Night vision goggles are devices that help nature watchers, hunters, and military and law enforcement personnel see in low-light conditions.
The popular image of Night Vision Devices (NVD) as goggles comes from media portrayals of cops and the military, but those are simply their more tactical version. Binocular, monocular, and scope variants are commonly used by regular people, and you’ll find them widely available for sale online and in stores.
What kind of NVD makes sense for you depends on what you’re trying to see after dark. For example, a pair of binoculars is better suited for nature watchers and hunters who don’t need complete situational awareness in the dark. Helmet-mounted goggles or monoculars, on the other hand, are a better fit for tactical operations and some hunting scenarios.
Even though they’ve been around for over half a century, night vision devices still operate on the same basic principle: they amplify any available light in a low-light environment (moonlight/starlight), allowing you to see better in the dark. The compounds involved in amplifying the light produce the green-tinted images most people are familiar with from movies and TV shows. Some advanced military models use white phosphor to produce a brighter, grayscale picture that is easier to see.
Night vision devices with analog technology — think of the lenses used by a film camera, as opposed to a digital one — cannot be used in bright environments. This is because the mechanism that amplifies light is extremely sensitive and a burst of bright light can easily overload and permanently “fry” its internal components. On the other hand, many analog models can be used even without batteries, given the right light conditions.
Some newer models aimed at casual users have a digital camera lens and infrared (IR) illuminators — like an integrated flashlight. This lets them function in both daytime and nighttime situations, though images at longer distances suffer in quality when compared to analog models. Unlike analog models, they always require batteries.
Night vision device (NVD) generations, explained
Night vision devices are separated into three (or four, depending on who you ask) generations. Some, but not all, night vision binoculars and other devices highlight their generation of technology. So you may come across generational references as you shop, especially if you’re browsing higher-end devices.
The first generation was initially used in the 1960s and is the basis for most of the entry-level NVD models today. This generation usually has the lowest image quality and the shortest sight distance, at 75 yards on average. Nature watchers and hunters are the intended users of these devices, which rarely cost over $500.
The second generation of NVDs was developed nearly 20 years later and features a more advanced mechanism for amplifying ambient light. These devices produce clearer images (though still somewhat grainy) and let you see clearly as far as 200 yards. They also include features that help fine-tune the image quality while the user is on the move, which helps with situational awareness in tactical scenarios. Hunters, firearm enthusiasts, and law enforcement/military personnel benefit the most from this generation, and devices in this category can easily cost up to $2,000.
The third generation of NVDs is on par with current military technology. This is the type of device that one might see in a war film like Zero Dark Thirty or a video game such as Call of Duty. Needless to say, these are specialty devices that cost big money — easily $3,000, with some models carrying price tags over $10,000.
Night vision goggles buying guide
• Model type. Night vision devices come in several flavors, so to speak, depending on your intended use.
Binoculars are great for casual observers and hunters, since they are less specialized, have lower prices and are generally easier to use.
Scopes are gun attachments that best serve hunters and gun enthusiasts and include many features that make aiming easier.
Goggles and monoculars are best used in tactical situations, although there are affordable models that can be used by amateurs.
• Illumination type. Many analog NVDs use phosphor to amplify ambient light. These produce green-tinted images and are the most common in first generation and second generation models available to the general public. Image quality depends on how advanced a given model is.
Devices with digital lenses rely mostly on infrared light, which produces a grayscale image that can be easier to see, but becomes fuzzier as you zoom in.
There are also thermal vision devices that pick up on heat differences between objects even in absolute darkness, but these are usually aimed at professional users.
• Weather-resistance. Unless you only plan on using your equipment indoors, a weather-resistant design is essential to your device’s lifespan.
• Accessories. Night vision devices are made to be portable and easy to use while on the go. Many models have options for helmet mounts and additional attachments such as infrared illuminators. Some binocular models include features like a compass and rangefinder, which will help help you navigate and estimate distances.
