If you’ve got a limited budget and are trying to decide whether you should buy a spotting scope or a pair of binoculars, then this is a good article for you to be reading.
It’s not the worst idea to invest in both, since they serve somewhat different purposes and are designed to excel at different tasks.
But for many of us, we have to try and get the most bang for our limited buck, so are you going to get more mileage out of a spotting scope or a pair of binoculars? It’s a great question, and we’re going to dive deep into it in this article.
Are Spotting Scopes or Binoculars Better For Hunting?
While neither is “better for hunting” per se, I would argue that binoculars are more useful in the majority of hunting scenarios. They have the right magnification, are more comfortable to use for an hour or more, and can be had for cheaper than a similar-quality spotting scope.
That’s not to say that some hunting-related tasks aren’t better performed by a spotting scope, because we’ll be talking about what spotting scopes are better at, but most of the time if you’re needing magnification besides the scope mounted on your rifle, it’s just to locate and track game, and binoculars are better suited for that task.
Spotting Scopes vs. Binoculars: A Detailed Breakdown and Comparison
So to be clear, we’re talking about spotting scopes, not to be confused with monoculars. A monocular is a one-eyed optical device built for the same thing a pair of binoculars is built for.
A spotting scope is a one-eyed optical device built specifically to give you enough magnification to see tiny holes in a paper hundreds of yards away.
Notable Differences Between Spotting Scopes and Binoculars
The biggest difference between a spotting scope and a pair of binoculars is the magnification.
I’ve never seen a spotting scope with less than 20x magnification, while 20x is a lot for binos. It’s common to see variable magnification spotting scopes that go from 20x to 60x, with an 80mm objective lens. Such a thing is unheard of in the binocular world.
Binoculars will usually be either 8x, 10x, or 12x. You can find specialty binoculars with higher or lower magnification, but for hunting you don’t really want to go outside this range because your primary purpose is just to spot game from 100-300 yards away, and you don’t need more magnification to do that.
In fact, more magnification can be detrimental, because it limits your field of view.
2. Field of View
One of the natural consequences of having two eyes looking through together is that your field of view gets wider.
Not only that, but binoculars are designed to have as wide of field of view as possible, because it makes acquiring your target/subject much easier.
The more you zoom in, the smaller your field of view is going to be, but even at a specific magnification, your field of view can be bigger or smaller as you go from one device to another. Some of this is build quality and some of it is just how the device is designed.
If you’re spotting and tracking game, then having a wider field of view can make a huge difference, not only actually finding the game you’re looking for, but also for comfort as you look through the lenses for extended periods of time.
3. Intended Purpose
This is where it’s important to discuss that these two devices (spotting scopes and binoculars) are not designed for the same purpose, despite their similarities.
Though they both magnify things and make faraway objects look like they’re close up, there’s a significant difference in magnitude.
Binoculars are designed for situations where you don’t need to see tiny details, you just need to get the basic picture of what’s happening a couple hundred yards away.
For example, you would use binoculars to see a few deer moving through the trees 100 yards or so away from where you’re set up.
On the other hand, spotting scopes are designed for seeing either really far away, or seeing small, minute details at a similar distance to where a binocular would let you see the basic picture.
Spotting scopes are used to identify where on a paper target a shot landed, or where on an animal a shot hit. Binoculars don’t give you enough magnification to see that much detail.
So, time permitting, you would use binoculars to find a target, then the shooter would take their shot using their riflescope while the spotter watched through a spotting scope to report where the shot impacted on the animal.
Spotting scopes often come with a tripod or other stabilization mechanism, which makes them a little more comfortable to look in, unless you go out of your way to buy a binocular tripod and adapter.
Let me clarify, though: I’m talking about body positioning. With a tripod and the way the spotting scope ocular lens is angled upward, it’s much more comfortable if you’re in the prone position because you don’t have to hold your head up high to look through the scope.
If you’re sitting, then binoculars might be more comfortable because you can keep your head upright as you look through them rather than having to look down into the lens.
There are ways to make either option comfortable in either position, so if you already know you want binoculars even though you expect to be lying prone, you can purchase accessories that make it easier to use.
For example, you can get phone adapters for both binoculars and spotting scopes to allow you to hold your phone’s camera right up to the ocular lens.
In this way, you can see the image through the scope without having to position your eye in the exact right spot. It can make for a more pleasant viewing experience and you don’t sacrifice a ton in the image quality, though you’ll sacrifice more doing this with a spotting scope than you will with binoculars.
