Expeditions: A Guide by Richard Sheane
Expedition Skills: Training
It's common sense that the better you are prepared for an expedition the safer and more rewarding it will be. So, in the months leading up to your departure you will probably need to get physically fit. Even if you are planning a trip at the more gentle end of the expeditioning scale, your body will still experience physical strains and challenges that it is probably not used to.
Thankfully Britain has a superb variety of training opportunities for the would-be expeditioner. For those of you on a tight budget, getting fit will be one of the cheapest parts of your expedition - running and doing sit-ups is free! For the cost of a bus or train fare you can also spend time testing equipment and yourself in cold or warm wilderness situations - all the time gaining confidence in how to live self-sufficiently.
If your trip is going to be very physical then the membership costs of joining your local gym for a few months might well be worth it. I find using a variety of machines (called cross-training) is a very effective way of getting fit and staying motivated. Your gym will be able to set you up with a professional trainer should you need expert advice on the best exercises to do and how long to do them for. They will also be able to advise you on nutrition. And don't think that personal trainers are for celebrities only... a few sessions needn't blow your budget and you will probably find the knowledge gained invaluable.
But don't think that the gym is the answer to all your training needs. If possible you should tailor your work-out to the type of activity you will be doing on your expedition, and while you can simulate some activities in a gym (like cycling or rowing) there is no substitute for getting outside and experiencing real conditions - wind, rain, snow, mud and a full backpack! These work-outs will not only give you the edge physically, they will also prepare you mentally for the expedition. It's no good doing all your training for an Arctic expedition in a nice warm gym with a Mars bar machine!
What is fitness?
Broadly speaking, experts agree that there are five basic components of being in great shape:
- Cardio respiratory or aerobic endurance - This is a measure of how efficient your heart, lungs and blood vessels are at supplying your muscles with oxygen during moderately strenuous activity over a period of time.
- Muscular endurance - This is how long your muscles can hold a particular position or repeat a movement over prolonged periods of time. Good muscular endurance is important for loads of expedition activities e.g. rock climbing, kayaking, cycling, trekking etc.
- Muscular strength - This does exactly what it says on the tin! Muscular strength determines the maximum force you can exert on an object. This aspect of fitness can be very localised - you may have strong arms but weak legs. You may have to tailor your training to work on muscle groups you will rely on the most during your expedition.
- Flexibility - This is the ability to move a joint through its full range of motion thanks to the elasticity of muscle. Increased flexibility will reduce the likelihood of injury.
- Body composition - This is the proportion of fat in your body compared to your bone and muscle - it does not refer to your weight or your figure. As expeditions require so much energy, you will probably find body fat is burnt up, so don't go dieting before you leave unless you are significantly overweight. Ask your doctor for advice on this if you are unsure.
Before you start training
Before you start putting yourself through a training programme it is important to get medical advice if you have a heart condition, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, joint or back problems, or if you are pregnant or on any medication
Also, getting proper equipment and clothing it a must - a poor fitting pair of trainers or walking boots will at best be really uncomfortable and at worst cause you injury. You don't want to be forced out of the expedition before you've set foot on a plane.
Your training programme
To give yourself plenty of time to get fit you should preferably give yourself 16 weeks. The key is to take things slowly and not overdo it. If you burn out in the first couple of weeks you will feel less inclined to continue. Going too hard at the beginning will also increase your risk of injury - and this may stop you training altogether.
Set yourself goals before you start - but don't make them too difficult. At the same time they should be a challenge. You can readjust your goals as you go along... you may find you are fitter than you actually thought!
Your work-out should consist of the following parts:
This is essential to get your cold, relaxed body gradually prepared for a hard workout. Without getting your heart, lungs, blood vessels and muscles ready for increased stress you will be at risk from injury.
Another important part of limiting injuries is increasing your flexibility by reducing muscle tension. You should concentrate your stretching sessions on all your muscles in the legs as well as muscle groups in your abdomen, trunk, back, shoulders, chest, neck and arms. A good stretching regime used while training should be used when on the actual expedition too.
This sort of workout should be the main part of your routine as it increases your stamina and muscle endurance. As I mentioned before, it is basically intended to increase your body's efficiency at transporting oxygen - this is done by improving your heart, lungs and blood vessels.
Popular forms of cardiovascular exercise are: running, cycling, swimming, walking and aerobics. If you are a member of a gym you could also add a bit of variety by using cross-country skiing machines or steppers (that imitate climbing a ladder).
How long and how hard you train will differ between people, so getting some professional advice would be a good idea if you are unsure.
As a rough guide, if you haven't done exercise for a while you should aim to get your heart rate at about 60% of its maximum for about 20 minutes. To calculate your maximum heart rate you should use the following rough equation: Maximum heart rate = 220 - (Your Age). So, if you are 20 years old you should get your heart rate up to 60% of (220 - 20), which equals 120 beats per minute... As you get fitter you can gradually increase your heart rate up to about 80% of its maximum!
Monitoring your heart rate is relatively easy if at the gym - most new aerobic machines have monitors that read your vital signs. If you're outdoors then you can buy one for about £50.
This helps develop muscle strength and endurance and is an important part of your training program. As you are exercising for an expedition (and not Mr Universe) you should concentrate on doing plenty of repetitions of light to moderate weights. Try aiming for two to three sets of 10-15 repetitions (NB one repetition is one complete flex of the muscle you are working out).
A word of warning though: improper use of weights can lead to injury so it is important to know how to use equipment before diving in. In fact, most gyms ask members to undergo a brief induction course before using their gear. Don't be scared to ask if in doubt.
