What You Need to (Comfortably) Survive in the Woods

As Renee and I plan for our trip to Shenandoah I thought it would be a good time to go through my pack and make sure I have everything I need. We are only planning to go backpacking for three days so I can get by without some amenities but it’s better to prepare and find out I’m missing something now when there’s time to still go buy it rather than the first night we set up our tent in Virginia (we did remember the tent, right?). I am not an ultra-light backpacker — someone who tries to bring as little with them as possible — but I am also lazy and don’t like carrying extra weight unless it is going to significantly make my life in the woods better. I’m also fortunate to have Renee go with me so we can split the weight (Regardless if I go alone or with someone, I’m stuck taking shared use items like a tent, cooking gear, etc… so going with a friend means weight savings!) With that said, I’ve organized my list by how essential each item is. All loaded up, we have about 70 lbs of gear (minus water) to take between two of us.

Tent — 6 lbs 6 oz

Having a good tent is probably the most important thing in my bag. This is what is going to keep me dry and to some extent warm. Renee and I have a small two person tent and it has served us well through Yellowstone National Park, WY, Allegheny, PA, Ohiopyle, PA, and Mohican, OH. This is actually my favorite tent that I’ve ever owned — it is thin and light weight, but it has also been extremely durable. Plus, it was a fraction of the price as other backpacking tents ($120 I believe compared to the $400-$600 you can easily spend).

Food — 11 lbs

Our trips are usually short enough to where we can plan each meal out in advance without getting exhausted. We prep as much as we can at home and portion food out into baggies to make it easier to cook when the time comes. We also try to plan meals and alter recipes to make cleanup as easy as possible because 1)no one likes cleaning up after cooking to begin with but 2) it’s a lot more difficult to do if you are following Leave No Trace practices (swilling pasta water…yum). Meals don’t have to be bland and tasteless though. We love using the NOLS Cookery book to plan meals. During this time of year we plan for 1.75 lbs/person/day, but in the summers we drop down to 1.5 lbs.

Water Purifier — 12 oz

When hiking I easily drink more than a gallon of water per day plus I need water for cooking food. There is no way Renee and I are going to carry in all the water we need for three days so we plan on replenishing our supplies from springs and streams along the way. Although people have lived in Shenandoah for hundreds of years have been drinking unfiltered water from springs and wells, contracting an infection from giardia or some other parasite is not something that I want to risk. Some people like using tablets, drops, or UV light, but personally I like using a filter. A filter protects against anything we would encounter in a pristine wilderness setting with good water sources and it produces the best tasting water.

Water Carriers — 8 oz

Water carriers are still something I am figuring out. Up to this point I’ve always used a 3 liter hydration bladder to carry around a larger quantity of water and then a couple hard plastic Nalgene bottles for water that’s easier to access. The issue I have with the bladder is that the water always tastes funny; that’s not a huge deal if we are talking about survival, but I believe backpacking can be fun and comfortable without having to sacrifice all of life’s conveniences. The hard Nalgene bottles I struggle with because they are too big to fit in any of the water bottle holders for my bag. Additionally, once they are empty, I have to make a conscious effort to fill them with something so they aren’t just taking up wasted space in my bag. For this trip I think I’m still going to use the water bladder (going to give it a good cleaning beforehand) but also I’m going to try a collapsible water bottle since it will hopefully save space once empty and be easier to shove into any bottle carrier/pocket/wherever there is space.

Fire Starter + Tinder — 3 oz

Although camp fires are not allowed in Shenandoah, that doesn’t mean I won’t bring fire starting sticks, a lighter, and tinder (dryer lint). Although I don’t plan on using any of this stuff, it’s a nice safety measure to have in case we get stuck somewhere or need to get warm.

