Field Gear – What I Always Carry

I’m a vertebrate paleontologist, a geologist, and a geochemist. My research requires me to go out into the ‘wilds’ and study rocks and fossils in place, as well as collect rocks and fossils to bring back to the lab for further work. This process is called ‘field work.’

As I’m fixing to head out to the field in a little more than a week, I’ve started sorting through all my field gear, mostly to make sure I have everything, but also to fix what needs fixing, and get rid of any junk.

There’s a ton of equipment I might carry, depending upon my tasks for the day. Here, I’ll outline what I’ll always carry, no matter what I’m doing.

In this post, I’ll describe what I always carry. These are the basics that any student of geology or paleontology ought to purchase first.In later posts, I’ll describe the specialized equipment needed for more specific tasks.

First things first, you need a means to carry your gear. There are two typical choices, which may be used independently, or together.

1) A backpack

Where else will you put your lunch and all those rock samples you’re going to collect?

My new field pack. I'm finally retiring the old one, which has lasted 10 field seasons.
My new field pack. I’m finally retiring the old one, which has lasted 10 field seasons.

2) A field vest

Another convenient way to carry gear is in a multi-pocketed vest of sorts.

Yes, it's just a fishing vest. But all the pockets are great for stowing field equipment. There's even a big pocket in the back for larger things like notebooks and water bottles.
Yes, it’s just a fishing vest. But all the pockets are great for stowing field equipment. There’s even a big pocket in the back for larger things like notebooks and water bottles.

3) Water

It doesn’t matter how you do it, but you *must* bring plenty of water. For the work I do, I ensure I have the capacity to carry at least a gallon. I never start the day with less than a liter (~ a quart).

My new pack has one of those awesome water bladders that holds more than a liter and has the tube with bite valve so I can drink all day. Definitely an improvement over the old water bottles, though I still carry those too.

4) Notebook

If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. Notes are important, so that people can follow in your footsteps if they want to continue your research when you’re not there.

One of the many notebooks I have. And a scale... For scale.
One of the many notebooks I have. And a scale… For scale.
Some of my field notes from 2005.
Some of my field notes from 2005.

5) Pens, pencils

Yeah. This is obvious. I keep mine in a little belt pouch that also holds…

6) Basic preparation tools and dilute hydrochloric acid

Wait. Did you just say acid? The hydrochloric acid (HCl) provides a quick and simple method to tell if a rock has carbonate in it or not. This matters if your research goal is to analyze carbonates on the mass spectrometer.

Many of the little things I need are kept on my belt.
Many of the little things I need are kept on my belt. Left to right, we have a scale bar, a permanent marker, some pencils, picks, a paintbrush, more permanent markers, more picks, a heavy brush, and a light brush. In the bag is a small bottle of HCl.

7) Scale bar and camera

I usually have a scale bar in my notebook and in my belt pouch. Because without a scale, photos can be pretty useless.

It’s best to have a dedicated camera for this task. Using the cell phone is tempting, but the quality of photos is generally pretty poor. Plus, you really want to save your cell battery for emergencies.

8) Hand lens(es)

Especially now, since my eyes have started getting bad, I need the hand lenses to help me see the little things that could matter a lot. You can find a 10X lens for less than $20.

On the left is a cheap 10X lens. On the right is a Hastings Triplet 14X.
On the left is a cheap 10X lens. On the right is a Hastings Triplet 14X.

9) Clipboard with maps

This is steadily becoming an optional thing, since maps are these days most often found on computers. Everyone has a field computer of some sort. So do I.

I've carried this since I was a graduate student.
I’ve carried this since I was a graduate student.
This map also comes from my graduate student days.
This map also comes from my graduate student days.

10) Field computer with GPS

This thing is getting old. Many of my colleagues are using iPads in the field. There are also fancy new GPSs that have cameras and maps built in.

This aging field computer still works... most of the time.
This aging field computer still works… most of the time.

11) A dedicated GPS

In the end, you must record (in your notebook) the latitude and longitude of the sites you visit. Yes, GPSs can store waypoints, but still write stuff down in your notebook. Seriously. You’ll thank me later.

This one is brand new... ish.
This one is brand new… ish.

12) Toilet paper

Yes. Don’t forget this. It’s good for toilet-y things, but also for wrapping specimens.

Sometimes called PT for 'paleo tissue.' This stuff is vital for wrapping fragile specimens.
Sometimes called PT for ‘paleo tissue.’ This stuff is vital for wrapping fragile specimens.

