What should I bring for a three-month field expedition to Central Africa?
November 7, 2012 11:08 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to be doing fieldwork in Central Africa next summer. What do I need to bring?

So it looks like I'm going to be spending a couple-or-three months doing fieldwork in Central Africa next summer. I have a fair amount of camping experience but have never done extensive fieldwork before, and certainly not in tropical rainforests. I will be studying small amphibians at a variety of field sites from May through June or July, which is the dry season.

What am I going to want to make sure I bring with me? I know that we will be provisioned with some supplies, but what do I want to make sure I have in my personal kit in terms of clothes, hygiene items, tools, etc? What do I want to use to lug it around, for that matter? I am definitely going to ask this question of my advisor and my acquaintances in the department, and of course I am thinking about the matter on my own, but I'd like to solicit advice from folks around here as I know there are more than a few who have relevant experience.

Again, I do have ideas of my own and I will be talking to the people around me, but I'd like to set that aside for now. Assume that I know nothing and that if you folks don't tell me what to bring then I will be showing up naked in Libreville, Gabon this coming May. Help my first field expedition go as smoothly as possible.
posted by Scientist to Travel & Transportation around Gabon (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The CDC maintains a travel health page for every country in the world. I would print out the page for Gabon, read it carefully, then bring it to my doctor, and discuss it with him. There are definitely some preventative medical steps you can take to protect yourself from disease.
posted by Flood at 11:13 AM on November 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you haven't already, read Kate Jackson's "Mean and Lowly Things". She spent a large amount of time in the Congo collecting snake species. Her book is full of descriptions of the day-to-day hardship of field-work living. As I recall there is good coverage of what was needed for day-to-day comfort, and what she felt she'd forgotten to bring.
posted by cosmicbandito at 11:43 AM on November 7, 2012

I can't speak to what you need in Africa, but in New Mexico I found the following things really helpful for dealing with the discomfort of field work:
Hydrocortisone cream: this stuff is MAGIC. You can put it on anything from bug bites to chapped fingers to heat rash. Just don't put it on open wounds, it can make them more likely to get infected.
Antibiotic ointment: very necessary in an environment where minor wounds are likely to get dirty.
Band-aids: get the woven kind, they're the only ones that will stay on when you're sweating buckets. Get LOTS of them, as in hundreds, you'll find all sorts of places you'll want to apply them as you put your body through all sorts of bruises and scrapes it's not used to.
Body/foot powder: cures what chafes ya.
Antiseptic wipes: millions of uses! But especially great for bathing when there's no water available, wiping down gear that's starting to smell funky, and cleaning your hands when toilet conditions aren't ideal.

Oh yeah, don't buy a cheap solar shower! It's going to be one of your big sources of comfort, so spring for $40 or so to get one that will last.
posted by TungstenChef at 11:47 AM on November 7, 2012

I have never been to Africa, but I have done fieldwork in the jungles of C. America. Speaking to friends who have worked in Africa, there are some similarities. Based on those:

*Best all-terrain boots. This means boots that survive the mud. Dirt roads turn into instant mudpits in torrential downpours.

*Top of the line waterproof clothing. Pants and jacket. Ponchos are ineffective and get caught on undergrowth.

*Clothing made specifically for breathability while working outside. And quick drying. 100% cotton is not optimal because it holds moisture longer, compared to quick dry fabrics.

*When you go to the doctor, along with immunizations and any personal prescriptions, ask for prescription antibiotics and prescription antibiotic cream. I had an infection in the Siberian tundra from a massive burn and those two things saved my life.

*Take your own syringes and make sure someone knows where they are to ensure they are used in an emergency.

I actually have my fieldlists on my laptop at home. I'll MeMail you C&P'd lists after work!
posted by peacrow at 11:47 AM on November 7, 2012

I spent four months in eastern and central Africa, though not Gabon. The little thing I appreciated the most were the dark-colored clothes I brought -- they didn't show the dirt as much and let me feel clean and put-together even when I wasn't necessarily that clean. So, the white t-shirts, socks and undies were basically funked up beyond all redemption fairly quickly, but the black, dark brown & khaki versions of same stayed useful longer.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:51 AM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Came to nth Antibiotic Ointment (Neosporin) as in many countries it's not easy to get, nor is it an over-the-counter item, you'll need a prescription for it.

So, better safe than sorry, get the giant economy size.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:27 PM on November 7, 2012

Best answer: Here is my fieldwork packing list for my 3 months of monkeys in Cote d'Ivoire. I was there during the dry season. I didn't have access to electricity.

- Good binoculars
- Small notebooks. If it will be raining a lot, you might want to look into Rite in the Rain, but I got along fine by storing my field notes in ziploc bags. Check with your supervisor about how she wants you to collect data.
- Pens/pencils. If you don't want to spring for Rite in the Rain notebooks, you might look into Rite in the Rain pens
- I brought a cheap digital camera and a nice digital camera. I was too freaked out to take my nice digital camera out very frequently, and wish my cheapo camera had been a little better
- Dry bags and silica gel

- Rubber boots. Knee-high, cheap rubber boots. Not hiking boots. I used something along these lines that I got for $15 from Walmart.
- Good, quick drying socks. My first field season, I had plain cotton athletic socks. There are few things sadder than putting on wet socks at 4 in the morning. I splurged for 5 pairs of smart wool socks and washed them every night as soon as I got back from the field so I had a rotating set of clean, dry socks.
- More underwear than you think you need; none of it white. Clean black underwear became a wonderful luxury. Underwear doesn't take up a lot of space while packing. Maybe bring two weeks' worth?
- Field pants. I brought two or three pairs of pants along these lines
- I brought maybe 5 undershirts and then two long-sleeved (button up the front) shirts. The undershirts rotated on a daily basis; I waited a *lot* longer to wash the long-sleeved shirts. Long sleeves kept my arms pretty well protected from bumping into nasty stuff.
- Flip flops of some sort to wear around camp and in villages
- Comfortable clothes you keep field-free. I brought a skirt, a pair of sweatpants, a sweatshirt, and a few t-shirts. It was really nice to have something to change into for evening tasks. Keep in mind what other stuff you'll be doing while you're there. Will you be stopping at government offices for permits, for example? Better make sure you have something that looks at least moderately presentable.
- Raincoat. I got a decently cheap one from REI.
- Bandanas. Keep weird shit out of your hair or off of your scalp.

