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Packing for a Night Photography or Star Gazing Trip

Boulder lit by star light in Joshua Tree National Park

Heading out for a trip or shoot always require preparation. But night photography and star gazing, especially in cold weather, requires additional planning and foresight. After my recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park to photograph the night sky and the Leonid Meteor Shower, I decided to write down some tips to share.

1. Check the weather. Photographing stars and meteors require a clear view of the sky. Before you head out, make sure you have favorable skies. A forecast calling for thunderstorms may not make for a fun night. Of course, check the hour by hour forecast break down to see if there’s any hope that clouds may disappear. Even in Southern California, you can’t always expect favorable conditions. Especially in the winter and spring, overcast skies and wet weather are possible.

2. Dress Appropriately. In a high desert environment like Joshua Tree, it may be hot during the day but the temperature can plummet to near freezing at night. Also, you will become more sensitive to the cold temperatures as you become more sleepy, tired and/or hungry. Make sure you bring more than enough warm clothes and gear with you. If you’re too warm you can always take stuff off later. Dress in layers. Bring a warm hat or hoodie. Cozy up in a warm sleeping bag (you can get in a sleeping bag and either lie down on the ground or sit in a lounge chair). Pack some hand and feet warmers that skiers and snowboarders use. They last 5-6 hours or more — enough for a night out. I did not dress enough for my trip and by the middle of the night I was shivering and making constant trips to my car to warm up.

3. Pack snacks and food. You don’t want to go hungry. I usually pack lots of energy bars, dried fruits, nuts, jerky and cookies. A thermos full of hot water/tea/coffee/cocoa will help keep you warm. I also bring my trusty MSR Pocket Rocket, small portable burner, plus a pot, in case I want to cook something — heating up some hot soup or replenishing my hot tea.

4. Lights. In Joshua Tree, it gets dark. Real dark. I swear by my Black Diamond Spot Headlamp these days. It’s bright, hands-free and lasts 120+ hours on a fresh set of batteries. I also carry a Rayovac 300 lumens LED Lantern. It’s the brightest small lantern I could find and it lasts 72 hours on max setting. I’ve used other lanterns  but none were sufficiently bright enough to light up my campground like this one. To maintain your night vision, I highly recommend modifying your lights red. There are flash lights out there that have red LED bulbs or filters. I just went to Office Depot, bought a red transparent folder, cut it up into blocks and taped them over my lights. Cheap MacGyver solution.

5. Bring a lounge chair or ground pad. With each shot taking upwards of 30 minutes to an hour or more, you want to stay comfortable while you are waiting for your shot to finish. Bring a cushioned ground pad if you want to just lie down and stare up at the sky. Not all ground pads are the same. Get one with a thick cushioning that also insulates you from the cold ground. The Therm-a-Rest Luxury Camp is a bit expensive but it’s awesome. I don’t recommend air mattresses as they have little insulation value and your back will get cold quickly. Another option is to bring a lounge chair to sit and chill.

6. Get some sleep before hand. I highly recommend sleeping before your trip or getting there ahead of time so you can sleep before heading out to your site. This way, you’ll be alert, awake and feeling energized most of the night.

7. Remember your emergency and backup supplies for worst case scenarios. Freak storms, car problems, injuries, etc. You don’t want them to happen but you should prepare for them. For me this includes:

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