Optics for Backpack Hunting in the Western Mountains

Glassing for Javelina in Arizona's high desert

Glassing for Javelina in Arizona’s high desert

I hunt public lands in the Western states.  I’m not a particularly skilled hunter, so I look for an edge by using my legs to travel far enough from roads and access points that I can minimize competition from other, more experienced hunters.  Because I’m usually backpacking, carrying all of my gear for multiple nights out, I tend to obsess over my equipment choices, and they tend to get refined each season as I gain more experience.

Good quality optics are key to hunting the mountain country in the West.  Being able to glass over long distances allows you to scout terrain and locate animals at the speed of light rather than the speed of your legs.

Based on the recommendations of pretty much every hunter I knew, I started out with a set of Swarovski binoculars.  The general consensus is that Swaros are “the best” binoculars.  I picked a 10×50 EL model, which is generally considered to be one of the finest binoculars available.  I was not disappointed.  These were excellent binoculars.

After a while, I moved to the Leica Geovid HD-B rangefinding binoculars, also 10 power (10×42.)  The Leica has optical performance comparable with the Swaro, and had the advantage of integrated rangefinding and ballistics (when it worked.)  My review of the Geovid is here.

I didn’t carry a spotting scope.  I’m not counting tines on antlers, (I’m pretty much a meat hunter, not a trophy hunter,) so I figured I wouldn’t need one.  The 10 power binos were my all-in-one optics solution.  However, on a couple of hunts, I glassed animals from far enough away that I needed a higher power optic to determine if I wanted to shoot them or not.  In one instance, I was looking at a deer, and I couldn’t make out if it was male or female, as I couldn’t even tell if it had antlers.  A higher magnification spotting scope would have made identification easier.

I lost my Leica Geovid binoculars on a hunt.  This gave me the excuse to revisit my hunting optics.  I decided to go with a lighter weight binocular combined with a lightweight spotting scope.

After a fair amount of online research and some in-person testing of various binoculars and spotting scopes, I ended up with a pair of  Zeiss Victory 8×32 T* FL binoculars and a Kowa Prominar TSN 554 Kowa 15-45x55mm spotting scope.   This combination, combined with a Sig Kilo 2400 rangefinder is working out well for me, and I think that I may have found my perfect optics kit for the kind of high-mileage high altitude hunting that I do.

Kowa 554 Scope; Granite Peak Tripod; Zeiss 8x32; Sig Kilo 2400

My backpack optics kit:  Kowa 554 Scope; Granite Peak Tripod; Zeiss 8×32; Sig Kilo 2400

Zeiss Victory 8×32 T* FL Binoculars   (21.8 ounces)

The Zeiss brand is not as popular with hunters as the ubiquitous Swarovski, but they are also top tier binoculars.  These 8×32 have a wide angle of view (64 degrees,) combined with excellent optical quality.  The image from the fluorite lenses is sharp and clear, and I don’t notice any flare or chromatic aberration or other optical flaws.

The 32mm objective gives up some brightness compared with the larger 42mm objective, but in actual practice  I have found the the dawn and dusk performance difference to be negligible.  However, the difference in weight and size is significant and  very noticable.  Weight on these is 21.8 ounces, compared with 37.5 ounces for the Leica Geovid 10×42 and 29.7 ounces for the Zeiss 8×42.

Eye relief is good, and I can pretty much just put them up to my eyes and see, rather than worrying about finding an eye relief sweet spot.  Ergonomics are excellent, both bare handed and wearing gloves.  Focusing is smooth and consistent.  The best feature is that these binos are really small and compact (5 inches long by 5 inches wide.)  I can wear them all day long, and never really notice them.  I can glass with them for long periods with no fatigue.

I’ve been happy with the switch to the 8×32.  I’m not sure I would use these for mountain hunting without the addition of a higher magnification spotting scope, but as the binoculars in a bino-spotting scope combination, they are perfect.

Kowa Prominar TSN 554  15-45 x55mm Spotting Scope  (29.1 ounces)

This is a relatively new spotting scope, introduced in the summer of 2017.  I used mine for deer and elk hunts in fall of 2017, and a spring javelina hunt in 2018.  Based on this, plus lots of use birding, I believe that this may be the perfect lightweight spotting scope.

