Geotechnical engineers and engineering geologists perform geotechnical investigations to obtain information on the physical properties of soil and rock underlying (and sometimes adjacent to) a site to design earthworks and foundations for proposed structures, and for repair of distress to earthworks and structures caused by subsurface conditions. A geotechnical investigation will include surface exploration and subsurface exploration of a site. Sometimes, geophysical methods are used to obtain data about sites. Subsurface exploration usually involves in-situ testing (two common examples of in-situ tests are the standard penetration test and cone penetration test). In addition site investigation will often include subsurface sampling and laboratory testing of the soil samples retrieved. The digging of test pits and trenching (particularly for locating faults and slide planes) may also be used to learn about soil conditions at depth. Large diameter borings are rarely used due to safety concerns and expense, but are sometimes used to allow a geologist or engineer to be lowered into the borehole for direct visual and manual examination of the soil and rock stratigraphy.

A variety of soil samplers exist to meet the needs of different engineering projects. The standard penetration test (SPT), which uses a thick-walled split spoon sampler, is the most common way to collect disturbed samples. Piston samplers, employing a thin-walled tube, are most commonly used for the collection of less disturbed samples. More advanced methods, such as ground freezing and the Sherbrooke block sampler, are superior, but even more expensive.

Atterberg limits tests, water content measurements, and grain size analysis, for example, may be performed on disturbed samples obtained from thick walled soil samplers. Properties such as shear strength, stiffness hydraulic conductivity, and coefficient of consolidation may be significantly altered by sample disturbance. To measure these properties in the laboratory, high quality sampling is required. Common tests to measure the strength and stiffness include the triaxial shear and unconfined compression test.

Surface exploration can include geologic mapping, geophysical methods, and photogrammetry; or it can be as simple as an engineer walking around to observe the physical conditions at the site. Geologic mapping and interpretation of geomorphology is typically completed in consultation with a geologist or engineering geologist.

Geophysical exploration is also sometimes used. Geophysical techniques used for subsurface exploration include measurement of seismic waves (pressure, shear, and Rayleigh waves), surface-wave methods and/or downhole methods, and electromagnetic surveys (magnetometer, resistivity, and ground-penetrating radar).