Field Gal Gear

Where’s The Tent?

*indicates products that I have not used, but would be interested to test based on experience and product information.

There are two times that I have camped outdoors overnight without a tent. One time was an unscheduled adventure involving a misplaced flashlight, a beaver dam, and dinosaur footprint site in near-freezing temperatures (it was October) with no camping gear AT ALL except for a silicone guide tarp.

The other time was a planned overnight in October with all of the right gear.

One adventure was more enjoyable than the other. I’ll let you guess which one.

A well-planned tent-less camping trip is a fun adventure! There are many tent-less camping systems, like tarps and camping hammocks. I have yet to try these systems, so I’ll talk about what we used on our trip.

There are key pieces of equipment you will need for your tent-less camping trip. You won’t be spending money on anything special: you’ll use all of this gear for tent camping!

  1. The Sleeping Pad

Sleeping outdoors means carrying a sleeping pad. There are a lot of options for backpacking sleeping pads. If you’ve stayed over at someone’s house, you’ve likely used an inflatable air mattress. They can be comfy, but your standard air mattress is just too big and too heavy to bring with you on a backpacking trip.

Think of a sleeping pad as the minimalist air mattress. Sleeping pads aren’t just for a cushy sleep. Sleeping pads keep your body off of the cold-sucking ground while trapping warm air from your body heat between you and the ground.

How warm is your sleeping pad? Check the R-value. The R-value tells you the sleeping pad’s ability to resist heat loss. This means YOUR heat loss. Low R-values (2 and lower) are for warmer climates and summer camping, while medium R-values (3 – 4) are great for three-season camping. If you’re winter camping (or are a cold sleeper) definitely go for a sleeping pad with a 4.5 R-value or higher. A general rule is that the higher the R-value, the thicker and heavier the sleeping pad will be. Don’t despair! We’re talking about a difference in between one and two kilograms, not dozens.

There are different types of sleeping pads: self-inflating, manual-inflating, and closed-cell foam pads. I’ll talk about what I know, which are self-inflating pads.

Self-inflating sleeping pads have a foam core. You can fold them in half lengthwise and then roll them up into a tight roll. When you roll up your sleeping pad for travel (and put it in the stuff sack), you squeeze all of the air out of the foam cells. When you unroll the pad, the empty foam cells expand and suck in air through the inflation valve. All you have to do then is breathe into the valve to get your sleeping pad just the right firmness, close the valve, and you’re set!

Pro-tip: Get yourself a silicone bag, like the MEC Pack Rat Silicone Stuff Sack, for packing your sleeping pad. Silicone bags, like a non-stick pan, glide easily over the rolled-up sleeping pad. This means you can pack and unpack quickly (and without frustration!)

 

Pack Rat Silicone Stuff Sack
Pack Rat Silicone Stuff Sacks. Numbers indicate liters of space.

I’ve always used a self-inflating sleeping pad. I’ve never had one deflate on me overnight (if you’ve slept on a standard air mattress you know the feeling). My absolute favorite is the Therma-Rest Prolite Plus Women’s Sleeping Pad. This pad has been with me for ten years. TEN YEARS. Its R-value is 3.9 so it’s great for three-season camping. I’ve used this pad in the sub-alpine where the temperatures dropped to -5 C at night in August (yup, it gets cold up there!) and I didn’t feel the ground sucking my life-energy from my soul.

ThermaRest
ThermaRest ProLite Plus Women’s Sleeping Pad

Air pads* are extremely light and pack down quite small. You need to manually inflate them, but the air pump is actually a lightweight bag pump. They come in a range of R-values and pack down super-duper small. As with self-inflating pads, air pads with higher R-values tend to be a bit more spendy.

  1. The Sleeping Bag

Idyllic as it may seem, sleeping under the stars wrapped in your cloak like a hobbit off to visit the Lonely Mountain is not going to cut it, comfort-wise.

Adventure
Yeah dude, you’re totally getting rained on at night. I’ve read “The Hobbit” a floppity-jillion times. I know what’s in store for you!

You’ll want a sleeping bag. Look, I’ve made due with a fire, a guide tarp, and a pile of leaves. OK, maybe not a pile of leaves, but that was an … unexpected journey.

Not all sleeping bags are created equal. Sleeping bags, like sleeping pads, have ratings. Sleeping bag ratings are given in temperatures. A -10 C rated sleeping bag is going to be a lot warmer than a sleeping bag rated at +5 C. For three-season tent-less camping in temperate climates, you’ll want a sleeping bag that is rated for below freezing temperatures.

Pro-Tip: The temperature rating on a sleeping bag doesn’t mean that you will be snug as a bug in a rug using the bag at that temperature. It means that you will SURVIVE at that temperature. It’s a country mile between comfy and surviving.

Personally, I like a down sleeping bag. They compress down beautifully in a compression stuff sack for stowing in your pack. Down is crazy warm for its weight. Down is also very durable: a well-cared for down sleeping bag will last over a decade. My old MEC Raven -7 C Mummy Bag is still going after fifteen years.

Down sleeping bags have their drawbacks. One, they’re a little heavier than a synthetic bag. Two, once it gets wet, it’s game over for warmth, and they take a long time to dry out. You have to think like a duck to get the most out of your down bag. A duck has its down feathers right up against its body, protected by the water- and wind-repellent layer of their contour feathers. The contour feathers also keep all of those toasty little air pockets trapped within the down close to the body.

So how do you keep either your down (or your synthetic) bag warm and dry when you camp without a tent? You need layers over your down, my duckies!

  1. The Overbag

Ducks keep wet out of their down feathers by preening: they rub oil over their outer feathers which repels moisture…like water off of a duck’s back (c’mon, I had to!) We’re not about to slather our sleeping bags with butter, so we need a fabric option.

An overbag acts like the contour feathers on a duck: it keeps the wind and external moisture off of the bag. It also helps to trap in your body heat. You can add another 5 C to 10 C degrees to your sleeping bag’s rating with a wind-stopping overbag. I have a MEC Emperor Penguin Windstopper Overbag (no longer available).

Penguin Overbag
MEC Emperor Penguin Windstopper Overbag

If I needed to pick up a new overbag, I’d be interested to try out either the North Face Ocelot Overbag* or the MEC Talon Overbag*. They are comparable in price and both do what overbags are supposed to do: keep condensation away from your body and your main sleeping bag while repelling external water.

Ocelot Overbag
North Face Ocelot Overbag. This looks TOASTY!
Talon Overbag
MEC Talon Overbag. Also looks toasty!

I had my sleeping pad, my sleeping bag, and my overbag, but what if it got really chilly at night?

  1. The Sleeping Bag Liner

You can add even more warmth to your sleeping system by adding an inner layer! You can get fancy-shmancy with wool and silk liners, but I went for the least expensive one I could find, my MEC Fleece Sleeping Bag Liner (no longer available).

The polyester fleece wicks away sweat, adds a bit more warmth to your bag, and keeps the inside of your main bag a bit cleaner (it’s so much easier to wash the fleece liner than a down sleeping bag). If I needed a new bag liner, sign me up for the Big Agnes Fleece Sleeping Bag Liner*.

Big Agnes Fleece Liner
Big Agnes Fleece Sleeping Bag Liner

It’s made of Polartek recycled fleece and adds another 5 C – 10 C to your sleeping bag. Oh, and can I say that snuggling up in a cozy fleece blankie at the end of the day feels like luxury? Because it does!