This is just as important as warming up and acts in a similar way - this time preparing your body to stop exercising. Five minutes of gentle cycling or brisk walking is enough to keep a good supply of oxygen flowing in order to allow your body to get rid of waste chemicals produced during exercise.
One last thing...
Don't overdo it! Your muscles need time to recover and regenerate. Give yourself at least one day off a week and try to work different muscle groups on alternate days.
Expedition Skills: Equipment
Buying equipment for your expedition can be a daunting experience - the outdoor sports retail market is a massive one these days. Gear can be expensive too and costs soon mount up if you don't watch your spending carefully. If you don't think you'll ever use them again you could look into renting items such as ice axes or tents. A word of warning though: your life could depend on your equipment so be sure you can guarantee the quality and condition of any gear you hire. There's a fine line between being careful with your money and being careless with your life!
The whole process of gear buying is much less scary if you can find a decent outdoor shop with well-trained, knowledgable staff - depending on where you live in the country you may have to travel for this!
Drawing up your list
So, let's say you have decided that your team of four is going to tackle Mt Kenya in November. With a little research you have found out what temperatures to expect (below freezing to above 20C!), what the terrain is like (rocky paths, mud, grasslands and a massive screeslope!) and how long it will take (at least five days). Now you can draw up an equipment list!
The core kit list for most expeditions is actually very similar. When you know what you are going to be up against you can customise this basic list it to suit your team's requirements.
In order to 'tweak' your kitlist you will need to take into account the following factors:
- Weather - Obviously extremes of temperature, rainfall, snowfall, wind or humidity may require some more expensive, specialised gear. You will need to find out the average temperatures and rainfall for where you are going at that time of year.
- Terrain - This will affect gear choice in a similar way to weather. If you are camping on a glacier, to take an extreme example, you will need snow stakes to set out your tent, not the standard peg! If walking on an even path you could settle for some lightweight trekking trainers, but if you're scrambling over rocks and up hills you will need plenty of ankle support in the form of a boot.
- Size of team - Apart from more personal gear, you may need more communal gear, such as tents and cooking stuff. In general, a larger team can also take more 'extras' as much of the communal gear is shared out, leaving space in rucksacks for more food or clothing.
- Length of expedition and remoteness - This will have more affect on food supplies, although you may want to take spares of some smaller bits of gear (like cooking stoves or headtorches) on longer, more remote treks. In fact it is advisable to take spares of some items (e.g. head torch batteries and bulbs) on any expedition. It would be only on the more extreme expeditions that you might consider taking spares of larger items such as sleeping bags or tents. Also, if you are planning to be out of contact for days or weeks at a time it would be advisable to take a satellite phone or emergency beacon. Remember these items will need a power source like a small solar panel - yet more to carry!
- Personal preference - Some people prefer to travel as light as possible at the expense of a little comfort, while others prefer to carry a little bit extra and live a bit more lavishly. If you're happy to carry it then take your delux set of fine china plates (just don't expect anyone to help!).
Achieving a good night's kip is very important when on an expedition. Sleep deprivation will soon turn a dream trek into a nightmare trudge so buying a bag that will be able to deal with the temperatures you will be experiencing is essential!
To make things easier for the consumer sleeping bags are normally very well labelled with the temperature ranges they can withstand. These ratings are sometimes given as the number of 'seasons'. For example, a three season sleeping bag will do spring, summer and autumn temperatures in UK. If you are camping in the winter and are expecting freezing temperatures then a four season bag is needed. For those going to very cold places there are even five season bags!
'Mummy' shaped bags with a drawstring hood are best for serious camping (as opposed to rectangular ones with Mickey Mouse print!). They are smaller, lighter and closer fitting.
To cut down on weight and bulk the outer shell should be made of a light man-made material. These materials also give some water resistance (unlike cotton).
The inner fabric can also come in a variety of materials. Fleece is is warm but bulky. Silk is good but much more expensive. Cotton is comfortable and quiet but heavier. New man-made materials are my recommendation again here as they are light and hard wearing.
What the sleeping bag is filled with will determine the temperatures at which you can use it. Duck or goose down is the best - being warm and light - but its perfomance is seriously damaged if it gets wet and it is more expensive. Synthetic bags are cheaper and retain more warmth when wet. Whichever filling you decide to choose make sure it is well distributed and stitched to the inner or outer layers to avoid it clumping.
If you want versatility you might decide to get a two/three season sleeping bag and also buy something called a sleeping bag liner. These can be silk, fleece, cotton or synthetic. When it's cold you could use the liner and bag, when it's warmer you could use just the bag or even just the liner. Using a liner is also a great way to keep the inside of your bag clean as it can be removed and bunged in the washing machine easily. (Sleeping bags tend to pong after four weeks of sleeping, sweating and not much washing!).
When it comes to catching a few winks another piece of camping equipment that is essential is a sleeping mat. Apart from making the tent floor softer it also provides essential insulation against the cold ground. Foam-based mats are bulky, but cheaper and aren't liable to puncture - unlike the lighter, more expensive inflatable mats. If you opt to buy an inflatable mat remember to buy a repair kit just in case you lie down on a devious little thorn.
If you are going to a particularly cold or wet destination you may want to invest in a Gore-Tex bivvy bag. This handy item is like a breathable, sleeping bag-shaped waterproof for your bag! If you are using a down-filled bag this might be particularly useful.
When you're travelling try to dry and air sleeping bags before you pack them. When you return home clean them properly and do not store for extended periods of time in a compression sack.
For serious camping you will need a tent that can withstand strong winds and a good soaking! The most popular shape amongst expeditioners is the dome tent. These rely on at least two lightweight flexible poles, an outer waterproof 'flysheet' and a sealable 'inner' which incorporates a waterproof groundsheet. All this is held in place by a generous number of guy lines and pegs.