13) A hammer

I have many hammers. I always carry at least one, usually the one second from the right. I just got the one on the left however. I think it might become my favorite. Here’s a post about the merits of the different hammers.

The only hammer not pictured here is the 5 pound, long-handled sledge. Yeah. Sometimes you need that too.
The only hammer not pictured here is the 5 pound, long-handled sledge. Yeah. Sometimes you need that too.

14) A compass

This seems like a given, but for some of the work I do, I really don’t need the compass any more. I used to be that you needed a map and a compass to navigate, but with GPSs, this isn’t so important.

The compass is necessary for measuring the orientation of rocks, so I usually have it with me. But I don’t use it daily any more.

My magical Brunton compass. I don't use it as often as I used to...
My magical Brunton compass. I don’t use it as often as I used to…

15) Sample bags

Because you never know when you’re going to find something you want to pick up and keep. I always have a few of different sizes jammed in my pockets.

Two sizes of sample bags
Two sizes of sample bags

16) Food

This is another critical thing that needs to go into any field gear. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Bring something to eat!

17) First aid kit

It doesn’t need to be anything huge, but cuts and insect bites happen quite a lot. Bring something for headaches. Anything you need for allergies.

18) Cell phone

But shut it off to save the battery. This is for emergencies only. NO FIELD SELFIES!

19) Sunscreen

20) Insect spray

21) Rain gear

At least a poncho.

22) Duct tape

Because you never know when you’re going to tear your pants. It happens. Trust me.

Published by paleololigo

Scientist (Paleontology, Geochemistry, Geology); Writer (Speculative and Science Fiction, plus technical and non-technical Science); Mom to great boy on the Autism spectrum; possessor of too many hobbies.

3 thoughts on “Field Gear – What I Always Carry

  1. Hi Penny,

    I live in the Luangwa Valley Zambia, where I am fortunate to have lots of Karoo sediments containing Karoo therapsids, plus other tetrapods. I’ve just returned from a 6-week expedition with Chris Sidor (Un. of Washington), Ken Angielczyk (Field Museum Chicago), Sterling Nesbitt (Un. of Texas), and 5 other experts, and we found some incredible fossils.
    Sadly, on the trip I lost my Estwing long-handled geological pick and decided to replace it with two new Estwing products, a Burpee pick and a square head rock pick, E6-24PC, as breaking nodules is a big part of what we do, and my old long-handled rock pick wasn’t good for that (and my Estwing long-handled pointed rock pick E3-23LP and 40oz Cross Peen Hammer E6-40CP don’t always get carried every day).
    I found your post today whilst looking at geological hammers and general equipment and agree with much of what you have to say. The only thing I would add is a full-size pick with a synthetic handle. I have a Roughneck ‘railroad pick’, 5lbs in weight and 33” long, with narrow point and chisel ends, which is excellent at digging out items from a soft matrix. I also have the Estwing Paleo pick, which I find is excellent, and light enough to carry every day.
    I am really looking forward to getting the Burpee pick as it sounds ideal for much that I do (except for breaking nodules, hence the E6-24PC). A lady is visiting here from the States soon and is kindly bringing both new Estwing items with her.
    I looked at the link regarding the Marsh pick and was very interested in the SVP pick. Are these still available? I am an SVP member.
    You may have guessed by now that I am a gear-junkie!
    Best wishes, Steve

    Like

    1. Hi Steve,

      Y’know, I’ve never even heard of the SVP pick being something that was offered to the paleontological public for purchase. I think the one very shiny example in the Prep Lounge blog post was specially made as an award, and the commenter that said they were going to try to make them for general consumption has not yet done so. Otherwise, I’d probably already own one.

      You’ll love the Burpee pick. It’s a nice middle-size for trenching, but as you say, it’s lousy for cracking nodules. I almost always wind up carrying a different, additional hammer if I know I’m going to have to break rocks (or I at least make sure one of my field companions has a sufficient hammer for the task – most do).

      Cheers,

      ~Penny

      Like

      1. Thanks Penny, I can rest easier knowing that the SVP pick is a one-off. I hope that a similar pick becomes commercially available in the future, though I just know I’m going to love the Burpee. I like Estwing tools anyway, particularly the one-piece construction, and so a wooden-handled pick wouldn’t be ideal for me anyway.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: