Field instruments

An overview of common geographical field instruments, for example, weather recording instruments such as thermometers and barometers.

This video:

  • This video details some common field instruments used in geographical fieldwork, beginning with instruments used to record and observe weather such as thermometers and barometers
  • includes a detailed description of the purpose of topographic maps and compasses in the field and how using a surveyor's wheel can assist in measuring distance.

Watch 'Field instruments' (5:01).

Learn about common geographical field instruments, for example weather recording instruments such as thermometers and barometers..

[Music playing]

[Screen shows a blue sky with clouds. Text on the screen reads, ‘Curriculum Secondary Learners – HSIE. Teaching geographical skills series. Field instruments. Presented by Melissa Ellis.’]

Melissa Ellis

Geography is the study of the world we live in. Geographers are always asking questions about places and things they see. Some of the most important questions are what is it I am seeing? How did this happen? And why are these things changing?

[Presenter is standing in front of a decorative background. In the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, the text reads, ‘Melissa Ellis. HSIE Curriculum Support Project Officer.’]

In this episode, we are learning about field instruments geographers use and where they are useful when learning about geography.

[Screen shows a montage of images of hands plotting coordinates on maps using a compass.]

Let's start with the weather. Weather is the daily condition or state of the atmosphere. So when we are studying the state of the atmosphere, we're exploring the different elements like temperature, humidity, rainfall, air pressure, clouds, and wind.

[Screen shows a series of video snippets, including a sun shining through clouds, the wind blowing over sand dunes, and dark clouds.]

We use a thermometer to measure air temperature.

[Screen shows an image of a thermometer rising to 30 degrees Celsius. Above the image, the screen reads, ‘thermometer’.]

Often we study climatic graphs, which illustrate the average temperature for a location each month over a year.

[Screen shows an image of a combination graph – a bar graph and line graph. Text on the screen reads, ‘Weather Station. New York City’. The image shows temperature and rainfall in a table at the bottom of the graph.]

Humidity is the moisture in the air. Tropical locations generally have high levels of humidity while deserts have low levels of humidity.

[Screen shows a series of video snippets, including a dense green forest covered in mist, and sand dunes.]

We measure humidity using a hot and dry bulb thermometer.

[Screen shows a close-up image of a clock with two smaller gauges. One gauge on the left has text beneath it that reads, ‘Humidity’. It has a dial pointing to ‘20’ with text that reads, ‘Very dry’. The numbers on the gauge range from zero to 100, with 100 being ‘Humid’. The small gauge on the right measures temperature in Fahrenheit.]

Rainfall is measured using a rain gauge. Rainfall is often collected and averaged over each month for the duration of a year and illustrated on a climatic graph.

[Screen shows rain falling. The screen then shows an image of a plastic cylinder attached to a piece of wood. It has a smaller cylinder inside it with ruler markings from the bottom to the top. The ruler measures from zero to 100 millimetres.]

We use a barometer to measure air pressure. Air pressure is very important because it affects other weather elements.

[Screen shows an image of a gauge with two bars that sit along the circumference of the gauge. One is measuring millimetres and the other is measuring millibars. The gauge has three hands. Two of the hands are in the shape of arrows and are facing right. The text above reads, Fair’. One has the shape of a crescent moon on its tip and is facing left. The text above reads, ‘Rain’. The text that appears between the words ‘Fair’ and ‘Rain’ reads, ‘Change’. The text above the entire image reads, ‘Barometer’.]

Low-pressure systems usually present rainfall to a location while high-pressure systems present fine and settled weather.

[Screen shows a pink image of the east of Australia. Over New South Wales, there is a white letter ‘L’ in a blue box. The blue box is surrounded by irregular circles marked with white lines. Each circle is numbered, starting from 850 in the centre, to 880, 900, and a line with 1000 to the left of 900. A smaller circle sits off the coast of South Australia with the number 880 within the 1000 line. The image zooms left to show Western Australia with a white letter ‘H’ in a red box. The red box is surrounded by irregular circles marked with white lines. Each circle around the smaller circle is numbered from 1040, to 1030, to 1020. On the outside of these circles, north of the red box is a smaller irregular circle. This circle has the number 950, as well as a line to its right with the number 990.]

