Friday, March 18, 2016

@FieldNotesBrand Expedition Edition vs. @RiteintheRain in Papua NewGuinea

The Field Notes Expedition Edition is truly a specialized beast. This past summer, I decided to put it to the test.

First a bit of Background

My wife is a Field Biologist (herpetologist variety) who has a large field project studying the micro frogs in the rain forest of Papua New Guinea (PNG). She and her five students will stay as long as three months in PNG, traveling from rain forest to rain forest capturing, recording, and surveying the myriad of frog species which live there. My wife was introduced to Rite in the Rain (RR) products by her Ph.D. advisor and has been using them in the field ever since.

The kind of cute frogs they are studying.
(photo from the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum tumblr)

I, however, as a non-scientist, liberal arts-type, am mostly useless. Nevertheless, she let me accompany her for almost a month at a plumbing-free, electricity-free, vehicle and road-free, native village on the edge of an untouched rain forest on the island of Normanby, PNG.

It was so wet, the staples started to rust
What this means for our tests is that the Expedition Field Notes (FN) and the Rite in the Rain (RR) All-Weather notebook No. 135 was subjected to extremely wet conditions. By extremely wet, I mean it was not unusual to work in continuous rain (imagine standing under a shower head) for four continuous days. When not raining, humidity was often at 100%. Writing conditions were mostly at night in streams or deep in the bush, with only headlamps or flashlights as illumination.

Tough covers

Initially, I thought that the Rite in the Rain covers were better since they were made of plastic. I thought they might provide a better handheld writing surface. In actual use, however, I found that I preferred the FN covers. I didn’t really need the rigidity of the RR covers. In addition, the rigidity interfered with the gear I was carrying in my pockets. I preferred the softness of the FN soft cover. It was more comfortable to carry and store with the field equipment. The Expedition covers did not absorb water, nor did it get wrinkly or puffy, like I thought it might.

Winner: Field Notes

Rite in the Rain notebook with pencil notations
Usability While Wet

The two manufacturers have two very different approaches to water.  FN’s Yupo paper is very “glossy” for lack of a better word. The paper has a very slick feel so water literally slides off.  RR’s paper has a “matte” feel. Water does not slide off so much, as it needs to be shaken off or wiped away. After four weeks of continuous use, the RR paper is almost always lightly damp. The RR paper seems to absorb just a bit of water, the tiniest amount that keeps the paper pliable and usable.  But once that happens, the paper retains that “moist” quality almost indefinately.

In actual, use FN Yupo paper was a disappointment. The paper, while impenetrable, stuck together when wet. That is to say, instead of 48 pages, I got clumps of pages. Maybe eight of the pages would stick together in a big mass, and be virtually unusable. Once the pages stuck together, they would stick together the entire time I remained in that environment. So the notebook was mostly unusable for me in the bush, as I didn’t have the time or a free hand to separate the pages and wipe them off.  The RR pages however, remained separate.  The pages did not clump together.  I could access each page individually. That made writing in the field more efficient.  So the RR notebook was the one I took in my pocket on our nighttime trips into the bush.

Winner: Rite in the Rain

(Note: After 29 hours out of the bush and into less humid weather, the FN dried out completely and returned back to normal after wiping each page once. It was like the pages were never stuck together. In fact, it is sort of remarkable how fresh the pages look and feel. The RR notebook retained it “damp” feel for several weeks after I got back to the USA.)

Ballpoint ink from the FN ballpoint
Paper Preservation Qualities

I’ve always had an issue with RR papers and pens. I’m not a fancy pen guy who has a bunch of different pens for different purposes. In fact, on this trip, I did not have time to think about which pens to bring, so I just grabbed a mechanical pencil, and two FN ballpoint pens. I lost one FN pen quite promptly, a day or two into the bush. RR paper has a toothier quality and does not take ink well for me. It seems that lines that I write or draw into a RR tend to be very thin, sometimes almost non-existent.  Pencil in RR has always been light as well, and very hard to see at night. FN Yupo paper takes ink very well.  Even when I was using it to write in the rain and immediately had to wipe the rain off the page, I was surprised at how well the ink adhered to the paper. It goes down very dark, like regular bond, and does not wipe away even after immediately wiping.

Because RR writes so lightly, there is not usually any worry about transfer onto a blank facing page. I was afraid that the FN Yupo paper, especially with a regular ball point, would transfer to the blank page, especially when wet.  I’m happy to report that it hasn’t happened yet. So for clarity, readability, and long term preservation, I prefer the way the FN Yupo takes and holds the ink.

Winner: Field Notes

It was pouring down rain as I was writing this and watching two guys build
a table for the outdoor "lab"


I have to say that both FN and RR have their advantages and disadvantages. For my wife and her students who are taking measurements and notes in the field, exposing their notebooks to downpours for the 5-7 minutes it takes to record the data each time, maybe 20-30 times a night, they prefer the Rite in the Rain despite the occasional too light line which results in the inevitable, “What did I write here?”  For me, I write a lot of reflections, narratives, I guess, in less wet environments, with only occasional forays into very wet environments. I prefer the Expedition Field Notes. Also, the quality of the Yupo paper to keep and preserve the ink will keep me using the Expedition, despite its lackluster performance while completely drenched.

As a side note, my FN ballpoint pen came in very handy as a general purpose field tool.  In addition to writing, I used the pen:
  • As a lever to pry apart two lashed branches of a temporary structure;
  • As a flip-flop repair tool, to reinsert the toe strap part back into the sole;
  • As a mud remover in a recessed screw hole to access the screw head;
  • As a makeshift lever to turn on/off my headlamp after the button on the head lamp fell off.
I ended up giving the FN pen to a PNG student who was using just the insert of her Bic stick: