Sooner or later, you or a trail companion are going to ask the pivotal question: "What is that??"
Follow up question: "Is it alive?"
And you're gonna wish that you had a hiking field guide in your pack.
Nothing says "prepared" more than whipping out a hiking field guide to make a positive I.D. on that hot marmot in a tree (highly unusual behavior, as you'll read in your guide), or a gorgeous bird that just flew up into the tree above your head.
And can you savor the satisfaction of discovering the name of the clump of wild flowers that you just noticed beside the trail?
I've spent hours in just such an activity!
And of course, knowing how to avoid trouble in the form of venomous animals or poisonous plants is a GREAT outdoor skill to possess.
I highly recommend it!
So which hiking field guides are worth the weight in your pack, or the space on your book shelf?
I've thought a lot about that over the decades of gathering dust on my boots (not because they were sitting on the shelf along with my books, mind you!).
And I'd like to share my Top Ten Hiking Field Guides, the ones I feel are worth the weight or the time & money investment for any serious hiker.
Field Guide #1: Birds of (fill in your state here).
Let me illustrate with my home state, Washington.
I love my Washington State bird guide because it's:
My husband and I keep this book handy (when it's not in my pack) for identifying unusual bird visitors to our suet and seed feeders. Stan has helped us make a positive i.d. on lots of migrating song birds right out the in the backyard.
Can you tell I'm enthusiastic about this book?? You've got to have one in your collection!
But wait! There's more! He does more than just bird books by state - how about birds of prey? He offers recordings of bird sounds, too, which would be splendid if you're an auditory learner.
Birds not your thing? He's got you covered: field guides to plants and flowers, family guides to nature...he's a force of nature himself!Birds of Washington Field Guide
Field Guide #2: Audubon Regional Field Guides.
I grew up on these books!
I have a general field guide to the Pacific Northwest (there's one available for your region, too) which I dip into regularly. It covers birds, animals, trees, wildflowers, insects, weather, terrain....so it's not as light as I'd like it to be.
But, Hey! It answers my questions.
And you can buy specific guides, too: just wildflowers, just trees. Currently, I'm obsessed with ferns because my husband collects fern spores and hand raises all of the native ferns in our region.
Sometimes I leave my Audubon guide collection in the car for handy reference. I write down my questions and observations during my trail time, then use the Audubon Fount of Knowledge as soon as I'm back at the trail head.
This seems to sharpen my observation skills, knowing that I have to rely upon my memory and written notes to find the answers.
Of course, taking a photo works, too!
You will need to buy the guides specific to your area, if you want 100% reliable information.
And be forewarned: visiting this website will suck hours out of your schedule - there are so many Audubon books to drool over! Here's an example:
Field Guide #3: A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North Americaby James Halfpenny.
This is definitely a book to throw into your pack, if you're curious about the unseen wild mammals keeping you company in the great outdoors.
I love its lightweight but data-packed pages, its careful discussion of behavioral clues, gaits and footprint sizes.
And there's even a chapter on scatology (the study of droppings)!
What's not to love?A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America
Field Guide #4: Animal Skulls: A Guide to North American Species by Mark Elbroch is my current favorite hiking field guide.
It's too big to bring into the field, so I bring my "finds" back to my desk and let Mark help me figure out whose skull I've found.
He includes photos, diagrams, and tables to give you all of the data you need for a positive identification.
This isn't technically a field guide - too big, too technical, too into bones.
It names each skull bone, uses anatomical terminology (dorsal & ventral for back & front, for example), and it really gets into the nitty gritty of bone landmarks.
But for me, trained in anatomy and fascinated by mammalian comparative anatomy, it's a treasure.
Maybe you'll treasure it, too! And before you decide he's not the author for you, consider the fact that he writes books about mammal and birds tracks and signs.
Field Guide #5: Stokes Nature Guides by Donald and Lillian Stokes.
These are worth a look if you're building a field guide library from scratch.
These folks specialize in birds, but they have a few books in their collection on mammal tracking, amphibians & reptiles, and bird and mammal behavior.
There's one I really like on Nature in Winter, touching upon winter tree adaptations, snow crystals, and other topics you don't often see in a general field guide.
