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A Former Tech’s Guide to Living and Working in the Field

Why is living primitively and in remote areas appealing to anyone? Don’t worry, I’ll explain why it appealed to me, and give anyone else interested in field work tips/tricks that personally helped me as I navigated my first field seasons as a technician!


This photo was taken at an Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation field site post wildfire in Elko, Nevada summer of 2023. I was collecting soils and botany data with the Great Basin Institute as a field technician. This is where I worked and lived for 8 days.

In the context of ecology field work, by my definition it is any type of hands-on, first person surveying, data collection, and observations made in the natural world. My first field season in 2021 was not remote work. I was located in a busy city, Sacramento, California, with a habitat restoration group working as a native plant shade house assistant. My primary responsibilities were to collect and process native seeds for post mining restoration planting purposes. Maintaining the health of the already established native plants in the shade house, as well as to create and distribute a propagation and seed collection guide. Since then I have graduated with a degree in Environmental Science with an emphasis in ecological restoration and conservation biology. I have plans to continue this type of work for many years to come!


Not all field work has to be remote and primitive, but remote work is my personal favorite! Being fully immersed in nature can be super intimidating. I totally get it. But there are so many benefits that come with physically being out there! 


Field work in my opinion bridges the gap between the classroom and the natural world. There’s only so much one can learn from being in a lab on campus or from reading a textbook. Field work taught me how to connect basic ecological concepts to much larger ecosystem and landscape scale ideas. I participated in all types of biological surveys for different types of flora and fauna in California and Nevada. My personal favorite type of data to collect is a vegetation species inventory, which is basically getting 15 minutes to make a list of every plant you can confidently identify in a certain area. Fostering connections with physical places and seeing organisms thrive or not in real time deepened my understanding and passion for the final few years of college into my professional career. However, the connections you make with fellow techs, leads, and  professionals in the field are by far one of the biggest perks in my experience. The camaraderie formed among fellow fieldworkers, from the shared trials, tribulations and especially from the successes are connections that will last a lifetime. In my experience it brings groups and individuals together that may not have otherwise met, and oftentimes personal interests will align because of the nature of the work. 


Not to sugarcoat anything, fieldwork is grueling, both physically and mentally. It can be lonely and isolating. I always recommend downloading podcasts and music to your phone, for the evenings to help wind down. Also pack some books with you! Reading is something I never really enjoyed as a child because I always associated reading with some type of homework. I found myself without internet connection or cell phone service for most of my summers. Filling my free time with reading books that sparked my personal interest was honestly so refreshing and I was constantly learning on and off the clock. 


This photo was taken in Railroad Valley, Nevada of a Railroad Valley Thistle which is a sensitive plant to the area because it is the main food source for the Railroad Valley Skipper. I spent a summer surveying for sensitive plants on a playa/lithium mine.

Now when it comes to personal hygiene and what to pack for field work, it can be tricky figuring out what is worth having and what’s not. What you bring depends on where you are going, for how long, and potentially preparing for weather in the area. I do always keep a few essential items on me at all times when I’m out in the field regardless of what I am doing. In my handy dandy fanny pack I pack sunscreen (at least SPF 50) , chapstick , hair ties, allergy eye drops, tissue, wet wipes, empty ziplock for trash, hand lens, sagebrush pocket guide, a snack of some kind (usually cheez-its), my cell phone, and my water bottle strapped to me. I always recommend wearing pants, boots with sufficient ankle support, long sleeves, hats or hoods, and sun gloves into the field no matter what. Being fully prepared with proper gear helps ensure you can do your work safely and efficiently. 


Eating nutritious food and sleeping well is another important aspect of finding the balance of living and working in the field. After a 10 hour day of trail work or vegetation surveying you can’t just hop in the truck and drive to the nearest Taco Bell, because that would be a four hour round trip. Bringing meals you enjoy to cook as well as enjoy eating is a super easy way to help you take care of yourself and fuel your body in the field. Don’t forget to treat yourself when you're out in the field as well! I’ll bring gatorades, juices, dried fruit, candy and cookies as a reward for a three mile hike to plot in 90 degree weather. Also, there is no shame in going to bed at 7pm, embrace it! My philosophy is when the sun goes to bed, I should too because when it's up I will be too.  



Sharing my passion and knowledge with others, and learning from the world around me brings me so much joy. Once I start to speak about how lucky and privileged I feel every day I get to live and work in the field I often don't stop. I will be a lead this summer for the first time in my career and I begin training in April. I’m so excited to take this next step, and I feel like all my time as a tech has properly prepared me to accept this new role! 


 

About the Author


Elyssa Santana, a recent graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno, received a bachelor's degree in Environmental Science. Originally from Lodi, California, her focus during her college career was ecological restoration and conservation biology, with a particular personal interest in native plants of the Great Basin. Over the years she’s had the privilege of overseeing native plant shade houses for habitat restoration purposes, conducting remote sensitive plant surveys, collecting AIM soil and vegetation data with the Great Basin Institute, as well as working in the herbarium located in the Natural History Museum on UNR’s campus. She’s thrilled to be a part of the team at the Rosewood Nature Study Area as the host of the nature center! She loves chatting about everything and all things ecology and nature-related. If you’re ever in our area come say hi, and check out all the amazing exhibits and information on our awesome Great Basin Wetland Restoration Project! 

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chmeler oletas
chmeler oletas
Jun 17
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I have thoroughly loved reading your blog. Hope to run across you at some point in the future, perhaps at Rosewood lakes. gorilla tag


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Guest
Mar 18
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Field work is so important. I enjoyed my time as a field biology tech with DRI many years ago! Coffee in the morning was always appreciated.

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Guest
Mar 05
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

great information!

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Guest
Mar 05
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I enjoyed this article. I spent my career with the US Forest Service and field work was my favorite thing to do. Being outdoors every day for a job is a blessing. You have a great attitude and it will take you far. Best of luck to you in your adventures!

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Guest
Mar 05
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thoroughly enjoyed your blog. Hope to meet you one day , maybe at Rosewood lakes.

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