Own The Night–Night Vision, Thermal, and the eye

Ox here…Today, I am going to give you a quick review of a couple of night vision devices, a basic tip for seeing better in the dark, and some high-speed tips for seeing better in the dark.

I learned to love the dark many years ago.  I went through a phase where I attacked my fears and phobias, as well as other common fears and phobias.  To knock out my fear of heights, I worked red iron construction and took up rock climbing.  To knock out my fear of drowning, I got comfortable swimming 50 meters underwater, wrestling underwater, and breathing out when my lungs burned instead of popping to the surface.  When I was doing mixed martial arts, we got over our fear of being choked out…by choking each other out and reviving each other more times than I can remember (I may have had some hypoxia induced memory loss.)  And, to knock out my fear of the dark, I started spending time navigating and operating in the dark.

I still love the dark and we are blessed to live in the woods where we’ve got very little light pollution and where I get to spend as much time as I want in the dark.

As comfortable as I am with the dark, I have grown to love my thermal and night vision gear.

We’re fortunate to have mountain lions, bears, bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, and porcupines very close to our house,  and all of them are threats to our chickens and citified dogs.  Now we don’t live in a zoo, and we don’t see each of those animals all the time, but they all make random appearances throughout the year.

Whether it’s simply nature watching, hunting, finding a lost kid/pet, navigating to a pre-dawn hunting spot in sketchy conditions, or checking things out when the dogs or chickens start making a racket at night, I end up using thermal and night vision almost every night.

The three main devices that I use are the PS24 FLIR thermal imager (monocular), the PVS14 Night Vision Monocular, and the ATN THOR (gun mounted thermal monocular).  I’ll go over them briefly, answer any questions you might have below, and do a more in-depth review if needed.

FLIR PS24 Thermal, PVS 14 NVG, ATN THOR Thermal

FLIR PS24 Thermal, PVS 14 NVG, ATN THOR Thermal

Let’s start with some basics.  First off, consumer grade products are different than LE/MIL products.  I’ve run some non-civilian gear that is absolutely sick.  The gear that you can easily buy and MIGHT be able to afford is impressive, but slightly less high speed.

Thermal

Thermal vision allows you to see differences in temperature.  As an example, if you are 98.6 degrees and you’re in a 98.6 degree environment, you will be invisible to thermal devices.  Or, if it’s night time and 70 degrees outside, but the rocks, pavement, etc. are still at 98 degrees from the heat of the sun, they’ll show up the same as a person and you’ll have to differentiate rocks from people by memory and shape.

In general, the more expensive the device, the more subtle differences in heat that you’ll be able to pick up.  My $7,000 THOR will pick up the warmth of fresh footprints on cool dirt or snow for several yards, but my $2,000 FLIR will only show footprints for a few seconds after the animal/person has moved.

Along those same lines, when I look at my metal roof with my THOR most nights of the year, I can see crisp lines where the rafters are underneath because they transfer more heat to the roof than the insulation between the rafters.  The FLIR will only start showing the studs when it’s below 20 outside and above 70 inside.

I say this because thermal devices are very handy for diagnosing where you’re REALLY losing heat.  If your house is like most houses I’ve looked at, the thermal will only verify the usual suspects and won’t give you any earth shattering news…air gaps on exterior doors are the #1 offender.  This little bit of information caused me to use painters tape on the sliding doors in our bedroom this winter and we saw an IMMEDIATE 5 degree jump in the temperature of our bedroom.

Thermal devices can be used 24 hours a day, regardless of ambient light, but they won’t work as well in daylight simply because the sun is heating everything and the temperature differentials are less during the day.

Night Vision

Night vision works by amplifying the light in your environment.  Because of that, you only want to use them in dark conditions.  The more you expose your night vision to light, the shorter the life expectancy will be, so this is important.

You also need SOME light for your night vision device to amplify, so if it’s incredibly dark or pitch black, you’ll need to supplement with either visible light (not recommended) or with an IR flashlight.  As a neat sidenote, if you’ve got night vision security cameras facing outwards from your house, the light will be invisible to your naked eye, but your night vision device will pick it up like a flood light.

I’ve run several night vision systems…from Russian surplus up to $30k headsets with 2-way video communication, and I recommend the PVS14 without hesitation to anyone who asks.

