Packing List for Observing Mini-Expeditions

These are my recommendations for having a successful mini-expedition to the mountains or desert to observe the night sky for one or two nights.  

Note:  I am a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) member so I carry items that are specific to CERT that may not be necessary in your case.  However, the items in my CERT backpack are great for general emergency use if necessary.

What I keep in my 4Runner:

Front of vehicle
  • Multi tool
  • Flashlight
  • Ham Radio
  • Chargers
  • Water bottles
  • Paper map
    Middle of vehicle
    • Tow strap
    • Power converter
    • Bungee cords
    • Water bottles
      Rear of vehicle
      • Snow/Mud chains
      • Ratchet tie downs
      • Shovel
      • Black cat heater
      • Propane canisters
      • Titanium cook set
      • Engine oil
      • Antifreeze

        CERT backpack
        • Safety helmet
        • Headlamp
        • Safety vest
        • Safety goggles
        • Safety mask
        • Leather work gloves
        • Non-latex gloves
        • Triage tape
        • Duct tape
        • Masking tape
        • Hammer
        • Pry bar
        • Vice grips
        • Utility knife
        • Scissors
        • First aid kit
        • Emergency blankets
        • Whistle
        • Compass
        • Extra carabiners

          Clothing to pack

          Observing the night sky means a lot of prolonged standing at night, in potentially cold and windy weather.  You need to pack clothing that range from light layers for desert heat, all the way down to heavy winter clothing for the middle of the night.

          Day Wear (primarily for desert)
          • Hiking pants with zipper pockets
          • Long sleeve shirt (prevents sunburn)
          • Any hat for sun protection
          Night Wear
          • Smart Wool bottoms
          • Smart Wool long sleeve top
          • Smart Wool neck gaiter - can pull up over nose for face protection in wind
          • Smart Wool hiking socks
          • Winter parka
          • Gloves or mittens
          • Mad Bomber rabbit fur hat - full protections for head, neck and ears
          • Warm boots are essential.  If your feet get cold in the middle of the night you won't enjoy the night sky.  During the day you can wear lighter shoes, but at night make sure you have sturdy and warm hiking boots.
          • If you wear sandals you will get sunburned feet.  If you wear socks and sandals, please stop.

          Although it might seem odd, the best thing to do is to sleep in your underwear.  This is because your body heat will warm up your sleeping bag.  If you wear pajamas, your body heat will heat up the inside of your pajamas and not your sleeping bag.

          You can climb into your sleeping bag and get down to your underwear, then keep your pants and socks in your sleeping bag overnight to keep them warm when you wake up and put them on.  I learned this from the Army, and it simply works.  


          In the mountains or in the desert you may be faced with high winds.  I highly recommend a low profile tent that will reduce the risk of blowing over, being damaged, or nearly impossible to set up.

          My own personal tent is a Hilleberg Nammatj 2.  This is an expedition-grade tent, but you don't necessarily need something this expensive.

          The main thing to consider for a tent is that it has a low profile.  Tall tents that you can stand up in are nice, but can be challenging to set up in large open areas where we like to stargaze.

          Many tents don't come with proper tent stakes so you may need to buy a set.  You need tent stakes that look like large metal spikes or nails.  The cheap plastic tent stakes that many tents come with will not work in most terrain other than soft dirt/grass like at traditional campgrounds.

          You will be doing a lot of siting around waiting for the Sun to set.  Be sure that everyone in your group has a chair to relax on.  If it reclines your guests can lay back and enjoy the stars without a telescope, and even take a nap if they like.

          Sleeping Bag

          Any sleeping bag is probably okay, but you want something that is rated for 0 - 20 F because the mountains and deserts can get very cold at night.  If it's not rated this low, just pack a few extra blankets to keep warm.


          When we observe the night sky we never use white light because it will damage your night vision. We only use red light.  There are many different red flashlights on the market, and even dedicated astronomy flashlights.  You want to have a regular white flashlight for emergency use, or when no observing is taking place, and can simply use a filter such as a brown paper bag cut-out and rubber band to dim your flashlight if necessary.

          Example astronomy flashlight: Celestron Astro Night Vision Flashlight

          Topics coming soon:


          The main thing to consider is that you never want to start a campfire when you are at a star party because ash from the fire can float in the air and potentially damage your optics.  Only bring a camping stove or BBQ grill that runs on propane or other camping gas.

          Without electricity you are limited to using coolers.  This means several different things.  Like traditional camping, you have to pack your food in a cooler with ice.   We like to go to extreme places to see the night sky which means it might get really really hot during the day making your ice melt a lot faster than if you were at a regular campground. 

          I generally don't pack food that requires a cooler for this reason.  It makes for a somewhat less enjoyable eating experience, but there is a lot of food out there you can pick that is just fine for 1-2 nights under the stars without worrying about something going bad in the heat.

          One of my routines is to grab a Subway sandwich enroute to my destination to have for dinner.  Specifically the Italian BMT which does well in the cooler until dinner.  lol


          A lot of places have no running water.  Even if it does have water, I pack enough water for myself and my vehicle in case of emergency.  I always end up with too much water but that's better than running out of water, or only having enough for you and not your radiator if something goes wrong.


          This is a personal choice as to how you want to factor in personal protection.  In some places, you may be with hundreds of other astronomers and never have a problem.  Sometimes you might be alone on a mountain and hear animals in the dark and wish you weren't there. 

          How you protect yourself and/or your family is up to you of course.  In many areas you could be hours from help, or right around the corner from help.

          First Aid

          You should always have a well stocked first aid kit in your vehicle, so this is easy to take care of if you do.  If you don't keep one in your vehicle then you should at least buy a basic kit and keep it your vehicle at all times.  You will eventually learn how to customize it to your style over time.  For example, better bandages, snake bite kit, bug spray, fingernail clippers, etc.  All you have to do is go stargazing once in a remote location to realize you left something at home and wish you had it.


          Many places have no bathrooms.  Some places have honey buckets.  Other places have camping toilets etc.  At a minimum make sure you have plenty of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and Clorox wipes.

          You could go as far as packing a portable 5 gallon bucket style toilet kit for emergency use, but if you plan your route and hit towns along the way you should be fine.   What you want to be careful of is getting stuck in traffic for hours trying to get home and realizing there are now rest areas to use etc. 

          That's when a privacy shelter and 5 gallon bucket toilet kit are a lifesaver.  The privacy shelter can also be used for changing clothes in or even taking a shower.

          At a minimum pack a small toiletries kit with the same stuff you would take camping. 

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