So, you’re a college student or a person looking for adventure and you sign up to go on a dig. Getting ready to go off into the unknown can be terrifying, especially if your site is half way across the world. As I prepare to head off to Slocan BC (British Columbia) on my next quest – this time to be a teaching assistant in an archaeology field course I attended two summers ago- I thought I’d record my packing process for those who might need some tips on what to bring to an archaeology dig or field course. You really don’t have to stress (as much as you are currently stressing as you read this) but in the hopes of making you feel more prepared I’ve mapped out to the smallest details what I pack for a dig. Though this is still only my second trip to work on an archaeology site, I think that I can still give some good advice as I continue trying to figure things out and improve my own choices as I go.
My packing will of course apply to my specific site, but I’ll try to add some more general tips and things to consider. Keep in mind that not all field schools or archaeological digs are the same. Also keep in mind that though I’m working on it, I have a tendency to… overpack. This will also be specific to archaeology fieldwork, but will probably still provide good tips for other scientific field courses or research trips.
My specific dig is located in the enchanting temperate rainforests of BC and is the location of Hamilton College’s archaeology field course. Two years ago I was a student on said field course and my experience there led me to decide to major in archaeology (along with my already determined creative writing major). Now I return to this incredible place, but this time as a (paid!) teaching assistant!
Anyways, the first things to think about when packing are as follows:
Will you be flying to your site? If so, are you willing to pay overweight luggage fees? This will really help you pack what you really need because flying with a ton of extra stuff is no fun for anyone. I can personally attest to this… but usually I’ve just sucked it up and accepted that gear for 7 weeks in the field is heavy.
Where is this dig in relation to towns or cities? Is it in the middle of nowhere (aka at least an hour from the nearest human settlement)? Is it near a tiny town that at least has the equivalent of a CVS? Is it right outside a large town or city? Is it inside a city? Is it in a country that may not have the medication you need or usually take? Is it in a country that may not have your favorite Oreo flavor for instance? Will you be going into human civilization/given transport into human civilization regularly?
This will help you determine how much of everything you need to bring. My site is a couple minutes from a wee town and 45 minutes from a nice small city/town that has a Walmart, a CVS, a mall, a grocery store etc. etc. Later you will see that this allows me to bring much fewer toiletries and basic necessities like Oreos and shampoo because I can simply pick them up on our weekly trip into Nelson, BC.
What is the climate? Be smart and do your research. Does this place have a rainy season? What season (winter vs summer etc) will it be when you are working there?
This is a no-brainer. Pack smart for whatever climate you’re heading into. I can give advice for what to pack for summer BC weather, but make sure you do some googling and calling around to make sure you know what to bring for your own location. The last point will also help with this part of prepping: Can you buy clothes when you’re there if you want to?
Where will you be living? If you’re living in tents then you will be packing tent gear, sleeping bag, etc. etc. You’ll also need some kind of lantern so you can function without having to wear a headlamp all the time when getting stuff in your tent at night.
What will your excavation leader be providing? Some professors and excavation leaders will be providing a significant amount of equipment for you (this often includes food). You may prefer to bring your own trowel and “dig kit” but those will guarantee to add a good amount of weight to your luggage. Figure out what you are expected to bring and what your site will be giving you. Sites will always have their own first aid kit as well, and if they don’t then someone needs to tell them about basic camp safety.
How long will you be on site? And how often will you have access to a washing-machine or body of water in which to wash your garments? Another no-brainer. Figure out how long you will be there. Figure out how long between clothes washing sessions you will have. Make some calculations. Do some soul searching and really think about how many times you are willing to wear the same shirt or pants in a row.
What are you personally comfortable and familiar with? This applies to gear and clothing. Don’t try something new if you don’t need to. Make sure you have your broken in boots, a trowel you’ve used before, etc. etc. If it’s worked in the past then you know it’ll work for you in the future. Comfort and familiarity is key!
Many more questions must be asked before you are really all packed and ready, but here is the place to start. The big balance to think about it not overpacking (this is always my struggle) while also not being underprepared when you get there.
