The Novice's Guide to Star Party Equipment
Novice amateurs are understandably nervous about attending that first big star party. Usually their most anxious questions revolve around "what do you take?" Carloads of equipment? Enough scopes to stock an astronomy dealer's floor? Some amateurs do. However, while I'm a firm believer in taking everything you might need, as the years go by I've learned that there's such a thing as too much stuff, and that it can be as annoying as too little (just wait 'til your first rained-out star party where you have the pleasure of repacking the tons of gear you didn't get to use). These days I tend toward the relatively light when it comes to packing. But what exactly do you take to a star party? How do you set-up on the field? These things seem like second nature to the old hands, but can be completely baffling for Joe or Jane Novice. Following is my take on equipment and set-up for the average star party. Customize as you see fit.
Some newbies worry about leaving that brand-spanking-new C8 on the field all by itself. Wouldn't it be better to pack it back in the car after finishing observing for the night? Nope. I always leave the scope on the field, even if it's a relatively light and portable C8. That is the only way to fly. I mean, who wants to keep unpacking and setting-up, especially since some star parties can last a week or more? I've never worried about security issues at any non-public star party (that is, a star party for amateur astronomers rather than a "star gaze" for the public).
But let's not put the proverbial cart before the horse. Where does the scope go? When I arrive at a star party, I try to take a good look at the layout of the field despite my excitement and desire to get hopping. If there's a significant tree line, I choose a spot that makes the horizon I'm most interested in, best seen. Location in regards to bathrooms, cabins, etc., is also a consideration. Please note that if you arrive after a major star party is underway, it'll be catch as catch can as far as field position goes! OK, up goes the scope. I almost always set-up the telescope on a plastic tarp. In the middle of the night, you'll often drop small screws and other things that will be lost in grass (or dust in the case of Texas Star Party) never to be seen again. A tarp saves you from this and provides a little insulation from the cold cold ground for your footsies, too. Some people use things like a piece of carpet or Astroturf, which can really keep your feet warmer. I usually just use a cheap vinyl tarp from Big Lots or another "salvage" store. $3.99 means I can throw it away at the end and not have to worry about cleaning off a grass/dew/dirt covered plastic sheet. I stake the tarp down at its four corners with landscaping nails. These are flush with the ground, so you won't keep tripping over them as you would with tent stakes. Bring a hammer to pound them in and remove them when you leave.
I ALWAYS stake down my telescope's tripod with at least three tent stakes. ALWAYS. It's not just advisable for the wide-open spaces out west. I've seen a wind gust come through on a spring day at Georgia's Peach State Star Gaze and send a beautiful C5+ crashing to the ground. Since I'm throwing the tarp out anyway, I don't mind driving stakes through it. If you're a DOB owner, leave the scope as horizontal as it will go and make sure it's free to turn in azimuth-to "weathervane" with the wind. On the scope goes a good Desert Storm style cover that is secured with an elastic cord. This will keep your scope dry in the worst rain and cool in the hottest sun. If you don't have a telescope cover of this type, one can be improvised with garbage bags to keep the scope dry. Cover these with an aluminized "space blanket" (from an outdoors/sporting goods store) to keep things cool, and fasten everything down with bungee cords. If you own a large Dobsonian, an appropriately sized plastic tarp can cover the scope (be sure the scope is still free to turn in azimuth as above, though.
If permitted, I set up a "dining canopy" type tent next to the scope, both to provide shade in the daytime and to furnish a little protection from dew at night. Under the tent goes a table. I don't like the small observing/camping tables that can be rolled up and put in a bag. They are not secure, being made of thin slats, nor large enough. I get one of the large camping tables sold at Wal-Mart and sporting goods discounters. These fold in the middle, are light, reasonably durable and secure, and offer the area of two card tables while weighing less and taking up the same space in the car as one. On the table go eyepiece cases and a red table lamp I made out of a little battery operated Coleman toy lantern. Also under the canopy is an ice chest with cold water (you'll get much less tired while observing if you stay hydrated) for use during observing, and ice (for use with whiskey for afterwards). I also usually have a chair or two with me for use when it's time to take a break. I used to use lawn chairs, but now use those folding camp chairs that store in bags.
Tent. I don't like to tent-camp much anymore, and will stay in a cabin or motel room if at all possible. Maybe I'm just getting' old, but I feel better and more rested that way and am more able to pull all-nighters. In a pinch I might consider a tent again if there's no alternative. My star party tent isn't overly fancy. Its important features are that it's BIG and easy to erect. Actually, the most important characteristic for a tent is not its square-footage, but its height. The closer you can get to standing up, the happier you'll be, especially when dressing/undressing.