It has a 55mm objective lens, which is small by spotting scope standards.  The 554 uses polycarbonate plastic construction to cut down on weight, but it doesn’t feel cheap or “plasticy” at all.  It has a substantial, quality feel.  Optical quality is terrific.  I’ve peered through other compact 60mm class scopes, and the Kowa is head and shoulders above anything else I’ve seen.  I think that most smaller objective scopes tend to be lower quality entry-level optics.  The Kowa, in contrast, utilizes their top of the line fluorite crystal for the objective lens and ultra low dispersion glass for the rest of it.  It’s the most expensive compact scope I know of, and it’s clear that the money has gone into the lenses, as the view through the scope is great.

Ergonomics are excellent as well.  I particularly like the Kowa focusing system.  The dual focusing knobs (one for quick and the other for fine focus) work very well.  The scope is so small and light, I’ve even used it occasionally without a tripod, resting it on a rock, tree limb, or backpack.

Maximum magnification is 45x, which is significantly less than a full size scope (My 88mm Kowa has 60x magnification.)  In practice, however, I’ve found 45x magnification to be more than adequate.  Most of the time, I’m glassing at no more than 25x.

Using premium glass in a lightweight and compact design is unique.  I’m glad that Kowa took the step to pioneer this market segment, as the 554 scope is now a regular addition to my hunting optics load out.

As of this time, Kowa does not sell a fitted case for the 550 series scopes.  However, I found an Op/Tech neoprene spotting scope pouch that works reasonably well.  Supposedly, Kowa will be coming out with a fitted case for the 554 some time in 2018.

I use the Kowa 554 spotting scope with a light weight tripod.  (Tripods reviewed HERE) The beauty of the lightweight spotting scope, is that its light weight means that I can use a lighter tripod as well, compounding the weight savings.

Bino Harness

A good bino harness is essential for holding your binoculars; keeping them close to hand, but also controlling them and preventing them from bouncing around.

I have owned and used a number of different bino harnesses.  My first was the S4 Lockdown X, which was somewhat minimalist.  I moved to a FHF Bino Harness because I wanted better pockets and more modularity.   Eventually, I got an Alaska Guide Creations bino harness because the fully enclosed design provided better protection from dust and debris.  I liked the pockets as well.

Alaska Guide Creations does not make a bino pouch that is sized to fit my smaller 8×32 binoculars.  After some research, I opted for the Outdoor Vision bino harness.    It has become my favorite of all that I have owned.   I like the top closure.  It folds out, away from your body, so the lid stays open and out of the way when you are using the binos.  The magnetic closure is quiet and secure.  It is rather slim and compact, but still manages to include a couple of pockets for a Wind checker powder bottle (Windicator)  and some emergency items (Spyderco Manbug G10 knife   Spark Lite Firestarter kit)  I keep these in my bottom pocket  (which also holds a rain cover for the case.)   This, coupled with a FHF pouch for my rangefinder, is my standard rig now.

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Outdoor Vision Bino Harness with FHF rangefinder pouch

Outdoor Vision Bino Harness with FHF rangefinder pouch.  (I have found that the bino harness is the best place to hang my sheath knife.  No interference with pack belt.)

Other (Heavier) Optics

Although the 8×32 binos and the Kowa 554 spotting scope are my standard hunting optics, there are times when I use heavier, full size binoculars, and a full size spotting scope.   I use the Kowa Genesis 10.5×44 binos, and the Kowa TSN 883 spotting scope.  With the TE-11WZ wide zoom eyepiece,  the 883 spotting scope provides a 25-60x magnification range.   Objective size is 88mm.  Weight of the 883 spotter is 75 ounces.  Weight of the 10.5×44 binos is 34 ounces.

Zeiss 8x32 and Kowa 10.5x44 binos side by side

Zeiss 8×32 and Kowa 10.5×44 binos side by side

Optical quality of these Kowa binos and scope are outstanding.  To my eyes, they are every bit as good as the comparable Swarovski offerings I’ve used.

They are big and heavy, but when I’m hunting from the car, just carrying a day pack, sometimes I will lug them along.  Kowa is a lesser known brand compared with the Big Three of Zeiss, Leica and Swarovski, but I think if they had better marketing, hunters would be flocking to Kowa in droves for the excellent optics and reasonable pricing.

Kowa 554 and Kowa 883

Kowa 554 and Kowa 883

Conclusions: 

It’s taken me a fair amount of trial and error to get to this point in my optical kit.  However, after using various premium optics, my current combo of the Kowa 554 lightweight spotter coupled with the lightweight Zeiss 8×32 binos really seems to cover all my bases.  The binos are light and great for glassing large areas.  The 554 spotting scope is light as well, and allows me to zoom in on animals or areas of interest.  It saves pounds of weight compared with a traditional, full size bino and spotter combination.

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