A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS
One of the benefits of being a field biologist is the opportunity to work with new people. In that awkward period of getting to know each other I like to ask, “What is your favorite piece of field gear that has improved your life?”. I have found many great tips. Here is a summary of what I have learned from others and from my own experience.
Starbucks instant coffee
If you have forced yourself to slug down hotel or gas station coffee, you should consider this treat. Starbucks sells a small, single-serving packet of instant coffee. As a coffee snob, this has revolutionized my early morning preparations for the field. Life does seem better when I can start my day with a good cup of coffee. I’m often in desperate need of coffee before 5:30 a.m. when most coffee shops open for business. They also have instant cappuccino. Thank you, Karl, for this piece of advice.
Everything gets sweaty when you are working in hot, humid conditions. Getting sweaty panties back into a comfortable position after a field potty break can be a waste of time. I suppose a gal could use one of those funnel attachments that lets you pee like a guy, but I have questions about carrying those. I don’t want to be conspicuous and I question the sanitary nature of carrying a used pee-pee funnel. To be fair, I haven’t tried the funnel. Wicking underwear helps solve the sweaty panty problem. By wicking away sweat from your skin and quickly drying, these panties (and sports bras!) are worth the cost. I really like Patagonia brand which have lasted, with elastic intact for more than five years. Some of the other brands have lost their elastic. Creeping panties are miserable. Thank you, Mia, for this one!
GOOD hiking socks
I like to think that the key to a happy field life is lots of good socks. You will have to experiment and find your own favorite brands. I like Smartwool PhD, Fits, and Darn Tough. Socks, like underwear, have a life span. When the elastic starts to fail, you need to say farewell to your hiking socks or risk saying “hello” to some nasty blisters. I could tell you a sad tale of a trail hike where my socks were falling and my panties were crawling. You can lengthen the life of your socks by keeping them out of the drier, but when you are living in a hotel, this isn’t always realistic.
I love a good spork. I struggle to make healthy food choices when I’m traveling. A spork helps me out because I can grab healthy foods at a grocery store and use my single, light-weight utensil to stir, stab and eat. Pair this with a good knife (or multipurpose tool!) and you are set.
Oh, I struggle with the raincoat thing in summer. I don’t want to be squishy, soaking wet so a raincoat seems to be a good choice, right? But raincoats often trap body heat so I’m just as wet from sweat! The answer so far seems to be raincoats that “breath a bit”. These often have a soft interior (as opposed to plasticy ones). Sometimes you can even find some with “pit zippers”. These have zippers in the arm pits which allow those sweaty bits to breath. It is pretty brilliant because most of us don’t get rain on our arm pits. This may not be true for ornithologists. Thanks Laura for introducing me to pit zippers.
Hiking pants seem like such a no brainer. But the reality for women field biologists is that many suck. The ideal hiking pant would be heavy enough to protect my legs from briars but light weight enough so they don’t weigh me down. I’d like them to be wicking too, but NOT snag on the briars and barbed wire. I think the snagged hiking pant look is tacky. The ideal pants should have good pockets. Many hiking pants have ridiculously useless pockets that are too small. If they are sufficiently sized, they lack a good way to secure the items into the pocket so things just fall out. That is no good. I like zippers or snaps. Velcro snags things when you wash them. Buttons take too long. Light colors are a good choice because it allows you to detect seed tick swarms as they crawl up your legs. Oh, and while I’m dreaming of the perfect hiking pants… please make them flattering. Not all biologists are whispy things. Some of us have a booty.
The field shirt
I once had a serious conversation about the pros and cons of long sleeved field shirts. I was a short sleeve proponent, but I’ve been swayed. Thank you for guiding me to the light Rich. A good, wicking long sleeved shirt has many benefits. A wicking shirt dries quickly and can help keep you feeling cool. The long sleeves can help protect you from briars, poison ivy, and sunburn. Plus, you can roll up your sleeves! A collared, long sleeve shirt can help protect your neck from the sun and wind. Add some good, securable pockets and you are on your way. I really appreciate those with the mesh panel at the upper back to vent. I’ve been very pleased with my North Face brand shirts and Ex Officio. FYI, I don’t shy away from white shirts. I generally can bleach out most stains.
Duct tape is a temporary fix for a permanent problem. For me, the problem is usually ticks. I like to keep duct tape close at hand because you can use it to remove ticks from your clothes by “sticking them” to the tape. This is efficient and satisfying. Try it.
The field hat
I doubt a biologist would argue against the value of a good field hat. It helps keep the sun and rain out of your face. It holds your hair out of your face too. I look for a field hat that has a soft cloth lining at the headband. It absorbs sweat and doesn’t chafe my forehead. I am a baseball hat kind of gal. I get the wide brim hats (e.g. sunhats) caught on tree limbs.
I love, love, love my camelback. My latest one (Mule NV) has a padded vent that keeps my back from being a sweat cesspool. It also magically keeps my ice water cold for many hours. Don’t expect Yeti cool, but cold water on a hot day is always a good thing in my world. I also love the pockets. I believe that everything should be in its place and everything has a place. That keeps me from wasting time digging through my gear (including my camelback) to find a mystery item. It is worth the effort to make keeping things in the same place a habit. At 4:00 a.m. one doesn’t want to have to waste time wondering if they have all their gear.
It pained me deeply to fork over the money to buy one of these. But I have an occupational issue. I need to carry bait for my field work. The bait is costly and it rots. I had tried regular coolers, but wasted a lot of money in lost, rotten bait. The Yeti was the answer. My bait doesn’t rot before I need it. I have already recovered the initial cost of the Yeti purchase through bait savings. Now, if they would just make me a small cooler that I could afford.
Sawyer permethrin clothing wash
I think this stuff works! Wash your field clothing in this treatment once and it helps protect you from insects and ticks (FYI, ticks are not insects. They are arachnids.). The instructions say that one treatment will treat your cloths for up to six weeks or six washings. I didn’t have many tick bites, chiggers, or mosquito bites last summer.
What I wish I had
There are several products that have improved my life. But there are some voids. If I could just find…
A coffee cup that can survive the microwave, keeps my beverage hot, AND fits in my cup holder of my truck would be lovely. Oh, and I need a spill proof top that I can drink from. Dishwasher safe would be fabulous. A handle would be nice. I need to be able to wash it so it needs to be wide enough for my hand. Pictures of rainbows and unicorns should be avoided at all costs.
I would like a sunscreen that was also an insect and tick repellant. Ideally, I wouldn’t die from it AND it would be a spray application.
A full body poison ivy avoidance method. Look, I use the pre-contract wipes. I use the post-contact wipes. I don’t touch my boots when I take them off/put them on. But I still get poison ivy and end up on meds. Oh, and if there was a topical ointment that stopped the itch, dried up the poison ivy and DIDN’T flake off on everything…I’d take that too.
I would like a safety vest that was flattering (i.e. had a waist line) and NOT pink. I would also like the fabric to be wicking but not something that snagged on briars and barbed wire. Reasonable pockets with the ability to close them would be great. And, why doesn’t someone invent a vest or field shirt with chest pockets big enough for your glasses with a closure?