Two dozen tips for the August 21, 2017, total solar eclipse

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Friday, August 8, 2014

You know, I’ve served as a tour guide to 10 total solar eclipses. During my conversations and lectures, I’ve given people lots of advice. So, I thought why not repeat some of it here? I therefore present my top 25 tips related to the United States’ 2017 eclipse.

1. Take eclipse day off — now!

You may think three years is a bit of a long lead time, and, unless you work for a magazine called Astronomy, it may be. The point I’m making is that August 21, 2017, may turn out to be the most popular vacation-day request in history. If not now, figure out the earliest date that makes sense for you to request August 21 as a vacation day, and mark it on your calendar.

2. Make a weekend out of it

Eclipse day is a Monday. Lots of related activities in locations touched by the Moon’s inner shadow will occur on Saturday and Sunday. Find out what they are, where they’re being held, and which you want to attend, and make a mini-vacation out of the eclipse.

Events like cruises to exotic locations will allow you to experience the full social impact of the eclipse. // All photos: Michael E. Bakich
3. Attend an event

Trust me when I say you’ll enjoy the eclipse more if you hook up with like-minded people. If you don’t see any special goings-on a few months before August 21, call your local astronomy club, planetarium, or science center. Anyone you talk to is sure to know of eclipse activities.

4. Get involved

If you interests include celestial events and public service, consider volunteering with a group putting on an eclipse event. You’ll learn a lot and make some new friends in the process.

5. Watch the weather

Meteorologists study a chaotic system. Nobody now can tell you with absolute certainty the weather a specific location will experience on eclipse day. And don’t get too tied up in the predictions of cloud cover you’ll see for that date. Many don’t distinguish between “few” (one-eighth to two-eighths of the sky covered), “scattered” (three-eighths to four-eighths), or “broken” (five-eighths to seven-eighths) clouds and overcast. You need to dig deeper.

6. Stay flexible on eclipse day

Unless you are certain August 21 will be clear, don’t do anything that would be hard to undo in a short time. For example, let’s say you’re taking a motor home to a certain city. You connect it to power, hook up the sewage hose, extend the awnings, set up chairs, start the grill, and more. But if it’s cloudy six hours, three hours, or even one hour before the eclipse starts, you’re going to want to move to a different location. Think of the time you would have saved if you had waited to set up. Also, the earlier you make your decision to move, the better. I only can imagine what the traffic might be like on eclipse day.

7. Don’t plan anything funky

Totality will be the shortest two and a half minutes of your life. All your attention should be on the Sun. Anything else is a waste. And be considerate of those around you. Please, no music.

8. Pee before things get going

Yes, I could have phrased this more politely, but I wanted you to read it. And, trust me, you’ll thank me for this tip above and beyond any other on this list. Don’t wait until 10 minutes before totality to start searching for a bathroom. Too much is happening then. Make a preemptive strike 45 minutes prior.

Perhaps as much as 30 minutes before totality, someone in your group is likely to have spotted brilliant Venus.
9. Notice it getting cooler?

A point-and-shoot camera that takes movies will let you record the temperature drop. Here’s a suggestion: Point your camera at a digital thermometer and a watch, both of which you previously attached to a white piece of cardboard or foamcore. Start recording video 15 or so minutes before totality and keep shooting until 15 minutes afterward. The results may surprise you.

10. Watch for the Moon’s shadow

If your viewing location is at a high elevation, or even at the top of a good-sized hill, you may see the Moon’s shadow approaching. This sighting isn’t easy because the shadow is moving at more than 1,000 mph (1,600 km/h). Another way to spot the shadow is as it covers thin cirrus clouds if any are above your site. Again, you’ll be surprised how fast the shadow moves.

11. View the 360° sunset

During totality, take just a few seconds to tear your eyes away from the sky and scan the horizon. You’ll see sunset colors all around you because, in effect, those locations are where sunset (or sunrise) are happening.

Mylar eclipse glasses are a safe way to view the Sun at any time.
12. Get a filter in advance

Cardboard “eclipse” glasses with lenses of optical Mylar cost about $2. Such a device — it’s not a toy — will let you safely look directly at the Sun. It filters out most of the light, all of the dangerous infrared (heat) and ultraviolet radiation, which tans our skin. Buy one well in advance, and you can look at the Sun anytime. Sometimes you can see a sunspot or two. That’s cool because to be visible to our eyes, such a spot has to be larger than Earth. Another safe solar filter is a #14 welder’s glass, which also will cost you $2. Wanna look cool at the eclipse? Buy goggles that will hold the welder’s glass. I’ve even seen people wearing whole helmets. Either those or goggles serves one purpose — you won’t need to hold the filter, so you can’t drop it.

