Three members of the Unique Expeditions team take us through some survival tips and jungle training that could be the difference between life and death in a remote rainforest. Logging countless visits to the tropics; they’ve experienced flash floods, jungle landslides, and close encounters with dangerous animals. Using these helpful tips, we too can learn how to explore spectacular environments, avoid danger, and keep morale high on expeditions.
What to expect
It will be hot, it will be humid, and you will be wet most of the time, but don’t let that put you off. There is so much going on that you have very little time to feel uncomfortable. Whether it’s navigating through the thick undergrowth, scaling steep ravines, abseiling down waterfalls, or cooling off in their plunge pools. There’s never a dull moment in the jungle, and that’s why we love it so much.
It has been said that “the jungle is neutral”. It provides fresh food, water, and offers you every opportunity to survive in relative comfort; whilst simultaneously exposing you to deadly hazards at every turn. Wild animals armed with sharp claws, teeth, and tusk roam freely between undergrowth and canopy. Insects laced with highly toxic venoms and poisons brush past you unnoticed. Prickly flora with 3-inch thorns are ready to cut, scrape and infect. There are infectious diseases, poisonous edibles, fatal flash floods, landslides, and of course the dreaded deadfall. The jungle is indeed a perilous place to spend your days, however, you will seldom find a more rewarding and natural environment to explore.
The methodical and somewhat ritualistic manner in which we operate in such demanding terrain is the key to our survival. Below are a selection of tips and tricks to help you sway the balance in your favour. Not written from a textbook but derived from experience, and ultimately learnt the hard way.
Tip 1: Acclimatise
Heatstroke and heat exhaustion are serious dangers in the jungle. People seldom realise that acclimatising to tropical weather can be as important and beneficial as acclimatising to the cold or altitude. Any seasoned jungle veteran will tell you that giving your body time to adapt to the heat and humidity, and shake off the jet lag will greatly improve your experience on an expedition. Landing in-country a few days early will give you this opportunity. These days will be a shock to the system but after a couple of days in the heat you’ll notice that you feel the effects less, you’ll be able to move and exercise more without tiring, and the salinity of your sweat will reduce – making your body a more efficient cooling system.
Some useful behaviours include turning off the AC in your room before you go to sleep. As brutal as this sounds it will be paid back in gold once you head under the canopy and spend that first night under a tarp! Go for walks in the heat – use it as an excuse to explore the local area, soak up some culture and condition your body in the process. In the meantime, try to avoid alcohol as it impairs the body’s thermoregulatory mechanisms.
Tip 2: Look up, look down, look around
Being aware of your surroundings is important on any expedition. One of the main reasons people want to explore jungles and rainforests is for the amazing plant and animal life, but some of it can be quite nasty if it takes you by surprise! To reduce the chances of getting hurt here are some simple yet effective rules to follow:
Look up / When you arrive at camp for the night make sure to look above for dead trees or hanging branches caught up in the vines, as these could easily fall onto your hammock. At some point during your time in the jungle, you will most likely hear the chilling sound of ‘deadfall’, produced by huge dead trees finally crashing to the ground. If you’re under a triple-layer canopy you won’t be able to see to the top, but you can minimse your chances of getting hit by setting up camp in less hazardous places amongst trusted/safe trees.
Look down / Are you surrounded by ants, leeches, or other critters? Carefully sweep away some of the leaf litter so you have a clear area beneath your feet; most insects and small animals are deterred from travelling across open ground.
As you’re travelling through the forest, if there’s a fallen branch or tree across your path then step on and over the obstacle. A fallen tree trunk provides a great habitat for a huge variety of species including scorpions and snakes, so you want to know nothing is waiting for you on the opposite side before you put your foot on it. Stepping on top of the obstacle first will allow you to scan the ground on the other side and make sure it is free from danger.
Look around / Remain vigilant and don’t put any body part where you can’t see it. This includes checking boots and shirt sleeves before putting them on. When securing your tarp or hammock to a tree, rather than reaching your hands behind it, walk the strap all the way around. There could be something waiting on the far side that you don’t want to disturb!
