As night hunts become more popular, many people inevitably question whether using thermal scopes is even legal. More specifically, for venison lovers: is it legal to hunt deer using thermal scopes?
The answer is yes and no because each state in the US sets the regulations for optics technology for its respective state. Past that, if you hunt on private land, you also need permission from the landowner, who may have additional requirements on top of the state laws.
Additionally, some states have different regulations for different public lands. In other words, what technology may be legal in one Wildlife Management Area (WMA) may not be legal in another, even in the same region of the state.
Check first to make sure you’re not hunting illegally.
Are Thermal Scopes Legal?
Thermal imaging vision devices are legal in every state except California, which we’ll get to soon.
Some states don’t allow you to hunt with thermal optics. Now, thermal optics, to clarify, can refer to gun scopes, but it’s also an umbrella term to describe thermal devices.
A good example of a thermal imaging device that is not a gun scope is:
This is a quality thermal imaging monocular and camera used to detect the presence of objects generating heat.
It’s legal in all 50 states, and also legal in California because it can’t be attached to a gun without a lot of work. It’s simply not designed for use with a gun.
What it can be used for is tracking and locating the presence of objects with heat. The military also uses similar devices.
Is It Legal to Hunt With a Thermal Scope?
Whether it’s legal or illegal to use thermal and night vision image devices for night hunting depends on the state, the location, what you’re night hunting, and when you’re hunting.
Crossing a border can be the difference between legal and illegal while hunting with night vision scopes.
Most states allow you to hunt various species with thermal scopes during the day.
Why do hunters use thermals during daytime? Well, for the advantage of letting them see through fog and light brush and also to ID a heat image of well-camouflaged targets.
When you move into nighttime hunts, a few states prohibit this entirely, while some states don’t allow thermal scopes only. In these cases, you’ll have to use limited-power spotlights to shine at targets to shoot it.
The rules for hunting technology change from state to state, but the best place to get the current updated regulations for your state is with the wildlife department.
Find your state’s game and fish agency and look up the hunting regs. You can also check seasons, bag limits, and license requirements too.
Even within a state, the hunting laws for night vision or thermal imaging devices may vary.
States have Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) where people can hunt, fish, camp, and enjoy the outdoors. A WMA is not the same as a state park because WMA is specifically set up to allow some form of hunting, fishing, or both.
So, while a state may allow thermals for hunting, each WMA can have specific regulations.
Hunting and shooting are also allowed on some public properties owned by the state or the federal government, like National Wildlife Reserves (NWRs). Hunting regs will differ for NWRs too. (1)
WMAs in the Northeast US.
However, there can be situations when state laws allow night vision hunts with thermal scopes, but the landowner doesn’t allow night hunts.
What to Hunt
States that allow hunting at night restrict what animals can be hunted after sunset. Generally, game animals like deer, bears, elk, moose, and birds cannot be hunted at night.
Special exceptions are made for research and the protection of crops but only with a state permit, which is not easy to get.
Coyotes and raccoons are the most common critters to hunt at night, and wild hogs are steadily joining the list. Obtaining night permits to hunt hogs to protect crops is slightly easier than permits for game animals.
Again, check with your state’s game and fish department to see what you can hunt at night and the requirements. You need to know:
- What guns are allowed (in Small Game season, most WMAs only allow shotguns and rimfire guns. Some allow black powder rifles)
- Are infrared image scopes allowed?
- What is the bag limit for your target animal? Furbearers, like raccoons, often have limits. Wild hogs frequently have no limit, as the state wants as many killed as possible.
- When the season opens and closes. Furbearer season is sometimes closed during part of the year, typically when raising young. Coyotes and hogs are most likely to have open seasons.
- The type of license you need.
When to Hunt
When you can hunt is also important. Daytime hunts have a set start time and end time. For hunts that go all day long, it’s often minutes before sunrise and minutes after sunset.
Nighttime hunts may also have regulations on when you can start and when to finish. The best part about thermal imaging devices is that hunters can go anytime at night.
Note: A few states still restrict hunting on Sundays and certain holidays.
Is hunting deer and related animals with a thermal scope legal? Generally, if you’re doing it during the day and scopes are permitted on a rifle, yes.
During primitive weapons seasons, many states don’t allow hunters to use scopes.
Can you use infrared light or a thermal device to track an animal you hunt?
Good question. It depends.
A tracking device used after the shot to find the animal is not considered a scope. Thermals can help you locate your game if you start tracking right after you shoot. But if you wait a while, the heat signature will fade away.
In those states, you cannot use the device to search for objects with a heat source unless it’s something you’ve shot.