5. Prolonged Use
This might seem redundant with ‘comfort’, but it’s actually not.
A spotting scope can be more comfortable initially as you can look down in a more relaxed position, but the longer you look through a spotting scope, the more tired your eyes get because one is being held closed while the other is seeing a highly magnified image.
Opening the eye that’s not seeing through the scope can make you dizzy or give you a headache within only a few minutes.
This is where binoculars absolutely shine. In many other aspects, the differences between binos and spotting scopes just make them each more suited to different tasks, but if you want to look through something for longer than a few minutes at a time, it’s impossible to beat a pair of binos on a tripod.
Because both of your eyes are engaged and seeing the same image, headaches and dizziness don’t come nearly as quickly. If you are planning on scanning an area looking for game for 30-60 minutes at a time, binoculars will give you a much more pleasant experience.
This is the main reason, besides magnification, that if I had to choose which optical device to say is overall “better” for hunting, I would choose binoculars.
When to Use a Spotting Scope
When would I recommend using a spotting scope? The short answer is anytime that the magnification you are getting out of binoculars is insufficient. Long answer below.
1. Identifying Shot Placement
A spotting scope excels at identifying shot placement. With a magnification range of 20-60x, you’ll be able to see where shots are landing from 400 yards and further.
This functionality can also come in handy in some hunting scenarios, if the shooter is taking a shot from far enough away that they won’t be able to easily tell where they hit the animal.
I would consider this more of a niche case, but it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.
Having personally tried to use a pair of 12x binoculars to spot a shooter out to 200 yards, I can confirm that 12x magnification is not enough to see the small holes that bullets make on paper at that distance, let alone see them clearly enough to notice where a new hole lands on a paper that already has a bunch of holes in it.
2. Seeing Minute Details
Another more niche use case for a spotting scope would be when you are looking for a specific animal.
Not a specific species of animal, but a specific deer among other deer, or identifying a particular coyote or turkey among a group. Again, this doesn’t come up as often as using binoculars to scout an area, but there are scenarios where this might be handy.
When to Use Binoculars
1. Scanning an Area, Looking for Targets
This is probably the most common use of an optic besides the riflescope on your firearm that you use to take your shot.
Seeing a coyote moving amongst the rocks 100-200 yards away with just your naked eye is somewhere between tough and impossible.
Scanning an area with binoculars to catch the movement, though, that’s more realistic.
This is the main reason why lower magnification can be an asset, to a point. With a wider field of view, you’re less likely to miss the important movement because you happen to be looking in the wrong spot.
Finding the balance between enough magnification to identify an animal and wide enough field of view to not miss things is the hope of every person using binos.
The comfort of using both eyes to see the image over an extended period of time is the next big thing that makes binoculars a great choice for this particular use-case.
2. Tracking a Target
Sometimes your target will just hang out in the same spot for awhile. Depending on what you’re hunting, maybe that even happens most of the time.
But if you’re tracking an animal to try and get in close enough to get a good shot, this will be much more easily done with binoculars, again because the magnification isn’t so high that it becomes difficult to acquire your target.
How to Choose a Spotting Scope or Binocular for Your Shooting Needs
So, to sum up: if you need to see minute details or count the hairs on a deer’s back, use a spotting scope. If you need to find a target and are waiting in the same spot to look for one, then binoculars are going to be the better choice.
No. For stargazing, more magnification makes a lot of difference. Your targets aren’t moving fast enough for the wider field of view to give a whole lot of value, and the amount of detail you’ll be able to see at 60x magnification is amazing compared to only 10x or 12x.
If you shoot often and are sick of walking out to your target a hundred times just to see where your shots are landing, then absolutely yes. If you are hunting game where your riflescope won’t give you a clear idea where your shot landed and it’s important to know exactly where it hit so you know what you need to do next, then a spotting scope is definitely worth buying.
In terms of the technical meaning of the word “power” when it comes to optics, then yes, they are more powerful. Power specifically refers to the level of magnification, and no binoculars will ever come close to the magnification that spotting scopes come equipped with.
To quote a timeless classic: “Both. Both is good.” Spotting scopes are very handy, and binoculars are an indispensable part of almost any hunter’s bag.
For me personally, I find myself at the shooting range for work a lot more often than I can get out to go hunting, so I would buy a spotting scope sooner than I would buy a pair of binoculars.
In my case, though, I have relatives I can borrow binoculars from without any fuss, so if you’re really not sure about what you want to do, consider asking around and borrowing some for a day or two to see which does what you want.