Thermal and night vision are similar but not the same. You probably already know both let you see in dark conditions.
But what makes them different from each other? And which is better?
The short answer: it depends on what you’re doing.
Sometimes night vision is better. Other times, thermal vision is.
Here, we’ll get into detail about why that is, and more interestingly, if it’s thermal scope vs. night vision, which is best for night hunting coyotes.
Thermal and night vision have a few things in common, including some items that may surprise you.
To start, they’re both electronics-based devices that people use to see in low to no-light conditions. And both need power, i.e., batteries, to work.
Additionally, both are used by public safety, which goes beyond law enforcement. For instance, firefighters use thermal devices to search for hot spots before leaving the scene of a fire.
Now for some surprising similarities.
US law restricts the shipping of both to certain countries. These laws are an effort to keep certain technology out of the hands of US rivals.
Also, both use infrared light (IR) to provide an image. However, how they use that light is what really sets the two apart.
Looking at night vision vs. thermal scopes usage lifespan, it’s about the same. Good ones will get more than 10,000 hours of use before they degrade significantly enough to affect your hunting.
Now, both devices use IR. The difference is how night vision and thermal imaging utilize that.
First, we’ll break down what infrared light is.
It’s essentially a part of the light spectrum that the human eye cannot see. Infrared is broken down further into near, mid, and far infrared.
Night vision uses the near-infrared spectrum. Thermal uses the far infrared. (1)
What Are Night Vision Scopes
Night vision scopes use near IR light. Near-infrared is just outside a human’s vision and is part of the natural light from the sun and even light reflected by the moon.
Interestingly, many flowering plants reflect IR light. Pollinators, like bees, can see in infrared and so home in on these plants.
How They Work
Night vision scopes work by collecting IR light on a sensor inside the scope. Electronics inside the device convert this to an image displayed on a screen or a specially treated lens.
Here’s the problem. Night vision scopes must have some source of light to work, be that ambient light or something you bring. If you hunt in complete darkness, night vision will not work; in this case, you’ll need an IR illuminator.
An IR illuminator looks like a flashlight. However, it doesn’t cast a beam of light that lets you see. It instead produces IR light so night vision devices can pick up its light as it’s reflected back.
The downside is IR flashlights and night vision scopes have a limited range. Some will reach out to 800 or so yards, especially on a clear night with a full moon. (2)
And turns out, night vision is sometimes called green screen because the image you see through the device is, well, green.
Pros and Cons of Night Vision Scopes
Night vision scopes have pros and cons. Carefully consider these before you invest.
- Less expensive than thermal
- Plenty of detail in the image
- Long battery life
- Limited range
- Must have some light. Light can be from the moon or an IR illuminator
- Useless during daytime
- Bright lights can damage the electronics
One misconception is that the devices make a humming noise. That was true in older versions but not in new ones.
Why Is Night Vision Good for Hog and Coyote Hunting
Night vision is good for hog and coyote hunting because yotes and hogs learn to feed at night when they experience hunting pressure. Night vision allows you to hide from these critters and ambush them.
If you wear camo, use cover scents or stay downwind; you can often get very close to your target before pulling the trigger.
Night vision comes in generations: Gen 1, Gen 2, Gen 3, and Gen 4. The biggest difference in the generations is image quality and price. Gen 2 images are much better than Gen 1, and so on.
Higher generations also command a high price because of the advances in electronics on the inside, letting you see greater distances.
What Are Thermal Scopes
Thermal imaging scopes pick up heat sources and convert that into visible light.
For instance, if you take a thermal scope and look at the edges of a fire, you’ll see dancing images of the heat coming off the fire. You can’t see that with your naked eye, but you can feel the heat.
Thermal devices use far infrared light. This light is given off by heat sources and is well beyond human vision. (3)
How do thermal scopes work?
In short, the way thermal imaging devices work is by taking heat from any source and convert it to something you can see. These devices can work in complete darkness and sees through fog, light brush, and some distance into the rain.
Imagine standing in front of a fire. You feel the heat coming off. You see the flames, but these are two different light sources. Because thermals detect heat, they work in complete darkness and won’t need an external light source.
A sensor inside the thermal imaging scope picks up the incoming photons. After, other electronics transmit the gathered heat signatures to a screen for viewing.
Pros and Cons of Thermal Scopes
- Thermal scopes are the most expensive scopes on the market
- Battery life in a thermal device is much shorter than in a night vision scope
- Temperatures. Although the tech is improving, thermal devices don’t work as well in very hot and cold temperatures
- Not as tough as night vision devices
- Works in total darkness, fog, some brush
- More range, out to 2,000 yards vs. night vision devices
- Some are rated up to a .375 H&H
- Can track residual heat
Why Are Thermal Scopes Good for Hog and Coyote Hunting
Thermal vision is good for hog and yote hunting for two primary reasons:
- Distance. With top-end scopes, you can clearly identify a yote or hog at 800 yards. Traditional night vision scopes simply don’t offer that much resolution.
- No light. With thermal scopes, you can hide so well that the varmints will never see you as you hunt in complete darkness. If you shoot suppressed with subsonic ammo, you can often shoot several hogs in a sounder before they scatter.
Which is Better Thermal Scopes or Night Vision?
A generation of night hunters started with a night vision scope. It was the best available at the time and still has a place, especially for law enforcement and the military, but the days of night vision hunting are fading.
Why? A thermal scope simply outperforms night vision.
Which is best for coyote and hog hunting? Thermal. You’ll see farther and through thin obstructions, fog, and rain.
The issue with thermal scopes is the price tag. Some hunters simply cannot afford to drop thousands of dollars on a thermal imaging device.
Fortunately for these hunters, night vision technology has improved.
Thermal Scopes vs Thermal Monoculars
In addition to the debate between night vision vs thermal, the jury is also out as to which type of thermal optic is the right choice. Make sure to check out our full article on thermal scopes vs thermal monoculars where we cover everything you need to know in deciding which is best for you.
Thermal vs Infrared Scopes
A very common question is what is the difference between thermal vs infrared scopes. In short, very little but no, they’re not the same.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which is better night vision scopes or thermal scopes?
For hunting, thermal scopes are better than night vision scopes 99% of the time. That small percentage where night vision and thermal are equal is in close-quarters shooting, like using a shotgun with buckshot.
Is thermal imaging better than night vision?
Generally speaking, thermal imaging is better than night vision. It doesn’t need ambient light or any kind of light. You can see farther and through light obstructions too.
Does thermal work as night vision?
No thermal does not work the same as night vision. Thermal lets you see at night without any light. It is not the same, nor does it work like true night vision.
What is better for hunting at night, thermal or night vision?
Thermal is better than night vision for hunting at night. If you ask a night hunter who has used both and each one will choose thermal. The ability to see in the dark cannot be beaten by IR scopes.
- NASA Science, Infrared Waves, retrieved from https://science.nasa.gov/ems/07_infraredwaves
- HowStuffWorks, How Night Vision Works, retrieved from https://electronics.howstuffworks.com/gadgets/high-tech-gadgets/nightvision.htm
- Scientific American, How exactly does light transform into heat, retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-exactly-does-light-tr/
Andrew Maurer is a Precision Rifle Series competition shooter and gunsmith and has been building competition rifles for over 12 years. He works as a big game hunting guide in Iowa, South Dakota, and Arizona. He is also a political scientist studying the effects of gun control on society. He teaches youth rifle shooting.
📧 Reach me via email at: Andrew@barrettrifles.com