What if you’re worried about all of your gear directly touching the wet ground? Or WHAT IF IT RAINS ON YOU AND YOUR GEAR?

  1. The Siltarp

Siltarps are basically a piece of nylon that is impregnated with silicone. They’re very light and waterproof. My very first paleontology survey in the alpine demonstrated the necessity of a backpack tarp. It was a gorgeous August day, but when we reached the summit of a mountain the weather turned FAST. We were caught in a freak snowstorm. One of our group pulled out this teeny package from their back, unfurled it, and lo! A giant tarp covered us and our gear, keeping us dry. Staying dry meant we stayed warm, and staying warm means avoiding hypothermia.

I picked up a backpacking tarp immediately after returning from this trip. The Rab Guides Siltarp 1 is very similar to the tarp I have.

Siltarp
Rab Guides Siltarp 1

Siltarps weigh less than a 1-liter water bottle and take up very little room in your pack. My siltarp is a must-have for every paleontology survey or hike. When we did our tent-less camping trip, we put our sleeping gear on one guide tarp, and used the second guide tarp as an emergency rain shelter. Thankfully it didn’t rain!

Tentless camping
Our tent-less camping trip!

You can definitely get away with using a regular polytarp (those blue tarps that make loud crinkle noises) that you can find at your local hardware store, but they won’t pack up as small and won’t be as light. Siltarps are also less expensive than tarp shelters. You can turn your siltarp into a shelter by hooking the side loops over your hiking pole (the subject of a future post!) or running nylon cord through the loops.

I consistently use all of the gear in this post. When I camp in my bivy sack in the sub-alpine, I don’t even bring my sleeping bag: I use my sleeping bag liner and my overbag (and wear warm undies, which I would bring regardless.)

Wish List

One piece of tent-less camping gear I am extremely eager to try is the camping hammock! Hammocks that hook up to trees would not work well in the sub-alpine or the alpine: the trees are just too teeny. I would use a hammock for lower elevation forest camping. Camping hammocks vary in price: this depends on whether the hammock comes with a rain fly. Since I already have a siltarp that I would use as a rain fly, I would love to try out the MEC Double Hammock with Tree Straps*!

Hammock
MEC Double Hammock with Tree Straps

I’d still want to use my sleeping pad, overbag, and sleeping bag liner when sleeping in a hammock. There would be cold night air underneath me, so insulation would be a must.

Have you ever gone tent-less camping? What sort of gear did you use? Did you ever have an unexpected tent-less camping trip? Tell me about your adventure!

Field Gal Gear

Itsy Bitsy Teeny Tents

*All gear marked with an asterisk is gear with which I have no experience. I base my review on what I know from using similar gear.

You can’t think “camping” without thinking about tents. It’s like thinking about peanut butter without the chocolate, or gin without the tonic. Some things just go together.

When you’re carrying EVERYTHING on your back, you need to maximize your stuff and minimize the weight in your backpack. It’s less of an issue if you’re paddling or being shuttled by helicopter to your outdoor destination. Sure, there are still weight restrictions, but you have more room to bring stuff. More room for luxuries like a big four-season tent.

Nunatak 1
Older model MEC Nunatak 3-Person 4 Season Tent.

The MEC Nunatak …wait. This version is no longer available? Dang! The Nunatak is our go-to tent for alpine and sub-alpine work. I haven’t had the need to purchase the newer model of the MEC 3-Person 4-Season Nunatak because the older model has held up SO WELL! Seriously: our Nunatak is a decade old! I would expect the same performance from the new model of the Nunatak:

  • Sturdy against strong mountain winds and snow (yes, it snows in the mountains in July and August)
  • Holds in your heat when the night temperatures drop to around 0°C
  • Two entrances with large vestibules for storing sodden and muddy gear
  • Enough room to hold two people plus all of their gear comfortably
Nunatak 2
Newer model MEC Nunatak 3-Person 4 Season Tent*. It looks even more sturdy than the previous version! I like the skirt along the bottom of the vestibules!

Pro tip: when you see the person-capacity listed for your tent, that capacity is for people WITHOUT their gear. Count your gear as taking up the space that half a person would, especially if you’re camping in a very cold or wet environment. More weather, more gear.

Being both large and sturdy, this tent is NOT what you want to have in your backpack (or two packs, or three packs) when you have to haul yourself up a mountain or along boulder-strewn terrain. When you only have your arms and legs to power you, you start to look at small, lightweight shelters.

  1. Two-Person Tents

My husband and I have three solutions to lightweight, hike-it-in shelters. One is a two-person tent. The MEC Tarn 3 is our active two-person tent.

Tarn 3
MEC Tarn 3 3-Person Tent. While discontinued, this was perfect for two people and our gear.

Since the Tarn 3 (and the slightly smaller Tarn 2) are no longer available, I started looking at other kinds of two-person tents. Here is my mental checklist when I browsed the new tent models:

How cold is the area you’re camping?

There are small tents that are super light, but the top of the tent is all mesh, like the Big Agnes Seedhouse Superlight 2-Person Tent*. Tents like the Big Agnes and other tents described as “super-light” will have large mesh panels in the fabric. The upper part may be completely constructed of mesh. The fly will not be enough to hold in your body heat, so this is a tent for warmer climates, or if near-freezing temperatures won’t be an issue for you. Don’t just use tent weight as your deciding factor: you might end up sacrificing your warmth for weight.

If I needed to buy a new 2-person tent for cool weather camping in the alpine, I would go with the MEC TGV 2-Person 4-Season Tent*.

 

TGV
MEC TGV 2-Person 4 Season Tent* with rain fly. 

The TGV has mesh doors, but the rest of the tent is constructed with 40-denier polyester. This, combined with the fly (a.k.a. the tent cover or rain cover), will help hold in your body heat.

TGV 2
MEC TGV 2-Person 4 Season Tent* without the rain fly. The less mesh you see in the tent body, the warmer the tent will be.

Pro-Tip: Denier lets you know how see-through polyester products are. 30-denier and higher means the fabric is opaque. That’s it! That’s all it means!

How windy is the camping area? The TGV is wedge-shaped, so you can set up the pointy end against the prevailing wind. Point the low end of your tent towards the direction that the wind is coming from. The wind will have less surface area to smoosh. Winds on mountain tops are STRONG. Winds will plow your tent over or bend (or break!) your poles if you bring up a tent that is meant for a low-altitude campground. Dome and box tents will get smooshed…with you inside. I have stories.

Where will your gear go? There’s a roomy vestibule for storing your boots and pack out of the weather. The entrance flaps can be fully closed for extra warmth, or you can use just the mesh flap for ventilation. Although designed to stand up to foul weather, the TGV is still lightweight at 2.75 kg.

Use a tent footprint (no question).

Ground sheets, or tent footprints, are essential. They keep moisture from seeping through the tent bottom and into your sleeping gear. Footprints are usually sold separately. Each tent brand and model should have a tent footprint available specifically for that tent. Bonus: the tent footprints have grommets that fit the ends of your tent poles, and WILL HAVE THE SAME COLOR CODING AS YOUR TENT POLE GROMMETS. You don’t have to worry about setting your footprint down bass-ackwards!

