12 October 2012

Field trip etiquette

Posted by Jessica Ball

I just spent three days on another great field trip to Bancroft, Ontario, and while I will post photos of the fabulous structural features we were observing, I thought I’d also put down some thoughts about how to comport yourself as a participant on a geology field trip. Some of this is fairly specific to students, but a lot of it goes for ‘grown up’ geologists as well (and hopefully we already know it!) Most of it is things I’ve observed people either doing well on a trip, or forgetting to do – it’s always a mix. (I screw these up myself from time to time, so it’s not like I’m a paragon of field trip virtues. I have to remind myself to do all this as well!)

Where are we? "Canada" isn't going to cut it if you want to find that outcrop again.

On keeping good field notes:

Be aware of where you are! Do you know what road you’re on? What mile marker? What GPS coordinates? Where are you in relation to your last stop? You have got to write this down, because I guarantee that you’ll forget and the “CS13” that was on your field trip guide’s map will mean nothing a year after the fact (especially if you lose the map).
Why are you there in the first place? What’s your goal for the day? For the stop? Are you trying to figure something out or just admiring a pretty outcrop? Are you trying to relate this stop to the last one, or a group of stops, or a regional pattern?

You've got to get up close and personal with those rocks before you start calling them names.

Separate your OBSERVATIONS and your INTERPRETATIONS. An observation is something you can see, touch, feel, measure (colors, textures, sizes, the presence of a structure or feature). An interpretation is a conclusion you draw from your observations (such as rock type, depositional process, deformation or metamorphism events – basically anything that could have more than one answer). Don’t get in the habit of making a conclusion the moment you approach an outcrop – observe first! If your TA/Professor answers your questions with “Why do you think that?”, you have probably made an interpretation that needs to be supported with observations.


If someone is giving you the “answers” about an outcrop, keep those separate too (under some heading like ‘lecturer notes’). This is important, because you have not done the work that led to those answers. If you don’t indicate where they came from, you may go back to a set of notes years later and you won’t know how you knew all this cool stuff about the site.

We don't always remember our safety glasses, but we're not standing right next to the person with the sledgehammer!

On standing around/hammering/collecting:

Be aware of where you are. Are you at a roadcut (likely)? There are going to be cars. Stay out of the road unless you’re crossing it. Pay attention to where you’re standing – the road is not your personal lounge area.

Be kind to the outcrop and don’t hammer unnecessarily! Hammering on things is fun, but when you use your rock hammer, you are destroying an outcrop that others may want to see. If possible, do your collecting from material that has already fallen off (there will almost always be bits laying around).

Be aware of where other people are when you hammer. Breaking rocks creates a lot of flying material which can (and does) end up hitting people in the eyes, face, whatever. Tell your colleagues to back away or go hammer on your rock somewhere away from the rest of the group.

Hammer wisely. Pick a bit of the outcrop that you are reasonably sure will break off. Don’t just whale away at a flat or massive rock face, because it’s a waste of time and makes it look awful.

Be aware of whether or not collecting is allowed. It isn’t? Don’t have your hammer out and don’t go around stuffing your pockets. Respect local, state, regional regulations – and if it’s a special outcrop, remember that we want it to be there for future geologists to see as well.

Sometimes we do have to park on narrow shoulders, but we try to stay out of the road. (Our schools generally frown on students getting run over by cars.)

For those of you who aren’t lucky enough to come on geology field trips with us, don’t worry – I’ve got some advice for you as a passer-by!

Give us a little space – if you can, slow down and/or move over a bit! We’ll try to park out of the way of traffic, but sometimes we have to use narrow shoulders when we’re visiting a roadcut. We really appreciate it when we don’t have to reattach mirrors or scrape careless students up off the pavement.

Please don’t honk at us! We know you’re there, really. We can hear your car coming, often long before you see us. But honking is startling and no one likes that adrenaline rush when they’re trying to measure something or take detailed notes. If you feel the need to acknowledge our presence, wave instead – you’re a lot less likely to end up with a field notebook plastered across your windshield because you’ve scared a student.

We’re happy to talk to you, especially if you own the land near the outcrop we’re looking at or are just interested in geology in general. Try to approach the instructor of the trip (usually the person waving their arms and shouting more than anyone else) and introduce yourself before talking with the students – they’re often busy with their notes. If you are concerned about ‘geologist erosion’ at the outcrop, let us know politely, without being confrontational. We try to make sure that we have permission to be on private land or collecting at our stops, but occasionally we slip up. We’re only human!

The person doing the most arm-waving is probably the instructor!

So that’s my rundown of useful things to remember on field trips. Obviously there will be others, depending on where you are and what you’re doing and what equipment you’re using, but these are what came to mind this time around! So, how are you all going to do on the quiz?