Identifying clouds can be really interesting. Your school may have a cloud chart. These will illustrate the sorts of clouds you are observing.

[Screen shows clouds moving quickly across a blue sky.]

We measure wind using an anemometer. An anemometer only measures wind speed, not the direction it's coming from.

[Screen shows an image of a short metal post and 3 hollow cones attached to 3 spokes, all facing in the same direction. The text above image reads, ‘Anemometer’.]

You will need a wind vane for that. We always state wind as the direction it is coming from.

[Screen shows an image of a metal horse. Under the horse are 4 horizontal posts that read, ‘N’, ‘E’, ‘S’ and ‘W’. The instrument is attached to a roof.]

In the field, geographers use many different types of maps. A common map is a topographic map. Topographic maps are a useful tool for predicting distance, slope, and land use.

[Screen shows an image of a 3-dimensional rectangular slice of a mountain. The slice shows a river and layers of the earth. To the right of the image, it reads, ‘Landscape’. Above the landscape are 4 dotted lines travelling up to a 2-dimensional pink rectangle. On the rectangle, there are dark blue lines that follow the shape of the mountain, a thick light blue line above the river, and some dark blue and red dots. One of the dark blue lines is circled and labelled, ‘Contour’. Image zooms into the pink rectangle and numbers appear on each contour line along the bottom edge. These numbers read, ‘200’, ‘220’, ‘240’, ‘260’ and ‘280’. The text above the image reads, ‘Topographic map’.]

When using a topographic map in the field, you will likely use a compass. Geographers learn to orientate the map to face the north using the compass and the north point on the map. If you do not have a compass, you can always find north using your watch. Did you know halfway between 12 facing the sun and the hour hand on your watch will point north?

[Screen shows an image of a compass, a person holding a map with a compass and an analogue watch.]

We measure the distance in the field using a surveyor's wheel, also commonly known as a click wheel. When drawing a sketch map, you should use the surveyor's wheel to measure the distance and develop a scale for your map.

[Screen shows presenter walking in the grass as they push a yellow wheel on a long stick.]

Clinometer, a small light, robust, and inexpensive instrument for measuring height, you may need to measure the height of trees or a building to make recommendations. Students sometimes make their own clinometer and go out to measure the height of trees or buildings in their school.

[Text on screen reads, ‘Clinometer’ above an image of a small metal instrument with a gauge. Numbers are arranged in a semicircle on the gauge. The numbers start at 90 on both the left and right side and decrease by 10s to zero on the bottom edge. The instrument is branded, ‘Suunto’. The screen then shows a video from the base of a tree, moving slowly upwards along the trunk.]

GIS, Geographic Information Systems, you will be more familiar with GIS than you think. If you have used Google Maps to find your way to a new place, you've used GIS maps. Many GIS tools are great for geography because they show exact data, for example, the latitude and longitude of a site you were studying. GIS is also very useful for finding the height above sea level for a site of study.

[Screen shows a Google map of Barnetts Lookout. The screen shows a cursor click on the pin drop tool. Coordinates for ‘Berowra Heights’ appear at the bottom of the map. The screen then shows the cursor click on the ‘terrain’ option of the map. This causes contour lines to appear on the map.]

Try geocaching. This is a fun way to learn to use GIS.

Cameras. It's often said the best camera is the camera you are carrying. Your phone is a great tool to use in geography. It can be used to take photos of a site you are studying and refer to later. Or if fortunate enough to have a drone and permission to fly the drone, you can get a bird's eye view. Photographs are particularly useful when recording changes at a location over time.

[Screen shows a video of someone sitting on the ground in the bush. They are using their phone as a camera. The screen then shows a video of someone using a drone with the sun setting behind them.]

