Preparation & Safety

Jungles, by their very nature, are hot and humid, may have difficult terrain, poor visibility, biting bugs (or worse!), and untimely downpours of rain. Jungle trekking can be a laborious and exhausting experience if you’re not familiar with the climate, and potentially dangerous if you’re not prepared. It’s of course, extremely important to have the right gear and outfit depending on the trail you pick, so be sure to check out Best Trekking PolesBest Budget Winter Sleeping Bags, and Best Trail Running Shoes for Hiking guides.

Having said that, if you take a few basic and simple steps, it is quite easy to ensure your safety and comfort.

 

Before You Go

Before you travel to Sarawak

  • Consult your GP or family medical practitioner. The issues you will need to raise include
    • malaria prophylaxis (see below),
    • vaccinations (typhoid, polio, MMR, tetanus, Hepatitis A are essential, Hepatitis B and Japanese B encephalitis vaccinations are probably recommended, the later especially in rural areas and National Parks ),
    • medical conditions which you have which might exclude or restrict jungle trekking.
  • Ensure you have adequate supplies of any prescription medicines for your trip, and a letter explaining any medical conditions you might have.
  • Take out travel insurance.
  • Consider putting together your first aid kit
  • If you’re thinking of tackling larger trekking excursions involving significant climbs or carrying a heavy pack, work on building up your fitness levels before you go.

 

Before the actual trek

  • Be realistic about your own (and your group’s) fitness level. If you’re used to a temperate climate, try and acclimatise before undertaking a big trek.
  • Read up on the area you’ll be visiting and check out any available maps.
  • Never go trekking alone and always inform others of your intended plan, and likely return time.
  • Anticipate the duration of the trek and allow some leeway, for the trek itself and for getting to and from.
  • Consider the possibility of sudden weather changes, and the time of day when you’ll be outdoors and be equipped.
  • Always carry water, a first aid kit, basic emergency supplies (see below), and snack food. Keep a card with some basic personal details (name, age, passport no, next of kin, travel insurance details) on you.
  • Consider taking a guide.

 

What to Pack

Clothing

There’s a good chance that you will not even see another person while trekking many of the trails described in this site, so remember that functionality rules – who cares what you look like! Here’s some tips on what to pack:

  • Loose, thin, light, light-coloured clothing – synthetic pants may be hotter to walk in but dry faster and weigh much less than cotton pants when wet. Trousers are preferable to shorts when walking through thick vegetation and also protect from insects. Loose long-sleeve cotton button-down shirts are often more comfortable than fitted t-shirts, and provide additional protection from sun and insects.
  • Hat – for sun protection
  • Raincoat – cheap locally available loose plastic ponchos will do the trick, and may be more comfortable than a fitted gore-tex.
  • Lightweight warm clothing – if venturing to higher altitudes
  • Light nightwear – comfortable light-coloured long-sleeved top and pants for night time wear helps protect against insect bites
    Sweat-rag – this may sound gross, but it can be handy to have a small cloth with which to wipe the sweat from your brow, so you can see where you are going. And believe us, you will sweat!

 

Footwear

  • Boots – necessary for longer walks, especially if carrying a pack. These should be waterproof, with a good gripping sole and ankle support, and should be worn-in before attempting any long treks.
  • Sneakers/runners/trainers – are suitable for most shorter walks, provided they have a good gripping sole
  • Socks – when wet, polypropylene socks provide much better cushioning than wet cotton socks, and can help to wick water away from your foot. Also consider 2 layers of socks to prevent blister formation on long walks
  • Sandals – it’s useful to have a pair of reef sandals for camping trips, for moving about camp at the end of the day, and for pottering around beaches or creeks.

 

Water

  • Water bottle – have an accessible water bottle at all times – either carried separately but easily accessible in your pack, or a water bladder with a hose and mouthpiece.
  • Water filter/iodine tablets/water purifying tablets – for longer walks (even longer day-walks), it will not be possible to carry with you all the water you will need. Check maps and trail descriptions for likely running water sources. You will need to boil or purify all water collected in the forest, unless you are absolutely sure about it. (Tap-water in Sarawak’s major cities is generally safe to drink.)
  • See more about keeping hydrated under the section called During the Trek, below.

 

Food

  • For shorter trips, most foodstuffs are suitable, but be aware that the heat and humidity spoils most “wet” food within a day in the tropics.
  • For longer trips, food like instant oats, instant noodles, packet soups, etc are ideal because they are lightweight, high energy and quick to cook.
  • Food suitable for camping is widely available in supermarkets most cities and towns in Sarawak.

