The Best Binoculars for Spotting Wildlife on Safari
There seems to be a running joke that the number one cause of divorce among travelers in Africa is only bringing one pair of binoculars on safari. Rather than coming to blows over who gets to watch the elephants bathing in that far-off pool or zoom in on that pack of sunning lions, pick up a pair or two of binoculars to make sure you can see the wildlife in all its detail, down to the feathers of the birds on the water buffalo’s back.
Binoculars are most often identified by both their model name and a set of two numbers. The first number represents the magnification. For safaris and other wildlife viewing, most sources recommend an 8x or a 10x, so animals will look eight or ten times closer to you than they actually are. If you go too much higher, the image may get blurry if you’re holding the binoculars without extra stabilization — something you won’t really have in a jeep.
The second number is the size of the objective lens (the front one) in millimeters, which tells you how much light the lenses let in. A larger number means more light gets in; and 42 seems to be the sweet spot for maximum clarity without adding too much weight. Given that wildlife is most active around dawn and dusk, it’s important to make sure your binoculars can handle low lighting. Many binoculars with designations like “compact” or “travel” top out around 28; this keeps them smaller, potentially even foldable, but they won’t perform as well in darker conditions. If you want to go deeper down the binocular tech specs rabbit hole, B&H Photo offers a comprehensive guide to lenses, while REI will help you sort them out using slightly shorter sentences.
Related: The Top 10 Safari Outfitters
In addition to the correct magnification and lens size, you want to look for a rugged housing (probably rubber) and waterproof design. You are taking these into the bush, after all. A carrying strap is a nice bonus for bringing them along on game drives or walks, and be mindful of weight, since you will be carrying them both on your expeditions and in your luggage.
There are binoculars with built-in cameras and binocular apps on the market, as well, but we don’t recommend them. You’re getting the worst of both worlds with camera binoculars, and apps are still inherently limited by your phone camera’s abilities. If photos are what you’re after, you’re better off investing in a camera with a good zoom lens.
There’s not much consensus in the online review sphere about which specific binocular models are the very best, but the same brands pop up over and over again, so feel free to comfortably explore their catalogs if the particular model we mention here isn’t quite to your liking.
Athlon Optics Midas 8x42 ED
Wirecutter’s second-favorite was only dinged for its slightly blurrier edge of field, but does come with a lower price tag than their top pick from Athlons.
To buy: amazon.com, $190
Nikon ProStaff 7
The 7 is the most recent addition to Nikon’s very good entry-level ProStaff line. The 3 and 5 are also solid options and sometimes you can find them even cheaper.
To buy: amazon.com, $177
Nikon Monarch 5
Celestron Nature DX
Bushnell Legend L Series
Vortex Viper HD 8x42
Olympus 10x42 PRO
Swarovski EL 8.5x42
Think you’re going to convert to a lifetime of birdwatching? Swarovski’s lens quality is consistently top of the line, but you’ll pay top of the line prices for it. If money is no object for you, try out this Outdoor Gear Lab top pick.
To buy: amazon.com, $2,659
Zeiss Victory SF
If you really want to invest in your binoculars, Zeiss makes some of the best. Choose between 8x42 or 10x42 depending on your preference and steadiness of your hands. If you’re just buying a pair for one safari, you don’t really need to spend this much, but who are we to stop you if you absolutely must have them.
To buy: amazon.com, $2,750