There's no shortage of good compact binoculars on the market, but the tradeoff is this: to make binoculars compact, manufacturers have to reduce the size of the objective lens, which is the piece of glass at the front end. (Objective size is the second number in the common nomenclature for binoculars, for example 8x42, which is an eight-power binocular with a 42-millimeter objective lens.) Smaller objective lenses limit the amount of light that can pass through the binocular, making the image a bit dimmer and reducing the binocular's effectiveness in poor light.
I carry a pair of razor-sharp, easy-to-handle Steiner binoculars. Take a look at their Predator Xtreme model ($199). If you can get past the testosterone-drenched name, they’re a great pair of glasses. Like most compact binoculars, they’re made with roof-prism design, which means they use mirrors to help amplify the image. That makes them more compact than the porro prisms found in larger binoculars, but you sacrifice light sensitivity.
But for your uses, the Predator Xtremes include a useful waterproof design, rubber armor, and a tough, polycarbonate-plastic chassis. Their 10-power magnification is right on the edge of what you can hand-hold without a lot of jiggle. The objective lens is 26mm, not bad for compact glasses.
The Best Compact Binoculars: Olympus Magellan 8x25
Olympus also makes a nice line of compact binoculars. Take a look at their Magellan 8X25 glasses ($169). Eight-power zoom is easier to handle than 10-power, and it's fine for most viewing. The Magellans are waterproof, have a rubber coating to help with grip, and come with nitrogen-purged lenses to reduce fogging.
The Best Compact Binoculars: Leica 10X25 Ultravid
At the higher end are Leica’s 10X25 Ultravid binoculars ($799). These are really nice glasses, with a machined-aluminum housing and super high-quality lenses. Like the Magellans, they're waterproof and nitrogen-purged to eliminate fogging. They’re plenty expensive, but for serious scoping they can’t be beat.