 

First Aid Kit

 

  • medicines
    • aspirin, paracetamol, cold and flu tablets, antihistamines, antinauseants, antidiarrhoeal agents should be standard. Consider some antibiotics eg malaria prophylaxis. These are generally available in local city pharmacies.
    • rehydration mixture
  • wound care
    • band aids, crepe compression bandage, dressings
    • antiseptic eg iodine ointment or solution
  • miscellaneous
    • insect repellent (some “normal” plus some with DEET for use in high-disease-risk areas and circumstances)
    • sunscreen (SPF 15-30+)
    • soothing creams or sprays for insect bites, sunburn
    • tweezers, scissors, latex gloves
  • Emergency Kit
    • keep these in a waterproof pouch or container which you can throw in your pack whenever you go on a trek. This may include:
      • torch, matches, candle, pocket knife, compass, space blanket / aluminium foil, pen and paper, large plastic garbage bags, and possibly also your mobile phone – depending on where you are, you just might get coverage.

 

Miscellaneous

  • camera
  • spare film
  • torch (flashlight)
  • spare batteries
  • binoculars
  • a compass or GPS is probably not necessary – all trails described in this site are well marked, or require a local guide. Further, detailed topographical maps are not available without government security clearance, so your compass and GPS would do you little good. But if you want to lug the latest gadgets around with you to impress your friends, feel free…

 

Camping gear (overnight treks)

  • Backpack – 50-70 litre capacity is necessary for most camping trips, and should have an internal frame, and hip belt to transfer the load onto the hips
  • tent, or fly, or mosquito net (depending on weather);
  • lightweight sleeping sheet / sarong;
  • sleeping mat
  • cooking stove and appropriate fuel;
  • Suppliers of camping and trekking equipment in Sarawak

A range of camping and trekking supplies can be purchased in both Kuching and Miri. However, the range is reasonably limited, and the gear is almost all imported, so don’t expect any super bargains. Having said that, prices seem to be fair (like what you would pay at home), and you can get all the basics. See Gear and Outdoor Suppliers on our Further Information Page.

 


 

During the Trek

  • Hydration is probably the most important health concern in jungle trekking – the heat and humidity, exercise and resulting profuse sweating will soon have you becoming dehydrated unless you are careful about replacing your fluid losses. You may notice dehydration by feeling thirsty, developing a dry mouth, lethargy, muscle aches or headache. Most importantly, very concentrated (or no) urine is a real danger sign. Frequent breaks to drink, or ongoing consumption of water or isotonic rehydration solutions will avoid this problem.
  • Rest – Don’t overdo it if you can’t keep up the pace you had hoped. The heat and humidity mean you won’t be able to keep up the pace you might usually keep back home. Take plenty of breaks and enjoy your surroundings. You’re much less likely to get dehydrated or fall or trip, and more likely to notice special details in the rainforest which you would miss if you just went crashing on through.
  • Energy snacks – Keep some snacks, eg muesli bars, fruit, biscuits, chocolate easily accessible – for quick energy bursts.
  • Except in closed jungle, sun protection is essential – even when overcast. Some terrain will be more exposed to the sun (eg. beaches, fire padang), which will increase the risk of both sunburn and dehydration. Make sure you apply sunscreen regularly (every 2-3 hours), wear long-sleeves, a hat and sunglasses. Sunburn and heatstroke are easily preventable, but painful and potentially disastrous when they happen.
  • Use insect repellent (DEET products work best, but use caution when using DEET-containing compounds on children and sensitive or inflamed skin). Dark clothes and perfume attract mosquitoes – avoid these (it’s easier to see any leeches on light clothing, too – see below for Hazards)
  • Keep an eye on the time, the trail and the other people in your group. The jungle can get very dark very quickly when the sun goes down (especially if it’s overcast). Night really “falls” in the tropics.

 

 

Potential Hazards

You would be very unlucky to encounter many of these, however some (like mosquitoes) may be unavoidable. Be aware of the risks, take sensible preventative steps, and you should be fine.

Trail hazards

Most of the trails described in this website are well made and well maintained. But be aware of the following risks.

