Overlanding in Valley of Gods (Shutterstock: see credit below)
Article 04 December

Expedition planning: the golden rules

In need of a life-changing adventure? Professional expedition planner Duncan Milligan reveals how to start planning that once-in-a-lifetime trip

What sort of experience do you want?

This is important, as it will influence all other decisions you make about your trip. Are you looking for a ‘seat of your pants’ experience? In at the deep end, low budget, surviving on your wits and initiative? Or do you want to go as fully prepared as possible? Or anything in between... Get this bit right from the beginning, it will make everything so much easier. Any planning ideas can be held up against the “Will this help me have the experience I am looking for?” test.

Never forget where you are

Travel is designed to take you outside your comfort zone: that’s where the best (and worst) experiences are. At these moments, the best thing is to take a deep breath, put the kettle on, smoke a fag – give yourself a moment to reflect on your predicament and remember that this is what you came for.

Sometimes the worst experiences turn into the best. I once broke down outside a cement factory in Morocco in the pouring rain, but within an hour I was eating lunch with the manager of the factory and his family, whilst his team of mechanics sourced me the spare parts I needed.

Take half the stuff and double the money

Everyone takes too much kit and doesn’t allow enough for those lovely surprises (breakdowns, change of plans, etc). In terms of kit, it is important to think about every single item and justify its inclusion. That said, any fool can be uncomfortable: take what you need to make yourself feel happy. A good night's sleep is essential: don’t scrimp of sleeping gear. I always take a Leatherman with me – such a useful piece of kit. Make sure it has a bottle opener on it…

Set yourself a date – and stick to it

Put it in the diary and tell everyone you are going – then it becomes much harder to back out! Ain’t nothing like a deadline to focus the mind. You will never be completely ‘ready’: if you waited until you thought you were, you would never leave. The only person who you need permission from is yourself!

Don’t be put off by the word ‘expedition’

This is a much over-used word. An expedition is 'a journey with a purpose': if the purpose of your journey is to have an adventure, that’s all you need! You don’t have to be Ranulph Fiennes to do this stuff. Don’t judge yourself by other people's ideas and opinions: do it for your reasons, no-one else’s. It’s not rocket science – use your common sense and gut feeling, the rest will sort itself out.

Visualise the trip

Make your own home movie in your mind, play out the first few days of the trip, and think about the things you might need in chronological order. Then make a list. Lists are good. Keep the list with you in the run-up to departure, then as you think of things, you can add to it as you go along. Start with a long list, then make it a short list. I often have that ‘what have I forgotten?!’ panic on the way to the airport, but lists can help with this.

You are an ambassador

You will be the recipient of amazing acts of kindness and hospitality. You will be the subject of intense scrutiny. You will be the most interesting thing some people will have seen that day/week/month/year. You will get ripped off and annoyed by demands for money.

You have to face all the above with the same aim: to be remembered well by the people you meet. You have to play by the ‘rules’ of the country you are in; they may not be your rules, but you still have to play the game. India is a great example of this. It feels like there are a billion people watching your every move, all the time: “Where are you from? Are you married?” All sense of personal space goes out the window. Relax, get used to it, understand the rules.

You can always come home

Take a credit card or stash of money only to be used in an emergency – it’s your ‘get out of jail free’ card. Then, when it all gets really tough, just remember that you can leave if you want to. The moment you realise that you are not trapped in your situation is usually the moment that you decide to carry on anyway.

It’s supposed to be fun

A wiser man than me once said “If you are on an expedition and you are not enjoying it. Stop. Change something. Then carry on.” Repeat this until you are happy! Many people make the mistake of putting too much pressure on themselves, either through setting the pace too fast or worrying too much. Be open to changing your plans. Fine tune the trip until it works.


Main image: Overlanding in Valley of Gods (Shutterstock)