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Night Vision vs. Thermal Optics: What You Need to Know

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When it comes to night vision vs. thermal optics, before you shell out the cash, make sure you understand the pros and cons of each.

The price, capabilities, and limitations of each can vary depending on what you need the optics to do. Before you choose between thermal and night vision optics, you need to understand the differences in the technology.

Thermal optics are not cameras, they are thermal imagers.

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It is important to know that thermal optics are detecting radiation. The higher the temperature, the more radiation something gives off. Thermal Optics detect the radiation or heat, and because the subject’s temperature is higher than its surroundings, the optics give you an image. Since they detect radiation, thermal optics do not require visible light to provide you an image of your target.

Since thermal optics detect heat, you can often make out even small animals in deep cover or concealed by fog. The flip side to that is since you are looking at a thermal image, you will not have a detailed image. It will take practice looking at a thermal image and determining proper shot placement. You will also need practice handling your weapon since thermal scopes are heavier than night vision scopes.

Night vision requires a light source to provide an image.

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In many cases, the stars and moon will provide enough light to produce an image, but shadows can make it hard to see. Modern night vision optics come equipped with an IR Illuminator. In my neck of the woods we call it a flashlight, call it what you want it does work well. The proper name for night vision is, image intensification night vision.

Night vision images tend to be more detailed and natural. Night vision has long been mounted on rifles and is more rugged and more readily absorbs recoil. One major drawback is the image intensification tubes used for the external light source are sensitive and can be damaged if exposed to bright light. Night vision scopes are used only at night and can not be used during the day.

Thermal and night vision optics both play well in the hunting arena, but you should ask yourself these questions before you make up your mind.

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1. Environment

Knowing what the conditions you will be hunting in will help you make a more educated decision. Will you be in thick brush or an area where fog can be a problem? Thermal imaging can detect an animal in deep cover or hidden by fog, so it is a better choice for these conditions.

Are you hunting in an area where the temperature can be freezing, or you keep the windows closed in your blind? Extreme cold can affect the quality of a thermal image, and thermal optics are not capable of seeing through the glass, so night vision is a better choice.

2. Price

For most of us, the cost is a big issue. A good night vision scope is roughly a quarter of the price of thermal scopes. There are also the features to consider. Do you want your thermal scope to display in color?

Either scope can record, but do you want the scope to record directly with an SD card, or will you have a cord from your scope to a camera? How easy is it to zoom in and out? Will the scope you want work with the rails on your AR? All great questions, but these features can drive up the price.

3. Light

Remember image intensification night vision requires a light source. If you hunt deep in the mountains where ambient light is not available, thermal optics may be a better fit.

Pros and Cons

The pros of thermal optics include seeing in any light condition, night or day, seeing through thick brush, and tracking residual heat like recent footprints. On the other hand, the cons are that they tend to be more expensive, are larger and heavier with a less clear image. They also have a scope that cannot see through glass and battery life can be limited. Additionally, if you live in extreme cold temperatures, the cold can affect the image quality.

The pros of night vision include a more natural image, the models tend to be tougher, more rugged and cheaper than thermal optics. They also boast a larger field of vision. The cons, however, are that camouflage, shadows, dog, and dust can obscure your target. They also do not work in daylight hours.

You may consider a hand held thermal optic for scanning and locating your quarry, but using a night vision scope when your ready to shoot. The hand held thermal monocular is cheaper than a thermal scope, lighter to use on a long hunt, and can be easily passed between hunters. It also aids in locating game in brush and monitoring it until it is the open. You can then use your night vision scope to seal the deal.

Night vision vs. thermal can be a tough decision, but armed with the information above you should not be left in the dark.

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Night Vision vs. Thermal Optics: What You Need to Know