10 THINGS I LEARNED TRAINING AS A JUNGLE GUIDE in Panama's Chagres National Park
Expeditions are full of challenges, it’s sort of the point, so for wilderness guides, the ability to manage those challenges, maintaining a safe, happy and engaged team is fundamental.
Founded to set the standard for quality and consistency in wilderness guiding in Canada, the Professional Association of Wilderness Guides and Instructors (PAWGI) now operates globally as a guide certification board. Spotting the opportunity for training in the unique challenges of the jungle, in 2018 PAWGI and Secret Compass teamed up to create a specialist course.
For 12 days in June, Panama’s Chagres National Park set the scene for ten eager teammates looking to learn and develop new wilderness skills and knowledge or to qualify as recognised jungle leaders themselves. Among them was fitness and yoga instructor Liz Galloway. Here, she talks us through ten things she learned.
1. How to Pack
A well-organised pack is the secret weapon of any expert jungle guide. Easy access to the essentials without spilling your kit everywhere is vital. Especially when it’s pouring rain and you need to quickly hack a clearing, hang your hammock and grab your dry gear.
It takes time to create systems which work for you and to dial those systems in, so for any expedition it’s worth taking time to pack properly. The contents should be evenly balanced and well compressed. Using dry bags to create segments will keep the wet from the dry, the clean from the dirty, and easy identification of where you can access what quickly. Minimising your kit is the best way to keep a neat and manageable pack, so be ruthless with what you don’t need and be sure to eliminate any extra items.
2. Effective Time Management
Leading a team into unfamiliar environments is full of challenges but ultimately the better you manage your time, the better position you’re in to deal with those challenges. This includes building an itinerary for your adventure with contingency days and spending some time prior to the expedition on a recce, mapping the area to better understand the region and identifying the key hazards you might experience on the way. Weather and injury can throw things off-track anytime, but good time management is key to developing group trust and being best prepared to take unforeseen circumstances in your stride.
3. How to Start a Fire
A necessity for survival, the ability to start a fire in an emergency situation is crucial. It’s also necessary day to day, to cook food, dry wood and gear and as a source of heat in cooler temperatures. So how do you prep your primitive fire starter kit especially for a less than flammable, wet, tropical rain forest?
In the damp of the jungle, back-ups like a lighter and nontoxic starter nuggets will provide a spark when your search dry tinder proves futile. In Panama we worked on the flint and steel method along with making tinder nests, but this naturally is a battle in the rainy season. We had some success but ultimately used our fire starters to get started, and dry more wood. We found cotton wool balls covered in Vaseline are a great secondary fire starter!
Every guide should be able to create fire from a primitive method, it’s an essential survival skill and good way to develop trust from your team. No need to tussle with a puma when you can make fire in the rain!
4. The Importance of a Hot Meal
As your body struggles to keep up with such an increased output and unfamiliar conditions, you need to up your daily calorie intake. But surviving outdoors shouldn’t mean eating out of a can or gorging on dull, chalky protein bars. Choosing, packing, cleaning and preparing food for several days in the outdoors takes a lot of planning but the indulgence of a hot meal after a long day is sublime and an integral component of a successful expedition.
In the Chagres, we organised our food in multiple dry bags and dispersed the weight among our porters before testing our basic cooking skills. Each meal presented its own preparation methods in consideration of weather and what we had available, but in the majority of cases the rain and humidity dictated most of our meals were diced and boiled in a pot on the MSR Whisper Lite. Luxury was real fire and dry wood which cut cooking time in half. Our meals ranged from a buffet of sliced sausage, tuna, peanut butter and jelly, chips and bean paste to stuff our tortillas, others a stew of lentils and quinoa with turmeric and curry spices releasing delicious aromas to further tantalise waiting bellies.
5. Different Guiding Styles
Working in the wilderness, the environment is always dynamic, and guiding styles should be fluid to reflect this. Alex and Rick, our course leaders, advocated that leadership is about more than just taking control and demonstrated how everyone has a role in a group. Typical leadership roles we were taught to embrace depending on the team’s dynamic were:
1. Designated leadership
2. Active followership
3. Peer leadership
When I think of taking clients into wilderness I strive to be a competent, assertive and collective leader that motivates the team. A good guide should encourage a group’s passion to journey more into the wild.
