Are jeans sensible fieldwear?

One thing I noticed amongst the students on last week’s trip was that a fairly sizeable proportion of them were regularly wearing jeans in the field.

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You are unlikely to see British third year geology students opting for denim in such large numbers, because it is likely that one of the things they learn on their first year excursion, which commonly takes them somewhere in Scotland, is that wet denim is extremely good at both weighing your legs down and sucking every erg of heat from your body. The friendlier climate at these latitudes may mean that the offenders in the above photo have not had to endure this lesson, but surely they would have experienced the clammy stickiness caused by wearing jeans when the temperature is high, especially when scrambling up and down hills in the heat of the day. Perhaps I’m alone in my opinion that jeans are, in general, highly impractical field wear*, so I open it to the floor. Should any self-respecting geologist be wearing jeans in the field?
*For the record, I usually wear shorts. But then, years of playing rugby in the depths of winter mean that my legs scarcely feel the cold.

Categories: field gear, fieldwork

Comments (30)

  1. Dunc says:

    Can’t speak for geologists, but I don’t like jeans for any kind of serious outdoor activity, for exactly the reasons you state.

  2. Julia says:

    For proper mapping-type fieldwork, general geology stop-at-an-outcrop stuff or anything involving a lot of hiking there’s not a chance I’d wear jeans, even if the weather is guaranteed to be mild and dry. I remember us all in Texas being horrified at the group of American geology students who showed up at the same outcrop, because we had hats, hiking boots, proper walking kit and backpacks on, whereas they just fell out of the bus in jeans, t-shirts and trainers.
    But for dig work, a good stiff pair of jeans is excellent. I did go to the trouble of buying a very expensive set of North Face climbing trousers, which were thick and tough to withstand rock faces (don’t mock me because my rock faces are horizontal!), but then realised that in SD or WY in the summer jeans are just as good and about half the price.

  3. Ron Schott says:

    Shorts are nice if you’ve got warm weather and a lack of vegetation, but by and large jeans are part of the standard field gear in my experience. Particularly when you’re bushwacking through what we euphamistically called “s**tf**k brush” back in my undergrad days. Also, I’d never consider hiking on fresh (or even not so fresh) lava or desert-weathered limestones in shorts… unless I wanted to decorate my legs with lacerations. This is what jeans were created for… just ask a miner ’49er, or someone who knows the history of Levis.

  4. BrianR says:

    For fairly rugged field work i’m all about Carhartts
    – I love them! Some fellow students introduced me to them for field work several years ago, I’ve never gone back. That sharp/sticky/nasty brush doesn’t puncture them; they are great if you are kneeling or sitting on rock all day (e.g., measuring section); if you happen to be in a place w/ cold wind, the wind doesn’t go through them. They can be a bit stiff at first, but once you break them in they are the best. Only drawback is that they aren’t the best for super-hot (>90 deg F) climates.
    I’ve helped lead several field trips that reservoir engineers came on. No matter how much we warned them about the nature of going into the field, including hand-outs with lists, e-mail reminders, and strong language, most of them would show up completely unprepared. I’m convinced they need to actually experience it to understand. I had a guy trying to scramble up an outcrop wearing loafers and designer jeans. Good times.

  5. Tuff Cookie says:

    I have mixed opinions about jeans in the field. On the one hand, I find they’re okay for drive-and-stop field trips – I have a pair of really old “painting” jeans that I occasionally wear for that. Once those jeans are too holey to wear, though, I won’t be able to replace them – women’s jeans are just too tight these days for proper field gear. I find that they become extremely uncomfortable, and wearing men’s jeans isn’t a real option, because they never fit properly.
    For most other things, I either wear zip-off hiking pants or Army surplus cargo pants, which do come in my size. The hiking pants are good for the desert (you can ventilate them a bit by unzipping them partway) and the cargos are really durable for everything else. They also have huge pockets, which is great because I like to keep my field notebook in them (although not so great when I discover just how many rocks I’ve stuffed into the pockets at the end of the day). I’ve considered Carhartts, but I haven’t worn out my cargos enough to warrant ordering a pair in my size.
    Department field trips are where I see the most field-inappropriate clothing. It never ceases to amuse me when someone shows up in flip-flops and sleep shorts with “Hottie” plastered on the butt and then starts whining when they have to walk a quarter-mile down a trail to see an outcrop.
    I’ve done the shorts-on-lava thing…once. Fortunately it was on cinders, and my injuries were more from the plants than the lava, but I’ve still got an interesting crop of scars on my legs.

