I have 20 years of field work experience under my figurative belt. I know what I like, and I like functional outdoor gear! I’m a bit of a gear collector in that aspect: I try new things as my poor palaeontology (and now self-funded science communicator through Bird Glamour) budget allows. On Field Gal Gear you’ll see my trials and triumphs in trying out the camping and hiking gear I used for field work. Of course, these are all of my personal preferences: you may like certain gear for your reasons and that’s all cool.
An ever-evolving process was refining my Quick Grab Gear system. What is my Quick Grab Gear? Rite-in-the-Rain notebook, mechanical drafting pencil – and I’ll argue that they are THE BEST writing utensil I have ever used outdoors on waterproof paper – compass, GPS unit, flagging tape, Sharpie markers, pocket digital camera, photo scales, sunscreen face stick, and a small snack.
If you’re like many adventurers, you head out into the wilderness with a backpack. On expedition-length adventures you will have an expedition-sized pack. We’re talking a +60 L pack that contains everything you’ll need for the next days: shelter, water, food, sleeping bag and pad, a change of clothes, rain gear, and tools to do your job. Chances are your pack will be mighty in weight.
I have two expedition packs that I use interchangeably. My first ever pack was a MEC Brio 60L (no longer available). My other pack is an older model Gregory Deva 60.
Imagine this: you’re on a field survey and you see something that you need to document. You need to do it quickly and efficiently: daylight is burning. If your Quick Grab Gear is in your big expedition pack, you need to take off that pack. And then put that pack back on. And take it off. And put it on. Tedious, right?
I’ve learned a hard truth about myself: I’m supremely lazy (I prefer to think of it as maximizing my efficiency.) I am less likely to go through the motions of accessing my Quick Grab Gear on a long hike if I have to haul off and on my expedition pack ad nauseum. Physically I can do it, and do. Mentally…sometimes it’s a bit much.
I’ve experimented with various auxiliary carrying systems to keep my Quick Grab Gear handy without the bother of de-packing. Here are my experimental successes (and abject failures).
- The Photography Vest
Photographers are veterans of the Quick Grab Gear world. They have to be: those amazing photographic opportunities won’t wait for you to haul off your big pack just so you can take a pic.
Pros: It has pocketses, precious! Lots of zippered and Velcro-ed pockets! Of various sizes! Photographer’s Vests are usually made of lightweight material, so they won’t add a lot of weight themselves (what you pack in them is up to you, weight-wise) and will dry out quickly when (not if, when) they get wet.
Cons: You’ll be wearing your backpack OVER TOP of the vest. If you’re using an expedition pack with a padded waist trap (a must!) you lose access to any pockets covered by those straps. Also, I haven’t found a water-repellent or waterproof version of this vest. You can wear it under your rain jacket, but then you have the hassle of undoing your pack and then unzipping your protective rain gear to access your pockets. Oh, and any gear in your pockets is going to get wet if you wear the vest as your outer (accessible) layer.
Example of a light photography vest here: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/196102-REG/Humvee_by_CampCo_HMV_VS_K_L_Safari_Photo_Vest_Large.html
- The Side Satchel
My very first purse was a small side satchel from Mountain Equipment Co-Op (MEC). The MEC brand side satchel is no longer available (I bought it over a decade ago), but this bag is the closest in terms of style and pockets. Oh, and I only spent $30 on my MEC version because it was on sale at the time. https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5063-893/Lima-Shoulder-Bag
I thought that the side satchel would be THE solution. All I would have to do is sling the satchel over my shoulder and then put my pack on! The weight of the pack would keep the satchel strap from moving around. I was feeling pretty proud of myself for the first few kilometers (cue the ominous music.)
NOTHING stopped that satchel strap from sliding around. It defied the laws of physics and went EVERYWHERE except where it was supposed to be, which was on my shoulder. I was stubborn: I made it work for three full-day expeditions, but soon abandoned this solution.
- The Fanny-Pack/Waist Pack
“OK, shoulder straps,” I said. “I don’t need you! I’ll put everything on my waist!”
In saunters the Fanny-Pack.
I was way too invested in having this work, which made my disappointment that much greater.
Do you see the problem?
Expedition packs have a waist strap. Waist packs have a waist strap.
Layering the backpack strap over the fanny pack strap, plus the buckles for each strap, made for A LOT of waist chafing. It was functional, but uncomfortable. Do not EVER downplay your physical comfort with field gear. You’ll end up hurting yourself.
Now I use this waist pack for cross-country skiing.
- The Water Bottle Holder!
After cursing the existence of all waist straps, I finally decided to lean into making the most of my backpack’s waist strap.
Behold the MEC Water Bottle Holster! https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5038-399/Water-Bottle-Holster (no longer available.)
REI has a similar item, but it’s missing the cinch-top to keep your gear inside.
Before I switched to a hydration system, I had two Nalgene water bottles holstered to my waist strap. I re-purposed them for Quick Grab Gear. One holds my notebook, pencils, and photo scales (if I’m not wearing cargo pants, see below) and the other holds my other gear. Their strong polyester material meant they were wear-and-tear resistant, and they dried out quickly in wet weather!
- Cargo Pants: The Photography Vest of Pants!
Friends, I LOVE Ex Officio Men’s Nio Amphi Pants for field work: they are quick-drying, protect you from the sun, and best of all are the SUPER LARGE AND DEEP SIDE POCKETS. https://www.campsaver.com/exofficio-nio-amphi-pant-men-s.html
Since I love them so, it came as no surprise to me that they were discontinued.
The side pockets EASILY fit a geological Rite-in-the-Rain field book with room to spare. Camera? GPS? Small hand-samples of specimens? These pockets say “No problem, Buddy! I’m here for you!” I have abused these pants for years and they keep coming back for more. Rest in Peace, Ex Officio Men’s Nio Amphi Pants. You were the Emperor of Lightweight Field Pants.
Tell me about your field gear solutions for your Quick Grab outdoor Gear! What worked? What didn’t? What are your favorite brands? What are they meant for…and what do YOU use them for?
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