On the Hunt for Dark: What to Pack With You
It's incredible how many times you'll search through every bag, open the car door and ruin your night vision over and over again (until you finally figure out how to turn off the courtesy lights, so you're not blinded continuously). All this happens because you can’t find something that you were sure you brought with you.
"Sheesh! Who else would drive all the way here and forget to bring (whatever)…”
It is a surprisingly common expression out here in the dark. That’s why it makes sense to keep a Lookin’-for-Dark bag near your scope. What goes in your Dark bag? Well, in a lot of ways, that is up to you. Camera-people will need slightly different stuff than telescope-people, but on the whole, it is about the same. What differs is more for your comfort. We'll look at both types of items…
I don’t need to say bring your camera bag, but you should look inside to make sure all your lenses are in place, and that you didn’t leave your 50 mm on the kitchen counter while taking pictures of your daughter’s birthday.
Neither should I have to say to bring your telescope, if that is your instrument of choice, but make sure you have spare batteries for the motor drive of the equatorial mount, and all your eyepieces are all present. And don’t forget your star chart, at least when you’re starting out, so you can find exciting things to look at or your specific target.
Also, check your wall-chargers and fetch the fully-charged camera batteries and spares that will do you no good if they’re still at home… because long exposures are draining.
And don’t walk out the door with everything you need except the tripod… Seriously…you'll want to stab yourself in the head if you drive 20 miles and find you have no tripod when you arrive. Trust me, trying to use a reflector telescope like a shoulder-mounted bazooka doesn't work.
The good part about it is that your scream of frustration will rival that of Captain Kirk yelling at Khan Noonan Singh. And that should scare all the wildlife away for a couple of miles…
Common Sense & Common Needs
High-quality lens wipes are essential. Microfiber cloths are very effective. You can’t use your t-shirt full of skin oils to wipe a spot off of a fine optical lens. Likewise, a box of Kleenex or fancy “Royale facial tissues with lotion” is not only potentially scratchy to expensive coated optics, but any additives can make viewing worse after “cleaning” the lens when it leaves a residue behind.
To Air is human
People with reflector-type telescopes might want a can of compressed air in case any dust gets on the mirror. These “air-dusters” are used to clean electronics like computer interiors or keyboards. Just remember to point the light-gathering end slightly downwards while cleaning so that you spray the air uphill. That way, you ONLY get air and not any of the liquid butane or propane propellant.
Save your eyes
Next, you’ll need a RED-colored LED flashlight. Why red? This low-frequency light will not damage your night vision. It takes 20 minutes or more for your night vision to get to maximum sensitivity after leaving white light behind. All it takes is one brief non-red flash, and you'll be many minutes getting it back again.
Set any cell phones, you plan to access to a red screen, too, with a color-filter app. It’s generally best not to use them at all—because if you’re using some software, the programmer is so interested in making money that the app will pop-up blazing full-color advertisements, even if it is set to use red. They’re either greedy or stupid—sometimes, it's hard to tell.
Remember the blazing white Courtesy Lights than come on when you open your car doors? If you can’t figure a way to turn them off, go to the dollar store and get some semi-transparent red tape (the sort that says DANGER on it in black ink) and cover them for the evening. Now, when they come on, at least they’ll be dull and relatively harmless to your night vision.
There is nothing like a nice warm pair of gloves, a comfortable hat, and a thermos or hot coffee, tea, or cocoa to make for a pleasant night. Even desert nights can be freezing, but an ordinary hat saves up to 30% of body heat loss because of how our bodies manage energy to keep our brains warm. When you’re not throwing heat off the top of your head like a burning candle, your whole body stays warmer.
It’s gonna be a while…
Bring headphones for an MP3 player to fill the time during long exposures. Yes, you could use your phone for music if you have installed a red filter app. Failing that, MP3 players are now $5; they’re also about the size of a thumb drive nowadays. And the cheap ones only play automatically and don't have a screen to damage your night vision. This is just about the best use for those!
Bring a chaise lounge, a folding chair, or something to sit on. You don't want to be standing all night, and the car is too removed from your equipment, so you can't make quick decisions.
A campfire is not only too bright; it will ruin your pictures by casting off all that flickering light. It might also be illegal where you are. Get yourself a little propane radiative heater… the sort that glows orangey-red, so it doesn’t do much to your night vision.
Skunk Fences are useful. Sometimes you get so absorbed in what you're looking at that you become completely silent. Animals don't like human noises, so they steer clear unless they don't know you're there. Just grab a couple of rolls of this stuff, and you can make a barrier around your site, so you're not surprised by raccoons, skunks, or other unexpected guests. It's better to get white-colored, so you don’t trip over it in the dark…
Hours and hours, far from civilization so you can find Darkness, means that if you have to “go” there might be a problem. Treat it like a camping trip and take a Folding Commode with you! Perfect for kids, so they don't think astronomy isall about "holding it"… they can have fun and enjoy the experience. Just don’t forget the toilet paper! You might want to bring a privacy screen if you have a group or a shy person.
We used to be able to walk out in our backyards and easily see 200 or more stars. That was generally a small enough number that people could remember the names of the more prominent ones. Nowadays the sky has become so bright from civilization’s light pollution that often you can’t see any stars, but if you’re lucky you can pick out about 50.Finding Dark is an excellent way to reconnect with Nature. It is particularly rewarding when you bring new people out, and they see one or two thousand stars all at the same time. When you show them a little patch of seemingly empty sky and then let them look at it through a telescope, they suddenly realize there may several galaxies there, representing more stars in that little patch than they can see in the whole sky with the unaided eye…and that’s a revelation.