  6. mlf says:

    For delineating and mapping deep, dank wetlands in Florida, I would go to Old Navy during big sale days and buy several $10 cargos. Anything I was going to wear would get ruined anyways, so what the heck. Now, an argument could be made for chaps to help protect your pants (and skin!), but that would just make you hotter. I’d take scratches over the heat any day. More important than the pants are the shoes. Snake boots, preferably tall ones with a goretex liner and zipper, are the best.

  7. Charlotte says:

    I distinctly remember designer jeans and bright white trainers being worn by classmates on my first field trip. To the saltmarshes at Weston-super-Mare. Oh, but there was a great wailing and gnashing of teeth.
    Personally, I like Army surplus shops – a nice big pile of tough and reasonably weather-resistant trousers for far less than you’d pay for decent denim (as opposed to the fashion jeans, which seem to be all I can find right now), and they’ll dry out much faster too. Warm enough for carpering about on a moor, cheap enough that I don’t feel even remotely guilty about taking a pair of scissors to them to get shorts.

  8. doug l says:

    What? Nobody wearing a kilt? A utilikilt to be precise.
    Check out their video! Hilarious, but maybe a little suggestive.
    http://www.utilikilts.com/
    But seriously, a kilt made of the appropriate material, intelligently designed with usefull pockets, worn over fleece and windpants in the cold…really hard to beat for practicality.
    Great company too!

  9. coconino says:

    For my field work, shorts are not an option (real or imagined safety issues and customers should not be shown legs unless in a skirt in a nice air conditioned office environment). As stated above, Carhartts are the best for ruff and tuff field work (I wish I had been wearing them when I fell on Glass Mtn). They’re good in summer for sticker, mosquito and cedar gnat protection and the flannel-lined or quilted ones are great in the winter when you’re working in two feet of snow in below zero weather (seriously, I’ve done that). I would wear shorts in my other field temperature extreme regardless of who was present – 125 F in the bottom of the Whitewater River Channel in Coachella Valley at the sewage treatment plant outfall. That was a most unpleasant experience. Overall, though, my field work these days just isn’t conducive to shorts-wearing unlike my college days.

  10. cope says:

    Four summers on the University of Illinois British Isles summer field camp in the 1970s (one as a student, three as a TA) showed me the folly of jeans in the field. Also, a March raft trip down the Grand Canyon (commemerating the centennial of Powell’s first trip—you do the math to figure out when I went) showed me the value of minimal clothing in wet conditions, even if it’s cold. Skin dries faster than any fabric I know of.
    I played soccer, not rugby, in college but have always been comfortable in shorts, even in cold weather. It’s the core I need to keep warm and layers can make this happen.
    When I was a TA in grad school, I once got a post-course evaluation from a student questioning my sanity in regards to a day I had worn shorts and sandals to class even though it was snowing (albeit, a wet, no-stick late winter snow).
    There is no one perfect solution. A variety of clothing that allows one to adapt to the particular circumstances is the only rational way to go.
    Last thought: my favorite garment for those British Isles trips was a bright orange, tightly-woven pull-over anorak. It had a nice, large zipped pocket on the chest, perfect for a small bottle of The Famous Grouse.

  11. KC says:

    What I’ve learned so far is that cargos are the best fit for me. Loose, a lot of pockets, and you can get those which zip off into shorts. On the topic of shorts, however, the bugs are so bad here in northern Canada that not even bug dope works. Shorts means you get eaten alive. Lately I’ve been wearing coveralls. I don’t get too warm, and they’re really tough. I find the biggest issue of all is footwear – a good pair of high-legged rubber boots is a MUST (it’s mostly muskeg where I’m at).

