Jamie Stott

Essential Backpack Gear for the Field Archaeologist

March 10, 2016, by Jamie Stott, category Ramblings


I wanted to do a post about essential backpack gear for the field archaeologist because lets face it, I’ve been doing this for awhile and know what works and what doesn’t. I’m sure other seasoned vets have their own methods but this is what works for me. Just like the last post where I talked about gear, I wanted to let y’all know that I haven’t received any financial or promotional goods from the companies or brands that I talk about below. Ok, lets dive right into it:

The Backpack

Obviously this is the most crucial item since it’s basically an appendage of your body when you’re out in the field. A good backpack is worth its weight in gold and I’ve identified a few key features that are an absolute must when choosing your new field backpack. I should preface this list by saying that I’ve never found all of these features in a single backpack. It’s usually a crapshoot so I try to find the pack that hits most of these criteria.

Jamie Stott

  • Size: You want a backpack with at least 20 liters of volume. Anything less just won’t fit all the junk you’re going to shove in it.
  • Hydration Component: A backpack that has a pocket and port for a hydration reservoir is crucial! Hydration reservoirs allow you to rehydrate on the go, simply grab the hose and bite down on the nozzle…voila! Water. Hydration reservoirs come in various sizes, I wouldn’t recommend getting anything smaller than a 2.0 liter (70 ounce). Personally, I always buy the 3.0 liter (100 ounce) reservoirs. Mostly because I work in the desert and it gets hot as f*#k and you can never have too much water.
    • Camelbak is obviously the main go-to brand for hydration packs, to browse their selection click HERE. Always be sure to search under ‘Daypacks’, it’s your best bet of finding what you’re after. I’ve personally owned the Rim Runner and a few of their now discontinued packs. I like Camelbak because it’s a one-stop shop…the backpack comes with they hydration component. One and done.
    • Osprey makes a really good hydration reservoir system. You can browse their product HERE. I currently own one of these and I like how the back of the reservoir contains a bit of structural rigidity that makes it easier to load in and out of my backpack.
    • Geigerrig has a really new and innovative hydration system, you can check them out HERE. Basically their reservoirs have a pressurized air pocket so you don’t have to suck on the nozzle to get the water out. You just bite down and water comes squirting out. Kinda groovy. I don’t own one of these but my husband does and he LOVES it.
  • Waist and Sternum Straps: Straps are your best friend when your job is hiking. The sternum strap ratchets the pack close so it doesn’t flop around, and the waist straps help shift the weight of the pack from your back to your hips. I will not buy a backpack that doesn’t have both of these straps.
  • Side Straps: These are not as essential as the ones above but are a definite bonus. Side straps are either straps or buckles on the side of your pack. Haha obvious right? They are awesome for buckling on a jacket or holding a quiver of pin-flags, or some other piece of random archaeology gear that you’ll inevitably end up carrying.
  • Side Water Bottle Pockets: Really enough said with the title. It’s helpful if you are going to be out for a long time and can carry extra Nalgene’s of water, or they come in really handy for storing stuff and work well with the side straps mentioned above.
  • Back Panel with Air Channels: If you’re wearing this backpack for more than a couple hours, chances are that you’re going to get sweaty…and your back is going to get even sweatier. Be sure to look at the back panel on your backpack to make sure it has appropriate air channels or a decent ventilation system. You’ll thank me when it’s all said and done.
  • Inside Compartments: You’ll want a pack with one main storage compartment where you can store your larger items, and I find it immensely helpful to find a pack that has a secondary storage compartment for things like your pencils, and compass and other tiny shit that will inevitably get lost in your bag. Also, not crucial but very nice is a media compartment. You know, the soft fuzzy compartment where you can store your phone or sunglasses?

Backpack storage

The First Aid Kit

To me, this is an essential piece of equipment that you should always have in your backpack. It’s better to have it and not need it than to be stuck in an emergency situation without the proper tools. I can tell you from personal experience that I have used my first aid kit enough times that I always double check to make sure it’s in my bag before I leave.  Depending on your level of OCD, you can buy a first aid kit in pretty much any size. I’d recommend going through an outdoor retailer like REI to find a good one for your pack, or go online and snag one through Amazon. Personally, I have found that a lot of the stuff they include in those pre-made kits is useless for the kinds of work we do in the field. Therefore, I went ahead and made my own first aid kit filled with items that can be used in a variety of ways. Check it out:

