It’s a fairy’s slipper!” announced the 5-year-old as she peeked through the microscope lenses at the tiny misplaced footwear, a violet flower petal nestled among the silver fibers of thistle down. The little pony-tailed camper appeared at our campsite soon after we set our microscope on the picnic table and zoomed in on a Canadian thistle head. After spotting our kids in the creek bed searching for more specimens to put under the microscope, our new friend ran to ask her mom for permission to join them.
Outdoor enthusiasts go camping to enjoy nature and there’s no better tool than the microscope for taking a closer look at nature’s tiniest treasures. A hand-held magnifying glass once did the trick for most of us, but these days magnification comes in all sizes and powers, and for a surprisingly small amount of money. Compact enough to fit in a backpack, a tent trailer, or an RV cabinet, microscopes result in hours of fun exploring nature, generating many “Oh, you’ve got to see this!” moments for campers of every age.
Leaving a Legacy
Whether you have been camping since you were a kid, or took up the activity in retirement, your appreciation for nature and experience exploring it make you a naturist. Naturists instinctively pass on their appreciation for the beauty of nature. My grandparents unveiled the beauty of Yellowstone and Yosemite to me when I was a child. I already knew and loved my neck of the woods in the mountains of central Idaho next to the Clearwater National Forest, but it was my grandparents who taught me to appreciate the “rest of the forest.” They taught me to compose pictures for the camera and record my observations in journals.
Microscopes are another great tool for interacting with the outdoors. Snakeskins, pollen, and leaf venation take on new meaning when seen at 60x magnification. You can leave a record of your love for nature by recording your observations in a journal and teaching children to do the same. A sketchbook of microscopic observations drawn in pencil (or crayon) will generate conversations long after the RV is winterized and everyone is cozy in the TV room. You may even inspire the next Henry David Thoreau.
Low-Cost, High-Tech Education
Microscope camping opens a new world for family outdoor exploration. Parents want their kids to get outside and explore. Kids want something new and exciting to do. Microscopes fit the bill.
My husband and I started microscope camping as a way to teach our children the difference between safe drinking water and contaminated water. Using microscopes, our kids discovered that even “clear” water can be teeming with creatures and debris. Wildlife expert Jack Hanna stated it well when he said, “The most rewarding and important type of learning is through … seeing something with our eyes.”
A picnic table works well as in-the-field science lab. You can put together a starter kit with slides, slipcovers, eyedropper and tweezers, and download microscopy observation worksheets from the National Science Teachers Association website. Consider a microscope with laptop software so that observations can be saved and printed later. If you place recorded observation pages in a three-ring binder, children can use their binder for the science fair, 4-H project or extra credit in science class.
Boys Like Bugs, Girls Love Flowers
Mark Twain said, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” Imaginations are brought into sharp focus through the lenses of a microscope. At 35x, it is easy to imagine being small enough to stroke the armor of an insect or get dressed in a dewy gown of clover petals. Some of the biggest outdoor adventures are embarked upon through the tiny doorway of a microscope focal point.
Boys like microscopes because creepy bugs become frightfully sublime: bulging eyes, gaping jaws, and invincible exoskeleton. Dead bugs can be found around outdoor light poles, near spider webs and under loose bark. Watch the ground wherever you go, you won’t want to crush a perfect specimen. Keep tweezers and a small plastic container as a collection kit. Don’t forget to look in pond and creek water.
Girls love microscopes because nature’s beauty becomes a fairyland. Hours of quiet fun can be spent viewing petals and inner flower parts that have metamorphosed into a tiny wardrobe of dresses, bonnets and slippers. Geometric-shaped pollen grains become colorful beads for necklaces. For the best show, view flowers during their pollen release stage. “Expired” butterflies can be found along roadsides. You are never too old to let your imagination be your guide. After all, it was my husband who discovered the misplaced fairy slipper in the Canadian thistle head.
Camping microscopes include several useful features. Built-in LED lights provide clear images for overcast days and evening viewing. Laptop compatibility makes viewing easier for small children who might have trouble looking through the eyepiece. The laptop pictures can be saved for Power Point presentations or printed for scrapbooks. Pocket microscopes are handy for hiking and are available in as high as 100x. Light and camera adaptors can be purchased separately for some brands. Search the Internet for homemade microscopes that fit over the camera lenses of smartphones. Microscopes last for years, so a few additional features may be worth the investment.
Happy microscope camping!
Karen Kight is a freelance writer who lives in Indiana and has been camping with an RV, kids and microscopes since 2001.
Here is a sampling of microscopes in various sizes and price ranges.
MicroMax LED-MM-200: This is Carson Optical’s lightweight pocket microscope with 60-100x magnification. It has a built-in LED light to provide a bright, clear image and a rubberized eyepiece for comfortable viewing. Priced at $14.99–$19.99. Find more information at CarsonOptical.com.
Trekker Microscope: This compact miniscope can be taken along on outdoor excursions. A soft cup eyepiece allows you to view objects placed on top of the palm microscope. Hold the scope in one hand, the specimen with the other. Focus with the wheel to view slides, coins, leaves, insects, flowers and more with 35x magnification. One blank slide, a locust wing slide, and carrying bag are included. Camera adapter sold separately. Priced at $70–$94.95. Find more information at livesciencestore.com by searching “Trekker.”
DigiScope DS-300: Using high-resolution, digital technology, the DigiScope DS-300 allows you to capture images or video clips in the field on your laptop magnified up to 100x. The upper half of this two-piece system is a USB camera that can be removed so you can use the microscope separately. Built-in LED lights provide upper and lower illumination—up to 50 hours on three AA batteries. The new DigiScope 300 package includes the Exploring with a Digital Microscope curriculum guide CD-ROM, quick start guide, calibration slide, stirrer-spoon, dropper, forceps, experiment manual and soft storage case. Priced at $139–$199. Find more information at freyscientific.schoolspecialty.com. Click on “Shop our Store” and search for “DigiScope 300.”
Discovery Scope: The handheld Discovery Scope features a clear chamber that allows catch-and-release viewing of live bugs and water samples. The chamber can be rotated vertically and horizontally via an adjustable arm. Also available: Quick Slides for preserving sand, pollen, and soil samples, and Camera Mounts for capturing specimen images on camera or video. Priced at $40. For information, visit Discoveryscope.net.