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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The discreet hiker 3

People keep asking how we're going to travel around the world with everything in a backpack. There are actually many good blog posts from people who have done this, and they're more authoritative than I am. But, as I'm also planning to trek Mt. Kilimanjaro, there's the gear I need for hiking, in addition to my everyday traveling. Here is how I am attempting to have as much overlap as possible and minimize the load for myself and my porter on the mountain.

I've already written about hiking clothes; layering is the key. Other than being able to wear every item of clothing with every other item, there's not much to packing except a few additional items I won't be taking on the hike. Swimsuit, shorts, an alternative pair of shoes (light/folding up), a few cotton items not suitable for the trek. It is important always to leave one full set of clean clothes, for laundry day--or the day you return triumphantly from the mountain!

Non-clothing, in no particular order:
  • Water bottles. A regular (reusable) water bottle is very handy to have, in addition to the water sack on the mountain (in case the latter freezes), and to cut down on plastic trash where possible. There are countries where you can't drink the tap water, and Tanzania is one of them. However on Kilimanjaro, the crew purifies the water from mountain streams--disposable bottles are banned from the national park.
  • Electronics. You know what you need and what you can live without. A cheap and old (or at least old-looking) phone or camera is less likely to attract unwanted attention. Ziploc bags (labeled) are handy for cords, chargers, etc.--keeping them organized and making me less likely to forget or lose something. Which brings me to
  • Plastic bags! Ziplocs and larger (strong) trash bags--not the junk from store checkouts that splits with a single use. The Ziplocs are good for organizing and packing out trash; the larger bags are for lining backpacks or double-waterproofing items such as clothing*. However many you bring, reuse and remember to dispose of them properly, i.e., don't leave them to add to the landfill (or worse, sea pollution) in a developing country that may not have recycling facilities.
  • Even better are packing cubes or compression stuff sacks (or dry bags if it absolutely has to be waterproof, such as for submersion). These are washable and you are sure to find a type that is right for keeping things organized inside your bag.
Speaking of bags, there are two types. The backpack I travel with now is large (but not too large) with a small, detachable daypack for carrying around while the larger backpack is locked away somewhere. For Kili the requirements are different. There, porters carry everything inside a soft-sided duffel bag (it needs to be soft so they can carry it on their heads!), except for the items hikers need during the day between camps. 

The daypack for the Kili trek probably needs to be a bit bigger than the daypack I'd normally use to carry a bottle of water and guidebook around town. Fortunately, I have an old 25L backpack I've used for hiking for years.
I also have a soft-sided tennis bag that is large enough to accommodate a sleeping bag and all the other gear (up to a maximum 15 kg in weight) that I'll need on the mountain. These, along with Kili-specific gear, can stay locked away until I get there. 

*Waterproofing will be extra important because my tennis bag is not. The sleeping bag is the most important item of all, but I'm not about to buy one and schlep it around the world. I plan to rent from my trekking company--the warmest possible. Be sure to count the weight and packed-down size of the sleeping bag and mat, in terms of which duffel bag to take.

