Planning an Adventure Trip? Here Are Some Key Insider Tips to Packing and Planning — and Being Fully Prepared
Two years ago I was reading a copy of Explore Magazine, Canada’s version of Outside. A woman had submitted a story about a NatGeo horse outfitter who specialized in two-week trips deep in the Muskwa-Kechika Wilderness of the Northern Rockies.
My kind of trip.
Middle of nowhere. Size of Ireland. Pack in your own food. Small groups. Huge mountains, grizzly and moose and deer and eagle. No tech for weeks on end.
Yah. My kind of trip.
At the time I was recovering from a broken back from a horse trip in Kazakhstan. I called Wayne Sawchuk, who runs those expeditions. He advised me to book early.
I did. As soon as I knew he was back from his early fall trips, I booked two back to back. I’d be gone a month.
My kind of trip.
I ride all over the world, and the more wild the better.
But here’s the thing. I’d never been on this trip. There were different conditions. Different requirements. What I have done before doesn’t always work every single time.
So here’s what I do every time I am off to a new country, new adventure:
- Research the area. Know the weather. Plan for the worst. Wayne made it clear-which I knew already- that rain was certain, snow was possible, and sleeping next to glaciers would be cold. It might be summer, but this is northern high country. That means my Nemo bag, which has zippered gills for warmer nights.
- Research the gear list. Some things you already have, some you don’t. Never ever skimp on safety gear. For this trip I have to bring a tent and a bag. I had two tents, both from Nemo. Both brand new. A solid discussion with Wayne made it clear that the Kunai with the strong bathtub would protect against potentially heavy rain and dense, wet moss.
- DO NOT ASSUME that what you have will work for this new trip. Unless you’ve been there and know the conditions, best you ask. For example: your $500 Goretex jacket will fail in the high, wet, summer Rockies. It just will. What does work are remarkably cheap Helly Hanson rain jackets. I got mine for $40, and pants for $20. Talking to Wayne was a first-class education in years of what people bring that fails, and why. I was going to bring Goretex. Nope.
- Same with shoes. We’re riding, so part of the challenge is having boots that fit the stirrup. We’re also going to be leading the horses down steep mountainsides. That means tread. Since we’ll be walking in wet moss a lot, and it might rain, he said Arctic Muck boots.
- I always ask the guides what people forget, wish they had brought, and the biggest mistakes people make. I ask them what folks gripe about most, what they find is the single most useful thing they brought. Quite often, these items aren’t always on the gear list. I came away with a whole list of ideas from that discussion. The Arctic Muck boots, which I got on sale, have heavy tread, are remarkably light and ridiculously warm. Perfect. And they are perfect for Mongolia where I am headed this fall.
- What were the worst mistakes? In this case, ponchos. Goretex, which works fine if you’re exercising, but not if you’re sitting the horse for hours on end, largely at the walk. The water ultimately permeates the fabric and you. Get. Very. Wet. I had that happen with a brand new pair of Merrills on a hike up Mt. Kenya. It was a spring rain, and within five minutes my feet were soaked. I’d brought a pair of very heavy leather/waterproof Lowa boots, which saved my feet and possibly my life. Always have a backup. Inadequate tents. Nothing is worse than waking up on your Thermarest mat only to find yourself floating on five inches of water because your tent was never made for the kind of rainstorm you’re in. That happened to me in New Zealand with a one-man Marmot tent. People can die like that, if you have a down bag that gets soaked. Nemo and Black Diamond both make superb, roomy two-man expedition tents with very strong bathtubs, which, as the name implies, is the bottom part of the tent which protects you from the outside. As for keeping yourself clean: if they say biodegradable detergents, then do NOT bring your favorite shampoo. Respect the wilderness.
- Work your gear ahead of time. Practice setting up your tent. Stuffing your bag into its stuff sack. If there’s a rain storm, set your tent up on the grass in a park or your back yard. The weather is not always going to be perfect, your hands will be cold, and you need to be able to get this done. Because everyone else will be preoccupied with their own gear especially if there’s a big storm. Learn to be gear competent before you head out.
