How to Choose a Geology Field Camp

By David Rodgers, Former Geology Field Camp Director, Idaho State University

Idaho Scenery

You may be wondering how to choose a field camp, and why you might choose the camp hosted by Idaho State University. Because all camps are not alike, you should decide what you want in a field camp and then shop around to see which one is best for you.


Location is a critical factor in distinguishing field camps, because location determines the type of rocks, fossils, structures, and geomorphology you will learn. For Lecture in the Fieldinstance, camps taught in western Wyoming work in a Paleozoic to Mesozoic sedimentary sequence divided into numerous thin formations, which are typically folded and cut by thrust faults. Other camps, like ours, have a less diverse sedimentary sequence but more varieties of structures and igneous and metamorphic rocks.

Location is also important because many folks, to be honest, just want to work in beautiful mountains or hang out in resort towns. Our camp is particularly scenic, and, for your few days off, equidistant from exclusive Sun Valley and the cowboy town of Mackay.

The instructors influence camp because they emphasize the geology they know. While nearly all instructors are excellent field geologists, most of them specialize in one or two disciplines of geology. More instructors usually means more geologic diversity, fewer instructors usually means greater emphasis in a couple of disciplines.

ISU has six different instructors teaching a broad range of topics, especially the field aspects of sedimentology, petrology, structure, and Quaternary geology. Other camps have different emphases, like stratigraphy and paleontology, or shallow geophysical techniques.

The pedagogy strongly influences how and how much you learn at camp. The camp should be well-organized with a clear set of objectives. Each project should be challenging but not overwhelming. Successive projects should build upon previous ones. Each project should be taught by instructors who are familiar with the geology, can anticipate questions, and know how to motivate students. Pedagogy varies from camp to camp.

Most employ a mixture of independent learning, the Socratic Method, and show-and-tell, but the balance between them will vary. Students may be required to work independently, in pairs, or in small groups. Partners may or may not be assigned. Assignments may only include field results, or they may include field results plus extensive write-ups. Some camps emphasize high-quality drafting, others do not. Some camps, like ours, offer computers for map and cross section presentations. A few camps require final reports that synthesize the disparate projects.

Field TeachingDifferent field skills are taught at different camps. Geologic map-making is taught by nearly all schools, but emphasized more by some than others. Detailed rock descriptions and report writing are similarly emphasized to different degrees. Several camps prepare students for specific occupations by teaching hydrologic, engineering, mining, or geophysical techniques.

Fieldwork incorporating GPS and GIS technology has become common in the past decade. Idaho State maintains a traditional approach that strongly emphasizes field mapping and rock description, with GPS and GIS techniques incorporated into the daily routine.

The choice of camp often depends upon time and money. Camps begin almost every week from mid-May to early July (ours begins late May). Pay attention to the expected weather – snow, rain, and heat will affect you as never before. Most camps are 4-6 weeks long (ours is 5). Keep in mind that some 6 week camps have two days off per week, whereas some 5 week camps (such as ISU's) have one day off, so the total time spent in the field is the same.

Cost is important but difficult to judge sometimes. $775 per credit for everything (tuition, room and board, and field expenses) appears to be average for 2015. A few camps are cheaper because they are subsidized, while several are more expensive because of high non-resident tuition costs. Some camps are inexpensive because they don't provide food or shelter, or both. As always, compare cost versus benefit.


The academic intensity at field camp ranges from mild to pretty strong. One measure is the proportion of time spent doing geology: how many days a week, how many hours a day? At ISU we are in the field six days a week, mapping on five of these days and looking at regional geology on the sixth. Completed assignments are due every second or third day, so students do office work 1-4 hours each evening. This appears to be a bit more intense than most camps. Another measure is the quality of students that attend camps: motivated and skilled students make field camp a great learning experience.


Another issue is the physical demands of the field camp. Some camps focus on roadside geology while other camps require extensive hiking. There are differences amongst the hiking camps, too, since the terrain is more rugged in some places than others. This has a significant impact on students who have little hiking experience, especially through steep mountains characteristic of the western US. ISU's camp is more rugged than other camps. Our field areas range from 6,000' to 10,000' in elevation with most between 7,000' and 9,000'. Many mountains have angle of repose slopes. For those of you in good physical condition this should be no problem; we will gradually acclimatize to the elevation and develop the hiking muscles. But if you have a history of knee problems, especially, or recurring foot or ankle pains, you should select a camp with less rugged terrain.

Student in the Field

The student body is probably not a distinguishing factor because nearly all geologists are friendly folks and socialize easily. However, extreme differences in motivation, geologic training, or physical abilities will frustrate students and teachers alike and inhibit the learning experience. At ISU, we select students from the applicant pool who have demonstrated ability and motivation for field geology. We enroll about 28 students, one-third from ISU and about two-thirds from colleges and universities across the country. Our ratio of men to women is about 3:2 and our ratio of traditional students to re-entry students is about the same.

Room and board arrangements range from "tent camps" where students cook their own meals to bunkhouse/lodge camps with hired cooks. The former may be inexpensive and permit culinary creativity, but take time from learning Geology.

Other amenities to consider are study halls, showers, laundry facilities, and recreational fields. ISU's camp has showers, laundry facilities, a dining hall/study room and computers with internet access. A really fine cook prepares legendary meals. The Big Lost River flows past the camp and the view of the Lost River Range and Borah Peak is awesome!!! Students sleep in teepees or tents, which we provide, or in their own tents or trailers.

Several sources provide more information about Geology field camps. Advertising brochures may be posted in the hallway of your Geology department and, since all camps have web pages, you can search on the internet. One good link is, which lists all USA camps and also provides a few essays on what to expect at field camp. Best of all, talk to other geologists who have just returned from field camp. Their collective experience is your best guide to choosing the camp that's right for you.