Packing for an Expedition

By Mary Alice Hartsock

While scientists like Ted Daeschler travel across the world to find specimens to add to the Academy’s collections, many (including Daeschler) also make scientific discoveries right here at home. In addition to seeking Devonian fossil fish in Arctic Canada and Antarctica, Daeschler (pictured below in Canada) has uncovered Devonian fossils in the red rocks alongside highway road cuts in north-central Pennsylvania.

Our environmental scientists study streams and rivers in the close-by Delaware River Watershed, and Academy entomologist Jon Gelhaus has collected crane flies in Mongolia and in his New Jersey backyard. What do these scientists have in common? They know exactly what gear and tools will make their research successful and keep them comfortable during their fieldwork.

Like Academy scientists, you can make scientific discoveries just about anywhere, including in your own backyard or local park. What breakthroughs await you? Write down your research questions and begin packing your naturalist’s backpack with the right equipment for your expedition.

Make a list! Here are the four most important types of items you’ll need to pack in your naturalist’s backpack.

Explore your backyard! Our Backyard Adventures exhibit opens June 9. SCIENTIFIC TOOLS: Explorers need maps to guide their travels, so print one or use a smartphone map app. If you have a compass, add that to your bag and make sure you know how to use it. If you’re seeking rocks or wildlife, bring along a guidebook from your house or local library. Will you need a shovel for digging? A net to catch insects? Binoculars to spot high-flying birds? A magnifying glass to study algae? A camera to photograph wildlife? Finally, don’t forget a notebook to record what you find!

PROTECTION FROM THE ELEMENTS: Check your local weather forecast. If it is sunny, you will need eye and skin protection from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. On warm days, wear loose, breathable clothing. On a warm, wet day, consider a raincoat or poncho, a hat, and rain boots. In cold weather, base layers, insulated gloves, and a hat should be added to your winter jacket. If you plan to walk up any hills or over rocks, you will need comfortable, sturdy shoes.

SAFETY GEAR: In addition to sun gear, think about whether you will need protection from biting insects or other hazards. Will it be dark where you are going? If yes, then you need a flashlight. Good scientists are always prepared with emergency supplies such as first-aid kits in case they get any cuts or scrapes. Hand sanitizer is a wise addition to any safety kit.

FOOD AND WATER: How long do you plan to be gone? You will need water to drink and nonperishable food for meals and snacks. Granola bars, dried fruit, and nuts can provide protein and nutrients for energy.

Scientists in streamSome scientists spend days, weeks, or even months planning their expeditions and deciding what supplies to take with them. It’s important to be prepared, but you must only take what you need and are able to carry! Even if you don’t find what you’re looking for, a clear plan, a research question, and a willingness to accept nature’s unpredictability will make your expedition successful.

If you find a cool specimen, try to identify it. Take photographs and record where you found your specimen, as well as the date, time, weather, temperature, and other important data. Use your notebook to sketch your findings. Be sure to return your specimen to the exact location where you found it after you complete your investigation. When you return home, share your discovery on a website such as, where citizen scientists record and discuss their everyday findings to help create useful data for scientists! Backyard Adventures Exhibit opens June 9

In our upcoming exhibit Backyard Adventures, you’ll find out about some of the incredible science happening right under your nose—in your own backyard or local park! Visit for more information on this adventure-filled exhibit, opening June 9, 2017.

This article originally appeared in the spring/summer 2017 issue of Academy Frontiers.

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