Here’s the footprint for the MEC TGV 2-Person 4-Season Tent.

TGV footprint
Footprint* for the MEC TGV 2-Person 4-Season Tent. Look at the color-coded pole straps!

Waterproof your tent fly and tent base (also no question).

Seriously. You can get away with an unwaterproofed tent for a couple of uses, but you will notice seepage and leaks over time, especially on the tent floor. Talk to the store from where you buy your tent to see what they recommend for waterproofing products.

What If I’m Not Sharing A Tent?

You may want your own sleeping space. You’re in luck! You have a few options for one-person shelters.

  1. One-Person Tents

If I was to buy a one-person tent that would suit my needs for cool weather camping, I would check out the MSR Elixir 1-Person Tent*. At 2.16 kg of packed weight, this tent has great features for its price ($255 CAD). The Elixir has a full polyester top, which is great for holding in your sleeping warmth. The rain fly has a roomy vestibule for storing your pack and boots outside of your sleeping space. This is necessary: there will be no room in your tent for both you and your pack.

MSR Elixir

MSR Elixir 2
MSR Elixir 1-Person Tent* with rain fly (top) and without (bottom).
  1. Bivy Sacks

Maybe you want a super small, super light, but still super weather-proof shelter. Enter the bivy sack!

I am a claustrophobic sleeper. I cannot abide blankets covering my head and face, no matter how cold it gets. This was a real struggle for me when I was a little kid: it was hard to hide from bedroom monsters if I couldn’t sleep completely under the covers!

Blanket snorkel
The Far Side, by Gary Larson

My husband (also claustrophobic) tried a traditional-style bivy during his fieldwork. The bivy was similar to the North Face Assault Bivy*. He said it was a bit like sleeping in a body bag. The bivy fabric was RIGHT THERE AGAINST HIS FACE. I was NOT excited about the idea of dropping serious money on a bag that would give me smothering feelings.

North Face bivy
North Face Assault Bivy*. It’s light and compact!

But I was still enamored with the IDEA of itsy bitsy shelters. I did a week-long geology field trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota during one of my undergraduate geology courses. Our lab section’s graduate teaching assistant had this awesome looking tent that was so much smaller than a tent, but larger than a traditional bivy bag. I was intrigued, but completely too self-conscious to ask her about it. Her shelter represented what I wanted my camping to be.

In 2010 my husband and I went on a week-long rafting trip. Space and weight were limited: we could bring what would fit in our backpacks. We started looking at one person tents, but at the time they were pricey. Then we saw the Outdoor Research (OR) Alpine Bivy.

Bivy 1
Outdoor Research (OR) Alpine Bivy. I love this bivy sack!

It’s like a sleeping bag and a tent joined forces. LOOK AT THE HEAD ROOM!

The whole packed OR Alpine Bivy takes up as much space as a one-liter water bottle, and weighs a little less (564 grams). There is a mesh screen for when you want to sleep with the lip open. When it rains – and it rained on our rafting survey…heavily…every night – the lid is supported by two small tent-style poles that hold its shape. It feels like sleeping in a tent! You can zip yourself up like a caterpillar in a polyester cocoon! Confession: I snapped the poles in place backwards so my lid couldn’t fully open, but I STILL had a completely dry and comfy sleep!

bivy 2
Outdoor Research OR Alpine Bivy with the opening closed against rain. Don’t you want to put googly-eyes on the lid? I know I do!

One thing that took me a few moments to get used to was that I could FEEL the pressure of the raindrops on my back and legs. After I got over the few second panicked feeling of “AAH! I’M BEING RAINED ON!” I thought of it as a gentle massage and fell back asleep.

The expanded head space had room for my clothes (I used my clothes as a pillow), field book, and electronics. There was NO ROOM for my pack and other gear. I made sure that the rain cover for my pack was snug before going to bed, and my pack made it through the night bone dry!

But what if you want to go even lighter? So light, in fact, that you want to forgo using a tent at all?

That’s MADNESS, you may say, but it’s done and I’ve done tent-less camping! On my next post I’ll talk about the gear I used to make my tent-less camping trip a comfortable success! I’ll also show you some gear that I would be very interested to test for tent-less camping!

Field Gal Gear

Packity-Pack! (Don’t Use A Cheap Pack!)

If you weren’t exposed to, or didn’t have the opportunity to experience – outdoor activities, it can be a steep learning journey to find out what works and what doesn’t. I didn’t grow up in an outdoor-gear family. We spent A LOT of time outside, but that was because I grew up in a rural area. We didn’t go on camping trips or epic hikes that required specialized gear. When I started doing palaeontology work in 1997, about 23 years ago…

…is it really 23 years? My calendar must be incorrect. The 90s were only ten years ago, right? RIGHT?!?

Anyway, when I started doing field work AN UNSPECIFIED NUMBER of years ago, my first ever field backpack was a Coleman insulated day pack that my family gave me for Christmas. It was a great idea: they wanted me to be able to keep my lunch cool in the badlands of Alberta.

  1. My Very First Outdoor Backpack

Here’s an image of a Coleman backpack cooler. My circa 1997 pack did not have hip/waist straps, bottle holder, gear webbing, or multiple pockets: it claimed to be nothing more than it was, which was a cooler with backpack straps.

Backpack cooler

It worked! The field work was a series of day trips. We returned to the base station each night, and we never had to hike several kilometers to anything. The pack did its job, and I used it until it fell apart in 1999. By the time I started doing field work in Montana during my undergraduate degree, I needed a new pack.

  1. My Budget Backpacks

I was on a VERY TIGHT budget during my undergraduate studies. Example: I tried to keep my meal costs below $5 per day. I ate A LOT of Campbell’s Tomato Soup and oatmeal (not mixed together: I’m not a monster). I added Ramen noodles to the soup when I wanted something fancy. My idea of eating out was 99 cent bean burrito night at Taco Bell. I was not going to throw serious money at a serious backpack. I went with the $30 book bags at the university book store because it was what I could afford at that moment.

Book bag

Here’s an example of a book bag backpack, the MEC Process Bookbag. Budget-friendly and roomy enough for your electronics and books, it’s great at what it is designed to do, which is to carry your electronics and books. That’s it. Notice the lack of waist straps? It is NOT meant for an expedition-length outdoor survey. Expecting a book bag to do more than a book bag does is unfair in terms of a performance review.

I made my book bags work. I crammed those packs full of everything I needed for a full day of excavating and several kilometer surveys. I NEVER connected my neck, shoulders and back pain with the design of my pack. I just thought it meant that I wasn’t tough enough. If I kept at it, I would toughen up, right? Was I ever wrong!

I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know there were actual expedition packs that are designed to take the weight off of your shoulders and transfer it to the main load-bearing parts of your body: your hips and legs. It’s why you always hear “Lift with your legs, not your back!”

Between 1999 and 2003, I blew through five book bags in five years. At a minimum of $30 per bag, I spent $150 (likely more) on backpacks. Had I known; I could have dropped that coin on one bag that would last me several years. Had I known. You end up spending MORE money on cheap gear over time than you will investing in a pack. If you’re cash-strapped, you have no choice: you just don’t have $150 or more laying around. It’s bloody expensive to be poor.

