Living Under the Canopy - Jungle Tips from Huw James
There are a lot of different environments on Earth. A lot of the time, humans from one environment will struggle to adapt to another. I live in the hills of South Wales, spend a fair bit of my time in the mountains, have seen my fair share of the cold, but Jungles are a pretty tough place to call home or even visit for the day.
In 2016 I spent the summer living out of a hammock documenting the British Exploring Society’s Peruvian Amazon Expedition where they took 50 Young Explorers to the deep jungle to research the changing rainforest in the Manu National Park.
There’ll always be gear you need to take with you to thrive in a new environment and the jungle is one of those places where the smallest wins make the biggest deal. You’ll want the obvious bits of kit like the hammocks and the mosquito nets, but you’ll also want the not so obvious stuff like the desert scarves and the folding fans.
But before we get into the good jungle survival kit to take, the expedition starts before you even leave! Whether it’s a short or a long trip, there’s a few things you’ll need to get prepared.
Before You Go - Get Prepared!
Where you’re going and what you’re doing is all important. It may be that you’re just heading in to the jungle for the day, it could also be that you’re heading out to volunteer for a few months. The basics are the same.
Health – Get Some Expert Advice
The amount of health advice you’ll need will depend on your destination. In some places you’ll need vaccinations, in others you’ll need specific tablets, in some places you’ll need both. Long stays in the deep jungle will need more than day trips into the outer limits. A visit to the nurse in your local health centre will give you all the information you’ll need. Alternatively, in some Cotswold Outdoor Stores, there are Travel Health Clinics that can give you advice and even administer your vaccinations.
Also, have a think in advance how you’ll access fresh water. In a lot of jungle environments, even in the towns, there’ll be little to no access to 100% safe water.
Lastly, don’t forget to think about any other medication or health accessories you may need to prepare in advance. Thinking in advance about how much trekking you’ll be doing, where the nearest hospital or health centre is and what your insurance and evacuation set up is, all helps when heading to these inhospitable environments!
Stock Up on Maps and Research Your Guides
A lot of jungle environments will be poorly mapped. Here’s a look at the exact spot we set up basecamp in Peru. You’ll notice that even though this area was well cleared out and inhabited at times by 70 people, from above it looks like any other part of the jungle. It’s good practice to properly look in to the area you are going beforehand and think about getting a good guide that has been well reviewed. There are companies in most areas that run tours and expedition companies right here in the UK and worldwide that run guided jungle adventures.
Jungle Survival Kit
Some jungle environments will require different gear to others. For example, in some you may be okay to wear shorts and in others long trousers may be advised. For some you’d be best using hammocks, others tents may be fine. So a look at how long you’ll spend there, the plants and animals that live there and recommendations from local guides or people who have spent time there before is invaluable.
There are lots of places you can do day trips into rainforests, cloud forests and jungle environments. From climbing volcanoes to wildlife trips, day trips are usually less demanding and less kit is needed for short stays as the exposure to the environment is less and the areas are less remote.
Clothing – Cotton or Synthetic?
The basics of jungle clothing are that cotton is cooler, but takes longer to dry and is heavy when wet. Synthetic clothing wicks moisture away so you stay dryer but you could overheat more quickly. The classic jungle clothing you’ll usually get pointed towards is Craghoppers. Hardwearing nylon based shirts with Insect repellent built in, the Craghoppers Nosilife Adventure Shirts for men and women are built for this environment. Personally I do prefer the synthetic moisture wicking technology like the Rab Interval (shop it here for men, and for women) with zips to dump heat.
For day trips in the jungle you may find that shorts are okay to help stay cool but try to stick to synthetic as there’s no point trapping moisture there and it looking like you’ve wet yourself. For underwear a good sports or baselayer underwear will work great.
What Shoes Should I Wear in the Jungle?
For day trips in countries where there’s very little in the way of harmful plants and animals, any type of firm footwear should work. The long and short of it is, waterproof shoes are bad in the jungle. You’re going to get wet one way or another, whether it’s from stepping in puddles, streams, rivers, rain falling down or sweating buckets into them. You want your shoes to dump water and dry as quick as possible so a good set of trail shoes or quick drying approach shoes at a push. These should be fine for short day hikes on well-worn trails. In areas like Puerto Rico where they have dense forests, there is very little that will try and bite you. Again, it comes back to knowing where you’re going.
