Biological Sciences, Santa Barbara City College pipeline center for sustainability

Biology 130: Methods in Field Biology

Equipment List

Studets hiking on SC Island


There are a number of things to consider when preparing to be in the field for a day or longer. Once you are working for a while in a particular area on a project you will develop a more fine-tuned equipment list and attire appropriate for the habitat you are working in and the type of data collection. When you are in this class and when you first start on field work, however, it is best to err on the side of caution and preparation. The fact is, 99% of the time you will likley be in situations that do not require you be prepared for an emergency or truly challenging conditions. However, the 1% of the time you will need to deal with an emergency or truly inclement weather are not predictable, so you have to always be prepared. You also have to remember that you are part of a team in the field. If you have problems then others have to help you out. Or, if someone else has problems you have to assist them. So, you need to think beyond yourself and be prepared to keep you and your team healthy and functioning.

The following is to make you prepared for the usual conditions along with some basic equipment and suggestions to help you be prepared for many unusual situations without requiring you carry too much. One goal will be to find equipment that is very useful, but is relatively light and takes up little room in your pack. You don't want to be so overburdened with a large and heavy pack that carrying the weight leads to fatigue or injury- that's, obviously, counter productive.

In our area we don't often deal with temperatures that are too hot or too cold, but when we are out in the field, exposed, what is relatively mild for short periods can become difficult over a period of hours or days. We do, though it seems rarely these days, get substantial rain at times and just a few minutes in a down pour can soak you and your gear if not prepared for it.


Students in rain


You can become hypothermic in mild weather if it is raining, or suffer dehydration or heat stroke if you are on a strenuous hike even in mild conditions. Even if you are not in danger of serious problems, being uncomfortable in the field- too cold, too hot, tired, hungry, thirsty, sun burned, bitten by bugs etc.- then you are going to be distracted and less likely to be able to concentrate and collect good data. You are also more likely to cut short your observations or data collection in favor of finding comfort. Field work is not about suffering through grueling work, it is about collecting good data which is easier if you are comfortable, prepared, well rested, fed, protected, and with plenty of water.

To start, let's consider what you wear:


Layering is the best way to be prepared for most any condition. A suitable set of layers to have for weekend trips is a set of long underwear (tops and bottoms), an insulating mid-layer (top), long pants and a long sleeved shirt (synthetic or wool), a hat, and rain gear.

Many people wear shorts and T-shirts or tank tops when it's hot. That may be fine for school, but it isn't a good idea in the field. First, the more skin exposed, the more area is susceptible to burns, bites, poison oak, scrapes, etc. We may be working in direct sun for several hours without a break. Getting a sunburn will make you uncomfortable for many days, getting poison oak can make you miserable for a couple of weeks. We may also be bushwacking through shrubs which in our area are very tough and can cause significant wounds on unprotected skin. We may also be kneeling over study plots so exposed knees can get scraped up.

Pants and shirt: It is best to wear full length pants that are comfortable to hike in, crouch, kneel, etc. There are types of pants that can zip off the bottom sections to create shorts. These can be very useful. A light long sleeved shirt is good for many situations. If you wear a short sleeved shirt then make sure you have a long sleeved shirt or light jacket with you.

Hats: You should have 2 types of hats with you. One for protection from the sun, and one for warmth. A baseball hat may be fine for sun, but you should consider something that protects the back of your neck. Having a bandana can do the trick by placing it under the hat so that it drapes over the back of your neck. A simple, warm beanie/ski hat should always be with you. It can be very useful when it gets cold because you lose a lot of heat from your head.


Insulating layers: Your insulating layers should be synthetic or wool. A mid-weight fleece or wool jacket or pull-over would work. Cotton sweatshirts are not a good idea. Once a cotton sweatshirt gets wet it's worse than useless as it will make you colder and it's much heavier to carry around. A puffy down or synthetic jacket can be very useful as they are very warm and compress small in your pack. In combination with a shell/rain gear and you can handle very cold conditions. Remember that is down gets wet it loses its loft and ability to trap heat whereas synthetic insulation does not. So, if you bring a down jacket make sure you can keep it dry in your pack and when on.

A set of synthetic, silk, or wool long-johns will also be useful especially if you are prone to getting cold.


