Top tips to a safe trekking holiday
Risk is a wonderful exciting ingredient to any adventure. Without it we’d end up with holidays that are about as exciting as trip to the local fish and chip shop and then only to be told there’s no curry sauce on the menu. An essential part on any adventure is not just the acceptance of risks but actively embracing them. But, if we’re to keep clear of the local hospital which will come complete with as much infection control as my dad’s underpants then some steps should be taken to manage those risks. Here are some top tips on how to return home intact from that trip of a lifetime: after all the best epics are the ones that we survive from!
Know before you go
Spend some time doing some research. Do you know if your destination for your next trekking holiday is at risk from a tsunami or earthquake? What’s the political situation like, can you get by wearing a pink bikini in the streets (with or without a hairy chest) or will this offend the locals? What’s the crime rate like: which districts do you need to steer clear of? These are all questions that for our home country we know the answers to but they’re not issues to be taken for granted once we set out on our travels.
There are several sources for information. My first port of call, even for destinations that I frequent on an annual basis, is the Foreign and Commonwealth (FCO) website. Here you will find loads of general advice for your destination from cultural sensitivities to regions that are safe or dangerous. And it is with this knowledge that you can make decisions. Decisions that will impact on what kit you carry and where you can safely travel.
Also online there are many great travel forums from which you will find someone who has recent experience and who will be only too willing to offer you first hand advice on the present situation. Three sites I like the look of are UK Climbing Forums, Lonely Planet’s forums and thirdly Boots’n’All. Finally once I’m in country I like to glean information from the locals and from fellow travellers too.
Prior preparation prevents …
Time playing soldiers with the Territorial Army many moons ago taught me a few lessons in life. Thankfully I seem to remember less about the mass destruction of people who might be waving guns at me with menace and more about everything from ironing my shirts, to being well prepared for various eventualities. A set of patrol orders would always include an ‘actions on’ paragraph – ie what to do if x or y happens. This same principle is now incorporated into any trip planning for an overseas trek with a group of clients.
The sorts of questions to consider are what will you do in the event that you lose your passport, flight tickets, wallet etc? Who will you call if your partner is suffering from an extreme case of altitude sickness whilst on day ten on a remote trek and how will you physically make that call? Who will coordinate a rescue? I find these are all questions best answered before there’s a need to. Hence while I’m safely at home, armed with my information I make preparations from my forthcoming trip.
We lose stuff all the time (well I do). So consider what’s important and what you will do in the event of its loss. My first consideration is always my kit getting lost by the baggage handlers. For a trek, most of this can be replaced with some hasty shopping at my destination but not my boots – so I wear these on the flight. And in my hand luggage you won’t find a wash kit but you will find my expensive down jacket that’s going to be keeping me toasty warm up at the base-camp somewhere. So start by safe guarding that which is precious and/or hard to replace.
Losing my passport could delay my return. And as much as you may love life in Delhi, Lima, Kathamandu, Ulan Bator, or wherever you’re headed, you can bet an enforced stay at your cost won’t seem so rosy after about day three. So first of all take hard copies of the important pages and also have scanned copies saved online somewhere. Additionally have some passport pictures to hand which always help with a reissue of a temporary passport. Personally I leave these hard copies with my in-country agent. In the event that I lose my passport on trek there is someone back in civilisation that can expedite the process with the local consulate to get me a new passport for my return to base. The same applies for flight tickets (if they’re not electronic) – scan them, copy them and leave them with someone you trust.
The next question to ask is what if someone has an accident whilst on trek or more likely, on the road headed to the trek? Preparation at home might mean undertaking a wilderness or outdoor first aid course. Allied to this is to pack a substantial first aid kit and what you would pack for a day walking in the Lakes won’t cut the mustard on trek in a developing country when it could easily be three or four days before your casualty sees a properly equipped and qualified medic. A great reference to look at before you go and to pack with you is Cicerone Press Pocket First Aid and Wilderness Medicine – I take it everywhere. At the back of this it will advise you what kit, and medications, you should carry according to your group size and time out.
In the event that you need to organise a casualty evacuation you need to have considered beforehand what means of communication are available. Almost disappointingly mobile phones have more coverage than ever before – and this paired with a GPS, could easily be the only resort you need. In many places however signal is limited or non-existent and depending on how risky/technical your trip is you may also want to consider a satellite phone as a backup. An in between measure which could also be a great backup is a SPOT Satellite Messenger which you can use to call out the cavalry but with the downside that the ability to communicate effectively is limited to fixed text messages. More options to contact help by satellite can be found at Globaltelesat.
Once you have the means to make that emergency call the next question is who will you call? There’s no 999 in Nepal or come to that even a local mountain rescue team who will drop everything to come to your assistance. So take the time to think who can support you in the event of an emergency. The one thing you can do is to carry with you a copy of the international emergency assistance number that comes with your travel insurance and with that a copy of your policy number. Additionally I have as a back up my in-country agent and someone I can rely on back home in the UK who knows how to contact the in-country embassy where I’m trekking.
Finally, it sounds obvious, but be properly insured. That policy that comes free with your bank account won’t save your smoked bacon whilst you’re trekking in the wilderness at altitude. Many people trek under-insured not realising that there’s literally a ceiling on their insurance – often at around 2000m above sea level. One great back up, is to join the Austrian Alpine Club (don’t worry they speak English!) which for £43.50 comes with insurance for mountain rescue included. The policy won’t cover your lost wallet but it will help you get back to base in one piece. And of course, in Europe make sure you carry your EHIC card – could save you a lot of time and money!
When you land …
Before you land know where it is you will be staying that first night, or at least have an idea of where you want to be heading and how you will be getting there. Walking out of an airport looking like the archetypal tourist fresh off the plane, the startled rabbit caught in the headlights, is like the 1st year student at school walking about with a sign attached to his back saying “kick me” – it’s just simply asking for trouble. Exit the airport looking poor and a bit grubby, well travelled, and knowing exactly where you’re going, and how you’re getting there. Knowing the right fare to pay the taxi driver is all the better! Don’t do what I did when I first landed in Miami aged 19 with a £1000 stashed about my body in cash and try hitch hiking out. Neither should you travel in anything but a licensed taxi or with a pre-arranged hotel transfer.
The first day or two in-country on your trekking holiday could well be in the city where you landed. You should definitely go and explore but do so armed with an idea of which districts are safe to do so and where it isn’t so safe. I find this holds more true for developed countries: think New York City for example. If you’re in a city where taxi drivers are unlikely to speak English and quite probably don’t write with our alphabet how will you get back to your hotel or hostel? With this in mind it’s worth carrying a business card from the hotel with their address written on it in the local language.
And when you pay your driver or the street seller for your hot dog equivalent, don’t pull out a wad of holiday cash. Always carry small change, and keep the big notes somewhere safe like the hotel safe or your underpants. Additionally only wear a cheap watch and try to keep that all singing and all dancing DSLR camera under wraps when it’s not in use. Essentially don’t make yourself look like a worthwhile target for crime.
Now I don’t know about you – but I don’t know anywhere, where recreational drugs are legal. In many cities they are readily available but then the local police are also on standby and waiting for this choice opportunity for you to make that purchase and it won’t be the dealer they’ll be arresting: he’s no good for a hefty bribe.
You’ll never love the NHS as much as when you end up in a local hospital oversees. In fact you’ll never love the British police as much as when you’re dealing with a foreign copper speculatively looking at you whilst holding your passport firmly in his hand. So do have an adventure, but go forearmed with some knowledge, skills and a healthy dose of common sense. Happy travels!