Fight field season fidgets Tips for surviving remote living while conducting field work

by Bailey Rankine

Mild winter temperatures often create a buzz for Winnipegers, and though still some time away, the anticipation of the field season is among us. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran Post Doc, or a fieldwork freshie, you’re bound to benefit from a few of these tips on how to survive living remotely.

Know your location

Location is really what makes each fieldwork experience particularly unique. Before you jump on the plane, do your background reconnaissance. Know how far you are from basic amenities, or the sorts of elements you’ll be facing. Having knowledge of your environment will allow you to enrich your experience and effortlessly concur any obstacles.

Suggestion: Bring supplies that may be difficult or expensive to obtain once in the field. A few things I’ve come to find handy: sewing kit with scissors, duct tape, Leatherman (multi-tool), super glue, cold medication, first aid kit with polysporin (ointment and eye drops).

There are also climate specific items that should be considered for each location like sunscreen, bug spray, sunglasses (more than one pair), and all of your socks!

Example: Gnaraloo, Western Australia, the location of my current field-based sea turtle conservation research, is a fly haven. Although warned, I did not bring a bug canopy for my bed.
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Each morning at 5:30 am, following a night survey which concluded at 4 am, the flies would commence their assault. They were unescapable and relentless as the scorching temperatures made even a sheet for protection unbearable.

It wasn’t until three months into my stay that I was able to order a bug net online. It was life changing! But I will never be able to make up for those days that I was exhausted and barely functioning.

Know your freedoms and restrictions

The major things to consider is transportation and recreation. Often field vehicles are strictly that. Depending on your funding or access to parts and repair shops, your field vehicles may be restricted for work purposes only.

It comes down to ensuring your personal freedom. Remote living can be challenging to say the least, especially if you start to feel as though you’re trapped. Let’s face it, being outdoors, exploring new places and enjoying the splendors that nature has to offer is why we all love the field season.

Suggestion: Field work requires a lot of equipment to be brought on site so why not cram in a snorkel, a bicycle, a fishing rod, or snow shoes, or cross-country skis, depending on your location. If travelling by plane, these may be an extra expense but usually worth the investment; you can’t put a price on your sanity.  Alternatively, you can use sites like craigslist to find items of interest and organize exchange points that are more convenient.

Example: One of the researchers currently stationed with me at Gnaraloo, brought a surfboard he picked up in Perth. His journey began in Spain, but he used gumtree (the Australian version of craigslist) to find a board along his travels and organize an exchange. The seller met him in Perth at the bus station while waiting to catch the coach up to Carnarvon on the final stretch of his journey. In hindsight, I wish I had used this method to get a bike.

Plan for rainy days

Not everyone’s field season offers the opportunity to explore untamed wilderness. Some may be confined to research vessels or unforgiving environments. In these instances it’s even more important to keep yourself entertained. Boredom is the enemy, and multi-media may be the remedy.

Suggestion: Stock your hard drive with TV shows, movies, audiobooks and podcasts. Download all the seasons of Game of Thrones and find out what all your 9-to-5 friends (the ones that got a real job instead of slaving away in grad school) are raving about.

If you haven’t discovered podcasts yet, now’s the time! If you’re a science geek like myself, you’ll probably enjoy “Stuff You Should Know” and “Radio Lab,” but there are all types of genres to choose from and most are free to subscribe and download.

Example: Movie nights at Gnaraloo are as close you can get to going to the theatre. Movies are projected onto the wall where we give presentation to guests interested in sea turtle conservation. We rearrange the furniture so that the room is full of beds and we pile on with our bowls of popcorn in hand.

Make Family Dinners

It’s fun to set a roster and take turns cooking meals so everyone gets a chance to show off their culinary skills. “Variety is the spice of life” and it gives people the opportunity to try to new things.

Meals can get pretty dodgy when supply runs are infrequent, but meal times can really bring a group together.

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Suggestion: Thanks to the food network, pretty much everyone these days is a self-proclaimed chef. Experiment with new recipes or try foraging for ingredients. Pick up an edible plant survival guide specific for your region and see if you can identify any consumable flora.

Example:  While participating in a geological mapping field school on Quadra Island, BC we picked stinging nettle and chanterelles to top our pizza; and at the Experimental Lakes Area we made freshly picked blueberries into jams and pie.

 Take personal time. 

Living and working with the same people day-in and day-out can be challenging, especially when in a remote location. Remove yourself when tensions get tight, it’s therapeutic for you and it will make communal living much more bearable for everyone.

Suggestion: Take a walk, or find a quite spot to read, like in a hammock near the lake or wrapped in wool in front of a woodstove. If you’re feeling exceedingly irritable, burn it off with a workout or yoga. Working out also builds endorphins, which will boost your mood and help you stay positive.

Example: Try not to laugh, but at every single field-based position I’ve had, P90X videos have been my saving grace. Whether I was doing them alone to burn off steam or with a group just for fun, they have been an essential tool for surviving remote, communal living.

So what have we learned?

Preparation is certainly key, but you can’t plan for everything and each season is a new adventure and learning experience. However, not being prepared at all can turn an exciting adventure into a prison sentence. Nothing is worse than being too cold, too wet, too sunburnt, or too bitten by insects, with no relief for the foreseeable future.

In the end what it comes down to is making the most of it. If you find yourself in an exotic location you will probably never travel to again then extend your visit a month and tour around. The best advice is to treat your field season like an once-in-a-lifetime experience and embrace it.

Whether you’re research takes you to the confines of an Arctic vessel, the plains of Africa, or the outback coast of Australia, hopefully one or two of these tips will help quell the madness of limitation and isolation.

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