Fabrics: With regard to fabrics, avoid cotton. Cotton is fine in warm, dry conditions when you are not sweating, but that is rarely the case. So pants, shirts, socks, and jackets should be able to keep you warm even if wet and should dry quickly. There are many types of synthetic materials now used for clothing. Most of those used in hiking/outdoor clothing will likely work fine and it is up to your individual preference. Wool works as well and is now used by some companies for nearly every type of clothing (i.e. icebreaker, smartwool), but make sure you are not sensitive to wool.

Cotton is OK for clothing you use in camp for the evening. This would be a set of clothes you change into when back in camp. With cotton, however, if it gets wet in your bag or when you are weraing it, it may never dry out over the weekend.


Rain Gear/Shell/Outer Layer:

You should always have rain gear in your pack. This can keep you warm in cold windy conditions and dry if it rains. The best rain gear is light weight, waterproof and breatheable. This type of rain gear, however, can be expensive, so borrow it or find it used or on sale. There are many different companies that make rain gear out of different types of waterproof breathable fabrics.

As for fit, the jacket should be big enough to go over at least a mid-weight fleece insulating layer and need to have a hood that allows you to see easily when its on and you move your head from side to side. The pants should be able to go over your hiking pants with zippers at the bottom to allow you to get them on over your shoes/boots- you don't want to get caught in a down pour on the trail and have to take off your shoes to put on your rain gear. You may be hiking in them, so make sure you can do so when they are on over pants.

If you can't find or afford the more expensive fabrics there are cheaper versions that are completely waterproof, but not breathable. These will keep you dry in the rain, but will make you sweat more if you have to hike with them on.


In camp clothing:

One set of clothes to change into for the night, that you keep clean. Can be cotton. Think comfort after a long day, but still suitable for sitting in camp for group meals, discussions, etc.



Your footwear is very important. There will be times we will be hiking on steep trails, so you will need a form of hiking shoe or boot. Keep in mind, shoes that are comfortable walking on a street downtown may not work on a trail while carrying a pack. Fit is the most important aspect and again, fit for a hiking shoe requires special considerations. You need something that will not cause blisters while hiking and that prevents your toes from hitting the front of the shoe when going downhill with a pack. When choosing this type of shoe wear the socks you plan on hiking with when you try them on. A mid-weight synthetic or wool sock is best- a heavy weight sock will compress throughout the day and the fit of the shoe will change. Make sure your heal does not slip when the shoe is properly tied. You should also do a simple test to make sure your toes won't hit the front when going down hill. With the shoe on and tied tightly kick the floor with your toe. If your toe hits the end of the shoe on the first kick, then it is not the right fit. If it doesn't hit until the second kick, then you are probably good. You won't really know if it is the right fit until you go for a few hikes, so you will want to try on several pairs and make sure you are working with a company that has satisfaction guarantee (i.e. REI). Most good hiking/backpacking stores will have people on staff that are trained to help you find the right shoe/boot and fit.

For some, a hiking shoe is best. Shoes are lighter weight, but provide less ankle support. Some use trail running shoes which can be fine for short distances, but they do not provide much support for your feet or ankles. Boots are better for those that need a bit more ankle support and tend to be better for longer distances when carrying a pack. Whatever you choose make sure they have proper tread to provide traction on trails and in mud. Normal tennis shoes or regular running shoes will not work well on most trails.

There is a lot of variation in hiking shoes and boots. Either synthetic or leather can work, it's up to personal preference. Leather may require more time to break in especially if it is a full leather boot. If you are going to have only one pair, then you may want to consider something waterproof. Full leather boots are generally naturally waterproof and can be treated to make them more so. Waterproof fabrics are used as lining in synthetic shoes and boots. GoreTex, eVent, etc. generally perform well and "breathe" reasonably well when your feet are hot. If you end up buying something new for this class make sure to go hiking in them regularly to break them in and make sure they will be comfortable. With most hiking shoes and boots you can tie them in different ways to adjust the fit and you may need to do this to fine tune the fit for your foot and you may also change it when you go from hiking up hill to down hill.

Sandals are rarely suitable, usually only appropriate when we are working in tide pools or on a beach. The vast majority of the time you will want to have your feet protected from branches, rocks, bites, and sun. Sandals also provide little support for your feet and ankles when hiking. Bare feet will never be allowed.