The tent size (and how many you take) will depend on the number of people in your team (obviously!). If there are four of you, you may decide to take two two-man tents. However, I would recommend investing in one four-man as this cuts down on the amount of gear to be carried. The advantage of splitting a group into smaller tents is that if you were to lose one by accident (dropped down a cliff or into a river?) then you still have somewhere to sleep - although it would be pretty cosy!
Other things to look for in a tent are: porch size (a decent sized one will allow you to store backpacks at night) and whether it has any interior pockets (good for storing bits and bobs!).
When it comes to deciding on which make and model of tent to purchase - like in most things - you get what you pay for. If you are travelling in comfortable, warm weather then getting a more basic design would be perfectly acceptable. Cold, windy weather requires a tent that is just that bit tougher (and more expensive). Like sleeping bags, manufacturers often rate their tents by season to give you an idea of what they are capable of. Ask you local outdoor retailer for advice if in doubt!
Day-to-day tent tips:
- Before pitching your tent clear the ground of stones and other objects that could damage the tent floor.
- Position your tent carefully. Think about making use of natural protection from sun and wind. Camp on ground you are sure won't flood if it tips it down while you're asleep.
- Even on cold nights make sure you ventilate your tent well as condensation can build up from your breath and sweat to make everything damp!
- Don't cook inside a tent - you run the risk of burning it down or passing out through inhaling poisonous gases!
- Let your tent dry before packing it (if you have the time and the weather!). When packing, don't stuff it in any old how - you may rip it. Instead, roll it up neatly.
- A tent tidying kit is a good investment! This little dustpan and brush sets allow you to keep the tent floor free of dirt, snow and rubbish (especially useful before you store it).
Your choice of boot will depend on the terrain and weather you will be encounting. Broadly speaking, if you are walking on even paths then a lighter, more flexible boot or even trekking trainer is an option. If you are going to be hill walking on uneven surfaces or scrambling over rocks and down scree slopes you need something that is going to provide you with more support.
The big questions is: leather or fabric? Traditionally leather was the only way to go when it came to walking, but with new developments in the exciting world of shoes (!) people are increasingly using fabric boots (or sometimes a mixture of the two!).
Leather boots tend to be tougher and more waterproof but heavier and more expensive, while fabric boots are lighter and cheaper. Fabric boots also make use of modern materials like Gore-Tex to give them breathability (i.e. it keeps the water out, but lets sweat escape - magic!).
Tip: If you are going to be walking through muddy areas or long, wet grasses then you should wear gaiters. These bits of waterproof fabric attach to your boots and keep your lower leg dry.
Make sure you buy your boots from a knowledgable retailer who can take your exact foot measurements. Many manufacturers list accredited stockists on their websites - they should be able to give a proper fitting service. Take your time to find a pair that feel great - if you comprimise at this stage you will regret it later! When in the shop try the boots on with walking socks - and do the fitting later in the day (when your feet have expanded to their full size - really!).
One you have bought your boots, remember that the sturdier the construction the more it will have to be 'broken in'. This should be done by taking increasingly long walks. If you don't do this before your expedition you are likely to get blisters - and no one wants that!
Tip: It's a good idea to take a pair or trainers or decent sandals for when you are knocking round the campsite in the evenings. Keep them nice and dry and you'll have something pleasant to change out of at the end of a tough day!
After your expedition make sure you care for your boots properly so that they will last as long as possible. Follow the manufacturers washing instructions and condition your boots with the correct waterproofing product.
Tip: Look after your feet when on an expedition - they may be your only form of transport! If you expect your feet to get particularly sweaty or wet (yuch!) clean and dry them each night. You may even want to use some talcum powder. All this helps stop infections and blisters. Carry a good supply of blister pads and bandages in your first aid kit just in case things go wrong.
Wearing the right pair of socks is an important part of avoiding foot hell!
Unfortunately feet sweat when walking or in hotter climates and this sweat, if not properly dealt with, can make skin soft and particularly susceptible to blisters.
They key to not having festering feet is moisture management! Basically, the idea is to wick sweat away from your skin and get rid of that moisture by a combination of evaporation and absorption. So socks should be made of a combination of wicking and absorption yarns. Simple!
Synthetic fibres such as polyester and polypropylene are good at wicking, while natural fibres are the best for absorption - wool in particular can absorb 30% of its own weight in moisture and still feel dry to the touch! In addition to these fibres, nylon is added to give durability. Steer clear of a sock with less than 10% nylon.
Padding is also important (especially when using heavier boots). The toes and ankle are the main areas that need protecting.
Tip: If you are particularly susceptible to blisters then try wearing a very thin liner sock beneath your main sock. The theory goes that any rubbing will then take place between the two socks instead of between your skin and your sock.
Expedition rucksacks tend to be in the range of 70-80 litres in size (but go smaller if you can!).
Comfort is the key so make sure you try it on in the store. A good harness makes all the difference - so look for easy adjustment, padding and body contouring. A chest strap will increase stability.
The back system should be padded enough to be comfortable, but stiff enough to hold its shape. A system to allow air flow behind your back is also good for keeping you free from sweat.
The hip strap should take some of the weight off your shoulders and so should be broad and nicely padded too. Make sure it sits on your hips (quite often this can be achieved by adjusting the back system).
Outside pockets are useful for carrying gear you need to get your hands on quick like waterproofs, water bottles, first aid and food snacks. A good selection of loops and straps are also handy for attaching tents, sleeping mats and walking poles.
