5 C’s of Desert Field work
Utah has 3 ecosystems: the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau and the Mojave. These are all different kinds of deserts, with varying plant life in each. When you’re doing field work in a harsh climate it is vitally important to take care of yourself and your gear.
Cover all of your limbs, especially if you are very fair. Be sure to wear long sleeves, long pants, a wide brimmed hat, sunscreen on exposed skin and a bandana; your shoes also are included. If you are doing field work that is off the beaten path in rough terrain, do not wear lightweight trail runners. You will get cheatgrass in them and will cut your feet. I recommend wearing hiking boots that have a higher ankle and have leather uppers. Socks are vital to keep your feet happy and wool has great moisture-wicking properties. This will prevent the formation of blisters and heat rashes.
Be mindful of the kind of fabric you are using for your gear. You will want to wear cotton or linen to protect your skin and keep yourself cool. Additionally, in the desert the nights are very, very cold and the mornings are cool. Bring layers for day and night use. There’s a trend in the outdoor industry to be “ultralight”. You’re probably car camping, so weight isn’t as much of an issue. Bring what you think you will need. You will pare down your field work belongings as the weeks go on.
The desert is a harsh environment, especially if you aren’t used to it. Your hair, skin, eyes, hands and lips will feel it the most because they are continually exposed to the dry air. I recommend finding a hydrating lotion and/or lip balm. If you have long hair, to prevent matting and painful tangles, try oiling your hair with jojoba, coconut oil or conditioner and braiding your hair in a protective style. If you are white, this means french braids or a regular 3-strand braid; you don’t have the right hair texture to do box braids and it will damage your hair and scalp.
Your physical, emotional and mental health are important to the success of field season. Physical health can include stretching in the morning and evening to avoid injury, inspecting your feet for blisters, splinters or other issues. This includes grooming: if water for bathing isn’t available, use baby wipes. Bring food & drinks that you want to eat. This isn’t the time to try a new diet. Your body needs nutrients and you need to eat. Food needs to be shelf stable to avoid food-borne pathogens. Please drink electrolytes to avoid electrolyte depletion. I recommend powdered gatorade. Lastly, let your crew members and/or crew lead know immediately if you are injured or aren’t feeling well.
Emotional health can include many things, but we’re going to focus on setting boundaries. You will be working closely with your co-workers for 8-16 weeks. It is likely that you will have disagreements about something, whether it is collection methodology, where to camp, where to gas up, what to listen to in the car, etc. If you feel safe to do so, speak up and communicate your needs. Your employer wants you to complete a difficult task in a challenging environment. If you feel unsafe, don’t hesitate to bring it up with your crew lead or their supervisor. It is more expensive to hire and train a new crew member than to hear your concerns. It does depend on your employer, so keep that in mind.
One could argue that mental health is the most important factor to keeping your morale up during field season. My go-to for a quick pick-me up on a hard day are a couple pieces of candy. To build rapport with your crew, bring treats to share (barring food allergies or dietary restrictions). If you need to recharge after a long day, bring activities that you enjoy. I bring books (physical or electronic/audiobooks), a journal/notebook, travel-sized art supplies and my current knitting project.
Something will go wrong during field season, it is just a matter of when. It will likely be multiple flat tires two hours away from the nearest tire shop, a crew member’s allergic reaction, or crew member injury. I’ve found the best way to prepare for these situations is to have a personal first aid kit that holds your medications (OTC and prescribed), eye drops, bandaids, tweezers & needles (for removing splinters), alcohol wipes and neosporin. If you have asthma or severe allergies, inform your team members where your emergency medication is in your pack. Know where the nearest hospital, grocery store (water source), gas station and repair shop are. Some days are going to be really crappy and you will want to quit. Use this toolkit to limit that so you get that paycheck at the end of the season.