Light pollution is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was only around the beginning of the 20th century, when cities began to adopt electric lighting, that light pollution started to become a problem, according to Bowling Green State University Astronomer Andy Layden.
Light pollution has had a number of deleterious on our world, including on animals that are confused and bothered by it, and it has certainly made stargazing more difficult. It always amazes me just how dense the night sky is with stars when I’m in the middle of a jungle clearing or out in the desert, and I can spend hours observing and digiscoping with my travel telescope.
With that in mind, I’ve put together a guide to the best travel telescope. These are ones that you can quickly pack and unpack and which will fit into checked or carry-on luggage. Star-gazing while on vacation in a much less developed (and preferably remote) location is awe-inspiring, and I highly recommend you pursue it as a hobby.
The Winner of the Best Overall: SVBONY SV503 Telescope
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not included (max useful magnification 204x)
The SV503 Telescope from SVBONY in the winner of the best overall because it’s just the most high-powered and lightweight portable telescope for the price.
This thing only weighs 12.13 pounds but has a 102mm objective lens diameter and f/7 focal ratio.
This is a comparatively long focal length, and the best stats of any of the travel telescopes on the below list and, of course, you pay for it.
The air-spaced achromatic S-FPL51 ED glass reduces chromatic aberration, so you get accurate and impressively clear colour. The dual focus rack and pinion focuser let you make precision adjustments easily.
With a max useful magnification of 204x, this is, to reiterate, the most powerful telescope on the list (while also being one of the lightest). You can easily pack this in a checked bag (though it’s likely too big for carry-on).
If you are into astrophotography, this has the wide field of view that you would want, allowing you to see star clusters, nebulae and some of the larger and brighter galaxies. This is typically a tall order, even for the best portable telescopes.
I would say the biggest demerit here is the lack of tripod and eyepiece. Each of these are going to be additional (potentially substantial costs). That said, this is still the best for the money. To get comparable or better quality, you’re going to have to start thinking about thousands of dollars.
I would say the biggest demerit here is the lack of tripod and eyepiece. Each of these are going to be additional (potentially substantial costs). That said, this is still the best travel telescope for the money. To get comparable or better quality, you’re going to have to start thinking about thousands of dollars.
Other Great Options
While I definitely think it’s quite obvious that the SVBONY SV503 is the best travel telescope for the money, there are several other portable telescopes that are great for travel, are made by reputable optics manufacturers and are worth owning.
- Best For Those on a Budget: Celestron 21035
- Best for Non-Technical People: Celestron 114LCM
- Best for Overall Value: Celestron – AstroMaster
- Best for Digiscoping: Gskyer 70mm Astronomical Telescope
- Best for Intermediates: Orion StarBlast II
- Best For Magnification: Celestron – NexStar 127SLT
Best For Those on a Budget: Celestron 21035
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10mm and 20mm (40x and 20x, respectively)
The Celestron 21035 is the best for those on a budget who still want a powerful portable telescope that isn’t going to feel like a toy. It has 20 and 10mm eyepieces for different viewing experiences, a 45-degree finderscope, a travel backpack and a diagonal prism.
The 5×24 side-mounted finder scope allows for great preliminary focus so that it is in perfect view.
The 21035 is also the best Celestron travel scope for the budget-conscious because it’s both powerful and affordable and comes with a really nice travel backpack that keeps the telescope safe and sound while on a flight or on the road. It also comes with a great adapter for phones so that you can digiscope with ease and record what you observe.
The included durable aluminum tripod provides great stability, which is perhaps the most important variable in astronomy. This is a great portable telescope for those just getting into the hobby and its power, and the Celestron brand name is the seal of approval that more serious stargazers would be looking for in the best travel telescope on a budget.
The Celestron 21035, unfortunately, doens’t feature a Barlow lens, which is a mainstay in a lot of portable telescopes that doubles the focal length and makes it easier to see deep sky objects better.
The objective lens is still good and you will have no problem getting up close to a huge number of objects in the night sky, but keep everything above in mind when weighing your options.
Best Powerful Travel Telescope for Non-Technical People: Celestron 114LCM
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9mm and 25mm (167x and 60x, respectively)
I say this is the best for people who are less technology inclined because of the 114LCM’s star locating capabilities. The SkyAlign feature makes it so easy to just point and focus. All you have to do is choose any bright object and centre in the telescope’s lens, and then the lowest ordinary multiple gives you the date, site, time, and coordinates in the night sky.