To adjust the pack correctly fill it with gear, undo all the straps and put it on. Firstly secure the waist band so it hugs your body snugly - your hips are strong and can take plenty of weight. Next tighten the shoulder straps so the pack pulls comfortably against your back. Fine adjustments can be then made using the top-tensioning straps that run from the shoulder straps to the top of the pack. The chest strap should then be tightened to pull the shoulder straps together slightly (the strap should sit on a man's pectoral muscle or just above a woman's bust). And there you have it: one expertly fitted pack!
A word of advice for women travllers: some manufacturers are now creating packs which are tailormade to their shorter backs, narrower shoulders and higher, slimmer waists.
Tip: When packing your sack you should make sure the heaviest, densest items are closest to your back. This aids stability.
Tip: Rucksacks can never be truly waterproof as they have so many seams. To ensure your clothing stays nice and dry invest in a plastic rucksack liner. Rucksack covers are also available.
When it comes to choosing what clothes to take on an expedition the choice is huge! But no matter what design or latest fabric technology you opt for the key to dressing on an expedition is layers, layers and more layers!
A good selection of layers gives you great versatility while travelling. Whenever you have to cope with a temperature change you can add or remove layers to maintain a comfortable body temperature. This change in temperature typically comes about when you stop/start walking, when the weather deteriorates/improves or when the sun sets/rises.
Layering is also an extremely efficient way of keeping warm as air heated by your body gets trapped between the layers and keeps you toasty!
To cope with temperatures down to about -5C you might pack something like the following:
- Base layer - Thermal top and bottoms
- Mid layer - Trekking shirt and trousers
- Top layer - Thin fleece/jumper
- Outer layer - Heavy fleece (with windstopping qualities)
- An outer waterproof shell may also be required if wet
As you start to walk or doing some physical exercise you will probably begin stripping off layers fast! Once you stop you will have to put these layers back on to stop yourself cooling quickly.
Remember, it is just as important to stop yourself overheating as it is to stop yourself getting too cold. If you get too hot sweat will soak your base layers - then when you stop walking the wet clothes will drain heat from your body as the moisture evaporates.
Tip: Always keep a set of clothes dry for when you get into camp. As soon as you can, change into these dry clothes and get some hot drinks down you. Slightly damp items (like socks) can be put in your sleeping bag and during the night your body heat should dry them off a bit. Don't be tempted to wear your dry clothes the next day - they will probably get wet too and you will have an uncomfortable evening and night at your next camp! If you did this and temperatures are very low you could even develop hypothermia - a very dangerous illness.
For most expedition situations a good selection of clothing from any high street outdoor store would be sufficient - there's no need to blow the budget on a jacket that would befit an Everest ascent, amazing as it looks.
When buying a fleece look out for fabric types such as Polartec and Windstopper. These are well established brands that many of the top clothing designers like Berghaus and North Face incorporate into their products. In particular Polartec do a range of fleece weights (from Polartec 100 to 300) that are perfect for layering.
Waterproofs that use Gore-Tex fabric in their construction are often found on expeditions. They are designed to keep rain out while at the same time let sweat evaporate away from your body. It might be worth investing in a set if you are expecting rain on your travels. If you are going to get absolutely drenched (perhaps you are spending a lot of time in a rainforest) then an army surplus poncho is great - they can be picked up for about £20! They also double as handy waterproof covers for rucksacks and tents if you need some extra protection.
Example kit list for climbing Mt Kenya
To give you an idea of a complete expedition kit list, I have come up with one for a week-long trek to Point Lenana on Mt Kenya. This expedition destination is slightly unusual as it offers a wide range of temperatures - from the warm lower slopes to the freezing summit! My gear choices reflect this...
- Rucksack - 70-80 litres
- Cooking gear - gas canister stove is fine, plus pots and eating utensils.
- Food - one-day expedition pack per person per day plus extra items
- Washkit including toilet paper - nailbrush is useful
- Sewing kit (includling spare laces)
- Penknife - multi-blade
- Water bottles - two x 1litre
- Stuff sacks - all sizes, to keep clothing dry
- Rucksack liner - to keep all gear dry
- Headtorch and spare batteries - essential!
- Camera kit
- Compact umbrella - actually useful for rain showers!
- First aid kit
- Guide books, maps
- Notebook and pencils
- Boots - good ankle support for uneven route
- Sleeping bag - three-season with a cotton/fleece liner will do
- Sleeping mat - full length Thermarest (and repair kit)
- Waterproofs - jacket and trousers
- Good fleece - for up high and colder nights
- Lighter fleece - good for layering or wearing with T-shirt
- Long-sleeved T-shirts - two (white ones relfect sun's rays)
- Trousers - two pairs (choose ones that can 'convert' to shorts)
- Hiking shirts - two (breathable and quick drying is better)
- Underwear - three pairs
- Thermals - one set
- Socks - at least three pairs
- Gaiters - for walking though long grasses
- Hats - sun and fleece
- Gloves - one pair, warm
- Sunglasses - UV protection
Expedition Skills: Food
According to an old saying an army marches on its stomach - well the same is true of expeditioners. Without basic essentials such as shelter, warmth, water and food your sense of humour will begin to fail very quickly!
So getting nutrition right while on an expedition is very important. But to think of your meals as simply fuel would be a mistake. Poor tasting food will have a very negative impact on your team - no matter how nutritious the food is. If it's unappetising then people will not eat enough and morale will slump. The expedition will be in severe trouble! Eating the same thing day-in day-out will also become sickening. With all the pressures of an expedition it's not uncommon for petty squabbles to develop over food ... So, to avoid fights over that last Werther's Original, meals should be:
- High energy - average energy requirements rise by 50% on an expedition.
- Lightweight - very important if you have to carry food yourself, pay for porters or travel by plane.
- Easily prepared - no one wants to spend an hour hunched over a stove after a hard day's walking. Aim for 15-minute menus!
