An open nature journal with studies of a bird's skull

Nature Journal – A Guide For Walkers And Hikers

A nature journal isn’t just for naturalists. It’s a great way to record details of your walks or backpacking trips too, whatever your artistic or scientific skills. And if you’ve never thought of keeping one yourself, here a few reasons you should!

5 Reasons To Start A Nature Journal

Underwing of common blue butterfly feeding on yellow bird's-foot trefoil flower. Copyright Stephanie Boon, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

  1. To capture the magic and wonder of what you see around you
  2. Relive experiences
  3. Deepen your knowledge of the landscape and natural history
  4. Build a picture of changes in the environment
  5. Distil your thoughts and develop ideas

Anyone can keep a nature journal; you don’t have to be Charles Darwin on a scientific mission! It’s as valuable to a walker as it is to the scientist. Your nature journal can be as individual as you are and as much about you as the things you record. It can describe your journeys, the landscapes you love to visit, the things that stop you in your tracks, from a stunning sunset to a mushroom at the bottom of a tree. It can be a study of somewhere (or something) over different seasons or a number of years, or focus on one particular species; it’s entirely up to you and what you’re particularly interested in.

How To Create Your Nature Journal

30 Ideas To Get You Started

Common fleabane. Copyright Stephanie Boon, 2018. All Rights Reserved

10 Things Every Nature Journal Should Include

Your name and address

Date and time of your entry

Place of your entry

Your route, including grid references (so you can find it again)

Weather observations

Day length (sunrise and sunset)

Tide times

Detailed observations

Sketches

Aide memoires*

Common toad in the undergrowth. Copyright Stephanie Boon, 2018. All Rights Reserved

10 Ideas For a Creative Nature Journal

Include your favourite quotes

Write poetry

Add maps (eg hand drawn or old OS maps)

Include sketches and diagrams

Colour your sketches with watercolour

Make leaf prints

Try bark rubbing

Add photo collages

Write a ‘letter’ to yourself describing your thoughts and feelings about your walk

Press leaves and flowers

Small Copper Butterfly. Copyright Stephanie Boon, 2018. All Rights Reserved

10 Ideas For a Scientific Style Journal

Add data to tables

Collect data over seasons, months or years

Regularly visit a particular area

List field guides you use

Submit your recordings to wildlife organisations

Focus on a particular species

Make connections between your notes

Include an index

Classify journals (by area for eg)

Enlist expert guidance

*Aide Memoires  Keep a permanent list in your notebook of things you want to record, which could include habitat, the quantity of species you observe, diagrams to help you recall particular parts of animals or plants, etc (diagrams are a really useful way to help accurately describe a species you don’t recognise, which makes it much easier to identify when you get home)

Hand drawn and painted bird anatomy diagram from a nature journal. Copyright Stephanie Boon, 2018, All rights Reserved.

An aide memoire in my journal helps me describe parts of a bird I don’t recognise, which makes it easier to try and identify at home. Have a go yourself: try copying a diagram from an identification book, photocopying one or using one of your own photos and sticking it in your notebook to use instead.

A Note On Using Photos In Your Nature Journal

The best way to connect with nature it is to really look at things and describe what you see there and then. We all take photos. ‘Snap!’ Upload to Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Walk on. Forget all about the experience. A bit pointless really!

Photos don’t capture nuances (unless you’re a professional photographer!) so make some notes too, or make a few diagrams or sketches, then when you get home print off the photos and stick them in your journal for reference.

Photographs can definitely make a valuable contribution to your nature journal, but it’s really about spending time looking and recording. Give yourself time to feel, observe and immerse yourself in what’s around you, because that’s what connects us to nature and gives us the feeling of peace we all seek from being outside.

It’s worth remembering though that photos do have one particularly valuable use, which is the file information they store (exif data). As an absolute minimum you should be able to access the date and time you took the picture and exactly where it was taken too (often given in latitude/longitude).

What You Need To Pack For Your Nature Journal

5 Questions To Consider Before You Pack

  1. Are you going for a day walk or hike and willing to carry a bit extra weight?
  2. Are you going to look for a specific species; what equipment will be helpful?
  3. What sort of habitats are you hiking through – mountains, woods, rivers, etc; are there any guides to the natural history of the area?
  4. Do you plan to just make a few notes when you’re out or do you want to keep a comprehensive journal/diary? (Well, what else are you going to do in your tent at night?!)
  5. How lightweight to you need to keep your kit: are you willing to sacrifice something else to carry those weighty but excellent binoculars you have?

