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

Bob Parks

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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 20×50 Waterproof Mini

Vortex Recon

The Best Affordable Spotting Scopes: Leupold SX-1 Ventana

For spotting rare avian species, the SX-1 scope simply gives you the most bird for the buck. Leupold, based in Beaverton, Oregon, was founded by a German optical genius. It delivers high-quality optics with a relatively low price tag. This scope has a magnification of 15x to 45x (compare that to your puny 10x binocs). Its objective lens (the front one) is a healthy 60 millimeters, which means it lets in a lot of light for early evening viewing. It’s also digital-camera compatible.

You can get the SX-1 in either straight or angled format (an angled one is easier for people to walk up to and peer in, but the optical difference is negligible except to the experts). A weight of 1.9 pounds and a street price of around $230 makes it a good addition on treks where you really want to see stuff close up.

The SX-1 is designed for nature watching, not hunting in particular, though I do appreciate the Amazon reviewer who (fatuously, we hope) praised this scope as one he “used at 500-yard range to see all aspect of man-sized targets.” The most dangerous game, indeed.

The Best Affordable Spotting Scopes: Bushnell Trophy XLT 15-45

The Trophy XLT is billed as a hunting accessory—and makes a good one—but for those who merely want to view nature from ultra-long distances, it makes an excellent scope for a hike. It’s 1.8-pound weight is a little bulky for stowing, but look what you get: a compact tripod, 15-45x magnification, 50 millimeter lens diameter, a waterproof housing—at a $200 street price.

The Best Affordable Spotting Scopes: Alpen 20×50 Waterproof Mini

Some will balk at including the Alpen Mini in the same lineup as quality spotting scopes like the Leupold, but if you are just getting started in birding, this is your entrée. Like any standard scope, it’s nitrogen filled to reduce fog, as well as waterproof and dustproof. It also comes with a tripod. The optics bring you 20x closer with a 50 millimeter objective lens, and it weighs just over a half pound. ($60)

The Best Affordable Spotting Scopes: Vortex Recon

The Recon is a shrunken, lightweight version of a full spotting scope, but it’s one of the best tradeoffs between optics and packability in this group. Made by Middleton, Wisconsin-based Vortex, the $549 scope weighs under a pound and offers 15x magnification and a huge 50 millimeter lens. To protect it in the wild, the lens is scratch-resistant, the housing is waterproof, and the exterior is covered in grippy rubber.