How much weight can you carry or are willing to transport?
What are you planning on seeing when you get to your destination?
Does your portable telescope have the right specs to deliver performance matching your expectations?
What is your budget?
You may be surprised to find that portability entails a lot more than just size.
If you thought that any lightweight scope is good for travel, you may need some educating on the matter.
This buying guide is for you.
Best Portable Telescope For Travel In 2020
While portable may mean something a little different between one person to the next, the shared idea is that the telescope can be taken to another location with some level of ease to get better views.
Ironically, portable doesn’t necessarily mean “small.”
Did you know that while a 70 mm refractor is obviously a portable telescope, a 6” Newtonian is also considered a portable setup?
This is because there are different factors to consider than just weight and size.
Beginners may be less willing to haul out 60 lbs of weight, but an advanced user may already by accustomed to transporting such loads. When you have a larger aperture that maybe isn’t so portable, it’s still worth the effort to get it under dark skies because the visibility quality provides that wow-factor you’re after.
What are some examples of different telescopes that are considered portable?
Here is a lineup to show you the variation between price points and telescope features that still offer portability in one way or another.
Best Portable Telescope Reviews
1. Orion Grab-N-Go 80 mm Triplet Travel Telescope
This is the type of telescope that would be excellent for travel because it’s portable, impervious to temperature changes, and you can image the amazing views that you’re traveling for in the first place.
Pros & Cons
✔️ Carbon fiber
✔️ Wide fields of view
✔️ Limited astrophotography
This is one expensive refractor for a non-Goto telescope, but the price jump is due to its APO optics and carbon fiber tube. Is it worth it?
Well, the APO optics incorporates at least three elements that includes extra-low dispersion qualities for excellent correction of chromatic aberration. This is a must-have feature for serious astrophotographers due to the improved color fidelity, sharpness, and contrast.
While you can take images, you’ll be limited because it does come with a manual alt-azimuth mount. While this is a DSO observing champ, it’s suited to the short and fast exposure imaging for planets just with the compromise of a smaller image scale.
What is a carbon fiber tube?
It’s a material that allows telescopes to be made lighter in weight and without the expansion and contraction problems that affects metal tubes.
With instant cooldown, weight shaving benefits, and APO optical quality – this is a telescope that deserves to travel the world.
2. SkyWatcher EVO Star 72 APO Travel Telescope
The EvoStar 72 APO telescope is an expensive buy for most beginners because it doesn’t come with a mount or eyepieces. However, it does give you some flexibility on what you want to pair it with.
What makes it a good traveling companion?
Let’s find out.
Pros & Cons
✔️ Fits light-duty mounts
The price is only mentioned as a downer because you’ll have to put at least another $500 bucks into telescope accessories and a mount. This is not a cheap buy because it’s a standalone purchase – tube only. However, if part of your astronomy goals is to take images under great skies, you need the type of quality the Evostar offers.
As a refractor telescope, you can use it for terrestrial observation as well – cool. But, astronomers will love the fact that this doublet comes with ED glass to provide that extra boost in correction for chromatic aberration. Less color fringing means better imaging quality.
To help with imaging, you’ll likely need a computerized GEM mount, and these aren’t cheap. However, since the Evostar is incredibly lightweight at 4 lbs (approx.), it can be mounted to light-duty mounts with its Vixen-style dovetail without compromise on performance. Of course, you’ll have to factor in the weight of your loads and any guide scopes you may mount on top.
The SkyWatcher telescope is a good example of how mid to high-end telescopes still make good, portable options especially when you have ambitious astronomy goals.
3. Celestron NexStar 6SE Portable Telescope
If you want to get more out of your planetary observation by getting under more suitable skies for imaging, the NexStar 6SE won’t break the bank while it lives up to your expectations.
Pros & Cons
✔️ Slow telescope
✔️ Reusable shipping box
❌ No hard case included
The NexStar is an SCT (Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope). If you don’t know much about SCTs, you will come to learn that they are known for their short and compact tubes given their long focal lengths. This entire assembly weighs around 30 lbs with the mount head weighing in at 11 lbs and is the only component that weighs over 10 lbs. Very doable for the planetary imager.
Why mention planets?
Because the NexStar SCT has a medium to slowish focal ratio of f/10 with a long focal length of 1500 mm. This implies that it’s an excellent planetary telescope with its narrower field of view and good use of medium to high magnification given its large 6” aperture.
Yes, imaging can be done because the SCT comes with a GoTo alt-azimuth mount. It can be polar aligned with a wedge, but you should still be able to get satisfactory, short sub-exposures of planets with the supplied mount.
For transporting the telescope, you can save the shipping box it comes in because it’s designed to be reusable. This may be an adequate option for minimal outings, but it would be better to purchase a case for it for ultimate protection during transport.
For a telescope that’s ready to go out of the box with a computerized mount and a compact OTA, the NexStar telescope is a great example of GoTo ready “to go.”
