Field Pack Amenities

[a post by Anne Jefferson]
Adding to the meme begun by Short Geologist (requirements for a field hotel) and followed on by Maria (requirements for a field vehicle), I’ll present my requirements for a field pack. The topic has been on my mind a bit recently, because I’m launching a new project this summer and will be spending a non-trivial portion of it swatting mosquitoes, avoiding snakes, and collecting data.
When I go in the field, I generally go for a 6-10 hour day, departing from home, field station, or campsite and field vehicle. For me, field work has consisted of two basic types of tasks: (1) collecting samples in the field and lugging them home; and (2) downloading data from field instrumentation, with limited sample collection. As someone interested in how water interacts with the geology and the landscape, I’ve lugged rock samples for chemical analysis, hauled kilograms of salt for dilution discharge measurements, and collected thousands of water samples from springs and streams. I’ve also spent a lot of time with a backpack loaded with a lap-top and hip waders, for days when I need to download data from temperature probes and water height recorders. Occasionally I’ll have field days where I have to lug a bunch of awkwardly shaped stuff into the field in order to set up instrumentation, but I really haven’t found any graceful or systematic way of doing that. A rough estimate would be that I spent about one out of four years¬†of my PhD in the field, so I’ve spent a fair bit of time contemplating what works and what doesn’t for field packs. Pictured below is the trusty field pack that seen me through since my undergraduate days.


My two main field tasks would be optimally served by two different packs, so I’ll present their requirements separately below. But there are some key things that all field packs should have.

  1. A zipper compartment, preferably with clip for my wallet, keys, and cell phone.
  2. A compartment near the top of the pack for my lunch. I detest squished sandwiches.
  3. Outside pockets sized appropriately to securely hold my water bottles in easily accessible places
  4. An easily accessible pocket for a field notebook and writing implement. Maps could go here too. A GPS could go here, but is no substitute for the proper maps.
  5. Comfortably padded hip and shoulder straps that allow me to carry weight on my hips.
  6. Various straps and clips for attaching random bits of gear (e.g., rock hammer) to the outside of your pack. These straps and clips should be usefully configured for carrying things and should not just be decorative.
  7. A place to store the absolutely necessary first aid kit. Don’t leave home without it.

Sample lugging packs should have:

  1. A big open compartment suitable for dropping things in and not worrying about them until I get back to the vehicle, field station, or lab.
  2. Sufficient back padding to protect my back from any oddly protruding samples. Anyone who’s hiked miles with a piece of basalt stuck into their mid-back will know just how crucial this is.
  3. Another compartment (in addition to the list above) to hold rain gear or other protective apparel (e.g., glasses). This compartment should be accessible even when the pack is full of samples, because when the cloudburst starts, you don’t want to spend precious minutes extracting your rain gear from below your samples.

Data download packs should have:

  1. A padded computer sleeve that holds the computer close to my back and protects the computer on all four sides.
  2. Numerous compartments to hold various download cords and dongles, flagging, tools, and bits and pieces of repair items for instrumentation.
  3. A compartment for holding a limited number of samples. This compartment should be smaller than the one described in the sample lugging pack, and could also double as a place to store any portable equipment that I will use in the field. When I collect small water samples, I store them in a small padded lunch box that I slide in and out of my pack. I might also be storing a Marsh-McBirney flow meter here.

My field pack, above, is definitely of the sample lugging variety, but lately I find that most of my work is of the data-download sort. I’m hiking short distances and then collecting small water samples, making field notes, and downloading temperature probes and other loggers. My big field pack isn’t well suited for this sort of work, so I’m the market for a second field pack. I’m hopeful that REI (or the local outfitter of choice) will be able to supply me with a pack that meets my requirements. I’m also curious to know what things other people look for in field packs. Is the ideal field pack the same for a hydrogeologist as a volcanologist or paleo-seismologist? I’m not a vest-wearer. For those who wear field vests, how does that change what you look for in a pack?

Categories: by Anne, field gear, fieldwork

Comments (12)

  1. Kevin Marsh says:

    Good to see your choice for a portable flow meter.

  2. phisrow says:

    Could you get away with something smaller than a laptop for data collection(a fair few portable devices can have RS232 coaxed out of them) or do instruments generally rely on one or another (probably abominable) software package requiring a full computer?

