Tropical Ecology: Equipment and Supplies

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Updated: March 7, 2001

Note: I have added a few things -- they are highlighted in red


You will be responsible for bringing your own equipment to function in the tropical rainforest. I will supply you with a very detailed list of these items (see below). Many items can be borrowed, found or purchased for relatively little money though a few are costly, e.g. hiking boots. The trick is to start early -- don't leave things to the last minute. If there is something that you think should be on the list, but isn't, let me know.

Packing. Occasionally airlines lose luggage. I strongly suggest that you carry your most essential items (medicines, flashlight, a few clothes) as carry-on and less critical items as checked baggage. Keep in mind that the airlines have recently gotten very strict about limiting the amount of stuff and the size of the bags you can carry-on. Don't try to bring a huge hiking knapsack as a carry-on; they won't allow it.

For your checked luggage, you can use a suitcase if you want (I do), you will not need to hike around carrying all your stuff as if you were backpacking through Europe.

Put your name on your luggage. Put it on an external tag and on a tag inside the bag in case the gorillas at the airport tear the handle off (this has happened to me, though not on the way to Costa Rica).

I may be adding to this list over the next couple of months. Please check back. If there is something not on the list that you think should be on the list, let me know.


You will need




You do NOT need: (things you might think you need but you don't)



It will get wet: Anything not in a waterproof plastic case or bag will likely get wet either directly or via the humidity. Paper in particular has a way of getting damp just sitting on a table. Envelopes stick themselves closed. Even money starts to feel soggy after a few days. It's kind of interesting...

Passport: you must have one!! Ideally, it will be your own passport, and even better, it should not have expired. Please check on this NOW!

Money: You don't need great wads of money. First, there is nothing to spend it on at La Selva, other than in the little gift shop where you can purchase T-shirts and miscellaneous small items. You will need money to purchase any food you want to eat after we leave La Selva on our way home. We will leave La Selva on Friday the 11th, likely in the early afternoon. We will spend Friday evening, Saturday, and Sunday in San Jose. Mot of you fly out very early Monday morning.

You do need $17 US or its equivalent in colones to pay the departure tax at the airport and roughly $15 to get to the airport via taxi.

You can purchase Costa Rican currency (colones) in Canada at a bank. Do this weeks ahead of time because not all banks carry this stuff all the time. I like to have a hundred dollars worth of "just in case" money. Don't buy huge amounts of colones because the colone devalues all the time. US money is almost universally accepted in Costa Rica. Canadian money is useless. You can bring traveller's cheques but they are not widely accepted. If you must, I suggest American Express if you get traveller's cheques. Major credit cards are more widely accepted. US cash is the best, but again you don't need a ton.

Hiking boots: You need something that will support your ankle and offer you some protection from thorns, rocks, etc. DON'T BUY NEW BOOTS just before the trip. Probably the best way to ensure you have a miserable time is to buy new boots -- you will get nasty blisters and be thoroughly unhappy. If you must buy new boots, wear them in for a month before the trip.

Clothing: You don't need a lot of stuff. La Selva has lots of washing machines and dryers so when your clothes get dirty, you can wash them. By the same token, bring more than one days' worth or you will spend all your time washing clothes. They provide laundry soap and you don't need coins to use the machines.

In general, you will wear long pants. This protects your legs. Some people wear T-shirts, others wear long-sleeved shirts. Probably the best shirts are army-surplus long-sleeved cotton shirts. The fact that a shirt or pants is already stained is a real bonus -- you will be less protective of them and more likely to slog into the mud to see something cool. You probably want to bring a pair of shorts to wear at times that you are not in the forest. I usually wear shorts (or change into them) when I first arrive in San Jose, because it can be HOT in San Jose.

The best place to get good tropical field work clothes is either Army Surplus or a second hand store. There are no points for fashion so grungy is really okay and even a point of pride for many field researchers.

You probably should have something a little less grungy for the plane trip and for walking around in San Jose.

If you really want to get into it, the ideal long pants have either narrow ankles, or in some cases, tie-strings at the ankles. This helps to keep things from crawling up your legs.

Flashlight: You need a very good flashlight. A little maglite running on 2 AA batteries isn't going to do you any good despite what the advertisements say. It is REALLY dark at night, probably darker than you've ever experienced because the forest blocks all moonlight (which is really cool by the way).

Get a flashlight with at least 2 D cells; 3 or 4 D cells would be better. Ideally get a light with a high-intensity bulb (Krypton or Halogen). This is your most important piece of safety equipment. Buy good batteries and bring two extra sets. You cannot buy good batteries in Costa Rica for some strange reason. If you do not have a good flashlight, you will have a horrible time on this trip.

Camera: Bring whatever you want and however much film you want. Don't make the mistake of buying a new camera just before the trip. Be sure you know how to use whatever you bring -- it is the photographer that makes a photograph, not the camera. Bring an extra battery of whatever kind your camera takes (these are unavailable at La Selva).

For photography in the forest, it is quite dark. ASA 400 film or at least ASA 200 is necessary. There is seldom enough light for ASA 100 film. I suggest buying rolls of 24 exposure film. This is because the humidity has a tendency to jam cameras (condensation forms on the film and it sticks together). Larger rolls of film seem more prone to this. I use only 24 exposure Ektachrome.

Notebook: You must bring a notebook. You want something small and waterproof and these are surprisingly expensive ($20+). The kind I use is orange and made by K&E Engineering for surveyors and field engineers. It is roughly 4 inches by 6 inches. There may be cheaper alternatives. You write in pencil in these books and then even if they get wet (which they will) your writing doesn't disappear!

Plastic Peanut Butter Jar: If you can, please bring one or even two of these (empty). The 500g size is ideal. The brand doesn't really matter (I prefer the chunky stuff but that is only important in so much as you have to eat the peanut butter to get the jar). These jars have wonderful properties. They are flexible, durable, more or less water-tight, and inexpensive. They are also almost perfectly neutrally bouyant which makes them fabulous as collecting jars for underwater work. They are also handy for catching bugs, lizards etc.

The peanut butter jar has symbolic value as well. Field researchers -- the successful ones -- have a long history of "making-do" with what they have or can easily get. For example, Eugenie Clark, the underwater explorer often known as the "shark lady" once needed a plankton net while out on a research trip in the middle of the ocean. A normal plankton net is a fine-meshed net, rather expensive, that captures tiny creatures in the water. She didn't have one and there was no way to get one quickly. She did however have a pair of panty-hose which she dragged behind the boat and got the data!

Resourcefulness is an important part of field work. Unsuccessful field researchers lament what they don't have; successful ones figure out how to work with what they have to get the data they need.


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