- Tasty and varied - a high energy meal has no nutritional value if no one eats it!
- Within budget - don't blow the budget on spaceage foods eaten by Nasa astronauts that cost £20 a pudding!
- Easily stored - if food perishes then it will be no good to anyone.
- Nutritionally balanced - If you're going for longer than six weeks consider taking vitamin and mineral supplements.
How you achieve the above points will depend largely on where your expedition will be based. There is no substitute for fresh foods - but you may have to resort to dried packets if you are in the middle of nowhere for a long time.
In fact, there are now a wide range of freeze-dried and dehydrated foods available which, unbelievable as it sounds, can taste pretty good. Perhaps you would like seafood chowder followed by pasta primavera and cheesecake to finish? Well you can have it ... all you need do is add boiling water! The meals are also easy to cook and very lightweight. Some even cook in the pouch so there's hardly any washing up - bonus!
Some companies also produce all-in-one packs that are designed to feed one person for one day (i.e. they contain breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and drink powders). This makes working out how much food you need very easy - so you won't end up carrying far too much food or, even worse, running out!
The main disadvantage with dried foods is cost - it can soon mount up! For example, a dinner pouch for two will cost about £3.50. If you're feeling creative you can come up with similar menus for a fraction of the price using conventional pastas, rice and dried sauces. And if you don't mind carrying the weight then some tinned foods make a welcome addition to these dishes (e.g. tuna, salmon or ham).
Breakfasts can consist of cereals or porridge (with dehydrated milk and sugar) or maybe a snack bar. Lunch tends to be taken on the go and is more of a snack stop: hot soup, biscuits, a lump of cheese and some chocolate would be perfect.
Drinks are also very important so take plenty of hot chocolate, tea, coffee and maybe some powdered energy drinks (don't forget the dried milk and sugar!). Other high energy foods found in many an expeditioner's pocket are dried fruits and nuts.
If you are feeling uninspired then take a stroll through a decent-sized supermarket and flick through some recipe books - you'll soon come up with some good menu ideas. Remember to ask other team members what sorts of foods they like and dislike - are there any vegetarians?
Remember if you do end up buying fresh fruits, vegetables, meats or fish in host countries then the standard traveller health advice applies: select food with care. In areas where hygiene and sanitation are inadequate, you should avoid salads, uncooked vegetables, and unpasteurized milk and milk products such as cheese, and only eat food that has been cooked and is still hot or fruit that you have peeled. Undercooked and raw meat, fish, and shellfish can carry various intestinal pathogens - so beware!
Whatever type of food you decide to take, you should try and remove as much packaging as possible before you set out - this will save on weight and rubbish in the field (which you will have to carry). You should also take a good selection of seasonings and maybe a luxury item or two for when you need a pick-me-up. Some salt, pepper, dried herbs and a splash of Tabasco can add a kick to the most boring of dishes! Jamie Oliver watch out!
So, picture the scene: You and your friends are sitting beneath a blanket of stars in the American mid-west. You've polished off the last After Eight mint and you're basking in the glow of a yet another culinary triumph conjured from your rucksack. But before you can crawl into your tent for a good night's rest there is one final thing that needs attending to: the washing up! If you don't like doing this task at home then you'll like it even less in the field! Nevertheless it's best to do it as soon as possible or the food will be welded to plates and pots by the morning and it may attract unwanted animals to your tent while you sleep! Take a scouring brush and a small container of eco-friendly washing up liquid with you to help with shifting the grime - it'll make life much easier. For those who like to do things properly, 20 litre basins that collapse to the size of a large tumbler can be bought for about £15! By using these you can wash pots easily away from your water source. Food scraps and dishwater should be disposed of as thoughtfully as possible (down long drop toilets if at a campsite). Many species of wild animals can get sick from eating our overprocessed foods.
Expedition Skills: Health
The first thing many people associate with travel in exotic-sounding places is exotic-sounding illnesses! While it is true that expeditions in remote places are likely to expose you to more unusual hazards, with proper preparation these risks can be minimised.
In fact, contrary to popular belief, illness is much more likely to be caused by a stomach upset (typically traveller's diarrhoea) than sleeping sickness, snake bites or flesh eating bugs!
The leading causes of death on expeditions are: falls or other injuries, road traffic accidents, altitude sickness, heat stroke, infections such as malaria, drowning and homicide.
According to a study done in 2000, if you are taking part in a well planned expedition your risk of injury is similar to that risk encountered in a normal active life (this does not include those of you who aspire to greater things like climbing Mt Everest! There at least 10% of those attempting the summit die).
Whether you are going with an expedition organisation or doing it yourself, one of your first stops should be your local travel clinic. They will be able to provide you with all the latest vaccination and anti-malarial advice on your destination. Do this as early as possible as some treatments are spread over several weeks.
Beyond concerns over disase, expedition health requires an appreciation of a few risks not commonly tackled by your 'average' tourist. It is likely you will be living much closer to nature in more remote areas, so account has to be taken of the region's terrain, climate, altitude and fauna. I will examine the following expedition health issues: personal hygiene, altitude sickness, sunstroke, dehydration, frostbite, trenchfoot, blisters.
Personal hygiene - You owe it to yourself and your team-mates to stay healthy on an expedition. Without maintaining good standards of personal hygiene you will greatly increase the chances of disease hitting the group and your smells won't be popular with tent-mates! The standards that apply back home should also apply on an expedition... brush your teeth, treat cuts properly, wash thouroughly (all those nooks and crannies!) and change underwear as often as you can. Your feet should get plenty of attention (see 'trenchfoot' below) to avoid skin irritations, blisters or worse. Wash them as often as possible and try and keep them as dry as possible - perhaps take some foot talc. A good supply of anti-bacterial baby wipes is an essential part of any washkit - these can be used to supplement conventional soaps that need water. Handy travel laundry kits that contain soap, a scrubber and peg-less washline can be used to wash clothes at least once a week. Air your sleeping bag regularly.
