When fossil collecting, you will need the correct equipment. Often, each location will differ and, depending on the weather and time of the year, you will also need to consider the correct clothing.
If you are on an organised field trip, such as our UKAFH fossil hunts, or collecting in a quarry, there are important health and safety requirements by law. These are that you must wear a hard-hat, high visibility jacket and strong boots with good ankle supports.
This guide explains the recommended equipment you should take, both for your own safety and also the tools you might need.
Tools and Equipment
There are many geological tools available and taking the right tools is important. Our UKF locations explain the best tools suited for each location, but here is a list of the most common.
We often get calls at UKGE, asking what hammer we recommend. We generally explain that it is often down to personal preference and will explain the various differences between them. Hammers come in all shapes and sizes. The handles also vary. A classic hickory handle will provide the best resistance to shock and are the lowest cost, but the easiest to break over time. Steel handles will provide the least resistance to shock, but are the most long lasting. Steel hammers can also be ‘forged in one’. The USA geological company, Estwing, does this and it makes the head almost impossible to break. Fibreglass handles offer something in between, and they have some resistance to shock and are also long lasting, but they are also the most expensive. Steel hammers have a heavy handle, making them less efficient, whereas fibreglass is the lightest and hickory is somewhere in between.
The size of the head is also an important consideration. The most common hammer is the 16oz hammer. 8oz hammers are generally used for finer work or by children. 32oz and 40oz hammers are ideal when working with hard rocks, but they are heavy, so are a lot of extra weight to carry around.
Lump hammers, 64oz or higher, are ideal if you need to break rocks up, but these are very heavy and you will need to take a smaller hammer for breaking up the smaller rocks or getting fossils out of rock.
Hammers are often used for breaking rocks with chisels. Some people prefer crack hammers, which have no point or chisel end, instead having one smooth large surface. These are for working with chisels and should only be considered if you are likely to do more chisel work than breaking.
You must wear goggles when using all striking tools.
Picks are generally used for locations with softer rocks, clays and shale. These mostly come in two kinds: ones with a sharp pointed end and others with a chisel end. The opposite end comes with a flat edge for use with chisels. However, there are picks with both a pointed and chisel edge, which are very good if you are planning to take a crack hammer for working with chisels.
Picks, like geological hammers, come in all shapes and sizes and you will need to choose the size you are most comfortable with. The most popular weight is 22oz.
Chisels also come in all shapes and sizes. If you are working with hard rocks, you should consider a stone chisel or chrome vanadium steel, otherwise they won’t stay sharp very long. Chisels can be long, wide and some have safety guards protecting your hands if you accidentally miss.
Generally, wide chisels (or ‘splitting chisels’, as they are known) are ideal for splitting rocks, nodules and boulders. Smaller chisels are ideal for fine work or getting fossils out of rock. We recommend that you take two or three different types.
Trowels and Spades
Not every location is rock – often you can find locations in clay, sands and crags. The famous London Clay locations in Suffolk, Essex and Kent are good examples. Here, a spade or trowel comes in very handy. These are also ideal for crags or if you plan to take back samples for sieving.
There are many other tools you could consider. A knife is handy for clays and silts, and makes getting the smaller fossils out easier. Prying bars and claws can get into the cracks of rocks, making it easier to split them apart.
A hand scraper is useful for crags, which have a hard surface, and a long handled trowel comes handy for clay locations for digging out fossils without bending down.
Augers can be used for finding out what geology is beneath your feet or bringing up small samples of lower beds.
A tungsten carbide etcher is useful for cleaning your fossils and sample storage magnifying boxes for starting your collection and for viewing small fossils.
Other equipment may be required for specific locations. These are not essential, but will often come in handy. These can all be found under our field section of UKGE and include:
Tweezers – These are handy for picking up the smallest fossils.
A notebook and pen – There will be times when you want to make notes about your finds, maybe where you found them and when, and to record stratigraphical information. The notebooks and pens we sell on UKGE are waterproof, so they will even work under water. So, if it rains or your bag gets wet, the ink won’t run.
Field lens – Sometimes, you will need a hand lens to see tiny fossils. These are especially good for London Clay locations, crags and all clays. Some people put a string round the lens and hang them from their neck.
Our Starter Packs
UK Fossils has put together a special ‘starter pack’ with everything you need to start collecting, plus a load of notes and information. The pack contains the recommended geological hammer (the Whitehouse Footprint 16oz Hickory Hammer), a narrow hand trowel, rock chisels, a field lens, special bags, markers and some tweezers for picking up small fossils. It also contains safety goggles, which are highly recommended when using hammers and some rigger gloves when using chisels to protect your hands.
Safety and Clothing
Hats and Hard Hats
If you are planning to go to a quarry, it is a legal requirement to wear a hard hat at all times. It is also advisable to wear a hard hat for locations where cliffs can be tall and crumble often or where the foreshore is limited so that collecting has to be near the base of the cliff.
