The stench of two-stroke oil, fermented sweat, bad decisions, and shitty planning followed us like a dark cloud as our old Yamaha Enduro sputtered down a footpath in the Madagascar jungle.
One of my arms clung to the waist of the driver and the other was perched on his bony shoulder, illuminating the road ahead with a small Hello Kitty flashlight I bought from a local villager. My bare, mud-covered feet gripped the metal foot pegs for extra stability like an eagle holding its prey.
“Mora, mora”—slow, slow—I pleaded with the young Malagasy man. With each request, the old bike’s RPMs seemed to spitefully increase. He wasn’t slowing for anything, and I couldn’t blame him. What I had promised him would be a few hours’-long surf check and easy payday had morphed into a 17-hour debacle that nearly cost him his life and saw his bike sink to the bottom of a crocodile-infested river. But I had saved him from drowning and retrieved his bike, which he then miraculously fixed on site. Against the odds, we had continued on to our destination and found a perfect wave.
It was the kind of storybook escapade that bonds two people in friendship for life. Or, at least, that’s how I thought the story was supposed to go. I could sense he didn’t feel the same. His desire to get home and be rid of me ran deeper than the tracks left behind after each fishtailing turn the bike made. I held on, pointing Hello Kitty forward, grateful not to have been abandoned in the jungle, as he justifiably could have done hours ago.
Through the fading orange light ahead, I could make out a hairpin turn buffered by precarious tree stumps. “Mora, mora!” I yelled. The urgency in my voice registered this time, but it was too late. The driver slammed on the brakes, and our slide commenced. His elbows and knees drew into an optimistic tuck to shoot the gap. I weighted onto my left foot, swiftly elevating my right up toward the heavens, and said a prayer. The stump passed inches beneath my leg, slamming the peg with a crack that split the thick jungle air. The bike spun clockwise in a full rotation, ejecting me over the edge of the blind embankment.
I landed flat bellied with a wind-removing slap and began a high-speed mudslide into the darkness below. Flailing wildly, I grasped for any vine or branch that could help me, to no avail. Not until the pitch leveled 20 feet below did I finally slow to a stop, the top of my skull coming to rest mere inches from a pile of granite boulders.
Rolling onto my back to catch my breath, I gazed skyward and contemplated how close I had just come to meeting a very unpleasant and potentially messy death.
I had spent the better part of the previous decade traveling the globe in search of adventure and pursuing my passion for big-wave surfing. In that time, I had become quite adept at preparing for my trips in order to manage the risks involved and move between continents, countries, and climates with efficiency and comfort. But, clearly, I was not impervious to the occasional travel blunder or letting enthusiasm get in the way of good judgment, as it had on this day.
Before departing, I had failed to take into account the abnormal amount of rain that had fallen in previous months. Well-traveled dirt roads had morphed into merciless mud bogs and small streams swelled into steady rivers, making travel slow and arduous.
With daylight depleting and a swell that would be gone tomorrow, I encouraged a reckless plan to float the bike across a river to make up time. More foolish yet, I left my bag of essential gear strapped to the back of the bike. It was all going well, until a phantom rapid slapped the top-heavy wooden pirogue broadside, sending the bike and my belongings into the muddy water mid-crossing.
The recovery efforts were nothing short of miraculous. After an hour of consecutive blind dives and drifts along the murky river bottom, I finally located the bike and tied a makeshift vine rope through the wheel. It was only after we hauled it up onto the bank that the locals informed me of the crocodiles that live around the bend and how lucky I was that my splashing and swimming hadn’t drawn their attention.
Later, while laying on my back, enveloped in blanket of cool mud, jungle canopy swaying gently overhead, I felt that I could have fallen asleep then and there. But we were still hours from home, with a muddy matrix of roads yet to navigate. I clambered to my feet, located Kitty, and began a four-legged crawl up the slippery hill. The faint glow of a cigarette and human silhouette waited at the summit. I expected a verbal lashing in my driver’s native Malagasy, but when I reached the ridge, his bloodshot eyes met mine and he asked, “Mr. Greg, you OK?”
