Below is a breakdown of my current daily field work kit. This provides me with everything I need in the farm land and forest of northern Costa Rica, where it can quickly switch between scorching hot sun and torrential rain. My current work involves hiking up to 10km at a time through often dense forest to monitor parrot nesting sites. As such, this list is good starting point for you to make your own kit list from if you will be conducting observations in the tropics. A kit like this will allow you to be prepared for other jungle environments such as Southeast Asia or the Congo. Just be sure to pack any addition specialist equipment that your field research requires. Also, if you plan on extensive amounts of hiking be sure to pack a minimum of 5l of water.
Note: I return to the field station every night so there is no need for me to pack over night supplies of any kind. If this doesn’t apply to you, be sure to pack extra food and water, warm clothes for the evening and possibly a spare set of dry clothes should you get drenched. For all this, you will probably need a larger backpack, especially if you will be carrying a tent/ basha/ hammock, ground mat, sleeping bag etc.
Bag – Highlander Forces 33l rucksack
The main event of any kit list. I carry all my belongings round with me all day without any issues due to this fantastic bag. Its the perfect size for a day bag and its about as tough of a piece of field kit as you can get your hands on. Personally, I would not go much smaller than a 30l bag, as every now and then you will find yourself carrying extra kit and, in the meantime, the extra space is hardly a burden. You can find a full review of my bag here.
Rain cover – Joy Walker 30l rain cover
If you are serious about working in the rain forest or jungle at all, you will know just how important it is to be ready to keep your gear dry at a moments notice. The standard rain cover that came with my bag was rubbish so I made sure I had a good one to take its place. I suggest you do the same. Make sure your rain cover fits before hand and has elastic edges with a toggle to tighten.
Dry bag – Earth Pak 20l dry bag
As with the rain cover, a dry bag is essential to keep all your kit from getting destroyed in the storms and showers that can come without warning. Personally, I keep mine rolled up in one of my side pockets and only throw a few bits of sensitive kit, like my camera, in there if the weather takes a turn. However, I do know some people prefer to use them as bag liners and keep all there things in there. Either way, this is essential kit so ensure you get the best available.
Sunglasses – Anything with a minimum of UV400 protection rating
Personally, I have a pair of cheap sunglasses that I keep in the top pocket of my bag and another, more expensive pair, that I keep in the 4×4. You can do whatever you want here, just be sure to use something with a high protection rating, because when those rain clouds part, that UV can be mean, which brings me on to…
Sun cream – Boots Soltan 30SPF
I use the “protect and repel” version of this as it contains mosquito repellent too. But anything will work for you as long as it is 5 star UVA protection rating and a minimum SPF of 30. I have very fair skin but a few thin coats of this protects me from sunburn however sunny it is. Even if you are fortunate enough to have skin that doesn’t burn so easily, I highly recommend you carry some sun screen with you anyway as you might find yourself at the one observation spot with no shade at all. Where you will quickly find out that you do burn after all.
Mosquito repellent – Repel 100 Jungle strength insect repellent
I can’t praise this stuff enough. While lower strengths and other brands will work, they will also fade quicker and seem to sweat off quicker too. The 100 strength bottle is the strongest mosquito and biting insect repellent they do and why would you take any chances. This is especially true if you are going to be in a malaria, dengue, yellow fever or west Nile virus zone. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention website is a good place to do some research on this before you even leave your own country.
Just in case. Trust me, you will thank me one day.
Camera – Canon Powershot SX620
Often needed for work itself and to record findings, but sometimes its needed just to snap wildlife, vistas, sunsets, friends, colleagues and those perfect moments that only ever occur when you are miles from anywhere.
Multi-tool – Leatherman Super Tool
Here, any type of penknife or multi-tool will do and if you have ever been into the field without one you will know just how often they can come in handy. Personally I prefer the multi-tool style with pliers built in, as they come in very useful when you rely on a vehicle of any kind.
Para cord – 5m of 550cord
Although essentially just a piece of string, the versatility of paracord is incredible. I have used it on many occasions for repairs, make shift shelters, replacement belts, wrist straps, shoulder straps and shoe laces. The list goes on as far as your imagination. Really, its another piece of emergency kit that many will go into the field without and never bat an eye. But once you realize the usefulness of such a simple (and not to mention small and lightweight) item, you would be a fool to leave this out your pack.