Sleeping bag. I use one in lieu of sheets and blankets even when I'm in a cabin. It's easier and more efficient to pack a sleeping bag rather than sheets/blankets. If you're tent camping, be sure to get a sleeping bag that's warm enough, but don't overdo that, either.
Nice pillow. You'll get more rest that way. Don't expect to find ANY pillows in typical camp cabins.
Dew shield, dew zapper, Dew Buster or Kendrick. If you've heretofore observed from the typical tree infested backyard, you've probably not had much of a problem with dew. You're somewhat shielded by the vegetation, which acts as a giant dew cap. You're likely not observing all night, either. If you're east of the Mississippi and own an SCT, MCT, MNT or refractor, you must use a dew heater of some kind, even a 12 volt hair drier (aka "window defroster"), in addition to your telescope's dew shield. If you don't, you'll probably be limited to an hour or less out on an open field under the expansive night sky. I prefer the DewBuster system to anything else I've used: http://dewbuster.com/
Insect repellent. Deep Woods Off for me. The only thing that keeps mosquitoes away reliably is a repellent containing the chemical DEET. You'll hear stories about Skin-so-soft and other alternatives to DEET based repellents. Uh-uh. They simply do not work.
Red flashlight. I like the rectangular red-LED ones. They're adjustable and easy on batteries. Miss Dorothy has one that has blue LEDs as well as red, so she can switch to brighter illumination to walk back to the cabin with once she's off the field. Have a death wish? Start foolin' around with a white flashlight in the middle of a crowded observing field. Even one covered with a red-cellophane filter is probably too bright. Adjustable LED lights are by far the best choice.
Star Atlas. Sky Atlas 2000 is the minimum. Without a good atlas you won't get anywhere. Even if you use a go-to scope, an atlas is very helpful for orienting yourself.
Magnifying glass/reading glasses. If you need 'em don't forget 'em or you'll have a real hard time with charts under a dim red light.
Snacks. Candy and jerky are what I usually pack. A nice snack and a drink of water can, surprisingly, do more to restore you at 2 a.m. than a cup of coffee.
Towels and washcloths. Soap and shampoo, too. You won't find any of these things in most star party camp cabins.
Nylon line. As Sam Gamgee said, "Don't leave home without some rope."
Bungee cords. Ditto.
Knife. I like the big survival knives/bayonets you can buy in flea markets or at gun/knife shows. Your friends will be duly impressed when you pull one out at their request to borrow your "penknife"!
Warm clothes and shoes. Dress in layers and always bring more than you think you'll need. You'll never be colder than you will while observing-even in the middle of the summer. You're standing nearly still out in the middle of an open field in the middle of the night, after all.
Batteries. Bring spares. And make sure that the battery you use to power your scope has sufficient reserves to run it for as long as necessary. Many star parties will have some kind of AC available to recharge in the morning. I often use one of the jump-start batteries from Wal-mart or auto parts stores, as they're light and easy to carry back to the cabin for When I need a lot of power, I'll use a trolling motor (deep cycle marine) battery. Check/charge battery BEFORE you leave home.
Something to read. Bring a few paperbacks in case of clouds or to help you drift off after your observing run.
Ditto a CD player. Some folks like to listen to music while observing, too (not me, usually, not at a star party, anyway. I'm more interested in talking with the people I meet). Earphones only, of course.
Emergency eyepieces. Check and double-check all required items--scope, tripod, battery, counterweights, eyepiece cases. But also do what I do and throw an extra star diagonal and a couple of extra eyepieces in the scope case just in case the eyepiece case does ever stay at home! Otherwise, you'll find yourself paying a vendor 50 bucks for a used 25mm Kellner and be happy to get it.
Duct tape, electrical tape and a small tool kit, ESPECIALLY to include small Allen wrenches. I've lost count of how many times folks have come up to me needing to borrow a small Allen "key."
Logbook, pencils, and notebook of chart printouts if you use any of these things. I've taken to recording my observations with a little Sony Pressman tape recorder. If you use a laptop for charting and telescope control, remember to bring everything you need for it, including interface cables, red gel to preserve night vision and an outboard power supply--a battery, that is, The internal batteries are useless for long hours out in the cold. The most cost efficient way to run a laptop is with a jump-start battery and a good-quality inverter. Make sure you figure out how much power your laptop will need over the course of the evening. If a jump-starter won't get it, look at a deep cycle marine battery.
Camera/camcorder. You'll treasure pictures or videos of your star party outings years from now.
You may find that you don't need everything on this list, or that you want/need a few things I've left off. A couple of star parties under your belt will allow you to fine-tune your packing, but this list will get you going.Published in the September 2006 issue of the NightTimes