Friday, August 11, 2006


Uncle Rod, What Am I Supposed to Bring to a Star Party?

Glad you asked, muchachos. The 2006 Fall Star Party Season will be here before we know it, and a lot of new star partiers are no doubt concerned/confused about exactly what and how much stuff they should pack. And I'm sure y'all are ready for a change of subject and are for sure tired of hearing me pick, pick, pick at poor old Meade.

When I'm going to be at a star party for several days as opposed to a single evening at a club dark site, I bring the following (well, some of it depending on the circumstances) in addition to scope, mount, eyepieces, dew-shield, DewBuster, laptop, cameras, battery, red flashlight, star atlas, etc.

Sufficient, suitable clothes and all the personal hygiene items needed for the length of the event. If it is likely to be cold, dress in layers. Pay particular attention to head and feet. Spreading a carpet square on the ground next to the scope will keep the footsies insulated from the cold, cold ground and will help a lot. The personal hygiene part of the equation should include vital things that are rarely furnished at a star party--like towels and soap. You might want to bring a roll of TP, too.

Desert storm type cover for the scope. Quite a few novices ask me if I take down my scope and put it in its case/the car every night at a star party. I give them my best "Are you kidding?" look and advise them to get a good scope cover that will protect the instrument from rain and sun.

Line/tent stakes to stake down the tripod if there is any chance--any--of high winds or thunderstorms. Staking down the tripod might not be a concern in most places, but at some, like the Texas Star Party at Prude ranch, it is a must.

Tent canopy (aka "EZ Up"). If these are allowed on the field, they are a godsend. Even in fairly northerly climes the sun can be brutal, even in the fall. One will also give you a place you can duck into to get out of the dew at night, and, if you're an imager, where you can sit comfortable and dry at the computer.

A canopy is a must for both sunny days and dewy nights.
Tent. I tend to eschew tents as I get older, but I will still sleep in one if there is absolutely no alternative; no accommodations onsite or nearby (my idea of "roughing it" is now the Holiday Inn Express in Chiefland, FL). If a tent it must be, err on the side of "too big" rather than "too small." You'll be much happier. The important thing in my experience is not so much floor space as height. If you can't stand up straight in a tent when changing clothes, etc., you are not gonna be a happy camper. I'd say "choose a tent that's easy to erect," but, luckily, most tents are pretty easy to set up these days.

Sleeping bags. Even if there are cabins and bunks onsite, I bring a sleeping bag. Much easier than messing with sheets and blankets. Make sure the bag you bring is suited for the temperature conditions you will face. If it's warm, don't bring a bag suited for sub-zero temps and vice-versa. And don't forget pillows for your poor noggin.

Ice chest and plenty of bottled water and whatever other beverages you may require (ahem). Always have plenty of water available, and don't forget to drink some occasionally while observing. If you get dehydrated, you WILL get tired. For that reason and others, save the RebelYell for dawn. Oh, and plenty of ice (unless it's available onsite).

Binoculars. I rarely use 'em on a club dark site evening, but I always wind up using them at a star party. Usually a pair of nice Canon 12x35s for Dorothy and some humble Burgess 15x70s for me. If you're an astrophotographer, what are you gonna do while the 2-hour imaging sequence is underway? You'll get tired of wandering the field.

Emergency eyepieces. I squirrel away a few "OK" oculars in the scope case just in case I ever forget the eyepiece case (was that too many "cases"?). Forget to bring any eyepieces and you'll be at the mercy of a vendor who will be only too glad to sell you a 25mm Kellner for fifty bucks.

Snacks for late-night consumption. I favor jerky and chocolate these days. Take a break at mid evening, eat a little, drink a cup of coffee, and stretch your legs with a ramble around the field. Do this every hour or so and you'll be surprised how easy it is to keep goin' till dawn.

A jump start battery is adequate for most goto scopes.
Plastic or paper cups.

Trash bags.

Paper towels.

A tool set, to include small hex wrenches (and, certainly, a hammer). Since most of us are using plenty of electronics on the field now, a multimeter, a soldering iron, solder, and a few other electronic maintenance items should go in your star party tool kit, too.

Tie wraps and bungie cords. These have innumerable uses on the observing field day and night.

