Making a naturalist’s adventure pack

As part of one of my jobs, my coworker and I spend one day a week on a boat at an urban lake in Tucson.  The lake is an urban fishery, so we sample the water and make sure it has the qualities that fish require to survive.  It can be a really awful job at times, but there are definite perks.  One of the best is the wildlife that we get to see at the lake!  Last summer, I posted about the dragonfly swarm we saw at the lake.  We see tons of water birds that we wouldn’t otherwise see.  Tucson isn’t exactly known for its abundant water, nor its heron, egret, and pelican populations, but we see them all the time!  That sort of thing makes the job worth it, even on really hot summer days.

Lakeside Lake, Tucson, AZ

Lakeside Lake, Tucson, AZ

My coworker and I are both field biologists and naturalists.  This means that we make scientific observations of the natural history of biological organisms in their natural environments.  We love observing nature!  Unfortunately, we don’t know everything about every plant and animal we see at the lake.  I study insects and my friend studies fish and snakes, so neither of us are good at identifying some of the other things at the lake, such as the birds we see.  Several weeks ago, we came up with the idea to make a pack full of the tools we need to be better naturalists during our time at the lake, and the Naturalist’s Adventure Pack was born!  I thought I should post about what went into our pack so that all of you might be inspired to make your own.

Mountainsmith lumbar pack

My Mountainsmith pack. Photo from

First we chose a container for our gear.  I happened to have an extra Mountainsmith lumbar pack at home, so we selected this as our pack.  It’s roomy, durable, and comfy to carry, the characteristics that make a good naturalist’s pack.  I personally love and recommend the Mountainsmith lumbar packs.  They’re expensive, but they last forever and have an excellent warranty.  If you don’t want to buy a new pack though, just use whatever you have lying around at home – so long as it’s durable and comfortable to carry.  You’re not going to use your naturalist’s pack if you have straps digging into your shoulders painfully, so comfort is really important to consider when choosing a bag.

digital camera

My beloved Coolpix, soon to be retired... Photo from

The first thing that went into our bag were tools for documentation of the things that we see.  These are the most important things a naturalist can carry!  We added a high quality notebook (acid free is best) and some good waterproof pens for recording observations and making notes.  We threw a small point-and-shoot digital camera in.  I’ve got an old Nikon Coolpix 995 that does still photos and short videos so we can visually document the things we see.  You can write all the notes you want, but when it comes to natural history, a picture really is worth a thousand words!  Sometimes people simply won’t believe you if you don’t have photographic evidence.  If you don’t want to carry a lot of stuff with you, a notebook, some pens, and a camera are all you need to make a basic naturalist’s pack.  These simple tools are enough to make high quality observations.

Sibley Guide to Birds cover

The Sibley Guide to Birds. Image from

Because we aren’t able to identify everything at the lake, my friend and I added a few key field guides to our pack.  We are both bad at birds, so in went the bird field guide I’ve had for ages.  We use a small, simple field guide, so it doesn’t have everything in it, but it’s good enough for our purposes.  If you want something better or you are a more serious birdwatcher, the Sibley Guide to Birds is quite popular among birders.  We also put a dragonfly field guide in our pack because there are a lot of dragonflies at the lake.  Even though it’s a bit heavier than some other options, I chose the excellent Dragonflies of the West because it contains both dragonflies and damselflies and is specific to our region.  When choosing your field guides, I have a few recommendations.  One is to make sure that you’re not carrying so many books or such big, heavy books that your pack is going to become bulky and uncomfortable.  Like I said earlier, if your naturalist’s pack isn’t comfy to carry, you won’t want to use it.  Second, consider only carrying the field guides for the things you are most interested in and/or the things you have the least knowledge of.  If I had my way, I would carry bird, dragonfly, butterfly, general insect, mammal, tree, flower, and mushroom field guides with me everywhere, but it’s way too much to carry.  So, I bring only the guides I know I’ll use.  For the lake, that means only birds (because neither of us know them very well) and dragonflies (because there are a lot of them at the lake).

Sometimes you’re going to be too far away to see something well enough to identify or properly observe it.  Conversely, sometimes things are too small to observe easily with the naked eye.  This is where some simple optics tools come in handy.  My friend and I put a pair of inexpensive binoculars in our pack (these were extra inexpensive since they were a hand-me-down from my sister!) so that we could see birds and dragonflies from far away.  I’ve also included a magnifying glass to use with insects.  There are other things you could carry with you, from field-use microscopes and loupes to multi-thousand dollar binoculars and spotting scopes.  Choose the tools you think you’ll use, you can either afford or already have, and make sense for your environment and strength.

collapsible insect net

Collapsible insect net, folded. Image from

Last, consider including some specialized equipment that is appropriate for your favorite plant or animal group or your particular interests.  I’m an entomologist, so I put a bunch of insect gear into my naturalist’s pack.  I’ve got glassine envelopes for holding butterflies and dragonflies, plastic bags for other insects, a strainer for scooping bugs out of water, and a collapsible butterfly net.  (You can get all of these things except the strainer from an entomological supply company called Bioquip.  My strainer is a simple soup strainer from Target!)  My friend is a reptile expert, so she sometimes carries her snake stick with her.  If you’re a plant person, a small plant press would be an excellent way to make a leaf or flower collection on a hike.  Birders sometimes like to collect feathers, so a plastic envelope can come in handy.  There are a lot of artist-naturalists out there and they will carry watercolors, colored pencils, or markers along with a good sketchbook and draw or paint things in the field.  Think about the kinds of things you like to watch the most and the things you’ll need to collect and/or observe them.  Then choose your specialized gear accordingly.

Our naturalist’s pack is great!  We’ve enjoyed our new ability to figure out which birds are on the lake, visually record the behaviors of the pelicans eating fish, and make note of our observations.  Our pack fits all of our needs.  It’s big enough to hold all of our gear, but it’s still comfortable to carry.  Our pack is heavy, but not so heavy we don’t want to use it.  It’s got almost everything we could want in the field, but it doesn’t have a lot of extra stuff we’re never going to use to weigh us down.  I’m sure we’re going to get a lot of use out of our naturalist’s pack and it has already greatly added to our enjoyment of the lake.  If you like observing nature and spending time outdoors, I highly recommend you make your own naturalist’s adventure pack!  You won’t regret it!


Text and Lakeside Lake image copyright © 2009


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