Acute mountain sickness (AKA altitude sickness) - Above 3,000m most people will begin to feel the affects of altitude due to the lower air pressure and reduction in available oxygen. As many of the world's favourite expedition destinations are above this height, many teams have to deal with this minor yet debilitating problem.
Symptoms appear within 36 hours of arrival at altitude and typically include headaches, nausea, fatigue, breathlessness and dizziness. In severe cases where appropriate action is not taken, deaths occur through pulmonary or cerebral oedema (a very unpleasant condition where fluid builds up in the lung airways or brain tissue) - but this is uncommon.
Like many of the problems discussed in this section, acute mountain sickness is highly preventable if approached correctly. Acclimatisation is the key here - by giving your body time to adjust to new conditions, humans can survive altitudes in excess of 8,000m (far above the limits of most expeditions).
But here is the problem: how you respond to altitude gain is subject to a high degree of individual variation. Just as some people get seasick easily and others don't - so AMS can strike down a marathon runner and not touch an unfit overweight trekker! Also, just because you have been to altitude before without any problems doesn't guarantee a symptom-free ascent next time. Because of these unknowns it is best to err on the side of caution and take it easy! Slowly but surely wins the race, as they say!
To give you an idea of the pace you should take, here are some often-quoted acclimatisation guidelines... many would regard these as far to slow, but by sticking to them you can be almost sure none of your team will have a rough time:
Above 3,000m you should ascend at no more than 300m per day and for every 900m of elevation gained, take a rest day. It is recommended that you spend at least a week above 4,000m before sleeping above 5,000m. It should be noted, however, that you can climb more than 300m during a day as long as you return to the lower altitude to sleep - this is commonly known as the 'climb high, sleep low' technique and will aid your acclimatisation.
It is also very important to drink plenty of water (three to four litres a day) - your pee should be copious and clear! Other advice is to eat plenty of carbohydrate-rich foods and don't smoke or drink alcohol. Some people find taking half an aspirin each morning helps (this works by thinning the blood). Anti-oxidants like vitamin C can also help you at altitude.
If you do develop AMS (beyond a mild headache or feeling of nausea) it is important not to go any higher. Simple painkillers can be used to treat a headache (e.g. paracetamol). If the symptoms persist or worsen then you should descend to a lower altitude where they should resolve themselves. If descent is not possible then special drugs, which I discuss below, can be used.
The use of drugs in preventing and treating altitude sickness is a controversial one. Some trekking companies advise customers to take 'anti-AMS' drugs (such as one called Diamox) before and during their trek, while others use them as a last resort. Personally I would fall into the second category - with a proper acclimatisation plan there should be no need to resort to pill popping!
- Frostbite - This distressing condition is caused by the freezing of living tissue (mainly in the body's extremities) and can lead to amputation if not treated quickly. To avoid frostbite expeditioners should: practice good hygiene; properly insulate extremities; avoid tight clothing that limits circulation; stay hydrated; limit caffeine and tobacco intake.
- Trenchfoot - Trenchfoot is a very serious non-freezing cold injury which develops when skin of the feet is exposed to moisture and cold for prolonged periods (12 hours or longer). The combination of cold and moisture softens skin, causing tissue loss and, often, infection. Changing your socks often and proper hygiene will drastically reduce the risk of suffering from this.
- Blisters - Blisters can turn a pleasant trek into a nightmare hobble. They are a fluid-filled sac caused by heat and/or friction. There are a number of preventative measures available, beyond wearing correctly fitting shoes/boots. Getting the right socks is important - so try some different brands if you know you are susceptible to blisters. Very thin liner socks which you wear inside your main sock are also widely available - the theory being that any friction will occur between the socks, as opposed to between your sock and your skin. Baby powder or a strong anti-perspirant can be used to keep the skin dry. If you do get a blister and you cannot stop walking you should protect it with a donut-shaped moleskin pad leaving the area over the blister open.
- Dehydration - Drinking plenty of clean water when you are on an expedition is an essential part of keeping healthy. Without adequate amounts of water you will quickly suffer from dehydration - in other words the loss of body fluids. Experts recommend expeditioners drink six litres of water when doing physical exercise in very cold or hot climates. If you are drinking the correct amount your pee should be clear - if it is a dark yellow or orange you need to get a few litres down you! Dehydration often accompanies other serious conditions (e.g. heatstroke, diarrhoea, altitude sickness).
- Heat injuries - Common types of heat injuries are heat exhaustion (headache, nausea, dizziness) and heat stroke (rapid pulse, mental confusion, unconsciousness). To prevent these conditions you should develop a hydration programme and stick to it (see 'dehydration' section above). You should also take simple steps such as avoid travel at the hottest time of day, wear a hat and cover exposed skin to avoid sunburn.
Expedition Skills: Coping with Different Terrains
Top ten expedition tips for different terrains
There are a number of bits of advice that hold true for any expedition (e.g. stay healthy, take the right clothing, eat properly etc). But some more extreme terrains require more preparation and some specific advice. So, below are our top ten tips for travel in jungle, polar, mountain, bush and desert regions. Thanks to British explorer and filmmaker Benedict Allen for some of these.
Jungles tend to be wet, dark, hot, humid places where thick vegetation can make for heavy going. Staying healthy and happy in this environment revolves around minimising discomfort and infection and protecting yourself from little things that bite.
