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How To Choose A Field Camp

When I began my position as Field Camp Director in 2020, Dave Rodgers suggested I write a new "How to Choose a Field Camp" section. However, its hard to improve upon what was already a great essay to inform students about how to choose a field camp. So, I have made a few minor updates. The majority was written by David Rodgers, Former Geology Field Camp Director (1991-2000), Idaho State University


You may be wondering how to choose a field camp, if you need a field camp, and why you might choose the camp hosted by Idaho State University. Because all camps are not alike, you should decide what you want in a field camp and then search other programs around to see which one is best for you.

Location is a critical factor in distinguishing field camps, because location determines the type of rocks, fossils, structures, and geomorphology you will learn. For instance, camps taught in western Wyoming work in a Paleozoic to Mesozoic sedimentary sequence divided into numerous thin formations, which are typically folded and cut by thrust faults. Other camps, like ours, have a less diverse sedimentary sequence but more varieties of structures and igneous and metamorphic rocks, as well as excellent examples of glacial geomorphology.

Location is also important because many folks may just want to work in beautiful mountains or hang out in resort towns. Our field station is located in a particularly scenic part of central Idaho, and in my opinion has some of the most breath taking field areas I've seen out of the four field camps I have been involved in the past. I derive a significant amount of joy in seeing the reaction from students who may be from the midwest and east coast when they realize just HOW BIG our mountains are. And, for your few days off, we are equidistant from the resort town of Ketchum (Sun Valley) and the quaint cowboy town of Mackay.

The instructors influence camp because they emphasize the geology they know. While nearly all instructors are excellent field geologists, most of them specialize in one or two disciplines of geology. More instructors usually means more geologic diversity, fewer instructors usually means greater emphasis in a couple of disciplines.

At ISU, the Field Camp Director (a structural geologist) remains in the field with the class for the entire 5 weeks, and a new instructor joins us each week to teach students about their topic of expertise. Students get the opportunity to work with ~six-seven different instructors that specialize in the field aspects of sedimentology, volcanology, petrology, geochronology, structure, geotechnology (GIS) and Quaternary geology. As a result, student leave our course with a rich and diverse learning experience. Other camps have different emphases, like stratigraphy and paleontology, or shallow geophysical techniques. Or, they may not have the resources or time to allow more faculty participation. Such that most of the exercises are the focus area of what the field camp director is an expert in. As much as I love structural geology, I think there is a very important value in gaining a breadth of experiences in different areas of the geosciences like our field camp offers.

The pedagogy strongly influences how and how much you learn at camp. The camp should be well-organized with a clear set of objectives. Each project should be challenging but not overwhelming. Successive projects should build upon previous ones. Each project should be taught by instructors who are familiar with the geology, can anticipate questions, and know how to motivate students. Pedagogy varies from camp to camp.

Most employ a mixture of independent learning, the Socratic Method, and show-and-tell, but the balance between them will vary. Students may be required to work independently, in pairs, or in small groups. Partners may or may not be assigned. Assignments may only include field results, or they may include field results plus extensive write-ups. Some camps emphasize high-quality drafting, others do not. Some camps, like ours, offer computers for map and cross section presentations. A few camps require final reports that synthesize the disparate projects.

Different field skills are taught at different camps. Geologic map-making is taught by nearly all schools, but emphasized more by some than others. Detailed rock descriptions and report writing are similarly emphasized to different degrees. Several camps prepare students for specific occupations by teaching hydrologic, engineering, mining, or geophysical techniques.

Fieldwork incorporating GPS and GIS technology has become the standard in the past decade. Idaho State maintains a traditional approach that strongly emphasizes field mapping and rock description, with GPS and GIS techniques incorporated into the daily routine. Geotechnology is important! However, one of the reasons that we maintain our traditional approach is that technology changes rapidly, apps become eventually become unsupported, and batteries die. If you are able to make a good field map on pencil and paper, and have well developed skills for recording observations in a field notebook, you will easily adapt to new apps and emerging technology in the industry or academic sector you ultimately land a career in.

The choice of camp often depends upon time and money. Camps begin almost every week from mid-May to early July (ours begins late May). Pay attention to the expected weather – snow, rain, and heat will affect you as never before. Most camps are 4-6 weeks long (ours is 5 weeks). Keep in mind that some 6 week camps have two days off per week, whereas some 5 week camps (such as ISU's) have one day off, so the total time spent in the field is the same.

In terms of cost, if you look at field camps across the U.S. (www.geologyfieldcamps.com) the average in-state cost for a field camp is $3,794 (±$1,290), and $5,259 (±$2,144) for out-of-state students. ISU waives out of state costs, so our field camp price is the same for students from ISU as it is for a student from out of state. When you look at the cost of a field camp, it is also unclear what those costs might cover for the student. At our field camp the total cost (~$5,362) pays tuition for 6 credit hours ($2,412), while the rest pays for all the food for 5 weeks, a cook who prepares the meals for you, office supplies, use of field vehicles, and the amenities of our facility (computers, WiFi, electricity, tents, etc.). Other field camps may have a lower advertised cost, but that price will typically not include food or a cook that prepares meals for you. You will most likely be expected to pay for your own food, find time to shop each week, and find time each morning and evening to cook your own meals. Field camps at the higher price end may be a field camp in a foreign country, which most likely does not include your airfare, or a facility with luxury accommodations. All that being said, these factors may be a matter of preference and a consideration of what you can afford. Either way, you will likely have a positive learning experience.

