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When heading into the mountains or on expedition-style trekking tours, a particularly important item in your gear is a pair of good binoculars for mountaineering. On multi-day mountain tours at high altitudes, binoculars can be essential to scan the terrain in order to identify possible routes or avoid hazards.
You may also see interesting wild animals in the mountains, with binoculars you can watch them closely without disturbing them or chasing them away.
But which binoculars are best for alpine hikes, what should you watch out for? Here are the important features that good mountain binoculars should have.
What are the best mountain binoculars?
The demands on binoculars for mountaineers are complex. They need to have good optical performance, must not be too big and heavy and must be able to withstand bumps and blows, and must be waterproof so that they can be used in any weather.
Compact roof prism binoculars are the perfect choice for trekking tours because of their combination of small size, lightweight, and high optical performance.
Get an 8×25, 8×30, or 10×30 roof prism binoculars from a well-known brand. Make sure its lenses are fully multi-coated and the roof prisms are phase-corrected.
Binoculars for mountain tours and for trekking in conditions where the weather can be extremely nasty should have a durable housing made of fiber-reinforced, robust plastic. Modern high-tech plastics are resistant to rain, snow, and cold, this ensures that the mechanics always work and protect the precision optics inside.
Despite the slim, handy design, they are extremely robust, and don’t be fooled by their small size. The instruments from well-known manufacturers are full-fledged binoculars.
So what matters when choosing mountain binoculars?
The variety of binoculars is quite wide to suit different needs and purposes. Large binos are heavy, and when mountain trekking or climbing, you carry a lot of gear with you anyway. So when weight is an important selection criterion, then compact binoculars are the best choice.
As the name suggests, they are small enough to be stowed in any jacket pocket or backpack, and in terms of weight, they only add another 7 to 15 ounces to your gear.
With 8-10x magnification and an aperture between 20 to 30 mm, these size optical instruments are ideal for daytime observation in bright light conditions. High-quality binos with complex fully muti-coated lenses provide superior optical performance even in dull, cloudy conditions or at dusk.
Magnification and Field of View
The magnification of the binoculars is easy to see from the numbers that are usually written somewhere on the housing. For example, binoculars with the numbers 8×30 offer 8x magnification and an objective diameter of 30 mm.
Obviously the greater the magnification, the closer an object appears. But be careful, too high a magnification can have its drawbacks.
With higher magnification, the field of view becomes smaller and slight tremors intensify so that the observation is blurred and quickly becomes very annoying.
Binoculars with a slightly larger field of view can be an advantage when hiking, for example when you need to explore the terrain from a distance to find a better or safer route.
The larger the lens diameter, the more light can enter, and the brighter the observed image appears.
For daytime use, a lens diameter of 25 to 30 mm is completely sufficient. These models in this size are still lightweight and compact.
The disadvantage of the lower light-gathering power due to the small objective diameter can be compensated by the use of the best optical glass and the application of complex glass surface coatings which increase light transmission.
Lowlight binoculars for observation in twilight or at night have a larger aperture of 50 mm or more, they are too large and way too heavy for mountain hiking.
The housing of the alpine binoculars should be made of a durable plastic or aluminum alloy that is covered with rubber armoring for grip and protection against shock.
Alpine binoculars must of course be waterproof. Make sure that “O-ring sealed” is mentioned in the specification. This ensures that no water can get in and internal fogging won’t be a problem even with sudden temperature fluctuations.
Handling and viewing comfort
So that using the binoculars is not only fun but also provides the best optical performance, individual adjustment options are essential.
Eye relief – is the distance from the eyepiece lens to the pupil. People with normal eyesight get along well with an eye relief of 12 to 15 mm. Binoculars should have twist-out eyecups with which the distance can be adjusted. If the distance is not correct, black shadows (kidney beaning) will appear at the edge of the field of vision. People who need to wear eyeglasses when using binoculars need longer eye relief because the glasses increase the distance between the eyepiece and the eye.
Inter-pupillary distance (IPD) – this is the distance from the left eye to the right eye, more precisely between the pupils of the eyes. The IPD must be set individually with the hinge-like middle bridge that holds the two binocular tubes together. If the setting is correct, the images from both binocular tubes overlap and form a round field of view.
Central focusing wheel – this adjusts the focus sharpness of the image when looking at objects at different distances. It must turn easily, evenly, and smoothly without jerking. A large center focus wheel with rubber perforations would be an advantage in alpine binoculars as this is easy to grip and can be operated with gloves even when it is cold.
Diopter compensation – human eyes often have different visual powers, the different refractive power of the eyes can be corrected with the help of diopter compensation. To do this, first, close the eye on the side of which the eyepiece with diopter adjustment is located. Open the opposite eye and focus the viewed image using the central focus wheel. Now close this eye and open your other eye. Turn the diopter compensation until the image is in focus too. Open both eyes and enjoy viewing.
Design – Porro or Roof
Binoculars come in two different design types: the Roof prism and the Porro prism design. In both designs, the prisms serve the same purpose as an image reversal system. The binocular collecting lens projects an inverted image, Therefore prisms are required to restore an upright and laterally correct image.
In recent years the roof prism binoculars have become somewhat more popular than the Porro binoculars. The appearance of the binoculars’ construction differs, so you can easily recognize the respective design. The lenses of the Porro binoculars are further apart than the eyepieces, they are slightly offset -not in line. With roof design, the lens and eyepiece are in line, which enables a more compact and slimmer design.
Porro prisms binoculars compensate for the disadvantage of the somewhat larger construction by providing comparable optical performance at a lower price. This is because less elaborate manufacturing techniques and refinements are required. The wider lens distance also has the advantage of a better spatial vision and a more 3D appearing image.
How much to spend on binoculars?
The binoculars from premium manufacturers are technical marvels and impress with their bright, true-to-color, and high-contrast images. Such high-end binoculars are fun to use, but the price can easily go up into the four-digit dollar range.
The price differences in binoculars are due to the superior qualities of optical glass and the complex coatings that are applied to the glass surfaces in order to achieve the best optical performance.
So before buying consider carefully what you expect from your binoculars and for what, where, and how often you want to use them. You might not need a premium model, but a good mid-range binocular will be sufficient.