(From right to left the trail shoes increase in foot and ankle protection and weight. Far right are trail running shoes that may be fine for most hikes, but don't provide as much support or protection as boots. The far left are full leather backp[acking boots that provide the most protection and support, but are also heaviest. The two middle pairs are moderately light and provide medium support. In this case, both are also waterproof with a waterproof breathable liner in the shoe/boot. Some trail running shoes are also waterproof. All have sufficient traction for trails and mud.)



Your pack will need to be able to carry your gear, food, extra clothing, and water. Your pack should be at least 30 liters (1830 cubic inches), but probably doesn't need to be any larger than about 55 liters (3355 cubic inches). Dr. Green carries a 55 liter pack because he carries more first aide and field gear for the group and often carries an SLR camera. You may not need something this large for most day trips.

A good pack should have a hip belt that can support the weight of the pack and take the weight off your shoulders when needed. This is not a simple piece of webbing that many school day packs have, meant just to keep the pack from banging against your back, but not meant to support weight. You will have binoculars and using them when there is weight on your shoulders can get very tiring. The hip belt can also allow you to switch the weight from waist to shouldr throughout the day to prevent fatigue and sore spots. This also means the pack needs to have a frame. That means there is something rigid that runs down the back of the pack. This allows the hip belt to support the weight of the pack. Some day packs will have light hip belts, but no frame. These are ment to carry on your shoulders, but prevent banging around when running on a trail. These are not that good for field work.

Some packs will use zippers for the main and auxilary compartments while others are "top loading" which means they are like a bag with a draw string. There are pros and cons to both. The zippered bags can make it easier to get to things in a pack, but the zippers can fail. The top loading packs may require you pull things out to get to something, but tend to hold up better to abuse.


(Right: a top-loading pack- 55L. Left: Pack with zipper access for the main compartment- 40L. Both have sufficient hip belts and frame to transfer weight to the hips.)


Again, a good store will have people that can help you find the right pack and make sure it fits you. Go into one of these stores and go through the fitting process even if you plan on buying a pack online or used.

The pack will need to have a rain cover. Many now have them as part of the pack, but if not get one that fits the pack. At the very least, if you don't want to buy a pack cover have a strong garbage bag to put over the pack if it rains- garbage compactor bags are the strongest and best for this.


backpacks with rain covers
(Both packs showing rain covers. The Gregory pack had one included with the pack. The REI pack dod not so the one shown was bought separately.)


You may also want stuff sacks that can be used to contain your rain gear or other items. One or two should also be waterproof so that you can place sensitive items like data sheets or camera into them for better protection from rain. Garbage bags and large zip-loc bags can be used as well, but they can tear with repeated use.



  • Water bottle/container: You should have at least 1.5 liters of water for any day lab, and 2 liters if we are out all day during one of the weekend trips. There are many types of water bottles. Plastic ones are lighter, but can crack and leak. Metal ones are less likely to crack, but can be heavier. One emergency advantage of a metal bottle is you can fill it with creek water and boil it over a fire to make it safe to drink. There are also various hydration bags that are designed to slide into a sleeve in your pack. These are great for hiking because the tube that comes out of the pack and attaches to the shoulder strap allows you to drink without taking off your pack which usually means you will drink more when you need to. It is probably a good idea to have a couple of different ways to carry water. The insulated water bottles are great for keping water cold, but tend to be much heavier. Keep in mind once you finish your water you are still carrying the bottle around.

  • Water treatment/purification: this can be water purification pills, a small water filter, or the newer UV lights that can purify water. If you run out of water in the field you would need this to purify creek or lake water. For this course, you should never run out of water in the field. Remember that we are in the 6th year of drought, so we may not be near a water source for hours.


water bottles
(From right to left: A plastic water bottle that is light, but could crack if dropped, A steel water bottle that is stronger, but may be heavier, a very light compressible plastic water "bag" that can be useful, but I would not use these as your sole water container, water purification tablets and a UV water purification light, a hydration bag with drinking tube that would exit the pack and attach to the shoulder strap, a LifeStraw that filters water as you drink it from a water source- good for emergencies.)


Basic First Aide:

There are few things you should always have in your pack.

  • Sunblock with spf 50 or higher: you need to apply it repeatedly throughout the day for it to protect you.

  • Lip balm: Chapped lips can go from annoying to very painful. Keep from getting this by applying lip balm regularly especially before you go to bed.

