Hacking the outdoors
June 4, 2011 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Help me survive two months of field work! What gear should I bring along?

I'll be doing some geology/mapping in CA and NV up through the end of July, and while I've got the basic gear necessities down from past field work, I've never been out for quite so long. Weather will be very hot, elevation will be high, and days will be filled with hiking and scrambling over rocks--so, I'm looking for some appropriate gear to help minimize the pain!

Recent mindblowing discoveries have included the "Kool Tie" and liner socks. Never knew they existed. Magical. Two layers of socks? Madness! Comfortable, comfortable madness. Additionally, since this will be a long-term, permanent camp, it only just occurred to me normally inappropriate things like a huge-o tent (being able to stand up = priceless) are worthwhile for once--bulk/weight isn't an issue.

So, what other nifty stuff exists out there? Hiking and mapping gear? Long-term camping luxury upgrades? Clothes? Product recommendations? Stuff I probably haven't thought of? While we're at it, awesome hiking tips/hacks to help me survive?
posted by the oxford comma to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
It's been a decade since I did remote field work (uninhabited island for 6 months). Back then here are some things that kept me sane:
* Extra pairs of earphones - Music was the one thing that really helped me relax and rodents on the island would chew through an unattended pair every so often.
* If you have an ipod/ipad, then grab one of these solar chargers
* Take a bottle of two of the best spirits you can afford to drink. There is nothing more satisfying than a sip of fine alcohol at the end of a long day of field work.
* Earplugs (in case one/more of your colleagues snore. This is a persistent problem for everyone I know that does field work).
* Have a couple of pairs of fast drying field shirts/pants. Something like ex-officio. My favorite pair of field pants (an old North Face pair) could be dragged through streams and mud but will be bone dry before I set up camp.
Baby wipes. - I never go backpacking without it.

Do you have to carry all your gear in? If so it would limit some other recommendations I can make.
posted by babby╩╝); Drop table users; -- at 10:24 AM on June 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

We'll be able to drive all of our stuff in, so that shouldn't be a problem.
posted by the oxford comma at 10:44 AM on June 4, 2011

A corkscrew.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 11:02 AM on June 4, 2011

Oh, and the ex-ofifcio shirts are awesome. (Or the REI knock-off)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 11:03 AM on June 4, 2011

You probably already know about wicking undergarments.

And since you're driving in, I'd bring a really good pillow. And a barbecue grill.
posted by box at 11:22 AM on June 4, 2011

-- The big tent for sure. Something that dawned on me the same way, would be a couple of packs of those solar powered decorative yard lights for around camp. Stick em in the ground, never have to move or mess with them, and they will cast just enough light to see at night you you need to get up.
posted by timsteil at 11:22 AM on June 4, 2011

If your going to be sharing the tent with other people I would pack good ear plugs, you never know who may snore.
posted by sandyp at 11:31 AM on June 4, 2011

Since you will essentially be car camping, why not take whatever else makes you comfortable and fits in the car?

If you're a coffee drinker, take a Moka Pot. - and your favorite mug(s)
A comfortable pillow.
A plastic table which can easily be disassembled (where the legs come off) and perhaps some folding chairs. Eating your meals while sitting on the ground gets old real fast and it's nice to have a table to sit around.
Pouch wine (if you don't feel like packing out heavy glass bottles).
Rocket Shower - assuming you don't have access to running water (although I have personally not tried it).
posted by babby╩╝); Drop table users; -- at 11:52 AM on June 4, 2011

You may have already thought about it, but I was amazed when I started doing field work what a difference having a chair makes. Not just for around camp, either--if your field work ever involves sitting around somewhere waiting for something to happen, having your chair with you can make all the difference. Crazy Creeks are great.

I will second or third the quick dry clothes. Another trick I recently learned is that hunting or fishing vests are really handy during the day if you have a lot of little odds and ends to keep up with. I'm usually wearing chest waders, which have a pocket on the front, but having dozens of little additional pockets is pretty great.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:34 PM on June 4, 2011

Great tips so far. I'd like to add that after a long day of field work in the sun, you are going to want some shade. Make sure you bring an awning. tarp or something to string up. Something to sit under in rain or shine is key.