Make Sure You Can Access Safe Drinking Water
Water is one of the most important factors in any tropical environment. You can sweat litres upon litres of water a day. So packing a few Nalgene bottles or a hydration pack, or both is great. Drinking little and often is key. You’ll need to make sure that the water is okay to drink so even if it comes from the tap, in some places you’ll still need to use purification tablets. They work fairly quickly, normally within 30 minutes for 1 litre (but read instructions) and are fairly light weight! They do leave a distinctive chlorine taste though which you could either get used to, get the taste neutralising tablets, or take some concentrated squeezy squash.
It’s hard to get water in the jungle that’s free of pathogens. Luckily, water filtration technology is pretty good nowadays. You can now get straws and bottles that filter the water for nearly all viruses and bacteria. If you don’t mind the taste you could sterilise the water with a chlorine tablet too just to make sure.
Avoiding Jungle Insects, Bugs and Creepy Crawlies
Any time you go to the tropics, there’s no getting around it, DEET is your friend. From mosquitoes to sand flies, and everything in between, spray with DEET in it will be your best defence. There are non-DEET alternatives to insect spray but in the tropics you should think about using DEET spray. Be careful with DEET as stronger percentages can melt plastic, including the straps on watches, sunglasses and buttons. It’s the price we pay for keeping the insects at bay.
Sorting Your Jungle Accomodation
If you’re going to spend a few days or longer in the jungle, you’ll need some accommodation. A decent tent is fine if you can find a good flat area to set it up that won’t be overwhelmed with water at the first sign of rain. A more ideal way of spending the night in the jungle would be a hammock. I’ve seen quite a range of hammock set ups. Some are just regular hammocks with box nets over them to keep the insects off. Some have nets included, like the Craghoppers Tropical Hammock, which then need the extra waterproof tarp for the top. It’s good to set up your little space with rain, insects and smell in mind!
First Aid and Hygiene
The amount of first aid you’ll take will depend on your first aid knowledge and the time you’ll spend in the jungle. A comprehensive first aid kit is a great start. Then add a few bits for your personal maintenance on top. Great extra kit for personal maintenance will be hydration sachets, blister patches, zinc oxide tape, diarrhea relief, malaria tablets (if needed) and ibuprofen. For personal hygiene, biodegradable wet wipes, biodegradable soap, medicated talc for drying feet and gloves for washing. Hygiene is by far one of the most important things about jungle life. Making sure you take care of yourself and treat any first aid needs straight away as wounds take a long time to heal and can easily become infected.
Should I Take Electronics Into the Jungle?
Electronics have a tough time in the jungle because of the heat and humidity but also because there’s very few places to charge them. If you carry batteries in, you’ll probably have to carry them out again too but they are the only way to keep anything charged. In some places in the jungle you can get out onto dry river beds or open areas to use portable chargers with solar light. Under the canopy, only 1% of sunlight trickles down so it’s not a viable option.
The number one electronic item you’ll need will be your head torch. A head torch with a red light like the Black Diamond Spot 200 Lumen Headtorch is a must for the tropics as insects are much less attracted to the red light. You’ll also want to take your camera, phone, and possibly a few other bits. At times, the humidity can go right up to 100% and it doesn’t really ever go down that low. Plenty of zip lock bags of varying sizes are ideal, and a load of dry bags too. As much silica gel bags as you can find can help or a tea towel to put in with your camera.
It really is a bad environment for electronics and I had a couple of cameras die on me but more survived than didn’t. It’s the kind of place that you’re going to want to take pictures of though so don’t be afraid to snap away!
The Jungle is an extreme environment but you can survive and thrive in it with a bit of training or by taking guided tours. The information in this article really isn’t a substitute for good jungle training. Always keep your eyes open though for amazing wildlife, incredible plants and possible hazards!
Huw is a scientist, adventurer, photographer, and film maker. He spends most of his life in the outdoors or trying to get into the outdoors. He’s a climber, mountaineer, runner and everything in between. He spends a lot of time travelling around the world to new and sometimes very old places. Find out more at www.huwjames.com.