  1. My First Serious Big-Girl Backpack

In 2003 I switched projects. My new colleague took one look at what I was using for a backpack and said “Dear God, that’s not your pack, is it? Nope, we’re going shopping tomorrow!”

That was my first-ever trip to an outdoor gear store, Mountain Equipment Co-Op.

There were three key features my colleague educated me on:

  1. PADDED WAIST STRAPS. These are they key feature that helps you carry the weight of your pack on your hips (as long as your pack is sized properly.)
  2. PACK FRAME. Does your pack hold its shape, especially the part that rests right against your back? This is super important for keeping the contents of your pack from digging into your back, because the frame holds the gear slightly away from your resting directly on your spine.
  3. HOW DOES IT FEEL? Any respectable outdoor store will help you size your pack and let you test it out in-store under weight. They have sandbags that you can load into your pack and take it on a jaunt around the store. If the store has an outdoor footwear section (they usually do), they should also have a sloped ramp you can walk on. That will give you a good feel for how your pack handles when you’re going uphill or downhill (it matters!)

This MEC Forge 40 Backpack is similar to the day pack I purchased seventeen years ago on super-duper clearance sale. It’s still one of my active day packs.

Day pack

I was in backpack heaven! What a difference a pack with waist straps and a frame made! Although we were only doing day expeditions, at the end of the day we had to hike fossil samples up a fairly steep hill. We started off calling it The Hill of Pain. By the end of the field season we were so used to the hill that we renamed it the Hill of Mild Discomfort. I had much more painful hills in my future.

  1. My First Expedition Backpack

I was soon doing in surveys and expeditions that required hiking with a load of camping gear, tools, and recovered fossil samples. Fossils and gear are heavy!

This requires an expedition pack. I bought my very first expedition backpack in 2004: the MEC Brio 60 (no longer available).

brio70

I love this pack! I STILL use it! It keeps coming back for more, even after all of the horrid abuse I have inflicted upon the fabric of its soul. It was on sale for $99 when I bought it. It is very simple in its design. The features that I love:

  • Generously padded waist straps
  • Removable pack frame (it’s a little tricky to get back in place)
  • Simple interior partitioning
  • Side access zipper for the main compartment
  • Removable top lid with built-in waist straps

The Brio 60 is not a light pack when its empty because of the pack frame, but that frame is essential. We only had to carry fossils from their discovery site to a cache for helicopter pick-up, but first we had to CARRY them to the cache. The heaviest fossil I put in my pack was over 70 lbs. My colleague hauled a dinosaur thigh bone in his bag that weighed over 180 lbs over a three-kilometer trail (not recommended: he was looking a little green at the end of that haul). These packs get the job done.

  1. My First Expedition Backpack Designed for Women

I had tiny issues with the Brio 60. I felt a decent amount of my pack’s weight on my shoulders no matter how I adjusted the waist and shoulder straps. You’re never going to avoid carrying some of your pack’s weight on your shoulders. There are newer backpack designs that do this better, and backpacks designed for women have this as a main feature.

I took advantage of a backpack sale and bought a Gregory Deva 60. I went all in and used this pack for the first time on a 5-day hike-in fossil survey. I was not disappointed!

Gregory

The compartments make sense! There is a roomy main compartment with the option of partitioning off a smaller lower compartment for a sleeping pad and bag. There are two roomy side pockets, and a deep front pocket which I used for storing my on-the-go snacks and the resulting snack trash (pack it in, pack it out!) The top pocket fits snugly over the main opening whether the pack is full or empty. The pack is also designed to use a 3- liter hydration system (purchased separately).

The best features are the lightweight pack frame, structured shoulder straps, and padded waist straps.

My pack had a lot in it! An Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy, sleeping bag liner, sleeping bag overbag, a couple of changes of thermal leggings and shirts, several pairs of wool socks (always wool socks!) rain jacket, three liters of water (we also packed in a water purification system because we knew that water would be available on site), food for five days (including a small bottle of homemade mead), field book, GPS, bottles of glue, digital camera, hiking pole, rock hammer, first aid kit, rain jacket, pack rain cover…I had to live out of this pack for five days.

My pack was still heavy, but it felt good. There was literally a weight being lifted from my shoulders!

What is your favorite large backpack? Do you have an old trusty pack that just won’t quit? Do you have backpack horror stories? I want to hear them!

Field Gal Gear

Water, Water, Everywhere, But Where’d I Put My Drink?

Hydration is important: I don’t think we’re going to have anyone arguing* against staying hydrated.

*Yes, those people do exist. No, I’m not linking to any of them. Stay hydrated, people!

You really want to drink water before you feel so parched that you just can’t take another step. Preventing dehydration is key.

Just like accessing your Quick Grab Gear you want your water in easy reach. I will tell you about my progression through hydration systems. I went from not carrying nowhere near enough water to carrying four liters on every trip. It’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.

  1. The Early Years: Inside the Pack Water Bottle

I was young! I didn’t know! How could I know? I know now: if I carry water inside of my pack, I won’t drink it unless I’m thirsty enough to haul off my pack, dig it out, drink, and then haul my pack back on. Water falls easily in the category of “out of sight, out of mind.” Same with sunscreen. SUNSCREEN NEEDS TO BE APPLIED MORE THAN ONCE A DAY! That’s the topic for a different post.

I did not drink enough water in my early years. I also didn’t want to be the gal always stopping to retrieve my errant water bottle, so I just jocked through thirst. Real field workers have souls of boiled leather and hard-baked dirt, right? I wanted to be the tough one. I wanted to belong. Did I mention I was young and didn’t know any better?

Note: Jocking through your discomfort in the field is a supremely bad idea.

If you’re working more or less in one area, an inside the pack water bottle is probably fine…as long as you use it! Remember it’s there. If you find yourself forgetting to drink, set a timer on your watch or phone. Remind yourself that your water bottle is waiting in your pack. It just wants to help you stay healthy.

  1. The Water Bottle Holster

It wasn’t until I started field work in British Columbia with my awesome colleague that I was introduced to stores that specialize in real outdoor gear, and that there are ways to carry your water bottle OUTSIDE of your pack.

Enter the MEC Water Bottle Holster

Bottle holster 2

I’ve already bemoaned the unavailability of the water bottle holsters in my Quick Grab Gear post, but I’ll bemoan it here as well: these things were awesome-sauce. They fit a one liter Nalgene water bottle like a glove (because they are made for just that). They have a Velcro strap that hooks on over the waist strap of your backpack SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO UNDO ANYTHING ON YOUR PACK TO ACCESS YOUR WATER. Just reach down for refreshment! I used to carry two one liter water bottles, one on each side in the holsters, with another two liters of water in my pack.

I didn’t think hydration could get much better than this. My life changed when I finally discovered…

  1. Hydration Packs

It wasn’t until I did consultancy work in a really hot and dry part of the world (we’re talking sustained +35°C) that I was introduced to hydration systems. I’ll admit: the idea of sucking on a hose like a baby sucking on a bottle seemed silly to me. I had to make myself try it because I really didn’t want to strap several liters of water to my waist. For reference, one liter of water equals one kilogram, or about 2.2 pounds.

Once I tried it, I was hooked. Osprey Manta 28 Men’s Hiking Hydration Pack was my first ever hydration system and I’ll hear nothing bad against it. I’ve been using it for eight years and I’ll use it until it falls apart on my back. It was spendy on a student budget but it was worth every penny.