Clothes — 5 lbs

Packing clothes is what I struggle most with when backpacking. I have the tendency to over pack, causing me to carry around extra weight and then never end up wearing the clothes. It’s a fine line between making sure you always have dry, warm clothes and packing way too many clothes that you never use them. Regardless of trip length, I basically pack two of most things — two pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, two pairs of zip-off pants/shorts, and two shirts. Those clothes basically get me through the daytime’s hiking. I also pack an extra shirt and shorts to sleep in, a pair of camp shoes, and a water proof jacket. If it’s supposed to be a wet trip, I’ll pack a third pair of everything so I always have something dry to wear, but I really hate doing this since clothes take up a ton of space in my pack. This time of year, Shenandoah is in the low thirties in the mornings, so I’ll be taking a down jacket and some extra layers to keep me warm in the mornings.

Sleeping Bag — 3 lbs 10 oz

This one is critical because it’s what keeps me warm at night. We usually backpack somewhere in the mountains, meaning cool nights. I’m a fan of down filled bags because of their warmth and compressibility and I don’t mind having to protect them from getting wet.

Sleeping Pad — 2 lbs 5 oz

Sleeping on the ground doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. For the first few years that I camped I didn’t know this though and every morning I would wake up sore. Then at some point I learned that a thin foam sleeping pad could be put under a sleeping bag to make laying on the ground more enjoyable. After this discovery I sleep like a baby and wake up rested every single time. I would even argue that I get better sleep on my sleeping pad out in nature than I do on my bed at home.

Backpack(s) — 6 lbs

I need a container to carry all of my gear in. When car camping, it used to be boxes and rubber totes. With backpacking, it’s a large backpack to fit all of my stuff. On trips where we will be doing lots of day hikes and coming back to our same campsite at night I also like to bring a small daypack to carry essentials like water, food, and a jacket.

Compass and Maps — 5 oz

These get surprisingly little use since trails are usually so well marked, but they are helpful for identifying water sources and flat spots for campsites. I’ve always been aware of my surroundings enough to not get lost, but the compass is a nice extra safety measure.

Headlamp — 3 oz

This might be one of the best purchases I have ever made. Not only is it great for camping where you frequently need your hands for cooking a meal or setting up a tent, but I use this headlamp for everything outside of camping as well. Stargazing? Check. Working under my car? Check. Using it in a crawlspace or when the power is out? Check and check. Honestly, everyone should own a headlamp — they are way more functional than a flashlight.

Cooking Stove and Fuel — 2 lbs

I don’t follow the philosophy of camp food should taste bad. Some people are able to subsist on powdered meals and candy bars but I like to eat as well as I can when I’m out backpacking. Having a good stove helps cook everything from pad Thai to cinnamon rolls. Although temperature control has to be maintained by how much you pressurize the fuel bottle, this stove is versatile and easily repairable. It also doesn’t use a lot of fuel and is durable.

Pot and Mess Kit — 1 lb 10 oz

Having a light-weight pot with a multi-function lid is important. Not only can I boil liquids and fry foods in the pot, the lid doubles as a second frying pan as well as a lid to make water boil faster (important when trying to conserve fuel). A couple of water tight bowls with lids are great because not only can can they be used to eat/make a meal in, they act as great storage containers in the backpack (don’t want the oil or butter leaking all over your clothes!). The mess kit is pretty simple, mostly utensils for stirring/turning food and cleaning supplies. I like to do as much food prep work while at home before the trip so most meals can be made by just combining and cooking ingredients in the field — leave all of the chopping and cutting for the large chef’s knife and cutting board at home.

First Aid and Sewing Kits — 5.5 oz

This one needs little explanation; it’s important to be able to fix yourself if you are relying on yourself in the outdoors. Fortunately, the only thing I’ve had to use from our first aid kit is some headache medicine. Our sewing kit is basically a needle, thread, and extra buttons.

Bag Cover + Extra Bags — 12 oz

Rain is one of a backpacker’s biggest enemies. It is essential that all of your gear stays dry and the way I accomplish this is with a pack cover to water proof my whole bag when it’s raining. I also bring lots of extra bags to water proof individual items (camera, food) if it’s really wet. Having extra bags is always useful since they are so versatile as well — besides waterproofing they work great for carrying out trash, portioning out food, and compartmentalizing your pack.

