Well, it’s that time of year again. Spring semester is over, finals are all graded, and all the undergrads have fled campus. It can mean only one thing for the international archaeologist: time to cram all your gear into the maximum allowed luggage, and hop a plane to your fieldwork site! This year, however, I’m not doing that. I’m moving instead. Seeing all the lovely facebook posts of my friends and colleagues out in the field, however, has me feeling quite nostalgic. So I thought I could get in on the fun a bit by sharing my packing list of the things I bring with me when I do go off for fieldwork overseas. This list is the culmination of 17 years of international archaeological work in Jordan, Spain, Kazkhstan, and Italy. I’ve whittled it down to just the essentials, and you should be able to fit this into one carry on and one piece of checked luggage - both below the maximum allowable size/weight limits for international air travel.
- My original list is clearly male-skewed. Women will likely need a few different items, especially toiletries. Also, in certain countries women may need things like head-scarves, etc. My friend Stefani Crabtree has been very kind to send me an additional list of items she’s found useful as a woman traveling and livng in the field. These can be found below. Thank you Stefani!
- Stefani and others have made additional general suggestions as well. These are also found below the original list.
- The list covers combined general excavation and pedestrian survey. You may not need all items if you are only excavating or only surveying. This should be all you need for 1-2 months of fieldwork!
- This list is summer-oriented, so adapt for fall or spring fieldwork.
- This list contains things that you may not need to bring if you are not in a supervisory position on the dig or survey (especially some of the electronics and things like the 30-meter tape).
- I’ve also assembled some general travel/field-life advice at the very end, so be sure to check that out!
And now, without further ado, here’s the list!
- Casual pants - 2-3
- Casual shorts - 2
- T-Shirts - 3 (Merino wool is great. Quick drying is great)
- Long sleeve shirts - 3 (protection from the sun or for cooler weather)
- Button up shirts - 1-2 (you may go out somewhere a little nice)
- Socks - 3-6 (Smartwool socks are the best)
- Underwear - 6-12 (I LOVE merino wool. Anything quick drying is a nice plus)
- Sleepwear - 1 (Please don’t sleep naked. Your dig-mates will thank you)
- Swimsuit (or double-duty nylon shorts) - 1 (yes, sometimes you get to swim)
- Handkerchiefs - 3 (I find these indispensable)
- Hats - 2 (One dig hat, one everyday hat. You NEED a good field hat!)
- Dig pants - 2 (get tough ones)
- Dig shirts - 3 (these will get VERY dirty, so you may not have to bring them home)
- Belt - 1 (get one good one, use it for every outfit)
- Sandals - 1 (I very highly recommend Chacos)
- Sturdy boots - 1 (Leather hiking boots seem de rigueur)
- Lightweight casual shoes - 1 (e.g., Sketchers, Vans, etc.)
- Rain jacket and pants (depends on season/climate)
- Sweatshirts or light jackets (depends on season/climate)
Dig kit checklist
- Profiling pegs (4)
- String - 1 bolt
- Line level - 2
- Square profiling trowel
- Pointing trowel
- North arrow - 2
- Photo scales - 4 (various sizes)
- Notebook and notebook pouch
- Metal ruler - 1
- C-Thru compass rules - 2
- Grain-size chart - 1
- Mechanical pencils - 4
- Micron 005 pens - 4
- Hand lens
- Compass and compass case
- 3-meter metric measuring tapes - 2
- 30-meter metric measuring tape - 1
- Gloves (unless you are a masochist)
- External HD and cord
- Phone and charger
- Tablet and charger
- Bluetooth Keyboard for Tablet (useful as a total laptop replacement solution…)
- Laptop and charger (…but you’ll probably want your real laptop anyway!)
- Thumbdrive (at least 8gb so you can exchange photos and music at the end of the dig)
- Back up USB battery pack and cord (this can be very handy to have!)
- Mouse and dongle (unless you like using the trackpad)
- Converter plugs - 2 (make sure you get the right adapters for the region)
- 3-outlet plug (to turn one adapter into three US outlets!)