First Aid Kit

First Aid Kit

  • Carrying Case: Find whatever works for you and the space you have available in your pack. Personally, I use a Five Star hard cover pencil case. It was small enough that I’d actually carry it, and big enough to fit in the essentials. Whatever carrying case you choose, be sure it has zippers or some mechanism to fully close.
  • Antibacterial Cream | Sanitizing Wipes | Plastic Syringe: No matter the wound, you’re always going to want to cleanse it before starting any kind of treatment. Typically a sanitizing wipe will do the trick, although if it’s a deep cut, having something like a plastic syringe where you can delicately irrigate the wound with clean water is super helpful. Antibacterial cream is also handy to throw on the wound after you’ve cleaned it up.
  • Standard Band-Aids: If you are lucky enough to have a wound that fits nicely under a Band-Aid then good on ya! I carry these exactly for that purpose.
  • Gauze: Most of the time you are going to have a wound that cannot be contained by a teeny tiny Band-Aid, which is why having the supplies to make your own Band-Aid is essential. Gauze comes in a variety of sizes, I usually buy a roll and have a couple packets of the big square swatches on hand. That way you can cut the size of gauze to fit the wound.
  • Athletic Tape: This is probably the most useful thing in my entire first aid kit. Athletic tape can be used to secure the gauze on your homemade bandage from above, it can cover up a hot-spot that could potentially turn into a blister, you can wrap it around your ankles for extra support when hiking…it’s pretty much awesome.
  • Trauma Shears: These are for amputating limbs. Haha, just kidding. These are good for cutting through clothing to expose a wound, or to simply cut the gauze for your homemade bandage.
  • Medicines: I usually carry Benadryl/Claritin tablets in case of an allergic reaction and to control my sneezies when walking through sagebrush, a couple tums or some sort of antacid, and a few packets of pain reliever like Advil or Aspirin.
  • Triangle Bandage: These are great for using if someone needs an impromptu sling, to use as a pressure bandage, or whatever other fun use you can think of.
  • Super Glue: The best for closing up minor cuts in areas where a Band-Aid might not stick, and good for repairing broken field gear.
  •  Safety Pins: For puncturing blisters if needed, or for holding together a sling or creating a sling from a t-shirt.
  • Duct Tape: Honestly, this is the best, you might not need it for medical emergencies if you’ve got athletic tape, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used my little wad of duct tape when out in the field.

The Necessary Gadgets

The following are a list of necessary gadgets and items that any archaeologist worth his/her salt should carry on their person at any given time.

  • Pens/Pencils/Sharpie: Honestly, these are the most basic items you should have in your pack. You’ll need one (ideally all) at some point throughout the day and it’s best to be prepared instead of being a pain in the ass and harassing your co-workers to share with you.
  • Clipboard: These come in a variety and its really up to you. There are basic clear ones that have a ruler along one side, which is handy for measuring artifacts…but my absolute favorite are the metal kind with a storage compartment. These are durable, sturdy, and can hold all your paperwork without it blowing around all over the place.

metal clipboard

  • Silva Ranger CompassThe best! You can adjust your declination with this bad boy, find north, determine the slope, and find your aspect. Plus it comes with a mirror that could be used for signaling or to check out how rugged your field face is looking.
  • Measuring Tape/Folding Ruler: Always always ALWAYS have something with you that you can measure with. Be sure to buy a device that measures in metric as well as standard. My favorite ruler is a plastic folding one that you can buy at Forestry Suppliers – click HERE to check it out.
  • Binoculars: Ok so these aren’t necessarily a must have item, but they can definitely come in handy when you’re trying to see if thats a rock art panel waay up there on the cliff face or just a big hunk of bird crap.
  • Knife: I’m talking pocket knife, nothing huge and obscene like the knife Crocodile Dundee carries. Knives are so handy and I use mine almost every time I go out. They sell decent priced ones at outdoor retailers like REI or you can even nab one from your local Walmart.
  • Tissues or a Ziplock bag of toilet paper: We all have go, so having these handy will help you in your affairs. I’ve seen folks have to cut up and use their t-shirts before and you don’t want to be that guy. Remember to always be respectful of your environment and never litter your leftovers.
  • Sanitizer: Trust me, you’ll thank me for having you cram this in your pack. Whether its bathroom breaks, rusty fences, dead animals, or anything else nasty, a good cleansing is always a good idea.

As you go out and about you’ll have random items that you add or remove from your pack. I always stash a lighter or matches somewhere in my bag as well as an empty Ziplock baggie that I can use to protect my phone or camera in a downpour, or use with clean water to irrigate a wound, or any other of cool things that I always end up needing it for. If you have an essential piece of field gear you go out with that I didn’t include on my list let me know! I’d love to add your tricks to my bag 🙂

Jamie Stott

Cheers and happy exploring.



  1. Eyreka |

    Love this! I’ve been trying to decide on my next backpack and had ruled out the hydration packs, but maybe that’s not such a great idea.

    I also carry an extra pair of socks and undies (because I am the least good in-the-wild pee-er ever) and a level and nylon string. All things you can get at a cheapie department store.

    • Jamie Stott |

      Girl – hydration packs are the bomb.com you’ll love it! Nice thinking on the level and string (do you do a lot of excavation work?).


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