We also use one of these bags to store our food in. Animals can easily break into it if they are able to reach it, so we have to do a good job of hanging this from a tree. The alternative of packing something like a bear canister seems like a pain because of the amount of space it takes up. I’m imaging at some point we will go camping somewhere that requires canisters so maybe once that happens my opinion of them will change. Until then, we’ve become pretty good at hanging bags from trees.

Nylon Cord — 2.5 oz

This one is pretty versatile. We always use it to hang up our food bag, but it also works great for a clothes line, tying items to your bag, replacement shoelaces, replacement guy lines for the tent, etc… Definitely don’t want to go anywhere without it.

Shovel and Toilet Paper — 4 oz

Not necessary, but is worth the weight. Using a shovel to dig a cat hole is much cleaner than having to get your hands dirty. The toilet paper is nice in case everything is wet and finding dry leaves to use isn’t a guarantee.

Hand Sanitizer — 3 oz

Much easier to use than soap and water.

Book — 5 oz

Whatever I’m currently reading. Usually now I try to bring a book for my Kindle app on my phone so that I have less to carry.

Camera, Single Lens, and Tripod — 4 lbs 8 oz

I like taking photos so taking a camera is extra weight worth taking. I only take a single fixed length lens to save on weight and I don’t bother with extra batteries or anything else. All other camera extras, with the exception of a cloth to wipe down the lens with, stay at home.

Camp Shoes — 1 lb

I like bringing these water shoes because they are great to wear after a long day of hiking. I also like them for crossing streams where I think I’ll get wet because they dry out really quick.

Personal Items: Toothbrush, Contact Solution, etc.. — 2 lbs

Just because I’m camping doesn’t mean I throw away all concepts of hygiene. Included in here are all of the regular items you’d put in your TSA quart size bag plus a pack of playing cards and bug spray.

Pillow — 13 oz

This is always an optional item. I always sleep better when I bring a collapsible pillow instead of just sleeping on a sweatshirt/bag of clothes, but I realize it is not essential and I only pack it if I still have lots of room in my bag.

Bear Spray — 13 oz

I used to be terrified of bears. After learning more about bears though, I am not scared anymore. Shenandoah has a large black bear population, however I would never go out and buy bear spray to take to an area that only has black bears. We already had this bear spray from previous trips though so I figured we might as well take it.

Espresso Machine — 8 lbs

Just kidding. Although it would be nice…

Building Quickly and Iterating

How I break down projects to increase the chances of success.

Starting on a new project often feels like having to scale a huge canyon.

I am about to start working on a new programming project and I’m trying to think about what I can do to try and guarantee as much success as possible. For me, the most important time during project creation is the first few days or weeks while I am still extremely excited about what I am doing. During this time, I am able to work happily on the project and not get distracted by other ideas or activities. Therefore, I’ve determined that in the first period of excitement it is critical for me to get the minimal viable product fully built out and coded. If I don’t, rarely will I be able to create any additional excitement to keep the project going. If I’m able to get a working version built early on however, my excitement doesn’t wane and I can continue working on the project, adding features over time.d

Until recently, I never gave much thought to prioritizing the most important features of a project; sounds dumb, I know, but basically I would work on whatever I felt was “sexiest” — meaning using some new language, framework, or concept that I haven’t used before. This has been my downfall many times because when learning something new, there is inevitable frustration. This frustration always lead me to give up on the project before it even was built. This is why I now have switched my focus to building the minimum amount of features as quickly as possible to get my minimum viable product working, using techniques that are mostly familiar to me, so that I can get it done quickly. This way, I hope I can keep the excitement momentum going.

Plan, plan, plan

The key for me in building a successful project (meaning one that gets finished) is by first planning everything out on paper. This planning is never incredibly detailed, but it does provide me enough of a roadmap to help identify what my biggest challenges will be. Some upfront planning also helps me solidify things like program and database design, and lets me think through multiple options. Going through this iteration of different designs while on paper is much easier and faster than building out a version in code and then realizing it has to be scrapped because it doesn’t work well.