4. Zhumell Z114 Portable Telescope
This is a tabletop telescope that is an excellent first-time buy for beginners specifically with portability in mind. There is no compromise with the Z114, so let’s check out the goods.
Pros & Cons
✔️ 4.5” aperture
✔️ Parabolic primary mirror
❌ Not for astrophotography
The Zhumell Z114 is part of the Zhumell Z series of telescopes that are by far one of the most popular telescopes in the affordable market.
Part of this specific model’s appeal is the large aperture for the price.
Even though it is incredibly affordable, quality has not been left out. The 4.5” primary mirror has a paraboloid shape which is essential for optimal seeing with a fast f/4 telescope. The fact that it can also be collimated is a vital feature needed for travel since the mirror can come out of alignment during transportation.
Of course, as a tabletop with a 4.5” aperture, it’s lightweight at only 11 lbs. Tabletops tend to come preassembled from the factory, so there’s little to put together and you’ll likely just end up transporting the entire assembly as one unit.
Since this is a very fast telescope with a shorty focal length, it’s not ideal for photography as-is. Just plan on having some visual fun while you’re on the road. Knowing that essential Newtonian features can be adjusted to ensure maximum optical quality makes this buy more than worth it wherever you are in the world.
5. Zhumell Z100 Portable Telescope
The Z100 from Zhumell is one of the most affordable telescopes that I’d recommend if you’re on a budget. If you’re looking for maximum portability, especially if you’re flying the skies or hiking to your destination, this is a scope you must consider.
Pros & Cons
✔️ 4” aperture
✔️ Short tube
✔️ Parabolic primary mirror
❌ No collimation
There are benefits and drawbacks to spending this little on a telescope. The good? You still get a nice, big aperture considering it’s a Newtonian for its low price point, and it has a parabolic primary mirror which is essential for quality views in this fast f/4 scope.
It has an extremely short 16” tube length and the entire assembly weighs less than 10 lbs – 6.2 lbs to be exact. These specs mean it can be packed up into a carry case/bag or even packed into a carry-on case for flight travel with little to no concern of weight and size limits.
The bad? The 4” mirror cannot be collimated, and this is the compromise for the low price. It should hold collimation fairly well because it has a small primary mirror, but it still requires extra handling care.
Not only is the Z100 a budget telescope that is great for travel, it’s an excellent beginner and starter scope overall. I’d recommend it any day for low to mid-power use anytime, anywhere if you’re strapped for cash.
What to Look for in a Portable Telescope
Simply put, portable means lightweight and compact, right? Well, while a portable telescope should be easy to transport and get setup, there are specific features to look for and some considerations to think about. Let’s open our mind to what it really means to have a portable telescope.
Many telescopes marketed for travel will be in the entry-level price range. “Travel Scopes” are what they are often labeled as. While they may have light weights and compactness on their side, they often come with smaller apertures. This is okay since getting under dark skies will help with improving visibility of astronomical objects. The downside is, you’ll still only be scratching the surface of what can be seen under those dark skies. Going larger might just be worth adding some poundage.
The most portable apertures would be almost any size in a refractor, usually between 60 mm to 127 mm. In a reflector, 4” will usually be on a tabletop mount while 6” to 8” sizes are still considered portable. Some 8” models are more portable than others, and it might very well come down to weight and ease of handling.
Larger scopes need cooling fans to help cool them down. This is especially true of large-sized Dobsonians where the primary mirror tends to get warm and can ruin the visibility quality. While this may not seem like a very portable telescope, large apertures are worthy of getting under dark skies.
One solution in not having to deal with temperature changes is to consider a carbon fiber tube. They do provide some weight reduction benefits, but it’s the fact that they don’t expand and contract like regular metal tubes do. This provides instant temperature equilibrium that makes it a good telescope to travel with.
Telescopes are large instruments in general with small and compact models coming in around 10” in length and longer tubes that can match your height standing up. While beginners may find that a setup around 40 lbs is heavy, an experienced astronomer may very well find that same weight as feather-light compared to some of their heavier setups. In that sense, size and weight is a rather subjective feature.
So, what is it that you need to consider?
Where will you be taking the telescope?
If your vehicle is parked a good length away from your observation spot where you may have to hike or bike to the location, you should consider a setup that is under 10 lbs in weight since you’re likely be carrying that weight on your back or tugging it along in a wagon of some sort. If you’re observing right next to your vehicle, you could very well be more liberal with how much your telescope weighs since it’s not going very far from car to observing point.
Is your vehicle large enough to transport the telescope?
Telescope tubes can be very long, but fortunately many should fit right along the backseat of your modest-sized sedan. It requires that the tube be removed from the mount to make it easier to travel with. The rest of the assembly can be packed into the trunk. However, other much larger telescopes may very well require a pickup truck or even a trailer. A dolly would be a good tool to own to help with moving it, but if this is the case, you’ll need at least one other hand to help get it setup. This is the downside of transporting larger telescopes – they’re not very portable.