The easy-to-use hand control also provides you with a comprehensive database of planets, stars, galaxies and nebulae that you can just choose, and the telescope’s GPS will adjust and track it across the night sky.
It is impressive how quickly the computerized system performs the calculations and moves to where the telescope needs to be to observe your target and then auto-focuses.
This simple but powerful little portable telescope comes backed by a 2-year manufacturer’s warranty.
A couple of things that you might want to consider before purchasing this telescope are the short battery life and the underwhelming tripod. It still deserves its place on the list, but you might want to consider a different tripod.
Best for Overall Value: Celestron – AstroMaster
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10mm (65x) and 20mm (33x)
While the Astromaster is a bit more expensive than some of the other portable telescopes on the list, I say that it’s the best for overall value because of what you get for the money.
Yes you’re paying more, but you are getting fully-coated glass optics, an included tripod, and one of the most highly acclaimed astronomy software out there: Starry Night. There is a reason so many thousands of amateur astronomers and enthusiasts love this telescope.
The core of the AstroMaster is a 130mm fully-coated objective lens which you control using two manual slow-motion control knobs.
This system, while more demanding, allows for much more smooth and accurate pointing.
It’s also the best from a value perspective because, for how sophisticated its optics and design are, it’s remarkably easy to set up–no tools required. Celestron gives you both a 10mm and 20mm eyepiece, a travel tripod, a motor drive and a StarPointer finderscope.
I think what I like best about this portable telescope is that it’s a Newtonian telescope, which means you get to learn about how reflector telescopes work (which is very cool) and well as the art of collimation (aka telescope alignment). It’s also nice that you don’t have to bend down to stargaze, which is always important when you are out there for more than an hour.
Even the best travel telescope is going to be restricted in what it can see because, by and large, size and weight correlates with power in optics. The AstroMaster will give you a great view of the moon, but if you want something that is going to give you a clear image of the surface of marks, you’re going to have to spend a couple of thousand dollars. Also, it’s heavy. Weighing in at 37 pounds, this is something that, if you were flying, you would have to pack separately. It made the list because of the value for money, but if we’re talking strictly air travel, this is not the best for that.
Best for Photography: Gskyer 70mm Astronomical Telescope
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10mm: 40X and 25mm: 16X
Gskyer’s 70mm refracting telescope is the best for digiscoping (aka astrophotography) because it’s affordable, lightweight, has a great focal length (meaning you can take some really nice, bright pictures), great magnification and it comes with a smartphone adapter and a Bluetooth camera remote.
This portable telescope is definitely made with astrophotographers in mind, and even more so for newcomers to the hobby, because it’s a piece of optics that you don’t need much experience to set up or operate. In under half an hour you can have it up and running.
Gskyer gives you a 400mm focal length for great high-resolution, colourful night sky images, two eyepieces (10 and 25mm) and a nice lightweight tripod that packs easy. While this is certainly one of the cheaper options on the list, the fact that its optics are as powerful as they are and that it’s so well suited for digiscoping is why I thought it deserved to be included.
The reviews (and there are thousands of them) for this telescope vary wildly. There are people both complaining about and lauding the quality of such an affordable little piece of gear. One thing that this is definitely lacking (although it makes up for it in focal length) is magnification. The magnification on this (as you would expect for something in this price range) is not going to blow you away.
Best Travel Telescope for Intermediates: Orion StarBlast II
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German Equatorial mount
25mm and 10mm (18x and 45x respectively)
Orion is another very well-respected optics manufacturer and their portable telescopes (along with their binoculars, monoculars and spotting scopes) are very highly rated by pros and amateurs alike.
The StarBlast features a 114mm aperture and 450mm focal length for very good light intake and subsequent image and photo quality. This is quite a sophisticated instrument for a portable telescope, although still simple enough for non-experts to learn to use in a short amount of time.
Orion gives you both a 25mm and a 10mm eyepiece, which allows for great magnification.
This would be a great high-quality purchase for a new astronomer or as a telescope that is exclusively for travel, while perhaps another larger, more powerful telescope stays at home.
This telescope can be somewhat hard to adjust. The adjustment cables are prone to getting in the way of the setup that comes with the StarBlast, and some users have recommended replacing them with simple radio knobs. It is also somewhat complicated to set up. If you do opt for this one, take a look at the setup tutorial video below.
