How to enjoy a successful fieldwork expedition

How to enjoy fieldwork in extreme environments

How to enjoy fieldwork in extreme environments

Many geoscientists undertake fieldwork as part of their research. Undergraduate, Masters and PhD students may all participate in fieldwork expeditions in far-flung, exotic locations. What things to researchers need to consider before they undertake their first expedition? I have put together this step by step guide, based on my 10 years of research in remote polar regions, to provide some tips and suggestions for a successful fieldwork expedition.

Planning

The first, and most important, part of an expedition is the planning phase. Unless the expedition is well planned, it will not be successful. These suggestions assume that you’re organising your own expedition.

Research planning

It's a priviledge to work in these beautiful environments

It’s a priviledge to work in these beautiful environments

Before any planning takes place, the researcher must critically evaluate their research design, and have a good idea of where to go, why they are going and what they hope to achieve when they get there. What methods will be used, what data will be collected, and what supplementary datasets are available? What equipment is needed, and is it durable? Will it break? Are back-ups needed, or will it be possible to get it repaired? Who is going on the expedition, and what specific skills do they bring, and what specific equipment do they need?

If in doubt, take extra supplies. And always take a spare hammer, chisel, field notebook, lots of spare sample bags and a decent camera with plenty of spare memory card and batteries. You can always fall back on these items. Ensure you have a means to charge your camera, it is an essential piece of field equipment!

Logistical arrangements

James Clark Ross at James Ross Island, NE Antarctic Peninsula

Loading kit on the James Clark Ross at James Ross Island, NE Antarctic Peninsula

Once you have carefully thought through everything to do with research, it is time to start planning logistics. My only advice here is to plan early. Work out early on what you need to take, how much space it will take up, and how heavy it will be. Book flights early; once they are booked, other things rapidly fall into place. Discuss arrangements with your colleagues, who may be travelling with you.

Have a medical check up, and have any vaccinations or immunisations you need. If you’re travelling far from medical assistance, you’ll need several. Discuss this with your nurse at your local health centre.

Work out the costs of shipping, and decide if your kit needs to be freighted to your destination. How will you transport it to the field location from the port? Do you need sherpas or porters? For a team of four for a month even in relatively benign conditions, you may have a tonne of kit. That’s 1000 kg – more than you can carry. These things need careful consideration.

Your institution will probably have several forms and procedures to help you prepare for fieldwork. One of these procedures may be a risk assessment. Risk assessments are crucial: they are not just a box-ticking exercise. Done properly, they can help you think through hazards and how you might mitigate them. Risk assessments are therefore well worth careful consideration.

Food

Eating the local wildlife is usually forbidden.

Eating the local wildlife is usually forbidden.

After the day’s research, the thing that a scientist is most interested in on fieldwork is food. Do not underestimate how hungry you will be after a long day in the field! You should carefully plan a menu for each day, working out daily calories (for hard fieldwork in the cold, 3000 for women and 3500-4000 daily calories for men, fewer if it’s warm or less arduous, more if it is particularly hard work). You should include 30% extra as contingency. However, you need to balance this with the cost of transporting your rations into the field, and you may need to ship them many months in advance of your fieldwork. Weight may be an issue if food has to be transported by hand, or helicopter. This, of course, limits your options considerably.

If you’re going to be out in the cold all day, you’ll need a substantial breakfast. Instant porridge with sugar, jam, cinnamon, dried fruit or raisins will keep you going. If you’re camping, you’ll also need huge quantities of tea, coffee and hot chocolate. Don’t forget the dried milk powder – UHT is heavy and fresh milk goes off.

Plan some snacks for throughout the day. Things like mixed fruit and nut (trail mix), chocolate, cereal bars and dried fruit go down well. Take a hot flask of water and make up bevvy bags with tea or coffee or milk powder. Powder to make isotonic sports drinks could also be a good idea. Lunch is often tricky. For simplicity of transport, durability and ease, Biscuits Brown with tinned cheese or tuna is reliable, if dull. Back it up with Biscuits Fruit or similar.