The academic intensity at field camp ranges from mild to pretty strong. One measure is the proportion of time spent doing geology: how many days a week, how many hours a day? At ISU we are in the field six days a week, mapping on five of these days and either looking at regional geology on the sixth, or completing a large report. Completed assignments are due every second or third day, so students do office work 1-4 hours each evening. This appears to be a bit more intense than most camps. Another measure is the quality of students that attend camps: motivated and skilled students make field camp a great learning experience. Students that tend to attend our camp either have some field experience coming in, or are motivated to gain the type of field experience we offer so they seek us out.


Another issue is the physical demands of the field camp. Some camps focus on roadside geology while other camps require extensive hiking. There are differences amongst the hiking camps, too, since the terrain is more rugged in some places than others. This has a significant impact on students who have little hiking experience, especially off trail through steep mountains characteristic of the western US. ISU's camp is more rugged than other camps, but you often see that outcrops off the beaten path have much to offer. 

Our field areas range from 6,000' to 10,000' in elevation with most between 7,000' and 9,000', and we walk an average of 3 miles each day. Many mountains have angle of repose slopes. For those of you in good physical condition this should be no problem; we will gradually acclimatize to the elevation and develop the hiking muscles. But if you have a history of knee problems, especially, or recurring foot or ankle pains, you should select a camp with less rugged terrain. Following the in-person challenges of COVID, there are now many online field camps being offered. This is a good alternative if you feel that working in rugged terrain is not for you. However, having spoken with students that have completed an online camp, your experience will be very different from that of an in-person course like ours. Also note that many of the online field camps are only 4 credits, most students require 6 credits for graduation. 

The student body is probably not a distinguishing factor because nearly all geologists are friendly folks and socialize easily. However, extreme differences in motivation, geologic training, physical abilities, or cultural backgrounds can frustrate students and teachers alike. Though my opinion is that a diversity of backgrounds enriches the field camp experience for students. At ISU, we select students from the applicant pool who have demonstrated ability and motivation for field geology. We enroll about ~28-30 students, with up to one-third from ISU and about two-thirds from colleges and universities across the country. Speaking from experience of teaching at field camps that only offer the course to students of that university, and field camps that are open to outside universities, I feel the latter is much better. Every year I see students make lasting friendships with people they otherwise would have never met, and as said before having a diversity students from a variety or regions and universities enriches the overall learning experience for students that attend our field camp. In the past, our ratio of men to women has been about 3:2, though since I have been in charge of our field camp starting in 2020, that ratio has been closer to 1:1. Our ratio of traditional students to re-entry students is about the same (3:2). Overall, ethnic and cultural diversity could be better at our field camp and field camps as a whole, though the geosciences have made strides in the last few years to make better efforts to expand the diversity of our field. For a long time, the stereotype of a geologist has been a white, bearded male. At ISU's field camp, we want to emphasize no matter your background YOU SHOULD FEEL WELCOME IN THE GEOSCIENCES, YOU SHOULD FEEL WELCOME AT FIELD CAMP, and WE WANT TO SEE YOU OUT HERE.


Room and board arrangements range from "tent camps" where students cook their own meals to bunkhouse/lodge camps with hired cooks. The former may be inexpensive and permit culinary creativity, but take time from learning Geology.

Other amenities to consider are study halls, showers, laundry facilities, and recreational fields. ISU's camp is hosted at a 10 acre property on the Big Lost River. The facility has individual showers, laundry facilities, a dining hall/study room, a commercial kitchen, and computers with internet access. We even have a hot tub. A really fine cook prepares legendary meals for you. From personal experience, it is very nice to come back from a long day in the field and not have to worry about cooking your own meal. The Big Lost River flows past the camp and the view of the Lost River Range and Borah Peak is awesome!!! We have a variety of sleeping accommodations. Students can sleep in canvas wall tents that we provide, or our two brand new student bunkhouses that can accommodate 8-10 students each, or their own tents or trailers. Tent sites each have an electrical receptacle so you are able to have power at your tents. The bunk houses have a small electric heater, lights, and electrical outlets. And, RV sites are available for you to live your best van life.


Several sources provide more information about Geology field camps. Advertising brochures may be posted in the hallway of your Geology department and, since all camps have web pages, you can search on the internet.
One good link is http://geology.com/articles/geology-field-camp/, which lists all USA camps and also provides a few essays on what to expect at field camp. The NAGT also maintains a list of field camps that is maintained and up to date at https://nagt.org/nagt/students/field_camps/index.html.  Best of all, talk to other geologists who have just returned from field camp. Their collective experience is your best guide to choosing the camp that's right for you.

Check out these essays written by alum of the Idaho State University Field Camp. It may give you some sense of what your experience would be like.

Ode to Field Camp '97 by Michael Stout

Essay to Field Camp: Mind, Body, and Spirit by Jade Bowers, 2015

Jump-Starting My Geology Career by Alex Brettmann, Field Camp alum 2019, TA 2021