-Comfortable around-camp flip flops or sneakers

-Baby wipes (seconding babby, I wish I had thought to bring these the first time I did field work)

-Tough gardening gloves, 2 pairs, for handling prickly brush and other materials.

-Small, portable game like backgammon or cribbage, don't know how to play? you'll have time to learn.

-High elevations? Star-gazing! you are going to want a star map.

-Other field guides for local flora and fauna. For expanding your knowledge of nature, sure, but mainly these can help answer such urgent questions such as, is this plant poisonous? What are these animal tracks in our camp? Is this REALLY an edible mushroom or is my field partner a dumbass?

Have fun!
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 1:36 PM on June 4, 2011

A few things that I thought of:

If you're camping for a while, it's nice to have a folding or reversible camping bowl. They're super easy to lick clean, and it's a pain to dishes at every meal while in the field. Along the same lines, a small thermos for hot beverages is also a bonus. Even in the desert in July, it can be pretty cold in the early mornings on occasion. Also, it sounds like maybe your food situation is taken care of, but you might want to consider packing your own high energy snack - a mixture of dried fruit, some kind of whole grain, nuts, and sometimes chocolate are great to munch on if you are on the move and need an energy boost. For that matter, I really liked to have little packets of Emergen-C for when I wasn't feeling well.

You'll want your own quality pocket knife, also. Leathermans are great.

You mention socks, so I'm guessing you have a good pair of hiking boots picked out. Please make sure to bring them in before you get out in the field - blisters suck, and you're on your feet all the time in the field. You might also want to invest in a pair of Tevas or Chacos for after work, when you want to air out your sore feet. Also, if you're wearing hiking boots all the time and it's dry weather, there's a good chance your feet are going to start getting messed up. Bring some moisturizer to put on at night to help with calluses.

Binoculars are nifty.

Books were my number one comfort item while camping in the desert. I managed to tackle just about all the longer novels I'd put on my reading list that I'd never finished. If you're arriving by car, there's no reason you can't bring quite a few. Also, a journal, extra pens, stuff to write letters to people back at home. And ziplock baggies to keep all that stuff dry. Cards are great for group activity at night.

Oh, you definitely want a good, shock-resistant head-lamp and spare batteries. I can't recommend any particular brand, though I like the kind that can switch to a red light - it makes reading at night easier on the eyes.

That's all I can think of for now. I've done a fair amount of time doing long-term camping, but I'm not particularly a gear-head. I'm sure there's some nifty stuff out there, but the basics are super important. Your feet become really important out there, make sure to keep them happy.
posted by ajarbaday at 2:36 PM on June 4, 2011

Oops, I meant to say *break in your hiking boots before going out into the field.
posted by ajarbaday at 4:41 PM on June 4, 2011

This may fall under "basic necessities," but: moleskin, for hiking boot blisters. I absolutely love that stuff.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 6:22 PM on June 4, 2011

Speaking of star maps, if you have a smart phone, get the Star Walk app. Augmented reality awesomeness.

Another thing is a good LED lantern. Though headlamps are great, having a lantern to light up a card game in your tent is really nice.
posted by rockindata at 7:21 PM on June 4, 2011

This might fall into the category of "You're better off NOT knowing", but on a recent camping trip to the desert, we found it enormously entertaining (and more than a little bit freaky) to shine an ultraviolet (blacklight) flashlight around looking for scorpions. They glow bright yellow, it's amazing.

Also, writing paper.

Things to make camp life entertaining. Cards/games, or, depending on how silly the group is likely to get, Shel Silverstein poetry book would have been fun on our trip.

If you get a star chart, learn how to use it first, we couldn't figure ours out.

Nthing "chair". Hammock. Super thick air mattress.

And of course, your favorite alcohol, candy, etc.

