Preparing for expedition
Those long hours of overtime at work are worth it when you know you’ll soon be jetting off to somewhere far more exotic. There really is nothing as exciting as going on expedition (although Beyonce inviting you out for dinner might come close!). But, in reality, there’s a load to do before you board the flight. Infact I’d go so far as to say the success of your trip is largely dependant on the time you put in to organisation beforehand. Having said that, the preparation is all part of the experience and should be an enjoyable adventure in it’s own right – providing you know what needs to be done. Here’s some ideas on what you need to be thinking about before you pack the cat off to your neighbours and lock the front door.
Where are you going and what are you doing?
Of course the amount of planning depends on the objective and whether you are going it alone, in a group or maybe using an expedition company. An ascent of Kilimanjaro will be easier to put together than an expedition to meet the lost Bala Bala tribe of Papua New Guinea. If you use an expedition company you will be guided through much of your personal preparation and the logistics will be sorted out for you. This can be reassuring if its your first trip but, for the purposes of this article, lets assume you are going independently and need to plan the whole adventure yourself.
You may want to go it alone and have a solitary adventure or share the experience. Either is fine but if you are going solo you need to be sure this will work for you. You’ll have a lot of decisions to make and loads of time to yourself. You are also reducing the safety factor that having a partner (or partners) brings. On the plus side you probably know that you will get on with yourself well and will undoubtedly learn a lot more about what makes you tick while you’re away.
If you are going with a single partner you obviously need to be sure it is someone you’ll get along with and who you can trust completely. Your partner will make or break your trip. On expeditions with more challenging objectives a group of 3 or more can work better as you can share the workload. For climbing trips this means you’ll always have company at those long belay stances where dark thoughts about what’s coming up can develop.
A final alternative is a larger team. If this is made up of friends it can work very well and will be a very sociable experience. If you don’t know all the team members I suggest making lots of effort to get together before departure. This is far better than the group breaking up into clichés or you stand like strangers at the airport.
Knowledge is Power
Research, research, research – you can’t do enough. Good old Google is a great resource and website forums can be a great place to ask for advice from people that have been there before you. Unless, of course, you are going somewhere no one else has ever been! In my experience you can’t beat talking to experienced people face to face. The information and tips they give you will be really useful.
It is also worth tapping into any in country sources that might be able to help with support or information. Mountaineering associations, climbing clubs or outdoor magazines may all have things to offer and are likely to be very welcoming to overseas visitors just as our organisations are to climbers visiting the UK.
Then there’s good old guidebooks. Nowadays we are spoilt with the quality and range available but what you find for your objective depends, not surprisingly, on your objective. If you’re planning a new route on Nuptse you might only find a few photos but at least there’ll undoubtedly be a great trekking guide to get you to base camp!
Can I speak to Chief Running Bear please?
No matter what the objective there will almost always be in country red tape and logistics to sort out. It might be organising a climbing permit or contacting the tribal chief – either way it needs to be job number one on your to do list and should be dealt with way in advance. Without it you either won’t get the show on the road or your objectives may be compromised.
Often it will be worth using an in country agent to sort things out for you. The cost usually isn’t too great and their local knowledge and contacts are priceless. They will also be aware of vital details like, if it’s relevant, which sirdar to employ and any local political issues you should be aware of. At the end of the day it’s also great to have someone in country that you know is batting for your team.
The only problem with in country agents is knowing which ones will give the best service. In some places you might not have any choice but in other destinations you will be spoilt for choice. Personal recommendations are always preferable but some places have organisations like the Trekking Agents Association of Nepal (TAAN), which offers information and limited protection. It’s also worth checking out specific websites like Explorers Web or Summit Post, which may have snippets of information and useful contacts.
The doctor will see you now
Depending where you go a series of inoculations will normally be required. These can seem expensive but it will seem money well spent when you get there. Your doctor or local travel clinic can advise you on which jabs you need but remember to leave plenty of time as some courses need to be started well in advance.
