Hunting binocular shopping: More personal than I thought it’d be

To find the best binoculars for you, shop local so that you can test drive a dozen pairs. It’s a more personal decision than I thought it’d be.

During recent hunting seasons, I’ve been very satisfied with my backpack hunt gear list save for one item: my Pentax DCF LV 9×28 binoculars. They’re compact and light (just 12.9 oz), and they were reasonably priced ($225 MSRP), but they proved ill-suited for big game hunting in Colorado, lacking satisfactory:

  • Low light performance;
  • Field of view (only 5.6*), eye relief distance, and eyepiece lens diameter;
  • Grip with gloved and/or cold hands; and,
  • Optical clarity (e.g. annoying chromatic aberrations).

Last Saturday I had an unplanned opportunity to upgrade. While Amanda visited with a friend at The Shops of Northfield Stapleton — an overwhelmingly large and disappointingly characterless complex on Denver’s eastern outskirts — I wandered over to the flagship Bass Pro Shop.

Before investing several hundred dollars on any piece of outdoor gear, normally I would spend an hour (or six) researching online, and normally I would buy it online for the convenience and cost-savings, too. In this case, however, I feel like I got the best result, and saved money and time, by shopping local.

The Pentax DCF are small and light, but stupidly so. The Nikon Monarch 5 will justify their extra heft with their superior performance.

The upgrade

I went in open-minded, and exited with the Nikon Monarch 5 8×42.

Bass Pro had a half-dozen other models from Luepold, Vortex, and Steiner that were similarly priced and featured, and I chose the Monarch 5 for reasons that can’t be conveyed by an online review or spec chart.

I found the Monarch 5 to be the most comfortable and pleasant to use, in terms of its eyepiece fit, viewing stability, body texture and grip, and smoothness when adjusting the focus and interpupillary distance. Also, I could discern its performance benefits (and justify its extra cost) over less expensive models like the Monarch 3, but couldn’t do the same for more expensive series like the Monarch 7 and Vortex Viper.

I had previously thought that binocular shopping would be spec-driven. But, in fact, it’s very personal, more like test-driving a car or shouldering a loaded backpack. To find the best binoculars for me, I was well served by shopping local so that I could quickly try out and compare a dozen models. Handle them, hold them up to my eyes, and peer through them both out the window and into the darkest corners of the store.

Now I own exactly what I wanted — and I didn’t overspend for quality or features, and I didn’t have to ship back multiple pairs of binoculars that didn’t make the cut.

The magnification question

Once I had settled on the Monarch 5, the only other question was whether I should get the 8x or 10x magnification, or the 42 mm or 56 mm objective lens.

The 42 mm lens was an easy choice: the 8×56 model is about twice the weight as the 8×42.

And Bass Pro made the magnification decision easy as well: the 10×42 was out of stock, and the 8×42 was on sale for $245 (18 percent off its $300 retail price).

I think the 8×42 is the right choice for me anyway. Colorado has some expansive topography that warrants a 10x, but the wider viewing angle will be better for hunting dark timber (where the elk like to hide during hunting season) and is more consistent with the shot distance with which I’m currently comfortable (within about 200 yards).

Thoughts on binocular shopping? Leave a comment.

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Posted in on October 16, 2018


  1. Kango on October 16, 2018 at 1:45 pm

    I used to work at a outdoor store and we get reps from different companies come in. The Nikon rep explained the following on how to properly focus your binos.

    1. Make sure the eye cups are extended out. They are extended out for people who dont wear glasses. If wearing glasses then have them closed.

    2. Close the cap cover on the right lens only and with BOTH eyes open look through the binos and adjust the centre focus wheel until it is crystal clear.

    3. Remove cap cover of the right lens and put on the cap cover of the left lens. With BOTH eyes open, then use the individual occular focusing knob on the right lens and adjust until focused.

  2. David M on October 16, 2018 at 8:42 pm

    I really think Bushnell Legend M are a great balance of optics and price. That said, I own the Legend L, as they are lighter and cheaper. Both have great sharpness across the fov, and great clarity. The Ms are worth the difference if you can abide the extra weight.

    I tried Monarchs but the chromatic aberration was terrible IMO. They were great in-store but out in the field – meh.

    And I agree, binos are very personal as you say. Odd as it is.

    • Andrew Skurka on October 16, 2018 at 8:54 pm

      Now you’re making me nervous. And I really don’t want to drive back to Denver…

      Is chromatic aberration also a personal thing, or is that objective?

      • David M on October 17, 2018 at 6:17 am

        Well you shouldn’t be nervous about the Monarchs, I am sure they will be fine. I might have just had a bad copy, or maybe it was just a rare lightning situation that would have been an issue for any binos. It was in bright sun where a killdeer’s white neck bands looked basically just bright purple. It was pretty striking.

        This was 2016. Monarch 5.

    • Andrew Skurka on October 16, 2018 at 9:01 pm

      Curious when you tried out the Monarchs. They revamped the lined in 2013, and included ED glass on the 5-series (whereas before it only had been available on the 7-series). Supposedly that helps quite a bit with aberration, although I don’t have the personal context to say for sure. I can say that the difference between the Monarch 3 and 5 seemed significant, and going with the 5 was a no-brainer for the extra $50.

