Anything can happen while conducting field work in the woods: sudden thunderstorms, rapid rivers, popped tires, sprained ankles, wildlife encounters, or getting lost. It is important to be prepared with the right equipment, but also be ready to improvise. This summer, as part of the Research Experience and Apprenticeship Program (REAP) through the Hamel Center, I worked with Professor Remington Moll’s Wildlife Modeling and Management Lab to collect SD memory cards from trail cameras that monitor wildlife populations.

Here are ten essential categories of equipment that I learned are vital to keeping safe while conducting field work.

  1. Navigation. This includes a compass, sometimes a paper map, and a GPS system (along with a solar charger) that can be used off grid and is equipped with satellite communication capabilities to contact team members who are not in the field and emergency services.
  2. Sun protection. I usually wore a hat and applied sunscreen periodically on any exposed skin.
  3. Proper clothing. The weather is unpredictable and so is the terrain. In dry conditions, I used hiking boots for ankle support, but in wet conditions, I used muck boots to keep my feet from getting wet and muddy. We oftentimes walked through dense brush or tick infested areas, so I always wore pants tucked into socks to avoid getting scratched by brambles or bitten by ticks. I carried extra insulation for cold weather along with a rain jacket and rain pants for wet days.
  4. Tools. This includes a knife, a multitool, a hatchet, and duct tape for quick repairs. We oftentimes had to use the hatchet or the saw on the multitool to clear fallen debris from our field sites or to prepare kindling for a fire while camping afterwards.
  5. First Aid. This is essential and thankfully only had to be used for minor injuries like scrapes and bug bites. The kit should be equipped with bandages, gauze, antiseptic towelettes, antibiotic cream, sting relief cream, ibuprofen, allergy relief, and tape. Though we did not run into any dangerous circumstances, a first aid kit could be the difference between life and death.
  6. Fire. It can be used as a heat source, for cooking, or as an emergency signal. I carry synthesized fire starters that burn for several minutes even when wet along with fat wood which is a natural fire starter. To ignite a flame, I have flint and steel. We mainly used our supplies for campfires at our campsite.
  7. Water. The more work we did, the more water we needed. I am notorious for not drinking enough water, so I had to make sure I stayed hydrated. We carried at least two liters of water and one drink with electrolytes and stored more in the car. I keep my water bottle clipped to my bag within reach as a reminder.
  8. Food. This is the primary source of energy. It is important to not only carry the food you need for the day, but also to carry extra in case you become lost, hurt, or delayed.
  9. Illumination. I carry a headlamp and spare batteries as a handsfree light source just in case we are out past dark and for use at the campsite. The risk of injury is significantly increased as it gets darker, so a light helps keep you on the path and aware of your surroundings.
  10. Shelter. This is one of the most important things to carry in case of an emergency or when waiting out the weather or staying safe after dark. It could be in the form of a tent, tarp, or space blanket.

eleora mccay

Having the right equipment only prepared me for so much. I also needed to be ready to think quickly and improvise. In the White Mountains, we had to cross a large and rapidly moving stream. New Hampshire’s summers had been mostly dry for the past few years, but this summer was an exception. As a result, this stream was larger and more rapid than it was when the camera was first set up. My muck boots were helpful for crossing some streams but this one was knee deep, so it was too high even for the boots. On the way to the camera site, I crossed it by hopping across rocks, but I almost did not make it on the last jump and knew that the route would not work when coming back. When we returned, I suggested crossing by wading in a different section. I clipped my hiking boots to my backpack, rolled up my pants, and started to wade across. I had to wedge my feet in between rocks and stand very firm to not get knocked over by the current. We all made it across without injury and put our shoes back on to keep hiking.

On the way to sites I usually keep my compass out, making mental note of the directions we walked in, and observing the landmarks around us whether it was open fields, logging roads, rocks, or scat. On one occasion, I took the wrong trail and crossed a stream into an area that soon became a swamp, and we could not find our way back without having to cross large bodies of water. We pressed forward to the saved location of the site on our GPS and on the way, we crossed the correct trail, found the field site, conducted our work, and returned on the right trail.  Using the landmarks and the directions I had noted earlier, I was able to trace back along the paths we went on to get us back to our vehicle. Later, we started marking the location where we parked to make this process easier.

On my last week of fieldwork, a weeklong trip up north turned into a day trip when we popped a tire several miles down a logging road with no cell service. My coworker and I worked together to dig a hole for the jack that was too tall, lift the car, remove the lug nuts and tire, and attach the spare tire. Thankfully, we made it back to cell service and found someone who could repair the tire so we could make the 150-mile drive back home.

I’ve offered a list of tools and strategies, but successful field work depends on improvisation and resourcefulness. Equipment is important, but you also must be prepared mentally and physically.