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
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.
BEFORE THE FIELD
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.
IN THE FIELD, EVERY DAY
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.
IN THE FIELD, EVERY STOP
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
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.
EVERY EVENING AFTER FIELD WORK
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
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
6. If there is field work the next day, plan for it. Be prepared.
To Bob Carson's Homepage