How To Plan An Expedition: 8 Checks to Make Before You Start Exploring

Each and every expedition you set off on is exciting. Regardless of whether you’re planning to haul an anvil up a mountain, or circle the globe in under 80 days, you’re going to need to do your homework before you finally pull the trigger and cross the start line.

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of visiting and travelling through many countries, in particular some far-flung destinations where few humans live or have ventured. From the jungles of South East Asia, across the Sahara Desert and through to the barren beauty of the Greenland icecap – every venture has required different skills, equipment and considerations.

Rather than attempt to make this a guide to every possible environment I’m going to stick to the basics of expedition planning. In later posts we can explore more specific requirements e.g. how to plan a successful trip to the North Pole.

Know Where You Want To Go

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Usually we start the analysis process with a question of why we’d want to go on any kind of expedition. Having a solid foundation in place means you’re more likely to put in the required planning and preparation as well boosting you drive. For now, let’s stick with the question of where to go.

Many factors affect this decision and I’ll go into them later in this post.

Realism forms an essential part of this step in the process. Thinking huge, ‘moonshots’ and living your dreams are great ways of motivating yourself, but, without a firm plan (and, quite frequently, money) you’re going nowhere fast.

Know Why You’re Going

Do you remember the moment your expedition first came to mind? Did it come as a flash of inspiration – maybe a desire to support a charitable cause? Or, like the first major journey of my life, did you choose your destination based on only an urge to do something different, to travel to a place that for some reason was lodged in your mind?

The ‘why’ is important, very important as it will be a key component of your drive towards completion.

Over the years I’ve used a number of different ‘why’ motivators. Here’s a few examples that will help you build a solid foundation for your plan:

1.       Self development. This is a buzz phrase that pretty much the whole world has become excited about, and for good reason. It’s fair to say that we all aspire to be something more than the sum of our parts, to achieve the ideal image we set for ourselves. And part of this voyage of self-discovery requires a degree of confidence which will receive a huge boost from knowing you are capable of testing your limits and pushing your mind and body to new peaks (sometimes, quite literally).

2.       For a cause. An old favourite and one many people choose as their why. Rather than talk about how to pick your charity, I’d like you to think about why other people should care about what you do. That’s not to say you should seek out popular organisations to support (statistics seem to indicate that 20% of the top charities receive 80% of public donations, which is grotesquely unfair as far as I’m concerned). When you’re building a plan to support your chosen cause you need to ask yourself why donors would be inclined to give via you.

3.       Because you can. Some of you might think this isn’t the best, most altruistic approach and in most cases I agree. Tweaking the idea a little can make it work and provide all the motivation you require. As an example: many years ago I volunteered for a course in the Army. The base phase was 3 months long with ongoing training and development that lasted my entire career. My ‘why’: because it was, and still is, a very hard course that I wanted to pass (my parents had always encouraged me to challenge myself). You could say that many other factors are at play here and you’re likely to be right, although ‘just because’ can work when you bolster the idea with a number of other motivators.

Building the Right Type of Fitness

Dragging tyres up and down hills is a great way to become accustomed to working in a harness, but is my least favourite way of getting fit.

Dragging tyres up and down hills is a great way to become accustomed to working in a harness, but is my least favourite way of getting fit.

If you’re going to fat bike to the South Pole, then you need to be out on a bike and putting in those miles on two wheels. Likewise, if you’re going to be trekking over hill and mountain then you’ll be putting some serious legwork whilst carrying weight. Want to the ski to one of the Poles, or many other exciting destinations around the world (such as Ash Routen’s 2017 journey across Lake Baikal)? Cool, then work on your cardiovascular and also get to know the joys of hauling tyres for mile after monotonous mile.

Although fitness is very particular, a healthy heart and lungs are essential to sustaining your body during your expedition. The old days of putting on huge quantities of fat to fuel your body during an Antarctic ski are dead (as I found out when I crossed Greenland).

Based on my own experiences and research, here are a few training programmes and tips to help you prepare:

Polar Expeditions

Tyres.

Eric Larsen shows you how to get into zone in this video showing one aspect of his Arctic training regime.

General prep.

Some advice on how to keep your training plan fresh by mixing it up with a number of different forms of cardio and weights.

Cycling.

Rather than read the whole article, I’ve extracted a key training component (bullet 3 in this Telegraph interview of explorer Ben Saunders that I use and is recommended by the likes of Dixie Dansercoer (polar exploration legend, in case you’re not sure who he is).

Trekking  Expeditions

Like polar journeys, the focus of your training will be on building up your legs. The suitable difference being that most treks require you to carry you equipment on your back (unless you’re travelling across terrain that allows you to haul a wheeled pulk.

The best resource I’ve found are the training plans available on GoRuck and I have incorporated their 50 mile rucking plan into my schedule.