  3. Matt on October 16, 2018 at 9:37 pm

    “Buy once, cry once.” – take it for what its worth (and no, I haven’t won any ultra marathons), I’ve bought several mid-range binos, personally; but from experience, you WILL upgrade… have faith in this. From my own personal experience, I’ve bought what I thought were “OK” optics – Votrex Crossfire, then Diamondback, then Talon, and so on. My recent justification has been Tract Torics, but honestly, I know that most likely, eventually I will buy a pair of Swarovski SLC’s – that aside… I bought a Leupold GR 12-40×60 spotting scope years ago and this is one of the few purchases I don’t regret. I’ve let others peer through and generally the response I’ve got was “it looks like I’m right there”. The moral of the story, spend 5 to ten times what you think you should, and you won’t regret it. Andy, the Monarch 9’s are calling your name…you’ll answer; eventually 🙂

    • Andrew Skurka on October 17, 2018 at 10:31 am

      I don’t doubt that you’re right, but it may take me a few years to get there still. I fully subscribe to buy once, cry once, but right now I can more easily justify spending more on a new Dyson vacuum (which I did just last week) than on expensive optics — I’ve only been hunting for about five years, and for never more than 3 or 5 days per year.

      • Matt M. on March 9, 2019 at 5:38 am

        Sorry just found this thread.

        Great choice, now that season is over, what comments do you have about the 8×42’s Monrach 5’s?


        • Andrew Skurka on March 10, 2019 at 1:53 pm

          They were a great addition to my kit. 8x was strong enough to see elk five miles away (on private land of course), but not so over-zoomed that they were worthless when stalking elk in thick timber. I’m sure the Monarch 7’s and ED versions are nicer than the 5, but the 5 represent a big upgrade for me and I don’t see myself buying another set anytime soon.

  4. James Carretta on October 17, 2018 at 9:02 am

    A bit dated, but the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has periodically done quantitative / qualitative reviews and their price vs quality chart can be found here:

    Once you look through a high-end pair of binoculars, you will not go back. I settled on Zeiss Conquest HD and love them. I also own a pair of Nikon Monarchs, which I use as my ‘beater pair’. But I notice a lot of chromatic abberation with the Nikons.

  5. Eric on October 17, 2018 at 10:24 am

    Did you get a chance to compare these to the Nikon Monarch HG’s? The field flattening technology really helps the performance toward the edges.

    I agree with the ‘buy once cry once’ philosophy when it comes to optics.

    A slightly older, but more premium model of bino from Nikon are the EDG range, which can be found used for great prices. Fluorite glass, and field flatteners, they are supposed to go head to head with the Swaro EL – a tough contender.

    I don’t own EDG binoculars, but do have the EDG 65 spotter, and can vouch for the optical quality.

    Don’t forget the magnification power of a stable tripod! For long glassing sessions, picking apart the hillside, it’s vital.

    • Matt on October 18, 2018 at 8:31 pm

      +1 to what Eric says. Definitely look into a good bino-to-tripod adapter. Field Optics Research is a decent option (in terms of value per dollar); other options are Outdoorsmans tripods/adapters (if you want to mortgage the ranch), and which is a great product at a good dollar-to-value ratio.
      Tripod’s easy, cheap aluminum 5-section tripod off eBay and take out the bottom two sections (sitting height), cap it with rubber chair leg caps from Home Depot.
      A fluid head is a bit more difficult, personally I like Vangaurd PH-111v’s for a cost/performance/weight ratio (though you’ll have to find it used). Benro S2 is a decent alternative.
      The difference in how steady you’ll be is worth it, but so is the fatigue in your arms if you mid-to-late season hunt and spend lots of time glassing up elk. Hope you’re successful this year!

  6. jmrtree on October 18, 2018 at 11:25 am

    As a lens and optics company, Nikon is a fine choice. No reason to spend more unless you observe a real difference using another brand’s binoculars.

    Regarding low light performance, this is directly related to the area of the objective lens (d/2*3.14)^2. A 56mm lens has 78% more area than 42mm, but larger glass weighs and costs more. While coatings help, they can’t overcome the advantage of a larger objective diameter. If 42mm isn’t bright enough, try stepping up to a larger objective diameter. At the same magnification you “see” better when more light is gathered. This is often the reason larger binoculars perform better than compacts at the same magnification.

    This applies to your rifle scope also… Enjoy!

  7. mattr on October 19, 2018 at 8:48 am

    I agree with Matt and Eric that stability is absolutely crucial and IMO much more important than the last bit of optical quality. Instead of carrying a tripod I would get image stabilized binoculars. I have the Canon 15×50 IS. They weigh 42oz, probably less than many binocular/tripod combos, and they are just uncomparably more convenient.

    • Eric on October 20, 2018 at 12:41 pm

      The tripod lets me use any optic, hands free.

      This allows you to target something and let your partner come look, or tend to your food for a moment. The legs can also hold up your tarp/tent if you don’t use trekking poles. Rifle hunters can also use it as a rest.

      For Coues archery, I’m often packing 8x30s, 15x63s, and a 65mm spotter. For all these optics, I’ll lug my Feisol 3442 tripod, which is rock solid…perhaps overkill. For light and fast, I’ve got a sirui t-025x.

      I have a photography background, so spending extra on a tripod is worth it to me. Cheap tripods can easily fall apart on you for regular photography use. I’d hate to deal with something like that on a backcountry hunt.

  8. TJ Elwell on November 1, 2018 at 10:30 am

    Just don’t try out Swarovski… unless of course you are willing to drop $1500-$2000. I made that mistake and now i have the best glass on the market! Extremely good low light performance, i actually attribute it to getting my elk last year. I hunt in a true spike only unit, which means that the elk cannot have more than just spikes, not even an extra 1 inch point. If i would have had my old redfield binos i probably wouldnt have been able to even see the elk as it was the last 5 minutes of legal hunting. The Swaro’s had plenty of light and let me confirm that the elk was a true spike.

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