Manta 28

While the design has changed a bit since I purchased mine, the Manta 24 and the Manta 34 designs have all of the features that I love in the Manta 28. The pack is roomy enough to serve as a kickin’ day pack, comes with its own rain cover, and the pocket system is extremely logical. There are even clips inside the deep side pockets to secure your keys!

The water reservoir is wide-mouthed so that it is easy to clean. If you happen to need to switch out the system, the pack will accommodate a three liter reservoir without any issues (it recommends 2.5 liters).

There is literally no excuse to not drink water with this system. The hose mouth piece comes with a little magnet that clips onto the chest strap. You don’t even need to stop to do a big drink: you can sip while you skip through the woods and over the hills.

Carrying water on my back freed up my Water Bottle Holsters to become my Quick Grab Gear holders, so that was another plus!

A Word About Expedition Packs and Hydration Systems

Most expedition backpacks available now come with an internal pocket to accommodate your hydration system of choice. My very first expedition pack, a MEC Brio 60L, did not come with a sleeve for holding a hydration system. Even so, I am saddened this pack is no longer available: its design was beautifully simple and it was AFFORDABLE (I paid $99 for mine).

I hit a super-duper sale and picked up an older model Gregory Deva 60. It comes with a mesh sleeve to hold a water reservoir and has a hose access slit near the pack lid.

Pro-Tip: the hydration mesh sleeve on my version of the pack is detachable (it may have changed since I bought mine, so take a look inside.) It attaches to the pack using a metal clip. This clip wore a small hole in the top of my water bag. I didn’t notice it when the pack is held upright on my back. It took me a few trips to realize why parts of my pack were damp after I would set the pack down on its side. A bit of Gorilla tape fixed the hole. Wrap that metal clip in foam to protect your water bag.

I also don’t use the external water bottle pockets on the Deva. It places the water behind me and out of my line of sight, invoking the whole “out of sight, out of mind” problem.

What I want from my Hydration System:

  1. Ease of filling and draining. Definitely choose one that is easy to fill, with a wide mouth or full top opening. I prefer the top-opening reservoirs that are closed with a slide seal over the round water bottle-like screw top openings. In fact, most of the hydration reservoirs that I see nowadays come with a slide seal closure. This opening style is superior not only for ease of filling, but
  2. Ease of cleaning and storing. You will want to be able to reach all of the nooks and crannies of your reservoir to thoroughly clean it and dry it out for storage. Storage + moisture = mold and mildew, and you don’t want to be greeted with a moldy mess when you pull your gear out of storage.
  3. Flat profile. Many reservoirs come with a stiffened side that rests against the inside back of the backpack. This is nice because it stops the reservoir from sagging and sitting like a lump in the bottom of your reservoir sleeve.

What about Conversion Kits?

MEC carries a conversion kit for turning a MSR Dromedary Bag to a Hydration System.

MSR bags

MSR kit

If you already have dromedary bags, this is an inexpensive option to make your own hydration system: the conversion kit is $25 CAD. I’ve tried it and it works well, but I have a couple of minor nitpicks.

One is that the bag has no rigidity, so it won’t lay flat against your back. This won’t be an issue if your backpack has a stiff back piece or a frame. If you have a frame-less pack, you may feel the bag bulging against your back while you hike.

Two, where the hose attaches to the spout opening of the reservoir sticks out, rather than pointing up and laying flat against the bag. This makes it easier for the hose base to snag and catch on other items in your pack. It could pull free, simultaneously soaking your pack and leaving you to suck water out of your spare socks. Thankfully the mesh reservoir bag in most packs is durable enough to protect the hose base from snags and leaks. I never had a leak, but I know someone who did.

Tell me about your can’t-live-without-it hydration system! Do you have a favorite brand? Did you ever have a hydration malfunction in the wilderness? I want to hear your field-tested recommendations and stories!

Field Gal Gear

Grab Your Gear!

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).

  1. 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

vest

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Fanny Pack Dork
GIF from the series “How I Met Your Mother.”

 

Fanny Pack Dork 2
GIF from the series “How I Met Your Mother.”

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.

Fanny Pack 1

Now I use this waist pack for cross-country skiing.

  1. 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.)

Bottle holster 2

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!

  1. 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

Ex officio pants

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?

Birds In Mud

Eye of the Field-Worker

Happy 2019, Dear Readers!

This was not a post that I was expecting to write. Honestly, who really wants to hear the gory details regarding eye surgery. Well, apparently my Twitterverse is as morbidly curious as I am about such details.

For good reason. In my personal experience, having to wear prescription glasses while doing field work is a huge pain in the sclera: sometimes literally in the event that I got something in my eye. As an aside, I used to have a panic-like reaction to people’s fingers near my eye. I could barely touch my own eye when trying to remove the inevitable cat hair, but someone else’s fingers TOUCHING MY EYE?!?! My poor husband, colleague, and fieldwork partner remembers an incident that involved trying to get a piece of dried leaf out of my eye on a field survey. Despite the seeming protection of my glasses, a bit of crumbled leaf got caught in my eye as I scrambled under a dead fallen tree. Rinsing my eye didn’t dislodge the offending leaf crumble, so he tried to physically remove it. I knew exactly what was happening. He told me everything he was going to do before doing it, but that didn’t stop the illogical panic reaction. I still went into panic mode.

You can already guess that contact lenses were not a comfortable option for me. I wore glasses for the majority of my fieldwork days, with regular summer fieldwork starting in 2003. For a decade I did surveys and excavations while wearing prescription glasses.

The plus side of wearing glasses in the field is that they do act as a bit of an eye shield, although they are NO substitute for actual safety glasses. They acted as a barrier to twigs and tree branches while hiking. There were downsides, however.  One, it was a pain in the pupil to find safety glasses that would fit over my glasses and not fog up while providing full coverage. I ended up having to wear most safety glasses without my prescription glasses to prevent fogging. Two, prescription glasses are expensive, and my lenses would be a scratched pitted mess after every field season, requiring that I drop at least $300-$400 every year on a new pair. I tried having a pair of prescription glasses that I only wore during fieldwork, but they would become un-useable after two seasons. That would leave me the choice of either using my “good” pair of glasses (condemning them to inevitable damage) or stumbling around in a fog of blurry objects.

The ongoing expense of prescription glasses is what helped me make the decision to stare down my fear of people playing with my eyeballs and undergo corrective laser surgery. Well, not just the expense, but this next reason is directly related to the cost of glasses. I was trying to “tough out” my damaged glasses by wearing them for longer than I should. I gave myself eyestrain trying to look through and around the scratches on the lenses. One of my eyes started to overcompensate by focusing on the wrong area when I looked at objects in the distance. My reasoning (at the time): I was simply feeling too insecure financially (with the ever-likely threat of our project losing its funding and becoming unemployed) to drop a few hundred dollars on glasses every year or two.

The conclusion I eventually came to was this: yes, laser eye surgery is an initially expensive procedure, but no matter what happened to me employment-wise I would not have to worry about glasses again for a long time.

In 2012 I started doing my homework.