A plastic tarp or two always come in handy. For one thing,  I sometimes like to set the scope up on a tarp. If I drop wee little things in the night they do not become lost in the grass. Bring some landscaping nails to stake down the tarp at its corners (tent stakes will stick up above the ground and you will be tripping over them all night long.

Coleman stove and coffee maker. Even if meals are available onsite or close at hand offsite, I sometimes bring a modern electrically lighted two-burner Coleman. If nothing else, one of the Coleman Mr. Coffee style makers that fits over the stove means you can make a thermos or two of fresh coffee at sundown (unless you can shield it, you do not want to fire up the Coleman after dark...the burners put out a surprising amount of light).

Camp/lawn chairs. I favor the folding canvas chairs that go in bags. I do bring one lawn-style chaise lounge, as both Miss Dorothy and I like to use that with binoculars.

Entertainment stuff (for use when it's cloudy or during the day). Books/magazines, etc. I also usually bring some DVDs that can be played on the laptop. I often bring a CD player/MP3 player to listen to while observing. Sometimes I use it; sometimes I don't. I don't usually listen to music early in the evening—I prefer to talk to my fellow observers, or just listen to the ambient nature sounds. Late in the evening as the field thins out, however, listening to CDs seems to help me keep going.

Batteries. Even if there is supposedly power on the field, I always bring plenty of 12v batteries The batteries you need will depend on what your equipment needs. I usually bring two automotive jump start packs. This has allowed me to operate normally when the field AC power was unavailable for some reason. Also, don't forget AAs, AAAs, etc. to serve as replacement batteries for flashlights, radios, etc.

DC-AC inverter. If there's the possibility you might have to run your computer off battery power and you don't have a 12vdc cord for the laptop, pack a good inverter (I have one of the little inverters from Harbor Freight that plugs directly into the cigarette lighter socket on a jump starter). Forget getting much time out of the laptop's onboard battery, especially if you're using a USB camera that needs power from the PC.

A good battery charger. If you're using something other than jump start packs (which come with charging cords) like a deep cycle marine battery, don't forget a good battery charger. I favor one of the heavy-duty computerized quick-charge jobs. They are surprisingly affordable.

An enclosure will keep your computer warm and dry.
Flashlights, at least one red one and one white one (or a red LED light that can be switched over to blue/white LEDs at the touch of a button). That will come in handy when you are off the field and walking back to the cabin or vehicle.

A long extension cord(s) and a multi receptacle power strip or similar. Make sure you bring enough cords to reach the field outlets. If you don't know how long the run will have to be, bring more extension cords than you think you will need.

Space heater. If it's toward the end of the season and I know I'll be staying in a drafty cabin, I bring a small, safe heater. I like the catalytic heaters sold by Coleman and others. As long as there is a little ventilation, they are quite safe. If I want comfort on the observing field, I'll tie-wrap tarps to my EZ Up to form walls and station my Black Cat heater at my feet.

Hand warmers. If we're moving into November and I think it's gonna be chilly, I bring some chemical handwarmer packs in addition to coats, gloves, etc.

Observing table. I usually use one of those folding camp tables, one that folds in the middle and is the size of two card tables (or larger). However, a card table can also work if you don't have much stuff.

Shield/enclosure for the laptop to keep dew off, keep the computer warm on cold nights,  and shield the screen (suitably red filtered, natch) from other observers' eyes. I made my own using Velcro and the plastic sign material (corrugated stuff) politicians use for their yard signs. A web site will turn up vendors of the material, and you can even choose among various colors.

Do I bring this much stuff all the time? No. If I'm flying in to speak at a star party, I just bring myself and maybe a pair of binocs. For a day or twoer, maybe half this much stuff. For a multi day affair (e.g. the Deep South Regional Star Gaze or Texas Star Party if I ever get back there), yes, all of it.

In recent times I've tended to reduce/minimize. A C8 on a GEM instead of a larger/fork mount scope. Small, disposable Styrofoam ice chest, no stove and coffee maker if there's decent coffee on site or a Micky D's in range, etc., etc. You should have seen what some buddies of mine and I took to the 1997 TSP (we rented the largest Ryder truck available), only to be mostly rained out. But back then I was young(er) and decidedly more foolish.

At any rate, keep a sense of perspective. You'll have to pack all that stuff back in your vehicle when the star party is over, and most of us want to make as quick a getaway as possible when the event is done. Anyhow, happy star partying!

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Thanks Rod, this info. is very helpful.

Great blog.

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