If you are joining in any of our organised UKAFH trips, a hard hat is an essential part of the health and safety conditions for participating.
Goggles should be worn when using striking tools. You can easily damage your eyes by sharp fragments of rock flying into them and this can be very painful. Goggles can also be worn in dusty locations, with sands and crags, as dust in your eyes can be most annoying.
Apart from gloves being recommended for cold conditions, strong safety gloves are also very useful when working with tools. When using chisels, they give extra protection if you accidentally the chisel, and when using hickory hammers, as they can make your hands sore.
Gloves for chalk locations are also handy, because chalk is an alkaline rock and this causes your hands to become dry, sore and sometimes crack.
High Vis Jackets
For quarry locations or when taking part in any organised event (such as our UKAFH fossil hunting trips), wearing a high visibility jacket is an essential part of the legal health and safety requirements.
Your choice of footwear is an important one, if you choose trainers for a location with clay, then, not only will you probably end up in a mess, but you may get one of them stuck in the mud. However, wearing wellingtons, especially on long walks, can be very tiresome.
We recommend wearing strong boots with good ankle supports (which is manditary if joining in on our UKAFH events), and often a requirement by quarries. Most injuries are caused to ankles when slipping or tripping over rocks.
The right rucksack will not only protect your fossils, but also protect your back when carrying back those heavy rocks. Some general use bags will not withstand the weight and could snap just when you have a bag full of fragile finds.
You need to ensure that the rucksack you choose is right for the job. If you are planning to collect a lot, you should consider a specially designed Geo-Bag, which contains fabric suited for the weight of finds with compartments for your essential items. Alternatively, a good army style rucksack or heavy duty camping or hiking type will usually be fine.
Look after your finds
Sometimes, putting your finds in a bag can easily damage them, for example, fragile sharks’ teeth and shells. For smaller finds, the tool compartment boxes you get from DIY stores are excellent. These boxes nearly always have compartments so you can separate your finds.
If you want to go even further, then you can add beach sand to each compartment which will give even better protection and stop your finds from moving around so much.
For harder or larger fossils, or for bringing home samples for microfossils, specimen bags are ideal. These are cheap and self-seal, and allow you to separate your finds. They are best used with paper to wrap and protect your fossils.
You should always take some soft paper with you, for the more fragile finds. Kitchen rolls and toilet paper are ideal, but newspaper can be a little too hard for the more fragile finds. You can also buy large rolls of continuous paper from cleaning stores. This paper is used in commercial/public toilets or at garages, and is soft but doesn’t rip too easily. It is also cheap and will last you ages.
Sometimes, you will come across a fossil that you wish you could take back home, but is too big to carry, or maybe it is a race against the time and tide, and it looks unlikely that you will save a precious fossil. Or maybe you fear that you may damage an important find and wish to take a photo just in case that split goes terribly wrong. Therefore, taking a camera is the obvious solution.
Perhaps, you would also like a photo of a particular bed for reference or the location of a major find. Cameras are very handy and, although digital cameras are much better than conventional ones, any standard camera will be fine. Note that it is not advisable to take an expensive camera fossilling. Sand, sea, slipping on seaweed, rain, falling rocks and dropping the camera can easily cause damage.
Food and Drink
Food and drink is absolutely essential, as you never know how long you are going to be or when you will need a drink. It is best to take just a simple water container. Fruit mixtures, such as orange, lemon and apple, can make you thirstier than you already were. A flask of tea, coffee or soup is ideal when collecting in the winter months. Take note, it is not advisable to take any chocolate foods or other foods likely to melt, especially in summer. Even in winter, hiking to a location can melt that chocolate bar in your pocket. Foods with salts are very good because they prevent you from dehydrating quickly. These are very handy on long hikes in summer, but they will make you thirstier.
Guides, Books and Maps
For new locations or locations with which you are not familiar, taking a guidebook in a plastic bag can be very useful and saves you from swearing later when you could not find anything because you couldn’t remember what the book said. Also, it is best to take tide timetables, even if you have remembered the times or even written them down.
Mobile phones have become a way of life, but they could become a lifeline. However, it is not recommended that you rely on your mobile to get out of trouble, because, if you are cut off by the tide, have a fall or are injured, your mobile may not be as reliable as you think.
We also recommend that you inform your friends or relatives that you are off on a trip. Be aware that many beach locations can have very bad reception levels due to the cliffs forming a radio-shadow, so it is best to ensure your friends and relatives understand that if they cannot make contact, not to panic.
It is important to carry some form of first aid, especially if you are planning a long journey. Many beaches, which are ideal for collecting, also happen to be quite rocky, so it is easy to slip and injure yourself.