As backcountry hunters who hunt out of a backpack, we are always trying to save weight. We spend extra money on a lot of items to shave a few ounces which does add up in the end to keep your pack weight down. Sometimes, saving weight compromises the quality or durability of a product; optics fall into that category. Bigger objective lenses work best for light gathering, and thus are preferred for glassing during low light conditions when mature animals are most active. In this article, we'll look at a few specific models that stand out because of their weight and still deliver exceptional performance for your lightweight hunting needs.
Don't skimp on a tripod by carrying one that is too lightweight for your setup. A great way to save some weight is to use a tripod that is shorter, but still very stable. Carbon fiber tripods have quickly become some of the most popular tripods for backcountry hunters, because they are lighter than aluminum, typically quieter to operate, and provide great vibration minimization in wind. There are outstanding tripod options available from Manfrotto, Vanguard, and SLIK. I personally started using the SLIK CF Pro 624 and find that it works very well for my style of hunting. I save some weight with this tripod because it is shorter, so I have to sit or kneel to glass. While it is shorter, it is extremely sturdy. The new SLIK 522 lite is another great option that provides a little more height at an even lower weight!
Tripod heads are just plain heavy, especially Pan Heads which are preferred by many hunters who like the ease and quickness of panning, or when using a video camera or phone skope. A couple of heads that seem to work fairly well and won't kill the budget are the Vanguard 111v and the Benro S2. Both of these will be under $100 and don't weigh too much. I am personally using a ball head made by mefoto. It has tension adjustment that doesn't fall completely off like most ball heads, so I can keep it tight enough to stabilize my optic, but still pan the head. The best thing about that little ball head is that it only weighs 9 oz.
I know some of you will still want to carry an 80-90mm tripod in the field. That's all personal preference. I prefer to carry a 65mm or smaller and find that it works well for me. That being said, I'll go over a few spotters ranging from 50mm to 90mm that should be considered.
Big Scopes (80mm+):
Most of your 80-95 oz spotting scopes are going to weigh 60-70 oz. That is well over 4 pounds. It's up to you whether it's worth the weight on your backcountry hunts.
Of course look at the big 3 here: Swarovski, Leica, and Zeiss. All of these will deliver premium optical quality. Weight ranges and options will vary from the big BTX down to the lighter Leica Televid and Swarovski ATS/STS.
There aren't many scopes in this size that will be south of 60 oz. The new Zeiss Conquest Gavia 85mm ($1999) is one that looks very promising. Even with an 85mm objective this scope will be right at 60 oz. and should be one to consider for a lightweight scope with great glass at a lighter weight.
Zeiss Gavia 85mm in Action (PC Zeiss Optics):
Medium Scopes (65mm):
I consider a 65mm scope to be pretty standard and is offered by almost every optics company. You'll find most of these scopes to be in the 50-60 oz range.
Once again look at the big 3 again if you're looking for top end performance. Although they aren't the lightest in the bunch. The biggest outliers as far as weight and still providing awesome glass are the Zeiss Dialyt ($1599); which comes in at around 42 oz. This is the scope that I personally use and love it. The other option would be the Swarovski CTC 30x75 collapsible spotting scope (43 oz). Unfortunately the CTC is very difficult to get in the US, but if you keep your eye out you may find one. The reason I went for the Zeiss is first, availability, but it is also waterproof and has a variable power (18-45x).
I've also been extremely impressed with the Athlon Ares 15-45x65mm spotting scope ($599). This little unit delivers a surprisingly crisp and clear image and outperforms it's retail price by a lot! I would easily compare this spotter to those that retail for twice the price.
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Zeiss Dialyt Spotter - My setup:
There are not a lot of compact offerings and most are available in 50mm objective. However, there are a few options in this size that provide pretty decent glass and typically will cost a lot less.
There aren't very many options in the 50mm size, especially when you move up to high end glass. You'll want to consider the Vortex Razor 50mm ($699), the Athlon Cronus 50mm, the Leupold Gold Ring Compact 50mm ($449), and the Nikon Field Scope (50mm)($699+). Most of these will weigh between 22 and 26 oz and can be used with a very lightweight tripod. You can be into your entire tripod and spotter for around 3 lbs. I have used the Vortex, Athlon, and the Leupold in the field and find their glass to be very comparable. I do prefer the ergonomics on the Vortex and Athlon but they cost a little bit more. The downside to the compact spotters is that most only go to 30x optical zoom, and don't gather as much light as some of your larger objective lenses. The Athlon Cronus does provide a little more magnification range and should be considered in the 50mm size. There also aren't any offerings in very high end glass. (Likely because you don't see as big a difference in a 50mm objective). The new Kowa 55mm could be considered as well, we don't have all the details on this scope yet, but will update this article when we do.
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Everyone has their own preference, and some of you don't care about weight and will gladly carry 8+ lbs between a spotting scope and a tripod up the mountain in order to have the advantage of a big objective. For most of us it may take some trial and error to find the perfect setup for your particular hunts, or hunting style. As always, please feel free to contact us, or leave a comment on this article if you'd like more information!