LASIK versus Photoreactive Keratectomy (PRK)

LASIK – The most common type of corrective laser eye surgery (when I was looking) was LASIK surgery. In this procedure, the laser cuts a little flap in the outer layers of the corneal tissue. Once the little flap is cut, the surgeon lifts up the flap and the laser-ing of the cornea happens underneath. Once the reshaping is done, the flap is put back in place. The flap ends up acting like a bandage for the area, and no stitches or additional coverings are needed. Patients usually heal within 12 – 48 hours, and the whole procedure takes about 15 minutes to complete.

I initially liked the idea of LASIK because of the short healing time. However, during my reading, I came across some cases where the healed edges of the corneal flap can potentially “pop” back up, especially if you take a whack to the head. At the time I was in karate – whacks to the head happen by accident, but they do happen. Also, if I was in a serious accident during fieldwork, the absolute last thing I would want to deal with would be parts of my eye flapping around.

Photoreactive keratectomy (PRK) – I choose photoreactive keratectomy or PRK surgery. There are two tissue layers of the cornea that are involved in the surgery. The epithelial layer is the one that is removed by an instrument (more on this part later). This epithelial layer is the one that regenerates and heals. The underlying layer called the stroma doesn’t regenerate, so this is the layer that gets reshaped by the laser.

After the PRK surgery is complete, your stroma is basically open to the elements like a scrape or a cut, so you need a soft contact lens bandage to cover the altered area while the epithelium layers heal over. This contact lens bandage is left in place for a few days while healing occurs. The recovery process for PRK is apparently a bit more uncomfortable than for LASIK (more on this later).

My Experience with PRK Surgery

Those are the basics of the surgery. Now I’ll tell you about what I remember of the process. We stayed at my sister-in-law’s Julie’s place for the duration of my procedure and the recovery. She made a special treat for us in honor of my surgery.

882466_10151517414720907_1442191918_o
The image is a little fuzzy, but these are sugar cookies decorated to look like infected eyes made by my sister-in-law Julie They were delicious!

Pre-Screening and Examination – The process takes two days, even though the surgery itself is completed in 15 minutes or less. Day 1 is set aside so that the technicians can perform an eye exam prior to the surgery. I filled out a complete medical history and went through a series of very thorough vision tests. This was to establish what needed correcting for my vision. The examination took most of the morning. One of the things they test is your corneal thickness: if your corneas are too thin, there’s not enough cornea to remove for the reshaping. There are other reasons that you may not be a good candidate for corrective laser eye surgery: your regular optometrist will answer your questions on this. My optometrist had a corneal thickness measuring device, so even before researching my surgery options, he was able to tell me that I might be a good candidate.

Usually, the technicians give the OK to officially book you into an official surgery slot that week right after the examination. However, during my examination, the technicians discovered that my eyes weren’t focusing the way they should be: one eye was skewing a little to one side. In my opinion, I blame this on my trying to see through damaged glasses for three years. The technicians said that they had to get the surgeon to look over the test results and that they would get back to me that afternoon with the decision.

That afternoon Rich and I met up with our advisor (we were both still in graduate students at the time) to catch up. I honestly can’t remember what we talked about. I was angry at myself for mucking up my eyes and ruining my chances at receiving this surgery just because I didn’t want to drop money on new glasses when I needed them. I must have obsessively checked my phone every two minutes. This went on for about two hours, and then at around 2:30 pm I received the call: I was cleared to have my surgery that week.

With the surgery, you can decide to have one eye done at a time (two separate surgeries) or to have both eyes operated on at once. I felt as though I only had enough nerve to go through this process once, so I opted to get both eyes done during the same surgery.

Surgery Day – I remember this being an all-afternoon event. We were at the clinic at around 2:00 pm. I was both nervous and excited: nervous because PEOPLE WERE GOING TO TOUCH MY EYEBALLS, and excited because this procedure would allow me to be glasses-free. Rich and Julie came with me for moral support. Before the surgery, there were a few more forms to fill out (I filled out a lot of forms during this process). We saw a lot of people coming and going, both patients and their support systems. The clinic began to empty. My surgery was scheduled as one of the last ones for that day.

About 20 minutes before my surgery, a technician came out to meet me and my team. I was given a small dose of an anti-anxiety drug: apparently, it’s normal for people to be nervous before this surgery. The technician then asked Rich and Julie if they wanted to wait in the waiting room, or if they wanted to sit in the observation room and watch the surgery on a monitor.

My family is the best, and by the best I mean their eyes lit up at the chance to witness this eyeball-themed spectacle. There was a resounding yes to the offer to watch my surgery. Both Rich and Julie said that they were going to give my surgery a proper Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.

normal view
Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode of “This Island Earth.”

Movies are a big part of our family, and Rich, Julie and I are huge MST3K fans. Just knowing that they were going to be there, riffing every gory detail of my surgery, was supremely comforting for me. That’s love.

At this point, I was led into the pre-surgery room. I changed into a hospital gown and waited for the surgeon to arrive. When the surgeon arrived he examined my eyes, and then took a felt-tipped pen and drew on my eyeballs. Yes, you read that correctly. I didn’t feel any of this thanks to the anesthetic drops, but seeing the felt pen come towards my eye was a bit disconcerting. We made small talk whilst he drew guidelines on my eyeballs, and then I was ready for the surgery.

I was led to a comfy reclining chair in the surgery room. However, above the chair was a huge apparatus. I’ll admit: my brain did briefly jump to those alien abduction shows. I laid back in the chair. The surgeon asked if I had anyone here with me. I said “Oh yes! My husband and sister-in-law are in the observation room. They’re going to MST3K my surgery!” I think I confused the poor man.

Then came the eye stabilization equipment. There are several videos on the clinic’s website that show you, step-by-step, the procedures and describe every detail so that there are no surprises. However, personally experiencing this equipment is different than watching the procedure as a third-party. An eye speculum was applied to the first eye: it’s a metal ring clamp that holds your eyelids open so you can’t blink. It also holds your eyeball in place. Next, a small ring was placed over the cornea. The ring was there to act as a cup to hold a solution that was then squirted on to my eye. This solution was applied to soften the epithelial layers. At this point, I have to take Rich’s word for what happened because everything went blurry. I didn’t see any scary equipment coming to touch my eyes (thus sparing me potential nightmare fuel).

Why did this area need to be softened? Here comes the fun part (and the part were Rich and Julie’s riffing apparently kicked into high gear). The now softened epithelial layers are scraped off with what looks like a tiny metal hockey stick. Once my epithelial eye gloop was scraped away, it was time for the laser to reshape my stroma. Again, all I saw were blurry movements, and I didn’t feel anything.

I think I asked, “Aren’t you going to strap down my head so that I don’t move and mess up the surgery?” The surgeon replied that there was no need to worry about that. Heck yeah, I was worried about that! I wanted my head strapped down using medieval-looking devices so that there was no chance of me flinching. But no, my head was free and mobile.

The laser began to snap and crackle. I felt my nerves jumping at every snap. The surgeon must have seen the flinching because he, very gently, placed a couple of fingers on my forehead. THAT’S IT? I thought, That’s how my head is going to be restrained? It seemed to do the trick despite my incredulity. While I found the sound unnerving, the smell was fascinating. Oh yes, there was a smell. It smelled a bit like burning hair.

