Navigating the Jungle | Backpacker Magazine - Backpacker

Pass/Fail: Navigate the Jungle

A newly minted trip leader takes on tropical mud, bugs, and rainstorms.
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Navigating through the jungle is different from hiking in a temperate forest.

Navigating through the jungle is different from hiking in a temperate forest.

I stood with my toes at the edge of my grandmother’s grave. My younger brother, Bentley, 27, turned to me, solemn in his funeral suit, and said, “Grandmommy traveled. I want to go overseas like she did.”

My grandmother had been all over the world, and I’d followed in her footsteps. Bentley, though, had never come along, instead opting to explore stateside.

Now he wanted me to take him somewhere tropical, where we could do our exploring by trail. We settled on Tayrona National Park on the coast of Colombia. It’s a far cry from the Chicago high-rise my brother calls home, and the Caribbean coast’s dense jungle offered plenty of hiking.

It would be my first time leading a trip. I was nervous, but I’d backpacked in plenty of places and listened to my grandmother’s hard-earned travel advice on plenty more— I figured it couldn’t be tougher than any other trip I’d done. So when Bentley, my boyfriend John, and I landed in Santa Marta, we immediately hailed a taxi for Tayrona. For our first few days, I’d planned a rolling, 5-mile out-and-back to a beach campground—a gentle introduction to the terrain.

Equipped with a GPS and a map from a local ranger, we hit the trail, chatty with the adrenaline of being somewhere new. Around us, the jungle’s babble was deafening. Insects buzzed, howler monkeys leapt between branches over our heads, and caimans slithered under the bridges we crossed. It was like being in the rumbling belly of a living thing.

As we plunged deeper into the forest, the trail split, and both options led through thick mud. We peered at the map, but it was too pixelated to be much use. GPS? Satellite reception petered out beneath the dense foliage. Worried the group might start to question my preparedness, I quickly made a decision and charged toward the wider trail— and dropped knee-deep into the brownie-batter sludge.

I tried to pull free, but it sucked me back in with a loud slurp and I lost my balance, face-planting in the muck. The boys choked back laughter. I tried to join in but could only make a show of it. Was this even the right route? How were we going to move 3 more miles in this mess?

I eventually extracted myself, noting how fortunate I was to have missed the horse droppings I now saw just inches from my face. Then I remembered: According to my research, there was both a horse trail and a hiking trail. I sighed and led the group back toward the split.

What I was sure would be one footpath turned into a mud-choked network of them. The dense jungle walls leaned toward us, reaching out with tendrilled vines and branches. It all looked the same, and the sameness was dizzying.

Without landmarks or any useful navigation tools (I hadn’t packed a compass, thinking the GPS would be sufficient), I really had no clue which way to go. I pressed forward anyway (I was the leader), and after a while, one sound cut through the jungle’s chatter: the ocean. I grinned with relief, and announced that we could keep the sea to our right and reach our beachside camp, no problem.

But as we walked, following one trail after another, the heat grew more and more oppressive, and the mud sucked at our boots. When we noticed local hikers going barefoot, we followed their lead (unfortunately, our Spanish was too poor to ask them for directions).

We were moving faster, but the jungle found other ways to grab at our feet. We tiptoed over thorny vines, the tails of fleeing snakes, and ants with gargantuan mandibles. A wound in this environment could easily lead to infection. But I decided staying on schedule without shoes was better than risking a night out here.

Even our shoeless pace—a half-mile per hour—was half as fast as we’d planned. John and I settled into a weary trudge. And by our sixth hour of hiking, even Bentley, who’d spent the rest of the trip cracking jokes, grew quiet.

Looking at my barefoot, ragtag group, I felt like a failure. I’d read that this was the dry season, but never considered that when a place gets 49 inches of annual rainfall, “dry” is a relative term. Now we were exhausted, and I still had no idea how far we were from camp.

Then, just as the sun started to hang low, the jungle opened, and our beachfront campsite appeared in front of us. Hooting with joy, we ran toward the campground’s leaky pavilion to hang our hammocks as thunder broke across the sky and raindrops pelted the sand.

The next morning, we woke to clear skies and a symphony of birdsong. We spent the morning exploring the coast before packing up to head back to the trailhead. I still felt blindfolded by the dense foliage, but now knew to follow the sounds of the sea.

I thought about how my grandmother would have handled this place and smiled—wherever she was, I was sure she’d been laughing at us the whole time. She’d have figured out immediately what took me a whole day: In a tropical jungle like this one, what you hear is just as important as what you see. Still, the next time navigating by noise is the only option, someone else can lead.

THE VERDICT: FAIL

I overestimated my ability to lead a trek in the jungle—all three of us returned home with a mystery illness (likely a type of virus contracted from hiking barefoot; we’ve all now fully recovered). 

Key Skills: Explore Safety 

Bring the right kit.

Raingear—including a waterproof shelter—is a must in tropical environments, and waders or knee-high rubber boots are the best footwear in some places. Thoroughly research weather and hazards before you go.  

Look before you step .

Venomous snakes, biting insects, and thorny groundcover can lead to bites and cuts, and nasty infections are common in the tropics. Wear pants and long sleeves, clean and bandage cuts right away, and have a plan for getting treatment in case of complications (buy traveler’s insurance before you go).

Get some air.

Jungles are stiflingly humid. Camp off of the ground on a cot or in a hammock, and remove wet footwear when possible—prolonged moisture can lead to trench foot and toe fungus.

Learn low-tech nav.

Tall trees make it difficult to navigate by the sun, stars, or prominent landmarks. Thick canopy cover can compromise GPS reception. Bring a reliable map and compass.

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