  12. CC says:

    Jeans? Yuch. I prefer REI men’s (i’m not a guy) cotton canvas zip off pants when working on LS in cooler temps, otherwise lightweight synthetic fabric zip off cargo pants in warmer weather, and I’ll just deal with the cost of replacing them when they wear out. What I’ve noticed with students is that they often don’t want to invest the money in good field gear because they either don’t have the money, or they’ve never had the epiphany that good equipment makes you more comfortable and makes it all more fun. Jeans seem to work for those that skinny enough to be willing/able to wear more baggy jeans.

  13. katie says:

    I did a lot of field work in bogs, where there are a lot of scratchy bushes, and I found that shorts

  14. Silver Fox says:

    Depends on where you’re working and what the weather’s like!
    What do I wear? Currently my field gear includes steel-toe or composite toe-boots, a hard hat, and always – long pants. No shorts allowed!

  15. Sudo says:

    Jeans have their place. In the field I have worn both jeans and cargo pants. Jeans hold up really well, but take longer to dry. A good pair of Salvation Army painter’s pants are cheap and easy to get. MY favorite wear for field research is army surplus camo pants. They have sufficient pockets, are baggy enough to be comfortable in any situation, and are strong enough to protect. I have had the same pair of camo pants for 10 years and they are in excellent condition despite being used for mountain climbing, camping, yard work, logging, and even laying cement.
    I think more important is the correct footwear. Sandals are good only for river work. The best shoes are army surplus combat boots; thick sole, strong leather, mostly waterproof, etc.

  16. Lab Lemming says:

    Jeans are fine for drilling- You are unlikely to be far from a vehicle, they stop shrapnel, rock chips, and other airborne nasties, and if the roads aren’t passable in the rain, then you’re unlikely to be working in it.
    But make sure you actually get real work jeans, not fru fru style jeans.

  17. Chris L says:

    I’m looking at your students, and none of them seem to think it’s hot.
    Then I’m looking at your site, and it doesn’t seem to be wet.
    So what are you worrying about? And there are places (SA being one of them) where wearing long pants in the field gives you a fighting chance of not being immediately envenomated by any snake you happen to stand on. It’s probably fair to say that shorts for fieldwork are Frowned Upon here in Oz, too.
    Never mind the jeans, students turning up for fieldwork in fashion jackets when it’s raining and about 5 degrees is the real worry. Especially when it becomes apparent they don’t own any other clothes.

  18. PaulG says:

    If you know that it’s not going to be wet or very hot, jeans are fine. The latter is rarely a problem in Ireland, but as for the former….
    I tend to wear zip-off hiking pants with cargo pockets. They dry quickly, can be converted into shorts and will hold your stuff.

  19. Maria says:

    I was one of those inappropriately dressed students for a while, on account of both poverty/miserliness and being relatively impervious to physical discomfort. I still find hiking boots annoyingly stiff and non-breathing for many situations and prefer the lightness of trainers or a good pair of sandals; I hiked around fresh aa in Hawaii in my Chacos (with socks! socks and sandals 4evah!) and it was fine (I did wear boots to the active flow, though).
    The only lesson I’ve really learned is about hats: A wide brim, with some mesh on the top to let the breeze in, makes life in sunny California soooooo much better. The fancy wrinkle-resistant folding field hats last longer and pack better than straw, but don’t actually perform any better once they’re on your head.

  20. Hypocentre says:

    Here in the UK, I specifically ban my students from wearing jeans (and trainers) in the field on the grounds of health and safety.
    Personally I wear cargos. I don’t wear shorts as I wouldn’t want to inflict my knees on anyone. In my impetuous youth and in the heat of Brazil I did once combine shorts and gaiters, the later as a snake-venom protection.

  21. flounder says:

    I like those pants that zip off into shorts. The are usually made of some quick drying fabric.

  22. Silver Fox says:

    I’ve also used sandals in the field on the rare occassion – Teva’s – call them my “field sandals.”
    So – I guess “trainers” are tennis shoes or running shoes?

