Kinkella’s Backpack Checklist of What to Bring on an Archaeological Dig

Several of my students have asked about what to bring with them on an archaeological project, so I thought I’d put together my Official SuperSmart Backpack Checklist Of What To Bring On An Archaeological Dig To Be More Comfortable Than Most. This will tend to be specific to a jungle environment (as Belize and the Maya world is what I know best), but the requirements of most archaeological projects will be very similar. I’m assuming you’ve already had your required inoculations and have your needed medicines (hepatitis A, hep B, Typhoid, malaria pills, etc).

1. The Basics:
Passport – Do not order this last minute! Order you passport at least six weeks before you leave and alleviate last-minute anxiety.
Airline Ticket – Just don’t screw this up (get to the airport on time, etc).
Money (cash) – Don’t bother with traveler’s cheques – nobody likes them.
Credit card – ATM cards are not as good, because if they are stolen, the thief has access to your real money.
Driver’s License
Other needed documents (e.g. dive certification, insurance card, etc)
Smart phone
Camera – basic, small, and durable
ipod and ear buds (can be part of your phone)
Computer – an older one with sturdy carrying case (optional – not needed unless you are a grad student or above)
Memory stick
Treats – granola bars, lifesavers, whatever you like. You will be shocked how much joy can be contained in a little taste of home when you’ve been eating rice, beans, and tortillas for weeks. Don’t skimp on this – fill empty crevices of your backpack with junk food (My old school favorite was Jolly Ranchers).
Xerox of passport, maps – keep one copy of your passport with you, and one at home.
Chargers and cords for electronics, and surge protector
Paperback book to read
A handful of pictures from home
A magazine or two (usually bought at the airport)
2 backpacks – one large (check) and one small (carry-on) to carry everything in.

2. Clothes:
3 pairs pants
2 shorts
5 shirts (1 semi-nice, the rest light colored t-shirts)
6 pairs socks
6 pairs underwear
3 bandanas
Sturdy hiking boots
Tennis shoes (optional)
Sweatshirt – great for the plane even if you go to a hot place. Also makes a decent pillow in tough spots.
Swimming suit

3. Jungle Survival:
2 flashlights (AA batteries) – see my earlier entry on this.
Clipboard – cheap and junky. Don’t buy one with a built-in box – it just adds clutter and
Notebook (may use write-in-the-rain brand if you will be out in the rain a lot).
2 cans of bugspray – one strong, one weak. See my entry on this.
Permethrin – spray that you put on your clothes before you go to keep bugs off. It works, and can deal with several washings before it goes away (not for skin).
Sunscreen – spray-on is best. You won’t bother to put on the cream ones.
Canteen – holds at least a liter or more. Nalgene bottles are common here. I prefer the wide-mouth ones because you can mix Gator-aid in them much easier, but the narrow- mouth ones are much easier to drink from while driving in the back of a truck on a dirt road.
2 extra water bottles – additional water holders. Keep ones that you buy in the airport on the way down. Buy the expensive sturdy ones with the sport tops if possible and re-use them throughout your entire trip.
Machete (usually bought once at your destination)
Swiss army knife
GPS (optional, but nice to have)
Compass with adjustable declination
Paperwork including many blank pieces of paper
Pencils, pens, a small ruler, drawing stuff
Gloves – not too heavy (gardening)
An embarrassing amount of AA batteries

4. Toiletries and First Aid:
Epi-pen (if you have one)
Bar soap
Shaving stuff
Tooth brush and tooth paste
Hair brush
Towel (old, crappy and thin – it will dry much quicker than a new thick one)
Pills – Malaria meds, vitamins, Pepto Bismol, Advil, Cipro
Powdered Gator-aid – a nice way to make lukewarm water tasty.
Sting-ease – you will get stung
Aloe vera – you will get burned
Spare plastic bags – a garbage bag or two, some gallon ziplock bags, some sandwich bags, some old grocery store plastic bags – super handy and takes up no space.

5. Miscellaneous Tips:
Collect and horde small change.
You can always buy a spare t-shirt or two while away.
Use 1 large and 1 small backpack to pack everything into – be able to carry everything you brought for a leisurely 20 minute walk by putting the large backpack on your back and the small backpack on “backwards” on your front. Don’t overpack.
Don’t use your phone to call people – turn off all roaming and call functions and only use it when you have wifi (FaceTime or Skype can provide the equivalent of an unlimited call for free!).
Make sure you get more than enough time stamped into your passport. If you know you will be in country for two weeks, ask for three when you enter the country. It is a huge pain to have your passport re-stamped for more time if you let it lapse.
Put pressurized bottles (bugspray, sunscreen, shaving cream, etc) in tight plastic bags in your luggage for the flights – I have had bad luck with these things leaking while in flight.
Don’t pack your trowel with your carry-on – they will take it away as a “weapon.”
Guard your passport!
Send an old-fashioned letter home. The recipient will love it. It usually does take forever (weeks) to get to its destination.