The effectiveness of night vision devices degrades over time.  The brighter light you expose them to while they’re turned on, the quicker they’ll degrade.  No night vision is perfect, and they all come with some dead/dying pixels.  New night vision devices are rated based on the number of dead pixels that they have, which partially explains why you can find PVS14s ranging from $2,500-$3,500.  Personally, I’d never buy a $2,500 PVS14 OR a $3,500 PVS14.  Why?  Because you can get the top of the line PVS14s for about $3k from jrhenterprises.com/Night-Vision_c3.htm  (Tell Robert that Ox sent you when you order.)

If you’re a tinkerer, you can do some pretty neat projects with camcorders that have night vision mode as well as wireless baby monitors with night vision.  They won’t match a PVS14, but they are a lot cheaper and a HUGE jump over being blind in the dark.

You CAN run the PVS14 as a weapon mounted sight in line with an Aimpoint, EoTech, or other red-dot sight, but I don’t recommend it…I’ll tell you why in a minute.

Thermal

Thermal devices work by showing you temperature differentials.  In other words, if it’s a 98 degree day and the ground, buildings, trees, and bushes are all roughly 98 degrees, you’re not going to see any people through a thermal device.  But for the rest of the time, thermal’s great.

At night, as things start to cool off, animals and people pop out on a thermal device.  You can set them so that hotter objects appear as white, hotter objects appear as black, or on many devices, so that hotter objects appear red.  Some even outline shapes that the device believes to be human/animal so that you can pick them out faster.

Thermal is also great for checking your house if you live somewhere where you spend a lot on cooling or heating your house.  Air leaks and conductive leaks show up VERY quickly with thermal.  As an example, a scan of our bedroom on a 20 degree day told me that our sliding door leaked air.  We taped it and noticed an immediate difference.  I scanned it again and saw that we were also losing a lot through the glass and the aluminum frame.  We essentially put a layer of saran wrap on it and, again, noticed an immediate difference.  How much?  The temperature 6″ inside of the door is almost 30 degrees warmer now (it was below freezing) than it was before we used the tape and “saran wrap.”  (No, it wasn’t really saran wrap…it was a big plastic sheet from Home Depot)

As far as specific thermal devices, I use the FLIR PVS14 almost daily.  It’s stupid-simple, light, small, and works great.  You can get them on Amazon >HERE< or from Robert >HERE<.  It is not made to be mounted on a weapon and take recoil.

The ATN Thor was cutting edge(ish) and really cool when I bought it, but a lot has changed in the last few years.  As military contracts dropped off and ATN proved that there was a rabid civilian market, several high quality players have entered the market.  My two favorites today (I don’t own either…yet) are the FLIR Thermosight and the IR Hunter.  You can find them on Amazon >HERE< from Robert >HERE< or from Tactical Night Vision Company >HERE<.  Both of these are made to be mounted on rifles, up to .308.  My preference is definitely the IR Hunter because of the clarity and the increased ability to identify people.

Night Vision vs. Thermal

Night vision and thermal are different animals, and it’s important to understand a few of the differences before you buy:

Frame rate:  With the PVS14, movement is perfectly fluid.  If you shake your head, the image will look the same as if you were in a lit room with nothing over your eyes.  With thermal, there is a frame rate and what you see is delayed a fraction of a second behind reality.  Personally, this means that I can spend a long time operating/moving/navigating with night vision on, but I get disoriented and a headache looking through thermal for an extended period while moving.

The next thing is that it’s easier to pick out a stationary person/animal with thermal than with night vision.  With night vision, you see the world in different shades of green and black.  If you’re doing a 90-180 degree scan of a textured environment (trees, grass, rocks, etc.) it almost takes movement to spot people or animals outside of 50 yards.  With thermal…especially with the FLIR PS24, I just set it to “red hot” and can scan 180 degrees of wilderness/forest/hill/mountain in 1-3 seconds.  If I see any red in my initial scan, I go back and look a 2nd time.  If I still can’t tell what it is, I switch to night vision and, now that I know SOMETHING is there, it’s pretty straight forward to identify it.

Depending on the state that you live in, both night vision and thermal may be legal for non-game animals like coyote, wild hog, etc.