That is a summary of the most common field instruments we use in geography. Happy fieldwork.

[Text on screen reads, ‘References

  • Storyblocks: montage-composition-collage-of-searching-direction-with-compass-on-map-video-wall-b-SBV-337758095-HD.mp4
  • Storyblocks: light-shining-down-through-clouds-on-valley-SBV-300076328-HD.mp4
  • Storyblocks: bright-sun-and-massive-clouds-time-lapse-at-sunset-SBV327329779-HD.mp4
  • Storyblocks: desert-sand-dunes-ripple-with-morning-light-cloudy-sky-timelapse-SBV-306035833-HD.mp4
  • Storyblocks: the-overcast-sky-is-streaming-time-laps-SBV-338711258-HD.mp4
  • Storyblocks:
  • Storyblocks: mystic-and-foggy-drone-flight-over-the-canopy-primary-tropical-rainforest-sal-guian-SBV-328051823-HD.mp4
  • Storyblocks: massive-tree-in-amazonian-forest-french-guiana-deep-jungle-sunlight-day-time-SBV-328055663-HD.mp4
  • Storyblocks: beautiful-aerial-drone-shot-over-sand-dunes-in-gobi-desert-golden-hour-SBV-328082155-HD.mp4
  • Temperature humidity clock by B137 CC BY SA 4.0
  • Storyblocks:ws-rain-drops-hitting-surface-of-water-SBV-311475499-HD.mp4
  • Rain gauge by Farmatin CC BY SA 4.0,_Mercer_Country,_New_Jersey.jpg
  • Barometer by Langspeed CC BY SA 3.0’.

Text on screen then reads, ‘References

  • Storyblocks: fast-moving-and-morphing-clouds-SBV-315063775-HD.mp4
  • Anemometer by Farmartin CC BY SA 4.0
  • Storyblocks: equestrian-wind-vane-or-weather-vane-depicting-a-horse-atop-a-blue-barn-SBV-337994743-HD.mp4
  • Storyblocks: traveler-hand-holds-a-compass-in-forest-SBV338480329-HD.mp4
  • Storyblocks: men-planning-hiking-trip-on-map-with-compass-on-mountain-with-stones-and-green-plan-SBV-337719064-HD-mp4
  • Citizen wristwatch by Petar Milošević CC BY SA 4.0
  • Clinometer by Btomil2 CC BY SA 3.0
  • Storyblocks: rainforest-jungle-wilderness-natural-ecosystem-environment-cinematic-dolly-shot-SBV-329727425-HD.mp4
  • Google Maps:, accessed 31 March 2022
  • Storyblocks: adventure-trip-young-woman-hiker-with-dreadlocks-sitting-on-the-ground-in-the-fores-SBV-346704982-HD.mp4
  • Storyblocks: the-male-controls-quadrocopter-on-the-sunset-background-SBV-337762703-HD.mp4
  • Storyblocks: the-pilot-flying-drone-control-it-with-a-joystick-SBV-311419487-HD.mp4
  • Storyblocks: drone-quadcopter-multirotor-flying-with-camera-during-sunset-SBV-309202047-HD.mp4
  • Storyblocks: drone-quadrocopter-on-the-sunset-background-SBV-337762703.HD.mp4
  • Storyblocks: aerial-shot-beautiful-sea-against-sky-during-sunset-drone-flying-toward-sun-SBV-346621235-HD.mp4’.

Text on the screen reads, ‘Acknowledgements. NSW Geography K-10 syllabus © NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales 2015. See the NESA website for additional copyright information. NSW Department of Education Curriculum Secondary Learners. Southern Cross School of Distance Education.’

The screen shows an Indigenous artwork. The artwork features a landscape with native Australian animals. It is titled, ‘Our Country’ by Garry Purchase. The text at the top of the screen reads, ‘Filming of these videos has taken place on Bundjalung land.’ Video concludes by displaying the NSW Government logo.]

[End of transcript]

Related content

Return to top of page Back to top