What’s it like to go to geology field camp?

At many universities, students are required to attend a summer field camp in order to receive their geology degrees.  For some, this is an exciting adventure, but for others, it’s like a dreaded boot camp.  The difference is usually due to the age and physical shape of the student, commitments at home or work and overall interest.  Field camps are usually five to seven weeks long, and students are required to gather data on several geologic settings by foot and then return to camp to prepare maps and reports on their findings.

Geology Field Camp

Geology Field Camp

I attended field camp in 1996 through the University of Arkansas, since the university I was attending did not offer it. My primary reason for choosing this field camp was due to cost and the location.  The university was offering a five-week program in Montana for approximately $1,500 including most meals, lodging and travel from the university.  I’m not sure about costs these days, but this was a steal at the time.  In addition, most of the accommodations were in dormitories or a lodge with very little camping.  In fact, most of the camping was only while we were traveling to Montana and during times when we were sightseeing over a few weekends.  This was a plus, since I was 33-years-old at the time and in so-so shape, and the thought of sleeping on the ground for the entire duration like at other field camps was less than thrilling.

Mintern, Colorado

Mintern, Colorado

Field camp started and ended at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville from May 14 to June 26. There were approximately 30 students, two teaching assistants and two professors on the trip, and we all traveled in university vans to Dillon, Montana.  On the way to Montana, we stayed overnight at three locations.  The first night was spent in Goodland, Kansas which was a simple campground. The next day we headed to Denver, the Rockies and Red Rocks Amphitheater, and all were magnificent. The second night was at a camp on the Eagle River near Mintern, Colorado which was in the mountains with no running water or bathrooms.  There were patches of snow, but it was comfortable near the fire at night.  The third night was spent in Pinedale, Wyoming and was so cold and windy, it was miserable.  It was near a glacial lake in the foothills of the Wind River Mountains, but I slept in the van to get out of the weather.  The last day of travel was through Jackson, Wyoming, and Idaho Falls, Idaho to our final destination in Dillon, Montana, where we checked into the dormitory at Western Montana College.  During our stay we also spent a couple of weeks at a lodge in Birch Creek.

Birch Creek, MT

Birch Creek, MT

We spent four days in the field and one day on preparing the geologic maps, structural cross sections, photogeological maps, rock descriptions, correlations charts and a discussion every week.  We worked in groups of two and recorded all data in a field notebook.  Data collected included sketches of outcrops and rocks, structure information (strikes, dips, faults, folds, etc.) and other general observations to remember the sites.  The types of geologic settings we mapped included volcanic rocks, folded and faulted sedimentary terrain, basalt flows, plutonic rocks, batholiths, and metamorphic and glacial terrains.  The professors and teaching assistants were present during the field mapping at all locations.  Nights were spent on projects and resting for the next day.  Weekends were free most of the time, and we had opportunities to visit local restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, bars and bowling alleys.

The best experiences, though, were the weekend field trips.  The first one was to Yellowstone National Park and Teton National Park in Wyoming to examine the structural, volcanic and hydrothermal features.  The second field trip was a regional geology tour of the Northern Rocky Mountains including Glacial National Park, Montana to review the Precambrian Belt Supergroup and alpine glacial features, Craters of the Moon lava flows and Sun River Canyon.  In addition, we camped at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming to see the columnar uplift at the only overnight stay during our travel back to the university.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

Overall, this was a fun, fascinating, once-in-a-lifetime trip that offered valuable field experience and intensive geologic training, especially to us Floridians who don’t have the opportunity to see these types of rocks or geologic settings.  I would highly recommend the University of Arkansas to any student seeking a rewarding geologic field camp experience.  A bit of advice though: make sure you have comfortable boots and rain gear, otherwise you’ll be in for some painful feet and drenched clothes!

Update: The University of Arkansas is still offering a similar field camp at a cost of $4,000 – see:

University of Arkansas Geosciences

13 Comments

  1. Noah Sanchez

    Great post!

    What are your thoughts on ‘specialized’ field camps vs. the standard ones (such as you described)? I’m interested in gearing toward Hydrogeology & Environmental Geology in graduate school (and eventual industry), and wonder if the field camps for Western Michigan University or Clemson–both of which specialize in hydrogeology for the entirety of the field camp–would be of a greater benefit for someone who is certain of the field they want to go into.

    With your experience in both the field and management, do you feel not getting the typical ‘field camp’ experience such as yours would have been a detriment (vs having gone to a hydro camp instead)? To my mind, while I might be missing out on weeks of geologic mapping (there seems to be a small amount in the hydro camps), I’d be gaining much more with experience in drilling, monitoring, assessment, etc. giving me a bit of a leg up.

