Updated: May 12
So, you've finally decided to start looking for fossils eh? Good for you, there's nothing quite like putting a fossil on your shelf that you found yourself. But, it is certainly no easy task! Finding fossils take time, knowledge and patience, but having the right tools for the job will make finding fossils ten times easier.
In this guide, I'll be showing you all of the tools you'll need for a successful day in the field, whether you're fossil hunting, performing geological research or are simply observing to satisfy your own curiosity.
Also, contrary to popular belief, there isn't a single brush on this list...
There's a lot of stuff on this list, so you need something to carry it in right? Not only that, but you'll need something rugged and durable with plenty of space and support. This one can definitely be worth the investment.
Also, take it from me, make sure it's waterproof!
Clothing for fossil hunting
Clothing for fossil hunting is one of the most important on this list. I know you weren't planning on doing this naked (or maybe you were, I try not to judge!), but having the right clothing on this type of excursion goes from a matter of dignity to one of comfort and safety.
Conditions can be pretty rough out there, so knowing what those specific conditions will be is vital. My recommendation here would be a good pair of hiking boots that have sufficient ankle support (you'll rarely see flat ground and a twisted ankle is the last thing you need) and are preferably water-proof.
Working our way up, I'd suggest a tough pair of cargo trousers (those pockets will come in handy) and if they have kneepads, it's an added bonus! Trust me, the amount of time you spend kneeling down takes its toll on your knees. Shorts are an option, however, I think it's better to keep your lower legs protected at the cost of hot legs.
When it comes to upper body clothing for fossil hunting, it really depends on the weather. Either way, you still need protection in mind. If it's overly hot, you'll need something cool that can still protect you from sunburn, if it cold and rainy, opt for waterproof coats! One handy piece of advice for when it is cold is to have many layers rather than fewer insulated ones. The reason for this is that, despite it being cold, there is some hard-core hiking involved, so you might start getting a bit hot. If you take off your coat or any other layers, having more than just a t-shirt underneath means you won't get too cold.
These are just a few great options to get you started!
Goggles and hard hats people! Believe it or not, rocks can be quite hard and heavy. The hard hat's important to have handy when you're walking beneath a volatile cliff for obvious reasons. It might not do much to stop your spine being the last thing to exit your digestive tract when a 20 tonne piece of cliff falls on you, but a piece of rock as small as a walnut can be incredibly dangerous when falling from a far enough height.
Goggles were something I learned were very important when I realised how lucky I was that the shards of rock flecking towards my face after the first hammer blow managed to miss my eyes. Trust me, I've heard some ugly stories, so wear goggles if you plan on hammering!
Accidents happen! A basic first aid kit will mean any minor trouble you run into can be dealt with properly.
All of the reasons for having a field excursion can be broadly categorised as data collecting. For data collecting, you need to take notes! A field notebook is the one piece of equipment that, if you forget everything else, is vital. You must never leave home without it. Without it, you're going to forget a lot of vital information. Even if you're just collecting for a hobby, making notes of what you find as well as where you found it can be really helpful for finding out what it is you've found. The best kind of notebook for this would be something hardback with graph paper inside.
'But Ryan, why do I need a watch? I just look at my phone for that!'
Trust me, wear a watch. You tend to find that over-reliance on your phone can land you in trouble, especially when your phone dies or signal is non-existent. Time really flies when your fossil collecting, so you really need to keep an eye on it, especially when you're on a beach and your time is tide dependant.
I would advise something tough with good water resistance, but it doesn't have to be expensive.
Another point on over-reliance on phones. A GPS is something vital for an area you haven't explored before, as well as coming handy when you want to mark a certain point to come back to later. In isolated areas where signal is limited, a GPS is a much more reliable piece of kit so you can see where you are. Of course, the biggest downside of a GPS is the price, so it is something you may need to save up for. Thankfully, it isn't quite as much of a necessity if you know the area you are exploring and you know your way around using a good ol' fashioned map. Speaking of which...
A map of the area you are exploring is a much cheaper way of navigating the field. Even if you have GPS, a map will still come in handy when exploring, since certain maps show features that GPS might not.
A great example (and the one I recommend the most) is a geological map that shows the rock beds that make up the area. Knowing the geology of the area is necessary to finding out whether you can find fossils or not and studying an already made geological map can shortcut you to that information without you having to find out the hard way!
