Thermal Scope vs Night Vision Scopes -What’s The Difference?

If you’re a hunter, chances are you are familiar with night vision and thermal imaging devices. Thermal scopes and night vision scopes are both very popular choices for night hunting and tactical operations, but they work in very different ways.

Many shooters are surprised to hear that these devices are different and are best suited for different situations. In this article, we will explore the differences between thermal scope vs night vision scopes so that you can pick which is best for you!

Main Differences Thermal Scope vs Night Vision

comparing a night vision and thermal scope

I personally use a Leupold 450 bushmaster scope for most of my hunting. However, in recent years I have started to utilize night vision and thermal devices.

For most hunters, it is obvious that thermal and night vision technology is used to improve vision in low-light situations. That’s why I use night vision for hog hunting! However, they use totally different technology to accomplish this benefit.

Thermal scopes – These scopes work by detecting and meaning heat. They use a specialized camera that detects and displays the heat signatures of objects on a digital display. Thermal scopes allow you to see objects that would be otherwise invisible. Armed with the Best Thermal Scope, a hunter can see animals and other targets that are hidden in darkness or behind cover.


Thermal scopes are most effective for identifying warm-blooded animals that produce a larger heat signature. The Military also uses this thermal imaging technology to identify targets within buildings from long range.

Night vision scopes – These scopes work very similarly to a traditional digital camera. Essentially, they use a digital sensor to amplify ambient light and convert it into a visible image that is black and white. Some amount of visible light is required for a night vision scope to work properly. Be sure to read our post on how does night vision work so that you understand the technology!

After sighting in a night vision scope, hunters can see animals and other objects that are illuminated by moonlight, starlight, or other sources.

Takeaway: The choice between night vision vs thermal scopes will depend on your specific needs as a hunter. You must consider your goals and the type of environment shoot in.

Night Vision – Pros & Cons

Now that you understand the technology that makes night vision scopes work, we need to look at the pros and cons. In this section, we will analyze the benefits and drawbacks of using a night vision device.


  • Price – Most night vision scopes are cheaper than thermal scopes.
  • Beginner Friendly – Many hunting devices & attachments are easy to use. For example, coyote hunting night vision scopes are easy to use & require no special training.
  • Improve Visibility In Poor Lighting – Night vision scopes are effective at detecting objects that would otherwise be very difficult to see.
  • Performs Better In Poor Weather – Thermal scopes rely on heat signatures so they are more affected by cold rain and other factors that impact heat. Night vision devices only rely on ambient lighting.


  • Requires Lighting – There will be situations when there is minimal to no ambient light available. This makes night vision scopes for crossbows are not effective in complete darkness.
  • Cannot Use In Daylight – Night vision scopes can be damaged if used during daytime lighting. Night vision imaging can even be distorted by bright lights or reflections.
  • Durability – Thermal imaging scopes are often tougher and more durable than night vision technology.

Thermal Scope – Pros & Cons

Just like with night vision scopes, there are pros and cons to consider before buying a thermal device. Even the best thermal scope for ar15 have their issues! Consider both the benefits and drawbacks of thermal imaging devices.


  • Performance In Darkness – Thermal scopes do not rely on the presence of ambient light. Therefore, they can be used in complete darkness.
  • Warm-Blooded Animals – The truth is most hunters are after warm-blooded animals, Traditional scopes for hunting elk and other animals cannot perform well in low lighting. Thermal imaging scopes are very good at detecting warm-blooded animals using their heat signatures.
  • Great For Military Operations – Very effective at detecting and identifying people in vehicles and buildings from long range. Thermals scopes detect radiation and heat without getting close to a target. Many Military planes are equipped with this this equipment.
  • Tough & Durable – Generally speaking, they are more durable than night vision scopes. This means that they are less likely to break from standard use and rough impacts. You can also consider using a thermal imager for hunting as well!


  • High Price Point – Thermal scopes are more expensive than night vision scopes.
  • More Difficult To Use – Compared to night vision scopes, thermal scopes are harder to use for beginners. They may require specialized training fully understand how to operate.
  • Hard To Camouflage – Thermal scopes are more visible than night vision scopes because they emit a small amount of infrared light. Animals or other targets could potentially see this light.

Are Thermal Imaging & Night Vision Devices Legal?

Many hunters will ask, can you deer hunt with a thermal scope? The answer is, it depends.

Each state has its own unique laws and hunting regulations that must be followed. These are NOT optional! And just because hunting with night vision may be legal in Pennsylvania, doe not mean it is legal in California. Be sure to understand your local laws and regulations. Also, you should understand the difference between infrared vs thermal scopes to make sure you pick the best scope for you!

Frequently Asked Questions

Which is better night vision or thermal scope?

Night vision is better for seeing things in low light, while thermal scopes are better for seeing things in complete darkness. So it depends on what you're looking for. Consider your specific shooting conditions and use case before making a decision.

Does the military use thermal or night vision?

The military uses both thermal and night vision. Thermal scopes detect radiation and the heat signature of objects, while night vision relies on amplified available light to allow people to see in low-light or nighttime conditions.

Can thermal replace night vision?

Thermal vision and night vision are two different things. Thermal vision detects heat, while night vision goggles detect light. So thermal vision would be better in complete darkness or in very low-light conditions, while night vision would be better in brighter environments.

Can you see a snake with a thermal scope?

No, snakes are ectothermic and rely on the environment to regulate their body temperature. This means that their body temperature will be the same as their surrounding environment, which would make them difficult to see with thermal scopes. Warm objects and warm-blooded animals generate more heat!

Does thermal vision work in total darkness?

Yes, thermal imaging works in total darkness. This is one of the main advantages of thermal imaging compared to night vision scopes. Night vision goggles require light and thermal devices do not.

The Bottom Line

Now you should have a solid understanding of night vision vs thermal imaging technology. At first glance, these two devices may seem to be the same. But they actually utilize different technology. Thermal imaging utilizes heat signatures and night vision utilizes ambient light to create a more visible image. If you’re looking for a great deer hunting scope, consider your specific use case & shooting environment first!

About the author

Patrick Howard

I have been working as a gunsmith for 20 years. Rain, fog, moisture, high temperature, or even snow are all the things a product must withstand in order to be recommended by me.

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