  • Powder: Something to prevent chafing is a good idea. We get sweaty and hike so chafing on inner thighs etc. can get painful. Gold Bond powder/ Baby powder etc. work well for this.

  • Basic wound care: An antiseptic solution of some sort (betadine etc.), various bandages, gauze and tape.

  • Blister care: Mole skin, athletic tape, spenco burn care gel strips can be very effective.

  • Dehydration salts: if you get badly dehydrated water is not sufficient and you need to replenish your electrolytes. There are simple packets of electrolytes you can have in your first aide kit.

  • Pain medication: ibuprofen and acetominophen are usually good to have in case of headache or to decrease inflamation.

  • Ace bandage: good for wrapping an injury or to support a twisted ankle etc.

  • Emergency blanket: These are very light weight shiny silver blankets maent to reflect your heat back onto you. They can make a big difference in an emergency and take up very little room in your pack.

  • Tecnu: the only reliable way to get poison oak oils off your skin.

  • Allergy response: Benedryl or some form of way to decrease an allergic reaction.

  • Anti-itch medication: Good for mosquito bites etc.- i.e. StingEze

  • Tweezers: for removal of ticks, splinters, etc.

  • Basic nail care (clippers etc.): Can be critical if you have a problem with a toe nail or finger nail- these can get painful in the field.

  • Feminine hygiene: Under stress in the field your body may change it's normal pattern. Maxi-pads can also be used for wound care in a pinch.

  • Any necessary medications: Make sure you have the medications you use/need including any emergency medications like an Epi-pen if you need it.

  • First aide bag: To keep all of this organized and contained. Does not have to be a designated first aide bag, just something that you can easily grab, open, and find what you need.


blister supplies
(Some good supplies for blisters. You don't need all of these, but some combination of protection from getting blisters (moleskin), and treatment for if/when you get a blister (burn pads), and antispetic if the blister breaks, is a good combination.)


Other useful items:

  • Pocket knife: this can simply be a single blade knife or a multi-tool. Very useful for many things in the field from cutting cord, collecting a plant sample, preparing first aide materials, etc. Besdes a blade you may want something with screwdrivers (flat head and phillips), tweezers good for splinters or picking up tiny bugs, and an awl that can be used to punch a small hole in materials or fabrics.

  • Source of fire: Lighter or matches can save your life and can also be used to secure frayed ends of cord or make repairs on packs using webbing etc. You might also want a simply fire starting kit like a magnesium stick or flint in case your lighter runs out of fuel and your matches get wet or used up. Again, these are very small and can be incredibly useful when needed.

  • Light: You need to always have a flashlight in your pack. You never know if a day may run long and you need to make your way back to camp in the dark. Probably the most useflu form is a headlamp that allows you to have both hands free. It needs to be relatively strong (a bright setting above 200 lumens is probably good). It is preferrable to have one that is waterproof as well.

  • Parachute cord: light weight and very useful. Can be used for various needs in camp, as a transect in a pinch, to repair materials, etc.

  • Compass: necessary for navigating, but also often needed when setting up a study plot. Keep in mind that your cell phone or a gps unit work on batteries and can go dead in the field making them useless.

  • Signal mirror: A simle mirrir that can be used in emergencies or for what mirrors are often used for. A signal mirror is a bit different in that it has a hole in the middle of the morrpr that allows you to site the reflection when you need to signal.

  • Emergency whistle: These are used in case of emergencies and can create a very loud whistle even when wet.

  • Work gloves: Light gloves that protect you hands when using heavy tools or when bushwacking or climbing on rocks.

  • Zip ties: A few of different sizes may come in handy in a pinch.

  • Small roll of duct tape: Small role is key, a full role is way too big and heavy. Duct tape can help repair damaged rain gear, tarp, or field equipment.

  • Sunglasses: Always essential for long days out to protect your eyes. If you plan to be on the water (lake or ocean) youi may want polarized lenses that are the best at cutting down glare from the water.

  • Camera: Most cell phones now have reasonable cameras, but it may be good to have an additional one that can take beter quality pictures and not wear down your phone battery.

  • Eye-glass repair kit: If you wear glasses bring a small repair kit in case you need to tighten them or repair them in the field.

  • Bandana: Great for covering your head or back of neck onder a hat, dealing with sweat while hiking, or as a first aide assist.