Good daypack with a water bladder.
posted by bluesky78987 at 8:02 PM on June 4, 2011

If you like coffee, how about an Aeropress?
posted by dialetheia at 9:22 PM on June 4, 2011

Similar to the "Kool Tie" is the multifunctional head piece known as the "buff". Check out the youtube video describing its uses: Youtube

Also bring a good quality folding/fixed knife, in addition to the leatherman/multitool. Refer to the adage that 2 is 1 and 1 is none. You mention you've got the basics down pat from previous expeditions, but if you're at a loss for brands, CRKT is always a good bet.

Along the same lines, a small fire source is usually good to bring along. CountryComms stocks the itty bitty peanut lighters, which are so small you almost forget you're carrying them: Peanut Lighter. Also pick up a length of 550/parachute cord, which is a general purpose must-have (can be ordered from CountryComm or pickup from any army surplus store).

Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools site is a treasure trove of cool gadgets. If you are looking to spend money on "stuff", there are worse places to draw inspiration from.

Good quality tweezers are a godsend when you need them. CountryComms has 'em, but again you can usually find them locally. Just make sure to get the right kind, with a 45' degree angled tip.

Presumably you already have a decent headlamp and flashlight, but if you don't, 4seven makes very reasonably priced flashlights. They are small run with the newest technology (brightest LEDs with strobe, SOS, super high output and maximum battery life modes), and while the durability isn't the same as a surefire, you don't feel quite as bad when you lose it.

Make up a small spice kit, and be sure to include a tiny bottle of the most potent, eye watering, tongue searing hot sauce you can find. Ideally the sort that you need one or two drops for a huge pot of sauce. In terms of camp utenzils, you should be able to get by with your knife and a spork. You can use your leatherman to move pots around, don't worry about those funny detachable pot handles.

I find for serious hiking in dusty weather, cough drops can make things just a little more bearable. Keeps your mouth from being totally dry. This would go along with your stash of other pills and creams: acetaminophen (tylenol) and ibuprofen (advil), a decongestant (sudafed), fast acting antihistamine for stings/bug bites (benadryl) and an all day/24 (reactine/arius), dimenhydrinate for anti-nausea or just sleeping aid (gravol). Vitamine e cream / aloe vera cream is good for most minor skin ailements, zinc oxide is serious sunscreen, and a healthy supply of deet (get the small bottle of high concentration and mix your own solution as you go, so you don't need to carry as much)

Cards are a good idea. Bring two decks, and print off (or better yet, store on your iPod) a list of instructions for different card games that you can play.

And lastly, pack light! :-)
posted by felspar at 10:55 PM on June 4, 2011

Generator, fuel, freezer.. Icecream!!!

And I'm only half joking. One of the big differences between drive in and walk in camps for me is those big heavy infrastructure items that you just can't carry if you're walking. Others:

Big arse tent, as you've said.
Camp cot with mat rather than mat on the ground.
Mosquito Net.
Folding table(s) and chairs.
Multi burner gas stove and big cylinder.
or A barbecue with a lid, so you can bake.
Decent heavy pot.
Chopping boards.
Real knives, spatula, tongs, etc.
Plastic tubs or buckets for washing up, laundry, washing in, etc.
Proper bathroom and shaving gear (some kind of camp shower, a real towel, a mirror, shaving cream..)

And then there's the joys of tinned food rather than having to rehydrate everything. Just think peaches..
posted by Ahab at 11:48 PM on June 4, 2011

Hang on. You're mapping. So you're going to have some kind of way to charge computer batteries and stuff, yeah? Solar to car batteries to chargers or something?

Just asking because there's all those other 12V appliances. Like lighting, stereos, coffee makers, slow cookers, washing machines, fridges, freezers.. Icecream!!!

(More seriously, if the nights are going to be hot, and you do have power, a little 12v fan would be awesome.)
posted by Ahab at 12:08 AM on June 5, 2011

Mp3 player filled to the gills with audiobooks.
posted by ursus_comiter at 1:54 AM on June 5, 2011

The most comfortable sleeping arrangement possible. Camp bed, duvet, real pillow. You don't want to be fiddling around with a sleeping bag for that long if you don't have to. And a cheap fleece blanket for if it gets cold. Plus, sleeping off the ground provides for more storage space underneath your bed.
posted by Lebannen at 1:13 PM on June 5, 2011

I've spent a couple of years working in one of the toughest field sites in the tropics. We spend 12-14 hours a day running around the jungle. Although my field site probably destroys more equipment than yours will, I know all the stuff that will last, which will be helpful if you plan to do this long term.

