A total solar eclipse is a symphony of light and shadow, and you are the conductor. Here's a list of items you may wish to have at the ready before the performance begins and why:
- Safe solar filters (for direct viewing). If you intend to observe the partial phases of the eclipse, you will need specialized solar filters designed specifically to protect your eyes. See You Can Watch Totality Without Eye Protection for more details about solar filters.
- A large white card (for projection). You don't need eye protection if you decide to project a magnified image of the partial phases. Here's what you do: if you have binoculars, cap one of its front lenses and turn your back to the Sun. Hold the binoculars over your shoulders (with the uncovered front lens pointing toward the Sun). Move the binoculars around and watch their shadow until you see an image of the Sun, which you can project onto the card; the view will be upside down. The further the card is positioned from the binoculars, the larger the image will be. If you do not have binoculars, make a smooth round hole in the card with a pin and use it to project a smaller view onto any surface (another large white card will do)
- Another large card (for artistic pinhole projection). Feeling artistic? Use your pin to make a fanciful design in another large card, and project the Sun through it when partially eclipsed; you'll see your creation made of multiple solar crescents. Test and modify the design on any sunny day before the next solar eclipse.
- A straw hat, colander, or other item with tiny holes will project multiple solar crescents — no artistic talent required.
- Creature comforts. Make sure you're comfortable and well stocked; the partial phases last about 90 minutes, both before and after totality, and you may be exposed to direct sunlight for a good part of the day, so be prepared (hat, sunscreen, etc.). Have plenty of water and food (cooler box with ice), and take portable chairs and a table. Make yourself at home.
- Watch or timepiece. Part of your pre-eclipse preparations should be to know the times of first, second, third, and fourth contact at your eclipse-viewing site (See A Timetable of Eclipse Events for definitions). A timepiece will help you prepare for the onset of these important events. You may also want to record the times of certain phenomena as you see them.
- Notebook, pens/pencils, sketchpad, art supplies, voice recorder. Don't rely on your memory; so much happens to the Sun, Moon, and environment during an eclipse, that you may want to record the most memorable events — the color and details of the eclipse, changes in light and color in the sky and landscape, the behavior of birds and animals, etc. — as they happen in your preferred style of note taking.
- Thermometer, flag, compass, and chocolate bar in wrapper. As the solar eclipse progresses, especially near totality, the temperature may drop noticeably; some people like to melt a chocolate bar in its wrapper during the partial phases, to see if it will harden during totality. Winds may also rise, fall, or shift direction, all of which is fun to record.
- Red flashlight. If you intend to take notes during totality, be sure to use a red flashlight, otherwise you will temporarily ruin the way your eyes adapt to the dark.
- Large white sheet. Lay a large white sheet flat and smooth on the ground and use it to watch for dim shadow bands (long alternating bands of light and dark) that slither across the ground in the minutes just before and after totality. Your compass can also be used to mark the cardinal directions around the sheet, so you can tell in which direction the bands move.
- Cameras and accessories.If you plan on taking pictures, make sure you have your camera and accessories: lenses, cable release, batteries and spares, selfie stick, tripod, etc. If you intend to video the event, consider turning it on in the minutes leading up to totality and letting it run until the end of totality to capture the emotion of the event.
- A car (full tank) and a good map. You never know what curve balls Mother Nature might toss your way. If clouds threaten your chances of seeing totality, you may have to drive a ways to get to clearer skies, i.e., do an eclipse chase (see An Unforgettable Eclipse Chase). To do so, you'll want a full tank of gas and a good map with the eclipse path and center line plotted on it.
It's always best to show up at least an hour before the start of the total solar eclipse. This gives you time to assess the weather, do an eclipse chase (if necessary), or set up your equipment without rushing. As always, enjoy the event and have fun.
CAUTION: Never look at the Sun, either directly or through a telescope or binocular, without a professionally made protective solar filter installed that completely covers the front of the instrument, or permanent eye damage could result. When using a truss tube telescope to view the Sun, both a properly fitting solar filter and light shroud are required.
Stephen James O'Meara is an award-winning visual observer, whose writings, lectures, and numerous books on amateur astronomy have inspired observers across the globe to see the sky in new and wonderful ways. A contributing editor for Astronomy magazine, Stephen is an avid "eclipse chaser", having witnessed a dozen total solar eclipses dating back to 1959 (when he was 3 years old).