Optics You Actually Need to Hunt Western Big Game

The western United States is full of big landscapes that can be intimidating to hunt. Finding animals in a big sagebrush flat or in a long, wide canyon can be difficult. If you use optics to “let your eyes do the walking” you can save a lot of miles and time by spotting animals from range instead of exploring all the likely spots in person. However, using optics presents its own challenges. This is especially true for new hunters that may not want to invest the money to get a full optics set up right off the bat.

As important as optics are to western hunting, let me first say this. You don’t need any optics for big game hunting! If binoculars, a rifle scope, spotting scope, rangefinder, or some other device is preventing you from hunting forget about it and just go hunt. Take your rifle with iron sights and go get close enough to your quarry that you can’t miss! The advantages of gaining first-hand hunting experience will always help you more than any gear you can buy.

That said, good optics can greatly improve your ability to locate animals and to make an ethical, lethal shot once you’re in range. For the hunter that’s just getting started, or even the experienced hunter looking to upgrade, it can be difficult to know which optics will be most integral to improving your hunt and your success. In this article, I list the optics for western big game hunting in order of general importance and explain why.

In order of importance, the optics you should purchase for western big game hunting are.

  1. Binoculars
  2. Rifle Scope
  3. Rangefinder
  4. Spotting Scope

There will definitely be certain situations where this order may not hold true. And certain hunting styles may place put these optics in a different order. However, as a general rule, acquiring optics in this order will do the most to improve your success without breaking open the piggy bank.

1. Binoculars

Binoculars are the most important hunting optic because they will help you find more wildlife. Finding more animals means you will get more shot opportunities and learn more about animal patterns, habits, and movement.

With a decent pair of 8 or 10 power binoculars (and some practice) you will be able to spot most big game animals over a mile away (depending on terrain and conditions). I’ve been hunted the west for deer, elk, and bears for nearly 20 years before I purchased a spotting scope and was able to have plenty of success finding and harvesting animals.

I’ve listed binoculars at number one because once you find an animal you can always find a way to get closer if you don’t have a scope on your rifle, and the quality of your hunts will increase as you find more animals. Binoculars are the best tool for that.

2. Rifle Scope

If you hunt with a bow and not a rifle you can just skip to the next section because this (obviously) doesn’t apply to you.

As hunters it’s our responsibility to treat the animals we hunt with respect. We do that by taking ethical shots. Shots we’re sure (as sure as we can be) will be lethal and allow us to recover an animal.

A rifle scope is the second most important optic because once you start finding animals to hunt (with your binoculars, of course) a rifle scope will improve your shot placement and increase your ethical shooting range. In other words, a rifle scope will help you harvest more of the animals you see (with proper practice).

The magnification and crosshairs on a rifle scope make it much easier to pick a point of aim. In turn, this gives you more confidence in your shots and results in a smaller margin of error. Riflescopes also allow you to maximize the effective range of your firearm by letting you shoot farther than you can see with the naked eye.

3. Rangefinder

I’ve listed a rangefinder as the third most important optic using the same logic that placed a rifle scope at number two. Once you start shooting more than 200-300 yards it becomes very important to know the exact distance to your target. Without a rangefinder, you increase the risk of making a nonlethal hit and wounding an animal.

I didn’t start using a rangefinder until 5 or 6 years ago and I have to say that it has really increased my shooting confidence (with both a bow and rifle) and I am comfortable taking shots that I wouldn’t attempt without it.

The downside to using a rangefinder is that it can malfunction, then you have to make do without it. Most optics companies are now making tough, rugged rangefinders that will withstand almost all conditions. Just make sure you carry an extra battery.

It also takes a little extra time to prep for a shot if you take the time to get an accurate range first. I’m okay with that. I would much rather miss an opportunity to take a shot because I was getting a range than make a bad range estimate and wound an animal as a result.

4. Spotting Scope

For most hunters, I think spotting scopes are the least important optic to have. There are a few reasons for this.

First, binoculars are much more versatile for finding animals in multiple situations. You can use the same binoculars for hunting whitetails in thick timber out of a treestand, calling in rutting elk, spotting bears across canyons, or finding pronghorn in the plains. A spotting scope is only going to work in a couple of those situations. Additionally, spotting scopes don’t perform well during precipitation, at close to moderate range, or when heat causes mirage. In these conditions, the extra magnification of a spotting scope actually limits your ability to see the terrain clearly.

Second, spotting scopes are expensive. A good, budget spotting scope will cost you twice as much (or more) as a good set of budget binoculars. Get the binoculars to start and get the spotting scope when you’re sure it’s something you’ll actually use regularly. I hunted the west successfully without a spotting scope for 20 years. When I finally bought one it was more for using my camera to get photos and videos than for spotting more animals.

Third, spotting scopes are heavy. A full-size spotting scope with a tripod (not optional) is going to weigh a minimum of four pounds, probably closer to 6 or 7 pounds. That’s a lot of extra weight to carry, especially if you like to get away from roads. There are a lot of days I leave my spotting scope in the truck or at home because the little benefit it provides isn’t worth lugging it around all day.

If you’re considering a spotting scope purchase these five questions will help you determine how useful a spotting scope may be for your hunting style.

Conclusion

These optics priorities should apply to most hunters that haven’t yet started to build their optics arsenal. Other, more established, hunters will argue that I’m off my rocker and a spotting scope is the most important optic they own. They’re probably right. This is what I’ve found to work best through my experience and basic logic, but there will definitely be scenarios where these priorities don’t hold. If you’ve learned anything I hope it’s to consider what’s most important to you in your hunting endeavors and to decide which optics to get accordingly.

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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