“Ratzy izany,” I laughed. That was bad. It was a phrase he’d taught me earlier and that I had jokingly repeated to make light of the series of mishaps throughout the day. He let out a small chuckle, took a drag of his cigarette and offered his opposite hand to help me over the edge.
Exhausted, I gave myself a feeble cleaning and once-over to check for any major bodily damage. Surprisingly, I sustained nothing more than a few minor scrapes. He picked up the bike and kicked the starter. It sputtered back to life. I wiped the mud from Kitty’s plastic lens and climbed on. “Mora, mora?” I asked. He laughed. “Yes, Mr. Greg, mora, mora.”
After each trip taken over the years, especially those that didn’t go according to plan, I always spend time reflecting on what went wrong and what I can do differently in the future to be more prepared. Over time, all of these mishaps and fumbles have turned into a personal encyclopedia of the dos and don’ts of adventuring.
The items I consider essential for a trip vary based on location and objective, but all fall in line with being a “well-prepared minimalist.” Here are a few that usually find their way into my bag. Remember these items, and avoid errors of judgment like the one detailed above, and you’ll be well on your way to a good time.
An anti-microbial, micro-fiber, fast-drying towel: A towel is a towel, right? Wrong! Especially if you are traveling to any wet or humid environment where things tend to stay damp. Travel for a month with an ordinary towel to some such environment and it’s probable that your first stop on the way home from the airport will be to show your dermatologist the skin fungus souvenir you brought back. You will pay more for your prescription of Ketoconazole or Selenium Sulfide to get rid of your fungus friend than you will for a quality lightweight, fast-drying anti-microbial towel. Trust me.
Zip-off pants: Yeah, you heard that right. Zip-off pants. And make sure they have zip-up pockets, too, to keep your wallet, phone, and any other carry-along oddities secure while you’re on the move. I know what you are thinking: “Zip-off pants are goofy.” Well, I have news for you: I stopped worrying about what I look like and what people think of me a long time ago. The only one I aim to impress these days goes by the name Practi-Cality. Pants and shorts together means one less item to pack, leaving more space in the bag, and that makes a hell of a lot of sense to me. Gone are the days of dancing pirouettes in filthy airport toilet stalls while trying to change clothes upon arrival. You will feel like Harry Houdini performing magic when you change your wardrobe from your seat on the plane.
Teva Terra Fi 5 or KEEN Rapids H2 sandals: One of the most important things you can do while adventuring is to look after your feet. If you are planning to hike in warmer climates where regular shoes or boots will be overbearing, either of these sandals will be your new best friend. They are ready to battle through any terrain. Attempt to cross a mud bog in a generic pair of beach sandals and you will likely incur a double-strap blow out and be forced to carry on barefoot (see the opening story for a real-world example of this). Hesitant to buy a pair because they may not look the coolest? Let’s revisit what we learned in the previous paragraph: Function over fashion. Truth is, I am the kind of person who would wear sandals and socks to your wedding if the weather called for it.
North American Rescue medical kit: This is the first thing that goes into my bag and something I will never compromise space for. You can find a multitude of different medical kits on narescue.com and just about any other tactical medical equipment you may need to customize to your specific needs. As you build out your kit, keep in mind that certain items, specifically medications, may be illegal in others countries you travel to. I once found myself detained in Indonesia for having a medication that was their version of a Schedule I narcotic. If I hadn’t had the physical prescription to accompany it, it’s likely I would be writing this from a prison cell in Jakarta. Do your research to ensure that anything you bring complies with the international laws of not just your destination but any countries you’ll visit in transit, as well. And once you have purchased and detailed out a bad-ass medical kit, make sure you actually know how to use the contents. I highly suggest taking a basic first responder or wilderness medicine course.
Drift Dry waterproof medical bag: Most medial kits that you purchase will come in a bag that is water resistant, not waterproof. Accidentally drop it off of a boat, or leave it in the rain and the contents inside could easily be ruined. Drift Dry’s Dry Med Pack and Dry F.A.K are the perfect size to house your supplies and keep them truly protected against the elements.