Clear direction and leadership can mitigate possible conflicts within the group or the environment and not taking yourself too seriously we learned can really help lighten the mood when it’s needed most. Formal or informal briefings provide opportunity to discuss goals, needs or concerns with the groups and help ramp up excitement or alleviate apprehension about what lies ahead. Tapping into local history, flora and fauna can keep people emotionally invested in the expedition – this is where a guide’s personality shines.
6. How to Form a Missing Person Rescue
You’re deep in the jungle amongst thick trees and someone gets disoriented. Moments later a regular headcount alerts guides to missing teammates. Now what? Amongst the many detailed logistics of lost persons, time is essential.
In the jungle, a lost person can move surprisingly far in a short time frame, especially if they’re panicked. We learned to create an epicentre with the most experienced guide at base, strategise the perimeter and send search parties with strict return timings to complete the first search. Using flagging tape or brightly torn gear is a great way to mark searched areas while issuing whistles to each teammate should minimise the chances of someone getting seriously lost.
It’s really important to keep your strategy dynamic keeping in mind who is lost and how they might react. Determine how long you will allocate to the search before you declare emergency and do not deviate.
7. How to Deal with a Snake Bite
Many bites we learned can be lethal if they’re not treated immediately so being aware of snake habitats and what to do if a bite does occur is absolutely vital when trekking through the jungle. If a snake does strike, staying calm and rolling out a formulated plan of action is key. In the Chagres, we learned the importance of a pre-determined evacuation location and knowing exactly how to get there with a seven point hit list to mitigate the bite’s effects:
1. Apply pressure to the point
2. Elevate all but the region
3. Keep calm to lessen adrenaline
4. Wrap the wound and keep the pressure
5. Focus on lessening the flow and flatten the lymph nodes to stop the carry of venom
6. Get person to medical care
7. Apply anti-venom – general if can’t identify the snake
8. Communication and Navigation Techniques
Expert guides should be prepared with a strict schedule to communicate with an on-call support team with plenty of gear to help them do so. As an outdoor leader, you need to have your systems in place. In Panama, we had daily communications through global satellite technology with the Garmin InReach, doubled up with The Spot satellite messenger. We also had a satellite phone and checked local emergency responders – in this case, SENAN, the Panamanian Navy.
Confident skills with maps, and a compass go without saying for any sort of guiding and is a really useful skill for members of the team to be familiar with. We covered GIS mapping to track each 1km quadrant meaning we could estimate locations within a few meters, combined with manual compass reading and Google Earth to expand map detail to 1 x 25,000. We found an altimeter to be a powerful aid when used in conjunction with a map and compass, especially in a thick canopy or in places without a lot of visible landmarks.
9. How to Prepare a First Aid Kit
A jungle specific first aid kit should be packed with allergies and reactions in mind with compulsory items like anti-histamine, an EPI pen, Benadryl, aspirin, all the typical bandages, sterilisation and a disposable thermometer. SAM splints are great to improvise on just about anything, so we brainstormed off the cuff resolutions like using pack straps for a neck brace.
Foot rot and chaffing can be hard to avoid in the jungle and after out own incidents, we were glad to have saline to cleanse and zinc to cover wounds.
The best way to lay out a med- kit is in transparent bags. Bags within bags, each labeled with bleeding, airway, breaks, non-critical, etc. Keep it on the top access of your pack and tuck away a printed emergency contact and checklist with layman’s terms including a step-by-step guide. Just in case.
I learned that while the jungle is one of the most hostile environments on the planet, it can also be one of the most serene and we experienced total immersion and space for introspection. Jungle survival and guide training I found was a great way to reset from the busyness of life, boost confidence and provide time to see things with fresh objectivity. I built trust and skills which I’ll carry for a lifetime. The world’s a playground and you’ve got two feet to explore it.