- Be sure to keep a dry set of clothes well protected from the damp by storing it in a waterproof rucksack liner or canoe bag during the day. You can then be sure of being able to getting out of your wet day clothes each evening. This does however mean you may have to get into cold damp clothes in the morning - a test of will-power! Dry damp clothes by a fire.
- Wear long-sleeved tops and trousers to avoid thorns and sun over-exposure.
- To stop mossie bites spray yourself with 100% 'DEET' (Diethyltoluamide - a powerful insect repellent) at dusk and dawn. Also tuck in shirt and roll down sleeves. Get a mosquito net that is impregnated with anti-mosquito repellent - keeps them from biting through.
- To avoid leeches tie the bottom of trousers closed to stop them sneaking in or wear 'leech socks' - these are tightly woven knee-length socks which tie at the top! If they do start sucking just sprinkle a little salt on them from a salt cellar and they'll come off.
- Always empty boots/shoes before you put them on in the morning - spiders and creepy-crawlies may have been using them as a temporary bedroom.
- Take small frequent sips of purified water while walking or working in the jungle.
- At night hang your rucksack above the ground to stop nocturnal animals pinching your food or nibbling the fabric!
- Hammocks should be tied at waist height between two trees. The cord should be wrapped around the trunks a few times and then tied using a bow like you would use on a shoe - other knots will get damp during the night and tighten too much to undo without cutting.
- Sleeping in tight clothing in hot damp conditions puts you at risk of developing a rash or viral infection. Keep yourself clean - fungi will grow all over your skin and start rotting it, especially groin and between toes.
- In your survival kit carry water purification liquid/tablets, and anti-malarials, compass (of course) and waterproof matches.
In contrast to rainforest travel, expeditions to desert areas are mainly concerned with conserving a precious life-giving chemical: water. Correct clothing and behaviour are the two key areas to address when combating fluid loss. The goal is to get your body acclimatised to the heat - but this may take a while (in a Saharan summer it may take three weeks for your body to properly acclimatise!). Below are ten top tips to avoid ending up like a shrivelled prune.
- A deep tan may look nice, but stripping off clothing allows water to evaporate from your body increasing the risk of sunstroke and heat stroke.
- Wear loose cotton clothing that will lightly cover arms, legs, neck and head for full protection (especially while your body is adjusting to the new climate). A wide-brimmed hat, or a cotton chech wrapped round the head is good at protecting the face in dust and extreme heat.
- Unprepared desert travellers can be surprised at the low temperatures in winter nights or at altitude. Depending on your destination a light fleece may be a good thing to pack.
- Suede desert boots offer good protection against the sun, scratches, bites and stings - but can promote fungal infections in sweaty feet. Some prefer sandals and no socks - but be careful of sunburn!
- Drink adequate amounts of water to keep urine output normal (quantity and colour!). It is best to take small sips often... as your body acclimatises it will need less water. Replace lost salts too e.g. by using salt replacement sachets or a cheap homemade solution of salt, bicarbonate of soda and sugar
- Put white tape on your penknife - or a colour that will show up if you drop it in sand. Red doesn't normally show. Carry a whistle - can be heard for miles if you are lost, hopefully. Carry water purification tablets and matches in your survival kit, and a torch and/or flares for attracting attention at night.
- In all expeditions personal hygiene is very important - but it is particularly so in desert conditions. The spread of intestinal upsets through a small group with limited water supplies is a real safety risk - diarrhoea and vomiting cause huge fluid loss from your body.
- Beware of flames from cookers and steam from pots as they are invisible in the intense sunlight.
- Scorpions, snakes and creepy-crawlies are not a huge problem unless you go poking around for trouble! As a precaution you should empty boots before putting them on and always watch where you are putting hands and feet.
- Do like the locals and take it easy - they know best, after all they have been living in harsh desert conditions for thousands of years: get used to dawn starts, have siesta at the hottest part of the day and take your time.
Polar adventures have produced some of the most famous explorers the world has ever seen. And now with easier and cheaper access, these inhospitable wildernesses are becoming more and more popular with 'tourists'. The main hazard is obviously the cold - but dehydration can also be a real problem as can the sheer remoteness.
- Important safety equipment includes an EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon) and a satellite phone - but make sure you get one with coverage at the poles e.g. Iridium. But remember a mirror is a very effective way of signalling to an aeroplane overhead!
- Avoid travelling in white-outs (when light reflects between cloud and snow surface, creating a shadow-less effect) as it is easy to get very disorientated. In camp, tents and equipment should be linked by lines or flags.
- Remember it's a cold desert. You will need a stove to melt ice in order to drink. I always carried a spare mini stove in my emergency kit - and a survival blanket and flapjack etc. Maintain good ventilation when cooking with gas stoves in confined spaces. The build-up of odourless carbon monoxide can be deadly.
- Ice and snow for water should be gathered well away from toilet areas.
- Expeditioners in cold climates often take pee bottles that can be used during the night and emptied in the morning - this avoids the need to leave the safety and warmth of your tent during stormy, freezing nights.
- Avoiding dehydration is made harder in cold conditions for a number of reasons: your kidneys find it harder to conserve water; you will feel the need to urinate more as blood is shunted from your extremities to the core of your body; polar air very low in moisture content and this will promote evaporation.
- Good clothing and equipment is essential. Don't wear tight boots or gloves as this will restrict blood flow to your feet and hands making them chill more quickly
- The temptation with inexperienced expeditioners is to throw on all your clothing when in cold weather, however it is important not to sweat too much - instead adjust layers when you walk or stop.
- Always wear goggles or glasses to avoid snow blindness.
- The use of a neoprene facemask is a good way of stopping small sections of frostbite (frostnip) on exposed parts of your face such as nose and cheek bones.