There you have it. This basic list has served me well for two decades of field research. Enjoy your trip – it can be life changing. Reply to this post if you think of anything else that I have forgotten, or other ideas that you found work well for you!


PS – You will get sick. While you are sick, know that you will get better (although it won’t feel like it).



About kinkellasarchaeology

I am a full-time professor of archaeology at Moorpark College in Southern California, with specialties in the ancient Maya, local Chumash cultures, and underwater archaeology. I began this blog in order to answer common questions my students have about the world of archaeology, while also having some fun relating stories from my current and past experiences as an archaeologist in the Mayan jungle.
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14 Responses to Kinkella’s Backpack Checklist of What to Bring on an Archaeological Dig

  1. We hope you saw an uptick in traffic to your blog today. We featured this post on our Facebook and G+ pages. Thanks from the Ancient History Encyclopedia for this great information.

  2. Renee says:

    Caution! no joke about getting sunburned,YOU WILL even if say your skin can handle it (me in my arrogance). I found that out the hard way. That’s what happens when you don’t listen to the best advice you can get Kinkella.

  3. Hey, Kinkella! This popped up when I was searching for where to buy dig stuff. Major nostalgia for your class ensued. But anyway, do you have any advice on where to buy some of the stuff listed under clothes, especially for digs in colder areas? I’m none too keen on buying a pair of pants and having them rip when I kneel down to look at something.

    • Hey Jen – sorry about the massively long time it took me to respond. I would buy stuff at a second hand store (Goodwill, etc). Then when they rip, who cares! And if you’re working in a cold area, buy two! If you want super nice gear, you could check out REI or Sport Chalet, but in my experience expensive stuff rips with about the same frequency as cheap stuff. Also, for cold areas you need to play the layering game – you will need additional sweatshirts and a heavy jacket that I don’t list for jungle use.

  4. Everet says:

    So, I can admit that I’m a bit behind on this blog. However, this is a great checklist for an archaeology bag. The only possible addition I would consider to this would be an antihistamine, just in case allergies kick up. Other than that, I would say modify this as needed to suit your environment or preferences, and always carry more water than you think you need. Even if you don’t drink it, some one else will need it.

  5. Amanda C. says:

    Hello Kinkella! I’ve been rereading this blog post for a while now. I am about to start college in the fall and my major is (you guessed it) archaeology! It’s my one true passion 🙂 My year in field school in 2017 will be in Petra and I was wondering what I should pack for the arid climate, since you wrote the list for the jungle. Also, what advice can you give about feminine hygiene while off on excavation?

    • Dear Amanda,
      Thanks for following! I’m sure Petra will be amazing. Luckily, you have lots of time before you leave, and I’m sure the professors who run the excavation will have a list (like mine) of what to bring for the specific location. My guess is that it won’t be too much different, because both locations are hot. For feminine hygiene stuff, I would buy everything while still at home and pack it with you to Petra, because finding feminine hygiene products can sometimes be difficult (although it might also be easy – be sure to ask your professors specific questions like this before you go). Also, the Jordanian brands of things might not be what you are used to, so sometimes it’s just nicer to bring your own (this same idea applies to medications, candies and treats, deodorants, toothpaste, etc). If you are there for many months, bringing the initial stuff from home allows you time to figure out the best products to buy while in Jordan, or you can always get a friend or relative to send you a care package. I hope this helps, and welcome to archaeology!

  6. Abby says:

    I’m brand new to the archaeology field and am going on my first excavation/field school this coming summer in Ireland. Do you have any advice for I will need in a wet climate? I’m 100% the novice. Thank you!

    • Welcome to archaeology!
      My list will basically work for you, but you will likely need warmer clothes. Pack an extra pair of long pants, and for jackets think in layers (sweater plus sweatshirt plus raincoat instead of one super huge jacket). The excavation you are going on will also probably give you a master list of what to bring, so be sure to use that first and my list as supplemental. Have a great time!

    • Samantha Milner says:

      Hey dude! I did my field school at Caherconnell, make sure you have rain pants & a rain jacket. You don’t need bug spray, seriously. Bring warm socks, and make sure you have a beanie.

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