Their books are well written and beautifully illustrated - well worth a place on your hiking field guide shelf & in your pack.
Field Guide #6: Peterson's Field Guides.
Name your topic, it's available!
On my hiking field guide bookshelf, I have a 1986 copy of "First Guide to Wildflowers", which I still use to cross reference more updated and specific hiking field guides.
I love the way it's laid out: organized by color of flower, backed up with detailed, useful drawings.
Let these field guides amaze you with their wealth of information, written in non-technical language and well illustrated.
And they make great gifts for kids just whetting an appetite for the outdoors but with room to expand a growing knowledge base.
As I mentioned, I've had mine for awhile! Here it is:
Field Guide #7: Field Guide to the Cascades & Olympics by Stephen R. Whitney & Rob Sandelin.
OK, so this one's very regional.
But it's my hope that you will plan a hiking adventure to my favorite U.S. region someday soon, and you'll want this guide along when you arrive.
It has just enough detail to satisfy your curiosity. The photos will whet your appetite for some Washington State hiking, and the color illustrations will be very useful once you get here.Field Guide to the Cascades & Olympics
Field Guide #8: Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking.
Some folks don't like Tom Brown's somewhat mystical approach, others question his credibility.
Me? I learn what I can from every author/mentor, and Tom's definitely knowledgeable and passionate about the outdoors.
He has many, many books on outdoor skills, and this happens to be a favorite of mine. Why?
Because it blends awareness of nature with factual skills. If you want just the facts on tracking, stick with the book recommendation in #3 above.
Field Guide #9: Stars & Planets by Ian Ridpath (Eyewitness Handbooks).
We modern humans don't spend enough time under stars and moon any more.
When I hiked for a week in New Mexico, I was stunned at the immensity and brilliance of the dark night sky. That's when I remembered that I had purchased this guide a long time ago, when I was living in upper northern Michigan.
It ended up on my bookshelf, behind lots of other hiking field guides, because I don't have access to unadulterated night skies in Seattle.
If you have regular access to darkness, or are planning a backpacking trip to such a wonderful place, consider adding this visual guide to stars to your collection.
It provides very detailed sky charts, monthly sky guides, and colored photos. Very fascinating!
So is the idea of night hiking. Ever tried it? I highly recommend it.
Use your night vision (no flashlight or headlamp!) on a well maintained trail or even across a cleared area, to get the hang of using your peripheral vision. It will bring up all sorts of hidden fears, and just might lead you into a new hiking realm!
Just a thought... plus you can figure out where you are by using the night sky, if you've studied this field guide!
Field Guide #10: (Still with me? Great news! Here's the handiest idea yet!) Pocket Naturalist Guide laminated fold-outs.
These might be a good idea if you're just starting out and don't want to commit to books just yet. Or if you have kids, and don't want to put expensive hiking field guides into muddy hands.
I have several of these tucked into an inner pocket of my pack: animal tracks, wildlife, wildflowers, skulls & bones... just be sure to check for guides to your region/state if you don't want general overview information.
The beauty of these hiking field guides? Let me count the ways: lightweight, weather proof, just the facts, illustrated, and crammed with helpful factoids to make you want more.
That's when you know you're ready for the guide books listed above!
Here's one of my go-to guides:
BONUS ROUND!! I couldn't stop at just 10, I had to add my newest favorite: Bird Feathers: A Guide to North American Species by S. David Scott & Casey McFarland.
I have always stopped to pick up bird feathers, ever since childhood.
And I'm currently obsessed with identifying birds, based upon the feathers I stumble across on my adventures.
This book is beautiful and thorough, and has answered so many of my bird feather questions. The photos alone will make you appreciate Nature on a deeper level.
I hope you have a chance to browse through some of these recommended hiking field guides.
Here's a comprehensive list of available guides, to round out my selections.
Used book stores, libraries, and virtual bookstores can give you a taste of the abundance of knowledge available to you, before you commit to purchasing them.
But I don't think you can go wrong with my picks. They've taught me most of what I know about the living things around me, and the stars above me, as I hike.
Please send me your feedback and suggestions - life long love of learning makes the hiking field guide bookshelves groan, right? Ah! But it satisfies our curiosity ;)