Trim the fat

Once I figure out the rough design of a program, I try to identify all of the features that are critical to get it functioning as quickly as possible. For example, if building a to-do list application, I might consider building a user registration and login system so people can manage their own checklists. Is this critical though? No, I can build the app so it only works for one user initially and worry about a multiple user scenario later on. I could use some new and popular animation library to work on animating the checklist items on the screen — but is this important? Definitely not — this kind of stuff causes many hours of frustration to occur with very little final product to show, so I skip it initially. Do I want to build basic functionality to let the user add and delete items on the checklist — YES! This is definitely highest priority. Once I figure out what features are critical to get the application functioning, I work on those first.

Just Do It

Just like Nike’s slogan, at this point it’s go time. I set my deadline for getting the first version of the program built as quickly as possible. The sooner the better. This is critical for me because initial project excitement is short lived and I know I have to create a functioning app before that giddiness runs out. I’m much more likely to get through road blocks in this phase as long as I’m still making noticeable progress and I need to get a working version of the program done before I hit a major road block.

Is it still worth it?

This is the question I ask myself once I get my minimum viable version of my app done. At this point the app will still look extremely ugly, usually all black text on white backgrounds, but I should be able to navigate through actions and get a feel for how the final product will work. Does the process to perform an action seem clunky or too complicated? I go back and fix it — good thing I didn’t waste hours on making a nice looking design. I can afford to lose what I built because at this point I simply don’t have enough invested in it to care; I can think a lot more clearly about it if I can emotionally separate myself from the work I put into it. If things are working well and I’m happy with the basic app functionality then it’s time to keep going.

The reprioritization and build cycle

At this point I keep adding the most essential features. After every feature I add, I try to reevaluate if I am still working on the most current feature. I might hit some stumbling blocks along the way, like realizing I need to modify my database design sooner rather than later, and so those items get prioritized higher on the list of features that need to get completed first. But by constantly reevaluating and reprioritizing the feature list, I guarantee myself that I am working on code that is adding immediate value, is satisfying to work on, and is bringing the project closer to completion. Becoming discouraged or disengaged is difficult when you set yourself to succeed frequently so early on in a project.

Get feedback

Launch the project before it is done. This could just be to a couple friends or it could be public. Getting feedback from others early on will help steer you in the direction of the most important features, as well as give you that instant gratification and encouragement to keep pushing forward. Don’t be afraid to show the world your unfinished baby.

Reprioritize, iterate

With each version that you release you will be able to decide 1)is it worth continuing to build this app and 2)what are the next most important features. If you like how the app works and you get feedback of other people saying they like the app, then that is good motivation to keep working. Feedback will also tell you what is most important to add to the program next. Eventually you will get through your critical list of functional features and you can work on some of the more of the less important things like design, animations, etc… At this point if you get frustrated on trying to learn something new it’s not as big of deal — you already have a functioning program that is being used. If you can’t animate the to-do list item additions/deletions slike you originally envisioned, that’s ok — at least you can still add and delete items! Maybe you can find an alternate way to make the design better. The point is, by the time you have a functioning app, these types of roadblocks will not be as discouraging and you will still feel accomplished with a job well done.

Finish it up

Eventually you need to decide when your app has enough features and you can switch to marketing/using the app in the real world. That doesn’t mean you won’t ever modify the program again, it just means that real world use and feedback will help you determine what changes to make in the future, if any. It might also turn out that your app works well enough without the need to iterate any further, and you can decide to then start on the next project idea that has been bouncing around in your head.

How Not to Die While Hiking

Safety in the Back Country

To get to the bottom of the Seven Mile Hole at Yellowstone National Park, we had to avoid bears, thermal vents, and dehydration.
A young grizzly bear. Out of view is the mama.