- Call another guide for another viewpoint. In this case, it was a younger rider named Michelle, who rides more than I do. She handles the food, so I was able to get a solid read on what and how much to bring. She was full of suggestions, after ten years of these trips, about what worked well and traveled light. Priceless. I sent all my food ahead after researching on line for package deals. I’ll have far more than enough, and that means I can share with others. Let’s be clear. That kind of largess can make you very popular, and that can pay off in the long run.
- Get well-designed gear bags. My go-tos are Sea To Summit duffels. There’s a very good reason Backpacker Mag gave this product of the year status. You can work the very strong straps a variety of ways, it can survive unbelievable abuse, and they are lined inside with a bright fabric so that it reflects your flashlight at night. When a bag is dark, it’s damned hard to find that flask, or that pair of socks. I took one up Mt. Kenya and just bought three more of different sizes for future trips. Superb, bombproof investment, incredibly versatile.
- Plan for the worst. Here’s what I mean. People pack without considering what happens if their luggage is left by the airplane in a major storm. Those gear bags will help, but I add an additional layer of protection. I get packing cubes, which keep things neat and contained. Then I get dry bags — the kind used for kayaking and camping- to protect them. This adds a touch of weight but frankly, who gives a crap when you can unroll that bag and pull out a perfectly dry down jacket in your tent, while other folks are shivering and damp. I mark each bag with a tag telling me what’s inside so that when I unzip the gear bag at night I can identify which bag I need in seconds. Sometimes those few seconds can be very, very important.
- Break in your boots, shoes and anything you’ll wear for a long time. To not do so is to ensure misery, blisters, and to miss the epic beauty of where you are. Test your rain gear. Check for leaks and fails. The last thing you need is to find out that cheapo jacket you got at Goodwill is leaking like a sieve down your back and you have six hours of riding or hiking ahead. I was paddling a canoe in the Ecuadorian Amazon when the skies opened up overhead. You don’t know what rain is until you’ve been in a full-on downpour in Ecuador. My Goretex jacket failed in fifteen minutes. Thank god it was relatively warm and I was working hard. You can die of hypothermia in the tropics, too. And about those boots? Here’s a tip that I learned the hard way: if you’re going to be in wet country, muddy country, bring two things: a small brush to clean the tread, and a dry bag large enough to store your boots when you’re in your camp shoes. Otherwise when you pack those boots they are going to spread mud and dirt all over everything in your pack or your gear bag.
- Bring the right electronics. Where I’m headed next , the only thing electronic is going to be my Coolpix camera. I have twelve extra batteries that I charge ahead of time. The camera can be dropped from my horse onto rocks (done it) you can use it underwater (done it) and it takes one hell of a beating even in freezing cold (done it). And it gives me great pics. I write on notepads. Where I am going, an iPhone would be a joke. Course you can bring a solar battery pack, but dude, why?
One more thing: In some cases you can rent gear, or get used gear. But here’s the thing: never skimp on anything that will keep you warm, dry, and safe.
That means your bag, your tent, your jacket and pants, your boots, your layering system. You skimp, you can die. Or at the least, be wicked miserable. While that makes a funny story later, why invest thousands in an epic trip only to be ridiculously uncomfortable every day? You don’t have to get the most expensive things, just good things that work for your needs. Here’s a good example of why:
This photo was taken on the front of a boat going full speed through glaciers in the Svalbard Islands. It’s June. It’s FREEZING. And I was both dry and perfectly warm. Everyone else was huddled inside with the captain, and I was the only one who saw a whale. Be prepared.
For solid advice on expedition clothing, I have two suggestions: go make friends at your local REI. While you pay more there, the level of knowledge available from the staff- who are all avid outdoorspeople- is unbeatable. Here in Colorado, we have Derek at my Lakewood store, whose advice I solicit on everything. He’s a walking encyclopedia. It’s worth the extra cash to get his advice.
Second, outdoorgearlab.com.I regularly check for advice on their site, because they test women’s clothing and gear as well.
Finally, always but always interview the guides, and other folks who have done the trip. The guides have seen it all, how folks suffer, and who succeeded and why. They know. And if they say Goretex isn’t a good idea, they’re right.