Should I get zoom binoculars?

My wife and I will be hiking in the Canadian Rockies this summer. We'd each like to carry a pair of compact binoculars for birding and the occasional vast vista that we might come upon. Without breaking the bank (we don't need waterproofed and rubber-armored), what would you recommend? As far as magnification goes, should we consider buying zoom binoculars or stick with a basic model? Also, how important is it to have the widest field of view possible? Byron Phoenix, Arizona

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There are plenty of good choices out there for you, Byron. But first, allow me to give a quick refresher on binocular basics for everyone out there. The “8” in, say, 8X25 binoculars, is the degree of magnification. The bigger that first number, the more magnification. The second number, in this case “25,” refers to the front diameter of the lens. Here, a larger number means more light passes through, yielding a brighter image. Generally, for hiking and all-around use, I like glasses right around the 8X25 to 8X35 range. It’s nice at times to have 10-power lenses, but they also can be difficult to use as any hand shaking is magnified along with the image. And for daylight use, a lens opening of 25 to 30mm usually is fine, especially if you’re out in the open. Angle of vision, it seems to me, is to some extent a matter of taste. But wider generally is better. I don’t care for zoom binoculars—for the most part, they’re a gimmick, with poor optics unless you fork over a ton of money.

Of course, not all glasses with the raw same numbers ARE the same. Glass quality, coatings, construction —- all those combine to give you a wide range of prices and sharpness. Still, for under $100 you can get a pretty good pair of binocs, such as Pentax’s 8X24 UCF WR. These in fact ARE armored and water-resistant, so you can have your cake and eat it, too. They’re about $85, street price. I also like Minolta’s 8X25 Activa binoculars, which go for right around $100 and are basically same design as the Pentax’s. You’d want to heft a pair of each and look at something with the glasses side by side to figure out what seems best.

There are some bargains on high-end glasses to be found, too. Sierra Trading Post, for example, has several Steiner binoculars on closeout. These include the beautifully made 8X24 Rocky binoculars for $260, and slightly lesser 8X22 Compact Safari glasses for $99. I got a pair of the Compact Safari glasses not long ago for backpacking and like them very much

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