Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade: Gear for the Aspiring Naturalist

Besides the essential gear that all safe hikers carry, I am often asked, what gear is worth carrying for those interested in natural history and wildlife observation. The truth is with just a few simple items added to your pack even the novice naturalist is well on the path to becoming an expert.

The single most important item after a high quality field guide that all naturalists can carry is a nature journal. This can be as simple as a few sheets of paper and a pencil or as extravagant as a waterproof note book and weatherproof pen. The journal is essential in recording where you traveled, who accompanied you, and what species you saw. I like to include details such as trail and weather conditions, distance traveled, and my overall feelings about the day. I suggest developing a simple system for organizing your information and sticking with that format to maintain continuity. While at first these records might seem trivial, over time you will find yourself returning to your notes from previous seasons to compare information such as when and where different flowers were blooming or where certain birds were seen. If you are artistically inclined, sketching your observations is useful as well. A journal is also a great tool to help reminiscence on memorable moments and experiences you had on the trail. I often recall some of my best hiking trips and exciting encounters with wildlife simply by reading through past entries. The hardest part about keeping a nature journal is sticking with it, so make sure you keep it close at hand and try to make an entry for every trip, no matter how short.

Beyond a journal another valuable and lightweight tool is a hand-lens. A simple and inexpensive 10x magnification hand lens will let you see an incredible amount of detail that is all but invisible to the naked eye. They can be of great assistance in identifying similar or confusing plant and insect species. Binoculars are also a great tool for observing birds and other animals from far away but high quality binoculars can be quite expensive and heavy. For this reason I consider them helpful but not essential. If you stay observant of your surroundings, there is an incredible amount of detail that will be available to you with just your eyes and your hand lens.

The final item that I recommend that all naturalists carry is a small ruler. A ruler can be used in pictures to give a sense of scale to an animal track or flower, and can also be useful in noting sizes of species encountered in your nature journal. With this minimal investment in equipment you will have the tools needed to accurately record your journey and those special moments that the natural world is always ready to provide.

Nate Shedd
AMC Naturalist Guide

For more tips on improving your natural history and observation skills join a Naturalist Guide at the AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center for a guided walk or hike. Call ahead (603-466-2721) for program times and details. Have a natural history question that you would like answered in this blog? Send out an e-mail to