Lab Notes

Short stories and links shared by the scientists in our community

Going into the wild for science? Here are five tips to survive (and enjoy!) summer field work (crying can help)

Shared by

Cassie Freund

Ecology

Wake Forest University

As the summer field work season draws closer, I thought I’d offer a few entirely unscientific tips for doing healthy and successful field work. Whether the upcoming field season is your first or tenth, you might be feeling pretty nervous and unprepared. That's normal! I've been in your shoes many times - so here are my top five pieces of advice to ease your mind, in no particular order:

1. Know what you should overpack and know what you can skimp on. Err on the side of bringing more food, batteries, and datasheets than you think you need, but know that you can usually get away with packing fewer clothes than you would for a normal trip. It’s the wilderness – no one cares how you look or how you smell! And honestly, wearing the same shirt and pants for five days in a row is a badge of honor in my book.

2. Allow yourself at least two comfort items. I work at high elevations in the Peruvian Andes, so one of mine is a hoodie. The other is usually a stash of personal snacks. And always, ALWAYS, have a couple of pairs of spare socks or underwear tucked away where they won’t get wet. Nothing feels better after a day in the elements than clean, dry clothing on your body.

USGS Geologist Robert Witter documenting tsunami scour features near Stardust Bay, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands.

USGS

3. Zippered plastic bags are your best friend. They’ll keep the bugs, dirt, and water away from your stuff. Other field must-haves are waterproof notebooks, permanent markers wrapped in duct tape (keep both on hand at all times!), and brightly colored flagging that you can attach to all of your stuff. You definitely will inevitably drop your pencil into a pile of leaves, rendering it near-invisible to the unaided eye. It will also be easier to find if it’s attached to a long strand of neon plastic – I promise.

4. Don’t be dumb or try to "prove yourself." Safety should come first, always. If your mental alarm bells start going off or your gut starts to knot from fear, get out of whatever situation you are in. This applies to anything from walking an unfamiliar trail out in the middle of nowhere to strolling down the street in a major city on a day off from field work. A healthy, happy, and secure field team is more important than any data. 

5. You’re probably going to cry! And that’s perfectly okay. For some reason, when we talk about doing field work it often devolves into a shouting match of one-upsmanship to tell the wildest, most ridiculous story about insane physical or mental feats we’ve accomplished (remind me to tell you about the time I wrestled an anaconda after walking 10 miles in my bare feet AND still managed to collect a secret groundbreaking dataset that will save the world!) (Kidding. So much kidding.) We forget to talk about all the ways that field work is really, really hard. Almost everyone I know has had a moment in the field where they have absolutely lost it, usually from a combination of exhaustion, fear, hunger, or just plain being stuck with the same small group of people for three weeks straight. It’s normal.

What's your favorite field work tip? Tweet me @CassieFreund and I'll share them. For the first time in seven summers I'm not headed into the field next month, and although it'll be weird, I can't wait to follow everyone's adventures from the clean comfort of my desk.