Ten top fieldwork tips for Physical Geography postgrads

By Ian Stevens (its@aber.ac.uk)

Whether it’s a bog in mid-Wales or a once-in-a-lifetime trip* to a far flung continent, fieldwork is normally the most anticipated component of a postgraduate degree; after all, nobody took up physical Geography dreaming of spending a dark, wet January evening sieving sediment in a lab. As the summer holiday field season approaches, the PGF have been banging their heads together to pass on some useful experiences and advice to those heading out of the office on their first or fiftieth trip.

*You’ll probably end up going back though.

1. Make a plan

In order to maximise time in the field, it pays dividends to spend a few hours in the pre-field season making a sensible, achievable plan so that you know what to do when you arrive at your destination. A good plan comprises of three components: aims and objectives; a schedule; and an equipment list. The aim and objectives of the trip should be simple, and will generally either come from your project title or grant proposal, however, it’s useful to remind yourself of them and state them at the top of your plan. For a schedule, it’s time to return to being a stereotypical geographer: get out the coloured pencils (or Excel, it’s the 21st century after all) and make a GANTT chart. Finally, the equipment list is reasonably self-explanatory. Use your GANTT chart to list your methods, write down everything you need for each one then take a break and check it. Then remove all the duplicates: you probably won’t need 15 measuring tapes.

An example plan for a 2015 field trip to Haut Glacier d'Arolla.
An example plan for a 2015 field trip to Haut Glacier d’Arolla.

2. Stick with your plan… and be prepared to change it

Sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget ferry tickets, passports, dGPSs or other irreplaceable, expensive equipment. This becomes even more important if you’re going somewhere remote: in Antarctica it’s difficult if you forget something as simple as a ruler (or so I’m told). However, remember that beautiful GANTT chart you made? Well it’s rained for five days and you haven’t collected a single sediment sample that’s key for your project. It’s time to tear up the plan and start again.

The author realising that this might not all fit in the boot. Time for plan B. (Credit: Stephen Brough)
The author realising that this might not all fit in the boot. Time for plan B, and a cosy drive back from the Alps. (Credit: Stephen Brough)

3. Take spares of everything and know how to fix things

However careful you think you are, it’s still surprisingly easy to break things on fieldwork, and it’s always vital equipment that tends to break. Similar to tip 2, it’s hard to purchase things in remote parts of the world, especially for obscure equipment. ALLEGEDLY if say, you broke a UAV propeller, a new one would arrive in Svalbard on the day you leave, and not a moment before. Just something I’ve heard though. Furthermore, having spares is one thing, but you need to be able to actually repair equipment with them. However, duct tape and hope can go a long way.

Repairing the voltage adaptor for a weather station with a USB car charger, tape, and a wild sense of "good" electronic practice.
Repairing the voltage adaptor for a weather station with a USB car charger, tape, and a wild sense of “good” electronic practice.

4. Normal working hours will go out the window

When you left the office, you left nice, civilised office hours. Fieldwork consists of making the most of a short window in the field, which means working long, hard hours. Sorry.

The author burning the midnight (ok, 20:00) oil placing ablation stakes on the Glacer d'Argentiere in 2012. (Credit: Tom Redmond)
The author burning the midnight (ok, 20:00) oil placing ablation stakes on the Glacer d’Argentiere in 2012. (Credit: Tom Redmond)

5. Write EVERYTHING down

We’ve all been there: its 19:30 (see tip 4) and you frankly couldn’t care less than site you’ve just sampled is the inside of a meander bend. You want to get out of the field and go for some dinner and maybe a cheeky beverage. You’ll remember that sample 86 was the inside of a meander. It’s easy. Three days later, you’ll look through your notebook and unsurprisingly, sample 86 will be a blurred memory with 85 other samples, and you could have had that pizza ten minutes earlier as it’s now useless. Always write everything down. To add to this, cheap notebooks from Poundland (other budget shops are available) don’t fare well in the rain, and ballpoint pens don’t work in the cold. The reason you got told to use one of those yellow books in a plastic bag and a pencil in that lecture in first year undergrad is because they’re the best. Get one.

How notes should look...
How notes should look…
... and how they shouldn't.
… and how they shouldn’t.

