TRAVELING WITH BINOCULARS
Disclosure: Years ago we were asked to serve on the Alpen Optics Birding Pro-Staff and periodically we receive optics to test. Following is a report on using mini-binoculars while traveling.
In October we enjoyed a 1600-mile, 12-day clockwise loop around Washington State. After picking up our rental car at the Spokane airport our journey took us through deserts, mountain passes, the Olympic rainforest, and even across Puget Sound on a ferry.
We enjoyed spotting new bird species, sea lions, jellyfish, Roosevelt elk, and a host of other wildlife. Good thing we brought along binoculars! We wouldn’t dream of traveling without binoculars and use them constantly. Even when we trek to New York City we tote along a pair. But, for this trip, they presented a dilemma.
We wanted to avoid checking baggage on the plane to save cost and the possibility of a lost suitcase.
Rich with compact binoculars.
Delta Airlines limited us to a small suitcase that we could carry on the plane. Squeezing nearly two weeks’ worth of clothes and supplies into these packs was a challenge. It became obvious that we couldn’t fit in our full-size binocs. Mini Binoculars to the rescue! Our Alpen Wings ED compact binoculars easily nested into a hiking boot that we tucked in the pack.
For all around general binocular use, and when we’re traveling by car, we always use full-size binoculars. They fit our hands well, provide a bright image, even at dawn and dusk, and their field of view is wide. Their downside is bulkiness.
Many optical companies sell high-quality compact binoculars. Go for quality. Inexpensive models are nearly useless. Here are the pros and cons of mini binoculars:
Compact binoculars are handy because they are small. They easily fit in a glove compartment, purse, or jacket pocket and take little space in a suitcase. Mini’s are ideal for travel. Quality ones have clear optics.
Having a pair of mini binoculars handy is always better than not having binoculars.
Mini binoculars have a limited field of view and are rarely as good in low light situations as their full-size cousins. We find them a little harder to use and hold than full-size models and would never choose to use minis for long viewing sessions or if we went on specific birding excursions. But they are invaluable when size and weight are limited.
The best solution is to have two pairs of binoculars. One full sized model for general use and minis for travel and convenience.
Outside in Fall
Warm pleasant weather lures families into their yards for gardening, barbecue cooking, and simply enjoying the weather or quiet conversation.
Unfortunately, most people retreat inside as soon as the weather turns cool and don’t enjoy their yards until spring’s gentle sunshine warms the earth. Fascinating happenings occur all fall and winter, and we enjoy going outside no matter what the weather is.
Often Rich quietly sits on the back deck with his binoculars. There’s
Rich often sits outside observing nature.
plenty to see as nuthatches, woodpeckers, and chickadees flit around bare branches and wing to feeders while juncos seek tiny seeds on the ground. Squirrels come and go, often chasing one another, and each morning a flock of wild turkeys troops up to our yard from nearby Faulke’s Woods. It’s all fun to watch.
There’s only one downside. It’s cold. Fortunately, manufacturers have made great strides in recent years developing clothing and other products that make being outside comfortable on even the coldest days. Deer hunters and ice fishermen can sit for hours in frosty places and have learned how to stay warm. Rich follows their example with layers of clothes and a warm jacket. Toes, fingers, and ears are the most likely body parts to feel the cold, so he dons a stocking cap, warm pair of mittens or gloves, and felt lined boots when sitting on the deck.
Bring along these lightweight warmers for outdoor activities.
*He augments these with hand and toe warmers. The best brands we have found are HotHands and Grabbers. A simple air tight packet keeps the natural ingredients stable. Cut open the outer seal and air activates the process with resulting heat that lasts six to 12 hours depending on the brand and type of warmer – hand, toe or body. These light-weight, disposable packs are great for late season outdoor sports, yard work, emergency crews, and just being outside. When the elements are cool, we cut open the packet and sprinkle the iron-vermiculite mixture on the ground then recycle the packaging.
*Milwaukee Tool Company, best known for its quality drills and saws, has recently brought out battery heated jackets, vests and coats, and these sound ideal for enjoying the yard in winter. We’ll be testing them soon and will let visitors to Winding Pathways know how well they work to keep wearers toasty on cold days.
Don’t let the cold keep you from enjoying your yard. It’s fascinating in winter, and with leaves off trees visibility is often better than during the summer. Here’s one more tip:
Many animals visit the yard after dark in winter. Step outside with a flashlight and shine it on the bird feeder. You might discover a raccoon, opossum, deer, or even flying squirrel enjoying seeds intended for birds!
*(Note: These are independent, unpaid reviews of products.)
Few household items are as handy as a pair of binoculars. Sure, they are great for getting a close look at birds visiting the feeder, but they are also helpful to:
- inspect the roof from the ground for loose shingles. No climbing up a ladder.