  23. coconino says:

    I’ve known at least a few hardcore geologists who’ve given up purchasing a pair of $200 boots a year and gone to an “approach” shoe that’s very trainer or tennis shoe-like instead. I usually switch back and forth between a mid approach shoe and boots for anything hardcore (i.e., 2K-3K feet elevation change and 5+ miles in trail-free terrain). For anything less, it’s the approach shoe. If it’s really hot and I’m only doing a windshield recon with a brief foot excursion, well, any old shoe and clothing will do. I’ve been known to recon in skirts and fancy sandals (it was a sunny day in Pilar – nice garnet mini-point bars in the wash).

  24. Black Start says:

    Cris just get your facts right whats wrong with JEANS.If that’s the only gear I can afford, so why can’t I wear it. I see no point of comparing UK and SA,because for status we Africans most of us are poor we cannot afford those outdoor gears you expect us to wear.Another thing Im one of those students on the picture.Im not happy about it, because you did not ask our permission.I was told by a friend that he saw me on the net.IM TAKING THIS FORWARD AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

  25. I’ve actually been doing most of my university field trips and mapping projects in Jeans if the weather was not hot enough for ordinary outdoor shorts. Frankly, I think I did the better choice. My Jeans lasted the entire 5 year programm while some of my colleagues who bought themselfs a complete outdoor combination the first year for an insane amount of money had to buy new trousers once in a while. If it rains around here in Central Europe you get wet no matter what you wear anyways and I never had my jeans being soacked so much as to make them too heavy, even then when I had to walk with them through water and was in it to my chin. Good quality Jeans are rugged, resistant and keep away any kind of nasty plant or bug I can imagine for Europe. The only 2 things I paid special attention to was my shoes and my hat. Either I wore the safety boots I had from working in a mine or the hiking books from Timberland. Both served me great. The hat should be light, not dark colored, have a wide rim and allow for ventilation. If it has all these 4 features it usually also dries quickly. The only other important object I have is a good leather belt to attach all the tools to and a small army field pocket bag that i carry over my shoulders for my field book and pencils, etc.

  26. ReBecca says:

    I have to speak up for this one. I am currently wearing jeans in the field. But only because it is very brushy and rugged and synthetic pants would only be ripped to shreds by the vegetation. Its also in the upper 90’s every day, and while jeans are not the coolest things, they work to keep my legs from looking like I was just whipped to death. If I were in a more open terrain in the same weather I would totally wear ticker sturdy shorts however. Darn vegetation!

  27. ReBecca says:

    PS – if it were raining or damp I would NEVER wear jeans. Wet jeans are one of the more horrible things on this planet.

  28. Chris Rowan says:

    ‘Black Start’ – there is of course the issue of expense when it comes to students here, although I’d argue that a decent pair of shorts can be got for very little money (for the record, one of the reasons I’ve generally worn shorts is that *I* have never been able to afford fancy field wear). I have no ‘expectations’ regarding field clothing, I was just surprised that so many chose to wear things that I would have found uncomfortable in the conditions – but as you can read from the other comments, opinions on this vary.
    If you’re truly unhappy about your picture being used, then I apologise. If you want to e-mail me and let me know which of the photos is the offending one, I’ll remove it.

  29. really says:

    Like real geologists even notice waterlogged jeans.

  30. dmonte says:

    It always drove me crazy how some people will categorize you by your field attire. I have worked in both cold and warm climates and just wore inexpensive material, mostly jeans or army surplus pants. Some of my field studies occurred in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska. My advisor who worked up there for years always bought his field clothes at the used clothing store. So he popped out of the tent wearing some sort of old man paisley golfing-type pants with a weird moose wool sweater. It was quite amusing. He felt it was not worth spending a huge sum of money on expensive field clothes when they will just be quickly worn out and ripped up. On the US east coast I wear shorts except in the winter when my jeans reappear. In Africa, where it was either 8 month long dry season or the rain-like hell everyday rainy season, it was either jeans or shorts.