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Survival Notes for Geology Field Trips
A Reading Assignment for Geology Students
The Reading Room

Survival Notes for Geology Field Trips

Taking a field trip is the Cadillac way of teaching geology; that’s
why I’m building a page for just that on this site. Please use the
suggested tips with my happy thoughts of the fun you’ll have. As
a geology teacher myself, I offer my experience of taking large groups
to the great outdoors. Perhaps you’d like to add your own suggestions.
Write to this site via the Guest Book. I’ll be glad to post good ideas
as they come in.

1. Like an army, the field trip travels on its stomach. I find that people of all ages learn best when they are well fed. Box lunches are great, but the funny thing is that people on a field trip often feel the need to assert their independence. Giving them a selection regarding what they eat is a tidy way of offering them this without disrupting the process. I recall one trip on which I had to deal with my direct supervisor, who asserted his sovereignty by making twenty geologists stop and wait, tapping out feet and burning daylight at a wayside shop, while he purchased sunscreen. I had fantasies of preferring that he char.

EVEN BETTER, let everyone build her or his own sandwich. This can even be a cost savings if done right. Bring a cooler, and detail someone to go to the supermarket ahead of time to buy deli breads, cold cuts, condiments, and a head of lettuce or sprouts. If you have enough people to feed, you can grab an uncut ham (much cheaper than the deli price) and have the deli department slice it for you. A bag or five of cookies and or chips is good. Good drinks, including something hot if it’s cold or PLENTY of water (gallon jugs of spring water plus recyclable cups) if it’s hot. You get the idea.

2. Physical comfort is centrally important. People can’t
learn or even enjoy the scenery if they’re fighting hypothermia, feverish
with sunburn, swatting mosquitoes, or exhausted from too long or quick
a hike. I’ve passed out critiques after some of my field trips, and asked,
“What stops do you think we should have skipped?” and “What
stops did you like best?” Invariably, the stop where an icy wind
was blowing or rain was starting to fall was a real sinker and the one
where we had balmy weather was the best.

Obviously we can’t control these things, but planning contingencies
and making sure everyone has proper gear and a place to get out of the
weather, should it turn bad, is just plain smart. I have a photo somewhere
of twenty Amoco geologists suffering a ride across Great Sand Dunes in
a howling windstorm. I can just see a few peoples’ noses as they have
pulled their hoods up into snorkels and have braced themselves against
the blow;they all voted we could have skipped that stop. On the other
hand, before it began to blow they loved rolling over the dunes in that
twenty-passenger dune buggy.

So be conscious that you need either fit people or good comfortable
transportation or both, and places to get out of the wind, rain, snow,
or whatever might be happening. Plan for time at the visitor’s center
if you’re visiting a park, then make that stop when the weather’s at its

If you need to haul people up a long trail, make sure nobody’s carrying
so much gear that he/she is slowing down himself and everyone behind him.
Figure sunscreen and fly dope as part of the budget.

Be ready to chuck it and run if it gets ridiculous out there. And give
them all an extra cookie as they climb back onto the bus; they’ll feel
like heroes.

3. Camping can be the high point of a well-run geology field
, a bonding ceremony, a time when the true faith of geoscience
descends upon your disciples or it can be the Bataan death march.

Again, people have to be properly equipped. Take pity on neophytes and
make sure they have what they need to stay warm, dry, and rested. Make
sure the person detailed to make arrangements (if that’s not you) isn’t
some gung-ho bivouac artist who survives on K-rations. The best-run field
camp I ever saw was Gerry Weber’s summer field course from UC Santa Cruz
He hired a professional cook who was dynamite, students had access to
showers with the best shower heads, and when the camp moved to a dry-camp area for the last weeks
of the course, there was a fine swimming hole.

And, at risk of running a pike through the heart of the classic geologic
field trip, be careful how much alcohol people imbibe. People who get
hammered by the campfire don’t get up very quickly the next day, and are
more prone to dehydration. As serious a problem is the fate of the non-drinker
on such trips, who might find the experience of seeing his/her colleagues
and instructor high as kites a deterrent to attending your next soiree.
(I am allergic to alcohol, and once used my beer ration as a shake and
shoot weapon after a gassed professor nearly ran a 4X4 over a sleeping
bag that had me in it).

4. It’s important to give participants adequate free time.
As any field geologist knows, it’s during the time spend freewheeling,
noodling around, or whatever you want to call it –just staring into space–that
the deepest understanding of geology usually descends.

The finest moment on a field trip I ran came when we were miles off-road
at Great Sand Dunes with bright sunshine and no wind. After a satisfying
lunch, participants wandered off on their own for half an hour, each taking
in the scenery and the sand on his own. Each came back with his own personal
gem of observation, including one wizened elder who held out a handful
of sand to me to show how the static charge made the grains repel each
other. In two field seasons out there. I had never noticed that myself.

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