13. No filter? You can still watch

Except during totality, we never look at the Sun. But what if you’ve forgotten a filter? You can still watch by making a pinhole camera. It can be as simple as two pieces of paper with a tiny hole in one of them. (Try to make the hole as round as you can, perhaps with a pin or a sharp pencil.) Line up the two pieces with the Sun so the one with the hole is closest to it. The pinhole will produce a tiny image, which you’ll want to have land on the other piece of paper. Moving the two pieces farther apart will enlarge the Sun’s image but will also lessen its brightness. Work out a good compromise.

A #14 welder's glass is another way to safely observe the Sun anytime.
14. Bring a chair

In all likelihood, you’ll be at your viewing site several hours before the eclipse starts. You don’t really want to stand that whole time, do you?

15. Don’t forget the sunscreen

Most people who go outside during the summer know this. Remember, you’ll be standing around or sitting outside for hours. You may want to bring an umbrella for some welcome shade. And if you see someone who has forgotten sunscreen, please be a peach and share.

16. Take lots of pictures

Before and after totality, be sure to record your viewing site and the people who you shared this great event with.

A Sunspotter solar telescope by Learning Technologies (and sold through a variety of dealers) provides a sharp image of the Sun that many people can view simultaneously.
17. The time will zoom by

In our August 1980 issue, author Norm Sperling contributed a “Forum” in which he tries to convey how quickly totality seems to pass. You can read it here.

18. Bring snacks and drinks

You’re probably going to get hungry waiting for the eclipse to start. Unless you set up next to a convenience store, consider bringing something to eat and drink. And keep in mind that August is warm. A cooler with ice-cold drinks is a great idea.

19. Nobody you meet will have seen totality.

If you’re planning an event or even a family gathering related to the eclipse, consider this: Statistically, 100 percent of the people you encounter — to a high degree of accuracy — will never have experienced darkness at noon. You will be the expert.

A telescope equipped with an approved solar filter will help Sun-watchers get the most from the eclipse.
20. Invite someone with a solar telescope

In the event you’re thinking of hosting a private get-together (ignoring #3 above), make sure someone in attendance brings a telescope with a solar filter. While it’s true that you don’t need a scope to view the eclipse, having one there will generate quite a bit of buzz. And you (or the telescope’s owner) can point out and describe sunspots, irregularities along the Moon’s edge, and more.

21. Experience totality alone

The 2017 eclipse plus the events leading up to it will combine to be a fabulous social affair. Totality itself, however, is a time that you should mentally shed your surroundings and focus solely on the sublime celestial dance above you. You’ll have plenty of time for conversations afterward.

A get-together with family and friends after the eclipse will help you unwind a bit and hear what others experienced during the eclipse.
22. Schedule an after-eclipse party or meal

Once the eclipse winds down, you’ll be on an emotional high for hours, and so will everyone else. I’ve found no better time to get together with family and friends and just chat. Or, if you’re like me, take a secondary position and just listen to others talking about what they’ve just experienced. Fun!

23. Record your memories

Sometime shortly after the eclipse, when the event is still fresh in your mind, take some time to write, voice-record, or make a video of your memories, thoughts, and impressions. A decade from now, such a chronicle will help you relive this fantastic event. Have friends join in, too. Stick a video camera in their faces and capture 30 seconds from each of them. You’ll smile each time you watch it.

Unless you're an eclipse veteran like Astronomy Contributing Editor Mike Reynolds (who has seen 16 total solar eclipses), consider not photographing the event and just watching.
24. Don’t photograph the eclipse

This tip — specifically directed at first-time eclipse viewers — may sound strange because it’s coming to you from the photo editor of the best-selling astronomy magazine on Earth. But I’ve preached this point to thousands of people who I’ve led to far-flung corners of our planet to stand under the Moon’s shadow. True, few of them have thanked me afterward. But I can tell you of upwards of a hundred people who have told me with trembling voices, “I wish I’d followed your advice. I spent so much time trying to center the image and get the right exposures that I hardly looked at the eclipse at all.” How sad is that? And here’s another point: No picture will capture what your eyes will reveal. Trust me, I’ve seen them all. Only the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent of photographers have ever come close. And — no offense meant — but you, with your point-and-shoot pocket camera or off-the-shelf digital SLR, are not one of them.


I’ll state this again for emphasis. Why, oh why, would you even consider looking down and fiddling with a camera when you could be looking up at all that heavenly glory? This eclipse will — at maximum — last 162 seconds. That’s it, my friends. If your camera isn’t doing what you think it should, you’re going to lose valuable time adjusting it. There will be plenty of pix from imagers who have viewed a dozen of these events. So just watch. Watch your first eclipse with your mouth agape, where your only distraction is occasionally wiping tears of joy from your eyes. You will not be disappointed.


To get all the pertinent data about the eclipse, head to my previous blog, 25 facts you should know about the August 21, 2017, total solar eclipse.

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