The GoRuck plans are tough and if you have to reduce the intensity you can either increase you minutes per mile to suit your pace, or use something a little less intense. The Girl Guides trek training PDF is intended to be utilised by pretty much anyone, but if you find the training sessions too easy you can also ramp up the pace and weight carried.

Ultra Marathon

I don’t run ultra marathons, but my training programme will incorporate many of essentials that can be found in any one of this fantastic ultra training plan (or this massive list of resources over at Fellrnr.

Choose the Right Equipment

Your choice of equipment will affect not only your performance, but also the ultimate success of your expedition, as I discovered during my Greenland crossing. I’d taken a pair of lightweight backcountry skis which, when moving across hard packed snow, or ice, allowed me to move fast and efficiently. My problems started early into the expedition when the snow started to fall… and fall.

Instead of gliding over, or through, the snow it felt as if I were kicking an almost immovable object – the wide tips of the skis became an impediment to fluid movement.

Every journey is different as are the considerations you’ll need to give when selecting gear. Here are a few broad tips that apply regardless of where you’re going:

1. Footwear. Make sure your boots, shoes, trainers, etc are broken in even if the manufacturer guarantees you’ll never suffer from a blister…

 

Brand new ski boots did this! My own fault for not breaking them in.

Brand new ski boots did this! My own fault for not breaking them in.

Above is an an example of blisters I developed as a result of not breaking in my ski boots (which I’d been assured had never caused anyone any issues).

2. Don’t scrimp on equipment. Pretty much any kind of event can be expensive and it’s easy to cut costs by buying cheap gear. One word: DON’T! If you can’t afford to buy the kit you need, then beg, borrow or… don’t steal! There are plenty of companies out there who be willing to sponsor/donate the gear you’ll need. Here’s a useful resource listing companies who are willing to donate equipment (and sometimes cash).

3. Research weather pattern information. Always seek to understand the weather regardless of where your journey is going to take you. It goes without saying that a ski to the North Pole will require you to dive headlong into an environment where extreme cold is the norm, but having an understanding of the shifts in temperatures and extremes will aid in planning which gear you’ll need to take. As an example, for my 2017 crossing of Norway I pulled about 10 years worth of data that showed showing temperature shifts and the occurrence of storms. This information prepared me for the severe weather I experienced during those two weeks.

Know Your Equipment Well

Understand how to get the best out of your equipment.

Lugging the best equipment money can buy won’t be of any use unless you’re familiar in both the use and limitations of each item. For example, if you know the area you’re travelling through is lashed by heavy rainfall and freezing winds, the it’s a good idea to be confident you can erect your tent to form an emergency shelter in a few minutes.

Learn how to fix your gear.

Be confident you can repair your gear because nothing will put a bigger hole in your plans than key equipment that becomes unusable. Likewise, there will be times when some maintenance is required – reach out to anyone who has embarked on the same, or similar, journey and seek advice regarding maintenance.

Most important, learn how to carry out repairs when under pressure – nothing compares to fixing patching a hole in your tent when the winds are gusting at over 100 Mph!

The poles of my tent (the mound in the background of this image) were snapped during a violent Greenlandic storm, but after a little patching the flysheet was made serviceable and became a backup for emergency situations.

The poles of my tent (the mound in the background of this image) were snapped during a violent Greenlandic storm, but after a little patching the flysheet was made serviceable and became a backup for emergency situations.

Be Nice

Overlooked by many, your relations with other team members are critical. Small irritations can, if not dealt with, soon become major issues that fragment the group and jeopardise your journey. Everyone in the team needs to be upfront and honest and disputes dealt with as soon as possible.

Bonding sessions – aka cramming 6 people into a tent at the end of each day and sharing some booze – is great, but it is vital important that every team member be prepared to both air their grievances as well as accept that, sometimes, we simply don’t get along.

Eat, Eat, then Eat Some More

Minion cake starter, three more courses to come!

Minion cake starter, three more courses to come!

Seriously, never try to get by on less than the right amount of calories you’ll need to complete your expedition. Not only will you suffer, but you’ll put your own safety, and that of the rest of your team, at risk.

If the recommended daily intake is 6,000 calories then eat that. And then some more. Don’t worry about weight gain – every expedition I’ve taken has ended with me weighing considerably less than on the day the trip started.

I’m going to wrap this up for now. There are more factors to consider, but this list will give you a sound starting point from which you can add your own thoughts to a list tailored to your unique requirements.

One last tip…

Don’t Fool Yourself

There will be bad days. Probably lots of bad days. Your body will ache and you’ll become accustomed to hearing that voice that tells you to stop, to throw in the towel and go home. Don’t! Don’t listen, don’t stop moving.

Go into your planning with your eyes wide open, understand there will be frustrations and hardship. Then remind yourself of what awaits at the end of your trip.

Now go and start planning.