Tip 3: Get fit before you go
We’re not talking beach bodies and big muscles. Your cardiovascular fitness and endurance are key, so make yourself a gentle training regimen. You’ll be carrying a rucksack with everything you need for five to ten days, plus it will get soaked from wading through neck-deep water – this could add two to three extra kilos of “water-weight” to an already heavy pack. In addition, you’ll be trekking over uneven, muddy, rocky, and steep ground, so your body must be somewhat accustomed to this type of exertion. A good way to get in shape before you travel is to get out hiking in your local area with a bit of weight on your back, slowly increasing the distance, the difficulty of terrain, and pack weight. This also gives you time to test out your kit and see what you like or don’t like about it. It’s always better to notice something that’s not right when you still have time to fix it. By the time of the expedition, if you’re able to maintain 2 hours of brisk walking with your full expedition weighted backpack (that should be around 15kg) then you’re doing just fine.
Tip 4: Pack Light
One of the most frequent comments people make after their first exped is “next time I’ll seriously reduce my pack weight!”. The heavier your bag the more work you have to do to transport it around, the more energy you burn, and the more heat your body will generate. You’ll begin to loath every superfluous gram, unnecessary gas canister, and overly heavy toothbrush; especially when negotiating steep jungle terrain. You should pay attention to the brief on what to bring and leave all superfluous items at your base camp or in hotel storage. Before heading into the forest your expedition leaders should do a full kit inspection and ensure every item is fit for purpose and strictly necessary. The items to concentrate on are your hammock, tarp, boots, and rucksack, as the quality of these items will have the greatest impact on your comfort and wellbeing.
Packing the right kit is important but are you prepared to use it? Have you tested to make sure that your bag is waterproof, that your backpack is bombproof and packed so you can find things with your eyes closed? Have you practiced putting your sleeping system up in the dark and do you know how long your gas bottle lasts? Test your clothing, make sure your boots are broken-in and you can walk a distance in wet boots blister-free, that your trousers and shirt don’t chafe and that you have a full range of movement whilst dressed for the jungle. If you don’t know or you have a question about your kit then get in touch with one of our guides – we are always happy to help with your planning! Here’s a full Jungle Kit List assembled with more than a decade of jungle expedition experience, if it’s not on the list, you don’t need it!
Tip 5: Stay Hydrated
Okay, this is a bit of a long one but it is important to understand. Like with any sustained physical activity, keeping hydrated is key. For the first few days in the heat, your body will be adjusting to the climate; you will sweat more and that sweat will have a high concentration of electrolytes. As your body adapts you’ll sweat less with a reduced concentration of electrolytes (it even tastes less salty). In any case, you need to be aware of your fluid intake to keep replenishing this loss. A good way to keep on top of this is to bring effervescent electrolyte tablets – have one in your morning drink and at least one more throughout the day.
Much of the jungle we visit is untouched, primary rainforest. This dense canopy creates a lot of shade which is fantastic for collecting water, as the streams and rivers are refreshingly cool. Depending on where you are, you may have to drink warm water which is not exactly refreshing, so remind yourself to keep that water intake high. Even on rest days you should be consuming three to four litres (depending on your size) and more on active days. Ensure you take at least a couple of swigs from your bottle/bladder every hour.
Purifying drinking water significantly reduces the risk of water-borne illnesses. This is usually a two-step process:
- Filtering out particulate matter (dirt, organic detritus, bacteria, and with some filters even viruses)
- Chemical disinfection. Chemical disinfection is the “nuke” that will destroy any nasties left after filtration. The two most common chemicals are chlorine and iodine. You can find cheap chlorine tablets online or at your local outdoor shop. Iodine is also great, though should be avoided if you have thyroid problems. Both give a specific taste to the water that some people don’t like, so try both before you head out and see which you prefer.
There are many great portable water filters on the market. Many are also not fit for purpose in such a demanding environment, as they like to get clogged and can’t be solely relied on. Feel free to contact us for recommendations on which have worked for us and which to avoid. We’ll put our details at the end of this article.
And finally, never mix drinks! The ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) in many electrolyte tablets neutralises the effects of chlorine or iodine, meaning your water isn’t safe to drink. For this reason, you should keep one container for the sole purpose of disinfecting water. After disinfection, pour it into your cup or flask and add your juice/electrolytes to that.
Tip 6: Keep on top of personal admin
When everything around you is new and exciting it can be difficult to keep track of the day-to-day tasks that allow you to successfully finish an expedition. We tend to refer to these duties as “personal admin,” and its importance increases with the length of time you plan to live and travel through the jungle.
These little tasks are the kind of things you might decide to skip when you’re tired at the end of a long day, or rush over so you can get going in the morning. However, if they’re neglected, the effects on mood, morale, and even your health can start to become evident – and that’s when people stop enjoying an expedition. It helps to think as though each task is helping out the future you; the you that will wake up the next day and be glad you have washed the blister-causing sand and grit from your socks. If you slack on these tasks even for a couple of days, you’ll be doing yourself no favours in the long run.
