Gear Guy

What Are the Best Affordable Spotting Scopes?

I really want to see birds and other animals up close. What are the most powerful binoculars I can get?

What Are the Best Affordable Spotting Scopes?

A spotting scope is a better choice, even if you're not a hunter. Photo: Tom Reichner/

They’re bulkier and heavier than binoculars, but to look an elk in the eye at 2,000 yards, you’ll need a spotting scope—basically a powerful telescope for terrestrial viewing.

Spotting scopes are often associated with hunters, who need long-range viewing. But many are now designed for hikers who simply want to view and photograph various fauna from incredible distances. The optics get you at least twice as close as the most powerful binoculars, and sometimes even six times as close.

One drawback is weight. While the standard large-size binoculars are around a pound and a half, any quality scope is at least two pounds. Add the weight of a tripod (one to three pounds), because at such a long range, small movements from a hand-held scope would drive you nuts. Some scopes come with tripods, and others require the accessory as a separate purchase (starting at $50).

The good news is that several American firms are bringing the price of spotting scopes way down. The finest scopes are still made in places like Germany, the Czech Republic, and Japan and cost thousands of dollars. In fact, probably the coolest new scope out there is Nikon’s $5,499 EDG VR, which electronically eliminates tiny vibrations from the wind or your hands. But that one's worth more than my 2004 Civic. Our favorite affordable selections are after the jump and should get you as close as you need across vast snowy canyons and wind-swept peaks.

Leupold SX-1 Ventana
Bushnell Trophy XLT 15-45

Alpen 20x50 Waterproof Mini

Vortex Recon

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