 

  • Trail condition – Keep an eye on the condition of the trail as you trek. Many trails can become very slippery when they are wet (which is a lot of the time), and parts of the trail may be quite loose. Also keep an eye on wooden boardwalks and bridges. Although generally in good condition and well maintained, these can become very slippery. And being in the middle of the jungle, termites may get into them, or they may be damaged by falling trees or flooding. Use practical common sense – if it looks like it’s unstable, walk around or beside it, or turn back.
  • Fallen trees – Trees sometimes fall over in the forest, particularly during storms, when there are strong winds and the waterlogged ground provides less purchase for the tree roots. Sometimes just a branch may come down – rainforest trees carry a huge weight in epiphytes, which can place serious strain on branches (or the whole tree). While you would be pretty unlucky to have a tree or branch fall on you during a trek, keep an eye on where you go during storms, and check for dead looking trees or branches above you when setting up your tent. Trees are more likely to provide a hazard where they have fallen across the trail, damaging walkways or blocking the path.
  • Landslips – When it is particularly wet, waterlogged land can slip, particularly on steep slopes. You would be unlucky to get caught by a landslip, but they can block trails from time-to-time. Skirting landslips can be tricky, because the ground may remain unstable.
  • Flash-flooding – During and after heavy rainfall, flash-flooding can occur in mountain creeks and streams. Flash flooding can also occur without warning if a fallen tree or debris damming a stream become dislodged. If it is raining (or has been raining continuously), it’s best not to go for a swim in creeks; and you should check the proximity of your camping site to any creek – water levels can rise quite dramatically.

 

Biting Things

It would hardly be a genuine jungle experience without some creepies and crawlies to keep you company! Fortunately, the biting things you are likely to encounter are more likely to be a minor annoyance than any real threat – and you can easily take some basic steps to minimise the annoyance as well. Serious threats from biting things are pretty scarce.

 

 

  • Leeches – Leeches can be the bane of the jungle trekker, but are rarely a serious problem. They are also more of a problem in some places than others (eg more of a problem in Kubah, almost non-existent in Bako) The puncture wound made by a leech may bleed copiously after it drops off (because the leech excretes an anticoagulant to enable it to feed better), but it will heal. The bites can also become very itchy several days afterwards. Prevent bites by wearing socks which have insect repellent applied to them, or by wearing special “leech socks”. Remove leeches by gently pulling (pulling hard increases the chance of leech mouthparts remaining in the wound and getting infected) or apply salt, insect repellent, a lit match, a burning cigarette butt, etc.
  • Mosquitoes, sandflies and marchflies – Insect repellent and appropriate clothing is the only answer. Again, these are only likely to be an annoyance, and generally pose no significant danger. One risk is from bites which have had their tops scratched off becoming infected – so try not to scratch! More seriously, some mosquitoes may carry dangerous diseases, although the risks are relatively low (see below under ‘Infectious Diseases’ for more information).
  • Hairy caterpillars – there are a number of species of hairy caterpillar in Sarawak which produce defensive chemicals that can be highly irritant (potentially even dangerous) if you touch them – resulting in localised blistering and even rashes over your whole body. Locals avoid hairy caterpillars like the plague – we recommend you do too.
  • Ticks and mites – Brushing through thick vegetation and sitting on the forest floor increases your chances of encountering these. Ticks and mites seek out warm, moist body parts (eg groin creases, armpits). Remove by applying insecticide or methylated spirits and extracting by pulling firmly on the head (the most embedded part) with tweezers. Be aware that some ticks can carry disease.
  • Scorpions – You’re probably more likely to see a scorpion in the city than in the bush (usually dead because someone has squashed it), but the nasty-looking black scorpions here can reach alarming proportions. Stings produce immediate local pain. More severe symptoms are very rare. Treat with painkiller such as aspirin or paracetamol.
  • Venomous snakes – Cobras, vipers and other snakes occur in some parts of Sarawak, although they are mostly very shy and will run away when you approach. Others, such as Wagler’s pit viper, will in fact stay very still on their perch, and won’t bother you if you don’t bother them. The main way to avoid snake-bite is not provoking the snake by poking or prodding it. First aid treatment for snake bites involves immobilisation and wrapping the affected limb with a firm crepe bandage (not a tourniquet) and getting the victim to medical care as soon as possible.
  • Sun bears – Sun bears still occur in the forests of Sarawak, although are considered very rare. They are the smallest bears in the world, but still big enough to do serious harm if so inclined. Like all bears, they are omniverous – they eat anything. However, their usual diet consists mainly of fruit, honey, insects (and some small animals) – not people. Sun bears are very rare and shy, and the likelihood of an encounter is very low. If you do encounter one, leave it alone, and hopefully it will also leave you alone. If you do happen to be attacked by one, the following excellent advice was provided by Nyarin, the extremely knowlegeable Iban guide at Pelagus Resort (unfortunately it also requires Iban stamina and bravery!):
    • run uphill – they find it harder to run uphill;
    • once at the top, grab a long branch with some leaves on its end, and as the bear approaches, swat it on it’s nose with the leaves (apparently their noses are very sensitive), and it will go away. That’s the theory at least.

 

Irritating Plants

Unfortunately, it’s not just the animals and insects that are out to get you – so are some of the trees! Again though, you have to be fairly unlucky to have a bad encounter, and can take basic steps to avoid it.