I used to be terrified of bears. Seriously, I thought if I went into the backcountry, I would be hunted down by a bear and get eaten alive, a scenario where I would have my intestines hanging out of my belly as I watched the bear ponder whether she wanted a dessert course of my left leg or not. And although such a scenario is theoretically possible, it turns out that between 1960–1980 there have only been 82 major attacks by grizzlies and 35 major attacks by black bears against humans in National Parks (major meaning requiring serious hospitalization or death; black bear attacks seem so high because there are many more human encounters with them). That works out to about 6 major attacks per year. Comparatively, you are “45 times more likely to be killed by a dog than by a bear, 120 times more likely to be killed by bees than a bear, and a whopping 250 times more likely to be killed by lightening than a bear.” And when comparing driving to lighting “The odds of being hit by lightening are about 1 in 4.2 million. The odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident are about 1 in 20,000.”

Instead of continuing to worry about bears, I’ve learned that there are other more realistic dangers that I should be prepared for when hiking and camping. I’ve also learned that driving to my hiking destination is far more dangerous than actually hiking itself.

Stupid humans

Given how amazing and intelligent the human race is, we also do some of the dumbest things. If you are going to get hurt out in the wilderness, whether it’s on a short afternoon hike in a local park or a multi-week backpacking excursion, it’s most likely going to be due to something stupid you did. Do you know what the number one reason for a premature end to peoples’ backpacking adventures? Blisters. With that said, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Drowning is responsible for the largest number of fatalities in National Parks. If you don’t know how to swim, then don’t swim. If you aren’t familiar with currents of a river or open body of water, don’t go into it. If you have children, actively watch them to make sure they are doing ok. If you are kayaking or rafting, wear a life jacket. Drowning is something that is 100% preventable but unfortunately it is the number one reason people don’t come back from their trips to the parks.
  • Ice and rain makes smooth surfaces, like the rocks you frequently hike over, very slippery. Use caution when on slippery surfaces and don’t fall off rock ledges. Take your time, make sure you are balanced and have a firm steadying grip with a hand on a wall, and you will be fine.
  • Watch where you are going. You are in the woods after all, so gnarly tree roots and gopher holes will exist in your walking path. Tripping on or falling into these obstacles and twisting your ankle is a serious concern, so pay attention to where you are walking. Additionally, if you commonly find yourself rolling your ankle, maybe it’s a good idea to wear some boots that go above the ankle so it reduces your chances of injury.
  • Bring enough water for your hike and be aware of where you can get some more if needed. I’ve seen plenty of unprepared people set off for a mountain hike with a little 12oz bottle of Poland Spring. I don’t know if these people ever reach the top of the mountain and die of thirst up there, or decide to call it quits early after they realize they’ve drunken all of their water halfway up and decide to turn around, but you need to bring enough water for the trip you are taking. Hiking, and backpacking especially, are very physical activities. You will sweat and you will need to replenish your body’s water supply. Bring an adequate amount of water and be sure you know where streams/springs/rivers are so that you can filter some more water during your trip.
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew in terms of trail difficulty. If it’s your vacation and you want to go hike Half Dome (and you made reservations) and the last time you went hiking was 10 years ago, you might want to reconsider your trip. Hiking can be strenuous and the easiest way to injure yourself is to not be in shape for the type of hike you are planning on taking.
  • And avoid blisters. Wear comfortable, broken in hiking shoes. Flip flops are bad (I’m looking at you unprepared tourist who thinks they can climb down into the Grand Canyon with flip flops and your 12oz of water). New hiking shoes that you bought for your trip and haven’t broken in yet are almost as bad. Also wear comfortable wool socks that fit well so they don’t rub and cause blisters. If you do start getting a blister, put some duct tape or a blister strip on it; don’t just keep walking, it will only get worse.

