Ed Stafford’s travel manifesto
01/11/2018 News | Blog
In this exclusive extract from his new book, Adventures of a Lifetime, Scout Ambassador Ed Stafford shares his top tips for expedition planning.
Preparing for an expedition is a skill in itself; experience will improve your effectiveness, as will finding the right people and listening to their advice. All of the information below is based on techniques and ways of working that have helped me. Hopefully they’ll help you, too.
Strength and conditioning
The best way to prepare is to practise what you’re going to be doing i.e. if you’re heading on a long-distance cycling expedition, spend as much time as you can in the saddle with your bike rigged out in travel mode. You’ll get a feel for the conditions and be developing the muscles you’ll be using the most. Crucially, it will also give you a feel for the parts of your body that will come under the most strain and allow you to work out how to deal with that. Going to the gym might get you beach body ready but it’s not necessarily the most effective use of your time. One of the key areas of conditioning that I believe is often wrongly overlooked is suppleness. The ability to control the way your body moves is really important. If you’re going to be stepping down off logs or boulders, crouching under tree limbs or squeezing through narrow gaps, all with a heavy rucksack on your back, it’s important you can manage your body weight efficiently.
It’s a GPS, a compass, a camera, a map, a video recorder, an MP3 player, a notebook, a torch … and you can (sometimes) make phone calls on it, too. The smartphone has revolutionized adventure travel. If I was walking the Amazon again today I probably wouldn’t bother with conventional cameras. A decent phone and a GoPro will do the job perfectly well and save you a huge amount of space and weight in your pack. Your camera can be hugely useful, not just to record your adventure but also as an aide-mémoire. It only takes a second to snap a quick image of a sign, or a timetable, or a prominent landmark that you can use for navigation. The latest generation of portable chargers and lightweight solar panels means your entire journey can be coordinated and catalogued through a few USB points. Ironically, one of the few things you can’t always rely on your smartphone for is making calls. In the most remote places, it pays to have a satellite phone with you, too.
A fire is a bit like a dog. It can be a comfort, a protector and a useful companion but if you mistreat it… beware because it can lash out and hurt you. Getting a fire going when you’re alone in the wild is a real morale-booster. It’s a source of heat and light, of course, and on a very basic level it gives you a reassuring feeling that you are making a go of things. If you’re serious about spending a lot of time in the wilderness, it’s worth investing in some proper bushcraft training with someone who knows what they’re doing. Over four or five days you’ll learn a lot about how to start a blaze without a lighter, how to get dry wood in wet conditions and so on. When it comes to essential travel kit, I’d say a lighter is a close second behind a knife in terms of importance. I wouldn’t go on an expedition without one.
I’m the last person to dish out fashion advice but, in my experience, it does pay to be self-aware about the way you dress and what it says about you. If you pitch up somewhere looking like a model for an outdoor clothing catalogue – all expedition shirts, zip-off trousers and vented travel hats – you’re creating a bit of a barrier because I can pretty much guarantee the local people you meet won’t be wearing that stuff. It might seem a small thing but it does say something about you and your approach to travel. Nowadays I invariably pack a few T-shirts, a couple of pairs of shorts and trousers and pick up anything else I need from a local store or market. It helps me feel more comfortable and less out of place.
Learn some culture
During my walk through the Amazon, I reached an area of Peru known as the Red Zone. It had been a war zone, basically, for many years and the indigenous people had been subjected to atrocities by a group of communist guerrillas known as the Shining Path. I knew nothing about this violent background when I arrived – most of the preparation I had done had been focused on arranging maps and kit. When I stumbled across this area and these people, who were effectively suffering from a communal form of post-traumatic stress disorder, I wasn’t in a position to recognise what they’d experienced and how it would have an impact on the way they engaged with people visiting the area. That lack of cultural awareness is something I really regret; had I known more about what these people had been through I would have approached things very differently. Now I always make a point of doing some research into the culture and history of an area before I travel there. A factor in this is language. I always try to learn a few key phrases of the local dialect before visiting a new region. Being able to thank someone, or ask for their help, in their local tongue is a sign of respect and humility that I find is universally appreciated.
You’ve got to have faith
Some of the most enriching encounters I’ve had with people from other cultures have been when I’ve humbled myself and asked for help. In my experience, most people you ask are happy to assist a stranger in need, and experiencing that human kindness first-hand is one of the great rewards of adventuring. It would be a shame to miss out by over-organising things. When you’re making preparations ask yourself if the plans you’re making need to be arranged from home, or whether it might be more fun (and often cheaper) to take a leap of faith and sort things out on the hoof.
Getting lost is almost a kind of occupational hazard if you immerse yourself in the wild. The important thing is to devise a plan of action that allows you to regain control of the situation. Set up a base; create a space where you know you can start a fire and camp for the night, if necessary. Make the base distinctive, clear a reasonable amount of space for your camp, then start exploring your surroundings in a measured way. I would advocate a system called the Star Method. Take a compass bearing and walk 50 yards north, carefully noting any distinctive landmarks you come across, then track back to camp. Do the same for south, east and west, landscape permitting. Keep following the same procedure, going further every time before returning to base, until you can use your notes to form a picture of the surrounding landscape that corresponds with the features on a map.
Adventures for a Lifetime is available at a discounted price of £12.99, plus free P&P, through www.harpercollins.co.uk using offer code IPAFAL2018. Offer valid until 18th December 2018.