Expedition planning

Planning a (MSc/ PhD) field campaign to a remote, (high altitude) location? Here are some top tips to help you plan ahead, stay safe, and maximise the research potential of your expedition.

Learn from those that have been in a similar situation, and information on the internet

Often your first point of contact will be your supervisor, who will hopefully have a wealth of experience to share. Following this, speak to people that have worked in a similar environment before, or search online for blogs, social media posts, past expedition reports or grant reports. Generally someone will have worked in a similar environment so read up on their experience and consider getting in touch to say hi. If you will be using similar methods to other researchers, looking at past expedition photos will give you an idea of the equipment used and how it was deployed. Remember: Google Earth is invaluable for scoping out your field site and working out distances to survey locations, but won’t reveal conditions underfoot.

Be organised

Be proactive and start planning as soon as possible. This will avoid last minute headaches, save you money on flights and transport, and will allow you to review your proposed methods with others to ensure they are realistic. You will likely need to use a within-country logistics company to help organise transport, guides, porters, accommodation, and research permits, so contact them to discuss your requirements. Ask your supervisor for a risk assessment from a past expedition and revise it to your requirements. Learn some local lingo.

Make a kit list and check all the kit you intend to take

Your supervisor may have a kit list they have used in the past. Use this as a starting point and adapt to your requirements. General kit is outlined below:

Packing:

  • Take a day sack that fits airline measurements (~30 – 45 l).
  • Take a durable holdall that can withstand floor dragging and airborne landings whilst in baggage handling.
    • Padlock or zip-tie the zips shut
    • Keep valuables in your cabin baggage
    • Use some duct tape to reinforce key areas
    • Pack fragile items with bubble wrap and place amongst clothing
    • Take some dry bags of various sizes to waterproof kit
    • Tape over the terminals of spare lithium batteries and keep them in your hand luggage to avoid problems at the airport
    • Carry ownership documentation for scientific kit

    Clothing:

    • Save weight on clothing by investing in merino wool, which doesn’t smell like most cotton clothing. A few items will be fine months of fieldwork if washed in rotation
    • Take good quality waterproofs. GORE-TEX Proshell is waterproof and durable. Lighter weight waterproof fabrics (e.g. Active Shell) may be fine for a day or two in the wet, but won’t keep out endless rain, so plan for the expected conditions
    • A big down jacket, ideally with a hood will serve you well, look for high fill power. Consider taking a thinner one too
    • Take a Windstopper softshell jacket and a warm top for day-to-day wear
    • Thin and thick gloves (ideally waterproof and with a leather palm)
    • Good quality walking boots that are broken in

    Sleeping:

    • Make sure your sleeping bag is rated to expected conditions. For high altitude use, use a down bag. It will pack down small and keep you warm for a good night’s sleep. If you skimp, be prepared to curl up inside your sleeping bag wearing your down jacket and various other layers to keep warm
    • Lay a down jacket over your sleeping bag at night for extra warmth
    • A sleeping bag liner (ideally silk), will also add extra warmth and help prevent your sleeping bag from smelling after prolonged use

    Personal:

    • Choice of water purification bottle, steri pen, or purification tablets to process drinking water. A bottle with a built in filter and purifier works well
    • First aid kit, paracetamol, ibuprofen, a course of broad spectrum antibiotics (prescribed), altitude medication (e.g. Diamox),  anti-diarrhoea tablets, re-hydration sachets, sterile kit, insect repellent/ midge net, multivitamins
    • High factor sun cream, sun hat, sunglasses (cat 4/5), moisturiser, hand sanitiser, and lip balm
    • Camera
    • Head torch, multi tool

    Kit for working:

    • Waterproof field notebook, pencils and sharpener, marker pens
    • Cable ties, rope/ thin cord, duct tape, electrical tape, superglue/ epoxy resin
    • Phone protector and large capacity battery pack
    • Solar panels and external battery (e.g. Goal Zero/ Powertraveller/ Anker)
    • Plastic containers (e.g. lab sample containers)
    • Durable plastic bags (e.g. mail bags)
    • Memory cards/USB stick (preferable to a hard drive)
    • Spares of items/cables that are essential

    Be ambitious, but be realistic and adaptable

    Best summed up in an article by Lauren Knight here. Basically, kit may get lost or break, things may go wrong, you may get ill, the weather may be bad, so have backup plans and be flexible in your work schedule and kit requirements. Simple kit is best when a replacement part may be unavailable or several days/weeks away.