How To Choose The Best Elk Hunting Binoculars
As a guide and outfitter, I have seen truckloads of things hunters use as elk hunting binoculars. From the coyote’s Acmes, to wonderful Swarovskis, to those that think they can use a variable power riflescope to glass with.
Most likely your local sporting goods stores has a representative assortment of that truckload.
I have six standards when choosing binoculars:
- Don’t use a riflescope. Glassing Montana Mountains for bull elk, rams, billies, or bucks is time consuming. After looking through a riflescope with one eye for more than two minutes is fatiguing—it won’t get the job done. You know I believe in K.I.S.S—Keep It Simple, Stupid. It might seem that using a scope for binoculars would fit that principle. It doesn’t. Using the right tool for the job is one of the amendments to K.I.S.S.
- Don’t choose binoculars by comparing them in the store. A new pair of cheap glasses will look nearly as good as a new pair of quality glasses. In a week, the cheap ones will have degraded. In a year they will be worse. I’m not sure why that is, but trust me cheap glasses don’t last. There is a bit of consumerism in selling cheap glasses.
- Choose quality glass over optical power. If you’re buying optics in the Tasco, Bushnell, Bausch & Lomb, etc, category, never choose those over 7-power. A quality pair of binoculars at 5-power will provide a better—read, distinct--image than cheap ones at 6 power.
- Choose the best quality glasses you can afford. There is nothing wrong with buying something that will last. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.”
- Choose individual focus over center focus. The individual focus is inherently more rugged and waterproof than the center focus variety. I also believe that individual focus maintains consistent focus (the wheel isn’t being bumped and moving) and is easier to adjust with gloves or mittens on.
- If the choice is between heavy and light, buy light. On a long day of elk hunting heavy glasses are truly a pain in the neck.
Using those criteria, I have two benchmarks for binoculars. One is no less than $200. The next is at about $1200. I don’t buy glasses less than $200 dollars. They are a waste of money. If you are only going to use them on one hunt, once in your life, you might get away with cheap glasses, but even if you'll only use them to spy on your neighbors the quality glass will give you a better deal, Tom. My recommendations for glasses that meet the first benchmark are Steiners and Leupolds.
The second benchmark of $1200 seems a little extreme for me, but they are high quality glass and high quality construction. I really don’t think that the added quality justifies an extra grand.
I own two pair of binoculars. One pair fit the first benchmark; the second pair reaches the next benchmark. Steiner Military/Marine 8x30s cost about $210 to $250. The others are Swarovski SLC 10x42, which sell for about $1399.
For over 20 years I have used the Steiners while looking for cattle in the mountains, herding elk in the foothills and guiding hunters in the wilderness. They are beat-up; the rubber eyecups have fallen off; a bucking horse broke the bosses, which hold the eyecups, and they look old, but they fit my hands well, are still clear, and because they’re made from polycarbonate, are light. Even though I have a ten-year old pair of Swarovskis, I take the Steiners when I am hunting all day. The Swarovskis are nice, but more than twice the weight. Finally, as bonuses for my guides I always gave them a pair of Steiners. Too many elk hunting guides have cheap “stuff” hangin’ around their necks. Presently Steiner’s are about $214 at Amazon ( Steiner 8x30 Military/Marine Binocular) and $249 at Cabela’s.
While a guide or hunter doesn’t want cheap “stuff” around their neck, they probably don’t need real expensive stuff either. I wouldn’t have bought my Swarovskis except the Swarovski rep at the NRA Convention in ’98 or ’99 gave substantial discounts to outfitters and guides. Leica and Zeiss were giving similar discounts. When looking through hunter’s glasses (in the past) I hadn’t seen any real difference in quality of image or workmanship of the three. The Leicas at the convention might have seemed like slightly better glasses, but they wanted slightly more money, even with the discount. Swarovski SLC 10x42s are $1399.99 at both Amazon (Swarovski SLC Binocular 10x42)and Cabela’s. For me, having Swarovskis was like having a Rolex. I was a guide and outfitter and it was a sort of status symbol.
Swarovskis don't have individual focus, but the adjustments are rather secure and easy to operate.
The only time I can see a difference in glasses is just before dark. That might seem important. Many scope manufacturers promote their product by light gathering ability. Elk hunters aren’t nighttime snipers. It is illegal to shoot an elk in Montana 30 minutes after legal sundown. By the time you can use your “light gathering ability” it is illegal to shoot bull elk.
After getting the two most important things for a Montana Elk Hunt, you probably need a quality pair of glasses. If you can see it and find it, you can plan a stalk and put that bull elk in the freezer.
Good Glassing and Good Elk Hunting, my friends.