Field Notebooks
with particular emphasis on natural history and environmental studies
R.J. Carson, 2000


An outstanding field notebook serves many potential purposes.
1. It is a valuable record of what you have seen, heard, discussed, and thought about in the field.
2. It may contain the data which will lead to an oral presentation, a paper, and/or a thesis.
3. It may be a graded portion of a course.
4. It may be something you and your relatives will find interesting decades in the future. (My great grandfather A.R. Leeds was one of the first geochemists; I treasure his notebooks written in New York's Adirondack Mountains in the 1800s.)

For one or more of these reasons, keep your notebook in a safe place. More than one graduate student has lost a notebook with critical data for his/her thesis. (For particularly important notes, photocopy and/or store electronically, and keep separate records in two places).

A field notebook should enhance and not interfere with learning. Don't write down everything a field trip leader says without thinking about it or asking questions. You are not a tape recorder; filter the information through your brain. Don't focus so much on a relatively immovable aspect (e.g., rocks or vegetation) that you miss something fleeting (e.g., an eagle or a sunset).

Neatness and organization are essential. Efficiency may be important; use standard abbreviations (e.g., the geologic time symbols). A labeled sketch may be more valuable than 100s of words.


1. Write your name with indelible ink on the front and back of your notebook. Write your name, address(es), and phone number(s) near the front.
2. Consider putting a title on the inside and an abbreviated title on the outside (e.g., Alaska, 2000).
3. Paginate the entire notebook; start a table of contents near the front.
4. Depending on the situation, enter appropriate emergency information near the front or back: e.g., who to contact and how, allergies, search and rescue phone number, hospital address, phone number of embassy.
5. Start an "address book" of key contacts, potential people to visit, people who might provide information, people who might help with transportation in the field, etc. This list might include home and work addresses, email address, and home, work, and cellular phone numbers.
6. Consider gluing or taping into the notebook (near the back and/or front) one or more of the following: maps, lists of flora and fauna, geologic time scale, stratigraphic column, checklists of data to be recorded.
7. How is your notebook going to be organized? One way is to put observations and sketches on the right, and interpretations and questions on the left.


1. General location: country, state, county, mountain range, coast, island, national or state park, nearest town, etc.
2. Weather: temperature, precipitation, wind velocity and direction (winds are named from whence they come), humidity, cloud cover, visibility, etc. This information may be pertinent to soils or vegetation, or may help you remember the day and/or location. If the weather varies much during the day, note the changes.
3. If your particular focus is geology, mention the soils and vegetation. They may be important clues to the geology (e.g., particular plants grow on serpentinite). The approximate age of landforms such as moraines and landslide scars may be revealed by vegetation. If your focus is bedrock geology, note landforms (e.g., fault scarps) and surficial deposits. If your focus is geomorphology and surficial geology, note the bedrock geology (e.g., resistance to weathering and erosion).
4. If your particular focus is biology, mention the geology. Plant distribution is greatly influenced by bedrock types, landforms, surficial deposits, and soils. Particular plants have specific requirements for moisture (soil porosity and permeability) and trace elements (mineralogy) Burrowing animals may prefer one surficial sediment to another. The flora and the fauna are very much influenced by aspect (the direction a slope faces) due to temperature and moisture differences, and by drainage (e.g., a wetland vs. a hilltop).
5. As appropriate, expand the "address book" mentioned in BEFORE THE FIELD.


1. Specific site. This location should be described accurately enough so that you could get back here. It might include a street address, latitude and longitude or UTM co-ordinates, elevation, aspect, which side of stream, how far and in what direction from a landmark, etc.
2. Data on whatever may be relevant: humans, animals, plants, ecosystems, ecotones, rocks, sediments, soils, structures, landforms, processes, rates, facilities, pollution, scenery. Some of this data may be re-entered elsewhere in your notebook, as I mention later.
3. Consider drawing and labeling a sketch, diagram, map, or cross-section. My general rule-of-thumb is one sketch per site, but some require more and some need none. Remember, a sketch can be much better than, or can reduce the length of, an outline or narrative. Do not worry if you don't think you're an artist. You never will be if you don't try, and your sketches will improve with practice. Would color help? Some sketches stand alone without labels. You might be drawing scenery or a flower; such sketches should have titles (e.g., Hunter Peak across Clarks Fork, Indian paintbrush on Hood Canal bluff). Most sketches need lots of labels (e.g., rock types and ages, landforms, fauna and flora). Maps and cross-sections need scale, and orientation (e.g., north arrow or direction of view).
4. Multiple working hypotheses, questions, tentative interpretations and conclusions (e.g., the geologic or human history as determined at this specific site).
5. Notes about photographs taken. What is it? What is the scale? What direction are you facing? Some people prefer to record photos site by site; others record all photos in a separate section of the notebook.


1. Review your field notes. Is there anything that might be important that you remember now but did not note in the field?
2. Consider re-entering data into a computer for analysis and/or separate storage.
3. Summarize the day’s observations, hypotheses, conclusions, etc.
4. Do you need to revisit any of the sites?
5. Consider making separate lists of fauna (including birds) and flora observed.
6. If there is field work the next day, plan for it. Be prepared.

To Bob Carson's Homepage