  3. Kim Hannula says:

    I like packs essentially like yours – big interior that’s not split into compartments, small top compartment for camera, sunscreen, wallet, glasses, and small first aid kit. I put all my samples in some kind of tough plastic bag for lugging, so I don’t worry about them getting all mixed in with my raingear and warm shirt. (Also, rain is usually thunderstorms, so I’m usually so busy trying to rush to shelter that I don’t put my rain jacket on.) I like using a Camelback for water, because otherwise I forget to drink enough, and that’s a problem at altitude & in dry climates. And I carry critical field gear (compass, GPS, pouch with field notebook) either on my belt – maybe as part of my pack, maybe on a separate field belt. Hammer & map go in my hands, so I can whack rocks or look at my map without stopping to take off my pack. (Also, I’ve trained myself to feel like something’s missing if I don’t have both of them.)
    I’ve got an Dana Designs day-and-a-half pack made from heavy Cordura that I use for serious sample collecting, because my samples are frequently large and sharp-edged, and I don’t like to trash my pack. (If I pack very carefully, I can also use the pack for overnight work. I have to plan to eat a volume of food equal to the volume of samples I need to pack out, however.)
    Someday I’m going to do llama-supported field work, just because.

  4. pipdqueak says:

    For botany fieldwork in a cold wet environment, I really like a large pack that’s essentially a dry bag in a pack harness, with really long side straps. All delicate/water sensitive kit can go inside and be protected, while the side straps can be lengthened or shortened to accommodate any amount of kit (like tripods, tents and samples). Clipboards slide down the back for easy retrieval. My computer goes in a dry-bag inside the main dry-bag so it doesn’t get soaked every time I open it up.
    That said, there are a few new packs around that have large pockets built into the shoulder straps, so that things like gps, camera, notebook, lunch, maps and gloves are easy to reach. Apparently these also help you walk more normally by bringing some of the weight forward. I like both of these ideas a lot, but am yet to have the funds to buy one.
    On the other hand, a pack-llama would be even cooler.

  5. Ah yes, well, the main thing I bring in the field is this:
    Now, that is maybe because I usually have to collect 5-10 kg of sample to get zircon out of it or enough feldspar to date, but man is it ever useful. The rock hammer I use now is a little shorter than the long-handled one I used to have (and sadly died). The long handled one was great for scrambling up the side of scree slopes or snow fields, but the short-handled one has its charms as well as it has a little more heft.
    I also noticed that no one has mentioned a hand lens! Maybe those volcanology labs didn’t take too well with you, Anne! (just kidding). So, yeah, hand lens is a must. Field notebook (preferably a NOT rite-in-rain one … I greatly dislike those), a fine-tipped ink pen, a sharpie to label samples, lots of canvas sample bags, my camera, my Gerber knife, maybe a cold chisel if I have my act together. Maps, airphotos/Google Earth images and GPS. First aid kit. Usual backpacking extras. Nalgeen bottle(s). Nuts and dried fruit. Ideally, I like to pack light mostly because I know coming back, there will be many, many heavy rock samples to carry back to camp.

  6. phrisrow – The devices I’ve used always require their own proprietary software. One company had a Palm interface, but it lacked all of the features of the laptop-based software and was unreliable. So a laptop it is.
    pipdqueak – pockets on the straps sound excellent. I’ve got a Kelty kid carrier for when I’m out with my two-year old and I love the built in pockets on the hip straps. Perfect for my camera.
    Erik – I loved those volcanology labs. They were one of the few times in my life I actually felt like a geologist. But I have to speak up in defense of the rite-in-the-rain books. For those of us working in and around the water, they are absolutely indispensable. A little smudgy pencil is nothing compared to the agony of lost field notes, because you’ve dropped your book into the water.

  7. Kim Hannula says:

    Erik – The handlens goes around the neck. Therefore, it qualifies as field jewelry, not as pack gear. 😉 (Actually, both of mine live in my field pouch with my field notebook… which is always Rite in the Rain, because I used to work in Alaska and mapped through pouring rain.)