- Antimalarials. I took doxycycline and would really strong recommend against malarone/larium
- Ciproflaxin. A nice antibiotic
- Anti-histamines. You don't want to discover that you're dreadfully allergic to a tree that flowers in, say, June. And if you get stung by a bee or a plant or ants, or something, it's nice to be able to calm the reaction down
- You may want to bring an epi-pen. I always have one just in case I'm allergic to something that stings me.
- Hyrdocortisone cream
- I brought vermox (de-worming pill).
- Some sort of anti-diarrhea pill
- I brought emergency contraception because antimalarials mess with birth control and you don't know what will happen. Condoms, maybe?

- French-English dictionary
- Journal
- Kindle with solar charger
- Cards
- A few rubber bouncy balls and matchbox cars to give to kids I met up with along the way.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:31 PM on November 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

Miscellany addendum Things like soap, toothbrush, toothpaste. If you can do without a razor, do without, because they get rusty. If you bring shampoo, try to get the least-smelly shampoo possible. I buy powdered detergent in the village because it's cheap. Pack some clif bars and dole them out very slowly. A multitool is incredibly handy.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:33 PM on November 7, 2012

Former Peace Corps volunteer that lived/worked in Gabon in very rural village/ traveled around other areas in Central Africa, too. I'm basing my response based on the info that you give (i.e. Libreville - assuming that you are going somewhere like the Lope reserve?/or rain forest, and the dry season, which is significantly different than the rainy season). I would confirm what cities/villages that you may move in and out because if you go through Libreville every month, you will have access to many supplies.

• Nthing Flood's rec to get the travel page and see a physician that some exposure to international health (just previewed-page is great). Will assume that your team will give you the heads up on this, too.

• Please confirm that the place you will be traveling to will provide with mosquito bed net and also ask if they have access to insect repellent with DEET (if they did not, I would bring a container or two...I would sacrifice other items to bring this, but YMMV). Other parts of the world - no worries- but the goal is to try to mitigate the chance of dengue (not fun....), malaria, etc.

• If you are only going to be there in the dry season (to confirm this with them and look at your travel dates), skip all the rain gear - it is actually cold sometimes and I would even bring a jacket for night/morning. As another heads up, if you are there for a few months into the dry season, red dust will get on every clothing item that you own (they may have plans for this if they go into a city or village)-so nthing Blahlala's clothing rec. If you think that you will be there in the rainy season, the recommendations here would be different.

• Personal comfort item: short wave radio and several batteries. I would confirm with someone that the conditions have not changed, but ~20 years ago, this would be the only way to get news/info if you were in a rural village or somewhere like Lope. It could be different now. Nthing Chura chura's list, those are great items to bring, especially the comfort ones (cards, little things for kids).
posted by Wolfster at 12:41 PM on November 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh. And I forgot to add about sleeping arrangements. I've always been based out of a research station which had a bed/mattress/something along those lines. I bring my own mosquito net with nails and string from which to suspend it, and (at the least), a fleece sleeping bag liner. You can usually find cheap flat sheets and a pillow (or use your sweatshirt for a pillow) in villages. And this also reminds me that I LOVE my headlamp. I have a serious headlamp for heading out with early in the morning in the forest before dawn that eats batteries for breakfast, and I have a way lower-key headlamp that I use at night for reading and cooking and data entry around camp. Pick up some candles and lighters/matches in town, too.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:41 PM on November 7, 2012

A small led flashlight. More socks than you think you would need. Alcohol wipes. A bottle opener.

If you bring flip flops or sandals, make sure they're comfortable. Walk around in them for a day or so before you go. Blisters on your feet are miserable when you're roughing it.
posted by empath at 12:43 PM on November 7, 2012

Whatever you do get something that isn't ostentatious to lug your kit around in. Fancy colors, North Face logos, clean/shiny appearance, all those attract thieves and it will only get beat up anyway.

Consider an old army pack and consider that you might want to bring home more than you took with you, as in gifts and such. You can accommodate this by bringing an extra, empty, stuffable bag for the return flight or by planning on gifting/bartering some things to the locals. Others have mentioned toys, which is all well and good, but I would venture to say that you might be able to give someone that multitool you take with you (as it's readily available here) in trade for something awesome they've crafted thus creating a win-win situation.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:45 PM on November 7, 2012

You will want a headlamp, so you can still eat dinner, go to the bathroom, etc in the dark. I'd buy a small solar charger for phones, also.
posted by aetg at 6:19 PM on November 7, 2012

I am on my phone so can't link, but get a print copy of Where There Is No Doctor. With that, you will be able to solve most of the weird medical issues that are guaranteed to come your way.
posted by Forktine at 10:43 PM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

And Where There Is No Doctor is worth leaving at the local health clinic. Sorry to keep adding - I forgot to recommend a venom extractor. I've never used it for snakes, but it does extract insect sting venom as well (bees, wasps, ants). You also want a watch with an alarm and a compass (even if you'll be using a GPS). I usually leave my watch and venom extractor with someone, but more expensive things I use frequently (multitool, binoculars, GPS, etc) I take home.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:50 AM on November 8, 2012

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