If there’s one thing just about everyone can relate to, it’s the feeling of helplessness that comes from standing over your suitcase trying to figure out how best to prepare for a week spent deep in the jungles of Panama.

Well not to worry!  Now that I have gone through this experience several times, I have developed a few basic guidelines for just how to prepare for your week in the jungle.

Choose the Right Footwear

There are many obstacles to maintaining clean, dry, un-mangled feet in the jungle.  Knee-deep mud, malevolent thorns, rivers and streams filled with slick, moss-covered rocks… The list goes on.

So just how do you keep your feet from becoming swollen, infected, slime-covered appendages dangling from the end of your ankles?  You’ve got to choose the right shoes!

Now, some people prefer to wear flip flops or sandals when hiking in the jungle.  They keep your feet cool and they’re easy to clean.  Unfortunately, they also turn into ankle-twisting slip-fests when your feet are covered in mud.  And there is a lot of mud in the jungle.

Rubber boots.  Making a comeback on the Parisian fashion circuit!

Rubber boots. Making a comeback on the Parisian fashion circuit!

Before you know it, you’ll be slogging your way barefoot through a half mile of mud, hoping desperately not to step on those little thorn-covered branches that lie across the path, but stepping on one anyway and having to balance on one foot so that you can wash off the other one enough to pull out 30 thorns…  Just a hypothetical, of course.  I’m not saying that the exact same thing happened to me.  :)

The second option for footwear is to use hiking boots.  They support your feet, make it easy to jump across muddy puddles, and they are amazingly comfortable for really long treks… that is, until you need to cross a river.  Then they fill with water like a sponge, gain an extra three pounds and give you that wonderful, squishy feeling of soaking-wet socks all day.

Hiking boots were my footwear of choice, and by the time I went to bed most days, my wet feet looked like the pale, shriveled paws of a 2000 year old mountain gorilla.

Ok, so flip-flops and hiking boots are out.  That really only leaves one legitimate option.  Rubber boots.

The locals wear them, you can buy them here for $7, and they are pretty much the only way to finish a week in the jungle with even a shred of sanity and human decency left.

Rubber boots wash clean in seconds, they can go into foot-deep mud without getting you dirty and they make you look like a super-hot New England crab fisherman.

And be honest.  Who doesn’t want to look like that?

Don’t Mourn the Death of Your Stuff

Rain.  Humidity.  Mud.  Heat.  What do these things have in common?  They all spell the death of your beloved electronics!

Having a foggy lens does have one advantage... It makes it really easy to capture glowy, dream-like images.

Having a foggy lens does have one advantage... It makes it really easy to capture glowy, dream-like images.

It doesn’t even matter what they are.  Cameras, iPods, laptops… Give them just a couple weeks in the jungle, and they’ll all be nothing more than a soggy pile of wires and plastic.

Every time I take my camera out of its bag here, I have to wait for a good 2-3 minutes for the lens to un-fog.  As I take picture after picture, the lcd screen and viewfinder start to glisten with trapped moisture.  Let’s just say that, if I come home and my camera is not full of mold and mildew, I will be shocked.

There are really only two choices here.  One, don’t bring any electronics at all!

Of course, if you are supposed to be a world-traveling photojournalist, that’s not really an option.  I suppose I could just draw sketches of everything I see and post those on the website, but since sheets of paper here feel like moist towelettes, that might not work out either.

So, for those who need to take their gadgets along, the only option left is this:  accept the fact that they are already dead.

Realize deep down in your heart that you have already lost your laptop.  Start working through the stages of grief for your iPod now.

If you do that, then when you return home to find an entire ecosystem growing inside of your camera, you can simply remove your hat, flush it down the toilet and get on with your life…

Pack the Right Gear

Nothing is more important in the jungle than packing the right gear.  Too much stuff and your back will break under the weight.  Too little, and you’ll spend most of your time wishing you had brought more.

Here are a few essentials to get you through your experience:

Some of my gear.  Oh no!  I forgot the hand sanitizer!

Some of my gear. Oh no! I forgot the hand sanitizer!

Headlamp – Having a lamp strapped to your forehead has got to be the coolest thing ever invented.  Ever.  Everywhere you look, the light is shining.  It’s like having your own personal flashlight fairie, reading your thoughts and illuminating whatever you want.  Side note: flashlight fairies are really good listeners.  Great for those long dark nights without electricity…

Machete – I don’t care if it is just a $3 piece of metal with a handle.  It looks like sword.  It cuts things.  I’m a boy.  Enough said.

Tuna Packets – Ok, so tuna may not be the tastiest way to get protein into your system, but it’s a whole lot easier than carrying filet mignon.  And believe me. You throw a can of smoked tuna into a pot with some Ramen noodles, toss in some onions, some garlic, and you, my friend, have got yourself a FEAST!

Don't like mud?  Deal with it!

Don't like mud? Deal with it!

Water Filter – Unless you want your stomach to be swimming with parasites, worms, bacteria and amoebas by the end of your trip (and I’m sure some people do), you’ll want to use a water filter.  Believe me.  When you’re filling your water bottle downstream from a horse, two chickens and an open latrine, a filter gives you just a bit more peace of mind…

Deal With It

By far the best advice I can give for surviving in the jungle is this: Deal with it.

Whatever it is that’s causing you discomfort, driving you crazy or making you wonder what in the world you were thinking leaving your nice comfy room to trudge through mud in the jungle… Deal with it.

No, you’re not going to be comfortable.  No, you won’t be clean.  But if you’re willing to deal with the pain and hunger and exhaustion, you might just learn something new about the world.

If you can make it through all of that, you will have earned that nice, hot shower waiting for you back home!

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About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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  1. Amy Sorrells said... 


    December 14th, 2009 at 1:43 pm  

    Love the word “slogging.” And yes, love the part, “It looks like sword. It cuts things. I’m a boy. Enough said.” Also love that Oldest Son dug through our camping gear and wore a headlamp all weekend. Mostly, love how God allows the muck and mire in our lives . . . to make us . . . to break us . . . to change us . . . and that He pulls us out of it in His perfect timing. Love how He promises to wash it all away, making us smooth, clean reflections of Him. Make it so in our lives today, Lord!

  2. Jo Nading said... 


    December 14th, 2009 at 1:46 pm  

    So is all of your ‘stuff’ totally ruined? Does your “homeowner’s” insurance cover your stuff when it is in the jungle? Does this mean you have to buy all new stuff? Yikes. I so enjoy your writing Barry – I really do. And, I love hearing of your adventures. Your willingness to experience nature and discomfort and God’s presence all at once….very cool. Welcome home.

  3. rob yonan said... 


    December 15th, 2009 at 11:48 pm  

    I hereby bequeeth you with an honorary merit badge for Perilous Panamanian Packing. It comes with a carrying case and multi badge display.
    Wow. I’m impressed.

  4. David Byers said... 


    December 24th, 2009 at 1:05 am  

    I’m personally a fan of the flip flops through the jungle. Nothing compares to the feeling of jungle right under your toes. But malaria and parasites kinda put a damper on the whole jungle experience. Good thing jungle experiences don’t come around too often!

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