Taking Field Notes

Hello blog, I’m Karl Lang a geologist and Assistant Professor at Queens College, part of the City University of New York in, you guessed it, New York City.

This semester I’m teaching an upper-level course in Field Geology. The course reviews a variety of common field methods and culminates with mapping and stratigraphic exercises at several locations in the Hudson River valley.

In one of our early semester classes, we spent an entire period practicing how to take field notes. Accurate, detailed and intentional field notes are fundamental to making geologic observations, and like all things: practice makes perfect.

Taking field notes can be a very personal endeavor, and there isn’t always a “best” way to do this (although there are certainly best practices to follow). To supplement my own biases and opinions about note-taking, I asked the geotwitterverse what they thought.

Tweet from Karl A. Lang

The tweet got some traction.

Twitter Activity

Here is a summary of what everyone thought… in no particular order. The link to the full tweet is here: https://twitter.com/iamskeptikarl/status/1097744032883716098

Tweet from Marissa Tremblay

@TremblayMarissa has some good tips about using small symbols in place of words, this can be helpful when describing the weather (i.e. draw a sun instead of saying “fair sunny weather”), and is also useful for plotting measurements (e.g. plot strike/dip symbols immediately to check that they make sense with your on-the-ground observations).

Tweet from Robert Mahon

Also important, @RobertCMahon notes that recording your mood can be a great aide memoire, so can your interactions with property owners, other folks joining you in the field, or anything that might elicit a strong emotion (e.g. getting stuck in the rain, losing your favorite hammer, etc.). Though seemingly trivial, these will help “put you back on the outcrop” years later when you actually need to remember some minor detail.

Tweet from Kathy Benison

@KathyBenison reminded us to keep writing down questions along with our observations. Sometimes the best questions come to you while you are talking back to your truck. I like to start the day by summarizing field objectives/research questions over coffee.

Another important reminder: keep a summary of important interpretations! I think you should do this once you have had time to consider things when the day is over, perhaps with a colder beverage.


Sketching: everyone does it, but no-one wants to talk about it. Sketching is super-duper important in geology! Even if you are not artistically inclined, sketching helps to “get your eye in” to an outcrop, helping to focus your observations. Always include a scale (can be a relative one) and I tell students to focus on 1-2/page, leaving plenty of space for annotations and details to be added later.

Tweet from Ryan Ickert

@RyanIckert had a helpful idea about using whiteboards in the field. I find that whiteboard can be particularly useful in keeping track of photos and samples, just write an ID/date/day/orientation/coordinates on the board and throw it in the photo.

Tweet from Joanmarie

There was some discussion on the role of tech in note taking. I was surprised at the amount of scientists who are now fully digital. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but there are clearly significant strides in terms of apps/hardware that make note taking more efficient… but back everything up!

Tweet from Jill A. Marshall

Preach @HappyGeoJill. Preach.

tweet from Daniel Hobley

When taking notes, it’s OK to “break the rules” because I don’t know how important the rules really are to begin with. Maybe the only rule should be: WRITE IT DOWN. We are often tempted to think “oh, I’ll come back and take the notes later” or “I’ll make that observation back in the lab” but this rarely, if ever happens. It’s always best to WRITE IT DOWN at the outcrop.

Which brings be to my final point:

Write Everything Down! Do It

Do it. Now get out there.

PS – I’ve attached my slides from this class in case others have questions. These slides include some very helpful notes I received from Kyle House: professional mapper, USGS scientist and note-ninja. He graciously provided copies of his own notebooks as well as some personal tips. These are a gold mine for students learning field geology. I have layered some of my own ideas/tips amongst them but he deserves the credit for many of the ideas, I’ll take the blame for any mistakes.