How to Keep a Geological Field Notebook Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Keep a Geological Field Notebook

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A geologist's field notebook is analogous to the hitch-hiker's towel - it is indispensable. Professional geologists use them to keep track of projects, hobby geologists use them to keep track of interesting geologic features, and student geologists often have to hand them in for a grade. A well-kept field notebook can function not only as a recording device in the field, but as a scale for photographs, an umbrella, a signal, and most importantly, as a guidebook for the next time one is schlepping through the same area.

Care and Feeding of the Field Notebook

The notebook itself should be small and easy to carry, and preferably a bright colour, making it hard to lose. It should be bound so the pages will not fall out, and have a hard cover, so that one can write in it easily. Also, because geologists work in all sorts of weather and locations, the notebook should be waterproof, with synthetic or coated paper on which pencil marks will remain legible when wet. These can be bought relatively inexpensively through forestry supply dealers, large sporting goods shops and other shops that deal with contractors and other professionals whose office is often outdoors. Even some bookshops will carry field notebooks, especially if they are near a university with a geology department.

These notebooks are extremely durable: one of this Researcher's friends lost her notebook during a particularly bad day in the field, but it was still mostly legible a year later when she returned to the field area. The only portions that were unreadable were those written in ink. As ink will run if the paper gets wet, it is best to use pencil when writing in a field notebook.

Even though field notebooks will survive if lost in the field, it is not a pleasant experience to lose one. Everything a geologist knows about a field area is in the notebook, and it is often too much to reconstruct from memory. The easiest way to avoid this predicament is to know where the field notebook is at all times. Carrying cases for field notebooks can be bought, but it is just as easy to carry them around in a backpack or back pocket.

Writing in Your Field Notebook

Since the field notebook will serve as a guidebook in the future, all writing in it must be clear and concise. Ideally, information should be clear and detailed enough for someone else who is new to the field area to be able to understand the geology of the area by reading the notebook.

On the first page in your notebook should be a table of contents, along with the page number, the field area and the date it was visited. This is helpful, because field notebooks are often used for a number of different projects in different field areas. It is easier on the memory to fill this in day by day rather than all at once when the notebook is full, but it can be done at any time.

A title should be at the top of each page, indicating the location, the date, any partners you might have been working with, the project title (if applicable) and the weather conditions that day. If pages are not already numbered in the notebook, number them in the outside bottom corner as you write down information.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, good sketches are vital to a coherent field notebook, and there should be as many as possible. They should be labelled with the location, the direction facing, the geologic feature in the sketch, the scale and any other relevant information.

Road logs are also helpful, since field locations might be far from conventional roads. These should include detailed turn-by-turn directions from your starting point to the field area, complete with mileage, travel times, route numbers and street names if applicable. This Researcher also adds other important information in her road log, such as the location of hospitals, gas stations, restaurants and speed traps. Being prepared makes the drive out to the field area much more pleasant.

Other information that could be in your field notebooks are rock or sediment descriptions, samples taken, orientation of strata, age of the rock units, GPS (Global Positioning System) coordinates, and any other information pertinent to the project. For example, a geologist doing a sediment study in a lake would add water depth, while a structural geologist studying folds1 would add plunge and bearing of the fold axis.

If you use abbreviations in your writing, you should put a key at the back of your field notebook. The rapidly-scribbled rock description, 'qz rich ls w/ sec calc and brach' does not make a lot of sense to someone reading your notebook for the first time, but a glossary can help the reader translate it to 'Quartz rich limestone with secondary calcite and brachiopod fossils.'


The ideas described above for keeping a geological field notebook can be used as guidelines for recording other information as well. Field notebooks are used in construction, ecology, forestry, field biology, and hobbies, such as landscape design or birdwatching.

Keeping a good field notebook takes practice, but pays dividends. With a little work, you can write your own personal geologic guidebook that will change and grow with each visit to the field area.

1A bend due to force in a stratum of rock.

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