Best night vision goggles
1. Best overall: ATN Binox-HD Smart Day & Night Binocular
These binoculars can see over 200 yards at both day and night, although the image quality starts to degrade beyond that range. It’s recommended that the night vision functions be used with starlit conditions, at the very least, but the included IR illuminator is more than capable of lighting up its full range of sight.
The Binox-HD comes with impressive features to make the most out of any hunting or wildlife observation trip. With Wi-Fi connectivity, you can send photos and video straight to your phone, or even share your view with someone far away (if you can connect while out in the field). It also has an internal gyroscope that stabilizes any camera jitter your videos might have.
As if these features weren’t enough, this pair of binoculars includes its own internal compass and rangefinder — convenient features that help you to travel light.
2. Editor’s pick: Night Owl Pro Nexgen Night Vision Binocular
This pair of analog night vision binoculars is a great and relatively affordable option (usually under $500) that’s best for nature watchers and hunters. They have an effective range of 75 to 125 yards, and the 50mm target lenses pick up as much ambient light as possible to deliver image quality on par with more expensive second generation night vision devices.
Being an analog device, you can only use the Night Owl Pro during the night or risk permanent damage to the mechanism that helps amplify the available ambient light. So you’re want to have a regular set of binoculars handy for daytime use. It’s also not as compact as other night vision devices, such as scopes and goggles, and it can’t be mounted on helmets or tripods. Factor all of this in as you make your purchasing decisions.
3. Best for low prices: Nightfox 110R Widescreen Night Vision Binocular
Goggle-style NVDs are normally in the same category as more advanced second generation models, since they are normally used in tactical situations. The Nightfox 110R is an affordable alternative that uses a digital lens so it can operate in both day and nighttime settings. Unlike traditional night vision goggles, the 110R uses a widescreen LCD display for its viewfinder, which provides a more comfortable viewing experience.
The design is easy to navigate, with control buttons that are large and distinct enough to be pressed with gloves on. This makes it a solid choice even in cold weather. Thanks to its small size, it can be mounted on a helmet, freeing up your hands to multitask during a hunt or other outdoors activities.
For all of its strengths and convenience, the 110R has a fairly short battery life that tops out at five hours. While this isn’t a major inconvenience, it’s definitely important to prepare for longer trips with this pair of goggles by bringing along spare batteries.
4. Best low-cost monocular: Yukon NVMT 4×50 Night Vision Monocular
Monocular NVDs are a great alternative to goggles, since they are portable and free up an eye to keep watch on your surroundings. The Yukon NVMT 4×50 is a model that fits all needs, from casual observation to professional, tactical situations. Despite its small size, it uses a 50mm lens that helps it work even in faint moon and starlight. It also comes with an integrated infrared illuminator to boost performance in darker environments.
The NVMT 4×50 boasts a long detection range for a first generation device, able to see nearly 200 yards under a full or quarter moon. On top of its portability and range, it is highly customizable, with options for helmet and tripod mounts, additional illuminators, and even camera and microphone attachments. The lens can be swapped out for a smaller magnification, if needed, though it must be bought separately.
Due to its compact design, it only works at a fixed 4x magnification, which makes it better suited for scouting distances over 25 yards.
5. Best rifle-mounted scope: ATN X-Sight 4K Pro Edition
The X-Sight 4K is a night vision-capable scope that is well-suited for tech-savvy hunters. It comes in two different zoom configurations (3-14x or 5-20x) and boasts many useful features that can make hunts easier and more convenient. The most impressive of these features are its integrated ballistic calculator and its “one shot zero” scope calibration. By inputting your rifle’s specifications, the scope helps you calculate the optimal angle you need to hit your target, while firing a single shot calibrates the scope without any further input on your part.
The scope is capable of recording video and still images of your shots. It constantly records and deletes video in 10-second intervals, only saving a clip when it detects a shot being fired. What’s more, if a compatible laser pointer is used during a hunt, the scope can mark the target location on the accompanying smartphone app, so you can share information with fellow hunters in the area.
Though its night vision capabilities are impressive enough on their own, the built-in infrared illuminator (for situations where the available ambient light is not enough) has a relatively short range of 45 yards. To light up longer distances, it’s necessary to purchase a separate model.