I’m closing in on two years as a science writer at Cool Green Science.
In that time, I’ve hauled myself and my gear across oceans, along rivers, over mountains and through deserts. I’ve contracted salmonella from a snake, broken a bone, and suffered weird infections, rashes, and insect bites. And I’ve been taunted by birds-of-paradise, nipped by a camel, and slapped by a sea turtle. (And that’s not counting meeting travel, which has its own set of perils.)
Through all of these amazing adventures I’ve picked up a few tips for fellow science reporters haphazardly dumped “in the field” to report on what science is really like “on the ground.”
I’ve been taunted by birds-of-paradise, nipped by a camel, and slapped by a sea turtle.
Rule 1: The length of time you will go without soiling your clothes is directly proportional to how many clothes you have.
Overpacked and brought a different shirt for each day of the trip? You’ll remain spotless despite in-air turbulence. Trying to wear the same 2 field shirts for a 3-week trip? You will dump your entire coffee in your lap approximately 2.3 seconds after the too-far-to-turn-around point on your drive to the airport.
And that’s before you arrive in the great outdoors. Vegetation everywhere will rip your pants to shreds. The tropics adds a permanent musty smell to everything, while the desert adds dust stains that resist every existing cleaning product. Pack your oldest clothes and embrace filth.
Speaking of filth: It’s not me, it’s you. After 2 days in the bush you’ll become immune to your own odor du jour. Please note: you still reek. For the sake of your fellow passengers, please wash yourself and your clothes in the sink before spending 20+ hours in confined spaces with a captive audience. Also, quick-dry underwear.
Rule 2: If an object is small enough to roll through the crack in the hut floor, it will.
Find the nerdiest, pocket-laden vest possible and embrace it. Or cargo shorts, if you’re rebel enough to ignore the fashion advice of the Wall Street Journal, the modern yuppie’s Vogue. And maybe get a floppy hat, too, and one of those straps to hold your sunglasses on. I’ve met one — one — person who can manage to look cool in the field. You are not that person. Get over it.
Rule 3: Never pack more than you can carry.
Rule 4: The rule above will immediately become irrelevant.
I hate packing more than I can carry comfortably. (And I don’t just mean carry from the taxi to the curbside check-in). But that went out the window when I started working as a combo reporter-photographer-videographer.
No matter how few clothes I bring or how lightweight my camping gear is, I’m saddled (literally) with a heap of electronic equipment that is expensive, delicate, and sensitive to dust, temperature, and humidity. So basically all of nature. And a bird guide and binoculars. (Because birds.)
And depending upon the location of your expedition, your team will need to haul in crates of bottled water, endless bags of rice and tinned fish, tents, tarps, countless batteries, toilet paper, and various Pelican cases of scientific equipment that will confound every airport security employee from here to Timbuktu.
Rule 5: Under absolutely no circumstances do you require more than 3 pairs of underwear.
Or socks. And even that’s luxurious. Bring a warm layer — even to the tropics — for airplanes, cool or damp nights, and the shock of AC upon your exit from the field. Use a multi-purpose castile soap for cleaning yourself, your dishes, and your laundry. Pray for porters.
Rule 6: The ants will always crawl up your pants. Keep working.
That’s right, you’re here to work! Don’t forget to do that. Plan your key questions and shot lists ahead of time, and print two copies. Force yourself to write for 20 minutes at the end of each day. Audio recorders come in handy when you’re trying simultaneously take photo and videos, get quotes, understand what the heck the scientist is doing, and remove the ants crawling up your pants. (What’s the time sheet code for tortured by insects?)
Rule 7: Everything gets wet. Everything
Part of your work is keeping yourself and your equipment functional. Duct tape, always. You will never regret having extra batteries or pens. Hoard desiccant packets and shove them everywhere. Heavy-duty lawn trash bags make great emergency rain covers. Neon painters tape, shiny bits of metal, or red plastic streamers affixed to small items will make them moderately less invisible when dropped repeatedly on the forest floor. Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks are the greatest piece of field reporting gear ever. Ever. And if you go anywhere (even the desert) without a drysack you deserve what happens.
Rule 8: The jetlag monster will come for you eventually.
Use a time zone tool to figure out just how grueling jetlag will be on your arrival, and then start adjusting 2 or 3 days early. When you board the plane, set your watch to local time and stick to it. You may feel absurd trying to sleep at 10:00am but think of it as a gift from the Nap God.
Dose up with melatonin, avoid the booze (even if it’s free), and never, ever travel without an eye mask or earplugs. In addition to aiding sleep in the air, they will help you ignore friendly passengers, wailing children, and village roosters crowing at 2:00 am.
Drink water. You goal is to remain so hydrated that the flight attendant becomes concerned you have a UTI. And most importantly: just accept that you’re going to be exhausted.
Rule 9: BYOC, as in Bring Your Own Caffeine.
I don’t care where I’m going or how light I have to pack, I travel with my own supply of Earl Grey. Same goes for any other condiment you require to make your food interesting — think hot sauce, curry powder, soy sauce, and/or garlic-lemon-pepper grinders. Steripens and extra batteries to sterilize your water are always a good idea. Plan accordingly if you have allergies or dietary restrictions. (Read: bars.) And when you’re back out of the field, go easy on the sugar, booze, and grease for the first few days. Your colon will thank you.
Rule 10: The amount of medication you’ll bring will vary with your destination and your level of paranoia.
Visit your local travel clinic before you leave — they’ll supply you with handy pamphlets on all of the horrifying diseases you can pick up and then inject you with a heap of expensive-but-necessary vaccines. (Needle-phobics fear not, most of the really nasty diseases don’t even have vaccines!) Note that many vaccines require two or three doses spaced out over a month, so don’t dawdle.
And please note: Just because you’ve had the rabies vaccine does not mean you can pet all the doggies. Also, I’d take David Quammen’s advice and avoid murky, bat-filled caves.
My travel stash: a double supply of any prescription medications you can’t live without. Next, healthy portions of ibuprofin and tylenol to help keep your body moving. Vitamins, laxatives, and antidiarrheals will help combat the unique digestive and nutritional challenges of a diet of mostly white rice or gas-station burritos. Decongestants and allergy medications for the myriad cold viruses lurking in airports, and insect repellant and anti-itch cream for the insects. Antiseptic, moleskin, tape and bandaids for the mysterious scratches, rashes, and seeping blisters.
Set an alarm on your watch to remember to take your meds. You DO NOT want to realize that you forgot your antimalarials when you’re wading through a swamp. Wear contacts? Switch to dailies. Avoiding eye infections is both critical and nearly impossible if you’re not wearing single-use lenses.
* Please note that I am not a doctor. Unlike doctors I don’t know it all, so talk to one before you go.
Rule 11: It takes a village, sometimes literally.
Good science and good field reporting don’t happen in a vacuum. When you win the Nobel Prize for Science Journalism Awesomeness, here is a brief list of the people you need to remember to thank in your acceptance speech:
- The scientists who — despite the absence of morning coffee and presence of biting insects — let you pester them with inane questions on camera.
- The logistics coordinators who found you that flight to the unnamed airstrip in the middle of nowhere.
- The in-country staff who schmoozed the right people and navigated local politics.
- The traditional owners who guided you around their country and let you poke about with high-tech doodads that may (or may not) work.
- The patient bosses / editors / coworkers who let you scamper off into the bush for 2 weeks.
- And the partner, children, roommate, pet, or plant that tolerated your absence.
Rule 12: Be happy.
You have an incredible job. Work hard, run around, shout about it, and don’t forget to tell people why you do it in the first place: because the world is incredible, and we need good science to keep it that way.