Back in March 2016, I remember that feeling of sudden dread at the prospect of organising my first field campaign. Where do you start?
- Take a deep breath
- Create a fieldwork dossier
- Keep paperwork protected from the elements
- Always ask yourself “What if?”
- Invest in one, but don’t rely on your sat nav
- Learn a few key words in the local language
- Book field equipment in advance
- Check airline regulations for equipment
- Don’t neglect your field assistants
The first step before planning fieldwork is to have a sound understanding of where you are going and why you are going. Take a step back. What do you want to achieve? Which research questions are you going to tackle?
One of the first tasks that my supervisors set me was to produce a fieldwork booklet. This really helped me lay out on paper exactly what I wanted to achieve during my fieldwork, and why I had chosen a particular location to answer my research questions.
As the planning phase progressed, I added additional layers of information to the guide such as a detailed daily itinerary, address and contact details of accommodation, key maps and diagrams, and any potential hazards at each site. This booklet became the main source of information for the entire field campaign. We used it in the mornings to plan our route, in the field to relate data to research questions, and in the evenings to discuss what we had achieved that day and how it relates back to the science.
We were very lucky with the weather, but had it been raining my maps would have disintegrated. I highly recommend getting key maps and diagrams laminated!
In the planning phase I was so paranoid about things going wrong that I had several contingency plans for each day. Things do go wrong and it is very rare that things go exactly the way you planned!
The first field site of the very first day of my trip was a prime example of things going a bit pear shaped. We quickly found that the only entrance point to the site by vehicle was blocked by an electric fence! Being in Sweden in the first week of August, everyone was on holiday and so there wasn’t a single person in sight to ask for help…. including the farmer whose fence was across the path! I decided it was best to travel to another site a few miles away. The lesson here is that because I had back-up plans, there wasn’t a sense of panic when faced with thinking on my feet.
I think that if your mind is free from panic about logistical things, you have a clearer mind to make critical scientific decisions in the field.
I decided to invest in a European sat nav since over the course of the 4 years of my PhD, paying £40 to rent one through car hire companies for each trip would soon add up. What my sat nav failed to account for were private roads. Had it not been for the paper maps, we would have been driving around in circles looking for public roads.
If your fieldwork is in a country which you do not speak the native language, I would also recommend familiarising yourself with key words in the Highway Code. We quickly learned that ‘vägbom’ means ‘road barrier’ in Swedish.
Most geography/geology researchers go on fieldwork around the same time of the year, so you want to make sure there is enough equipment in your department to go around. I also recommend checking that there aren’t any undergraduate/masters field trips planned during the same time as your research so that you aren’t all fighting for that last Russian corer… Your lab/field technician will be able to help you out with equipment availability.
I made a list of absolutely everything that was in my field equipment box, right down to blue roll and tape measures and printed copies to put inside the equipment box and show at the check-in desk – it’s better to be prepared, just in case! I also had no idea of the restrictions on lithium batteries in both your hand and hold luggage with some airlines, and it sounds obvious, but make sure your GPS is switched off before you fly!
The success of any field campaign depends on the strength of its team. I was grateful to have two fantastic field assistants who gave up their spare time to help me out.
Whilst all PhD research is on a budget, do not sacrifice group moral to save a few pennies on your food budget. You will need lots of calories, particularly if fieldwork is labour-intensive. A good breakfast of porridge with jam and/or dried fruit is a sure winner, and for lunches you can never have too many cheese and ham sandwiches!
Pack plenty of snacks and treats for the field. A packet of biscuits or a handful of gummy sweets can do wonders when you need that final sediment core or the weather takes a turn for the worst. If you are working in a cold environment then you need to up your calorie intake and a flask of tea/coffee is essential.
Planning evening meals is vital – you will want to eat quickly in the evenings, especially after a hard day’s work. Pasta or rice dishes are go to meals, but be creative – we managed to have a Mexican themed dinner on the campsite which was great fun!
Do you have any top tips for fieldwork? Any funny stories about things going wrong? Wish you had taken something you forgot to last time? Leave a comment below and share your advice with others!
Other Useful Resources
- Your supervisor(s) – utilise their knowledge and ask them for advice, if they don’t know the answer, then someone else in your department probably will.
- How to enjoy a successful fieldwork expedition – blog by Dr. Bethan Davies, Antarctic Glacier
- Royal Geographical Society Expedition Handbook
- Ten top tips for physical geography postgrads – blog by Ian Stevens