2l of water
As a rule of thumb, I would say 2 liters is the minimum amount of water you should ever pack for field work, no matter how short or cool you think the day will be. If you don’t already know, you will soon find out that in most countries where there is rain forest, there is the unavoidable pace of life that goes with it. While this is great when you can appreciate it, you can soon become very frustrated when you are in need of something. A 10 minute repair can take 4 hours, getting stuck in a ditch can see you stranded for a whole day and as soon as you think something will be over in a jiffy, you can almost guarantee that it will end up taking forever to complete. This is just the way of life in many developing countries and you need to learn to prepare for it, then enjoy it. In the hot sun, water will be your best friend in such times. This is all without even taking into account emergency situations. If you plan to do any extended hiking or long hours, be sure to double or triple the amount of water you take out with you.
Machete – 16″
Size here is down to personal preference. If you see yourself in thick, dense jungle you can take a shorter 14″ machete. While you can go longer (a longer blade will give you much more swing weight and chopping power), even realistically up to a 24″ blade, it will also fatigue you more quickly, be heavier, more awkward to carry and become useless if you do end up in dense jungle. I find 16-18″ is a good size for most tasks. Note that if you do pack a machete, you should also carry a whetstone or anything else that you can comfortably sharpen it with. Although very lengthy, Bushcraftpro has a good guide to sharpening a machete.
Waterproof jacket – Helly Hansen Seven
As of yet, I’m still undecided about the real usefulness of a waterproof in the tropics. When I work with locals, I’ve noticed they use one of two tactics to combat the rain: they either grin and bare it or they use a thick bin liner, split down one side, as a cape. Either way, they are usually far quicker to face the rain than I am and they end up sweating a lot less. Usually by the time a storm has passed I’ve sweated so much under my coat that I may as well have not worn one. This is particularly the case when a downpour occurs in the middle of a trek. You can make up your own mind here as to whether you need one or not. But I will note that on occasion they have kept me happy during long stints at an observation post and for that reason I will continue to lug one around with me.
I wear mine almost every day as it keeps the sun out my eyes and off my face. I have experimented with an old boonie hat, but it just collapsed at the slightest hint of rain. I’m sure a newer one, or a stiff rimmed hat such as the Tilley LTM8, would do fine though.
Binoculars – Bushnell 7x 50mm Marine
A key piece of kit regardless of what your profession is. Exact specification here is down to the task at hand and personal preference, so be sure to do your research. You can start by reading our review of the Bushnell Marines here.
GPS unit – Garmin Etrex 30x
Works as a solid alternative to the classic map and compass approach to navigation and after a recent experience of mine, I will never go into the field without one of these again. To make a long story short, I went deep into some dense forest with a local guide a few weeks ago. He had proven his skill as a tracker before and I felt completely safe with him. However, after four hours of following his lead, he turned to me and told me he had no idea where we were. I had no idea either, but luckily I had my Etrex on all day in my bag. One quick look at the unit and I knew exactly where we needed to go. Problem solved, no worries. Lesson of the day: get a good GPS unit and turn it on before you need it.
Whatever size is required by your GPS, for obvious reasons.
Notebook and pencil
I use Rite in the Rain products because they allow you to… well, that much is obvious. That said, any old notebook will work the same and if you prefer to write in pen like I do, always take a pencil as well because they are easy to sharpen and will write under any conditions. More important than the kit here though, is the ability to write good field notes. Make sure you write legibly and include as much detail as possible, while also being succinct. Its a tough skill to hone, but one well worth looking into, there’s a nice guide by USC here.
A little Tupperware pot, filled with every Tico’s favorite: rice and beans.
Even though reception is rare, a mobile is useful as a translator, GPS, map, torch, notebook, compass, camera, satellite navigation unit and pretty much anything else you can think of these days. In fact,there’s a great article on The Bruna Lab about other apps that are useful for field workers. Just make sure your cellphone has battery and credit before you set off.
Be sure to include local currency, dollars and your driving license. The amount of money you need will depend on your circumstances, but as a general rule never take more than you can afford to lose and always ask a trusted local about police “fines” before you travel.
A legal requirement in many countries.
Weather and location dependent. If I am going to a new area I will always wear either my LOWA Elite Jungle boots (check out a great review for them here) or a pair of plain old wellies/ rubber boots depending on the weather. Sometimes if I’m going to an area I know well and I can guarantee its going to be a good day, I’ll even wear a pair of old trainers. Although this is not recommended as they offer no support or protection.
Army surplus is the way to go here, but be wary about military style kit in some countries as even just owning it can get you in serious trouble. Either way, be sure to wear something cotton, light weight, ideally dark with natural coloring (such as khaki , brown or olive green) and with lots of pockets.
The same rules apply here as with the trousers. Stay away from whites and bright colors if you are working with wildlife. Earth tones are preferred.