For the evening meal, you could go with boil-in-the-bag or dehydrated meals. These ready meals are often expensive, but are light, all inclusive, and easy when you’re living in extreme environments. Alternatives (recommended anyway, to keep boredom away) can be based around pasta, rice and instant mashed potato, and you can be quite creative with a few tins of vegetables, dehydrated vegetables, salami, tomato puree or tinned tomatoes, and tinned cheese.

Marmite. I never eat it at home, but it's salty and tasty in the field. Credit: Malcolm Farmer, Wikimedia Commons.

Marmite. I never eat it at home, but it’s salty and tasty in the field. Credit: Malcolm Farmer, Wikimedia Commons.

Fieldwork food is often dull, monotonous and boring. Including treats and things to spice it up can really make your day, and make a significant difference to your enjoyment of your field season. Choose strongly flavoured, tasty items that travel well. I recommend things like pesto, sundried tomatoes, chillies, salamis (these can be taken with you on the plane, or bought locally once you arrive at your destination), dried onions, marmite, different kinds of chocolates and cereal bars, dried fruit, pickle or chutney, and some good packs of herbs. And a cheeky bottle of whisky is recommended!

Field clothing

I love my buff. Sunglasses also essential on snowy ground!

I love my buff. Sunglasses also essential on snowy ground!

Choose your field clothing carefully. You definitely do not want to be cold, wet and miserable! Use good layering techniques, starting off with base layers (Merino wool preferred, it smells less and is warm and comfortable), mid-layers (light-weight down jackets are all the rage; also try fleeces and thicker thermals; thick work trousers) and outer layers (should be warm and dry and breathable). Padded knees I find an excellent addition to work trousers; geologists spend a lot of time on their knees! You’ll need excellent, water-proof boots, and you may need crampons and ice axes, depending on where you’re going. You’ll need several pairs of gloves, socks, hats and a second, dry pair of camp shoes. I would also pack some thermals to sleep in. I find getting changed each night and morning an important morale boost.

Take several changes of clothes. Changing into warm, dry clothes (even if they’re not clean) immediately when you get back to the tent is a massive morale boost. You do not want to be sitting around in cold, damp clothes. So take several pairs of thermals and work trousers, and rotate so you always have at least one dry set.

Other things to pack

In addition to the obvious things to pack, like tents, living kit, sleeping bags, stoves, spades and so on, here is a list of vital things you should also remember:

  • Ear plugs. Nothing makes you more miserable than listening to snoring. I recommend the wax ones, you’ll never hear anything again!
  • Good books (I recommend a Kindle or similar, so you can take many).
  • A small sewing kit, to repair the inevitable tears.
  • Body/clothes wash. Because washing your hair is a real treat, and clean clothes are great.
  • Wet wipes, the expeditioner’s friend. They’re great for cleaning everything.
  • A diary.
  • More socks. You can never have enough. No-one wants wet feet.

On the expedition

So, you’re here, you’ve landed, and the expedition has started! Well done. It takes an immense amount of effort to get this far. How can you ensure that your fieldwork is successful?

Work goals

Working in the evening in the tent, with a brew and biscuits.

Working in the evening in the tent, with a brew and biscuits.

There are several things to consider. The first is that you’ve done excellent prior planning, so you’ve got a clear list of fieldwork objectives and goals. You’ve got a prioritised list of where to go and what to do. Even so, it’s probably beneficial to spend a couple of days, if you have them, scoping out the local area and seeing the lie of the land.

Everybody works in different ways, but I normally have a laptop (my kit normally needs a generator), and write up my day’s work in the evenings. That way, if I lose my field notebook (drop it in a stream, a crevasse, blown away, eaten by a bear…), all is not a disaster. Plotting my data up also helps me see at what stage the work is, and I can watch the results evolving. This helps me to plan future work days, and re-prioritise on the fly.

Getting on with the team

Living in cold environments can be hard work: cutting snow blocks to make water to make tea.

Living in cold environments can be hard work: cutting snow blocks to make water to make tea.

Fieldwork involves working very closely with a small team. If you’re camping in extreme environments, you may be sharing a tent and may find it very difficult to get personal space away from your colleagues. Fieldwork can be difficult, cold, dirty, tiring and you can be hungry after a long day’s work. You may be feeling grumpy, hungry, lonely, tired or fed up. In these circumstances, it is important to recognise these feelings in yourself and in others. Personally, after a hard day’s work, I am no good until I have had something to eat and drink. So I get straight to work boiling water, making tea, and making biscuits brown and marmite for a salty snack. Then, I am ready to discuss the day’s achievements.