Weather

Tut-tut, it looks like rain.
  • During the spring and summer, lighting can be a serious concern to hikers. Whether you are above the tree line on a mountain top or walking through a large plain or valley, you should always be aware of the weather and know what to do in case of a lighting storm. In short, find a grove of smaller trees to hide in and crouch down onto your toes. If you are with a group, spread yourselves out to reduce chances of all of you getting hit. Caves and rock overhangs might look dry and safe, but you are better off staying outside of them since lighting can jump across shallow cave openings — only deep caves will offer protection. For more information about staying safe in a lighting storm while hiking, read the Hiking Dude’s guide to lightning safety.
  • Rain and snow shouldn’t stop you from going on a hike, but if you intend on becoming wet and cold during a hike, make sure you have dry clothes to change into afterwards. Whether it’s back at your car or once you set up camp for the night, you will want to change into something warm and dry so you don’t get hypothermia.

Plants

  • Trees will kill you — if they fall on you that is. Don’t take a lunch break under a dead tree or a tree with a dead limb. A sudden gust of wind can make that dead wood fall right on top of you. Also, setting up your tent under the cover of trees is nice, especially when it’s raining, but make sure those trees aren’t going to fall over and crush you in your sleep.
  • Know how to identify poison ivy/oak/sumac. The last thing you want is to dig your cat hole in a patch of poison ivy and not find out until you start itching later. Avoiding these plants is your best bet, but if you do think you came in contact with them just wash up with soap and water to try and get the skin irritating oils off of you as soon as you can — if you wash them off within a few minutes of contact it is likely you won’t develop a rash.
  • Trails should be mostly clear of stinging nettles, prickers, and other sharp plants, but be aware of and avoid them anyway. They are not fun.

Animals

  • Ticks can carry Lyme disease which is something you want to avoid. Wear long sleeves and pants if the weather is cool enough to avoid them landing on you and biting into your skin. If you do find a tick on you, remove it immediately. As long as you remove the tick within the first 12 hours of contact, you should avoid contracting Lyme disease. After hiking or before going to bed, do a tick check to make sure you don’t have any on you.
  • Mosquitos suck. Bring bug spray, especially something with DEET. If you want to be all hippy about it and use only natural products, that’s fine, but maybe you are not the kind of person who gets eaten alive by mosquitos. But if you are like me and the mosquitos are determined to drink your blood, then use something with DEET in it.
  • Speaking of bears, although I mentioned that bears should be the least of your concerns you still don’t want to be stupid around them. Always make your presence known while hiking (shouting “hey bear” every once in a while seems to be effective status quo message) so as to not sneak up and startle a bear. Bells around your ankles or on your bag don’t work as well. Wild, non-habituated-to-humans bears will attack you if they feel threatened, like if you sneak up on them while hiking. If you do spot a bear in the distance, be loud and make your presence known. Slowly back away and give the bear room. The bear will probably do its own thing and walk the other way. Don’t ever run from a bear, because 1)they are faster than you and 2)by running you are initiating a game of cat and mouse. 99.99999% of the time this is all you need to know. For more information, read a book on the subject — I highly recommend Bear Attacks Their Causes and Avoidance by Stephen Herrero. The author has lived among and studied bears his whole life and hasn’t been injured by a bear yet. Also, this book is really fun to read on a plane — people will most definitely ask you questions about what you are reading.
  • Poisonous snakes, mountain lions, and other predatory animals: these animals probably aren’t interested in you as a food source. Make your presence known, heed any warning signs, and stay out of their way.

Safety precautions

In addition to being aware of the above scenarios, it’s also good to take a few additional safety measures when going out into the backcountry.

  • Let someone know when and where you are going and when you should be back. If you aren’t back on time, they can inform a search and rescue team to go find you.
  • Know where the closest hospitals are and have their phone numbers handy. If you do need someone to take you to get medical attention, or you need to take someone yourself, at least you will know where to go.
  • Always talk to rangers about where you plan on hiking. They will let you know of any dangerous conditions, or if certain areas are closed due to washed out trails, fire danger, animal activity, etc… Listen to these warnings/closures and don’t get upset if you have to change your plans. If you do end up hiking somewhere that you aren’t supposed to, then you are dumb. This is how people get eaten by bears.
  • Finally, know some general first aid skills and carry a first aid kit on longer hikes/overnight trips. Usually the worst injuries you will receive are a cut or a blister. Being prepared to treat these are important though, otherwise infection will spread and you will not be a happy camper.

