Things You Might Use in the Field

The Essentials and Near Essentials

As noted above, the essential materials for going in the field (besides yourselves) are clothing (especially footwear) that is suited to the weather and trail conditions and a first-aid kit appropriate to the situation. You will likely also want tools or devices to extend your senses, to preserve your observations, to collect materials (where safe and legal), to take photographs, and to store data, all of which will allow for continued observation and analysis after you return from the field. If your fieldwork is on the school grounds, or adjacent to it, you perhaps won’t need anything different than what is needed on a typical class day, at least for the initial visit.

To extend your senses, start with simple things like magnifying loupes and rulers and potentially move on to include more sophisticated tools like probeware (to measure pH, temperature, and dissolved oxygen) or field microscopes. Since tools are used for both extending your senses and for capturing and preserving your observations, the most obvious tools for preserving one’s observations are notebooks, pencils, cameras, GPS units, smartphones, and tablets.

As varied as field science is, a few items should be in every scientist’s gear whether you are investigating rocks, observing streams, or documenting ecology. Even though processes and concepts are universal, each place is also unique, a product of its position on the Earth, its geological and ecological history, and the local human impacts. Making sense of why a place looks the way it does must take that context into account. Further, good science depends upon repeatability of observations: if another scientist (or your next class!) wants to analyze or build upon your observations, he or she must be able to know precisely where your study took place and how you made your observations. It is thus critical to locate the position of your studies on a map as precisely as possible. With modern GPS technology, it has never been easier to record a location to within a few meters, though you can certainly follow good science practices even if you don’t have this capability. Table 11.2 lists equipment and materials that are useful in the field.

Maps and Notebooks

Large-scale maps provide a way to see your field site in the context of other features in the area. At a closer scale they also provide a way to show the position of several sites relative to each other. At still higher resolution, maps provide the medium to store and display spatial information from one site. You will therefore probably want maps at all of these scales.

Large- and medium-scale maps for providing context can be found online. Google Maps and Google Earth are two of the best known interactive sources. If students need help understanding maps and scale, a helpful exercise is to create a “Powers of Ten” map of your schoolyard, starting with an overhead shot of the school yard that students recognize, then zooming out—making each of the new images increase in dimension by ten times—until one can see the site from the perspective of the whole Earth. A video tutorial, inspired by the classic film, is available at It is simple to add your field site to the same Google Earth file containing the Powers of Ten centered on your school. This can help students better understand the location of the field site in relation to the school.

Table 11.2: Materials to take in the field. (Items in bold are highly recommended.)

Table 11.2: Materials to take in the field. (Items in bold are highly recommended.)

Field scientists typically show information about their field site: the location of observations (such as photographs and specimen collection) and also the scientific data (such as rock type, position of faults, areas of bedrock exposure, water quality information, and much more). For these purposes you may want to have a paper copy of a map you can bring into the field upon which you can make notes. Commonly topographic maps are used as base maps, in part because the contours can help you locate yourself on the map (if it’s not completely flat) and partly because the topography itself is often relevant to Earth and the environmental data being collected. If your field area is larger than about 100 meters (330 feet) on a side, you can create a topographic map tailored to your needs using online software ( USGS topographic maps of the entire US are available as free downloads at You may wish to download the local map and take an excerpt of the area surrounding your site.

Positions of samples, photographs, and observations can be located using GPS. In this case, you can make notes about your GPS locations, and plot the locations on a computer later, or make use of an app like Skitch that allows you to annotate digital maps in the field. Photos taken with smartphones, tablets, and GPS-enabled cameras will include location data with pictures. Those familiar with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can make elaborate maps using your own sets of coordinates and data. While GPS and GIS technology are now standard in most types of fieldwork, they are not essential for doing good fieldwork. Standard, intuitive tools for measuring are, however, quite helpful. A compass (either traditional or digital) can be helpful in orienting your field site in space, and a ruler and protractor can be helpful when drawing the field site in correct proportions (e.g., the position of samples along a transect or the angle of bedding or faults). Bring a clipboard so that you have a flat surface to write upon in the field—pencils and a good eraser are the best writing implements for drawing and annotating your map.

It is possible in principle to capture all your data electronically, but most field scientists still use a notebook even if they have access to the latest technology. Certain information can be captured very simply in the field with a pencil and paper while it may prove challenging with digital technology, such as when making annotated sketches of the field site and taking written notes. Normally pencil is used, in part because it doesn’t smear if it gets wet, but also because it’s erasable;; while not essential, field scientists who know they may have to work in wet conditions will purchase notebooks with waterproof paper (Rite- in-the-Rain notebooks). An audio recorder (smartphone or standalone digital recorder) is handy when writing a lot of text is impractical, though it does create transcription work at the end of the day. Remember that it is considered a form of “best practice” to make sure that each entry includes the date, time, and locality.