Best For Magnification: Celestron – NexStar 127SLT
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25mm and 9mm: 60x and 167x
One of the biggest drawbacks to portable telescopes (even the best travel telescopes on the market) is that they are restricted in their magnification. The Celestron NexStar127SLT, however, is a nice compromise for more hardcore travelling astronomers who want something portable but also powerful.
The 127mm aperture lets in enough light to be able to clearly see things like Jupiter’s clouds and Saturn’s rings, and the moon all in vivid detail. You also get access to the previously mentioned highly acclaimed Starry Night software, providing you with access to a database of over 40,000 stars, nebulae, galaxies and more celestial bodies, so you get so many hours of learning and viewing opportunities.
A 9mm and 25mm eyepiece give you 167x and 60x magnification, respectively (tied for second most magnification of any other telescope on this list with the Celestron 114 and only less powerful than the SV503 from SVBONY ). Importantly, all of this power comes in quite a lightweight package (lighter than the aforementioned product from SVBONY), all things considered.
At just 18 pounds, this is something that you can pack in a suitcase (so long as you don’t have a bunch of other heavy gear in there already).
The red dot finder that comes with the scope doesn’t actually magnify the image, so the alignment accuracy can be iffy. The included scope is hard on the knees, neck and back because it forces you to crouch down into an uncomfortable position. You would do well to consider a right-angle correct image (RACI) finderscope to solve this problem.
What Went Into My Selection Process for the Best Portable Telescopes
I’ve been using telescopes since I was 6 or 7 years old when I was in Cub Scouts, and we would go on camping trips to remote parts of the West Coast of British Columbia and Vancouver Island and our scout leader would bring his Celestron with him.
Since then I’ve been fascinated with the universe and have been an avid telescope user and cosmos aficionado. I nearly crapped in my pantaloons when I first saw the first images from the Webb telescope.
I’ve been fortunate enough to live in and visit some really spectacular places around the world where light pollution is at a minimum and the vast black canvas of the night sky is filled with light.
In addition to my own preferences and restrictions (I’m always on the road so a portable telescope is my only option), I also spent many hours talking to my telescope enthusiast friends, one of whom has moved to Australia and regularly sends me astonishing desert photos taken with his very powerful, but no so portable Celestron.
I also spent many hours watching videos, browsing forums and reading comments on dozens of potential candidates. I ended up settling on ones that I felt were a good mix of name-brand assurance (from companies like Orion and Celestron), affordability, power and travel appropriateness.
Main Evaluation Criteria and Terminology to Choose the Best
Sky and Telescope Magazine, the official magazine of the American Astronomical Society, has published a handy guide on choosing a telescope, including the most important attributes, features and terms you need to know about. These attributes and features are ones that I’ve focused on in my list, and here is a quick summary you can refer to.
This is for sure the most critical spec on a telescope. It’s the diameter of either the lens or mirror (depending on the telescope), and it determines how much light the telescope’s main optical component will be able to gather and its resolving power which is how sharp the image will be. The bigger the aperture, the more impressive any distant object is going to look. The best travel scope is almost always going to be the one with the best aperture.
A lot of newcomers to the hobby make a purchase decision based on the perceived magnification power of a telescope. It is easy to think that the best telescope is going to be the one with the most magnifying power. The truth is that pretty much any telescope, in theory, can provide a near-infinite amount of magnification, but it depends entirely on the eyepiece(s) you use.
Magnification is also limited by the telescope’s aperture and atmospheric conditions. The latter is why most large observatories are built high up in thin atmosphere where light can easily penetrate–like the Keck telescope at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii, which sits at 4,145 metres above sea level.
As a rule of thumb, the optimal magnification for most objects is about 8x to 40x per every inch of aperture.
This is because there is a limit to the image detail you’re going to get by your telescope’s main lens or mirror, which means you need to find the optimal magnification range to observe it while avoiding spreading out the light so much you can’t see what you’re looking at.
Focal Length and Eyepieces
The focal length is the distance from the lens or mirror to the image that it creates for you. You tend to see the focal length number on the back of your telescope. Your eyepiece also has a focal length. Most on this list are 10mm and 25mm. To get your magnification, divine the scope’s focal length by that of your eyepiece.
For example, if have a 1000mm focal length scope and you’re using a 10mm eyepiece, 1000/10 equals 100x magnification.
When we talk about the mount, we are referring to the part of the telescope that holds the telescope in place and allows it to be moved so that you can observe what you want. The two most common types of mount are equatorial and altazimuth.
