Even experienced hikers accustomed to walking in the national parks at home can find themselves unexpectedly in trouble when hiking in Southeast Asia. Trekking in the jungle and rainforest present an entirely new set of opportunities for Murphy's Law to take control!
Hiking safety is largely a matter of common sense. These simple precautions will insure that you get home to make others jealous of your time on the trail.
Common Sense Hiking Safety
Hike with Someone
If planning to head out into the backcountry, team up with others. Although rare, people have even been abducted while trekking through the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Having someone else along is an insurance policy in case something unexpected happens.
Tell Someone Where you are Going
Do not expect a rescue if no one knows that you need to be rescued! Before setting off, let someone know at the parks office, tourist authority, or even at the hotel where you are going and when you expect to be back.
Watch your Step
Seemingly innocuous falls and slips are responsible for far more injuries on the trail than snakes. Stay mindful of the surface below your feet, particularly when trekking volcanoes. Shale can be brittle and sedentary rock formed by volcanic mud can break apart with your weight. Scree slides during the final scramble to the summit can pick up momentum and turn into miniature landslides. Starting up the slopes of a volcano in the usual Southeast Asian flip-flops is a sure way to destroy your sandals, if not your feet!
Stay on the Trail
Staying on the worn trails is a good idea for three reasons: you avoid trampling endangered plants, you reduce the risk of getting lost, and most of the things that want to bite you hide off of the trails.
Check the Weather
Unexpected weather is the number one killer of hikers in Southeast Asia; rain turns the trails around volcanoes extremely hazardous. Western hikers will be surprised by the sheer volume of rain that appears during monsoons in Southeast Asia; low trails quickly turn into rivers of mud and debris.
Allow more Time
Partying the night before a big trek may be tradition, but smart hikers still hit the trail early in the morning. Allowing additional time for your hike provides a buffer of daylight in case something goes wrong. Besides, starting early helps you avoid the scorching sun and increases the chances of seeing wildlife.
What to Take Hiking
Ask anyone whom has become hopelessly lost and they will confirm: sometimes the simplest of day hiking trips can turn into an unexpected overnight trip.
Forget unrealistic survival kits, these practical items should be with you on every hiking trip:
- Flashlight: Days are much shorter beneath the jungle canopy; carry a waterproof flashlight in case you are out longer than expected. Finding wild caves while hiking in places such as Laos is not uncommon - you will be wishing that you had a flashlight!
- Extra Water: Although heavy and difficult to carry, bring extra water on every trip. Jungle humidity will make you sweat far more than you do while hiking at home. Drinking from even seemingly fresh rivers runs the risk of getting stomach parasites that are nearly impossible to cure.
- Snacks: Take along snacks which are high in carbohydrates; the extra calorie boost is good for morale and energy when the trail gets tough. Even around popular trail heads, the food carts are typically low quality and overpriced; bring enough food with you to satisfy until you get back to town for a proper meal.
- Basic First Aid: Small cuts and scrapes can turn infected in tropical conditions before you even get back to camp to put on a bandage. Bring a small bottle of liquid bandage to seal scrapes; bring tape or plasters to put on "hot spots" before they develop into painful blisters.
- DEET: Dengue fever is a serious problem in Southeast Asia; the mosquitoes which carry dengue bite during the day. Read about how to protect yourself from mosquitoes.
- Sunscreen: The sun is stronger in Southeast Asia - particularly near the equator. The naked summits of volcanoes typically have little shade. Read these sun protection tips.
Although most hiking trips in Southeast Asia go over without a hitch, any one of these threats could potentially make your adventure more interesting:
Although the risk to travelers is very small, Southeast Asia is home to a frightening variety of poisonous snakes. The cobras in Komodo National Park kill more people annually than the Komodo dragons. Snakes are typically not active during the heat of the day. Check the shady backside of fallen trees on the trail before stepping over.
Leeches are common in Borneo's Lambir Hills National Park and other low-lying places. Leeches have an uncanny way of getting inside shoes and clothing when least expected. Special leech-proof socks will help as will spraying DEET on your ankles. If a leech becomes attached, resist the urge to pinch it off; the pressure will cause the leech to regurgitate blood. Instead, use the edge of a knife to scrape/flip the leech off quickly. Leeches use anticoagulants to keep a wound open, making bites prone to infection.
Ticks are major carriers of disease; always check yourself thoroughly after walking through tall grass. If a tick is already attached, grasp the head - not the body - with tweezers and pull out slowly. Avoid squeezing the body; even the old tricks of using a hot match may cause the tick to vomit blood back into the bite.
Mosquitoes are the deadliest creatures on Earth. Measures aside from the usual repellent can be taken to avoid bites. Read about how to avoid mosquitoes.
Monkeys are common in Southeast Asia and have an unbelievable sense of smell. Even that unopened granola bar in your pack is sure to get their attention! Read about how to survive monkey attacks.
Many plants in the jungle will cause an itchy rash on exposed skin. Unless you are a botanist, do not touch unknown plants and vines any more than needed! Avoid scratching and spreading rashes - cover them with tape if you must. Benadryl will help with the reaction.