Researching Your Local State Regulations
Before hunting, ensure you’re on the right side of the law. Pheasants Forever has a list of state wildlife agencies, typically the first place to start. They all have a free booklet, magazine, or downloadable list of the state’s rules for hunting, including night hunting and thermal optics. (2)
If you still have questions, you can call the information line in the handout.
Also, ERegulations has webpages for the federal hunting rules on every federal property in the United States. (3)
California is the only state to ban thermal optics for hunting purposes.
State regulations make this clear. “It is unlawful to use or possess night vision equipment to assist in the taking of a bird, mammal, amphibian, reptile, or fish. For purposes of this subdivision, “night vision equipment” includes, but is not limited to, the following:
“1) An infrared or similar light, used in connection with an electronic viewing device.
“2) An optical device, including, but not limited to, binoculars or a scope, that uses electrical or battery powered light amplifying circuits.”
The regs mention “night vision,” referring to specific kinds of night vision devices. The section applies to thermal viewers because of the “electronic viewing device” phrase. Thermal scopes are electronic and have image screens.
Why Use a Thermal Scope for Hunting
Thermal image offers advantages over a traditional scope, with countless more benefits when used for overnight hunts, which is why more hunters are taking an interest.
This is where thermal optics make a difference for hunters. In those twilight hours around dawn and dusk, it’s hard to tell if that lump in the distance is a stump or a bedded animal.
Thermal lets you check if the blob is giving off heat. If it shows up as hot on the thermal screen, you know it’s a living animal. The hunter then has to identify it.
What’s more, thermal beats traditional scopes and its huge front lenses. A traditional scope gathers ambient light and directs it down the tube. Thermals, however, don’t need light to visually determine heat sources.
When it comes to seeing through fog, thermal optics are better than any other optic on the market today. Because they pick up heat sources, the fog is no barrier to hunters.
Thermal does have a downside. Even the best thermal optics have a limited range.
The very best can pick up infrared heat sources out to 2,000 yards, while lower-end scopes have a shorter range.
If you’re capable of long-range kill shots, a thermal may not be enough for you because the scope may not have a sufficient image resolution.
However, for those who don’t shoot extreme long ranges, it’s a sufficient tool. Here’s an excellent scope that can detect a heat source at 2,000 yards. It can identify human or deer-sized targets, or larger, at 800-1,000 yards.
Even the least expensive thermal vision or thermal imaging optics can visually identify targets farther away than the best night vision devices.
What is the Best Thermal Scope to Use Hunting?
For more information on exactly what scope to use while hunting make sure to check out our full article on the top thermal optics on the market.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you use a thermal scope for hunting?
Yes you can use a thermal scope for hunting, depending on the state and local law. Check before your hunt.
Can you hunt with a thermal in the daylight?
Yes you can hunt with a thermal in the daylight. Thermal imaging optics work just as well during the day as at night.
Are thermal scopes legal to use in California?
Yes, thermal scopes are legal in California but not for hunting. Thermal imaging scopes and night vision optics are not allowed while on a hunt. They are legal to own, but you cannot hunt with them.
Are thermals legal in Colorado?
Yes, thermal scopes are legal in Colorado. For specifics, be sure to check the state law.
Are thermals legal in Wisconsin?
Yes, themals are legal in Wisconsin. Downloading a copy of the state restrictions and laws is available at Wisconsin DNR.
Are thermals legal in Iowa?
Yes, thermals are legal in Iowa, but true night vision devices are not legal because they use infrared light.
Are thermals legal in Kansas?
Yes thermals are legal in Kansas, they were legalized in 2020.
Are thermals legal in Texas?
Yes, thermals are legal in Texas. Texas is very liberal regarding wild hogs, allowing people to hunt them without a license, with any firearm, at night, and even from helicopters. Hunting javelina is different, even though they appear related to feral hogs.
Are thermals legal in New York?
Yes, thermals are legal in New York. A thermal optic does not emit a light beam. Laser sights and other related devices that use a light beam are not legal on a firearm for hunting.
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, ‘Where to hunt’, retrieved from https://www.fws.gov/hunting/map
- Pheasants Forever, ‘State Wildlife Agencies’, retrieved from https://www.pheasantsforever.org/Hunt/State-Wildlife-Agencies.aspx
- ERegulations, retrieved from https://www.eregulations.com/
I have been writing firearms and outdoor material of over 50 years to date. I have hunted across the world including Russia and a great deal of time professional hunting in Australia. I currently live in the American west and hunt all across the Black Hills of South Dakota, and the Big Horn mountains. I have specialized much of my work as a load developer in shotguns and rifles. I have run a small company that builds suppressor barrels of my design, and load tests for writing purposes and consulting. My commercial names include Ballistics Research & Development / Metro Gun Systems.TM. You can find more info on Barrett Rifles here.
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