Lessons in Camping: Basic Soil Investigation

Pitching our tent at Bad Bear Campground, Idaho, USA

Oh the horror! An old salt like me had to go camping during our summer holiday. Our daughter had her birthday during our road trip in the USA and she wanted to celebrate it by camping in the woods. Complying to her wishes we pitched a tent and roasted marshmallows. Meanwhile my mind was frantically searching for familiar clues to connect to my maritime heritage. Hammering down the tent pegs, it dawned to me: putting up a tent is basically a simple Standard Penetration Test.

Standard Penetration Test explanation infographic

Standard Penetration Test is one of the easiest soil investigations you could do1. All you need is a pipe and a hammer. You count the number of blows to hammer the pipe down and you have an indication of the effort it takes to cut the soil. This method completely ignores sophisticated parameters as e.g. undrained shear strength, porosity or internal friction angle. It is very crude in its results. On the other hand, the basic principle of driving the pipe into the ground is very similar to the cutting action of the pick points on a cutter. As such, it is a very good indicator for the performance of a cutter head. This is also the reason, why for initial discussions about the performance of a CSD, the SPT is a good starting point to ask the client. He might have a report like this already available, or he can easily perform the tests. Also ‘Sandy’ accepts SPT values for an indication of the soil quality2.

Sandy’s soil parameter input page

Be aware, that SPT’s are often not very deep. Of course, a full soil investigation report with a Cone Penetration Test is much more valuable. We can always translate the results from a CPT report into a SPT value. But the SPT information is not covering all the parameters to translate this to a CPT. Sometimes even an SPT report fails. And then it might be useful to discuss with the client on a qualitative level about the soil condition. Usually people have actually touched the soil, or at least can paint a mental picture of the soil conditions and these criteria might help to use the same descriptive language.

Standardised qualitative description

Hammering a rod into the soil is a relative cheap and quick method to collect the soil consistency. It can be performed everywhere, anytime, under most conditions. That is why it was also selected for the soil investigation on one of the most remote locations imaginable. Although it is still on my wish list of dream destinations, the prohibitive price tag of the ticket will prevent it for me to pitch up my tent over there. I just have to revel in the camping adventures of Neil and Buzz.

Astronaut Edwin Aldrin takes a core-tube sample3 (Credit: NASA)


  1. ASTM: Standard Test Method for Standard Penetration Test
  2. Sandy, Dredge Finder
  3. Astronaut Edwin Aldrin takes a core-tube sample

See also

Painted Hills, how to unveil the sediment layers below the surface

Painted Hills, Oregon, USA

Last year we had an extended holiday. We wanted to observe the solar eclipse, but we took the opportunity to sail and drive across the United States. Sure, the eclipse was certainly one of the most impressive events. But the above picture was haunting my mind throughout my vacation. Is it familiar to anyone? Is there anyone an avid follower of ‘Who is the Mole’? Yes, these are the Painted Hills. In season 17 part 8, this is where Sanne Wallis de Vries mixed up the alphabet and Diederik Jekel had to leave the show. As our plans were already to visit the state of Oregon, we decided to see the location. Most striking are the coloured bands of sediment. Each colour represents a different geological age. After erosion, the layers became exposed. Usually, these sediment layers are covered and submerged, invisible to the dredge contractor or operator.

Nothing to see here

However, these layers can be made visible by performing a soil investigation. The bottom is probed with a Cone Penetration Test or CPT. It measures two parameters: the undrained shear strength and the cohesion. The shear strength can be measured by pushing a cone through the soil. The cohesion by pulling a sleeve through the hole the cone just created. This way the parameters are uncoupled. Imagine being able to identify the resistance of a hull separated in form friction and skin friction!

Sometimes also other measurements can be performed on the same sensor: water pressure, acidity, conductivity, light reflection; all attributing to a better understanding of what is beneath the surface.