Fieldwork requires teamwork like no other environment. You must be sensitive to the needs of others, as well as to yourself. Work as a team, and if someone is tired, or starts to withdraw into themselves, consider why and think about what you can do to help. Maybe the team needs a day off to recover after a series of long hard days, or someone needs more time to themselves. Share your treats, and bond as a team. Either way, by working as a team, your expedition will be much more fulfilling and successful. In any case, mostly you will get on with your teammates – after all, you have similar objectives and outlooks, as you all want to do remote fieldwork. I have always found my tent-mates fun and inspiring, and enjoyed working with them.

Taking time alone can also be important. If it’s howling weather outside, you may not be able to go for a walk. But you can always plug in your headphones, close your eyes, and transport yourself somewhere else. Writing a diary can be cathartic.

In summary: share everything, especially food, especially interesting food. Food is sacred. Work as a team. Get things done thoroughly, well, and reanalyse your progress and targets throughout the expedition.

Top morale boosters

Morale is important for a successful field season. You may be in the most amazing place on Earth, but it also gets lonely, cold, dirty, and sometimes downright miserable. Here are some of my tried and tested morale boosters:

  • Exciting food treats (did I mention that already?!).
  • Dry, comfortable sleeping clothes.
  • Good books to loose yourself in.
  • Letters from home (particularly if you’ll be out of contact for a significant event, like birthdays, anniversaries, or Christmas).
  • Keeping a diary
  • A bottle of whisky to celebrate with after an excellent day, or conclusion of fieldwork
  • Washing. Take some biodegradable soap so you can keep clean. Wet-wipes can fill the gap between washes!

Final advice

You can't go wrong with a notebook, tape measure, camera and pencil!

You can’t go wrong with a notebook, tape measure, camera and pencil!

When travelling home, back up all your work and store it separately to your notebook. All those samples are meaningless without your notes. My notebook stays in my possession at all times (it travels in hand luggage on aeroplanes, it’s my most precious possession!). My notes will be typed up on my computer, also in my possession, and backed up on a memory stick and external hard drive, which are packed separately. If I have the facilities to do so, I will also email myself the most important notes. These data are vital and precious – don’t lose them!

Further reading

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One thought on “How to enjoy a successful fieldwork expedition

  1. Really brilliant reminder!
    I have no polar (or extreme) fieldwork experience but 10 years of geology lesson fieldwork, lots of hiking in the Alps (leaving in Grenoble for 2 years helps 😉 and the Gaspésie Appalachian Range (Québec) and some trekking (mostly in the Alps and one in Iceland). In addition, as a current surveyor, I spend some time on field (unfortunately too much urban for me…).
    I can assure you if you bring everything of this post, you’re going finish as the guy who saves the trip and everybody enjoys it thanks to you. How many time I fixed stuff with my leatherman? If you don’t have one, run to buy one (ok, ok, mine is lost somewhere in south of France) and you will save the person who broke hooks on boots… How many time I made someone smile with some chocolate with raspberry chunk in it? Or how many time I avoided team/group crisis thanks to some paracetamol (small tip: ibuprofen raises blood pressure so in extreme/high altitude conditions, avoid it)?
    Since my trek in Iceland with 3 classmates, my only concern is “who is with me on the field/hike/trek?”. I was used to go with people with fewer experience than me and so I always did/do extra-planning with extra-explanation: like that no need to worry for logistic and you can enjoy… until Iceland…
    [classmates] -“No problem, we studied the path and in any case there is tags everywhere: we can’t get lost!”
    [me] -“C’mon guys, I know Landmannalaugar is really touristy but on that trail there is no footprint…”
    [classmates] -“Coward, it’s a shortcut!”
    And 30 min later, me, my compass and my rope were pulling my classmates on a tiny trail in the middle of cliffs… So being a team really makes the difference with being a bunch of people walking/working together…
    One last tip: always bring toothbrush and minty toothpaste, otherwise within 2 days nobody want to talk to you 😛

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