Life Hacks for naturalists

Yeah… go to trails where you have already photographed almost everything. That way, you will only stop when you see something new.

I don’t really understand this pervasive fear of solo hiking. Almost all of my hikes are solo, and I find it a lot less aggravating than hiking with other people.


I also prefer to hike alone, or in silence with a good friend. But the consequences of getting injured – or assaulted – when alone are far too high for my liking, even if the chances anything will happen are low.
When I do hike alone, I make sure someone knows where I am and when I epect to return.


This is a “You’re seriously into iNat when…” type situation :laughing:


I haven’t tried this yet and I’m not sure if this has been explicitly mentioned, but one can bring clear containers to hold single insects and other invertebrates in, to facilitate photographing of the ventral side, for identification purposes out in the field. And then once you have your photo, you can just let the specimen go.


I regularly bring a clear plastic container with me when out iNatting for precisely this reason.

The container I use has a white underside to the lid, which works nicely as a neutral background for photographs. In some cases I’ve been able to collect flies and other active insects from clumps of vegetation, gently turn the container upside-down, and photograph an individual from a more comfortable position before returning it where it was found.


Where does one get such an optically clear container? Likely somewhere obvious but I am impressed at how “true” the image is.

Sorry, it looks like I forgot to include the step “remove the jar from the lid”. :no_mouth:


Sea Colander hack

This a variation of the technique used to make the night light hack previously mentioned. The purpose of this is to use a transparent adjustable rigid scoop for collecting aquatic specimens.

I have used a large wide mouthed plastic former Cashew container, some indispensable zap strap/cable tie/zip ties, and two 1/2 inch PVC pipe 5ft. lengths with appropriate holes drilled in the end across the width of the pipe. Small holes are drilled into the top 2/3 of the container so that water can flow through but leave some depth in the bottom while the subject is being transferred to a holding tank. Consideration should be given for delicate filamentous subject that may be just as easily collected with the holding tank.

So far I have been able to collect crab, shrimp, fish, amphipod, ctenophore, hydrozoan, salp, siphonophore, and nudibranch. After a brief stay in the holding tank for observation and collecting images, the subjects were gently released back where they were collected.

It is helpful if the holding tank has handles. A blue dry bag is placed under the holding tank as the image of a subject over top of the dry wood grain of a dock is somewhat distracting and disorienting.


I prefer to do my nature hikes and photography alone since a companion often unintentionally distracts me and my photos are usually poorer … even if the companion is a fellow naturalist. But then again, sometimes they’ll spot something that I would’ve missed.

I certainly recognize that feeling comfortable when out alone is a luxury that sadly not everyone has. I’m pretty big and perhaps intimidating enough in appearance that I’m less likely to be targeted by a fellow human, but that of course doesn’t mean I’m invulnerable. And none of that matters if I break my leg.


I have a good friend who’s talent is to take night time long exposure photography in remote places with rugged but beautiful terrain by himself. One evening he managed to slip, get his foot caught, and break his ankle.

Here is the Life Hack: he used his tripod as a crutch to hike the few kilometres down off the mountain back to his car. Sturdy walking stick, tripod or monopod can be helpful in cases like this.

He was also far out of cell phone range, in a different country, on his own. If you can have someone nearby know where you are going and when you will be back, maybe your hotel front desk, or a park ranger.

I have another friend who lives on a ranch in a valley with no cell service. She will go hiking/exploring on her own with her dogs up into the hills. She is in bear and cougar country. She takes a SPOT X 2-way satellite messenger with her. This is also handy/comforting for those cold, early morning, winter, long winding, river valley drives into town.

Even having someone else able to log into your “find my device” may be worth the lack of privacy as long as you are in a place with cell coverage.


Aquascope and Aquacam Hack

I was out canoeing with my wife and two young naturalist, 4 and 7, on a bay down near a local marina. It is a reasonably safe place to paddle as the area is protected by an island and a breakwater. However this day there was a little bit of chop breaking the surface and frustrating the oldest because he was wanting to see Red Rock Crabs. Also impacting this were the ripples caused by the paddler at the bow. For some reason the image of an almost 200 year old bathyscope came to mind. I did a little searching and realized I could make something for each of the boys.

I would not call this a pure hack because there is a technical end to it in that one needs access to and some skill with a hand saw/chop saw, coping saw/scroll saw, and some kind of sander of sorts.

I made this out of 4"ABS pipe with a coupling to protect “lens”, Optix acrylic sheet, Cabinet pulls, ABS glue.

