Simplicity: Basic Equipment for the Naturalist

Equipment: Field bags – cloth on the left, nylon on the right.

You don’t need expensive equipment to go out and enjoy the outdoors. Choose just a few basic items and you’re set for years to come.

Each time I go out into the field, the same wisdom is reinforced over and over. Namely, I have learned the hard way after years of nature walks, but it bears repeating, keep it simple.

I work hard to take just a few things with me. The most useful items are my five senses, a notepad, binoculars and a hand lens. Much more than this and the bag is too heavy and awkward. And I spend every few moments adjusting or re-positioning something.

This list reflection of my 40+ years of nature study. Nature study can be practiced anywhere and with simple, basic equipment.

What is a Naturalist? (journal prompt)

What Do You Want to Do on Your Nature Walk?

At the end of your nature walk, hike, or exploration, what do you want to have seen or done? Specifically, will you focus on birds? Butterflies? Or will you focus or experiences of the senses. Is forest bathing your goal?

Consequently, what you want to do decides what you take with you. Even if you just want to take a walk, there are a few things I would suggest.

I carry my ID, medical cards, whistle, emergency contact, and a lightweight multi-hiking tool, and water. Ad if you need them, an epipen and an inhaler. These items are lightweight and can fit into a pouch.

To illustrate, while on the Christmas Bird Count, my small team decided to bushwhack through tangled thickets. The trails had disappeared under plant growth. Bushwhacking, forcing your way through plant growth where no path exists, way the only way through.

As we carefully made our way down a steep hill, I was glad I had my bright orange whistle. What if we fell and broke our legs? I could blow the whistle to signal where we were. We could also call for help on our cell phones. But cell phone can’t always get a signal.

Really, the items above are basic safety items. Now to the naturalist gear.

My nature journal and field notepad.
My nature journal and field notebook.

Equipment No. 1: A Notebook for Remembering

Previously, I have spoken about the important of a field notebook before. A simple notebook keeps notes of what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard and what I did. It costs less than a dollar. Nothing fancy.

Mainly, I use my Moleskin notepad as my field notebook. I have one notepad for everything from grocery lists to bird sightings.
Furthermore, if you wanted to get into the habit of keeping scientifically useful notes, my post on the field notebook lays out the Grinnell method.

I wrote a book on keeping a Grinnell Scientific Nature Journal.

However, I don’t take my nature journal into the field unless I will be drawing in the book. I sometimes take a drawing pad to draw on. I remove the drawing from the pad and tape it into my journal.

In fact, my journal has lines because I am primarily write instead of draw. But someone who draws or paints could have a journal with blank pages for drawing.

The next two items are for seeing near and far.

My collection of hand lens including a triple-lens, a Coddington and a Hastings Triplett.
My collection of hand lens including a triple-lens, a Coddington and a Hastings Triplett.

Equipment No. 2: Hand Lenses for Seeing Small Things Closeup

My little hand lens is close to ten years old. I got my lighted hand lens as a gift. And I love it. It uses four tiny watch batteries, one stacked on top of the other.

By holding the side with the light on the object, I can see the smallest details. In addition, I have a bright red string to help located it if it falls into the grass.

Hand lens are small magnifiers with thick powerful lens. They are for various tasks. They are used for examining minerals and rocks, stamps, coins, etc Jewelers cal them ‘jeweler’s loupes’. Naturalists call the same items ‘hand lens’.

You can buy hand lens from online mega stores, hobby suppliers or scientific suppliers. To help with choosing a hand lens, I have written about the different types of hand lens in the Choosing a Hand Lens article.

Naturalist equipment: A good mid-priced set of binoculars.

Equipment No. 3: Binoculars for Seeing Things Far Away

Fundamentally, I am of the mindset to buy good quality items once and take care of them. My Toyota is fourteen years old. This philosophy extends to my binoculars.

I keep a modestly priced pair of binoculars in my car for emergency bird sightings. In addition, I have a top quality pair of binoculars for birding trips, bird counts, and bird watching at my backyard feeders. I wrote a post on choosing binoculars.

