What I pack for paleontology field work

Author: Brianna

I’m about to take a weeklong trip to the high desert in eastern Oregon, where I get to hang out with the paleontology section of geology field camp. (See this post for why I love field work in the first place.) I remember the first time I went out to do this sort of thing I was all “INTERNET! What do I pack to go do paleontology field work?” but I didn’t find all that much. So here’s the post I wish I found, geared towards the kind of field work I have done, which is almost all in the high desert. Understand that you will probably want different things for different kinds of trips.

Pants! Some people wear shorts, but I really prefer pants. Cheat grass is nasty, nasty stuff (and sage, and rocks, and bitey little ants…). I usually wear Kuhl because they make stuff for men and women that is comfortable, quick-drying, and thick enough to not catch every little sharp thing that comes your way. Go look at some in the store, because I can’t tell which ones on their website are actually made for work and which are all thin and stretchy and will fail you in your quest to not get sharp plant bits embedded in your skin.

Shirts! I wear long sleeves because it’s easier than putting on lots of sunscreen, and also if you’re finding tiny fossil bits it’s easier to just crawl along on the ground; with long sleeves your elbows don’t get all scratched up. Light fabric good. Did I mention it’s the desert? Something like this or this (plaid optional but it makes you look more like a real paleontologist or something). Except don’t go buy one of those new, because that is way too much money for a shirt. REI garage sales or Goodwill is the way to go.

Socks! No cotton. Do not bring cotton socks. (Okay, I bring some for evenings or if someone drags me out on a run in the mornings.) Wool! Coolmax! Whatever your preference. Just not cotton. And they don’t have to be super thick, although that is better than cotton; SmartWool, at least, makes some pretty sweet super-thin hiking height socks. They won’t have padding on the bottom but it will be less hot.

Underwear! Do you know how awesome it is to have quick-drying underwear when you’re in the field? Because it’s awesome. Examples: synthetic stuff, more synthetic stuff, really thin merino wool stuff, etc. Men, I cannot advise, except that there probably exist quick-dry versions of whatever you normally wear too. And that is all I will say on the matter of underwear, because you can figure your own underwear out.

A hat! Keep that sun off your face. And neck. You can go all Indiana Jones if you want (I know people who do…) but I prefer lightweight and vented. Something basic like these women’s hats or this men’s hat. I myself got a nifty fly-fishing hat on clearance at the Columbia outlets or something. It has plaid on it!

I am the one in the middle. With the sweet, sweet plaid hat.
I am the one in the middle. With the sweet, sweet plaid hat.

Also pictured: the taller half of Fossilosophy adjusting my pack, and Win supervising like a good grad student. Note that we are all wearing pants. Different shirt choices, though.

And then whatever other clothing you feel like. Swimsuit of some sort if there’s water anywhere, warm coat because the desert gets damn cold at night, shorts for chilling in camp after a day of hard work, pajamas, whatever else you’re convinced you can’t live without. Probably a rain coat, just in case. Also a towel.

Sunglasses! Necessity. All fancy and UV-blocking and stuff.

Hiking boots! Make sure they fit and are broken in, etc. Your toes shouldn’t hit the front when you’re walking downhill. I got a pair of very light, vented Keens because I knew I was going to be in a dry desert and Keens fit my feet. Your mileage may vary.

Also sandals or something for wandering around in camp.

Equipment! Water bottles and/or water pack (like a Camelbak), field pack of some sort to carry fossils and lunch and water and pin flags etc (I use my Camelbak pack), rock hammer (I like the chisel-edge ones because it makes digging trenches easier when you’re measuring section), a belt of some sort on which to hang your hammer holster, a waterproof field notebook, knee pads, work gloves, a pocket knife and/or multitool of some kind, a watch, a head lamp, and perhaps a scratch awl.

The usual toiletries, except find some biodegradable products if you’ll be washing yourself anywhere outside. Baby wipes are useful too, and you definitely want sunscreen.

Camping gear depends on your situation. We camp in tents, so I make sure I have a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, pillow, and either a tent or a promise from someone else to share their tent.

Foooood! Usually when you’re going in the field as someone else’s crew, you get fed. I tend to bring some of those awesome foil packets of tuna and a hard salami or something, because when I’m in the field I am a salt- and protein-craving fiend. So if you have any strange food preferences, maybe bring some of your own to supplement the communal fare.

Finally, miscellaneous things: a book, phone charger, any necessary medications, a travel mug for your morning coffee, pencils, pens, cards, music device, belt, chocolate, rope/string, repair kit for sleeping pad/tent. Perhaps a small first-aid kit, though whoever is running the field crew should have a good one.

Did I miss anything? If I did, better bring it up quick, because we’re driving off to the fossiliferous wilds in an hour or so!

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2 thoughts on “What I pack for paleontology field work

  1. I would add a good GPS unit, Rock Hammers, Sledge Hammers, Chisels, Dental Picks, Glue (and Acetone), Plaster of Paris and Burlap for those big fossils that don’t fit into a bag. And the most important item: Toilet Paper! (both to wrap fossils, but also to use on your rear)

  2. Very helpful! I’ll add two things:

    –Painter’s pants are a good cheap option for long pants in the field.
    –Avoid steel-toe boots! Only thing worse than your toes hitting the front of your boots while going downhill is your toes hitting a wall of metal while you are going downhill.

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