REI is the best place to get stuff because of their return policy. You can purchase their stuff online and have friends return it.

The two most important things to have when you are out in the field for long periods are good boots and a good back pack. Back pack wise, get one closest to the size needed for your equipment (unfortunately, sometimes hard to figure out unless you've been doing this for a while). Osprey, deuter, and gregory are the three brands that have lastest the longest. When you purchase it, make sure it will rest comfortably when you are wearing your belt.

Shoe-wise, I highly recommend Asolo and Vasque. Yes, they will cost a bit more upfront, but they are well worth every penny. I've destroyed Timberlands, Hi-tecs, and keens, but my Asolo and my vasque pair are rocking it. Inside your shoe, either get those superfeet insoles or Dr scholls. Personally, I like having two pairs of hiking boots (I found it reduces blisters), but if I can't, I always have two types of inserts: one when my feet need support and one for when my feet need comfort.

If you'll be walking over a lot of streams by hopping over rocks, get waterproof. If your feet might get wet a lot, bring non-waterproof, extra socks, and baby powder. I'm sure you've heard this already, but don't purchase any socks other than smartwool. Your feet will thank you.

I used to bring moleskin, but now I use ducktape and I swear it works much better than moleskin. Bring at least two things of ducktape and carry one with you by wrapping it around your water bottle. Ducktape makes a great patch for when your clothes get ripped. You can sew it on with your little sewing kit and it lasts longer than most cloth patches.

If heat is your major concern, then bring those lightweight 'adventure pants' REI and other outdoor outfitters sell. If you are more concerned about tearing your clothes or travelling through prickly brush, then purchase Army pants at a surplus store. I wear my adventure pants when it rains or is exceptionally hot. I wear my Army pants once I've adjusted to the heat and when I want to really run around. Get a dark color so it hides the stains better.

I know it seems counter intuitive, but the best thing you can do in heat (especially in the sun) is to cover up. When I went hiking in Death Valley I wore my adventure shirts and pants and I felt much cooler wearing them covering up my body than I did when the sun was hitting my skin. If you purchase adventure clothes, get them with a good SPF rating.

I swear by bandanas and will never go hiking without them. You can douse them in water and throw them over your head for a cool down, wrap them around your face to better shield your eyes from the sun, use them to wipe away sweat, use them as fly/mosquito swatters, make makeshift bandages out of them, etc.

A visor will keep the sun out of yours eyes without adding extra heat to your head.

I'm sure you've heard of camel packs, and definitely get one, but also have backup water because camel packs can be destroyed/leek. I've found that when it's really hot, you get sick of drinking just water, so I always bring out flavored water in a nalgene (I swear by them) when it's very hot. I highly recommend tang, and those other flavored teas and things you can purchase in your supermarket. Get multiple flavors for adding a bit of taste and variety to your diet. To avoid carrying lots of water around, try to drink at least a litre before you leave your camp in the morning. Yes, you'll pee like crazy early in the morning, but it beats lugging around 7 litres for a few hours.

My PI has been coming to my field site for 20+ years and she lives off of trail mix. Before I head out to the field site for the season, I by a bunch of different items kept in different containers: raisons, dried fruit, all sorts of nuts, peanut m&ms, crushed peanuts, etc. Then, I take small, plastic peanut butter jars and fill them for the day with whatever I fill like eating. Shake it up, boom, instand trail mix. This way, my trail mix varies from day to day, and I always have emergency food that's lightweight, and easy to eat. I buy the premixed trail mix from Whole Foods as well, but I love being able to add my own toppings. I put it in the top part of my pack so I can just reach back, screw off the lid and pour it in my mouth. If you are a woman and it's very hot out, definitely bring dried cranberries.