Above all else, when buying binoculars price does reflect quality. I have yet to look through a pair of low-priced binoculars that come close to the sharp image and clarity of a pair of top-of-the-line Zeiss binoculars.

But, mid-priced binoculars still get the job done. A good resource for choosing binoculars is I have never purchased binoculars from them. Their website has reviews and a wide selection.

If you have purchased from, tell me about your experience in the comments below.

Naturalist equipment: My sturdy Zeiss binoculars, 7x42s

My top-of-the-line binoculars came from B&H Opticals. They were the first thing I saved for when I got my first job out of grad school.


my Canon PowerShot S3 camera
my Canon PowerShot S3 camera

Equipment No. 4: A Camera for Capturing the Moment

Similarly, I have a good-quality old (2006) Canon Powershot S3 camera. It has a built-in zoom, macro-focus, and closeup functions. It works for what I do with it.

My camera is not too expensive but full of features. I use a larger camera than I used to carry. I found I needed a zoom to take photos of birds and butterflies.

See also Photographing butterflies

Best Books for Nature Journaling Keeping and Drawing

A selection of field guides

Equipment No. 5: Field Guide to Identify What You See

I want to keep my field bag lightweight. Consequently, I don’t carry heavy, clunky field guides with me. I like to carry laminated fold-out cards or pocket-sized guides. There are many to choose from on various topics. There are guides that are focused on a region or even a city.

You can choose from trees, wildflowers, birds, butterflies, mammals, etc. You can find these fold-outs in environmental center shops, bookstores, and online retailers.

With all this in mind, you don’t need much of stuff to enjoy and learn from nature and the natural world. I would buy the best quality lens (hand lens, cameras, and binoculars) you can afford at the time. You can always upgrade later.

Choosing a Field Guide 

Equipment No.6: Good Field Bag is Hard to Find

A cloth bag is better than a nylon one. Each time I used a nylon field bag, at least one seam on the bag ripped. Usually an inside pocket that was torn when I put something in the bag. When I tried to sew the seam, it always torn again. Cloth bag can be more easily repaired.

Bags with light-colored interiors are better for locating small items (like hand lens). Dark interior bags ‘hide’ whatever you are looking for. A light-colored cloth bag should be able to be cleaned or washed.

Beware of things on the bag that rattle or make clanging noises. You might have to apply tape that deadens the sound. Or take the offending piece off. I have had metal buckles rattle and alert whatever warbler I was trying to see.

Field bags can be found at many outdoor clothing and equipment suppliers. I have bought field bags form L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, Patagonia, and REI. I have cloth bag from L. L. Bean I am sticking with. It also makes a get everyday bag.

My field kit - mid-priced binoculars, field bag, small camers, notepad, field guides.
My field kit – mid-priced binoculars, field bag, small camera, notepad, field guides.


Equipment No.7: Poison Ivy Prevention

I’ve used the Tecnu poison ivy and poison oak rash prevention lotion for over ten years. I haven’t developed poison ivy even though I’ve been exposed. It’s worked for me. There are other brands that work just as well. Click the image to go to the Amazoncom page.

Final Words: Keep It Simple

In conclusion, resist the endless stream of junk we have pushed at us from every angle. Keep it simple and explore, not rack up stuff and debt.

And don’t forget secondhand. Binoculars and cameras can be bought used from eBay, pawn shops, thrift shops, and from people you know.

If you have any thought or equipment recommendations, let me know in the comments below.


More Information on Naturalist Equipment

Buy Hand Lens and binoculars in my Naturalist’s Shop

The Nature Journal

Choosing a Hand Lens for Nature Study

Choosing Binoculars for Nature Study

Choosing a Field Guide (with Videos)

Best Books for Nature Journaling Keeping and Drawing

Basic Information on Keeping a Nature Journal: A List of Posts

Nature Almanacs and Calendars for 2023



    • Hi, Marian
      You are more than welcome.
      Yeah, I took way too much, too. I always thought the other birders or hikers were wondering what was wrong with me.

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