Conducting fieldwork: a guide for the budding geoscientist

Fieldwork can be interpreted differently across different disciplines. Per Wikipedia, “field research, or fieldwork, is the collection of information outside a laboratory, library, or workplace setting.”

In the Earth Sciences, we conduct TasoTrip_ljc_197smfieldwork outdoors to collect data from the natural world, to observe natural processes, and to learn about the interactions between the solid earth, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, and humans.

Often, we conduct field work in locations that are difficult to access, or are far from our home base. Every second in the field is valuable because it is a rare opportunity to collect the data and observations needed to answer specific research questions. Therefore, it is useful to have a somewhat systematic approach to conducting field research. I provide the guidance below based on my personal experiences at field camp in the western U.S. in 2013, and conducting field research on various expeditions in eastern Pennsylvania, Spain, New Mexico, Colorado, Grand Canyon, Arizona, and Germany.


Fieldwork is not possible without adequate preparation. It is recommended to perform “virtual fieldwork” before ever stepping foot outside the workplace. Google Earth and GIS software are powerful tools to explore areas of interest. Thanks to the increasing resolution of satellite imagery and availability of LiDAR data, much work can be done virtually to collect information about a field site. Whether hiking, driving, or traveling by horse, you should calculate travel times between field sites so you can be realistic about the amount of time you need to accomplish your goals.

Do you need a permit to access or to collect samples from your site of interest? Inquire with plenty of time in advance.

Make lists.

What will you be doing in the field? Visualize yourself collecting samples, taking in situ measurements, or working with scientific equipment. What equipment and accessories do you need to carry out these field methods? What problems might you encounter while conduct these methods? Make a list of everything you might need during the entire duration of field work.

Here’s a list of things I always take with me into the field:

  1. Field notebook (e.g. Write in the Rain bound notebook)
  2. Permanent Markers (always good for labeling samples)
  3. Drafting pencils! (mechanical; graphite 3H or 4H are better than 2)
  4. Pens (e.g. Edding 1800 series pens in various weights)
  5. Colored Pencils (R, O, Y, G, B, V, Bl., Br.)
  6. Handheld GPS receiver (e.g. Garmin GPSmap 64s)
  7. Compass (e.g. Brunton Transit)
  8. Hand lens
  9. Protractor-ruler (e.g. Wescott C-thru)
  10. Field Pouch (e.g. Plateau Design)
  11. Map – topographic maps, geologic maps, road maps, etc.
  12. First aid kit: Band-Aids, gauze, medical tape, Neosporin, Ibuprofen, sun screen, insect repellent, etc.
  13. Water – a one-liter Nalgene bottle plus a 3L Camelbak bladder in my day pack
  14. Rock Hammer (optional; e.g. Estwing rock pick with chisel edge)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAObviously, the list gets longer as you add additional equipment needed to collect samples or take specific measurements. Think carefully about the gear you need for your specific mission and add it to a list.

SAFETY FIRST! If you are working along a road, bring a neon-colored safety vest. If you are using a rock hammer to collect rock samples, bring work gloves and safety glasses. If you are using acids, bring latex gloves.

Keep everything in a daypack (30-60 liter capacity, depending on your needs).

Pack appropriate clothing.

Think about the environment you will be working in and what the temperature will be. In general, you should wear the following:

  • Hiking boots/low hikers
  • Wool socks
  • Lightweight long-sleeve shirt
  • Long pants with pockets, made of flexible material
  • Hat – I prefer a baseball cap, but many prefer to shield their ears from the sun with a brimmed hat
  • Sunglasses – polarized are better
  • Belt – needed to fix your field pouch and compass to your waist

Practice your methods.

If you are trying out a new sampling procedure or new equipment, be sure you practice these methods and test the equipment before you depart on your field trip. You do not want to waste time trying to figure out how your total station works at your first work site when you have twenty other locations to visit before the day is over.


Fieldwork is an excellent opportunity to escape the monotony of everyday life. Take advantage of the experience in a different environment to think differently, to interact with the world around you, and to have fun!


  • Orient yourself – where are you and in what direction are you facing?
  • Open all your senses – look, listen, smell, touch, and in some cases, taste if necessary (e.g. to identify halite).
  • Identify shapes, patterns, colors, contrast, composition.
  • Think continuously. Make connections between the form of the landscape and your samples/measurements.

Take Notes.Me with gravels Water Canyon

Perhaps the most important advice: record everything in your field notebook:

  • Where are you? – GPS coordinates in addition to location name and nearby locality
  • What is the date and time?
  • Why are you there?
  • Who is with you?
  • How did you get there? – This may be important if you want to return to this location in the future.
  • How is the weather? – temperature, sunshine, precipitation, ground moisture
  • What does the landscape look like?
    • Landscape relief. Vegetation types. Soil cover. Soil color. Vegetation density. Distinct or unique landmarks. Grain size. Grain color. Grain shape/degree of rounding. Clast composition. Hill slope angles. Geologic unit thickness. River discharge. River turbidity. Agricultural influence. Human activity. Etcetera…
  • Samples collected – sample names/numbers,sample type, GPS coordinates, physical characteristics of each sample, interpretations of the sample, etc.
  • In situ measurements – record the values, GPS coordinates, describe the measurement technique, who is taking the measurements, how many measurements, etc.
  • How does your work at this specific site fit into the context of your research question?

Often, writing in your field notebook can help develop hypotheses or even contribute to the discussion portions of your manuscript. Think continuously and document your thoughts.

Make sketches.

Earth science is a visual field, and sometimes words cannot capture the essence of nature. Geologic cross-sections, stratigraphic columns, sedimentary structures, strain indicators, soil profiles, etc. are all best portrayed by a sketch.

  • Use a full notebook page for one sketch.
  • Do not try to be artistic. Focus on recreating the relationships of natural features using simple shapes and lines. The more schematic, the better.
  • Sketch in pencil first, then trace in ink. Color is always nice.
  • Annotate with field measurements and appropriate symbols (e.g. strike and dip)
  • Use your protractor-ruler to accurately show angles and and orientations of features you sketch
  • Include: scale bar, orientation, caption

Take Pictures.

High quality field photos are irreplaceable. Photograph the people yPolvadera mesa sedsou are with, the samples taken, the locations of sample extraction, locations of measurements, geologic features, vegetation, field methods in action, and the landscape around you. Always have something in your photos for scale (e.g. hammer, pen, lens cap, etc.).

If a drone is available to you, take it! High resolution aerial imagery or multispectral data of your field sites can be incredibly useful. It is also fun to take aerial photos of yourself and your colleagues at work.

Good luck on your next field excursion!