Infrared Scope vs Night Vision – Which To Choose

Are you trying to decide what you need a between an infrared scope vs night vision? We’ve put together a guide of similarities and differences so you can make the right choice. 

What Is Thermal Imaging (Infrared)?

While a night vision scope is essentially a type of camera, thermal imaging is very different. Instead of using cameras, these scopes use special infrared sensors that can measure heat. 

All living things give off radiation. That sounds scary, but it’s perfectly normal and not remotely dangerous at the levels mammals are all radiating. This radiation causes the temperature around us to go up. Thermal imagers can be calibrated to detect differences in heat and thus pinpoint something that’s unusually warm compared to the surrounding environment. 

They project what they “see” onto a small screen. These scanners can be very sophisticated or quite simple. Naturally, the more your pay for one, the more adjustable and sensitive it is. 

What Does It Look Like?

When you look at the screen (or the end of a scope) with one of these thermal imagers, you’ll see a variety of colors. The darker the color, the cooler the item. The brighter the color, the hotter it is, up to white. Thermal scopes will also allow you to see if there are any other “hot” items hanging out near your target–like a person–that you want to avoid hitting. 

Thermal imagers aren’t good at all at finding coldblooded animals, though, so you won’t have any luck using these to hunt something like a snake. They also aren’t the best thing when the temperatures outside are close to normal body temperatures. Unless you have a very sensitive (and thus expensive) device, you won’t be able to “see” the difference between an animal and the surrounding space if it’s too warm.

One key benefit of these thermal imagers, however, is that they don’t need any visible light to produce an image. These are also really great for finding things in smoky environments and other times when visibility is severely curtailed. 

Infrared and the Hunter

You can probably already imagine some ways that thermal imagers can be useful to the hunter, but consider a specific scenario. These are very popular scopes with those who hunt wild hogs. Why? Hogs don’t come out much during the day, and their height makes it easy for them to hide under plant cover. 

They are especially clever at sneaking onto farms through surrounding woodland or crops and then wreaking havoc you don’t find until you wake up. Thermal imaging allows you to much more easily find the hogs. These are also great scopes for finding hidden deer.

Types of Thermal Imagers

You can get thermal imaging scopes, though some hunters prefer monoculars that aren’t actually attached to their rifles. They can use the monoculars to find the animals they’re looking for and then use night vision or an ordinary scope to do the actual shooting.

However, you can also get scopes that attach directly to your rifle, and if you do a lot of hunting where infrared is useful, you might consider buying one. Otherwise, consider getting a lightweight one you can carry and use without arm fatigue rather than a scope you have to attach and un-attach regularly.

Night Vision Scopes

Night vision is like enhanced super-vision. It’s not measuring anything essentially different than what your eyes can already see (like infrared does), but it does allow you to “see” in situations where your eyes can’t possibly make things out. Night vision amplifies existing light, so it does need SOME light to function. Think of night vision as having suddenly been gifted with the eyes of a cat. 

What does this mean, practically? If you’re spelunking, your night vision goggles are going to be useless. There’s no light at all in the depths of the cave, so the goggles can’t function. However, if you’re out in the woods on a cloudless night, even if the moon isn’t out and you only have the stars for light, there’s usually going to be enough light around for your night vision scope to pick something up.

Some night vision devices have attached illuminators. Think of these illuminators as flashlights for your night vision. The type of light they emit isn’t visible to the human eye or to most animal eyes, so you’re essentially invisible. But so long as you’re looking through your night vision device in the direction of the illuminator, you’re essentially following the beam of a bright flashlight and will be able to see pretty well.

Night Vision and the Hunter

Night vision is an older tech than infrared, and in most ways, it’s more useful to the hunter. The early iterations of night vision were pretty awful, but newer generations are durable, practical, and useful. The scopes are generally tough and have no problem handling the recoil of a rifle. They don’t distort on magnification, either. They are great choices for the night hunter, though.

Infrared Scope vs Night Vision

This is a difficult question. You use these two devices in similar situations, and you might even find that you like them both. But there are a few things to bear in mind:

  • Night vision is clearer and looks more like “real” vision
  • Infrared can see in darker situations
  • Infrared highlights your target instead of just making it possible to see
  • High-quality night vision is available for hundreds of dollars
  • High-quality infrared is only available for thousands of dollars
  • Night vision scopes withstand recoil better than infrared
  • Infrared is vastly superior in fog or dense undergrowth

The Final Word

A lot of shooters prefer to use both infrared and night vision together. The most common way to do this is to use a thermal imaging scanner for the field and then use a night vision scope to actually make the shot. However, the best choice for you will depend on the situations where you need your weapon, so consider the pros and cons carefully.

Joseph Fox

Joseph Fox

Joseph Fox writes on a variety of topics ranging from reloading ammunition to gun cleaning. He has been featured on various publications like thetruthaboutguns, Sofrep & many more. Joseph is also the founder of Gunloading, where he reviews different types of reloading & firearm products available on the market.