If you’re going to hunt dinosaurs, you’ve got to be prepared. I don’t mean in a Lost World, John Roxton sort of way. I’m talking about fossiling – spending days tromping across arid, sun-baked badlands in the hope of spotting the glimmer of a tooth or the tell-tale texture of a bone. And while every expedition presents unique challenges, here’s the standard kit I take with me whenever I join museums and university crews in search of dinosaurs.
Each morning, as the field crew gets ready, I fill a 2.5 litre Camelbak and three 1 litre Platypus bags with water. That may sounds like a lot, and it certainly feels like a lot when all that weight is in my pack, but water is my lifeline in the desert.
Everybody has their own preferences in terms of how they carry their water. I prefer the Camelbak, because I can sip all day long as I walk, and when it goes dry I can open it up to add my extra water from two of the Platypus bags. I save the extra liter in case I need water to make a little jacket using a plaster-infused bandage called a Gypsona or if another crew member runs out of water. At least, as I keep myself hydrated, my pack gets lighter as the day goes on!
At a typical field site – whether I’m prospecting for new fossils or spending days digging one up – I’m out in the open during the most brutal part of the day with not a sliver of shade in sight. Sunscreen is essential if I’m going to make it through the day without burning to a painful, red crisp.
Paleontologists rarely work next to roads. Pack in, pack out is the rule, and I need a good backpack to help get me and my gear in and out of the sites I volunteer at. Depending on how much gear I need I take a smaller or larger Osprey backpack with chest and waist straps. This helps me carry the weight of water, tools, and food much better than the sort of pack I used to carry around at school, and is especially helpful when I’m walking over steep hills where I need to keep my balance.
Fieldwork takes me to some of the most beautiful places in the world, where exposed rocks come in colours from purple and red to white and yellow. Remembering my camera – currently a Nikon D60 digital SLR – helps me preserve those memories. But it also serves a much more practical function. I can’t always excavate the fossils I find, or, as often happens, I’m unsure about whether a fossil is worth collecting. Having a camera on hand – even my built-in smartphone camera – allows me to document field sites and show the expedition leaders without dragging them all the way out to the site. The only trick is remembering something for scale so viewers can understand the size of fossils I photograph.
When I was a kid, I adored Indiana Jones. No surprise, then, that my field hat is broad-brimmed and fedora-ish. It keeps the sun out of my eyes and the biting gnats off the top of my head, which can make all the difference between a pretty good field day and walking to camp sun-addled and fly bitten.
Bandanas are somewhere between apparel and tool. They help keep the sun off the back of my neck and, when the wind dies down, the bugs out of my face, but they can also be quite useful in wrapping up small or delicate fossils that need to come out of the ground. Lately I’ve been favouring headwear by a company named Buff, which makes a kind of stretchy fabric tube that can be used as a bandana, sun-guard, and so on depending on how it’s worn.
First Aid Kit
It doesn’t matter how careful I am. Fieldwork always causes at least a few cuts, scrapes, or insect bites. I never go out for the day without a compact first aid kit with bandages, tape, gauze, ibuprofen, tweezers, and a few other necessities. I don’t need it most days, but I’m always glad to have it when I’ve got to wrap up a cut finger or pull out a thorn.
It’s not really fieldwork unless I have my Estwing rock hammer. I don’t always need it, especially if I’m just prospecting, but this simple tool is great for flipping over rocks, splitting slabs, and busting up rocks during quarry work. And it’s quite handy when I have to pound in my tent stakes, too.
Awls and Brushes
Fossil excavation is very delicate work. Even if the crew needs a jackhammer or rock saw to open up a quarry, working close to fossils requires much finer tools. I always carry a pair of small awls to scrape away at the rock adjacent to bone and a set of brushes – one a larger whisk brush, the other a finer paintbrush – to sweep away the disturbed rock from the delicate fossil.
Most dinosaur bones are extremely, extremely delicate. Some can turn to dust if you so much as breathe on them. That’s why paleontologists carry a mixture of acetone and polyvinyl beads with them. The liquid – which can be mixed to different consistencies depending on the nature of the bone – penetrates the bone, and from there the acetone evaporates to leave the plastic inside to strengthen the fossil. Without this treatment, many fossils would crumble on their journey from the field to the lab.