Hand, Head, or Weapon mounted

A lot of people get all wrapped around the axle about mounting their night vision on their weapon.  From experience, I can tell you that this has it’s place, but limits your options significantly.  As an example, if you’re around other people and have your night vision mounted on your weapon, you’re going to have to point your weapon at anything and anyone you want to see–not good.  If you’re in a fixed position, with no friendlies in the area, and hunting coyote at night, or something similar, then it’s not bad to have your NVG mounted…but I STILL don’t do it that way.

What I’ve found to be a much better option (and about 2 million members of our military used this method overseas in OIF/OEF before I figured it out) is to mount the night vision on a helmet or skull crusher (a strap system that comes with PVS14s to allow you to wear it on your head) and to have a laser on my weapon.  (I use a visible green laser, but you could go IR if you wanted)  When I’m hunting coyote, it allows me to walk & navigate in the dark with my rifle hanging and look around when I’m in a fixed position without having to hold my rifle out in front of me for the entire night.

My right eye is my dominant eye, and I put the night vision over my left eye and mount my rifle like normal when I want to shoot.  My right eye serves no purpose and is just along for the ride, but what I found was that if I wore the night vision over my right eye, I’d forget that it was there and hit my rifle optics with my night vision when I went to mount the gun.

One hybrid method that I’ve seen is to hold the night vision or thermal in one hand or use a head mount for scanning.  When you spot something, use a LaRue or similar mount to quickly mount it onto your rifle in line with your existing optics, take care of business, and then take it off and hold it in your hand for scanning again.

How to see better in the dark:

This is all great if you’ve got a few grand to spend on optics, but if you don’t, here’s one tip that almost anyone who’s served in the military will tell you helped them out at one time or another:  The way your eye is built, the middle of the eye (and the middle of your vision) is most finely tuned for colors.  Outside of that, your eye gets better and better at seeing contrast…like black and white.  In a very dim situation, you’ll have a blind fuzzy spot in the middle of your vision, but if you shift your gaze as little as 5-15 degrees to either side, you’ll be able to see what’s right in front of you without additional light.  For more details on this, go >HERE<

Next, there are specific vision exercises that you can do to help you see better in the dark.  You can learn more about them >HERE<

I know a lot of you have considerable time on NVG and/or thermal and would love your input on TTPs and recommendations.  Please share by commenting below:

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. AL, Orange Park, FL says:

    I bought what I could afford for my prep’s figured something is better than nothing.

  2. OldIrishBiker says:

    I have a low end ATN image intensifier with infrared, and find it very useful out in the country where we live. However, all the small brush that our eyes look right through in the daylight reflects infrared light and it’s really hard to see what’s behind it. It’s a great incentive for keeping the brush cleared out of your yard and property. So far it’s worked for seeing coons, foxes, coyotes and a cougar!

  3. Excellent info…appreciate ALL of it, and keep it coming David! Too bad it’s it’s all soooo danged expensive.

  4. FLIR offers a snap-on thermal device for the iphone for arounf $350.00 but it is not available for the iphone 6 or 6plus at this time. Check it out on their website,I think it”s quite a bargain at that price.

  5. Hands free helmet mounted thermal imaging! Full frame rate of 60Hz (Not the slow 9 or 7.5 Hz). Those slower frame rates show you a very delayed image, as much as 3-4 seconds which could be critical. We should have the a similar thermal camera to mount directly to a DJI Phantom drone in a month. Imagine having the ability to quickly fly the perimeter of your property utilizing an off-the-shelf thermal camera with streaming wireless video!! That is a true example of a force multiplier.

    www.liteye.com/products/other-thermal-products-2

  6. Norman Witzler says:

    Thirty dollars will get you a decent flashlight or LED headlamp that works really well for my night vision operations. Objects appear very similar to how they would look in daylight. This method will give away your position, so it isn’t the best option for combat.

  7. Thanks David. That was for me the most informative article I have read on the subject. We are currently trying to figure out what we need and in the South with leaves on the brush and trees, thermal was of very little value. As it gets colder it becomes useful. Weapons mounted, helmet mounted etc. At least now I have an idea how to progress and with the high cost of this equipment I can’t afford much trial and error.

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