The First Timer’s Guide to Stargazing

Devils Tower Milky Way” by David Kingham is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With Spring just around the corner, Renee and I are regularly checking the forecast and going out stargazing as much as possible. Spring time is one of my favorite times of year for star gazing: the sky still gets dark relatively early, winter constellations are visible but so are spring constellations if you stay out late enough, and the weather is warming up, making it easier to enjoy spending long stretches of time outside. Although stargazing is easy and fun without any previous experience, there are a few things I wish I had known when I was just starting out.

M31, the Andromeda galaxy, can be seen by the unaided eye. The view above is what it looks like through some binoculars. I took this photo in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.

You don’t need fancy equipment

I think the biggest misconception about stargazing is that you need a fancy telescope to be able to go out and look at the night sky. Telescopes are awesome, but you really don’t need one when you are starting out.

What you do need is a good book. I like NightWatch but I’m sure there are other great beginner books. The key is to find one that will teach you the constellations so that you will become comfortable navigating the night sky. Learning to find the major constellations and stars is the first step to successfully finding deep space objects later on. I do not recommend using a sky chart or star finder phone app — these apps ruin your night vision, take away from the fun of finding nighttime objects yourself, and honestly I have never had one that was accurate enough to work well. Just find yourself a good book and read it before you go out for the night — trying to navigate an unfamiliar book in the dark is not easy.

In addition to a book, you’ll want a red gelled flashlight. You can buy lights with red leds, but personally I use a small flashlight with some red Christmas cellophane taped over the business end. If you have a headlamp, use that — it’s definitely nice to keep your hands freed up.

Binoculars are great for stargazing — if you have a pair, bring them with you! They don’t need to be fancy; it’s amazing how much more you can see in the night sky with even a low quality pair of binoculars. The picture of M31 above is the kind of thing you can see with binoculars. Even though I own a great telescope I still use a pair of binoculars just as much.

If you have a telescope AND you know how to use it — bring it along. Otherwise, don’t even both bringing it. Until you are comfortable finding constellations and some of the naked eye objects, it will be too difficult to use a telescope and you will just get frustrated by not being able to use it. Save yourself that frustration and leave it at home until you get some practice without it first.

The Milky Way over western New York state. I took this photo on a camping trip.

Dress appropriately

Stargazing is an extremely motionless activity. You do a lot of standing and sitting and that’s about it. Since you aren’t moving your body much, it is essential that you dress warmly. You will need to dress warm enough to be able to sustain standing motionless in the outside air for hours at a time.

I like to bring way more clothes than I think I need. Having an extra fleece or jacket in the car is the difference between being able to stay out for hours and having to pack up and leave shortly after you have arrived. Layers here are key — they add lots of heat by trapping air close to your body and they are also easy to take off or add on if you need to regulate how you feel.

Also don’t forget gloves, hand warmers, and wool socks. The extremities of your body will get cold fast so don’t neglect them.

Bring snacks

It’s easy to spend long stretches of time outside stargazing especially when the weather is favorable. Add an event like a meteor shower or lunar eclipse and you might be outside for hours. Instead of having to cut your stargazing session short because of hunger, or having to stop at a fast food restaurant on your way home (because nothing else will be open that late) bring some snacks with you. Additionally, if the weather is still cool, bring a thermos of hot cocoa — nothing makes it more enjoyable to be outside in the cold than a delicious hot beverage.

Star trails over Zion National Park, Utah. Some of the darkest sky in the United States.

Find dark sky

Picking a place to stargaze can be as easy as stepping out into your backyard. Depending on where you live though, it might be beneficial to go someplace that has less light pollution. Light pollution makes seeing deep sky objects, and even some constellations, difficult to impossible.