Speaking of food, once you've been out in the field for a while, you'll be amazed at how long stuff can last. Bring a reusable lunch bag, some good tupperware (I like stuff with screw on lids) and Light my fire sporks. Yeah, they aren't the sturdiest things, but they're cheap and you only have to bring one of them to eat any meal (I always keep two in my pack).

Another product I swear by is energy bars. I've had good experiences with Cliffs, Lunas, and Protein plus. I always keep a power bar in my vest for easy eating, and another in my pack in case I lose my lunch or need extra food.

As another poster mentioned above, fishing vests are amazing things. I can't imagine doing field work without it. They run for stupid prices, but you can make your own with just a bit of needlework. Pick one with a lot of mesh so that you don't have to worry about the heat. In my fishing vest I keep my gps, psion, radio, Rite in rain field notebook, pens, power bar, epipen (I work in a site with killer bees), biodegradable toilet paper (with more in my pack), hand sanitizer (camp soap goes in bag), extra plastic bags for collecting samples, dictaphone, point and shoot camera, extra batteries, map, compass (with mirror), eyedrops, and mini-sewing kit. I can access all of this stuff in seconds. When I had smaller binocs, I built a special pocket for them, but I upgraded to a binoc harness to get better viewing power.

For my first aid kit, I don't carry much. I bought one of those REI hiker kits, but I found that I rarely use most of it. What I found very helpful to add was one of those minipill bottles that I fill with all the pills that I need to take (in very high heat and humidity, pills often melt). In it, I keep antihistamines, tylenol, benedryl (also works as a sleep aid), IB profin, and UTI pills. I chose ones that are colorful, so I can tell the difference. I've never had any complications from mixing, and others in my field site do the same.

If you are in an area where nasty bites can occur, get cortizone 10. When I was a noob and less used to pain, I also purchased afterbite, which does help, but only cortizone 10 (or a knock off of it) will help against sharp pain like bullet ant bites. Personally, I love liquid bandages, but I also worked in a very humid environment, and regular bandages never lasted long. Again, I often used ducktape to patch stuff up when I was busy.

Snake bite kits don't work. Don't bring one.

Since I've seen DEET destroy plastic and since I work in an area with a lot of mosquitoes, I don't use bug spray. Instead, I wear clothes that are either too heavy for the bugs to bite through, or are too baggy. Don't wear tight shirts/pants. I wave my bandana around when it's early morning/evening and the mosquitoes are bad. If you let yourself just get ravaged by mosquitoes, you can get used to their bites. I found that wiping down with rubbing alcohol before I went into the field and after I got out of the shower basically eliminated chiggers.

Spices were the biggest thing we craved at my campsite, so I always bring them down in smaller bottles. I had a coworker who loved to fleshly salt her food in the field, so she carried one of those little shakers with her.

If you'll be doing nighttime or lowlight hiking, make sure your headlamp has a red light function to preserve your night vision. I always keep a headlamp in easy reach and a backup flashlight buried deeper in my pack.

In addition to my main compass, I always carry a little cheap, keychain compass attached to my fishing vest. My main compass has a mirror in it which, along with tweezers, has been surprisingly helpful for doing emergency field operations when various things lodge places they shouldn't.

Although I've never used them because I sometimes have to crawl through brush, hiking poles might be useful to you. Get a lightweight pair that folds up tiny.

If you know what you are doing, you can make anything in a cast iron dutch oven. My coworker made cheesecakes in these things. If you are responsible for your own food, bring lentils and quinoa. Amazing stuff.

The best food to make in camp that will last forever in the field are thick curries, stews, chilis, and foods from cultures with hot climates (African, Indian, Middle Eastern). I've eaten hummus that was taken from the fridge at 4 am, dragged through a tropical forest in the middle of the dry season, and served at 6 pm. Still good. As long as you don't get sick of them PB&Js are excellent field foods for the day hiker. Put the peanut butter on both slices of bread to avoid getting soggy bread 15 hours of hiking later.

I did some geology field studies in Joshua Tree and they were amazing. I'm currently out of the field and I'm so jealous. Have fun.
posted by avagoyle at 9:23 PM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

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