35cm (it’s actually even closer but that’s the number Minox publishes), the Miniscope is suitable for everything from theater performances and stadium sporting events, to bird and even butterfly watching. At just over 3 ½ inches at its longest dimension and weighing just over 5 ounces, the Miniscope is a superb travel companion on any trip.
Another innovative monocular very well suited to traveling is theOpticron Gallery Scope. Available in three different models – 4x12mm, 6x16mm, and 8x20mm – the Gallery Scope combines an amazing close focus distance of between 20 to 30 centimeters, depending on the model, with very respectable distance magnifying quality. While the Gallery Scope is designed to accommodate both close and long distance focusing in standard field use situations, it can also be adapted, through the use of an optional attachment, to function as a table-top or field microscope of between 12x and 24x (according to the Gallery Scope model). Because of this, its focusing system actually extends or shortens the optic’s overall length. The benefit of this for travelers is that it can be compacted down to its minimum length for carrying and will truly fit comfortably inside a shirt pocket.
On the subject of shirt-pocket-sized optics, the Nikon 5x15mm High Grade and 7x15mm High Grade monocular models offer a straightforward, highly portable optic for the traveler seeking high performance from a minimum-sized device. With eyeglass-friendly eye relief, multi-coated lenses, a sub-two-foot close focus distance, and, thanks to their moderate magnification levels, a wide field of view, either high grade model is a great optic to have along on any trip.
Rounding out the monocular recommendations is a quartet of pocket-sized optics from Carl Zeiss Inc. The Zeiss Design Selection monocular series offers four options for those seeking Zeiss-quality optics in a miniature package. The 4x12mm B T*P* and 6x18mm B T*P* models employ a push-pull focus system while the 8x20mm B T*P* and 10x25mm B T*P* models offer a more conventional rotating eyepiece to control the focusing mechanism. While all four models offer both Zeiss’s famous “P*” phase correction coating and “T*”multicoating treatments to their optical systems, due to the focusing mechanisms employed, only the 8x20mm B T*P* and 10x25mm B T*P* models are waterproof.
For those who insist upon using binoculars rather than a monocular, there are dozens of compact models on the market that make great travel binoculars. For maximum portability, binoculars that feature dual hinges will almost always allow for them to be folded and stored in a smaller space than those with a conventional single center hinge. But, as both optical paths of any binocular must be properly aligned and remain so for the binocular to work correctly, and as dual-hinge design binoculars add moving parts which could allow the binocular to become misaligned, selecting dual-hinge design binoculars can be more challenging than selecting standard binoculars. For this reason, it is worth spending the extra money to obtain one from an optical firm with a strong record of designing and manufacturing high-quality optics.
The most affordable options in this category are the Minox BD 8x25mm BR W and BD 10x25mm BR W models. Dual hinges allow both optical barrels to be folded underneath the main chassis for coat pocket portability, and an Argon-filled waterproof design allows them to be used in a variety of environmental conditions. An optical system that employs both phase-coated prisms, as well as multicoated lenses helps to provide a bright, sharp, and vivid image to the user, even in poorly lighted conditions. This is a particular benefit when using them to watch arena sports under artificial lighting.
Moving up the price scale, Nikon offers a compact version of their Premier LX L binocular line with their 8x20mm and 10x25mm compact models. Also following the model of twin hinges allowing for each optical chassis to fold under the main body for storage, the Nikon Premier LX L compacts feature Magnesium-alloy body construction and eco-friendly glass to make them both easy to carry as well as easy on the environment.
The compact binoculars long favored by optical aficionados are those offered by Leica and Swarovski. Expensive? By comparison, yes. But ask anyone who has ever used either of them if they are worth it and the answer will be an equally resounding “yes.”
The Leica Ultravid BR 8x20mm and 10x25mm compact binoculars (“BL” for those who prefer a more classic leather-trimmed chassis over a more modern protective armored design) are starkly yet beautifully minimalist in their dual-hinged, fold-under barrel design. Created using one of Leica’s masterful optical designs that features six glass elements in each optical channel, all treated with Leica’s trademarked HDC coatings, as well as phase coated, HighLux prisms, the Ultravid compact binoculars provide the user with an image far superior to that commonly found in most standard-sized binoculars.
Also offering users a choice of either standard or leather-trimmed models, the Swarovski 8x20mm B-P—8 x20mm B TYROL for those preferring their binoculars trimmed in fine Italian leather—and 10x25mm B-P pocket binocular models feature an astonishing eight glass element per optical channel system in their exceptionally compact dual-hinge, fold-under design. SWAROBRIGHT coated lenses and phase-coated prisms allow every bit of color and detail to be transmitted to the user, even in challenging lighting conditions.
Are there other designs and models that, allowing for a bit more weight or size, might serve well as travel binoculars? Of course there are, among which could be included a selection of inverted Porro prism compact models, the currently very popular 32mm objective designs, including a new Traveler model of the EL 8x32mm model from Swarovski, and even a small group of smaller (40-50mm objective) spotting scopes. But for maximum portability combined with a high level of optical performance, the optics presented here are the optimum choices for the purpose. Whether your preference is monocular or binoculars, any of the models outlined here will serve as superb travel companions, regardless of your destination or length of trip.