Money belt: I always travel with a respectable stash of cash in a money belt for dire emergencies. This is not the reserve cash you use to buy the last round of drinks at the bar after you have run out of money. This is to be saved for after that rare big night, when you accidentally lose your wallet and dignity entirely, and won’t see a replacement bank card for a few weeks.
Language dictionary or phone app: Learning a few key phrases in the local language is appreciated wherever you go in the world. At the very least, know how to say “I’m sorry” so you can apologize for being the ignorant tourist who didn’t have the courtesy to learn basic communication.
Sea to Summit roll-top dry bags: These come in a variety of sizes and colors and are perfect for organizing clothes and keeping all of your other important electronics or documents dry. They also allow you to squeeze the excess air from between your clothes and save space in your bag. You won’t need to stress if your bag gets thrown recklessly into the hull of a waterlogged boat or somehow ends up at the bottom of a river.
Leatherman Surge 21-in-1 Multi-Tool: With 21 tools in one (and even more if you get the bit kit set to accompany it), this is the ultimate multi-tool. With an extra wrench, some determination and mechanical ingenuity you can disassemble and fix an old flooded Yamaha Enduro motorbike in the middle of the jungle. Mechanical ingenuity is not included with the purchase.
Inflatable sleeping pad, a sleeping bag and a lightweight tent: When you travel light and are self-sufficient, people are more willing to take you in or, at the very least, help you find a place to put a tent down for the night. If they won’t, it’s likely because you either desperately need to shower and wash your clothes, or somewhere along the road of life you have unknowingly developed personality traits the likes of Charles Manson. Bonus tip: If I have a long airport layover or ferry ride, I pack my sleeping pad in my carry-on bag so I can throw it down for a comfy rest while in transit.
Emergency action plan (EAP): This is some free stuff that can prove more valuable than any other item you will pack. The details within an EAP will vary depending on location and recourses available, but here are a few things that I make sure to research and organize before every trip:
- Personal emergency contacts: I ask anyone I travel with to write these down or send them to me in an email before departure. At the very least, make sure to share the password of your phone with your travel companion should contacts need to be accessed. And note, there is an unspoken, but internationally recognized rule between travel buddies that using someone’s password to search browser histories or photo albums is strictly forbidden.
- Local emergency service phone numbers: Call 911 internationally and you have roughly a 6 percent chance of connecting directly to an emergency service. If you are lucky, the phone service provider may be equipped to recognize the 911 number and forward it on to their emergency hotline. Regardless, you shouldn’t be betting on luck or such poor odds when it comes to potentially saving a life. Do some research and look up the appropriate emergency phone numbers where you will be traveling before you go. In some locations, there may not be a generic emergency number to call and you will need to get direct phone numbers and locations of local hospitals instead.
- Travel Insurance: Travel insurance is one of those things you won’t ever need … until you do. If that time comes, you will be ecstatic that you decided to make the small investment. I have experienced firsthand what it takes to arrange medical care and flights home for people who both did and did not have it. The latter was a nightmare. The thought of bills for a $30,000 med-evac flight waiting at home were almost more painful than the life-threatening injuries that warranted the evacuation in the first place. Just make sure that whatever policy you buy covers any “extreme activities” you may be partaking in and that your policy information is accessible to your travel companions.
Garmin inReach: What good is any of the above if you are off the grid and have no means of communication with the outside world? I spent a small fortune in my early years of traveling on satellite phone airtime subscriptions, which more often than not went used. I eventually got wise, and bought a Garmin inReach. Short of direct two-way talking, the inReach does everything else you need if you are adventuring off the grid: Direct satellite text messaging, weather updates, GPS navigation and tracking, and an S.O.S. trigger that will connect to and share your location with a 24-hour emergency response coordination center.
What not to pack: Expectations. It is very seldom that I don’t enjoy myself while traveling. If I don’t it’s usually because I’m absorbed in comparing my experience to the one I thought I was supposed to have. Expectations are the root of disappointment. Leave them at home, and enjoy the adventure for exactly what it is.
Greg Long is a world champion big-wave surfer, environmental activist, storyteller and ocean safety instructor. You can follow him on Instagram @gerglong or learn more at greglongsurf.com.