- Headlamp (very useful)
- AA battery charger
- Rechargeable AA batteries 8
- GPS unit (your phone probably has a good enough GPS unit built-in though)
- Mobile wifi hotspot (useful for sharing internet to your laptop)
- Camera, lenses, charger, batteries, and camera bag (your phone might have a good enough camera though)
- 64 GB SD cards - 2 (only if you are bringing a high-res camera)
Toiletry Kit and Medicines
- Sunblock (SPF 30, minimum. Full-spectrum coverage. Zinc-oxide is the best material)
- Shave soap
- Shave brush (almost nothing is better than a good shave after a week of fieldwork)
- Baby wipes (the best thing for cleaning up when there is no/little water available)
- Hair goop (sometimes you need to look nice)
- Lip balm - 2 (get one with broad spectrum sun protection. I like beeswax-based products best)
- Body lotion (your skin will dry out in the field. Trust me)
- Mozzy repellent (Picaridin-based so your plastics don’t melt)
- Ear plugs - 2x (your dig mates will snore)
- Ibuprofren (lot’s and lot’s)
- Loperamide (for the after-effects of bad Shwarma)
- Moleskin (for blisters)
- Benydryl/Loratadine/Nasacort/etc. (especially if you have bad allergies)
- Callus scraper and foot lotion (for inevitable cracked heels)
- Finger and toenail clippers
- Sewing kit (for when you split your pants!)
- Mosquito net (not always needed, but you’ll be glad to have it if it is)
- Sunglasses + case
- Money and credit cards (My new favorite thing is the Charles Schwab investors checking account. No foreign transaction fees, and they refund all ATM fees!)
- Slim-fit back brace (you’ll need it eventually)
- Swiss army knife (with a CORKSCREW if you ever want to drink wine)
- Passport (Duh!)
- Visa and Itinerary printouts (don’t rely on your phone here)
- Neck pillow (for long plane rides, can double as an extra pillow for sleeping)
- Packable pillow (unless you can make do with a neck pillow for 2 months)
- Pack towel (The ones from REI are great.)
- Harmonicas (there is no TV where you are going)
- A pack of playing cards (Did I mention that there is no TV)
- Platypus bottle with tube and valve (especially for survey)
- Sleep sheet (for hostels and the dig-house)
Stefani’s Additional Items for Women
Thanks to Stefani Crabtree for these additional recommendations for women heading for the field!!
- Dry shampoo: if you have long hair (like me) and you’ll be somewhere for a month with no shower, dry shampoo will save your life. I recommend Living Proof Perfect Hair Day Dry shampoo, since it doesn’t give you dusty build up: http://www.sephora.com/perfect-hair-day-dry-shampoo-P399330?skuId=1722180&icid2=D=c6:products%20grid:p399330
- Hair oil: long hair tangles. Really really bad. Bring some Moroccan Argan Oil.
- Leave-in conditioner: If you’re blessed, there will be a lake or pond where you’re working. You can swim and almost wash your hair. Leave-in conditioner will make your hair last the month without having to use fancy salon wash-out conditioner.
- TONS of hair ties: they will break. And they will be used as rubber bands for other things. Bring a whole pack of them.
- Skirt/dress: pick one, but if you’re working in a country with more traditional women’s roles get a nice dress or skirt. I recommend the ones at Athleta; they pack well, dry quickly, and look nice/conservative.
- Good sports bras/regular bras: You are likely to be in the middle of nowhere for a month. When I lived in Samoa my only bra broke, and I had to safety-pin it together until I got to Australia where they made bras my size. Don’t let that happen to you…
- Bathing swimsuit: again, if you’re lucky enough to have a river/lake, you can bathe locally, but leave the string bikini at home if you’re in a more traditional country.
- Toilet Paper: I don’t bring from home, but buy in the capital. Many restaurants/stops don’t have TP, so you need to bring it in your pack. Make sure you have some.