Stay hydrated / Disinfect your drinking water at the end of the day so it’s ready for use in the morning. Waking up dehydrated will have a significant knock-on effect.
Organise your kit / Always keep your dry and wet items separated. If “dry kit” gets wet due to lazy packing it’s a massive morale-killer. The jungle will teach you that no dry bag is truly waterproof! So double dry bag your sleeping bag, pyjamas, and electronics. The greatest feeling in the world is washing off the day’s dirt before getting into your dry clothes and hammock as the rain hits the tarp above you.
Pack your bag each day with the items you’ll need first (lunch) at the top, and the items you will need last (tarp and hammock) at the bottom. Some days can be gruelling and you’ll be thankful for every ounce of energy saved.
Keep clean / Wash yourself and your clothes at the end of each day. There are few things in life more gratifying than a refreshing jungle shower. Whether you’re in the river with the current swirling around you, bathing under a gentle waterfall, or simply standing in the tropical rain, it is the best part of the day. Getting rid of the grit and grime will refresh you, keep your night clothes fresh and you’ll sleep much better as a result.
Treat each task as a ritual and stick to a mental tick-list of morning, on-the-go, and evening tasks. This may sound daunting but it’s simple once you’re in the rhythm, and simplicity is the key. One thing should lead to the next so it becomes an automatic sequence. And a good expedition leader will be constantly checking in and reminding you to keep the team happy and effective.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Benjamin Franklin
Tip 7: Work as a Team
This is a general tip for any expedition but applies to the jungle just as much, if not more than other environments. When the group works as a team and takes care of each other everything becomes easier. Tasks like cooking meals and setting up camp become more efficient, and everyone has more fun.
The jungle is often very dense so try and stick together. We use a call and response tactic where anyone can make a distinctive call if they lose sight of the team or find themselves lost. Anyone who hears the call issues a response call which acts as an echolocation so the lost party can easily find the group again.
When on the move, the group pace is the pace of the slowest person. Ensure to take frequent stops to check how everyone is doing, and plan multiple potential camps. Let someone know if you aren’t feeling at full strength and help someone out if they’re struggling themselves. You never know, it might be you tomorrow. The goal is for everyone to have a great experience and finish the expedition feeling tired but accomplished, and being great teammates is key to success.
Tip 8: Eat more than you think you need
You will burn a lot of calories in the jungle. Coupled with the appetite-suppressing heat; it becomes very important that you eat enough to offset this calorie deficit. Calorie-dense foods such as peanut butter, granola, nuts, and pasta are great because you get more calories per unit weight in your rucksack. High-quality, high-calorie, boil-in-the-bag meal packs are great and cut down on preparation time. Military ration packs are also perfect but can be hard to come by. On most expeditions, we make time in-country before the expedition starts to buy individual and group food to take into the jungle – this is a great time to ask for advice from the guides and other team members who have been in the jungle before.
Tip 9: Everything is enhanced in the jungle
We often describe the jungle as a mood magnifier, when spirits are high you’re hyper-aware of the sheer majesty of the jungle. You notice the colourful flashes of birds and butterflies, the spear-like bolts of sunlight piercing through the dense canopy, and the unquestionable beauty of the forest. Sadly, the polar opposite occurs when the mood drops as a result of sickness, poor personal admin, or flawed teamwork. Once the mind is consumed with doubt and discomfort the jungle has a harrowing ability to drown you in pain and suffering. But hard times also have the potential to sharpen the mind and make the good times feel all the more rewarding. Keep positive, keep helping, and keep your sanity. You will look back at these times wishing you could relive them.
Tip 10: Take time to appreciate it
To be able to explore untouched and unparalleled jungle ecosystems is a unique privilege as a human being. Most have remained fundamentally unchanged since the era of dinosaurs. They are a time capsule of another world. The only other ecosystem that can compete for species richness is the coral reef. Life of all imagined variety abounds here – in the rivers and streams, from the forest floor to the highest branches on the tallest trees – there is no other place on this planet where life is so varied, and in such abundance. There are more plant species on the jungle island of Borneo than on the whole continent of Africa. There are thirteen species of primate and so many endemic species of insect and amphibian, and new species are discovered and described in scientific journals on a weekly basis. It is nature’s greatest feat – its magnum opus – so take time to take it all in. It will be one of the most memorable experiences you will ever have.