  • Watch: You will need to record time frequently when collecting data, so a watch is necessary.

  • Small towell: Often useful if working in or near a creek or the ocean. The shamy style towels work well and can be small and compact, but still do the job.



Basic Field Gear:

  • Binoculars: We will provide a pair, but you may want to look inot buying your own if you plan on going into this type of work. We can help you determine the best type for you. Binoculars turned backwards can also serve as an effective magnifying glass to see small features of plants etc.

  • Field notebook: A waterproof field journal is required. We have Rite in the Rain books in the bookstore for the course.

  • Pencil/Pens: Good to have a couple of regular pencils (these can be sharpened with your pocket knife and are less likely to fail like a mechanical pencil can). Ball point type pens might be useful, but these do not work well in rain. Sharpees can be very useful- thin point and at least one wide point one. The thin point can be used to label small items and the wide point is good for making labels that you need to see from a distance.

  • Flagging: We will provide this, but a roll of visible flagging can be very useful in the field for setting up a study plot or in case of emergency for leaving a trail to follow.

  • Small ruler: This can be used to take fine grained measurements and can be used when photographing things like animal tracks or plants to provide scale. In a pinch your knife or a piece of currency (dollar bill or quarter) can also be used for scale in this way.

  • Zip-loc bags: Good for collecting samples, carrying out trash, or keeping data sheets from getting wet. Good to have ones that have a place for writing with a sharpee if collecting samples.



  • Sleeping bag: Sleeping bags are usually either down or synthetic, but some are now a combination of both. Either one will be fine for this course as long as the temperature rating is 30⁰F or lower (ratings are often in Celsius and Fahrenheit, so make sure you are looking at the right number).

    The temperature rating is the tempertaure you can survive in with this sleeping bag. It is not the temperature at which you will be comfortable and sleeping well, so you want the rating to be lower than what you expect to experience. If you sleep cold, you may want a bag rated lower or bring an extra blanket or sleeping bag liner (we have a few of each of these if needed, but check with us to make sure we bring one for you).

sleeping bag


  • Sleeping pad: A sleeping pad provides comfort when sleeping on the ground and insulates you from the cold of the ground. This means you need something thick enough to accomplish these goals. A yoga mat is not sufficient. Solid, foam pads are fine. They may not be as comfortable as the inflatable versions, but they are generally cheaper and won't spring a leak. The inflatable versions tend to be more comfortable, but make sure they will insulate you sufficiently from the ground.

  • Tent: We have a few of these, but if you have one you should consider bringing it. A good tent should have a rain fly that completely covers the tent to the ground. You may also want a "footprint" that protect the bottom of the tent. Extra cord to guy out the rain fly should always be with your tent and make sure you have enough tent poles to set of the tent and stake out the rain fly.

  • Pillow: Up to you, but may be helpful for a good night's sleep. A pillow case that you stuff your fleece or down jacket into can work well and takes up much less space in your bag.



  • Plate, Bowl, Mug: These should be made of material that does not break- do not bring ceramic or glass.
  • Utensils (fork, spoon, knife)
  • Breakfasts (2 days): We will be in camp for breakfasts so you can bring things that require hot water etc., but make sure you can prepare your breakfast quickly. We will not be spending a lot of time preparing and eating breakfast, so think quick, filling, and easy to clean up.
  • Snacks, Lunches (3 days): Keep in mind we may be eating on the trail for lunch, so we won't have stoves for that. Dehydrated meals are good when we are in camp, but not good when on the trail. Generally best to bring things for lunch that do not require refigeration or create a lot of waste that you will have to carry back to a trash can.
  • Dinners will be done as cooking groups: We will set these up in class.


Obtaining the gear recommended for this class and for field work can be expensive if you buy everything retail at full price. We recommend you borrow or rent what you can to save money and to give you time to determine what works best for you before you spend the money on your own gear. If you do purchase gear then look for used options or discounts on new gear. The following are some places you can look for rental, used, discounted gear:

Rental Gear:

Thrift Stores in Santa Barbara (there are also many in Ventura):

Outdoor Gear Stores in/near Santa Barbara:

Websites- (You can find discounted prices at most of these websites. Make sure to check their return policy and use good judgement when purchasing used gear):

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Revised 26 January, 2015
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