Most of this stuff you can usually purchase when you get there, but if there are products that you can’t live without or simply prefer to use (above: the hair tie, the tampons, the biodegradable floss, and the heat-wraps fall into this category), then pack those. The things that you should definitely bring at least in your carry-on are the toothbrush and toothpaste, the wipes (if you’re going to be on an airplane), deodorant, and your retainer/specific dental care stuff if you use one. Also I highly recommend, especially if you’re going to be living in the woods near a river like me, Dr. Brunner’s soap. It’s perfect for river baths, environmentally friendly so you don’t have to worry about contaminating any bodies of water you want to bathe in. I’ll also be packing those wee bottles to put some shampoo, lotion, and conditioner in to tide me over until I can buy bottles in Nelson.
Not Pictured: razor and extra razor blades, fast-drying towel, and hairbrush,
Note: I won’t be bringing that whole box of tampons, or the whole box of heart wraps (period cramps in the field are a bitch) but they looked better in the boxes when I was photographing them…
Again, the key is to figure out what you can purchase when you get there. Also think about what diseases you may be susceptible to if you are going somewhere with a very different environment to your own (Examples: malaria pills, pepto-bismol, diarrhea medication, etc. etc.) The most important items to pack that are pictured above are your personal prescription medications. The other items I’ll list left to right row by row, but again, they will probably be available in pharmacies in Nelson – these are mostly for emergencies/to tide me over/are medicines I prefer.
Row 1: Medicinal tea (“don’t need but want” category), numbing medicine for cold sores, Zicam nose spray for congestion, cough drops, bug spray. Row 2: Bag to carry all this in and keep organized, Abreva paste for cold blisters, Emergen-C packets for immune system and dehydration, prescription medications, preferred sunblock. Row 3: Benadryl anti-itch cream, antibiotic wipes, prescription medication, burn cream, antacid, ibuprofen. A lot of these are just-in-case things to pack. You really don’t need to bring these if you will have a CVS or a camp first-aid kit nearby in case of injury or bad common colds.
These are all things that I think are pretty important to bring with you. However, I’ll still organize these items in categories below.
Most Important: Flashlight (I’m bringing three just in case someone on my site forgets to pack one), sewing kit, pocket knife, headlamp.
Comforts/Damn Useful Things: Power bank for phone, rope (as Sam Gamgee always says, rope is something you shouldn’t travel without), lanterns (I have two to light my tent, one if solar powered and one runs on batteries), solar panel USB charger (one of my favorite things-so helpful when you’re out and about or at your tent away from electricity).
More Damn Useful Things: mosquito head-net (a new addition to my gear provided by my mother, will let you know how well it works), emergency tin (has a bunch of survival gear in it, just in case), extra poncho (the green thing- good for shielding notes or yourself if you’ve been an idiot and left your raincoat at camp), whistle.
Not Pictured: My tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and camp chair. Let me know if you are interested in learning what types/brands I use for this important part of field gear. Comment below! Also my water bottle somehow didn’t make it into the photo. WATER IS SO IMPORTANT bring a good bottle or two!!!
Your excavation leader may provide some of these materials for you, especially if you are a first time excavator, but this is my kit. My dad made the case for me out of an old tool kit and I can roll it up and wrap a bungie cord around it to keep it closed. It works perfectly for me in the field. However, you can buy kits made especially for archaeology.
Most Important: Brushes, trowel, ruler, level, compass, pens and pencils and highlighters, gloves.
Optional: Colored pencils (I like to organize and color-code).
The inReach little radio-looking thing is the way I contact my family in the field when I am out of cell service. Comment below if you want to know more.
Layers! Sun protection! Rain protection! – These are all must-haves for somewhere like Slocan. The one thing I could probably live without is the green light jacket, but I like to pack a lot of things just-in-case – not recommended to do if you have limited space.
From left to right row 1: Warm fleece, light jacket, light fleece, sweatshirt (Hamilton College pride), sunglasses, Indiana Jones hat (he wears it for a reason, people, these hats are the best for rain and sun). Row 2: Long underwear pants/leggings, raincoat, kafiya (amazing for sun protection, wiping sweat off your face, rain protection, wind protection, etc. etc. I highly recommend).
