What to Wear and Bring While Birding
September 8, 2021
By Bird Watcher’s Digest Staff
We live in the golden age of “stuff.” There’s more stuff available for our lives these days than ever before! We spend a great deal of time shopping for stuff, organizing it, then trying to decide what stuff to keep and what to discard. Some stuff is really useful, while other stuff sits in basements and closets for years collecting dust. Some stuff we cannot live without, while other stuff seems important when we buy it, but after a while we realize that we don’t really need it after all.
Anytime we begin a new hobby we begin researching the new stuff we’ll need for maximum enjoyment. Bird watching offers a plethora of “stuff” to be sure, but after years of experience, we’ve learned that some things are far more essential than others. The best thing about being a bird watcher is that it’s a relatively inexpensive hobby compared to many others. In fact, you probably already have most of the things you’ll need to get started!
Here are 10 things that experienced birders feel are “must-haves” for every bird watcher. These are the most important things you’ll need while birding, and you can modify these items to suit different climates, environments, and outings.
This is the most important tool you’ll need for birding. There are lots of options out there, and an entire industry surrounding birding optics! If you’re buying new binoculars, we recommend you do two things. First, buy the best binoculars you can afford. Secondly, we recommend you get 8x32 or 8x42 binoculars (yes, they come in sizes and magnifications!). This magnification size will suit most all birding habitats and is a great size to use when getting started.
A birding field guide.
Field guides are essential in helping you learn and identify birds. A field guide can either be an actual book you carry with you, or an app for your smartphone or tablet. Some of our favorites are Sibley Birds East, Sibley Birds West, National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, The New Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region, The New Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Western Region, The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, The Kaufmann Field Guide to the Birds of North America, The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, The Crossley ID Guide: Western Birds, Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America, and Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. Most of these can be purchased wherever books are sold. Our favorite digital apps that are also field guides are Sibley Birds and iBird Pro Guide to Birds. These can be purchased in your phone’s app store.You can either makes notes directly in your field guide or phone app, or carry a small notebook and pen with you to record sightings.
Hiking shoes or boots.
If you’re birding in your local park with paved paths and walkways, tennis shoes will do just fine. However, you will often need to walk in areas where the ground may be uneven, slippery, wet, or muddy. A good pair of hiking shoes or boots is essential for birders who are sure to pursue birds found off the beaten path! Check out your local outdoor gear store and find a pair that is comfortable, offers good ankle support, and has excellent tread.
A birding hat.
Not everyone is a “hat person,” but a good birding hat is an essential part of every birder’s wardrobe. A hat can protect you from rain, wind, insects, and glaring sun. Many birders wear Tilly hats, a style that is quite flexible with a three-inch-wide brim around it. Some Tilly hats even have optional mosquito netting attached to them that can be used only when needed. Other folks simply wear baseball caps while birding. Whether you want to go full bird-nerd or keep it simple, find a hat that suits your style and offers the protection you need. Make sure you have it with you every time you go birding.
Obviously if you’re birding in a cold climate you will choose to wear a warm coat, gloves, shoes, and hat. But birders know a few tricks about choosing appropriate outerwear for both cold and warm weather. When it’s cold, layer up under your winter coat with a T-shirt, thermal shirt, and sweater under your coat. You can always remove layers if you get too warm, but there’s nothing worse than being too cold on an all-day birding outing. Make sure your winter coat is also water resistant, if possible. A wool coat is not the best choice in cold rain, and an insulated rain jacket over layers will serve you better. If it’s warm and humid, find a lightweight rain jacket that folds into a small bag and can be carried in your backpack. A good rain jacket is essential even when it’s hot and humid. Avoid bright colors! Unlike dogs, birds have great color vision, and you’ll be more likely to get closer to birds if they don’t notice you.
As a compliment to #3 above, we recommend wool socks in all seasons for birders. Wool socks keep your feet cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather. Many brands offer permethrin-infused socks—an insect repellant chemically similar to chrysanthemum-based pyrethrin—and help keep ticks and other biting insects at bay. The absolute worst thing that can happen while birding is getting blisters on your feet, so having a good pair of wool socks can protect your feet from blisters, insects, and all the dangers of the great outdoors.
A refillable water bottle.
Whether it’s hot, cold, or perfectly mild outside, staying hydrated is essential. Always, always, always bring a full water bottle with you when birding. You can keep it in your car or backpack, but make sure you stay hydrated throughout the day. Remember, high altitudes dehydrate you quickly, so don’t forget that water bottle!
Yes, this is our favorite item on the list. Pack whatever snacks you love best and bring snacks that can take the heat and travel well. Things that will melt, become sour, or need to be refrigerated are not recommended, so consider the conditions and temperatures you’ll experience during your outing. We do recommend that, alongside the yummy treats, you include snacks with some substance, such as protein bars, granola bars, string cheese, or peanut butter and crackers. Like most birders, you might find that snacks taste even better while birding!
Insect repellant, Band-Aids, wet wipes, and remote phone charger
These are “as-needed” items, but it’s a good idea to bring these things with you when you’re in the field all day. We recommend keeping them in a daypack or satchel, so they’ll be there when you need them. Experienced birders keep these items with them at all times because you never know when you may need them.
An appropriate tote.
Handbags, duffel bags, and gym bags are tolerable when birding, but a good hiking daypack or satchel is a bird watcher’s best friend. You can carry your binoculars, water bottle, rain jacket, field guide, hat, snacks, and #9 items (above) in a small-to-medium-sized pack that won’t be too heavy or cumbersome for you to carry along with your binoculars or camera. Most birders keep their tote packed with all these items, then refresh them with a newly filled water bottle and snacks each day.
We would like to add one final bonus item to this list: Your positive attitude! Be sure and carry that with you everywhere you go. It’s essential, both on and off the birding trail. Even if you accidentally forget something on this list, your positive attitude will make up for it in the end. If you have a positive attitude along with items 1–10, you’ll have everything you’ll ever need for a lifetime of successful birding adventures!