Infographic on CPT

The values for shear strength, cohesion and optional other parameters can be plotted in the same diagram against the penetration depth. Correlating the parameters can reveal what type of layers are there. Very easily clay and sand can be identified. Also gravel layers are recognised. Stones and debris are sometimes hidden as soundings that were aborted. Keep an eye out for signs like these, as they have a major impact on your project. The more soundings available, the better the project estimation. There is a PIANC guideline for the number of soundings for the area1. Anything less is meaningless.

Example of a sounding diagram

A soil investigation report comprises a number of these diagrams and possibly also core samples for establishing a particle size diagram. If the client attaches such a thorough soil investigation report, we can work on it to select the best dredging equipment for the project and advise on an optimal working method.
The data of the Cone Penetration Tests can be used also as input for survey programs like Navguard. e.g. If a certain layer has to be removed, the depth of that layer can be presented to the operator as the design depth. So, NavGuard can be an excellent tool to dredge exactly what is needed, without extra work and costs. Certainly an option that will pay back quickly.

Screenshot of NavGuard survey program


  1. PIANC, Site investigation requirements for dredging works

See also


A Simple Soil Sample Show

Demonstration at a workshop ‘Advise a dredging customer’

Recently I had to give a demonstration on one of the aspects of my work: investigate what type of soils the customer will be encountering, what type of dredging equipment is most suitable for that application and what will the production be under those conditions. At this demonstration, the purpose was, to show how I can make something simple very complicated in a short time. The challenge here will be to take you with me on this precipitous path to enlightenment.

Ingredients for a sand sieving demonstration

The example case was to examine two different soil samples. Each was artificially mixed, but representing a Particle Size Distribution of two different borrow areas. The samples are delivered in widely available standardised containers. Yeah, you recognised them: 1.5L soda pop bottles. As the samples were wet, they had to be dried. Normally, this can take two to three hours. Here we applied a magical temporal acceleration by employing a Calvin style cardboard box as an oven. The literal main ‘activity’ for the participants was to manually shake the sieve tower. Rest assured, in our own soil analysis lab we use an industrial automatic sieve tower. This antique specimen comes from our museum. The separated fractions from the sieves, then have to be weighed and finally plotted in a so called particle size diagram. Horizontally you can take a sieve diameter and vertically you can read what mass percentage will pass that mesh diameter.

Resulting Particle Size Distribution and key parameters

Although both samples have the same median diameter d50 (354µm), which is indicative of the general particle size, the distribution is very different. Sample A is almost totally the same diameter, where sample B has a broad distribution. A measure for the distribution is the Uniformity Index (d60/d10). Another important figure to be taken from this graph is the silt fraction. This is the percentage of particles that is smaller than 63µm. More parameters can be taken form this graph, but these are the most important for now.

Influence of particle size distribution on slurry transport

From the equation for the critical velocity, the uniformity index plays an active role. If the uniformity index increases, there is more fine material. Fines tend to increase the density and viscosity of the fluid. Consequently the resulting mixture behaves like a heavier fluid, carrying larger particles. Effectively, the resistance of a non-uniform sand is higher than for a more uniform sand mixture.

Influence of particle size distribution on cutter production

Another aspect of the dredging process is the ability of the CSD to excavate the material from the bottom. Here the uniformity index has the complete opposite influence. A uniform sand distribution will have a lot of voids between the grains. The particles will move easily over each other. When there are lot of smaller particles available, they tend to clog up the voids and bond the bigger particles in a gridlock. These sediments are very hard to excavate. If no geotechnical investigation is available, the PSD can help to estimate a SPT.
With the grains size and the SPT, the audience consulted our lovely looking assistant ‘Sandy’ for a first selection of the required CSD.

Short evaluation of a selected dredge at ‘www.dredgefinder.com’


Wilson, Addie & Clift, (1992), “Slurry Transport Using Centrifugal Pumps”, Chapter 5 “Heterogeneous Slurry Flow in Horizontal Pipes”

Youd, (1970), “Densification and Shear of Sand during Vibration”, Journal of the Soil Mechanics and Foundations Division, 1970, Vol. 96, Issue 3, Pg. 863-880

See also

Geotechnical investigation

Dredge Finder