Pants depend on the climate, but I found that having two pairs of Carhartt work pants and a pair of lighter cargo pants were perfect for the temperature and the kneeling in the dirt that happens in Slocan. Two pairs of shorts because sometimes you get those really hot days. The jean shorts can double as “normal human clothes” when you go on errand runs into town (so can your work/dig pants, but you know what I mean).
For those bra-wearers out there, I personally mostly wear sports bras when digging, but normal (padded/underwire) bras work fine too (they sometimes get more sweaty though). I bring three just because I get really sweaty and I only get laundry once a week. I’ll also bring a normal padded bra. Sport shorts can be dig shorts, running shorts, or sleep shorts but are not super necessary. I pack a pair of flannel pj pants and a pair of pj shorts because there are both cold and warm nights in Slocan.
Shirts! I have way more shirts than you really need because I prefer not having to re-wear things too many times before washing. However, you can probably split the number of shirts in half if you too have access to washing once a week. The types of shirts and pants you bring are completely up to you and depend on climate and comfort. I am most comfortable digging in tank tops and they don’t take up much space. I’m also going to bring a couple t-shirts that double as sleep shirts.
Numbers of socks and underwear (underwear not pictured because some things have to stay private, right?) depend on climate, comfort, and laundry access. I am packing three different types of socks: ankle socks, normal-height (over ankle) socks, and warm socks. Socks also depend on what shoes you’ll be wearing. I tend to overpack socks because re-wearing dirty socks starts to become a stinky ordeal, and as Dumbledore says, one can never have too many socks. Pack enough underwear for at least a week. A couple extra is a good idea too. Avoid the fancy lacy stuff, it can chaff and get sweat stains… yuck. Go with practical and comfy.
The above clothes are totally unnecessary but nice to have. We started calling said articles our “town clothes” because they were normal human clothes that were not dirt-covered and we wore them on our trips to Nelson every Saturday.
Think about what is comfortable. Don’t bring something that will give you blisters, make you overheat, be too big on you, etc. etc. I bring a pair of work shoes (boots or old sneakers), a pair of waterproof shoes (for walking back from camp after swimming), and an extra pair of shoes that I can technically wear to work or town (beat up converse).
Finally, some last items: Travel jacket with lots of pockets, tote bag to put snacks and any airport purchases/overflow carry-on items in, laptop (make sure you’re allowed to bring a laptop to your field school, some students are told they don’t need to), books (limit yourself to the books you bring from home, people – they’re heavy and a pain to fly with despite how much you love them), camera, Cow-Cow (guys, don’t be ashamed to bring your comfort stuffed-animal to camp, if if helps you sleep and be less homesick who cares if you get judged a little bit? You’re a strong independent woman or man or non-binary person and you can bring a stuffed animal if you want to!)
Remember to bring your prescriptions and dental equipment in your carry-on in case your checked baggage is temporarily misplaced (this is pretty rare, but it’s even more rare for checked baggage to get permanently lost these days, so scratch that off you’re worry list). Also always pack your cameras and laptops in your carry-on because it’s safer for them. Do NOT pack your pocket knife in your carry-on accidentally! All that gear should go in your checked luggage – sharp pointy things are not for carry-on.
What to pack it all in
As I said before, I still overpack (even though I’ve learned a lot and have gotten much better at being efficient and smart about packing choices). Thus, I needed a pretty big duffle, and if you get one like this you should definitely get one on wheels. If you want more details about this particular bag, let me know. I also have a carry-on backpack for the plane (below left) and a site backpack (below right – something I can squish down and use to carry my dig kit, sunblock, water bottle, etc. to the site every day).
Well that is a very in depth look at my gear and packing process. I hope it was helpful to those of you who are heading off on your own field school. It’s an amazing experience and definitely worth being a bit less stressed about as you head out.
Please comment below for any specific brands or questions you have about gear!
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