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Binoculars vs monocular for hiking and bird watching

binoculars
We take the wide view on binoculars vs monocular for hiking and bird watching to help you pick the best option for enjoying the views on your adventures (Image credit: Getty)

If you’re keen on getting up close and personal with wildlife when you’re out on the trail – and not just on screen with David Attenborough – you’re going to want to get some decent magnification. The best binoculars and monoculars can help you to immerse yourself in the amazing sights and sounds of nature from a safe and comfortable distance. With them, you can zoom in on grizzly bears feasting on sockeye salmon in Alaska, watch bison grazing in Yellowstone National Park and gaze on golden eagles soaring low over the Colorado River. But which is better? We take the wide view on binoculars vs monocular for hiking and bird watching to help you pick the best option for enjoying the views on your adventures. 

A woman on a trail looking through binoculars

If you’re keen on getting up close and personal with wildlife when you’re out on the trail – and not just on screen with David Attenborough – you’re going to want to get some magnification (Image credit: Jim Cook)

Binoculars vs monocular: weight and packability 

If you’re worried about adding weight or taking up space in your backpack, naturally the monocular is going to weigh less and pack more easily, since it’s half the size of a pair of binoculars. The difference here can be quite substantial – in our picks for the best binoculars, the lightest pair is the Nikon Travelite, which comes in at 9.3oz, while the Brunton Echo Zoom Monocular weighs a mere 3.2oz in comparison.

That said, there are lots of lighter weight binoculars out there and you can easily wear your binoculars around your neck using a good strap, in which case they won’t take up any room at all in your pack. But then again, you can probably pop a monocular in the pocket of your waterproof jacket for the same outcome.

binoculars

Both come with a fairly wide range of magnification, but the generally agreed upon standard for most bird watching is 8x magnification (Image credit: Getty)

Binoculars vs monocular: magnification and image quality 

Both come with a fairly wide range of magnification, but the generally agreed upon standard for most bird watching is 8x magnification, and you’ll find plenty of both in that range. Binoculars naturally do provide a wider image than a monocular since you have two lenses to let in more light. With two lenses and the use of both eyes, many users find that a pair of binoculars does offer a better viewing experience, though the technical differences may be more marginal than you might think.

Even though monoculars are smaller, you might be surprised to discover that they often offer all the magnification needed for bird watching. You can also just go for a bigger monocular and the bigger lens will let in more light, but you'll always be using just one eye.

Bushnell Equinox Z2

You can drop a pretty penny on a good monocular like the Bushnell Equinox Z2 if you want to, but generally speaking the monocular will be more budget friendly (Image credit: Bushnell)

Binoculars vs monocular: ease of use and comfort 

Binoculars can take a little longer to focus and get that warbler in your sights, and while they require the use of both hands, many people find this feels more balanced and steady – it’s also not really clear what you’d need the other hand for while you’re bird watching, but if you do need it for something, you’ll want to go with the monocular. 

Monoculars give you a free hand if needed, and make it easier to set sights on your target and focus, but some users might find that they’re not as steady. Using only one eye also takes some getting used to, and can even cause eye strain or headache if you’re using them for a long time. This one comes down to quite a bit of personal preference, but if you’re going to be using them for long periods, your eyes might be happier with binoculars.

Man holding Kowa YF 8x30 binoculars

If you’re going to be using them for long periods, your eyes might be happier with binoculars (Image credit: Matt Swaine)

Binoculars vs monocular: weather resistance 

Because you’re going to be using your binoculars or monocular outside, you obviously want them to be as bulletproof as possible. That means waterproof in case of showers, fog-resistant and shockproof in case you drop them (a carrying strap and non-slip grip will help with the latter). We can’t find any obvious disparity between the two in this regard, so it’s really just down to making sure you choose a model that is built to last. Also, remember that anti fog sprays and wipes will work on the lenses. 

Woman overlooking a valley using binoculars

Because you’re going to be using your binoculars or monocular outside, you obviously want them to be as bulletproof as possible (Image credit: Getty)

Binoculars vs monocular: price 

Owing to the smaller amount of materials used in the making of a monocular, you can definitely save quite a bit if you go with this option, even when you’re comparing binoculars and monoculars of equal quality. That’s not to say that you can’t drop a pretty penny on a good monocular like the Bushnell Equinox Z2 if you want to, but generally speaking the monocular will be more budget friendly. 

Binoculars vs monocular
BinocularsMonocular
Weight and packabilityHeavier and bulkier than a monocular, but can be worn around your neck to free up room in your packLighter and smaller than binoculars, and can be stashed in a pocket
Magnification and image qualityPlenty of binoculars with 8x magnification for bird watching, plus two lenses provides wider viewPlenty of monoculars with 8x magnification for bird watching, but only one lens
Ease of use and comfortTake a littler longer to find your target and focus, but easy to hold steady with two hands and easy on the eyesQuick to find your target and focus, only require one hand which can be less stable, less easy on the eyes
Weather resistance Lots of waterproof, dustproof, fog proof and shock proof models availableLots of waterproof, dustproof, fog proof and shock proof models available
PriceGenerally pricier than a monocular of similar qualityGenerally cheaper than a monocular of similar quality

Binoculars vs monocular: the verdict 

Basically, this one comes down to your priorities and activities. If you want to save on weight, bulk and money, you’ll want to go with a monocular, especially if you’re backpacking or thru-hiking and traveling long distances. If getting a wide view is the most important thing to you, you’re not traveling too far on foot and you might be using them for a long period of time and don’t want to strain your eyes, you’ll do no wrong with a good pair of binoculars. It’s also really worth getting your hands – and eyes – on both before you buy, because choosing between the two can really come down to how you like the feel of them. 

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.