Working out some answers will help you decide what to pack, but a bit of experience will soon tell you whether you’ve got it right. It won’t be long before you realise it was a mistake to leave your binoculars at home in favour of taking a box of watercolours you didn’t use on your last 3 hikes!

Consider The Basics

A display of journals and notebooks, with pencils and watercolour paints. Copyright Stephanie Boon, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Hardback or spiral bound, waterproof or watercolour – choose a journal to suit what you want to record.

Which Type of Notebook or Journal Do You Prefer?

  • A hardback book gives you a sturdy surface to work on, but a paper-backed book is lighter to carry (is there something else already in your rucksack that you can use as a surface?)
  • Waterproof pocket notebooks are great for ‘short-note takers’, because they tend to be small as well as useable in all weathers
  • Choose a sketchbook or a plain page notebook if you plan to do a lot of sketching
  • Take a watercolour sketchbook if you want to paint
  • Size matters: think about what you want to record as it might affect the size of journal you need
  • Paper is worth considering too: choose a weightier paper if you’re planning to paint
  • Binding: stitched or spiral? Some people like spiral bound because it’s easy to remove pages, others like stitched because it feels more like a ‘proper’ book and pages won’t be lost

I use a Moleskine Watercolour notebook* (Amazon UK) on day walks at the moment. It’s got a slightly textured medium weight paper, which I enjoy writing on as well as painting. You can paint on both sides of the paper too, which makes it cost effective and gives a nice flow to my notes. I’m not sure why I chose one that’s bound on the short end (like a reporter’s notebook), but I like it and it works in both landscape and portrait format!

Pens, Pencils and Paints

  • A few pencils of different hardness are useful for sketching (HB – 3B, for example)
  • An HB pencil is perfect for writing
  • Coloured pencils – ‘normal’, or watercolour pencils (which are dual purpose: ordinary pencils for when it’s cold, and watercolour when the weather’s fine – you just add a touch of water (or spit!) to blend the colours)
  • Try ‘lining’ pens for drawing and writing – they come with varying nib widths and waterproof ink
  • Don’t forget a rubber and pencil sharpener!
  • A small tin of watercolour paints (with a paintbrush inside) is great for adding touches of colour – but painting in the field can be a pain when the weather’s cold (it doesn’t dry quickly enough) or it’s pouring with rain
  • Coloured pencils – ‘normal’, or watercolour pencils (which are dual purpose: ordinary pencils for when it’s cold, and watercolour when the weather’s fine – you just add a touch of water (or spit!) to blend the colours)
Field guides and binoculars on an open OS Map, ready to make a nature journal. Copyright Stephanie Boon, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

What do you want to discover?

A Tape Measure Or Ruler

  • Don’t forget calipers for accurate measurements

A Ziplock Bag

  • Keep everything you need together – and keep it dry

Field guides

Binoculars, Camera And A Magnifying Glass

  • Is your phone camera good enough?
  • Do you need a macro-lens or a tripod?

Feeling Inspired?

I hope so! But all you really need to keep a nature journal is a simple A5 reporter’s notebook and pencil. And that’s absolutely fine! (And easy to leave in your rucksack on a permanent basis.)

The main thing is to just get outside and give it a go, because it’s the most fulfilling way to look back at where you’ve been and what you saw along the way.

Let us know how you get on – I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Happy Hiking!

Stephie x

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2 Comments
  • onthehills
    Posted at 19:09h, 17 June Reply

    I really enjoyed reading this Stephie, it took me back to my childhood. My Father was a Lepidopterist and a Fellow ofd the Royal Entomological Society. We were always going away on ‘gathering’ expeditions and he was always writing in his note book.

    It was from him that I developed my love of nature and walking and my obsession with making notes.

    Beautifully written and illustrated Stephie

    Glyn xx

    • Stephie
      Posted at 13:47h, 24 June Reply

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it Glyn, it’s lovely to be reminded of childhood isn’t it. It sounds like your dad was a great person to learn from too – and there’s nothing wrong with a shelf full of notebooks haha!

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