Other gear:
  1. A sealable, floating waterproof container with a neck cord can be handy. Not so much for Kilimanjaro, but for the beach, or anywhere else you need to hold a few bare essentials. I'm talking maybe a card and a key, in case you're swimming in the ocean and must have one or two valuables with you. Personally I wouldn't try a phone...
  2. Bath bag. You know what is the minimum you can get by with (see word to the women below). In addition to recommendations there, a few drugs are useful--any prescriptions you need of course (with the prescription), whatever painkiller(s) work for you, and loperamide, which has the handy effect of stopping you going when you really don't want to go. Enough said.
  3. Two liquids I definitely need in larger than carry-on size, so they go in the duffel bag until I put them in my Kili daypack. One is mosquito repellent (with DEET) that is vital at lower elevations in malarial countries; the other is sunblock (factor 50 is recommended at high altitude). I am told to cover all exposed surfaces including hands, and to pack sunscreen from the West, as it's not as much in demand by Tanzanians!
  4. Zinc oxide--that ugly white cream--is not only useful for sunblock on sensitive places like lips, but also heals all wounds, like time. And if you apply it to heels/other foot surfaces before you set off for a day of hiking, it can even prevent blisters! I call it "magic cream."
  5. I also always travel with earplugs, as they're as useful on a long-haul flight as they may be at a noisy campsite. And an eye mask (although as in so many cases, a bandanna will do). 
  6. Laundry supplies, if you expect to do any washing in a sink. A universal plug stopper and some hand-wash soap are sufficient. This came in handy when I crossed Germany in 2008 carrying only a 25L backpack (I could get away with it because it was summer).
  7. A few clothespins or binder clips, if you expect anything to sun dry (from your daypack or anywhere else).
  8. Bottle opener. I have one on my keyring. I used to travel everywhere with my Swiss Army knife, but since September 11 this would force me to check luggage, which I try to avoid whenever possible. (This is a good reason to minimize liquid sizes too.)
  9. Travel towel. This is the pat-dry type that is less absorbent, but much lighter and more packable than a fluffy beach towel. It's the only kind to take up Kilimanjaro where nothing else will dry.
  10. Essential documents and cards, and copies in a separate place.The only documentation I'm taking on the mountain are copies, including of my insurance policy (high-altitude trekking required). Everything else stays locked up in the hotel.
  11. I do always take small notebooks with me (and pens--Ziplocs are handy here). Books are heavy but it's always handy to have one--at least a guidebook for the country(ies) you're visiting. You can always cut out sections with that knife you can't bring, and bind just the parts you need with duct tape (if you're bringing that). Some people are into e-readers although to me, it would just be another thing to get lost or stolen. See electronics!
  12. I was tempted by a small, lipstick-sized charger. There's no charging electronics on the mountain, obviously, and the cold can make camera/phone batteries run down more quickly. I've tried it but only at home.
  13. Glasses if you wear them; prescription, case and whatever you need to clean them with. And sunglasses! For Kilimanjaro wraparound sunglasses that block ultraviolet rays are recommended, and pretty much essential to prevent snow blindness at the top.
  14. I assume you can't leave home without a wallet. Remember not to confuse this with a money belt or whatever you're using to keep valuables in a secret place. A money belt never comes out in public; a wallet is for your daily cash needs, and should contain nothing else. (Only tip money is required on Kili--check with your trekking company for recommendations.)
  15. Spare laces for your hiking boots, just in case.
  16. A washable laundry bag is something I already have, but wouldn't buy, since a plastic bag would do.
  17.  A headlamp. This is essential for camping and for attempting the summit of Kili in the dark! But it's handy anywhere, and more so than a flashlight that you'd have to hold in your hand. Spare batteries too (don't throw batteries away on the mountain).
  18. Vaccinations are not a thing, but you need them for many countries including Tanzania. Photocopies of whatever you've had are vital documentation, as is a yellow fever certificate (mine is stuck into my old passport). It may be required for you to enter the country.
Are you seeing how all this can fit? Not in 55L worth of backpack, but easily so if you leave out the gear I need only for trekking (such as poles). And very few of these are things I've actually bought for the purpose. The one item I haven't had a chance to try yet is a combination stuff sack/camp pillow. This water-resistant sack can be used to stuff fleece or thermals inside my duffel bag; when turned inside out, it has an incredibly soft surface that will make a nice pillow. At least as nice as one of those neck things on the plane, and much less bulky. I will let you know!

Finally, a word to the women. Kilimanjaro has become so popular that you can find a ton of blog posts and packing lists now, many of them from women. Nonetheless you cannot miss the fact that you will be vastly outnumbered on the mountain. Even if you book specially with a group of all female hikers, you will be outnumbered by your crew and they will almost certainly all be male.

This is not a problem--but I've found it really helpful to get ideas from women who've been there: some female-specific and some general. Have a look at this list (ignore the company-specific information). You'll know which tips would be useful to you. And there's one more thing I know you all are thinking about (skip this last paragraph if it's too much information):

The loo. More specifically, what to do between loos, which you will be for several hours hiking from camp to camp. If you've hiked before I don't need to tell you how to go in the woods, but it's not really woods on much of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Some women recommend one of those devices that goes by a variety of brand names and, essentially, allows you to stay standing up without removing all your layers of clothing. If saving time and privacy sounds like a good idea, check it out. I will pass on one piece of advice a very wise woman told me: Practice at home first. "In the shower." And if you're thinking of an extra bottle, to keep from having to exit the tent at night...make sure you clearly mark the bottle separate from the ones you'll carry water in ;-)