  • Rengas trees – Certain trees of the Anacardiacae family (which includes poison ivy and poison oaks, as well as mango and cashew trees) produce sap which is extremely irritant and causes extremely itchy skin blistering (within a day). This itchiness and blistering can last as long as a week, and may spread to other parts of the body. Rengas sap also has a sensitising effect, so that further exposures (even minimal exposure such as stream water in which the plant has been steeped) cause more severe reactions. The sap of some of these trees is toxic enough that even rainwater splashing through their leaves can cause blisters! So, avoid trees with obvious black sap, and seek medical treatment if blistering occurs. Treatment includes: washing off the sap, bathing in alkaline solutions (such as swimming-pool water), application of topical corticosteroid cream, and/or taking antihistamine tablets. Please see a doctor before taking any medications.
  • “Wait-a-while” or “lawyer vine” – Various rattan (climbing palm) species have sharp spines and long tendrils covered in backward-facing hooks, which catch anything passing by (hence the name “wait a while”; they also are called “lawyer vine” because once they get their hooks in, they can be hard to get out). Keep an eye out for the tendrils, particularly on less well used trails. While not seriously dangerous, getting hooked can be painful, and can also result in torn clothes or gear, which can be a nuisance.
  • Palms and bamboos – a number of palms and bamboos have fine silica hairs, almost invisible to the naked eye, which can be very itchy and irritating if you grab onto them (and potentially dangerous if you eat them). Other palms, like the tall nibong palms (Oncosperma tigillarium and Oncosperma horribilis) have very spiky trunks, and it can be easy to skewer your hands if you slip while climbing a steep hill and don’t pay attention to what you grab-onto for support.

 

In the Water

 

Just when you thought it was safe… Actually, swimming in mountain creeks is generally very safe in terms of biting things – just be careful on slippery rocks and in shallow pools. Estuarine areas (where rivers flow into the ocean and include salty tidal water) do have a couple of nasties which you should be aware of. But this should not prevent you from enjoying a swim if you take some very basic precautions.

  • venomous fish – Certain venomous catfish (such as ikan semilan) are common in estuarine areas of Sarawak. These have venomous dorsal fins which produce an excruciating pain when stood on. Avoid being stung by wearing shoes / reef sandals in water – especially murky estuarine water. Treat by immersing the affected part in hot water – as hot as the other (unstung) foot can tolerate (heat denatures the toxin and brings very rapid relief) – and take panadol.
  • crocodiles
    • estuarine (salt water) crocodiles were once common around Sarawak’s coastal regions and large river systems but are now rarely encountered. These are the largest type of crocodile, and the only type to pose a threat to people. If you are in areas where estuarine crocodiles may live (ask the locals), stay out of the water, and make sure you camp at least 15m from the waters’ edge. If you need to collect water, try for rapidly flowing and shallow areas, go in pairs, and make sure at least one person keeps an eye on the water at all times.
    • fresh water crocodiles – (gharials etc) These are smaller than estuarine crocodiles, and are distinguishable by their long slender snouts. These are not considered a threat to humans.

 

Infectious Diseases

Malaysia has done a good job of bringing most infectious diseases under control, and you’d be quite unlucky to be struck down by any. However, you should be aware that some do persist, and you should consult your doctor about appropriate measures before leaving for Sarawak. For further information refer to the World Health Organisation website.

  • diarrhoea – Borneo belly still happens, although most food outlets in the major cities are perfectly safe and have high hygiene standards. Make sure to boil or treat any water you get from streams while trekking. Treating the runs basically just requires drinking plenty so you don’t get dehydrated. If you have persistent, mucoid or bloody diarrhoea, see a doctor.
  • mosquito-borne disease – Malaria, dengue fever, and Japanese B encephalitis are endemic in some parts of Sarawak. Consult you doctor for further advice. Remember that prevention is better than a cure, and take basic anti-mosquito measures (light clothes, long sleeves, mosquito repellent and mosquito nets.
  • rabies – rabies does occur in Borneo. If you are bitten or scratched by any wild or domesticated animals, consult the nearest hospital.
  • intestinal worms – can be contracted from eating undercooked meat or walking barefoot. Avoid these, and consider taking worm tablets if you don’t.

 

 

Emergency Contacts

Police and Ambulance

  • Dial 999

 

Fire

  • Dial 994

 

Tourist Police

  • Kuching only – (082) 241 222

 

Helicopter Retrieval

Note that while there is a helicopter rescue service for major emergencies, as in many places, it is stretched to its limits, and a helicopter simply may not be available when you need it. So don’t take any unnecessary risks in remote locations (including Bako at low tide).