It’s also worth having a check up at the dentist as a dental problem can turn into a big problem when you are well away from care. I once lost a filling 3 days into a month long trip and wished I’d been to the dentist before leaving home rather than trusting the ones in Dar Es Salaam (which fortunately turned out to be excellent).
The remoteness and objectives of your expedition will determine what medical supplies you take but I’d advise you to err on the side of caution. Source medication to deal with medical conditions and carry a good selection of first aid equipment. For prescription medications you’ll need to find a doctor that’s supportive of your plans. Bear in mind that you will have a better chance of getting that support if you are clear about what you are doing and why the medications are an essential part of your preparations. It might also help to find a doctor with expedition experience – if they’ve been to similar places themselves they will have a better understanding of your requirements.
If you are heading to altitude make sure you do your research on altitude issues. There’s loads of good info on the BMC website (British Mountaineering Council) and at medex.org.uk. Of course there’s no point having the best first aid kit if you don’t know what to do with it. There are loads of quality first aid courses tailored to remote environments and it may be the best couple of hundred pounds you’ve ever spent but it’s essential all the members of your team get trained because you never know who’ll need the help.
Finally, being physically prepared for your expedition is a health issue too. Although the legendary Don Whillans used to use the walk in to base camp as his training (and it seemed to work well for him), most people will want to be as physically prepared as possible before leaving home. The best training is training that mimics what you are going to be doing on the trip. If you are paddling the Amazon go paddling. If you are going to be carrying big loads fill up a large rucksack and go blasting up as many hills as possible. Any time training will be time well spent and, as you’ll feel better prepared for your objective, there’s a psychological benefit too.
Beam me up Scotty
When it all goes pear shaped you’ll want to know help is at hand. Good insurance is vital and the BMC insurance scheme is hard to beat. Make sure you’ve considered cancellation and baggage insurance too. It may seem a lot to pay when the quote flashes up on your computer monitor but try calculating the cost of an emergency and you’ll see it’s an absolute bargain.
Depending on where you are heading it might be worth considering other types of back up too. Satellite phones can be hired at reasonable cost but ensure it is the right type for the places you are visiting as they don’t all work in all places. Your mobile might also work in places that will surprise you. The Khumbu Valley is a good example – last year I was able to get a good signal as far off the beaten track as Gorak Shep (the village that sits near Everest base camp). In many countries it’s worth buying a local SIM card as it will cut your costs considerably. Think about how you’ll charge it too. Solar chargers are cheap and efficient so you never need to be out of power.
How much? It was half the price next door!
Part of your research should be looking into how to take money with you. In some places US dollars are worth taking but in others sterling is fine. Usually it’s worth changing money into local currency once you get to your destination but you’ll almost never get the best rates at the airport and you are taking a chance if you change money on the street.
Credit cards are very widely accepted and you’ll be surprised at some of the places that accept them. Most card companies require that you let them know which countries you’ll be visiting (otherwise you might find your card blocked when you try to use it) and you’ll generally pay a charge for transactions unless you search out card providers that waive this fee (there are a few).
On many trips you’ll end up carrying quite a lot of cash around. If there are several people in your team share the money between you so if one person loses their portion you still have plenty left to tide you over. If you are paying trekking agents try to do that as soon as possible so you have less currency to carry about.
Planning ahead. You’ve heard it before and I’ll say it again. But with transport it really is essential if you want your expedition to run smoothly. I always think of the journey from the moment I leave my front door and as far into the trip as possible (which can often be until you get home again).
How are you getting to the airport? If you are driving where are you parking? Pre booking parking will save money but you’ll need to factor in the time needed to get a transfer bus to the airport. Are you getting a UK flight down to the airport for your international one? That sometimes works well but you may get stung for equipment as they usually have a low baggage allowance. I once made that mistake and got well and truly collared at BMI check in despite wearing my plastic boots and as much clothing as I could.
Once at your destination how are you getting to your accommodation? Sometimes in country agents will lay on transport or the hotel will sort out a taxi. In some places like Delhi you’ll need to pre book taxis in the airport terminal and in some you’ll need to use licensed providers – know the score beforehand.