- Bush is a term used in places such as Africa and Australia and can describe a variety of vegetation - from grassland to an area thick with trees and thorns. Bush is described on a map as open, medium or thick. Many of the hazards of bush travel revolve around the wild animals found there - high temperatures and water availability are often of concern too.
- If in a vehicle around wild animals do not get out! If walking, do not go off on your own.
- It is easy to get lost in bush so normal rules of good navigation apply. Take a compass, a whistle and try to look behind you every so often so if you have to retrace your steps you can recognise your route. Spotting geographical features is also a good way to keep on the right track!
- Avoid walking in bush at night, as that is when many dangerous animals are active.
- Do not camp in a dried-up watercourse as sudden heavy rains can cause flash floods and sweep away tents.
- Clear the area where you want to camp of dead wood and scrub so that you don't share your sleeping patch with something else. It is also important to check for ants - they can give painful bites.
- When collecting water from pools try to take it from a point at which wild animals don't drink. This water should also be well boiled before use.
- Wear strong boots and trousers to guard against thorns, insects and snake bites (especially in long grass).
- If you wear contact lenses normally you may consider taking just your glasses - it can be very dusty.
- Try not to wear bright-coloured clothing if you are looking for wild animals. But don't wear camouflage-style gear as you might give local police and army the wrong impression!
- If you come across a wild animal don't run away. Instead stay still (or move very slowly), always keeping it in view. It should not see you as a threat if you keep your distance and will soon wander off. If you are in thick bush then making noise is enough to warn wild animals you are nearby so they can avoid you.
- Mountain travel is one of the most popular forms of adventure travel as mountains are easily accessible - and there are loads to choose from! Where and how high the mountain is will have a huge impact on your expedition, but much advice holds true whether you are on Kilimanjaro or Mt Blanc. The main risks in mountaineering arise from extreme altitudes, colder weather and overcoming geographical hazards such as rock faces and glaciers.
- Make sure you acclimatise properly at altitude - this is done by ascending slowly and taking adequate rest days.
- Some climbers take half an aspirin a day to thin blood and aid acclimatisation.
- Weather can change rapidly on a mountain. Be prepared by researching weather patterns and looking out for tell-tale signs of impending bad weather.
- Staying properly hydrated on a mountain is very important as the negative effects of dehydration are compounded by increased altitude. Follow the old saying: a healthy mountaineer should always pee clear!
- Invest in a decent pair of hiking/mountaineering boots. Blisters and sore feet will turn a dream ascent into the trudge from Hell! Good ankle support should also limit the risk of strains or sprains when walking over uneven ground.
- If you suffer from knee of feet problems, trekking poles can help limit injury - especially when descending.
- The effects of sun at altitude can be a real problem. Don't equate sunburn with hot weather... at high altitude the atmosphere is thinner and offers even less protection from damaging ultraviolet rays. Slap on the sunblock, wear sunglasses and a hat.
- Wear properly maintained safety equipment (e.g. helmet, harness, ropes etc) and be sure you know how to use it correctly.
- When employing porters in places such as Nepal, make sure they are being adequately paid and looked after too.
- How you climb a mountain will depend on its size, accessibility and your experience. Light and fast 'alpine-style' climbing is an approach that seeks to leave behind everything but the minimum gear required and reach the top in a single, continuous push without the use of external help. The opposite of this is often called 'seige-style' and involves a prolonged attempt on the mountain where climbers do many 'carries' of gear that they deposit as a 'cache' to be used later. Everest is climbed in this way.
Good Expedition Practice
No matter where you are heading, a number of key principles are important to follow if you want a safe and enjoyable expedition.
- Plan your route before going - leave a detailed copy of the route plan with friends or family. Contact base at first opportunity if you are delayed.
- Don't get lost! Take maps, compasses and perhaps a GPS unit (but don't rely on these alone). Each member of the team should have these navigation essentials.
- Time your day's trek/climb - don't get caught out in the dark. Try and set up camp before dusk.
- Make sure the team is aware of all potential hazards - e.g. avalanches, precipices, crevasses, gullies, steep slopes, rivers, sea currents etc. Anticipate problems and plan for emergencies.
- Take proper clothing and equipment. You must be prepared for the worst weather and conditions that the location can throw at you. Look after your equipment once in the field - especially essentials such as tents, stoves, ropes, harnesses etc. A roll of duct tape can be invaluable for taping up rips. Take repair kits for items like stoves and air mattresses.
- Try to keep a set of dry gear to change into each night - this is important to avoid conditions such as hypothermia and also keep spirits up. If keeping clothing dry means getting into damp clothing in the morning then so be it!
- Do adequate training before you leave home - this can be either physical exercise or learning new skills (e.g. navigation or ice climbing).
- Ensure you have enough food. Take slightly more than you should need and include emergency rations.
- Stay adequately hydrated at all times.
- Maintain high levels of personal hygiene. You have a responsibility to yourself and your friends to stay healthy. A good supply of baby wipes is essential so washing is possible even where water is scarce or very precious!
- Promote good teamwork. If travelling in a group then keep together, letting the slowest person determine the pace.
- Keep a close eye on the weather - it can change quickly.
- Choose campsites carefully, making sure to assess any potential hazards.
- As many members of the team as possible should be trained in first aid - it's no good having one person know it all and he/she get knocked unconscious! Make sure you have a well-stocked first aid kit.
- Don't be overambitious - there's no shame in turning back if you are not happy with weather or conditions.
- Respect local cultures - you are acting as an ambassador to your country.
- Be environmentally aware and leave no trace of your presence. Make sure no rubbish is left behind.
- Have fun!
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