  8. thingsbreak says:

    If money is no object and you’re concerned with comfortably carrying heavy, oddly shaped objects (like rock samples) Kifaru may be your best bet. The customer service is legendary and the larger packs can swallow anything and are practically infinitely customizable because they utilize military-style PALS webbing which accepts all manner of additional pouches and subpacks. AFAIK all of their bags are made of heavy cordura and can take a lot of abuse. I don’t have one myself (money being decidedly not “no object”), but I know several people who do, and were I to come into a windfall a Kifaru pack would be high, high on my list of purchases. Note that they pretty much build each pack to order, so it’s a non-trivial wait (4-8 weeks) after you’ve ordered.
    Generally, I go back and forth between hiking packs, which tend to be lighter and allow more circulation between one’s back and the pack (and now tend to have things like a bear whistle incorporated into the chest strap, or rain covers that pull out from the bottom) and mil-style packs which are heavier (but accordingly can take more abuse) and more customizable (due to the webbing and accessory pouches) but usually much hotter and often more expensive once all of the accessorizing has been done.
    For a daypack with padded laptop storage, North Face makes quite a few, and REI should have several different iterations in stock. Kelty has a more limited laptop-friendly selection, and they tend to be more suited to urban environments. You can also buy padded sleeves for your laptop for additional protection.

  9. Joe Kopera says:

    For doing production geologic mapping in the jungle (i.e., Southern New England woods in the summer):
    -If I’m not doing long traverses that take me away from my car for 2+ hours, I don’t carry a pack… Most everything I use fits on a toolbelt or in my neon yellow traffic / I’m-not-a-deer-don’t-shoot field vest. Packs tend to get snagged on branches, and make maneuvering around fallen trees, small swales, and bending over to look at outcrops much harder. For traverses, I carry a very small top-loading pack for water, lunch, and samples.
    Given that, crucial field gear for production mapping in my neck of the woods:
    – Clothing soaked in Permethrin / bug repellent (Lyme disease is near epidemic status here).
    – Water Bottle
    – Granola Bars
    – Scrub brush for removing dirt and lichen off of outcrops
    – Neon-yellow or orange traffic vest
    – Light compressible rain jacket
    – Cell phone (the police usually end up calling me first before sending out a cruiser).
    – Hand Lens
    In the field pouch on my belt:
    – Field notebook with map cut and taped to fold conveniently into back cover (hence no need for map-board).
    – B-dorfer plotter in front cover of fieldbook (for plotting stereonets on the fly).
    – Lots of pens, colored sharpies, pigment liners, rulers, and colored pencils. Twice as many as necessary is a mark of a U-Mass graduate.
    – Business cards.
    – Magic Plastic (for measuring foliations around corners
    – Extra hand lens
    Other stuff on belt:
    – Digital Gear: GPS, Digital Camera, and extra batteries.
    – Acid Bottle
    – beat-up Brunton Geo (until I can afford one of the fancy German transits).
    – Small 1.5 lb sledge. Regular rock hammers just don’t have enough mass to crack metamorphic rocks here, and larger hammers just get heavy to carry around all day. I keep the bigger ones in the car.
    That’s about it. When I was doing mapping out west I also carried a first aid kit, *lots* of water in a camelback, and sample bags.

  10. Lockwood says:

    According to the sidebar at The Accretionary Wedge, you have participated in this geology carnival in the past. We have a new edition going up soon, around the theme of “When and where would you most like to visit in person to witness something first-hand?” Are you going to be able to join our time warp? (more details at the link) We’re trying to get The AW back on it’s feet, and would love to have you participate. Sorry for the short notice, but late submissions will be added on as they arrive.

  11. Nick says:

    Ah, a pack from Aarn packs might do…
    I sort of recall a testimonial from a geologist lurking somewhere on the site about how damn useful one of the larger ones were. And from my tramping experience, the front packs are bloody useful for access, though a bit of a pain in the arse if on narrow, chest to the wall bits of track…
    The frame can and does carry weight quite well, but they are more expensive than most big-name pack makers.

  12. John says:

    The trappers have some equipment that often works well for those spine-piercing basalt stamples. See the following:
    Funny how, despite the Ph.D., often we find ourselves in the roll of pack animal, beast of burden!