Fieldwork Lessons Learned Part Three: In the Field and After Deployment

September 8, 2021 | Lindsay Starke
Climbing equipment for deployment in the Cameroonian forest

Our team and our community have come up against plenty of surprises in the course of deploying conservation technology in the field. We recently shared what we learned in the realms of tech development and project management and tools, gear, packing, and travel. Finally, we’re at part three of our three-part series of fieldwork lessons learned, and we’ve finally made it into the field. Check out the below tips for conservation fieldwork from our team,our friends, and Twitter followers.

In the Field

  • Be careful. You can hurt yourself doing simple things. Trust your instincts and act cautiously.
  • Use software on your computer that doesn’t require cloud access to work. Save any important instructions or datasheets as PDFs and/or print them out.
  • Back up any and all data that you collect. That includes duplicates of SD cards, backups on computers and external hard drives, photos of forms or journals taken with a smartphone or camera, and other ways to ensure you don’t lose any critical data from the field.
  • Insects and water will always try to find a way into everything. Make sure that you account for these sorts of intrusions and protect against them as much as possible. Always check for things like spiders, bees, and wasps when returning to a previously deployed piece of tech.
  • Mammals love to chew on things, especially new cables. It might help to add sheathing, use armored cable, or coat the cables in a Vaseline/cayenne pepper mix or bear spray and the equivalent.
  • Keep your trailcams out of reach of cows! (credit to @DrKathyChandler)
  • It is never fun dropping things in the field. Things get ruined or lost, so keep that in mind when you’re working in certain circumstances.
  • It is absolutely critical to take notes while you are out there. A few things to keep in mind:
    • Using a GPS logger (handheld, DIY, smartwatch, or other method) can be helpful to document daily treks, deployment locations, and time/location to data collected.
    • Paper field notebooks, especially waterproof ones, can be absolutely critical for documenting your work.
    • Document everything in multiple redundant ways. Have a location for your site? Save a location on your GPS, write the coordinates on paper, AND take a picture of the paper on your phone. (credit to @david_t_savage)
    • Be diligent with your note-taking, writing everything you can think of down. You’ll forget it otherwise, whether a week or a decade from now. Take the time to slow down and write neatly, especially with numbers. (credit to @JLKavanaugh)
    • If you need a cheat sheet (e.g. for datalogger commands), print them up before heading to the field and tape them into the inside covers of your field notebooks. Include emergency contact numbers and other relevant information. (credit to @JLKavanaugh)
    • If you take two measurements to get the value you really want, write down both primary numbers and do the math on paper, rather than figuring out the answer in your head. Why? If you make a mistake with the math, you’ll never discover the error if you only write down the answer. (credit to @JLKavanaugh)
    • If possible, draw sketches whenever you have to take measurements – this makes the measured values more relatable. (credit to @JLKavanaugh)
    • The metadata in your field notebook are irreplaceable, so take photos on your phone (and/or other field cameras) every night of everyone’s pages from that day. (credit to @JLKavanaugh)
    • And once you return to the office, a notebook should never go back to the field—take a photocopy or PDF.
  • Be sure to anchor any cables out of the way, in a way that drip-loops and strain-relieves them, and does not damage local vegetation.
  • If your deployment needs to be camouflaged or hidden, be sure to take the time to do so. Deploying in areas where people or wildlife are not sympathetic to your work, they will destroy it. Sometimes covering things in camo tape or netting.
  • However, make sure that you have GPS coordinates and photos of the deployment for when the installation needs to be found in the future.
  • Deploy sensors in a configuration that will allow for the best scientific data (including depth, distance to other things, amount of sun/shade, etc.).
  • Do NOT be the only one who knows where you are, what you are deploying, when you are returning, or where you deployed what you deployed. It is important to communicate your plan to those you’re working with. Always use the buddy system.
  • Always use desiccant in enclosures, even with electronics that aren’t sensitive to moisture. It is a low-cost bit of insurance.
  • Parts trays or bags are a good idea but for field work. In some cases, magnetic screw catchers are a great idea to bring with you.
  • Heat shrink wire joints. Sealing things is important. Silicon sealant is messy and gross but can be a lifesaver in some field installs. Sealant (self-sealing rubber) tape is great for waterproofing joints and sealing up holes.
  • ALWAYS minimize the amount of building that needs to happen in the field.
  • Empower everyone to speak up if they see a hazard, and stop work until a measure is found to mitigate the hazard to everyone’s level of comfort. (credit to @JLKavanaugh)
  • If you’ve got to hike a ways from a car/truck to your site, bring extras of the stuff you need to service each sensor (batteries, SD cards, etc). Carrying a little extra weight is more than worth having to make a second trip if you have a dead battery or bad card. (credit to @david_t_savage)
  • Wrap bright flagging around your GPS units. They can, and will, fall out of your pocket/bag/shirt/etc.  (credit to @SarahECarter2)

Post Deployment

  • Bring a clean set of clothes/socks to wear after leaving the field and before traveling home.
  • Be prepared to spend some time cleaning dirt and rust off tools or other items you bring back from the field. Time spent cleaning as soon as you get back will be appreciated into the future.
  • Data sharing is an important part of solving these global issues and working ethically (in a non-parachute-science way) in the field.
  • Creating a tool or mechanism where the data can be visualized and analyzed is an important part that tends to be an afterthought with hardware-centric projects.

Do you have additional tips to add to the list? Share them with us @FieldKitOrg on Twitter and we’ll include them in our lessons learned!