Spearpoint Dissection Needle
I was surprised by how useful this little tool is. Normally used in biology lab dissections, this spear is quite good at removing relatively soft muds and sandstones while still giving me enough control to avoid accidentally jabbing the fossil I’m working on. And if I forget to bring a field ruler with me, the spear also works as scale for field photos.
Prospecting requires that I spend a day wandering the desert, often going hours – if not the whole day – without seeing anyone else. Getting lost could be disastrous. I always bring a GPS unit if the field team has them, or, failing that, I use the MotionX-GPS app on my phone to mark camp, the field vehicle, and any fossil sites I find.
Candy / Snacks / Gatorade
It never fails. Every afternoon, right around 2 pm, fieldwork starts to catch up to me. I want to lie down in the shade and shut my eyes just for a minute, but there’s no shade to hide in. That’s when I usually grab a handful of Starburst – the wrappers keep them from melting together – or drink some Gatorade if I’ve brought some in one of the Platypus bags. Just a little bit of sugar can make a world of difference in the afternoon heat.
Most camps I’ve worked with buy a bunch of food and everyone takes turns cooking. Even so, I often like to bring a few things with me for my lunches. When the sun’s directly overhead, sandwiches often feel heavy and like work to get through. Instead, I’ve switched to bringing a small bag of crackers, some jerky or salami, a little cheese, fruit, a granola bar, and a cookie or two. Snacking on a few different things works better for me, and if I don’t finish anything I’ve got a little bit for the late afternoon.
Clothes, Footwear, and Duffel
Packing for the field means preparing for almost any kind of weather. For the actual fieldwork itself, I bring lightweight, quick-dry pants and button-down shirts of similar material. But I also throw in a rain slicker, a heavier jacket for the cool of the desert evenings, t-shirts to change into back at camp, and twice the amount of underwear I think I’m going to need. (At the end of a hot day, a pair of fresh boxer shorts can be a major morale boost.) All that goes into a big duffel bag, with used clothes tied up in plastic shopping bags to keep them isolated.
Comfortable boots are essential for fieldwork, lest I come home with a foot full of cactus spines, as well as a pair of sandals to switch into. At the end of a rough field day, being able to throw on some clean clothes and kick off my boots always makes me feel so much better.
Most paleo camps are out in the middle of nowhere and require tent camping. And given that conditions can range from scorching heat to thunderstorms to freak snowstorms, I knew I had to invest in a good tent. I ended up with a four-season, three person Black Diamond tent that leaves plenty of room for me and my gear and has withstood the past two field seasons quite well. The only trouble is that tents can usually get very hot during the day, so I try to pitch in the shade of a juniper if I can and make sure all the vents are open lest I return to find that my deodorant stick has melted again.
Sleeping Bag, Sleeping Pad, Sleeping Bag Liner, Pillow
If I don’t sleep well, I can’t perform well in the field. That’s why my sleeping gear is some of the most important stuff I bring with me. I pack a thick sleeping pad to keep me off the ground, a compressible sleeping bag, a pillow, and a sleeping bag liner. That last item can be especially important. While a warm sleeping bag is great on cold nights, sometimes it’s just too hot and a sleeping bag liner is all I need. Just as with clothes, fieldwork requires that I be ready for a range of temperatures.
Headlamp and Lantern
Most expeditions I’ve been on don’t return to camp until 5 or 6 pm in the evening, and dinner might not get served until it’s almost dark. A headlamp and a small battery-operated lantern are always a part of my field kit, and are especially helpfully in finding the beer cooler once the sun has gone down.
Toiletries and Towel
Looking for dinosaurs is dirty work. There’s no way around that. But I always bring a small bag with deodorant, toothpaste, a razor, and such to at least make an effort at hygiene. And while some field camps are close enough to rivers or reservoirs to go for a swim and wash the grime off, I always bring a pack of non-scented baby wipes to wipe the dust and sunscreen away. When my next shower might be a week or more away, the wipes make all the difference in the world.
Happy fossiling! Be prepared and stay safe in the field!