The trekking and hiking in Asia are fantastic. But unlike hitting the trails at home, Asia presents a few additional challenges that could ruin an otherwise excellent adventure. Knowing the fundamentals of hiking safety is key to keeping small situations from cascading into survival situations.
From day hikes to overnight treks and volcano scrambles, you'll never run out of jungles and rainforests to explore in Southeast Asia's tropical climate. At higher elevations, Nepal and North India will get your heart pounding (literally) with unlimited adventure opportunities in the Himalayas.
Wilderness experts agree: Survival scenarios are rarely triggered by a single catastrophic event. Bad situations are more often caused by a seemingly small sequence of things that go wrong at the same time. Being prepared—and knowing the real threats on your hike in Asia—are key.
Not Getting Rescued
Always let someone know where you're going and when you expect to return. These can be rough estimates, but always tell someone.
In the event something unexpected and unthinkable happens, would anyone even know if you needed rescue? Your salvation may never come if they don't know you need them to come.
Even when hiking with others, let someone staying behind know where you are going. Telling loved ones on the other side of the world via phone or email isn't good enough. A local person should know if you are overdue.
Visit the parks office or tourism authority for a map; tell a ranger or someone in charge what time you expect to return. At the very least, tell the reception desk at your hotel or guest house about your adventure plans so they can alert authorities if you fail to return.
Phones may become damaged, and batteries may die. Don't make the common mistake of relying solely on technology as a means to call for help.
Being Unable to Walk Out
Most overnight survival scenarios don't begin as grand adventures; they most often begin as day hikes that go wrong somehow (e.g., weather changes or injury prevent you from getting out before dark).
The first rule of hiking safety is to be prepared for the unexpected. Even if you're only going on a day hike, take a small flashlight in case you aren't. Even if you're sure you know the way, bring a map anyway.
Hiking with someone else doubles your chance of survival. Not only does sharing the adventure with someone make it more enjoyable, doing so greatly improves your odds of getting out in case something unexpected happens.
A simple sprained ankle could become a serious situation if hiking alone. Having a partner to go for help can make the difference. Plus, two brains are better than one: Someone may realize that the trail no longer looks familiar in time to turn around before you get lost.
Although Southeast Asia boasts plenty of poisonous snakes, mosquitoes are technically the most dangerous animal in the jungle. Know your real enemy!
Dengue fever, a mosquito-borne illness, is epidemic in Southeast Asia. Mosquitoes that carry malaria typically bite at night, but dengue-carrying mosquitoes bite during the day when you are likely to be on the trail. A single bite could ruin your entire trip.
Realistically, dengue fever is a much bigger threat than malaria for tourists in Asia. The new dengue vaccine is problematic and only recommended for people who have already been infected by dengue fever once.
Zika is just another of the many mosquito-borne illnesses in Asia. The best strategy is simple: Prevent as many mosquito bites as possible. Despite the heat, cover as much skin as you can, and reapply repellent frequently, especially after sweating a lot.
Running Out of Daylight
Even if you expect to be back before dark, carry a light source or two.
Daylight is your most important resource on the trail. Life becomes cold, confusing, and dangerous without it.
Always build in a time buffer, and know that the trail may get dark (e.g., the sun drops behind mountains or forest canopy) well before whatever you think is the official sunset time.
A mistake as innocuous as taking a wrong turn could cost you more daylight than expected. In low light, mountainous trails with views turn from blessings to dangerous hazards. Be prepared with a few simple items that will help you get through an unexpected overnight stay so that you can get out safely at first light.
Trails are harder to see in the dim light of the rainforest canopy. Have at least one additional item of clothing that you can put on when temperatures drop at sunset.
Even becoming mildly dehydrated makes concentration more difficult and could cause you to make poor decisions. Irritability is one of the early signs of dehydration.
Expect to sweat way more than you thought possible in Asia's humid jungles and forests. You can live without a lot of things, but water isn't one of them!
Although cumbersome, carry more water than you think you need, and stay in the shade as much as possible. Have a reliable way to treat water (e.g., chlorine dioxide or a Sawyer filter are inexpensive emergency solutions) in your survival kit for peace of mind.
Even if you drink as much water as possible, loss of electrolytes in a jungle environment will also cause a steady decline in energy. A nutrition-packed energy bar could give you the boost you need to scramble out of a bad situation.
Apply sunscreen after applying mosquito repellent; DEET will weaken your SPF protection.
Severe sunburn isn't just something that ruins island vacations, it can actually incapacitate you. If you become too sunburned, your body will feel and act as though you've sustained a serious injury.
The sun is far stronger in Southeast Asia near the equator; carry a higher SPF than you use at home and reapply frequently. A hat and sunglasses with UV protection are essential. You can actually get burned through thin, lightweight fabrics if they aren't rated for UV protection.
Quality sunscreen is frequently more expensive in Asia, and much of the stuff you find in remote areas is fake or expired. Add sunscreen to the list of things you should bring from home rather than plan to purchase locally.
Insects and Poisonous Plants
Unless absolutely necessary, don't touch anything while hiking in the jungle!
Most trekkers are smart enough not to eat mysterious plants found on the trail, but there are other ways they can cause problems. Many plants in Asia have natural defenses that will give you an unpleasant rash. Unless you're a botanist and know what you're handling, touching plants is unnecessary anyway.
Antihistamine (Benadryl is a popular brand) pills and hydrocortisol cream should be part of your first aid kit for Asia in case you have an allergic reaction to some unfriendly flora. They'll also help you in case you are bitten or stung by something.
Even if a plant is harmless, it may be home to biting insects such as ants. Avoid putting your hands on trees or using vines to stabilize yourself on steep terrain.
Many dangerous situations that occur while hiking in Asia are due to unexpected slips and falls.
Although flip-flops are the default footwear of choice in Asia, they are not suitable for hiking and scrambling. Volcanic shale can be brittle and loose; tourists die every year while climbing volcanoes in places such as West Sumatra.
Heavy rains can create "gutters" and washouts in jungle environments. A simple slip could send you sliding and tumbling farther than expected.
When walking through tall grasses, use a hiking pole or stick to prod the ground in front of you. Holes, trenches, and even sheer drops can be concealed.
Use caution when making creek crossings, even if they are shallow. Algae can cause rocks to become extra slippery.
Even one bite or scratch from a monkey can result in a fever or infection; all bites require rabies shots.
Yes, monkeys are an actual threat while hiking in Asia! They're mischievously entertaining in places like Ubud in Bali, but they can be aggressive on the trail.
You are likely to encounter many species of monkeys while trekking in Asia. Southeast Asia's Macaques, in particular, are curious and can sometimes act aggressively if you are carrying food.
Even if a bite isn't serious, rabies has a zero survival rate, and symptoms don't appear until it's too late. If bitten, you'll have to abort your adventure and get to a clinic right away.
Monkeys have an uncanny sense of smell; any food you are carrying—even unopened—can bring a lot of attention on the trail! Immediately drop anything that a monkey grabs. Unfortunately, this even applies to the strap of your expensive camera; playing tug-of-war could result in a bite.
Tip: If a monkey in the wild shows its teeth to you, it probably isn't smiling for your camera!
An early start will give you extra time to get out if the weather—or something else—goes wrong.
Unexpected weather is the number one killer of adventure travelers in Asia, and not just while trekking in the snowy Himalayas.
Even during the dry season, weather can be unpredictable—particularly around mountains and volcanoes. A sunny day can quickly turn into a nightmare.
Heavy rain can come in monsoon volume, turning trails into muddy rivers that are hard to follow without falling. Early-morning starts are best. Most thunderstorms tend to pop up in the heat of the afternoon.