6. Back everything up

Once you’ve written everything down, it’s still not safe. Notebooks can fall victim to rivers, mud and alien abduction, so it pays to back them up. Fortunately, modern technology is at hand – just take a photo of it at the end of each day. It makes your post-fieldwork snap sorting a bit dull, but it’s functional. With electronic data, copy it all to a laptop and then copy that to a memory stick, again at the end of each day, and keep the two separate. There is an (in)famous story in our department where field data was lost as the laptop(s) and hard drive back-ups were kept in a van, which was stolen. Goodbye van, goodbye data.

The laptop with data on resides in one of these flattened tents. The USB drive backup was safe in one that remained standing. It gets windy in Svalbard! However, a weeks’ worth of data was safe, even if the laptop wasn’t.
The laptop with data on resides in one of these flattened tents. The USB drive backup was safe in one that remained standing, despite the best effort of the Arctic winds over Svalbard. However, a weeks’ worth of data was safe, even if the laptop wasn’t.

7. Count the pennies

In the ideal world, science (and physical geography) would have access to lovely pots of cash. Generally, it doesn’t, and tends to get done within the context of a budget. Don’t blow your grant on a swanky hotel if you need to spend it on buckets of expensive lab-consumables, or put more simply, keep track of your finances and stay within them.

8. Make the most of your supervisor(s)

For your first field campaign, it’s quite unlikely that your supervisor will throw you in at the deep end, they’ll probably come with you. At the very least to get a suntan, but they’ll most likely help as well. Or it may be the case that you’re working on their project and in that case a lot of the above will be covered by them. Ask questions and use the experience they’ve gained; your supervisor has probably done more days in the field than you’ve had hot dinners. Tap into it. Equally, this a great opportunity to spend some quality “bonding time” with them. Lovely.

Passing on skills and knowledge whilst on Protektorbreen, Svalbard.
Passing on skills and knowledge whilst on Protektorbreen, Svalbard.

9. Remember to enjoy yourself

Whilst it may be a work trip, don’t forget that you’ve travelled to a unique and probably quite pretty part of the world. Enjoy your time there, and in your plan include some days off – despite tip 4, you can’t work 15 days straight without cracking. If you can, time these off days with points in time you can’t do fieldwork – it might be too cold/hot/wet/dry/snowy to do what you want to get done. Oh, and take a camera (which is why this tip gets two images).

Martyn Law sampling the local customs after a hard afternoon's mapping at Morteratschgletscher, Switzerland. (Credit: Richard Moir)
Martyn Law enjoying local customs after a hard afternoon’s mapping at Morteratschgletscher, Switzerland. (Credit: Richard Moir)
Enjoying the stunning scenery on a day off at Milford Sound, New Zealand.
Enjoying the stunning scenery on a day off at Milford Sound, New Zealand.

10. Have a break once you return

Fieldwork is hard. Much to the annoyance of most human geographers, you may get to cavort around the finer spots of the globe under the ruse of data collection, but that doesn’t mean it’s a holiday. Upon returning from fieldwork, complete all of the time-sensitive tasks you need to (such as putting samples in freezers) and have a few days off. Although you might not want to book a holiday that involves more travelling…

On your return: celebrate, have a break and do something you enjoy. The author celebrating a successful field season in the Alps and Svalbard on holiday in… the Alps. (Credit: Tom Larkin)
On your return: celebrate, have a break and do something you enjoy. The author celebrating a successful field season in the Alps and Svalbard by going on holiday to… the Alps. (Credit: Tom Larkin)

11. Everything will take longer and be more complex than you think

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About the author:

Sampling meltwater on Haut Glacier d’Arolla, Switzerland. (Credit: Jayne Kamintizis)
Sampling meltwater on Haut Glacier d’Arolla, Switzerland. (Credit: Jayne Kamintizis)

Ian Stevens is completing a PhD in glacial surface eco-hydrology at Aberystwyth University and is the physical Geography social media officer for the PGF. Throughout his academic career he has attempted to spend the maximum amount of time swanning off of fieldwork, much to the annoyance of his office mates. His work has led him to far flung places in Svalbard, Switzerland, France, New Zealand, and even mid-Wales, having spent 2 ½ months in the field in 2015 including teaching on both undergraduate and masters trips. He tends to better this with a planned 3 months away (so far) this year.