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Packing Tips

Hola Dragoncitos.

We write today to give you some tips to help you pack for our Guatemala trip.  We know that packing for an adventure like this is daunting, but don’t worry too much.  Just breathe and relax, after all it is just stuff. This Yak is a collection of the best advice we have to give you.

This is a supplement to the extensive packing list available in your Course Preparation Manual (CPM) pages 34-40, which has been refined over the years by many Dragons students and instructors who have explored Guatemala, so please carefully read through that list.  We’ve highlighted some things here that we think are important and also some things that might have been unclear the first time around. Many of these are suggestions, not requirements, so use your own judgement about what’s right for you.

Above all else: pack less. Please pack less. We are about to do four weeks of traveling through a variety of terrains using a wide variety of forms of transportation. If you bring too much stuff, it will get in the way of our group’s ability to travel easily. We’ll be bogged down with gear, unable to do fun things like getting onto “chicken busses” and boats between towns on Lago Atitlan. Most backpacking guides suggest that your bag weigh no more than 20% of your body weight. This is a difficult goal for small people, but the closer you can get to that rule of thumb the happier you will be.

We have a request for you: try your best to fit everything you’re bringing into the one big backpack you’ll bring. We know that a day pack is on the packing list and it’s really tempting to fill that one up too. It’s a trap! Don’t do it! Your day pack should be more like a small spaceship that’s parked in the mothership at most times. It can be deployed during travel days and other times, but it should all fit into one package.

One of the best things you can pack is empty space. When we’re moving a lot and packing every morning, it’s much easier to pack a bag that’s not completely full.

No matter how many times we tell students this, at the end of every Dragons program, most students tell us they wish they had packed less.

Now, a note on CULTURALLY APPROPRIATE CLOTHING. You are going to see lots of different kinds of clothing on the people we meet in Guatemala. However, we will be travelling quite a lot in small villages that still wear traditional Guatemalan clothing. The clothing in these communities is beautiful, and the skirts/pants are still often woven by hand. Great care is taken, even by farmers, in appearing neat and presentable at all times. The style of dress is also quite conservative with almost everyone covering their legs completely and all shoulders/upper arms are covered by both men and women. Our goal is to enter these communities and learn about them, and we are going to have an easier time doing this if we adhere to this standard of dress. Students with clothing deemed culturally inappropriate (torn, exposing too much skin, or too tight) will be asked to change by their instructors. We hope to travel as respectfully as possible through lands that aren’t ours, and this sometimes means leaving some of our personal preferences at home.  Yes, it is true that some of the younger Guatemalan generation in cities and big towns will wear leggings and other “Western” informal clothing, but we want to present ourselves in a way that the more formal, older generation will respect.

We want to reinforce a couple more of the points on the CPM packing list:

Be ready for THE RAIN: Technical gear for dealing with the rain like waterproof-breathables, quick dry clothing, and lightweight gear are not readily available in-country. There are two seasons in Guatemala, the dry season (November to April) and the wet season (May to September). We will be experiencing the wet season, which means we will see beautiful green scenery but we must be prepared for some rain almost every day. This will often be in the form of an afternoon thunderstorm that will come and go, but they can be quite dramatic while they last. When hiking in these sudden downpours you will need:

  • a waterproof pack cover for your bag, but you will also want garbage bags to waterproof your gear inside the pack (we will show you how to do this).
  • you may want a small, fully-sealed dry bag for things that really cannot get wet (like anything made of paper or cameras) but you can also just double bag those with gallon-sized ziplock bags.
  • Rain jacket and pants. As an option, some people like to hike with a lightweight umbrella which will help keep the rain off both you and your pack. That should be in addition to the other rain gear, not instead of those things.
  • Be sure to know if your hiking boots are waterproof. While hiking through lengthy rainstorms or through puddles or rivers, boots won’t stay dry.  But in lighter rain and dry terrain, waterproof boots will keep your feet dry. You’ll be happier with dry feet.
  • Talk to your instructors or the staff at your local outdoor goods store for helpful advice on how to improve the impermeability of your already used gear. For folks using used or old gear, you can use Tech Wash to drastically improve the performance of older Gore-Tex jackets/pants/backpack covers, and you can get a wide variety of sprays/creams/etc to re-waterproof older boots. If you are buying new gear this shouldn’t be a problem, but be sure you check for this feature before you buy.

Bring WARM LAYERS. We will be in the tropics, but it can get cold in the evenings and mornings in the mountains. While we will be traveling through a variety of contexts and climates, be sure to bring warm layers in addition to your lighter weight clothing. If you tend to be cold when you sleep you may want to bring a light sleeping bag (35 degrees), but this will not be necessary for most people.