Equatorial mounts let you rotate and follow an object from a single axis. Telescopes that use this style of mount are definitely the best for astrophotographers.
Altazimuth mounts, on the other hand, allow you to track objects on two axes–horizontal and vertical. They tend to be cheaper mounts, easier to transport and easier to use. They also tend to require manual operation, which requires more skill and practice to get good at.
Digiscoping refers to attaching your phone or digital camera to smartphone adapter on your telescope and using it to take photos of the objects you are observing. I used the term astrophotography interchangeably throughout, but technically digiscoping can be done with any scope (including a spotting scope), while astrophotography refers explicitly to photographs of the cosmos.
I tried to find the best telescopes that also incorporated astrophotography adapters and capabilities.
Types of Telescopes
Throughout this guide, I also made reference to the various types of portable telescopes on the market. They are:
Refractor telescopes are your stereotypical telescope. When they are well-made, they tend to deliver the best image quality. Most of the telescopes on the list are refractors (rather than reflectors) because small lenses are easier and cheaper to make than mirrors. A refractor telescope works by using dual convex lenses to focus and bend light inwards, making the image appear smaller and giving the illusion that an object is actually more proximate than it is.
Reflectors use mirrors to collect light from objects and then form an image. The first, larger mirror, reflects the light onto a smaller mirror, which in turn reflects the light into your eyepiece lens, which then magnifies what you’re looking at.
Mirror telescopes are more sophisticated and delicate and, therefore more expensive. Quality and power depend on more than just the lens/mirror configuration.
These are optical telescopes that combine lenses and mirrors to create an image. Doing this makes for increased error correction and a much larger and clearer field of view.
While the telescope on this list were chosen with high quality optics in mind, there is only so much you are going to be able to see with a compact telescope–even the best portable telescopes.
Plenty of celestial objects (bright objects) will be visible to you, but don’t count on seeing any deep space objects.
Portable scopes are a nice addition to your travel optics, and you can definitely get up close and personal with a lot of objects in the solar system and some other celestial objects, but it’s important to temper your expectations.
You’re buying a grab and go telescope, not a cutting edge optical devices that let you see fine details on deep sky objects.
For that, you need a large aperture with a better primary mirror that will provide a brighter and clearer image. Those cost a thousand or more–something like the Sky Watcher Evostar.
What you’re getting is a backpacking telescope that makes sense if you’re an amateur astronomer/sky watcher who wants something with a compact and lightweight design to take traveling or on a camping trip.
With that said, these are still the best portable telescopes on the market.
Smartphone Astrophotography Tips
Several of the options on my list come with adapters for smartphone astrophotography, allowing you to capture the images of the night sky you see through your telescope. To get the best results, in addition to learning how the interface works:
- Always use a tabletop tripod and Bluetooth with either a wireless remote or voice control so that you can take photos while minimizing the vibration that will distort any photo taken at high magnification.
- Avoid light pollution at all costs.
- Shoot in RAW, which a lot of third-party phone camera apps will offer.
- Understand when and where the moon will be in the sky by using a moonrise and moonset calculator
- Keep in mind that the Milky Way is only seasonally observed in the northern hemisphere and can only be photographed from May-October. There are apps like PhotoPills that will help you find it.
Looking After Your Portable Telescope
If you decide to buy any of the telescopes on my list, you are going to be investing anywhere from 100 to four or five hundred dollars, so it’s something you want to take good care of.
- Align your telescope as necessary. This schedule depends on the kind of telescope you have (refractors generally don’t require alignment because they are factory aligned, while reflectors do, especially if you travel with it). Make sure to consult the instruction manual for alignment frequency and best practices.
- Keep your telescope in a dry place. Most telescopes come with a dew shield or a shroud. If you do find your telescope is damp, the best thing to do is to leave it uncapped for a few hours to prevent water and humidity damage.
If you are moving your telescope from two areas of varying temperatures (e.g. a warm car to a cold field or beach). Wait until the scope has reached equilibrium with the surrounding air temperature.
Why Investing in Good Quality Travel Telescope Makes Sense
Urbanization is only going to increase in the coming decades, and all the light pollution from our increasingly populated planet is only going to make dark sky sites harder to find.
You don’t need to break the bank buying a good quality portable telescope that provides great magnification and light capture. If you are a person who travels frequently and gets a lot of enjoyment out of observing and learning about the cosmos, I hope the above list and reviews help you choose the best telescope for you.
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