Important for the aforementioned navigation, a compass is actually a piece of equipment used for much more in the hands of an Earth scientist. It is primarily used for establishing directions certain features of rock units, such as the direction of a fault (so you're aware of any displacements), direction of dip (so you know which direction to walk in to find younger/older rocks) and paleocurrent direction. The likelihood of finding a fossil will depend heavily on their geographical relation to such features, so a compass's worth pays dividends!
The best type of compass for this sort of work is known as a compass clinometer, which can also measure size and inclination as well as bearings. Thankfully, this type of compass is one that is available for most budgets.
To be honest, if you're only in the field for half an hour, you're really not going to achieve much without a tremendous amount of luck. In other words, it's best to set aside an entire day (or two) for such excursions. So, you need sustenance! A bottle of water or two is absolutely essential, especially since you'll likely be exerting yourself. Keeping your energy up is also important, so be sure to pack some lunch and snacks!
This list simply wouldn't be complete without this one. If a piece of equipment could be a mascot for geology and paleontology, a hammer would be it! Several types exist, all for different purposes. My recommendation for starting out would be a geological hammer with a pry, a geological pick and a mallet.
When it comes to actually using a hammer, you may end up using it less than you think. Remember, fossils are delicate, so you should really only be hammering the rock around the fossil without hammering too close to it. The picks should only be used for prying.
There are plenty of variations and sizes of hammers, the use of which will greatly depend on what you are doing. Mentioned above are the basic ones you'll most likely need, but you may find others useful if you feel the need!
Which ones are the best though? Well I've left links to ones that I think are.
Oh, and like I mentioned before...wear goggles!
Chisels will also come in handy for prying something more delicate that requires more accuracy. Having the right kind of chisel is a must though, as only rock chisels are strong enough to have any sort of effect. This is why a mallet (preferably a rubber one) would be useful to use in combination with the chisels.
Some find the use of a crowbar over-kill. To be honest, it probably isn't that high on the priority list, since chisels and geological picks can, more often than not, do the same job. Sometimes, however, you might need a little bit more leverage when prying something open and a crowbar offers a longer arm to the fulcrum.
Not all the rocks you find fossils in are necessarily that hard. They can be found in softer mudstones and silts, so hitting it with a hammer won't do much. A trowel is another one for slightly more delicate work in these softer rocks (remember, fossils are fragile!). A trowel is a much more useful bit of kit over a brush, since you'll be digging rather than blowing dust away (save that for when your indoors).
Sometimes it is necessary to keep a record of certain things that you can't fit in a backpack. Of course, this is what the notebook is ideally for, but I find it to be a good practice to snap a few pictures as well, since you might find something in those pictures that you missed before.
To be honest, a phone camera can suffice for this (you don't have to worry about taking the best amazon screensaver), but a proper camera can, along with taking high resolution pictures, be a lot tougher for outdoor use. Some pictures can require awkward angles, which can become worrisome whilst your phone is dangling awkwardly over a slight drop surrounded by hard, phone smashing rocks.
It's not ideal to drop an expensive Nikkon, but it at least has better grip and is more likely to survive some rough and tumble.
From pictures of the biggest canyons, to study of the tiniest features! A hand lens is really handy for checking minute features in the field, especially since they're so compact. Not only can a fossil be small enough to require a hand lens, but features within a fossil can be studied along with granular features of the surrounding rock.
You can pick these up really cheap too, with most being small enough to fit in your pocket and relatively tough.
Again, fossils are delicate! It may have survived millions of years of compaction and diagenesis, but being knocked around in the same bag you keep your hammers in can be a recipe for disaster. Tupperware can normally suffice, but you don't want your mother waving her arms in the air asking where the lunchboxes have gone, so it's best to get some fit for purpose, with hard enough plastic for protection and less pictures of power rangers.
There we have it! This list is intended as a beginner's list to start off with all of the basics. As you go along this journey you may find you need some other tools in your arsenal, but that will be down to personal preference and situations. Looking for fossils is a rewarding, but difficult task, so be sure you know what you're doing! You can find plenty of information in a previous post with advice on how to find fossils in the field.
Until next time!
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