There’s no two ways about it, the jungle is amongst the most extreme environments on the planet. Hot and humid, there’s a myriad of life under its dense canopy, but surviving there as humans comes down to a precise approach to personal admin. There’s water everywhere and consequently, there’s a multitude of challenges faced by jungle based expeditions.
Jungle expert Rick Morales has been running expeditions with Secret Compass in the Darien Gap for several years and now, having launched our Jungle Training & Expedition Skills Course, we’ve enlisted his help for the basics of personal hygiene and to hear his hacks to dealing with excessive moisture in the jungle.
In most regions water – be it rain, snowmelt, rivers, lakes, and oceans – is usually cold. Therefore getting wet in those conditions means at the very least being uncomfortable and in some instances risking hypothermia. In many situations people doing outdoor activities in cold places actually try to keep from sweating, because that sweat could get cold or freeze on their backs and cause a number of complications. In the lowland tropical jungles, those rules do not apply, so the mindset and the approach of trying to keep dry at all costs is not only energy-consuming, it’s futile.
The moisture in the air comes mostly from vegetation. With the heat of the sun, the moisture rises in the form of water vapour to form clouds. Once it cools at higher altitudes, the vapour condenses and falls as rain. That rain is responsible for the many rivers and wetlands found in the tropics. Rain in the lowlands however isn’t cold at all.
What’s the reality of trekking in the jungle?
You can’t stay dry for long and the sooner you accept that fact, the better and more comfortable you will be. There’s water everywhere and because it’s hot so your body will sweat profusely to cool down – which can also be a concern when trying to stay hydrated – but the air is so saturated with moisture your sweat can’t evaporate as efficiently as it would in a dry climate. It then accumulates on the skin’s surface, soaking your clothing in a matter of minutes, especially if you’re exercising. With the many rivers and streams found in the jungle, sooner rather than later you’ll have to cross them, so your feet and legs will be wet too.
Rain is always a possibility, even in dry season, so you need to expect a downpour at any time. The temperature outside can be oppressive, so you’ll welcome rain and the opportunity for a dip in the river pools to cool down.
What are the consequences of being wet for long periods of time?
As much as you can’t avoid being wet, it’s important to realise that staying wet around the clock is not healthy. Your skin will start showing signs of deterioration in form of rashes and fungus on your feet. Fungus likes to grow in wet, warm, and dark environments and your boots after trekking for several days offer exactly those conditions.
So what can you do?
Set up a dry, clean, and safe shelter every day and keep everything inside from getting wet or dirty. Everything outside of that shelter is going to reek and is going to be wet, including yourself. Furthermore, everything that gets wet will stay wet for the duration of the trek. Nothing dries in the jungle, unless you leave it out for 6 or 7 hours in good weather, and during a trekking expedition you don’t have that kind of time.
Your hammock and your night kit are sacred. These are the few items that you should make great efforts to keep clean and dry. Before you get in the hammock you should wash. Don’t make the mistake of getting in the hammock with your hiking clothes on, you will contaminate it and get it damp with your sweat, which accumulates over the days. Get in the habit of washing thoroughly and drying with a camp towel before going to sleep. With the many rivers and streams found in the jungle, taking a bath shouldn’t be a problem. This will not only help drop your body temperature and help you sleep, but it’ll also help prevent some nasty skin parasites, such as bot flies. Your skin, on your feet in particular, needs to be dry for several hours to avoid developing a fungus problem.
Is it worth bringing a rain jacket?
There are exceptional situations when it rains heavily for hours but you have stopped hiking. If you’re wet but not exercising, at some point you will begin losing heat. You’ll notice this because you’ll suddenly feel cold even though the temperature outside may not have dropped at all. At this point you’ll want something to trap a bit of heat and usually an ultralight rain shell solves the problem right away. It’ll be drenched but will trap just enough heat to let you cope with the downpour.
Avoid apparel with insulation either synthetic or natural. A puffy jacket in the jungle is going to get saturated with water and become dead weight. These situations are not common, but they come unannounced. A rain shell should be lightweight enough so you won’t mind carrying it in your pack, even if you never have to use it. They are also useful on open boat rides when there’s a breeze blowing. You’re bound to get some of the spray on you, and because the boat is moving fast you’ll start losing heat by convection right away.
Get used to the idea that on a jungle expedition you and everything around you will be wet during the day; but keeping your shelter dry and clean at all times is essential so you can sleep dry and comfortably each night.