    Thoughts?

    Thanks for your help and keep the informative posts coming! As an undergrad geology student they’re very much appreciated. 🙂

    –Noah

    Reply
    1. Sandie Will (Post author)

      Hi Noah and thank you for commenting! Glad you are enjoying this blog. I would go with the hydro field camp instead of a traditional mapping type if you are planning on hydrogeology or environmental. It will give you a much better understanding of these fields and be more valuable when looking for a job. I definitely felt I had to catch up after starting my career since I didn’t have any classes in hydro and it wasn’t covered in field camp. A strong groundwater background will be a plus. Hope this helps!

      Reply
    2. Steph Shepherd

      Auburn University Geo Prof here and an Arkansas GeoHog. I went to UA’s field camp as a student in 1998 and TA in 1999 and 2009. Just a comment to Noah. It depends of the graduate school requirements. If you are applying to grad programs, make sure they accept Hydro camp instead of a traditional field camp program.

      Reply
  2. fossilosophy

    Sounds about right, from what I’ve heard from my full-geology friends! I’m a paleontologist and just minored in geo, so I didn’t need to do the whole field camp shebang. At our university they were divided up into three two-week sections, each on a different topic, so I went out on the paleo section and had a blast. I’d done field work before, though, so the learning curve wasn’t too steep. Plus for some reason I love measuring section.

    Perhaps I should write something similar specific to paleo field camp!

    Reply
  3. Sandie Will (Post author)

    Hi Fossilosophy – didn’t realize they had paleo field camps! That’s great to hear and glad you could join in on one. Have you been to Yoho National Park to see the Burgess Shale? Highly recommend if you can hike it. Thanks for commenting!

    Reply
  4. peace zowa

    I am a freshman doing geology am so excited i hope am goin to have fun thanks for your post

    Reply
    1. Sandie Will (Post author)

      You’re very welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Good luck with field camp and your studies. Sandie

      Reply
  5. Lynn Recker (@LynnFDR)

    Costs have gone up. It’s been 39 years since I attended the Indiana University Geologic Field Camp just south of Cardwell, Montana, on the north edge of the Tobacco Root Mtns. Then I think the 7 week course was only $800 for an Indiana resident. I just checked the cost now and it’s $5544.

    I thoroughly enjoyed my time at field camp. The professors were the best and so was the geology. And I met some very good people in the other students and TAs. I wore out one pair of boots and got started on wearing out a second, especially when walking on the Lodgepole Limestone. But I was up a second rock hammer when I sat down on a rock and my hammer came out of its holster and clinked against one possibly lost a year or so before. I managed to avoid the sidewinders, but nearly got run down by a pair of pronghorns in a dry wash one day. The absolute worst part about it was the drive home to Indiana with some poeple through southern Montana in an open car in 100+ degree temperatures in late-July.

    Reply
    1. Sandie Will (Post author)

      Hi Lynn! Thanks for sharing your field camp adventures! And that’s exactly what they are – adventures – aren’t they? lol At least I was lucky enough to travel in an air conditioned van! One time, while walking through some hills, I was on high alert through sagebrush for rattlers and something smacked against my leg. I jumped a mile high, only to find out it was just a branch. :-p Again, thanks for sharing – Sandie

      Reply
  6. marksimpson592

    I remember doing this same field camp about 20 years later, I doubt much had changed. The author left out mapping garnet seams by the garnets brought up by gophers digging their holes. And lots of beer, after the work was done of course.

    Reply
    1. Sandie Will (Post author)

      Hi Mark – I don’t remember gophers, but I do remember the beer and wine! There was a bottle of wine left in the fireplace of the lodge for prosperity – wonder if it’s still there!

      Reply
  7. MOHSEN

    GREAT POST

    Reply
  8. Dan Smith

    I attended this camp in 1996 with the author. That’s me next to the Razorback nose – Woo Pig Go Hogs!! This was the best summer of my college career. Its a geologist’s rite of passage to attend field camp – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The lessons learned field camp have helped me throughout my career now nearly 20 years. I have worked both for private and government agencies in various specialties including engineering geology, hydrogeology, environmental geology, GIS, geologic mapping and publication. I have been a supervisor and a manager and received my P.G. in 2004. I think the biggest takeaway is that in each career path I took I was able to use what I had learned at field camp and apply it to my career. It also allowed me to live and work closely with a group of people I had never met. This is a good career skill to have I use it everyday. I highly recommend it.

    Reply

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