I am not a very practical guy. I’m not very organised. I’m not very interested in detail. So I’m not a great person to write practical advice on preparing for your expedition.
On the other hand, I’m quite a nervous person. I’m not relaxed enough to ‘wing’ many things in life. And I’ve been on enough big trips now to trust myself to prepare for them competently. There is a deluge of stuff to plan!
So, if you are planning a big journey, I’d suggest you have a list somewhere with the following headings. Then research, plan, prepare as much or as little as your personality, the type of trip, and how critical it is to your success/survival decrees. If you live in Europe I’d strongly recommend that attending Explore would be money well spent.
(If you don’t have long, let me summarise most of this article for you: Google will tell you what you need to know!)
Visas are tedious, expensive, time-consuming and unavoidable for many journeys. The rules change from country to country and year to year. However, the good news is that once you work out how to “play the game” then getting visas is not actually that bad. When I cycled round the world I spent a lot of time Googling for up to date information and asking questions on the invaluable Thorn Tree forum. Also read this post by the guys at The Visa Machine. Plan in advance, plan in case you are refused entry to a certain country, and then you should be fine.
Boring but important. Google it.
Following on from visas, which may well influence your route. I wanted to cycle through Iran, but was refused a visa. So instead I had to loop north across the Caspian Sea. The route was no better or worse, just different. I really enjoy the route planning phase of my trips.
Buy a massive map and stick it on your wall. Put pins in the places you want to go. Work out a route between them all that avoids wars, monsoons and countries that won’t give you a visa. Google will answer all these questions for you.
Google will also tell you whether you are able to get decent quality maps in the places you are going to or if you need to get them before you go. Stanfords is a great starting place for maps. Consider whether you want to download digital maps to use on a GPS / gadget during your trip, and ponder the pros and cons of this over paper maps. Google Earth is a fabulous place for seeking out exciting-looking desert tracks or new rivers to paddle.
People often ask me what route they should go. This really is a choice for the individual. You can plan a bit in advance (Google Earth, Google Images) but you should try also to allow enough flexibility to adapt your plans once you get on the ground. Flexibility, spontaneity, taking a punt and local knowledge are all vital parts of the most fun trips. Google will help you find people who have done similar stuff to you before. But have a think whether you want to rely on their advice or if you’d rather make your own choices. I personally like a bit of both. I like to ask people who’ve “been there” for advice to give me a basis of knowledge and confidence, and then make the rest up myself.
The time of year you travel to a place will probably have a huge impact on the journey you take. You need to balance a few things: where you want to go, when is the “best” time to go there, and when are you free to travel. With some places you can compromise – cycling round Britain in the spring or the autumn would both work fine, though the summer would be the nicest time to do it. However some trips really are best suited to a certain time of year: mountains, poles, oceans, deserts all have hospitable and less-hospitable times of year. Google will solve these mysteries.
This refers to the dangers from humans (crime) rather than from nature (crevasses). I’ll cover the natural hazards later. First of all, remember this: the world is by and large filled with good, decent people. People who have travelled widely will regale you with tales of kindness from strangers in far-flung lands. People who have not travelled much are likely to warn you of the dangers of said far-flung lands. Never seek travel advice from anyone who reads the Daily Mail.
My approach to travel safety is quite simple:
Avoid war zones. Go everywhere else.
On top of that I would add a few suggestions. Check the FCO advice website (though don’t show your mum: they have the capacity to make any country on Earth sound scary!). It takes time and experience to become “travel savvy”. I feel more confident about my ability to avoid pickpocketing, dodgy scenarios, travel scams, hotel thefts or police bribes than when I first travelled on my Gap Year. Try to balance being trusting with being paranoid. I am very cautious when I travel and have had barely any problems over the years. Tourist zones are the worst for petty crime. Getting drunk makes you vulnerable. Be aware that crime and bad things can happen in any city on earth. Do some Googling for tips and tricks about staying safe on your travels.
Get your vaccinations. Take malaria pills when necessary. Use a mossie net. Purify your water. Wash your hands. Eat freshly-cooked hot food. Google will tell you everything else.
Learn as much as you can before you go. You will really be glad that you did.
At the very least, wherever you travel, make an effort to learn enough to be polite. There’s no excuse not to learn how to say hello-goodbye-please-thank-you in every country that you visit.
Google will tell you what you need for the trip you are planning. Think carefully about which items on the kit list are worth spending a lot of money on, and which ones you can either live without, buy on eBay or borrow from a mate. Generally speaking, people starting out in expeditions spend far too much money on their gear.
You are fit enough to cycle around the world, walk to China or row an ocean. Getting fitter before you begin will help, but it’s not essential. Don’t employ that approach if you are attempting an expedition that demands for you to be fit on Day 1, or if your success is dependent upon your fitness (mountains, poles etc).
If you are going somewhere where it is impossible to buy more food (oceans, poles, deserts, mountains), then this is a critical, complex topic. Google and prior experience are key. If you don’t have prior experience then go on the longest training trip you can manage. That will teach you so much about what foods you like and don’t like, what you crave, how much you need, and so on. Balancing calories, food groups, taste, weight and price is very difficult.
However, if you are on a trip where you will encounter towns and villages along the way, then life is very easy! Just buy whatever food they have in their shops, as extravagantly or as frugally as your budget dictates. Buy enough food to get you to the next shop (see ‘language’ above), and off you go.
There’s a couple of approaches to learning about different cultures. Some people might like to learn a lot about a culture before they arrive so as to make the most of their time. Others like to learn nothing in advance and arrive with an air of innocence and an eagerness to learn. There are pros and cons of both.
I’d only suggest that you learn enough so as not to cause offence or get into trouble. But relax, too. So long as you treat a culture with respect, dignity and a gently amused curiosity then you will not have any problems. When people can see that you are curious to learn (yet very ignorant too) then they love to show you the ways of their culture. How to eat with your hand, how to use chopsticks, how to shake hands, how to tie a turban… these things are all fun details that make travelling to different cultures so fun.
If you are going to remote parts of the world you will need to consider many things to make sure that you survive. You’ll need to think about resupplies, communications, emergency plans, expertise, and how you will get to/from your expedition. Sign up for Explore.
Adventures do not just affect the direct participants. Think about who else is involved in this journey and discuss things with them. Are your family worried about you? How can you help that? Will you phone home on your trip or will you be out of contact? Think about worst-case scenarios. What happens if you die? What happens if a loved one back home dies? Do you have commitments that you will be passing on to someone while you are away? How can you help smooth that process? Talk with your expedition partner about how you are feeling. Help each other build confidence and overcome nerves. It’s very easy to get caught up in the “importance” and urgency of your trip planning, but try to think about other people as well.