- Condoms: I bring these because there will inevitably be shovel-love between volunteers in the field. I’m 8-years happily partnered, but I’d like to prevent pregnancy of my students. I put them in a box in a conspicuous place so they can get them and announce on day one that they’re there. Also, don’t rely on local condoms–they are notoriously bad. Bring Trojans from home.
- Tampons: I have been in countries where they don’t exist, or are hard to find, or a male shop-keeper will shame you for buying them. Bring enough.
- And finally, some additional advice for dealing with periods during fieldwork:
These are additions to the above, based on suggestions from friends and fellow archaeologists who know stuff I don’t.
Additional items suggested by Stefani Crabtree:
- Hot sauce & spices: maybe you’re blessed to work in a region with really good food, but I am not. A little sriracha makes boiled mutton (or, worse, boiled sheep innards) go a long way.
- Hand sanitizer: you never know when your day of fieldwork might become 8 or 9 hours, and you are in a small village in Northern India, joining in helping administer vaccines. Make sure you have hand sanitizer to clean yourself up.
- Water filter: Don’t skimp on this. And steri-pens are great if the water is clear, but if there’s algae, it’s disgusting.
- A tent not from Walmart: I work in a notoriously windy area. The tent needs to stand up to the elements.
- Superglue and duct tape: shit breaks, you’re 5 days from a town.
- Sunscreen: Isaac, you must be blessed with skin that doesn’t need this. For me, it’s a must. Bring it from home so you know it’s good.
- Aloe: Because you will sunburn.
- Eye mask: in Mongolia the sun rises a little after 3am. Want to sleep longer in your tent? Bring something to block it out.
- Headlamp & good flash light: I just bought a new headlamp, and I have a lamp for my tent. There are no lights where I work… this is necessary.
- Other things I bring: my own packable telescoping chopsticks, enough books to last me the month, if I bring a tablet I download a couple movies for when you really need to ‘get away’
Additional items suggested by Morag Kersel
- Nose guards that attach to your sunglasses and prevent sunbunt noses! Morag has one that is a Canadian flag, and highly recommends these for work in the burning Near Eastern deserts!!
Are there any must-have items that are not mentioned above?
Let me know! I’ll add them here, and credit you as the source!
Additional Travel Advice
Most toiletry items can be bought on arrival. But it is good to bring enough to get you through a couple days. Have these, and a couple sets of clothes with you in your carry on. Assume that the airline will loose your luggage. Because they will. Sooner or later, they will.
Sunblock. I guess a lot of folks missed the sunblock in my original list. I’ve now moved it to the top of the toiletries section. Sunblock is critical to life in the field. Buy it at home, and don’t trust that you will find something effective overseas (you might well, but you probably won’t). You need at least SPF 30. More SPF is ok, but keep in mind that SPF 50 is only 1% more effective than SPF 30. More important is to be sure that you get a “Broad Spectrum” sunblock, which will block both UVA and UVB. There are two types of sunblock ingredients: chemical-based, and light-blockign based. Chemical-based sunblocks work by absorbing the energy of UV rays before they hit your skin. In doing so they break down. Light-blockers work by reflecting these rays. The best known full spectrum sunblock ingredient is zinc-oxide. It is very effective. Look for at least a 4% solution. Chemical sunblocks can also work well. The key to all sunblocks is to apply very liberally, rub in well, and to reapply every 60 minutes. Even folks with darker skin, like me, should be following these rules. You do not want to get skin cancer in return for your love of archaeology.
Carry-on and field bags. My advice is to get a good 30-35 liter field backpack, and to use this as both your carry on and your field bag. Again, I cannot emphasize enough that you need to make sure that you pack at least 3 days of clothes, essential toiletries, medicines, electronics, and anything else you can’t live without in your carry on. At some time, the airlines will lose your checked luggage, and you will be very glad you brought extra underwear with you in your cary on. All tools and other heavy items should go in your checked baggage.
Checked luggage. You might want to consider a wheeled duffel that has some hideaway packpack straps so that you can hoist it on your back if you need to. If you work in some of the remoter places, this will be an essential feature for getting your stuff up and down stairs, over dirt or cobblestone streets, or onto the back of a donkey.