- view from a distance butterflies, bees and other insects. No scaring them off.
- bring distant worlds into view from the backyard. In today’s overly lit cities and rural farmyards only a few stars are bright enough to see with the naked eyes. Binoculars bring many more into view along with planets, comets and even the International Space Station.
- make viewing ball games, concerts and large stage shows more interesting and intimate.
We don’t have just “a pair” of binoculars at Winding Pathways. We have several. Each of us keeps a pair in the car. One is near our dining room table, another in an upstairs bedroom and a final one in our offices. We also have a compact pair that gets tucked into the suitcase when we travel by plane.
Binoculars are an outstanding gift, but buying a quality pair without breaking the budget can get confusing. Dozens of brands and models flood the market and range in price from under $20 to several months mortgage payments. How do you choose?
Most people are best served by versatile general purpose binoculars. A few numbers are helpful to know. For example many binoculars are 8X40 or 8X42. The first number means how much magnification the binocs provide. In this case it’s eight power. The second number tells how large the lens is at the end of the binocular and indicates how much light it lets in. The bigger the number, the more light the binoculars let in and the wider the outer lenses are. In this case, if you divide the first number into the second, the result is around five. They will be a great general purpose pair of binoculars. Mini compact binocs commonly have a division factor of three. They will be easy to carry but less useful when the light is poor or for astronomy. On the other end of the spectrum are binoculars designed for low light. They will have large second numbers and are usually too big and bulky for general use but ideal for astronomy and spotting wildlife at dusk.
At Winding Pathways Rich prefers eight power binoculars and Marion uses 10 power models. As the power increases they become harder to hold steady without vibration and the field of view gets smaller. In other words you see less of the landscape with 10 power than with eight, so it may be harder to find that distant deer or bird. Ten power is great for people with steady hands.
Price gives some indication of quality. Avoid very inexpensive binoculars like the plague. If all you can afford is a $25 gift buy something other than optics. On the other hand there’s no point in buying expensive binoculars for general around the home use or for casual use. Fortunately optics on mid-priced binoculars has gotten much better in recent years, and outstanding models are available at modest cost.
We’ve used dozens of pairs of binoculars of many configurations and brands and believe those in the $125 to $250 price range are generally just fine for around the house use. Double the price and you’ll get better optics but you won’t get double the value because it takes companies more expense to get small improvements in quality.
Be sure the binoculars are comfortable in the hands, provide clear viewing, and are fun to use. We like to view butterflies and bees that are often only six to ten feet from our eyes, so close focusing is important to us.
So, what brand do we use? In recent years we’ve mostly purchased Alpen binoculars. They feature excellent optics at reasonable cost. But, many other brands are also outstanding. Binoculars can be purchased in stores, through catalogs or over the Internet. Buying in stores gives an opportunity to hold them and examine the optics before the purchase is made. Buying over the Internet makes returning, if necessary, easy and gives a chance to read reviews. Internet purchasing is becoming more common.
From time to time Winding Pathways will profile companies that provides equipment or services helpful in managing and enjoying wondrous yards. We have used their products and found them well made. However, we recognize that competing companies sell excellent products and services, so we encourage people to shop the market and find goods and services they like at a price they can afford.
In coming months Winding Pathways will feature profiles of Murray McMurray Hatchery, The Seed Savers Exchange, Milwaukee Tools and manufacturers of bird feeders.
Our inaugural profile is of the Alpen Outdoor Corporation.
Tim and Vickie Gardner established Alpen in 1996. He had been VP of Bausch and Lomb’s Bushnell division and wanted to provide a line of sports optics that delivers high quality and value. Alpen sells a wide array of binoculars and spotting and rifle scopes.
Although a relatively new company, Alpen has won several prestigious optics awards including Outdoor Life Magazine’s GREAT BUY award seven times and its EDITOR’S CHOICE award once.
Alpen is a family owned business and, although smaller than big brands, it is proud of its superb customer service and its” no fault” lifetime product guarantee.
When asked what distinguishes Alpen binoculars from other brands, Tim Gardner replied, “We work to provide more value and better quality compared to other manufacturers. We keep overhead low and concentrate more on customer service than fancy advertising.”
Here are his suggestions for general purpose around the home binoculars: “I recommend eight power as it gives the best brightness, field of view and ease of use. A full size 8X52 or 8X25 is outstanding for general use.”
When asked what binoculars were best for children he replied, “The most important thing is for the binocular to be able to adjust to fit the smaller face and closer set eyes of children. Alpen has an 8X30 model designed for kids. It has barrels that are close together to fit a child’s face. Some double hinge compact roof prism binoculars can also be adjusted to fit small faces”.
Contact Vicki or Tim at Alpen Outdoor Corporation, 10329 Dorset Street, Rancho Cucamonga,
CA 91730. (877)987-8370. www.alpenoptics.com.