Once in country try the local transport when you have time. Rickshaws, tuk-tuks and dalla dallas are all part of the experience - just don’t rely on them for the crucial trips. Finally, using hotel booked taxis may cost slightly more but they will normally be far more reliable than trusting ones you’ve booked on the street and you can at least chase things up at the reception if they are late.
Think through every aspect of your transport and you’ll have a more relaxed adventure. It’s deceptive how much time can be wasted through transport issues. Don’t let it happen on your trip.
A good base in the right place
This links into your transport and is an equally important area to consider. After a tiring international flight and the culture shock of arriving in a strange country you really want to know you have a good bed for at least the first few nights. You’ll usually arrive in a busy city and there are often things to organise before you head for the wilderness so a base in the right place is vital.
Most hotels have websites and travel guidebooks will help you find a good place to stay in the right area. Once you’ve booked take a copy of the reservation with you to give you some bargaining power when you arrive and they tell you it’s full. Also remember to check when you book if they can cater for specific requirements like gear storage or if you need internet facilities.
If in doubt leave it out – unless you’ve got porters!
This is a big area. What to take and what to leave behind is a really difficult decision and it’s hard to offer solid advice because it’s so dependant on where you are going and your expedition objectives. It also depends on how it will be carried and where you are staying. So a few ideas is the best I can offer but I’ve tried to focus on some things I’ve learnt through bitter experience.
Firstly, consider carefully what fuel you need and how you’re going to obtain it. On a trip with a catering team they will often use kerosene or sometimes cook on open fires. For use on mountains the best option is usually gas but find a reliable in country source before you commit to taking your jetboil.
Secondly, think carefully about food. In most places it’s very easy to get food like soups and noodles but you’ll struggle to find specialist foods like Powerbars or energy gels. It’s also worth taking those little extras you can’t live without like Tetley teabags, Lavazza coffee or Marmite.
Water is always going to be a big issue on expedition so think carefully about the way you are going to make water safe to drink. If you have a cooking team they’ll usually boil it for you but ensure they are really boiling it rather than just getting it very hot. Also remember that water boils at a lower temperature when you’re at altitude. There’s also various water filters that might be worth consideration but, for my money, iodine is pretty much the perfect system. Unfortunately it’s recently been banned for sale in the UK but the replacement, Chlorine Dioxide, seems effective. You can still buy Iodine overseas.
In many countries they are trying hard to limit the amount of plastic bottles that get thrown away. That’s an initiative that’s well worth supporting. In some places like the Khumbu Valley UV treated water is available. In Leh you can buy pressure treated water at a fraction of the cost of bottled water. Take your own bottles into the shop and fill it yourself from one of the water tanks for a few rupees.
Apart from that it really depends on your individual itinerary but there are a few things I always take.
- Plenty of wet wipes for those times you can’t find a shower (which is usually quite often!).
- Some all purpose biodegradeable soap. This usually does everything from washing off trail dirt to washing your capilene underwear.
- A sewing repair kit – you never know when your trousers are going to split.
- Some gaffer tape – great for a million repairs.
- A scarf. A simple square of cotton is great for everything from creating a sun hat through to being an emergency towel. You can buy these for a few rupees in India.
- Copies of your visa and passport plus a few spare passport photos. They’ll make life much easier if you lose them but don’t leave the copies with your originals for obvious reasons
- Plenty of pens. You just never seem to have enough.
- A notebook. There’ll be loads of stuff to write down plus you’ll be able to while away the hours in your tent writing an article like this.
There’s no adventure to be had on a dead planet
Your expedition is going to have a negative impact on the environment. You can’t avoid that unless maybe you are cycling or rowing to your destination. But it’s still possible to minimise the impact as much as you can with some simple measures. For example, buy local food instead of imported luxuries. Purchase some carbon credits to offset the impact of your flight. Use support agencies that adopt ethical practices towards their porters. Make sure rubbish is removed from your base camp. There’s a hundred ways you can make a difference.
And last but not least……
Take lots of photographs, talk to local people and have fun. After all that planning you’ve certainly earnt it!