At Isla Palenque, we supply most of the gear that you truly need for hiking around our tropical forests. Binoculars and field guides are in your room, there’s bug spray for sale in the office, and we supply water bottles on our guided hikes. And none of our guided hikes are more than a couple hours on well-groomed trails, so you if you want to be really casual about your walks, you can just wear a t-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes and still enjoy our private nature preserve. However, if you plan to make your own treks a lot (you could spend a week thoroughly exploring the island), or are planning on hiking around other tropical locations, then you’ll find the apparel and gear in the collage above and list below, helpful in deciding what to bring down with you.
1. Cargo Pants. If you’re really trekking through a jungle on overgrown trails, or carving your own path with a machete, long pants are essential. They will not only protect your legs from underbrush, but also — and even more importantly on days after a lot of rain — protect your legs from mosquitoes. And while I know there are a lot of companies out there that will try to convince you to buy their convertible travel/hiking pants, with the zip-off legs that conveniently let you switch from pants to shorts (in a matter of seconds!), I would strongly advise you to invest instead in a pair of lightweight cargo pants. (On the other hand, if you enjoy looking like a dork or are incredibly indecisive, then perhaps some convertible nerd-pants are right for you.)
The extra pockets in cargo pants inevitably come in useful for holding things you’ll want to keep handy while hiking (see other gear listed below), and getting a pair that is lightweight is essential for the tropics. While you’re at it, if you really plan on blazing some trails, get some made with rip-stop fabric. The folks at 5.11 Tactical make some nice pants that meet these criteria for both men and women, in a variety of colors.
2. Ventilated Shirt. Along with a lightweight pair of pants, a quick-drying ventilated shirt is perfect for trekking through the humid tropical jungle. Some of the best ones are the shirts Columbia makes for anglers. Their bonehead shirt comes in both long-sleeve and short-sleeve versions, and in mens’ and womens’ styles. And while I prefer long pants to protect me from underbrush and mosquitoes, I personally find short sleeves work just fine: they are cooler, and unlike with your legs, it’s easy to see when mosquitoes are after your arms and smack them accordingly.
3. Hat. Just as I avoid those convertible pants because I don’t like looking like a complete dork, I also avoid those wide-brimmed safari-style hats that scream nerd. Besides, if you are hiking through the jungle, you’ll be in the shade most of the time and don’t need a wide brim to protect you from the sun anyway; the main reason you need a hat is to keep the sweat from dripping into your eyes every three seconds. A ball cap works just fine. I like to wear my home team’s Cubs hat. (And before you say “dork” for wearing a cap with the losingest MLB team in history, recognize that down here in Panama, almost no one knows how much the Cubs suck, so it can be worn with pride and impunity…;)
4. Ventilated Shoes. When I first started exploring Isla Palenque six years ago to begin the planning and design process, I wore real hiking boots; I didn’t really have any good reason to do so, I was just used to wearing them when I went on serious hikes. The problem with them in the tropical jungle, though, is that they simply don’t breathe whatsoever, so your feet feel terribly sweaty after just an hour, and downright waterlogged after a day. Moreover, hiking Isla Palenque often involves going between the coast, jungle, and lagoon, so more often than not water gets inside your shoes/boots as well, exacerbating the situation and leaving you with soggy feet for days. On the other hand, a pair of rugged sandals like the type made famous by Teva don’t work in the jungle, either, as there’s not enough protection against underbrush and critters. So I’ve found over time that the best shoes to wear are “water shoes”: heavily ventilated shoes that drain water away but still protect your entire foot. The picture above shows a Chacos water shoe, which is exactly the type I am writing about: solid soles and protection from scratches, bites, etc; but also very ventilated so that they’ll get rid of any water that comes in and also dry (relatively) fast once you take them off.
5. Quick-Drying Socks. I personally hate socks and wear them as little as possible. With a nice pair of water shoes, you really don’t even need them. But if you prefer to have some, your best bet is thin, quick-drying ones, like the Hydroskin pairs made by NRS.
6. Camelbak Backpack. If you’re going to explore tropical forests for more than an hour, you need to keep some water on hand. You are also likely going to bring a backpack with you. Why not kill two birds with one stone, and have the water handily delivered to you via a tube coming over your strap? Camelbak makes a nice range of packs that do just this, and it’s much easier to stay properly hydrated when you don’t have to stop and reach into your pack every time you want a drink of water. While we provide aluminum water bottles on all our guided hikes, for longer treks a Camelbak can be a great investment.
7. Binoculars. For wildlife sightings, whether it’s birds, monkeys, mapaches or whatever, having a pair binoculars at hand is critical. Bushnell now makes some “perma-focus” versions that, while not the most powerful that you can buy, are perfect for when birds are in flight or that anteater in the tree is scurrying away.
8. Multi-Purpose Knife. A large, sheathed hunting knife is certainly very bad-ass but, (and maybe it’s just nostalgia for my Cub and Boy Scout days) I still prefer an original Swiss Army knife with a few (but not too many) tools. Having a knife, bottle opener, can opener, and screwdriver in your pocket comes in remarkably handy. (And of course you are going to want that corkscrew when your hike miraculously brings you across an unopened bottle of 2008 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatières 1er Cru on your hike and you realize that you absolutely must drink it IMMEDIATELY.)
9. iPhone. As I’ve written before, in many ways the iPhone (or other smartphone) is the Swiss Army Knife of the 21st century. If I had to choose between this or a knife to take on my hikes, I’d pick the iPhone almost every time. In addition to obvious built-in features like a compass, camera, flashlight, and microphone/recorder, there are a host of apps that help identify wildlife and flora, track your hikes, etc.
10. Insect Repellant. Yes, this is essential. I barely ever get bitten by mosquitoes or sand flies, but if I’m going on a hike through the jungle on Isla Palenque, I always bring it. We fumigate regularly around the hotel rooms and amenities so I almost never need it there, but once you get a quarter mile down a trail, they’ll start attacking. If you are less prone to them (like I fortunately am), you’ll just need some quick sprays around your exposed skin. If your sweat is sweeter, then you’ll need to give everything a heavier spray, and you might even want to give your clothing a once over as well. And get a spray with at least 20% DEET. I know the all-natural ones seem more appealing to the nature-lovers who tend to come to Palenque, so feel free to bring some — but only if you like getting bitten. Because in my experience they never work: you’ve got to go with DEET. (And for some more tips on bug spray, see this recent article in the Huffington Post.)