Plan on doing laundry weekly to biweekly. If you do laundry more frequently, you can bring fewer clothes. Quickdrying clothing (synthetics, merino wool) is especially useful if you are doing that laundry by hand. Merino wool has natural anitbacterial, sweat wicking, and temperature regulating properties. For this reason many travelers find it to be the superior material for their travel clothing. You can go several days between washes without it smelling rank. It is more expensive, however. I find that the Woolly Clothing Company make very good Merino wool products for reasonable prices, and recommend them. If Merino is out of your budget, consider synthetics made for athletic activties. Synthetics can stink more, so cloth that is treated with an antimicrobial treatment (silver-based usually) can be better options. Cotton certainly works, but it doesn’t dry very fast, and also can harbor the stink of your unwashed boddy. Cotton-poly blends will be the best budget choice. With all that said, here’s my typical laundry cycle: Socks: I use smartwool (merino) socks, and get two days use out of each pair, in the field or while traveling. I usually bring 4-5 pairs, and reserve one for non-field usage. Underwear: one day’s use only, please. I usually bring about 8 pairs. Field shirts: I wear them two days in a row, even when I sweat through them. This gets me through a week on three shirts. You may have a lower tolerance. Field pants: Washing and drying field pants sucks, so I don’t do it. I bring two pairs, wear one the first half of the season, and the other the second half. Regular clothes: You won’t wear these much during the week. They don’t need washing that often. I Stephaniusually plan to do one major washing of regular clothes halfway through a season. Other folks are more persnickity about that.
Field clothing. In my experience there are three schools of thought on this. 1) Buy stuff at the thrift store and dress like a hobo. Throw out anything too soiled or shredded at the end of the dig. 2) Buy stuff at REI and dress in uber-technical outdoor gear. Mortgage your house to afford thes gear. 3) By work gear (Carhartt, Dickies, etc.), and dress like a construction worker. Sweat like a hog in the desert heat. Personally, I borrow from all three approaches. I like some work gear: Dickies painter pants are great digging pants, RedWing boots are great digging boots. I like some outdoor gear: Prana make darn great pants for survey. But I also buy some things at the Goodwill: namely field shirts. In my experience, field shirts can last maybe two seasons. Field pants you might get 3-4 seasons. A good pair of boots can last 5-6 seasons. A good belt and a good hat can last a lifetime. Spend less on things that are going to wear out fast and aren’t critical to your comfort, spend more on things that you need to be comfortable and/or that will last a long time. Buying used can be a more environmentally friendly option, but so can buying a high-quality item that will last longer.
Cultrally appropriate clothing. When you travel abroad to do fieldwork, you get a really excellent opportunity to immerse yourself in a different culture and to really become part of the local community. Part of doing that is to be aware of, and to respect the cultural norms of the region you find yourself working in. A major part of that will be to adjust your typical clothing style to local customs. In many parts of the world people don’t wear shorts - even in parts of Europe. And yes, even in brutally hot places where you really want to wear them. This is changing, however, and shorts can certainly be worn around the house. Always bring long pants, however, as these are universally accepted. Men can typically get away with wearing short sleeves, but perhaps not tank tops. Women may have to be especially conservative in their dress, covering both arms and legs, and occasionally hair as well. Yes, this is not fair. However, if you decide to ig nore these customs, at the very least you are not fostering an ambasidorial relationship with local people, and at the very worst, your are potentially at risk of attack or reprisal from conservative portions of the local populace. You may also not be allowed into churches, mosques, government buildings, or nice restaurants and hotels. Yes, that’s not fair either. It is, however, reality. After you’ve spent enough time in a place, you will get a feel for which dress customs are required and which are optional. If it’s your first time going to a place, ask around first. Check the internet. Plan to dress on the more conservative side of the advice you find, but don’t be afraid to go with the flow if you find it to be more relaxed upon arrival. This is all part of the joy of field work!!