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Night Vision vs Thermal Optics for Hunting (Pros & Cons)

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Night Vision vs. Thermal Optics

There’s nothing like a good hunt. But with increased hunting pressure during the daytime, it seems that nighttime hunts are best for some game — especially hogs. However, this poses a big question: how are you supposed to track and find your targets in the middle of the night?

Well, there’s a simple answer. You need to take advantage of night vision or low light sight apparatuses. And there are two main types of devices that can be used: night vision or thermal imaging.

But which one is actually better for hunting? In this article, we’ll break down the basic principles of how each works, the pros and cons of each, and which particular device is best in certain situations.

Night Vision Devices for Hunting

We’ve all seen night vision goggles either on TV, movies, or video games. They’re those special goggles you put on when it’s dark that give you a green-tinted point of view.

man wearing Night Fox Swift Night Vision Goggles

But how exactly do they work? Here’s a simple explanation:

Night vision goggles have the ability to detect and collect even the faintest of light sources. This can include moonlight, starlight, distant ambient light, etc. They can also hone in on infrared light. Infrared light is light that is actually just below our visible spectrum. This means that night vision devices can pick up light that we can’t even see.

The electromagnetic spectrum

The whole process is started with the use of a photocathode — the component that actually captures this light. The photocathode then converts this light into a usable electron signal which is then sent to the image intensifier tube—or IIT. It’s then up to the IIT to convert that signal into an image our eyes are capable of processing. And in order to get the best clarity, the image is sent through a green filter screen because that’s what our eyes see best on the visible light spectrum.

How night vision works

Why Use Night Vision for Hunting?

Well, night vision devices can provide extreme clarity when hunting at night. Through your goggles, you’ll be able to make out even the smallest details of your game. Instead of a distorted pixelated blob, you’ll be able to see individual body parts, observe behaviors, and stalk your prey just as if you had full light.

This bodes extremely well when determining when and where is the best time to strike. You can still remain hidden yet draw a proper bead to get off the best shot. If the image was blurry or distorted, you may end up merely wounding the animal or missing the shot entirely — each of which is far from desirable.

Limiting Factors

There are, however, some drawbacks to night vision. It’s still difficult to locate your game in the first place especially when searching through heavy brush or foliage. And while you do have a wider range of vision, night vision devices are normally limited in their range. So, you’ll need to get closer than with the other option of thermal imaging.

Perhaps one of the biggest limiting factors is that night vision devices don’t work well in fog or dust. If you’re out on a foggy night, you’ll find it difficult to spot game as the fog actually interferes with the night vision process.

Pros & Cons of Night Vision

  • Clear, crisp imagery
  • Cheaper than thermal imagers
  • Lightweight and more portable
  • Larger field of vision
  • Requires a bare minimum light source
  • Less distance range and magnification
  • Game is more difficult to spot
  • Cannot see through fog or dust

Thermal Optics for Hunting

Thermal imaging is another concept you probably have seen around. This is often signified through multi-colored images that are blocky between color separations. Like night vision devices, thermal imaging works through infrared light or radiation.

Bestguarder 6x50mm HD Digital Night Vision Monocular

Every object, both organic and not, emits infrared radiation in the form of a heat signature. And by analyzing these heat signatures, thermal imagers allow you to observe your surroundings by seeing a heat map of everything within your target view. Here’s how that works:

In every thermal imager lies a set of microbolometers — measuring devices that capture and register infrared light. After capturing this infrared radiation, each microbolometer assigns an appropriate color value to each pixel of the total image. Normally, lower temperatures are assigned a color of “colder” hues such as blues and purples. And higher temperatures are designated “hotter” hues such as reds, yellows, and oranges. This color-coding system allows for an easier identification of hotter objects (people, animals, running equipment) against their cooler backgrounds.

Hunting a deer in a forest at night using thermal imaging scope
Photo Credit: funstarts33, Shutterstock

However, this color scheme imaging isn’t always the case as many thermal imagers — such as police helicopters — actually use a grayscale.

Why Use Thermal Optics for Hunting?

As you might have guessed, thermal imaging can take your ability to locate game to a whole new level. It’s super easy to find heat signatures especially on a cool night, and you’ll be able to focus your hunt in the right direction from the start.

RELATED READING: Our reviews of the best thermal optic monoculars

Limiting Factors

However, thermal imaging does have some major issues we need to address. First, if you’re using a thermal optic riflescope, it’s going to be tough to get an accurate zero. Calibrating your thermal scope should be done with care. We recommend performing a standard boresight prior to setting up your optic just so you can get within the ballpark. Next, finish your adjustments on a warm metal object such as a pre-heated pie tin or old cooking pan. This will allow you to tune in much easier than shooting at a standard paper target.

The next major issue is accurate target identification. Since the images returned from a thermal scan are often blocky and unclear, you’ll need to take extra consideration when determining just what you’re shooting. Don’t get us wrong — it’ll be relatively easy to distinguish a wild hog from a deer after just a few seconds. But what about a coyote and a domestic dog? You don’t want to end up shooting your trusty hound because you thought it was a coyote.

Pros & Cons of Thermal Optics

  • No light source required at all
  • Extremely easy to locate targets
  • Color coding for easier identifications
  • Can see through fog and dust
  • Better range of distance
  • Severe lack of image detail
  • Heavier and less portable
  • More expensive
  • Narrower field of vision

Night Vision vs Thermal Imaging

Both night vision devices and thermal imagers have clear-cut advantages and disadvantages when out hunting. But when’s the best time to use each?

  • Night vision devices are best used in wide-open environments with minimal foliage.

It’s perfect when hunting nighttime varmints and coyotes. Night vision is also great for twilight hunters on a budget — compared to thermal imagers, that is.

  • Thermal imaging is amazing for locating and spotting games in places with thick brush and heavily wooded areas.

If you plan on hunting deer, thermal imaging is the way to go. You’ll be able to easily spot your targets and track them for the best shot. We do recommend that you practice shooting with your thermal scope prior to heading out though. You still want to ensure a clean shot that minimizes or eradicates any animal suffering.

About the Author Robert Sparks

Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.