For tropical birding, my goal is to keep covered, and keep cool, so I usually dress in layers with long trousers and long sleeved shirt over all. There are many reasons for this, like preventing sunburn and insect bites, and as I’ve unfortunately discovered, protection from vegetation that when touched causes rash. Keeping a layer between skin and the elements is vital in many environments. What follows are some tips on clothing and equipment that I’ve picked up along the way.
A note to women; I try to stay modestly covered in many countries in deference to cultures where a woman’s exposed knees and shoulders are considered indecent or offensive (pretty much anywhere in Asia, Africa, and South America, away from tourist resorts). Being a foreigner with binoculars around my neck draws attention enough, why would I also want to offend?
As a general rule, even when traveling to warm climates, I pack a complete layer of wool or polypropylene, (turtle neck and long johns), and a knit cap. They don’t take up much room, and they will keep me warm should temperatures drop or I visit higher elevations. Also, I bring a fleece jacket for added warmth which doubles as a pillow. A light weight water (and wind) proof jacket and trousers that stuff in the bottom of my day pack is also a must. The old adage; you can always take layers off, but if you didn’t bring it, you can’t put them on, holds true everywhere. That said, I’ve purchased jackets in unlikely places, so if you chose to go without, there is a high likelihood of being able to pick one up at a street market or store. Keep in mind that if you are large sized, it may not be possible to find one that fits.
For forest or jungle birding I chose clothes dark in color, dark greys, browns, greens and blues. The “safari” tans and light greens one commonly finds in camping stores are just too light to be effective camouflage in a jungle. A tip for women birders; if you are having trouble finding dark colors, try men’s shirts and waterproofs. You can often find ones that fit well enough and they typically come in a darker color range than women’s clothing.
If you can mentally get beyond the thought of wearing poison clothes, the mosquito repellant impregnated shirts and trousers available in travel stores, I’ve found to work quite well. Understand that the repellant wears out with time; I’ve never counted, but found them good for at least a dozen washes, and the label states more. Because I’m a bit squeamish, I layer a thin microfiber tank or t-shirt underneath the impregnated long-sleeved shirts.
In general, look for soft materials that won’t rustle when walking. Birding typically requires stealth, and who needs the added rustling of clothes contributing to their trail noise? This is particularly true of trousers and I usually give mine the “rustle test” before purchasing. This takes two people because oddly enough, it is the person behind you (as well as birds around you) who will notice the noise most. Keep in mind that trousers with boot cut (wide legs) can make loud swooshing noises with each step regardless of the material. Likewise rain pants may seem like a good idea for muddy trails, but they can be like rustling garbage bags as you hike. Bring them for heavy rain, but use them judiciously. Because it is easier to find quiet materials for tropical conditions, consider the combination of wool, silk, or polypropylene long johns and tropic weight trousers for short stays in cooler climates or at higher elevations rather than bringing along heavy jeans.
Wellies (rubber boots) also can cause undue noise flapping against one’s calf with each step. I’ve found that rolling down the top edge a few centimeters (inch), or wearing tall socks often alleviates this. Granted, if you roll down the tops of new boots, you may need to rub a little soil on the white lining to take the glint off. Another note on rubber boots, for the most part I wear my trouser legs inside my boots (and inside my socks in leach/tick country). I spray the top of my boot and exposed trouser leg with deet. Based on personal trials in SE Asia, this method prevented leach bites by a factor of 5 over wearing lower shoes, tucking trousers into socks, and spraying all.
When buying new wellies, check the boot’s tread; flatter soles (less tread) can be dangerously slippery. Also, don’t feel compelled to buy top of the line boots. I’ve found less expensive boots can be made to fit quite well if you add inserts (insoles) from another pair of shoes you already own. Being able to abandon less expensive boots at the end of a trip can provide vital packing space for gifts and souvenirs. Be sure to try the boots on with the inserts so you know how they will fit; my inserts bumped the shoe size up one. If staying at a lodge that supplies rubber boots, bringing your own inserts may save you from sore feet and blisters. Not to state the obvious, but if buying over the counter insoles, you may find that the one in your shoe size, as listed on the package, is not the correct one for your foot’s arch shape. With the help of an employee at a top camping supply store in London, they found that my correct size was a step up from my shoe size. They then trimmed the insole down to fit my shoe and my wellies are some of the most comfortable field shoes I own.
Packs and bags are always a necessity, but consider the color before you buy. Having a day-pack with bright colors for bicycling or walking in your home town is a good idea, but leave it at home for birding. I do look for daypacks that have a strong waist strap that I can cinch around my hips. This relieves the weight from my shoulders somewhat, and makes the pack more stable in rough terrain.
I use my day-pack as my airlines carry-on, and while traveling it seldom leaves me. It carries expensive or fragile items like binoculars and cameras, and anything that would really ruin a trip if lost, like rain gear and bird books. Yes, this turns out to be a heavy bag, and some airlines are reputed to have strict weight limits for carry-ons. I’ve never had my carry-on weighed, but there are stories of single camera lenses being heavier than the allowable. The resulting argument was obviously frustrating for all involved. I have had to struggle trying to make a 30 pound day-pack look like it weighs less than 15, but it can be done. Just make sure that it isn’t so heavy that you can’t put it in the overhead compartment without help. The flight attendant will be unfriendly for the entire flight if you look fit, but need help getting it up there.
Duffle bag, backpack, or rolly (wheeled) bag; that is always a dilemma and it depends on how much you plan on carrying your bag and how fit you are. I typically use a rolly though on my last trip, I went with a duffle. There were times when it would have been nice to have a rolly, like when I arrived after dark and had to hike several blocks to my hotel, but I was able to slip into my duffle straps and wear it like a backpack, putting my smaller day pack on my front. Not glamorous, but effective for a 10 minute walk. It is difficult to foresee what conditions you will meet, and keep in mind that rolly bags don’t work in sand or mud. I suggest that whatever you take, make sure you can carry all of it for a 15 minute walk without getting a hernia or a strained back. Take it for a test hike around the block, or down the street before committing to a 3 week relationship.
I do recommend that either you use waterproof luggage, or you pack in waterproof “dry” bags inside your luggage and day pack. When traveling in wet tropics, or by bus anywhere, this is imperative. Other than getting your bags rained on while waiting for them to be loaded, there are a myriad of other situations you will be grateful for having packed as suggested. I once pulled my bag off of a bus only to find that it had been sitting in an inch of fish goo leaked from boxes in the next hold. My bag wasn’t waterproof, but thankfully, I’d packed all my belongings inside dry bags. The dry bags easily washed off with soap and water but, unfortunately my duffle still has a faint odor of fish. Dry bags are available at most camping stores, but check the inexpensive ones for holes before buying. When perusing the dry bag selection at a camping store, I could actually see light coming through tiny pin pricks along the seam. I couldn’t tell if the seam was sealed, so I chose another brand.
And a final word about waterproofing… kitchen sized or larger rubbish bags and a few gallon sized zip baggies will not go amiss. I always try to stash a few of these in my luggage for emergencies, particularly when on a longer trip. As an extra precaution, I keep all paper materials (including my passport), batteries, and electronics in plastic zip bags. I also make sure there is one in my day-pack big enough to hold it should the heavens open and I get caught in a down pour. Once when caught without, I ended up cutting a large leaf and using it as an umbrella. Alternatively, a poncho type rain cover that allows you to wear your pack underneath is preferred by many.