I like using the Dark Sky Finder website. Look for areas that are colored orange, yellow, and green — these are locations that are perfect for viewing stars. Stargazing can be done in red areas as well, but I would highly recommend avoiding any white spots on the map — you just won’t be able to see enough to make it worth it. And don’t worry about going out of your way to get to a green, purple, or black area your first time few times out — it’ll actually be more difficult! I remember the first time I went stargazing in Utah in a spot that appears black on that map: the number of stars in the night sky in a really dark area is breathtaking. However, due to the amount of stars you can see in those dark areas, it’s much more difficult to find certain objects — I’ve even had difficulty finding the big dipper in really dark areas!

Good locations to search for are places like parks that have large open clearings. If you can find a park with a big prairie, a big hill, a lake, or even a large parking lot in the middle of a green zone, you have found a perfect stargazing spot.

Watch for a clear forecast

Most of us our probably get our weather from the local tv news station or online weather app. Although this type of weather report is good for getting a rough idea of temperatures and precipitation, it is incomplete for what we need for stargazing. Since we will be trying to look at the night sky, the two forecasts we really care about are cloud coverage and darkness.

Fortunately, the Clear Dark Sky website provides an excellent astronomical forecast. Simply go to the site and find a location nearby to where you plan to go stargazing. Once you specify a location, you’ll be presented with a forecast that looks like this:

Looks like tonight is going to get good around 1am. Sunday night looks like it might be promising too. Information on how to read this chart is located underneath the chart at Clear Dark Sky.

Although this forecasts provide a lot of information, there are two main things we want to look at. The first is the line that says “Cloud Cover”. Darker blue squares are better here — we want as few clouds in the sky as possible on the night we go out. As a rule of thumb, I’ll go out anytime it’s 40% or less cloud coverage as long as I don’t have to travel far. If I’m going to my favorite observing spot an hour away, the majority of the forecast needs to be 20% cloud cover or better — there’s nothing as disappointing as planning a night of stargazing only to arrive at your location and finding out that you can’t see any stars.

The second forecast important to us is Darkness. Darkness measures how “light” it is outside at our location due to the moon or setting/rising sun. Obviously if we are trying to see faint night time objects, it’s better for complete darkness, so I always try to go stargazing during a time when the forecast is dark blue. This doesn’t mean we can’t go star gazing on a night when there is almost a full moon — we just need to go out when the moon still hasn’t risen so the sky is dark (or plan to observe the moon!).

The remaining forecasts of transparency, seeing, humidity, etc… are useful when going out stargazing with a telescope. Feel free to familiarize yourself with these additional forecasts but be aware that they will only affect your stargazing night out if you are bringing a telescope (which you shouldn’t the first few times you go out).

Look for other nighttime objects

You have your star constellation book, dressed appropriately for the weather, brought some snacks, checked the forecast, and found a location that is dark enough for stargazing — that means time to go right? While you are definitely prepared, there are a few more things that you could do to increase your chances of having an awesome night out.

First, check Heavens Above for any flyovers happening in the area you will be stargazing at. This website tracks when satellites and the international space station will be flying overhead. You can check what’s going to be overhead the night you go out stargazing and hopefully be able to see something cool. Depending on the orientation of the satellite and the sun on the opposite side of the earth some of these objects can get really bright — I once saw the space station and it looked about the size of an outstretched thumb in the night sky and it was as bright as the moon; pretty awesome.

Before going out I also like to check this week’s Sky at a Glance. This is a weekly article that notes any cool things going on in the night sky this week. It’s a great resource to check so you don’t miss out on seeing some planets or meteor showers.

Also, look for local astronomy clubs putting on star parties for the public. Often times astronomy clubs hold public events that allow people to come use their equipment to stargaze as well as to help teach astronomy. These events tend to be free and there is no better way of learning about the night sky. You can learn a lot from books and videos online, but nothing is better than having someone knowledgeable point out actual objects in the sky for you or line up their telescope on some distant nebula that would be hard to find on your own. Additionally, once you are ready to buy a telescope, these clubs’ members are great resources for getting advice about what type of equipment to buy — and often times at the star party you can try out someone else’s equipment before you buy your own.

Now that you have all the information you need, get out tonight and enjoy the night sky (just check the cloud forecast first)!

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