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As Far as the Eye Can See: The Best Binoculars for Expedition Travel

Want to get up close and personal with a polar bear, colony of northern gannets, or pod of humpback whales? Better get yourself the perfect pair of binoculars! Naturalist and ecologist Dylan White shares with us his favourite tips for using and purchasing this essential expedition tool.
Guest uses binoculrs Eclipse Sound Nunatsiavut

© Jen Derbach

Binoculars Offer a Brand-New Perspective

Binoculars are my absolute favourite tool to bring with me on expedition. When I’m out on the land, every single creature I spot makes the adventure so much richer. Getting to see them close up through binoculars is even better, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that they will completely change your expedition experience.

For birdwatchers, binoculars are absolutely essential to notice the subtle differences between species that are often not visible with the naked eye, but really, they’re wonderful for any wildlife enthusiast. Adventure Canada always follows the wildlife-viewing guidelines in the regions we travel to, giving a wide berth to creatures so that we’re not negatively influencing their behaviour or causing stress. Binoculars will help you get great sightings and allow you to see much more detail, while ensuring that these critters are still happy and healthy in our presence.

But binoculars aren’t just for wildlife! They are useful across all disciplines. Ice, geological features, and distant scenery all come to life with the power of a few discs of glass.

Binoculars in zodiac

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

Tips & Tricks

To get the most out of your viewing experience on expedition, I recommend you practice using your binoculars at home first. Try putting the strap around your neck and going for a walk, so you can feel what the weight will be like. There are different types of straps that you might find comfier. Because I wear mine so often, I personally use a binocular harness that crosses over both of my shoulders and eases the weight on my neck.

Binoculars will typically have two moving parts: a focus wheel and a diopter. The focus wheel is usually in the centre of your binoculars and puts your target into focus at different distances from you. The diopter is often on one of the eye pieces and can be used to adjust the binoculars if you have different levels of vision in your two eyes. These might take a little bit of practice to get used to, so give them a try in your backyard before travelling, and they’ll soon become quite intuitive.

My most important tip for using binoculars is to keep the object you’re looking at in your line of sight, and then bring the binoculars up to meet your steady gaze. Keeping your eyes on the target the whole time will help you find things faster and keep you from feeling too disoriented.

Binoculars Ocean Endeavour

© Jessie Brinkman Evans

Buying Your First Pair of Binos

If you’ve never bought a pair of binoculars before, it might feel a little intimidating to make this important purchase. But there are some basic things to keep in mind that will make the process much easier.

  1. Price
    The first and most important thing to know is that you don’t need to spend a fortune to get a really good viewing experience. Around $300 can get you a good-quality pair. I would avoid springing for something much cheaper than that, because these are often made with lower-quality glass that don’t let in enough light to really improve your viewing experience. Many brands offer really good lifetime or no-fault warranties, so look for a pair that comes with one. Good pairs of binoculars should also come with decent accessories, such as lens covers, straps, and a case.

  2. Type
    There is a whole world out there of specialty binoculars that have fancy features like motion stabilizers or built-in cameras. But I would say that, for the most part, all those extra features can actually make them more difficult to use, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking that they will necessarily improve your viewing experience. Non-specialty, non-marine binoculars—the style used by most birdwatchers or hunters—are very good for the purposes of expedition travel.

  3. Ratings
    Binoculars are rated through a two-number system, such as 7x35, 8x42, or 10x42. The first number is really easy to understand—it’s the basic magnification level. So, a pair of binoculars rated 7x42 would make things appear seven times closer to you. For general use and on our expeditions, I find that a magnification level of 8 provides a good balance. It brings you a good deal closer to your subject, but any higher can sometimes feel a bit too shaky (especially on a moving ship or Zodiac!).

    The second number in a binocular’s rating is the size of the objective lens, which is where light enters the binoculars. The higher this number, the more light the lenses will let in, but the larger and heavier your binoculars will be. This is a trade-off that comes down to personal preferences about portability. Very portable binoculars will have a lower objective lens number, so they won’t perform as well in low-light conditions, have smaller fields of view, and won’t give quite as crisp an image. 42 is a good ballpark number to aim for, but you can still find excellent-quality binoculars with smaller objective lenses.
Day 2 woman looks with binoculars tadoussac whales

© Victoria Polsoni

We have other tools on board like scopes and high-quality cameras (offered through the Nikon Camera Trial Program) that you’re more than welcome to borrow. Our team of naturalists and photographers will always be around to help you, too. But I can’t recommend enough bringing your own pair of binoculars for your journey.

One of my own favourite experiences on a trip is teaching binocular workshops and seeing folks’ faces light up the first time they get a really good sighting. They will add so much to your expedition!

About the Author

Dylan White

Dylan White

Naturalist

Dylan is a professional ecologist and explorer who has rowed and cycled halfway around the globe. A specialist in both flora and fauna, he has worked on more than 150 diverse projects for government, non-profit, private, and academic clients.

Experience from thousands of field hours and an Environmental Science degree has given Dylan a comprehensive set of skills and knowledge about ecological systems in Canada, and around the world.

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