What are you doing with your telescope?
If you’re just observing, you shouldn’t have any problem hauling the rest of your accessories in a carry bag and getting setup. But, if you’re imaging, you will likely need to pack up your camera gear, any guiding equipment, your laptop, and all the other accessories you’ll need to get it done. Power supplies are a must-have, so how will you be plugging in?
Many budget and entry-level telescopes are great portable options for taking on the road. They’re smaller in aperture which means they’re naturally lightweight and very easy to setup. Many come preassembled, can be disassembled into a backpack, and there’s little fear of something devastating happening while traveling because it didn’t cost a fortune.
However, there is a downside to buying a cheap telescope purposely for travel – quality.
The problem is, when you’re in a dark location or even another state or country, you won’t have access to replacement parts or repair when something goes wrong. And, with a lot of plastic on cheap telescopes, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. If you don’t have the expertise and spare parts to deal with it in the moment, your observation session and any near future ones are done for.
Quality matters when you’re looking for a portable telescope that you can rely on.
Telescope tubes are fragile enough as it is, but quality components should fare far better throughout travel and consistent use if they’re stored and protected adequately throughout transport. Additionally, higher quality telescopes also provide better views of the skies in any location. Why not take out a decent telescope to acquire views that’s worth the drive?
Types of Travel
There’s traveling in a car for a quick drive outside of city limits and then there’s the road trip across state or country. Depending on how big the telescope is and who is all going along for the ride, many telescopes can be a good fit for hauling in the trunk or the backseat of your vehicle.
You may want to consider carry cases for the OTA and packing the mount/tripod separately, so it doesn’t damage the OTA during transport. Most telescopes with a weight of 20 lbs to 40 lbs will work just fine for traveling in a mid-size sedan. Larger models may need a larger vehicle with some extra tools to help get it from point A to point B and for setup.
There’s also flying the skies with your telescope. Please do not check-in your telescope with your luggage. It’s common knowledge that luggage bags aren’t handled with care and since OTAs are very fragile with glass, mirrors, and delicate components, you could risk damage to the telescope.
If you plan on traveling, look to the physical dimensions of the OTA before you buy. This can help you to determine if it would fit in a carry-on bag that can be stored in an overhead cabin during flight. A hard carry case that fits the OTA and accessories would be a very good idea to purchase just for flight travel.
What is the Best Travel Telescope?
In the true sense of the word “travel,” the best telescope would be one that you can make the best traveling accommodations for. Yes, it should be lightweight to carry. It should require only one person to transport and set it up, and it should fit within your mode of transport.
There are soft carry bags and hard case shells available in various sizes for almost any telescope in the market. These are a must-have if you’re traveling as it can help to protect the OTA and accessories during transportation.
Refractors with carbon fiber tubes are very expensive, but since they have less moving components and are impervious to temperature changes with some weight reduction benefits, they can be excellent telescopes for travel. However, Newtonians offer larger apertures for the money which may allow better visibility on faint objects under dark skies. They may require a little more maintenance and attention during travel, but the preference is really up to the user.
What Brands Make Portable Telescopes?
Most telescope brands manufacture portable telescopes. Entry-level models from brands like Zhumell, Celestron, and Orion will have telescopes with some sort of “travel” term buried in the model name that indicates that it’s portable. Terms like grab-n-go, travel scope, and portable scope are the obvious terms.
Celestron, Orion, Meade, SkyWatcher, Explore Scientific, and more have portable scopes, but it may take some research on the specs to reveal the specifics. If you know what the general guidelines are for portability, you’ll be able to identify them without having to see a specific portable term in the model name.
What Can You See with a 6 Inch Telescope?
With a 6” telescope, you have good seeing on local bodies in light-polluted areas, but if you can get under dark skies you can open the doors to include some of the fainter DSOs that would otherwise be out of reach in the suburbs.
With ideal seeing conditions, you can see excellent surface details on the moon. This level of resolution also extends to planetary features allowing you to see many more dark surfaces on Mars, details such as festoons within Jupiter’s cloud bands, ring separation and subtle cloud belts on Saturn, and more.
You also have access to locating and seeing hundreds of DSOs that includes all of the Messier objects, considerable detail in nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies with some possibly revealing faint color and spiral structure.
Don’t be left in the dark with the cheapest, portable telescope you can find.
The upgrade in optical quality not only promises better optical performance, but the overall better build will provide durability and reliability when you’re out in the field.
This is what may make the difference between seeing constellations in the Southern hemisphere or being awe-inspired by the magnified view of the Northern Lights.
If your “portable” scope breaks, it will be tough to swallow.
Don’t skimp on quality and don’t be slack about packing and securing your telescope setup.