Safety in the Field – GPS Data Collection

Most people overlook simple safety considerations when doing field research and data collection. However, a few simple practices can make all the difference. Do not go into the field or send staff or researchers into the field without making sure they know some basic practices.

Anyone who has ever done field research knows that there are times when things go wrong in the field and there is potential for life-threatening or dangerous accidents to occur. A few simple safety considerations that you employ each time you go out into the field can help avoid some common mistakes and problems. Whether it’s you who will be going into the field or your staff or researchers, you should educate and make everyone aware of how to take precautions against the most common causes of problems.

Here are some best practice measures:

1.) Do field research in pairs

If at all possible, utilize a buddy system when doing research. This does not mean that you have to go side by side in the field; but, if possible, have two people work on the same field study site so that there is someone who can come to your aid if needed. Use walkie-talkies to communicate and stay within range of each other. Walkie-talkies are inexpensive and have good uses in the field. Walkie-talkies are especially critical in remote areas where cell phone coverage may be an issue. Stay in communication with your partner. Make sure to set up times to check in as well as when and where to meet at the end of the day.

2.) ALWAYS mark your vehicle or entry point in the field

Ironically, the first waypoint gathered is usually not the most important one. At the end of your field data collection, the most important thing is to get back to your car or starting point. You should make a habit of always marking your vehicle so that you can navigate back to it at the end of your day. This is one of the most common waypoints that is overlooked.

3.) Carry extra batteries

Inevitably, your GPS or walkie-talkie will run out of batteries when you are halfway through your data collection and the farthest from your car as possible. Bring more than one backup set and keep fresh batteries handy to swap out when needed. They may add weight to your backpack, but you’ll be happy to have them when your GPS starts flashing “low battery.” Keep in mind that batteries may not last as long in colder weather conditions.

4.) Don’t forget a COMPASS and a MAP of the area

Electronics can and do fail. Make sure that you carry a compass and know how to use it. The art of orienteering could save your life. Make sure you have a map of the area (a USGS quad map works well) and you know where you are and how to navigate using your compass and map.

5.) Carry emergency kits supplies

As with any outdoor adventure, you need to be prepared for the unexpected. You need a regular medical kit as well as camping safety supplies — waterproof matches, extra jacket/clothes, mirror for signaling. A well-stocked backpack is just as important for field research as it is for hiking.

6.) Water

Have water not only in your backpack kit but also your car. Dehydration happens easily and people often forget to carry extra waterinto the field.

7.) Cell phone

You should carry a cell phone with you in the field and either call or message a friend to let them know where you are before you start your field day. It’s never a bad idea if you are moving from site to site each day or over a period of days to phone in to someone each day before you loose cell coverage. Cell phone communication can be important should you become lost. Emergency crews can use cell phones to help narrow down possible search areas. Make sure your cell phone is charged fully before going to the field each day. If you are in an area with no signal, make sure that someone knows where you are every day by some method (see #1 above).

8.) Let someone know your schedule

Someone should know your schedule every day, including when you expect to go out and return. Set up a method ahead of time to either post your schedule and your approximate location or a method to check in on a daily basis. If you plan to be in the field for an extended period of time, figure out how to communicate that you are all right every few days.

9.) Use a GPS Receiver with a high sensitive chip

This is particularly important if you are working in areas with dense tree canopy, or in canyons or gorges. GPS receivers containing high-sensitivity chips such as the Sirf III) do not guarantee coordinate fixes, but they consistently out perform GPS receivers without a high-sensitivity chip.

10.) Do your homework before you enter the field

You need to be proficient with all of your equipment — including compass, GPS receiver and data logger — well before you enter the field.

11.) Don’t let your GPS be your guide

GPS technology is great; but first and foremost, you should know your study area by map, and as you go through it make sure to note landmarks on your map as well as in your head. Take notice of your surroundings and make sure to look up from that GPS screen to see what the 3D area is like. Keep in mind that GPS receivers have their limitations. Don’t depend on it to keep you out of trouble.