Life hacks (fieldwork edition)

I’ve recently returned from Western Australia where I was studying red-winged fairy wrens – more on this soon! I loved being back in the field and enjoyed the physical and mental challenges associated with long days of outdoor work after a few years of more data-based research – but fieldwork is tough! And everyone would like their lives to be a little easier, right? Here are a few things that made my fieldwork experience simpler (or just more enjoyable) that you might consider for your next field trip…


A smartphone

Given how attached I now am to my iPhone, it’s hard to believe that the last time I did serious fieldwork, I only used my phone as a back-up clock. This time my whole experimental protocol relied on my (now rather creaky) 4s as a means for doing playbacks via bluetooth.* Having 3G in the forest (!!) meant that it was easy for me to generate random numbers, and check local weather!

I also used the excellent Morecambe & Stewart Australian bird guide app as an alternative to lugging around a bird book, and really enjoyed it. Obvious advantages of apps versus books include having song recordings as part of the basic descriptions; the ability to easily create a bird list; and being able to restrict searches to geographic areas, making it much easier for amateur birders like me to find what I’m looking for.

There are now zillions of functions and apps that can make even a basic  smartphone a huge asset in the field, and not just for experiments. As always, this ever-evolving list of smartphone apps for field biologists put together by the Bruna Lab at UF is essential reading, covering everything from apps for safety in the field to useful smartphone accessories.

Udder cream

YOU HEARD ME. Udder cream, a basic formula to keep bovine lady parts smooth ‘n supple, was recommended to me by my pharmacist godmother as a potential remedy for chapped, dry and itchy legs in the Kalahari. It is, quite simply, THE best body lotion I’ve ever used, it’s cheap as chips (for mega quantites), and used liberally after work outdoors is a brilliant after-sun. It’s also highly suitable for people with sensitive skin – my godmother recommends it for post-op stitches and scars – all it has in it is a little chlorhexidine (a mild antiseptic) and lanolin. Udder-ly great.

Your face too could be this smooth.

Avon Skin So Soft

I’m from the west coast of Scotland where midges are serious and people are serious about midges. It’s long been common knowledge there that one thing that really works to deter them is Avon Skin So Soft, an oily lotion containing citronellol. I’d prefer to avoid DEET where possible, and this is good cheap alternative. Obviously I wouldn’t recommend swapping your DEET for smelling like a hippy in malarial countries (see here, concerned citizens), but where bugs are an annoyance rather than a health risk, it’s a good option (and worked a treat on the pesky flies in Oz!).

A power bank

Kanye forgot to charge his batteries

There’s nothing worse than relying on a battery-powered piece of kit in the field and finding that you’ve forgotten to charge it properly, or worrying about it running out of charge before it’s time to head home. Perhaps I’m late to this party, but I hadn’t encountered power banks before, and found having one in my rucksack extremely useful, especially given how intensively I was using my phone. Basic principle in case you also are new to these – charge them up, and then plug in your phone or device when necessary to transfer the charge. Mine was a very basic one I picked up in Australia but good for about 3 full iPhone charges – here’s a good list of apparently the best out there at the moment.

A mooncup

I won’t wax lyrical about the mooncup as an alternative to more conventional sanitary products YET AGAIN but if you’d like to ask any questions (and likely receive a fervent and evangelical response), do email me. I can’t say enough how much easier an option this is in the field, all the environmental/health benefits aside.


We all unwind as best we can in the field, and do our best to cope with cabin fever. My method has always involved exercise – and this time focused on downloaded yoga tutorials. I’ve raved a LOT about my yogi-of-choice, the wonderful Yoga With Adriene (who is currently doing a 30 day programme which will be available for download by donation – check it out!).


Some other useful blog posts I’ve found on making life easier in the field, and preparing adequately (these are more comprehensive lists than I provide here!):



*(If anyone is interested in this kind of experiment, the speaker I used was the very robust  TDK Trek Micro. It’s chunkier than I’d hoped, but was much more reliable and with better battery life than the iFrogz tadpole I initially tried, which would be a great size for nest playback, but which didn’t maintain a good connection or last very long).

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