The initial length of the pipe was 18 inches - half the length that pre-cut short lengths were being sold at the big box hardware store - I was making two so this was perfect. Then one end was cut at an angle.

The “lens” is placed at an angle to the pipe such that back-light is not reflected directly back at the person viewing. The angle can change relative to the length of the pipe but such that a line perpendicular to the pipe hits the upper edge of the pipe instead of the centre. Care needs to be made that the surface of the pipe that the “lens” is glued to is flat so that there is a good seal. The acrylic comes with a protective coating - you can leave the outer side coating until you finish gluing and sanding. I place a coupling as a protector - drill 2 holes through this, perpendicular to the handles, so air can escape before final placement so that you don’t accidentally drill the lens (don’t ask).

This passed the field test and the pipes float.

To make a hack for my smart phone I made a modification of the above with an increased length - I ended up with 30 inches by the time I was done. Plus, the angle of the “lens” was increased and no coupling.Triple check the seal before using with your device.

This also passed the field test very well.The small challenge is to turn on the video to record before one gently places the smartphone into place. Software can be used to edit the video and to grab still images.
Link to first video from the aquacam of siphonophore Nanomia bijuga:

As a seasonal gift, I have also made an Aquascope each for a neighbour and for a nephew for their canoe-faring children to use.


Sweep nets for catching insects in grass are expensive, especially if you want several for a class. Secondhand stores often have a variety of used tennis racket like objects in a bucket for close to no money. Cut off the strings, sew a strong pillow-case like bag onto the racket frame using the holes that the strings went through, and you have a serviceable insect sweep net in a few minutes at almost no cost.


Oh my goodness! I used to work with those all the time - I had forgotten about them. Even at a Canadian Government research station, they were still made by hand. Rubber tubes, cheesecloth, rubber bands, a small glass tube and an old style medicine bottle!


For another use of PVC or ABS, 2" widths of either can be used as mounts for trail cameras. When looking for ways to obtain trail cam photos of wetland species, i created these mounts for use in marshes and lakes. I cut 2" PVC and ABS into different lengths, cutting diagonally to create a spade end, then pre-drilled two sets of holes in the upper half of each length, at 90 deg from each other so i could use two cameras per post, aimed in different directions, if desired. 1"X wood was used as the base to rest the camera upon, as well as for a backing piece that was necessary to add so that the strap that came with the cameras would cinch down tightly.

So far they have worked well, placing these in mud at the edge of water so that the bottom cleat is roughly at the water level. Of course, this isn’t without some risk of losing a camera if the post was to topple over. Some example photos:


When traveling I bring two micro-4/3 camera bodies, one with a zoom telephoto lens (for birds etc.), the other with a zoom wide-angle lens (for scenery). I bring a Raynox close-up lens which attaches quickly to the telephoto and is perfect for insects. I also bring a third camera which is a point-and-shoot for medium focal lengths (for people). It all fits in a fanny pack, although sometimes when alternating different subjects I end up with all three cameras hanging from my right wrist (by wrist straps) and/or carried loosely by the hand.


Great idea. You can also just invert a pair of binoculars and use as a hand lens as is–works pretty well.


I posted this in the “What’s in my field kit?” thread. I will post it here because it works well.

I use a neoprene lunch bag with shoulder strap as my field bag. I like the “Built” brand the best. But, there are others out there. They are waterproof and often have a small side pocket. Some even have straps for an external water bottle.

You can occasionally find them at Target stores. But, they are easily found on Amazon. If you already have one without a shoulder strap, you should be able to easily attach a couple of D-rings to allow for a shoulder strap.

You can’t beat these bags if you go out in the wintertime.


I was instructed to use mayonnaise, but I came up with a less greasy hack myself: Find a nice patch of dirt, preferably very dry, and rub your hand (or other pitchy body part) in it. Make sure to completely cover the pitch in dirt. Then brush off as much of the dirt as you can; what’s left will be completely stuck to the pitch, and the pitch cannot stick to anything else because it is covered in dirt. Then go on with whatever you were doing. Eventually the pitch/dirt will wear off and your hand will be clean again. I’ve used this many times and it works great!


This is somewhat similar to removing banana slug slime. It’s more effective to rub it off with an abrasive. Soap works very poorly on slime. Comet or Barkeepers Friend, et al., work well.

Of course, I realize it’s better not to get slimed in the first place, as that may indicate your skin is irritating the slug. E.g. if you need to pick up a banana slug to show the children, protect it’s delicate skin by using a leaf.


I do the same for pine resin if I get it on me out in the field… during the autumn (fall) you can use crushed up dry leaves too, which for me just feels more fun to do!

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