SUN PROTECTION is vital to your happiness in the tropics. The packing list asks you to bring sunscreen, but you also need to think hard about physical barriers to the sun. Sunscreen may say it is sweat resistant and waterproof, but full protection usually only lasts a couple hours. Additionally, if you do get burnt, sunscreen will not protect already damaged skin. You’ll want light, breathable long layers that can protect from sun (and also insects). This can be a long sleeve shirt or just sun protection sleeves that you can pull on easily.

Bring at least one pair SYNTHETIC UNDERWEAR. Nice for washing on the go and quick drying. It’s good to mix it up with some underwear made from natural materials and some from synthetic materials for our treks.  The packing list says 6-7 pairs of underwear. For girls that is often closer to the right amount; boys may want to bring less pairs if they plan on washing them regularly.

Please start breaking in your BOOTS or SHOES now. Put on your hiking boots and go hike a mountain, walk up and down your stairs, hike up a 20-story building and down again. A few times. This is not something you want to have to do on our trek because you’ll get blisters and, blisters suck.

Please BRING SOME NORMAL URBAN CLOTHING. You will want something you would feel comfortable wearing in the city. Keep in mind these should be culturally appropriate clothes. We will be spending time in our homestays and at Spanish classes, so some “not camping” clothes are nice. At least bring some clothes you can sit in as you wash your trekking clothes.

Some RUNNING SHOES, sneakers or COMFORTABLE CITY SHOES. Most students will bring a total of 3 pairs of shoes (the other two being boots and sandals).

NATURAL TOILETRIES help decrease our ecological footprint. Check your local grocery or health food store. Dr. Bronner’s is great and multi-purpose. LUSH (www.lush.com) has a great selection of solid shampoos that you can buy in a tin. They are small, all natural, will last you the whole trip, and best of all, they don’t spill! You can restock generic toiletries in-country, but you will not find natural toiletries on the course.

Common items you can buy in Guatemala that are just the same as in the USA: Feminine hygiene products (both pads & applicator-less tampons), clothing (American clothing, Guatemalan clothing, souvenir clothing), cotton socks, sneakers, flip-flops, t-shirts, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, Tupperware, notebooks, paper, reading books in English or Spanish, pens, pencils, and water bottles.

WATER PURIFICATION – While no tap water we encounter in Guatemala will be considered potable, either boiled or filtered water will be provided for us 95% of the time.  During the trek and rural homestay, we may need to purify our own water and recommend  that students come on the program with some kind of water purification method.  Options include Polar Pure (iodine based), AquaMira (chlorine based), or a SteriPen (a UV filtration system).   We make efforts to limit our use of disposable water bottles on our programs, so will work together to purify our drinking water when necessary rather than purchasing bottled water.

A GOOD HEADLAMP. This is probably one of the most-used items on the course.  AAA batteries are available in-country, but are generally of lower quality. Please bring two sets of backup batteries for anything battery-powered that you wish to function the entire trip.

EARPLUGS as there will be all sorts of new noises (think roosters and car noise).

A bit more information on GIFTS. You may want something for individuals who make your course special, such as ISP (individual project) mentors and homestay families. There is no expectation that you bring gifts, so simplicity is best for this! Some of the nicest gifts will be the ones you don’t bring from home: locally developed photos of your host family, leaving behind a sweet thank-you note. If you do want to bring something from home, think about a couple of small, meaningful gifts, not made of plastic. You don’t want to give somebody a cheap, made-in-China item. Some ideas are: postcards or pictures from home with a message on the back, games that you enjoy, small tokens of where you’re from (local crafts, a local treat, etc.), local sports team wear, etc.

A few small PHOTOS of family, people, and places important to you. To be culturally appropriate, be sure to print photos as opposed to uploading them on an electronic device.  These can be great tools for opening up conversations with locals that you live with or interact with.

THINGS TO NOT BRING. At All. Really.

Water filters.

Books are preferred to Kindles.  But if you want to bring a Kindle or other eReader, please be aware that they are at risk for damage or theft, and please make use of them in a culturally sensitive manner.

A mosquito net. If they are needed they will be provided.

Please leave cell phones (iPhones included) at home.  We are not responsible for the loss or damage of phones brought on course (which we will collect and keep in a group bag, which is tossed around during transportation and sometimes left unwatched in places, for the duration of the course).

We will address this topic at length soon, but please be prepared to disconnect from your phone for our four weeks together. You will have intermittent access to internet and be able to make some phone calls home during the program. There will be plenty of ways to stay in contact with home, and the Yak page will be our main source of communication as a group to concerned loved ones following our journeys.

Inappropriate clothing (leggings as pants, clothing that is skin tight, low-necked, more than a few inches above the knee, blazoned with inappropriate words, excessively torn, etc.) should be left at home to be enjoyed after our trip.

Anything you don’t want ruined or lost.

If you have questions about any of this, don’t hesitate to contact us! Everyone has their own system, but we will all tell you to PACK LESS.

Buena suerte!

Los instructores