Once the surgery was complete and my contact lens bandages were in place (my first time wearing contacts) the technician said that I could take however much time I needed to sit up and move around. I felt fine, but I guess people can be a bit shaky after the surgery. I waited about a minute before getting out of the chair. I changed and met up with Rich and Julie in the post-operating/waiting area. A technician followed along with me to make sure I didn’t have the post-operation shakes and collapse (I suppose), and I waited in the recovery area while the prescriptions for my eye drops and pain medication were completed.

I could technically see at this point, although things were a bit fuzzy and bright lights were uncomfortable. I waited for my prescriptions and drank orange juice while Rich and Julie regaled me with Tales of The Gloopy Eye Scraping. I filled my prescriptions and we were out of the clinic by 4:30 pm.

Post-Surgery Care – I had three prescriptions for my post-operative care. One was the pain medication. Another was a bottle of steroid eye drops that I had to apply a few times a day. Another was a bottle of numbing eye drops that I could apply as needed (up to a few times a day). I was also sent home with breathable eye shields. I was instructed to tape these over my eyes at night for at least a week so that I didn’t scratch or rub my eyes in my sleep. I looked (and felt) like a giant insect. I was told to avoid screen time (computer, TV, smartphone, etc) and reading for at least two weeks, and to limit screen time for another two weeks after that.

I slept a great deal during the day for the next two days. My eyes were closed for the most part anyway, and the pain medication made me drowsy. While I was drifting in and out of sleep I listened to audiobooks. Julie found an awesome soft headband with built-in headphones that I could wear as an eyemask (over my buggy eye shields) while I was dozing. After the third day, I didn’t feel as though I needed the pain medication: the prescribed schedule of numbing drops seemed to do the job. I wore sunglasses when we would head out during the day.

On the third or fourth day Rich, Julie and I went out for dinner. We were chatting and laughing, when OH MY OWLS THERE WAS SOMETHING IN MY EYE. It was quite uncomfortable. I figured that something this uncomfortable would have to be visible, so I excused myself to the washroom and checked my eye. I saw absolutely nothing in my eye, other than the thin line of the contact lens edge. The initial discomfort was gone, so I really didn’t think much of it. I was sure that my blinking had worked out whatever it was. I felt fine…until my progress check-up.

The Post-Surgery Check-Up – I had my five-day progress checkup at the clinic. The technician examined my eye.

“Hmm,” she said, “There appears to be something behind your contact lens.” She brought out her large magnifying ring light. “Oh dear! There’s a hair caught behind your lens!”

“Oh, THAT’S what that was!” I exclaim.

“This must have been so painful! You didn’t go to the emergency room?”

Honestly, I was a bit baffled. “It really wasn’t that bad after a few minutes.” I had spent a lifetime fishing cat hair out of my eyes, so this seemed like no big deal to me. I was about to change my mind.

“I’ll remove your contact lens and use these nasty pokey tweezer-looking things (that’s not its technical name, but that’s how I remember the tool) and lift off the hair.”

I was more nervous here than I was throughout the entire surgery. Some numbing drops were applied, but it wasn’t the surgery-level anesthetic. My flailing and flinching started when the lens was lifted off. I don’t think that I impressed anyone with my stoicism at that moment. It took the technician several tries to remove the hair. I’m sure that my fingers left permanent divots in the armrests.

The epithelial layers of my cornea had started to heal around the cat hair and was in danger of leaving a permanent hair-shaped scar across my surgery area. I was instructed to stay on the steroid eyedrops for an additional few days to completely heal the hair-affected area. They changed my contact lens bandages and scheduled my next check-up.

I was given the all-clear on my second follow-up to have my one-month checkup by my local optometrist. When you leave the clinic after receiving corrective eye surgery, your driver’s license will still say that you need prescription glasses for driving. You are given a card by the clinic that provides an update to show police (until you get your license renewed) and to present when you get your license renewed.

Rich drove the entire 8-hour trip (I did most of the driving on the way out to the clinic) back to our home base. I settled in for a two-week period of being at home…with limited screen time and limited reading. This was difficult: my downtime consists of reading, watching movies, and knitting. I passed the time by making cheese (wearing a huge pair of safety glasses just in case I splashed my eyes) and listening to Planet Earth.

My one-month checkup was good. My eyes were healing well. There was still a faint hint of the cat hair scar, so my optometrist wanted me to stay on the steroid drops for an additional week as a precaution. Otherwise, my vision was a little better than 20/20.

Was It Worth It? – It has been six years since I had corrective laser surgery, and all I can say is HECK YES. I should have done this years ago, but realistically I wasn’t in a position until 2013 to finance such a surgery.

I have noticed some minor side effects. My eyes dry out more easily than they did before the surgery. I make sure to carry a small bottle of regular eye drops for long driving trips. I also have a little trouble focusing when I am driving in twilight conditions: oncoming traffic lights have large light halos. This one may not be related at all to the surgery, but I also have to be careful to not spend too much time staring at my phone screen (my computer and tablet are fine) as it gives me eyestrain. Other than that, I have not experienced any negative side effects.

I do have to be more careful while I am hiking, as I no longer have my glasses acting as an ersatz eye shield. In 2014 I was doing a field survey in a remote mountain creek canyon. The terrain was full of boulders and twiggy understory growth. I grabbed a dry branch to push it aside, and then WHACK! a bunch of dried bark flew off of the branch and hit me in the face. My eyes were open, so the bark also hit me in the eye. I immediately let Rich know so that he could pull the bark out of my eye. He looked and looked…but there was no bark in my eye. I rinsed my eye several times, but could still feel bark in my eye. It was uncomfortable, but it wasn’t getting in the way of doing the survey.

Once we got back to the vehicle, my eye was still bothering me. We had a second leg of the survey to explore, but the drive would take me past the house, so I asked to be dropped off so that I could examine my eye in a controlled setting (my bathroom). I STILL couldn’t see any bark in my eye, so when Rich returned I requested a drive to the emergency room.

The doctor put a temporary dye in my eye, and Rich could immediately see the scrape that the bark had made on my cornea. It took about a week to recover from the scrape, and I needed to be on antibiotic and steroid eye drops during the healing process. I also had to wear either an eye patch or an eye shield over an absorbent gauze pad. I opted for the eyepatch this time.eye patch

The moral of this story is to PROTECT YOUR EYES. It might feel goofy hiking with safety glasses, but if you are going to be plunging headfirst into dense undergrowth it’s a decent safety precaution (if it’s not already required by your institution.)

These, of course, are my personal experiences with corrective laser eye surgery, and your mileage may vary. I’m glad that I had the procedure and feel it has improved my quality of life, especially with fieldwork. If you’re considering a similar procedure for similar reasons, I hope that this post will provide a bit of information as you make that decision.

Birds In Mud

Field Work Is Hard Work

Note: I originally had these tweets curated on Storify.

One of the most high-profile parts of paleontology is the field work. I would bet my last bag of Earl Grey Special (note: must order more tea) that when one thinks of paleontology, the word conjures images of rocky badlands terrain and a small group of people wearing big hats and vests and bandannas crouched in a sun-beaten rocky quarry, dusting off bones that haven’t seen the light of day in 74 million years. It’s like a scientifically-endorsed treasure hunt, and people want to be of that story.

With the excitement that fieldwork invokes comes ill-informed opinions. If I had a dollar for every time I have heard this “great idea,” the research program could operate for years off of the interest alone.

