5 Questions to Answer Before Buying a Spotting Scope

If you spend much time watching folks that hunt big game, especially in the western United States and Alaska, chances are good you’ve considered purchasing a spotting scope yourself. Spotting scopes can be very useful to find and score wildlife, but there are also a number of potential drawbacks you should be aware of before making a purchase. Answering these five questions will help you decide if spotting scope will benefit you in your hunting or wildlife watching endeavors.

1. How far away do I usually glass?

Spotting scopes are most useful when glassing at ranges over a mile (for large animals). If you consistently glass across miles of open country or wide canyons and drainages, a spotting scope might be advantageous.

On the other hand, a spotting scope may be an annoyance for distances inside a mile because the field of view is small and you will constantly need to move the scope to see new areas.

There are times you may want the added magnification of a spotting scope, even at a shorter distance. Some examples include videoing wildlife, identifying species of smaller animals (like birds), and aging, sizing, or scoring and animal. However, a good pair of binoculars will usually be much more versatile and give you plenty of magnification (at least for hunting) for glassing distances out to a mile.

2. Do I need to accurately judge an animal’s age, size, or score?

Spotting scopes are often necessary to get an accurate estimate of an animal’s age, size, or score. This can be especially important when hunting a species where take is restricted to older individuals (this is common with various species of wild sheep). Other folks may just be interested in identifying trophy-caliber animals and spotting scopes can really help with that.

If you frequently find yourself looking for minute details about animals from a distance away, a spotting scope will probably help you out.

3. Will a spotting scope be useful in my environment?

The reason to get a spotting scope is the increased magnification it offers to see detail at close range or pick out objects at long range. However, a spotting scopes magnification can be completely negated in some conditions.

Take precipitation for example. With most 8-10 power binoculars, you will be able to continue glassing in light-moderate rainfall. The image through the optics won’t be perfect, but you’ll be able to see out to moderate ranges decently.

On the other hand, a spotting scope magnifies the precipitation to a much greater degree than binoculars and will often be useless during precipitation events. High-powered optics also magnify the effects of mirage (when light bends as it passes through different densities of air).

4. Do I want to carry the extra weight?

Most full-size spotting scopes weigh 4-5 pounds. You will also need to pair your spotting scope with a tripod, which will probably weigh 2-3 more pounds (for a tripod on the lighter side). That means you should expect a spotting scope with a tripod to weigh 6-8 pounds. That is not an insignificant amount of weight, especially if you’re going into the backcountry.

When my spotting scope gets left behind it’s usually because I don’t want to carry the added weight.

There are compact spotting scopes out there that weigh less than 3 pounds. The maximum magnification power of compact spotting scopes is usually around 30-40x, which is about half the maximum magnification of a full-size scope. Even with a compact spotting scope, you’ll still need a tripod but it can cut your total weight down to 4-5 pounds.

5. Are the advantages worth the costs?

At long distances, the increased magnification of spotting scopes can offer advantages over binoculars. However, the benefit comes with several costs.

First is the financial cost. Spotting scopes are not cheap. While you can pick up cheap spotting scopes in the $100 range, a good, budget spotting scope is going to run in the neighborhood of $350-$500. You’ll also need to tack on $50-$100 for a tripod (not optional). All told, you’ll pay at least $400 for a good spotting scope set up.

You can get a quality set of budget binoculars from top companies like Leupold, Nikon, or Bushnell for $150-$200.

That means a spotting scope is going to cost twice as much but have much less versatility.

Conclusion

Spotting scopes can be very beneficial in hunting and wildlife watching situations, but you should be aware of the costs associated with spotting scopes. By asking yourself these questions, you will have a realistic understanding of what to expect from your spotting scope and the challenges you may still face after you acquire one. If you’re interested in a budget spotting scope, check out my review of the Leupold SX-2 Alpine.

Konrad Hafen

Konrad is a natural resource scientist who spends much of his free time hunting, fishing, hiking and backpacking on America's public lands.

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