When I pack for any adventure focused on nature and wildlife, there is one thing that always goes into my bag first. One thing that I refuse to leave behind. The one non-negotiable item that I know will make or break my trip.

High-quality binoculars.

When I was a budding naturalist, I bought myself a $20 pair of binoculars (all I could afford at the time) and headed out into the woods to learn the birds. It was nothing but frustration as I watched smudge after unfocused smudge fly away into the undergrowth.

Then, one day, I had the good fortune of finding myself in those woods with an Audubon Society Master Birder, Frances Wood, who handed me her binoculars for one transcendent moment. I saw a bird in a bush through her binoculars. A beam of light came down from the heavens, and celestial music started to play in the background. I could see every feather on that bird, and I was able to easily identify it as a Bewick’s wren. Francie probably has no idea that she turned me into a professional naturalist in that moment.

Nat Hab Expedition Leader naturalist wildlife guide laughing with guest travelers on safari in Zimbabwe Africa

© Court Whelan

Two decades later, as a Nat Hab Expedition Leader guiding safaris in Africa, bear trips in Alaska and remote adventures at our Base Camp in East Greenland, I never get to use my own binoculars. I always encourage guests to beg, borrow or steal decent binoculars before they travel, but nobody seems to believe me. Then I loan them mine, and I don’t see them again until the end of the trip (I think they get distracted by the celestial music).

The problem is that very few people have ever used good binoculars, so they don’t understand what they can add to a trip experience. We are used to cheap ones that don’t focus well, and that force us to squint to see through the pin-hole eye lenses. After twenty minutes of use, we have a splitting headache and never want to use binoculars again.

Good binoculars make any nature safari personal and intimate. You can closely watch interactions between animals without getting so close that you scare them away. You can tell the difference between a goliath heron and a purple heron. And you can see the whiskers twitching on the face of that adorable lion cub.

Zimbabwe Nat Hab naturalist guide wildlife Expedition Leader laughing smiling joyful using binoculars

© Court Whelan

So, how do you select a GOOD pair of binoculars? And what do all those numbers mean?

  • Bigger is not always better. You will see two numbers when you are shopping for binoculars: 7×42, 8×42, 10×50, etc. The first number is magnification, or how many times closer the animal will appear to you. It is very difficult to keep binoculars steady if the magnification is over 10x. 7x or 8x is best for most people.
  • The second number is the diameter of the big lens at the far end. This corresponds to how much light gets in and, therefore, how well you will be able to see whatever you are looking at. This is particularly important if you are seeking out birds or jaguars or orangutans in the shade under a forest canopy. In general, look for binoculars where the first number divides into the second number at least 5 times (7×35, 8×42, etc).
  • Big eyepiece lenses. I’m talking about the lenses where you put your eyes. The bigger these are, the easier it is for your eyes to look through the binoculars for long periods of time. If you are testing a pair of binoculars and feel like you have to squint to look through them, choose a different pair.
  • I’m kinda weird here. I love a heavy, solid-feeling pair of binoculars, so I don’t mind that my binoculars weigh almost 2 pounds. For many people, though, lighter is better since their arms and shoulders get tired holding them up to their eyes for a long time. Ideally, you will go to a store and try many pairs before you choose one to buy, so you will get the “feel” before you drop your hard-earned cash. A binocular harness can also make a big difference here.
  • Plan to spend at least $150. You are already investing in your adventure – why not spend another $150 to make it truly amazing? Serious birders will spend more than $1,000 on a pair of binoculars. You don’t need to do that, but it gives you a sense of the range that is out there.

Another important step to having a good relationship with your binoculars is learning to focus them properly. Many people are surprised to find that there are two places to focus binoculars. Follow this link to find a good tutorial on how to focus binoculars or ask your Expedition Leader to help you when you get to your destination.

In short, if you are serious about viewing wildlife, get the best pair you can afford. You won’t regret it, and good binoculars will last for years.

Two smiling travelers and guides with binoculars in China

© Brad Josephs