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Field Guides: Great Tools for Enhancing Your Outdoor Experience

June 1, 2018

Hikers, campers, kayakers and other outdoor enthusiasts are often eager to learn about the flora and fauna of the places they visit. But, this is often a difficult task to accomplish and few adventurers know where to start. Most people become familiar with local plants and wildlife over the course of many years, not during a week-long trip.

And while it is true that you’re unlikely to become an expert on the trees, insects or mammals of a given region in a few short days, you’d be surprised how much you can learn about the local plants and animals by bringing along a good field guide. Field guides are specifically designed to help you identify unfamiliar plants or animals, and the best ones assume no prior knowledge about the area.

So, we’d encourage you to bring along a good field guide or two for your next trip. We’ll talk about the way field guides work and recommend some of the best options for your next trip below.

How Do Field Guides Work?

Field guides differ in many ways depending on the subject matter and the author who writes them, but most catalog the members of a given group from a given area. They provide information, photographs, illustrations and other types of content that allow the reader to learn the basics of the target subject.

Additionally, field guides typically provide tools that allow the user to distinguish between similar forms. Most do so through the use of dichotomous keys, which require the user to answer a series of binary questions.

For example, if you were using a field guide about trees, you may need to begin by determining whether the tree’s leaves are arranged in alternating or opposite fashion. Then, you’d need to figure out whether the leaves were simple or complex. Eventually, you’ll have answered the questions in a way that leads to a single tree species – hopefully the one in front of you.

Note that while field guides traditionally took the form of a printed book, modern outdoor enthusiasts may prefer to use digital versions instead. While each choice will affect your packing and planning in different ways, either format will work. So, bring whichever type of field guide you like and suits your packing needs best.

Great Field Guides for Hikers and Campers

Field guides cover an amazing diversity of subjects, ranging from living creatures to rocks and minerals. But the seven listed below should offer the most benefit for the average adventurer.

1. Reptiles

In the minds of most, reptiles evoke wonder, as well as a bit of fear. You may see a snake basking on a rock and find it beautiful, while simultaneously wondering if it is dangerous in the back of your mind. A good field guide about reptiles will help you determine whether or not the sunning serpent is dangerous, and it will also help you put a name to the attractive creature, so you can label the ensuing photos correctly.

Note that reptiles are often among the most commonly encountered vertebrates in most terrestrial ecosystems, so a reptile-related field guide will often get more use per mile on the trail than others will. Be sure to select a reptile-oriented field guide that is appropriate for your region, and those that focus on a very small area (such as a given national park or state) typically provide better information than those covering huge areas.

2. Stars

You can see stars on almost any clear night during the year, but you’ve never really enjoyed them properly unless you’ve spent the night gazing skyward while camping dozens of miles from the nearest city. The light pollution caused by street lights, neon signs and sports arenas ruin the view from cities and suburbs, but these things aren’t a problem in most isolated wilderness areas.

Star maps aren’t like most other field guides, but they serve the same basic function: They educate you about part of the natural world (or galaxy, as the case may be). Learning to identify constellations may not have the real-world value that you’ll obtain while learning to recognize local plants or animals, but it can be a very rewarding experience and help you connect with others who’ve gazed up at the same stars throughout human history.

3. Birds

Birds are typically some of the most obvious and visible components of the ecosystems in which they dwell, and they are often quite fun to watch, photograph and identify. In fact, millions of people around the world enjoy watching and identifying birds, as they complete life lists that tally every species they’ve had the chance to observe.

Note that birds present a few unique challenges for those attempting to identify and observe them. For starters, you’ll often need to use binoculars or other visual aids to help appreciate the fine details of their plumage. Additionally, birds exhibit different plumages that vary with both the season and the life stage. Accordingly, bird watching is an activity that takes some practice to master, but you’ll certainly have great fun while you practice.

4. Insects

If you want to get the most use possible out of a field guide, pick up one covering the insects of your destination. Insects exhibit more diversity than just about any other group of species on the planet — the United States alone is home to an estimated 90,000 species – so you’ll never have a shortage of subjects to investigate.

When using a field guide to identify insects, you’ll typically want to start by noting the insect’s general body shape and then turning to the corresponding section of the guide. From there, you’ll follow a simplified dichotomous key based on things like color, size and other characteristics. Note that most field guides only attempt to identify insects down to the genus level, as the individual species are often difficult for experts to distinguish.

5. Trees

The trees of a given area typically serve as the backdrop for the region. Chances are, when you are back home, reminiscing about your adventure, the forests and trees you encountered will figure heavily into your memories. Accordingly, it can be very rewarding to learn to identify these trees, so you can put names to the mental images.

One of the nice things about learning to identify trees is that there are usually only a few dozen species in most areas, and many areas are only home to a handful of species. This can make it much easier to learn the trees of a given region, as opposed to incredibly numerous groups, such as insects or birds.

6. Non-Woody Plants

Non-woody plants can be challenging for many novices to identify by using a field guide, but it is well worth the effort to do so. Those who become familiar with local non-woody plants (which generally refers to shrubs, herbs and grasses, rather than trees and vines) often learn a lot about the ecosystem as a whole.

For example, many of these non-woody plants form important dietary staples for the local wildlife. You may even be able to identify edible varieties you can enjoy on the trail. Also, some non-woody plants can represent hazards, which you’ll be wise to avoid. A good field guide can help you learn about all of these things and more.

7. Tracks and Other Signs

Many people flock to the great outdoors in hope of seeing deer, bears or other large and charismatic wildlife species. But while such encounters aren’t unheard of, they are not as common as many would like. But, while it may be rare to share the same space and time with one of these iconic wilderness inhabitants, you can almost always find signs that they’ve passed through the area.

These signs take the form of tracks, shed anatomical structures (skins, antlers, exoskeletons, etc.) or scat, and many field guides provide information about all three. It can be tricky to learn to identify tracks and other signs, but once you learn to recognize some of the subtle features they exhibit, you’ll be surprised to learn how much information can be inferred from them.

Don’t wait until you are on the trail to start using your field guide. Try practicing with it at home a bit, if you live in a region similar to the one covered by the book. If nothing else, you can search online for images of frogs, trees or birds, and then use the field guide to try to identify the species in question. Field guides and dichotomous keys can be tricky to use at first, but with practice, you’ll find them easier and incredibly helpful.

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    June 27, 2018 at 2:50 am

    I never really considered bringing a field guide when hiking but after knowing how useful it is, I’ll definitely check one out in my local outdoor supply shop. Thank you for sharing! ^ Eric