Friday, June 18, 2010

Packing for Fieldwork: 8 Tips

Packing for a long field season abroad is no easy task. Many students struggle with this, especially those who have never traveled for an extended period of time in a foreign country. Even if you have gone backpacking or done some globetrotting during vacations, getting ready for an archaeological field season is an entirely different matter. The most common problem is bringing far too much stuff. Here's a few of my tips as I've found some simple ways to cut down on the clutter. Keep in mind that I basically pack as lightly as possible as I absolutely hate lugging luggage around and always have the end goal of having a lot of space available to bring back souvenirs. Some of these tips are common sense and I'm gearing these mostly towards undergrads going to their first fieldschool, a junior archaeologist heading out on a consulting job for the first time, or grad students conducting their first foreign research project.

1. No books! It is very tempting to bring a veritable library of reference books but the reality is you will simply not use them as much as you think you will. They are not only way heavier than you think they will be, they are also valuable and easily damaged. It is better to scan and/or photocopy in the pages you think you will need - this way you won't be heartbroken when you arrive at your destination to find out your bags have not. This leads to the second tip...

2. ...never travel with anything that can't easily be replaced. My only exception to this rule is my wedding band. I never wear my engagement ring or any other valuable/sentimental jewelry in the field. Even cameras and laptops can be replaced but often what is stored on them cannot so back up your data/documents/photos and store in multiple places back home. This is a good idea anyways - you don't want to lose your nearly completed thesis and have to start all over again because of accidental loss, deletion, theft, fire, dogs, bees, dogs that when they bark shoot bees out of their mouth. I always travel with a couple of flash drives so I can continuously back up my stuff as I go and have multiple copies on me at all times. For fieldschool students and consulting/CRM archaeologists it is likely you will not even need your own computer so you might want to consider giving yourself a break from it by leaving it safe at home.

3. You will need less clothing than you think you will. I recommend three pairs of field pants: one to wear while working, one to wear when not working, one to have in the laundry. Unless you are working in a horribly muddy/hot/humid environment you can probably get away with wearing your shirts more than once between washings without offending everybody else you work/live with. I usually make do with five or six as it is harder to wear a dirty shirt than dirty pants. Do not skimp on underwear though. You'll find you can deal with wearing horribly dirty pants as long as you have clean underwear to put on underneath. If this is going to be your first experience doing archaeological fieldwork, and thus aren't absolutely sure this is what you want to do for the rest of your life, don't spend a fortune on fancy outdoor clothing. It'll get ruined anyways so I always recommend first timers hit up gently used clothing stores like Value Village or Goodwill. This is easier on your student budget and also makes it easier to leave your clothing behind so you can cram your bag full of trinkets and goodies to bring home instead. I did not start spending money on good quality field clothes until after three or four seasons as I knew I would get excellent use out of them. You will spend more time in the field than not in the field so plan accordingly (i.e. bring less clothing to bum around in than field clothes). Generally pack according to the environment in which you will be working - consider climate and culture. For example, avoid blue clothing in regions with malaria as malaria-carrying mosquitoes are attracted to the colour blue. I can leave the rain gear at home when I'm working in Tanzania but need skirts and nice tops (casual business wear) for when I am visiting government offices as it is important to look professional and to also respect local customs/ideals. In many parts of the world, women are expected to dress with a certain degree of modesty so it is important to respect this if you want to have a successful working relationship with local peoples. If you are doing consulting work, find out what the safety regulations are for clothing. You may be required to wear long sleeved tops, pants, or even protective coveralls. Keep in mind that with consulting jobs you are highly mobile. You will be moving from hotel room to hotel room as you work on different projects - you will not want to be lugging around tons of clothes in addition to all the other necessary gear. Also find out what the status on laundry is as this may affect how much you want to take. We have our laundry done at the hotel, which is a nice luxury, but it can take up to four days to get it back so you need to be have enough clothes to wear while the others are being washed.

4. Buy good quality socks. They are expensive but hold up to rough wear and tear including hand washing in rivers and sinks. Get a good pair of hiking boots or hiking shoes. I prefer boots that go above my ankle when doing survey work in rocky or uneven terrain but like a lighter pair of hiking shoes when just excavating. Rubber boots are great when you are in wet environments but get really hot really fast. If you are doing consulting work you may need steel toed boots so don't be afraid to ask what is required. Break them in before you head to the field too. Take care of your feet - unhappy (i.e. blistered, bruised, cramped, hot, cold, sweaty, sore) feet = unhappy you! Again, good quality socks recommended for use with your particular boot is highly recommended (this is not just an "upselling" tactic by sales people - matching your socks and shoes is a really smart thing to do when you are living in them for upwards of 12 hours a day in dirty environments).

5. Don't bring all the beauty products you "absolutely must have to survive" unless you are willing to recognize that they will take up a ton of space. You will spend all day toiling in the dirt. That said, moisturizer and sunscreen are necessary. A few small luxuries are o.k. but your industrial sized blow drier should stay at home. Find out what is available where you are going and consider not taking your own toiletries with you but purchasing them there. For places where this is not an option, simplify by purchasing two-in-one shampoo/conditioners. The reality is that for long trips travel-sized items won't cut it so, again, focus on necessities.

6. Buy a decent broad rimmed hat. Sorry but ball caps just won't cut it. You need something that will protect the back of your neck and the tops of your ears as you are bent over digging all day. You don't have to go for a fancy fedora a la Indiana Jones - any lightweight, U.V. ray blocking varieties will do and are available for around $20 (these are also flexible so are really easy to cram into your bag).

7. Limit your personal archaeological gear kit to items that will not be supplied for you by the project or are not easily purchased where you are going. If you are provided with a gear list then limit your purchases to items on that list. You will acquire other useful objects as you progress in your career. You'll get great tips and tricks from other archaeologists you encounter so your kit will be constantly growing and changing. As with selecting clothing, being familiar with your working conditions will help. I do not need root clippers or small hand saws when working in rockshelters but do need a good rock pick/hammer. Don't buy the biggest (blank) you can find - smaller tape measures and brushes are easier to work with. You will likely be in a 1m x 1m square which means you will not have a lot of space to leave your gear lying around in. I tend to sacrifice clothing so I can bring along a rock hammer or my favourite square trowel but I have regretted that choice a few times - rock hammers are heavy!

8. Remember that you are going on an adventure. Do not get bogged down in packing and worrying about what you should or should not be taking. Focus on the items you cannot live without (see tips above) and leave the rest behind. I always forget something and still manage to do just fine. Talk to other people who have worked where you are going or are planning your fieldschool and follow their advice. The best part of fieldwork, and all traveling, is the experiences you will have while you are away. By leaving behind the luxuries of home you'll enjoy and appreciate them so much more upon your return. Besides it's kinda fun bragging about the "horrible" field conditions you had to endure.

Leave a comment if you found these tips useful or if you have any other packing suggestions. I'll post some general travel tips later.


  1. I am notorious for overpacking. I appreciate these simple and useful tips that are relevant (field work or not). Thanks for sharing Katie!

  2. I'm a find specialist these days so have some different needs but would recommend plug adapters and multiplug sockets if you have a lot of electric gear. Travel with change of clothes toothbrush etc in your handlugguage. Ask yourself if you can cope without your hold luggage off it gets lost. Do not Mario you money on one place. Depending on where you travel to have multiple curruncies . Take photocopies of paper tickets and travel documents v useful if lost or stolen. Memorise useful phonenumbers.

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