How to survive your field work – the field site

My first, and maybe most important advices (which are basically extendable to every situation) is: Make a really good plan beforehand and TALK to people! Get in touch with others that have been at the field station you are heading out to, or, have worked in the area or under similar conditions. Don´t be afraid to be a pain in the ass when contacting and asking them questions – your life might depend on the information they can give you, and most will be happy to help. Don´t be shy!

Conditions at your field site

Conditions at field sites vary a lot. Get well informed about your research camp (if there is one) to know what to expect. This sounds self-evident, but I have seen quite a few people that were taken by surprise when they realized how basic conditions at our field site really were and when they realized that they are not able to cope with it. Though you never really know how you will respond to a situation until you are really confronted with it, you can avoid quite a lot of trouble for you and the people working with you if you get to know the situation in the field and truly think about if you can handle it. In my experience, especially the difficult health situation (in our case, it took about 2-5 days to reach the next proper hospital), little privacy/ being around lots of culturally different people basically all of the time, and food (it was 3 times rice every day for us, you´d be surprised how much you can think and talk about food) is problematic for most.

What does your accommodation look like?

Chicks with comfy accomodation/ Melanie Seiler

Depending on where you do your research, you probably will stay in a tent or a very basic hut. I´d always go for a tent, the advantage is that you can close it at all the times and will not have mosquitoes or other animals in your bed. If you don´t close it properly, you´d be surprised what you´ll find in it in the evening – personal observations: spiders (lots lots lots) cicadas, all sorts of insects, frogs, and occasionally nesting chicken.

Water supply

In some places you might not have a proper shower, but will either bath in a river (if you are lucky) or will have (rationed) water in a barrel and have to use a mug to shower. Please mind the sensitive environment and only use biodegradable soap!

Ankarafas bathroom/ Melanie Seiler

You might need to filter your drinking water yourself. It is essential that you are informed about if you need to bring your own water filter (and exchange ceramic filters), as unfiltered water might make you seriously sick and you probably will not be able to buy a water filter during field work. Be informed about what kind of water filters are suitable for which environment/problem. This is essential for your health, don´t underestimate this!

What is the electricity situation?

Think about that electricity is not self-evident depending on where you are. Get to know if your field camp (if there is one) uses “usual” energy or solar panels, and ask what you need to provide. Be aware that electricity supply might be limited or even not available at all from time to time, so try to bring as many items that don´t need charging. Think about bringing solar chargers with you as a backup.

What about phone signal/ internet?

Get informed if you will have telephone signal somewhere in reach of your field site, and which provider serves the region. Often, there is no roaming between different providers, so be sure you buy the right SIM card (and top-up) before leaving to the field. Talk to someone who has worked at your field site to find out if you have telephone signal there, which provider, signal strength, etc.. It is quite unlikely that you will have an Internet connection except in larger cities.

What about food supply?

What you get to eat is quite dependent on where you are and how much you want to spend. At my field site in Madagascar, it was rice three times a day, plain and watery in the morning and with beans at lunch and dinner.

Depending on your field site and if food is cared for by others or not, you might have to bring food supplies yourself. If you are in a situation where everything is shared, you should keep that in mind and keep “precious” stuff for yourself and decide when to use it (and share it). Get informed if there is a fridge where you can store some food – if not, make sure that everything you buy is storable without cooling. Are there fruits that you can add to your diet available from the forest while you are there?

Important advice: Bring treats. I don´t have a particularly sweet tooth at all, but during the time in the field, hot chocolate and chocolate bars saved me (and everyone else that has been out with me) from going crazy. Don´t underestimate this.

The toilet situation

Field camp toilet/ Melanie Seiler

Toilets, if there are any at all, are often very basic (pit latrines). Using them is not the most pleasant thing, and the smell is slightly horrible, but you will get used to it. Be prepared for lots of animals around, in, outside, and everywhere in reach of that toilet (mostly cockroaches, mosquitoes’, spiders, geckos, but in our case also an occasional lemur, and even a fossa). Do not think about NOT using the toilet, it is really unhygienic and dangerous for the health of everybody if you use another place to do whatever you need to do, especially if a river is close. If you are at a really remote field site and do not have any sort of toilet at all, inform yourself beforehand how to exactly handle this situation – is digging holes enough?

Harry, our personal toilet spider/ Melanie Seiler

Waste management

If you buy things for the field, especially your food supplies or batteries, think about if there is a proper waste management in the country you will be in. Even if there is a good waste management in larger cities, there might be none at all at your field site, and waste might just be buried in the ground – this was the case at the field site I worked at. So, please, try to avoid waste wherever possible. Use rechargeable batteries. If this is not possible, take empty batteries back to your home country, if you have to use them at all, where they can be disposed properly. You don´t want to ruin the environment of the place you are working at. Avoid plastic packaging, and try to bring food/anything in reusable containers. A general advice that is not only true for field work, really, look at the amount of waste we produce!


Last but not least: Enjoy it! This will be the best time of your life!



Watch out for the next part of How to survive your field work with more useful tips!