The perception of the general public on what paleontology fieldwork (or any fieldwork) actually entails is a media illusion, I’m afraid. You aren’t shown the ACTUAL hard work (unless it’s “heroic”) that goes into a field expedition.

Some field sites are actually amenable to paying customers who want to have an experience vacation. There are two key features of these sites: accessibility and emergency coverage (cell phone coverage, within a short driving distance of emergency medical facilities, ability to get vehicles in and out of the site reliably). When I ask the tourism/marketing people who come to me with this Great Idea (TM) whether they are going to pay to have a helicopter on standby for emergency evacuations or to cover the cost of a satellite phone, I get dirty looks and hear the sound of crickets.

crickets

However, the fieldwork that my colleague and I do is NOT amenable to adventure tourism for a variety of logistical, financial, and practical reasons.

How hard? The rock at our Late Cretaceous (Turonian) site is so hard that we actually broke our traditional excavation tools trying to work it. All of the excavating at that site has to be done with pneumatic tools, which bring with them their own safety risks.

Even our “classic” sites, like the B.C. hadrosaur (a.k.a. “duck-billed dinosaur” site, although calling hadrosaurs duck-billed dinosaurs is actually inaccurate!) have their own set of not-visitor-friendly frustrations.

So why does this make our kind of paleontology a bad fit for adventure/experiential tourism?

That’s when we actually have a site to excavate. The bulk of our fieldwork time is spent looking for these sites (a.k.a. paleontology field surveys). Paleontology field surveys are no walk in the park of a pleasant stroll down a groomed forest path.

I have a pair of hiking boots that I specifically use for these types of surveys. They’re called Bog Boots because of the countless beaver-dammed areas we’ve had to slop through. That smell never leaves your boots, BTW.

Oh, we also cannot control the wildlife. We cannot guarantee we will not encounter cranky wildlife. We can’t guarantee that someone will see wildlife. That’s a big difference between an adventure/experiential tourist and a fieldworker: a tourist may want to have a wildlife encounter they can photograph and tell stories about. If we encounter a bear in the field, that means we weren’t loud enough to warn the bear we were coming. [One day I’ll tell you about the person who lives in this region who complained that their visiting family didn’t see wildlife on the highway drive and that something should be done to guarantee highway sightings. Protip: you really don’t want to see moose on the highway.]

Since our field surveys are not pleasure hikes, there isn’t a lot of time for dawdling (a term used by my Granny and great-aunt Molly).

We have done hundreds of hours of field surveying that has not immediately resulted in a fossil find. That’s pretty standard for our kind of mountainous inaccessible terrain.

We don’t get disheartened because we expect to put in this kind of effort for no promise of “reward.” However, there is an expectation from a paying tourist to be rewarded for spending their money.

There are also real dangers associated with fieldwork. This is a danger that myself and my colleague knowingly and willingly accept…for ourselves. You simply cannot convey the risks and hazards of being in the wilderness without the promise of immediate assistance to someone who has not experienced that level of isolation.

An example: lightning in the alpine.

This is all to say that the paleontology fieldwork that people see on TV is HEAVILY edited. It’s the “Good Parts” version of fieldwork. Like reading the “good parts” version of the Princess Bride. All of the day-to-day realities of “dinosaur hunting” are removed to make the story “good.”

Want to know a secret (that is totally not a secret to anyone who does fieldwork)? If you participate in a “pay-to-dig” program, all of the hard parts have been pre-edited for you. It’s a programmed experience. For example, there were summer students, graduate students, and researchers who removed the overburden (the meters of rock that cover a dinosaur skeleton) before the paying participants arrived to find the bones.

Summers of hard physical work will take their toll on your body. I am a walking accumulation of fieldwork-related injuries.

That’s without me taking unnecessary risks. I can’t do the weekend warrior nonsense because I can’t afford to. My physical health is a big part of my livelihood. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many weekend volunteers take risks because, hey, they’re only out there for a few days. They get cranky when I say NO. They don’t understand that their safety in my hands, and if they are injured that is on my head, ethically, morally, and legally. But a paying person is going to want some “adventure.” If we don’t “provide” adventure they try to make their own by taking risks.

This brings us to an important but little-discussed part of managing a fieldwork team: Field Administration.

Think about a new person starting off in your company. While you are training, you are not 100% doing your own primary work. Part of your job becomes doing your work and reviewing the trainee’s work to provide feedback. We have a strict one volunteer per trained staff policy for digs. Overseeing one person means that I can catch whoopsies before they happen. Usually, the Curators end up supervising both volunteers and trainees.

And mistakes WILL happen. That’s part of learning. The most common mistakes for new volunteers/staff are digging too fast or too hard (quarry rock requires a certain level of patience and experience) and not keeping on top of self-care. This is why we screen volunteers for ATTITUDE over previous skills. Skills can be learned, but you can’t untrain a bad ‘tude in one field season. Unfortunately, if you accept paying people you cannot screen for attitude. You are under an obligation to take their personality along with their money.

Here’s a list of bad field-itudes that I’ve encountered over the years:

I’ve seen the above manifest in a few ways, including older people not respecting the expertise of younger supervisors, and gendered-biases of who is “in charge” on a field-based project.

Oh yes: sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in fieldwork.

Other Bad ‘Tude Bears issues we’ve had to face are people who refuse to partake in ANY self-care (even when reminded,) people who are negligent about the safety of others, and what I call the Dashed Expectations Complaining. Yes, this is hard work. No, we can’t do something “more fun” because we only have three weeks to do this dig. Bad attitudes can be more infectious than good attitudes, and someone with a realistic outlook on fieldwork is going to feel more pressure to be hap-hap-HAPPY to counteract a Bad ‘Tude Bear. That can be emotionally draining. Whether you’re in an office or under an excavation tarp, you can’t escape office personnel issues.

Pro-tip: our best field technicians came to us 100% untrained but with a positive can-do, ready to learn attitude. Now they are skilled and still have a great outlook on fieldwork. I will choose attitude over skill every darn time.

When a scientist is out in the field doing fieldwork, they are there to do a very specific job in a specified timeframe. They are not there to act as a tour guide. There are also ecological and cultural aspects to the “turn every dig into a business opportunity” mentality.

A big one is regarding whose land you are operating on. If you’re in North America, you are doing your research on lands that are indigenous territories. If you want to find out whose lands you are working on, check out this link: https://native-land.ca/ You should consult with the traditional landowners before embarking on your work. If there is the desire to open up an area for tourism reasons, I feel that decision should be made by the traditional landowners.

If you respect the work that field scientists do, you will ask for their honest opinion regarding the different levels of access they feel they can accommodate in terms of experiential tourism. This includes education-based programming: if it’s too risky to bring adults to an area, it is most certainly too dangerous for children to be present. Your local scientist likely has ideas of areas that are amenable to this kind of development but remember: the priority for these sites is the science, and they will not hesitate to tell you no if the sites are too sensitive for this type of activity. These sites still need to be properly surveyed to ensure there won’t be any detrimental impacts to the heritage, natural history, or cultural stewardship of the area.

A site is not important just because you think that you can make money off of it or “promote” an area, region, or town. These sites record our common heritage, the story of what the area was and how we fit into that complex story. If we make a bad call and a site is damaged, we’re never going to get another chance to correct that mistake. That chapter of the story is lost forever. Preserving that story is our foremost priority, and I choose to err on the side of what’s best for the heritage.