Keeping safe in the jungle

  • Malaysia
  • Friday, 21 Mar 2014

Headlamps are crucial not only for caves, but also when trekkers are stranded at night in the jungle.

The recent deaths of two students while trekking in Perak are yet another reminder that proper precautions are needed to enjoy Malaysia’s great outdoors safely.

FOUR students were separated from their group as they descended on a dark Sunday night from Gunung Bubu, a mountain near Kuala Kangsar, Perak. Later, as the four were trying to find their way back, two of them drowned in a swift river.

Our majestic jungles, waterfalls and mountains are attracting ever more nature lovers and adventurers – but it has to be remembered: going into deep forests is not a “walk in the park”.

While the full details of the latest accident are not confirmed, Brandon Chee, the CEO of Explorer Outfitter, laments that such mishaps keep on happening because many Malaysian trekkers are not fully aware of the jungle’s dangers.

“They think it’s too simple and often don’t even bring basic gear like a whistle, pocket knife, compass and matches.”

Fast and slow trekkers need their own guides and sweepers as they often get separated in the jungle.

Lost without sweepers

“I find that hikers usually get lost while descending a mountain, not ascending,” says a trekker with 30 years of experience, who prefers to be known by his “jungle nickname” of SAS.

“It could be due to the group’s leadership or mentality which is, the quicker we come out of the jungle, the faster we go home for a nice shower and dinner. Thus many newbies or slower hikers are left way behind and end up following wrong trails,” explains SAS, who is an old graduate of the famous Outward Bound School (OBS) in Lumut, Perak.

What is crucial, he emphasises, is for trip leaders to designate an experienced hiker to wait at tricky intersections for slower hikers.

Indeed, Mustapha Al Bakri Omar, founder of Wira Adventure Consultant, confirms that the trails coming down from Gunung Bubu are “confusing”.

Caution is needed when crossing deep, fast-flowing rivers. 

Christopher Leo, a Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) trekker with 16 years experience, underlines that for group treks, there should be a “sweeper” at the back.

“This is not only to sweep up any slow hikers, but also acts as a powerful psychological assurance that nobody will find himself way behind alone in the jungle. Thus, a newbie can hike at their own pace and not rush, fumble, trip or fall.”

Tamil Selvam, one of the founders of the Bootsnfins adventure group on Facebook, adds, “Both the leader and sweeper must be familiar with the route. If not, then they should not bring a group. I have tried being a sweeper. It can really test your patience. But once anyone has signed up for it, he or she must stick to the task.”

Leo elaborates that as back-up, strategic junctions on the trail can be marked with ribbons (tied to small trees) or with little pieces of (bio-degradable) paper (on the ground).

Sim Kim Huat, who leads the MNS Pathfinders trekking group, says the “protocol” is to have enough “a minimum” of one experienced trekker to guide five others.

He says the ratio of the Gunung Bubu group (with six adults and 25 students) “is workable” but the students must be grouped according to trekking ability be it fast, moderate or slow.

“Usually the slow or unfit ones need more attention from a strong teacher or guide.”

If lost in the jungle, scouts are taught to find a small river and follow it downstream towards civilisation. But care is needed when doing this.

Stop and stay calm

If someone feels they are lost in the jungle, the first thing to do is to STOP, says Leo.

“Go no further. Back-track only if you feel confident of identifying the route.”

SAS adds, “Stay put. Don’t go wandering away from the main path. Tell yourself that the group you are with will organise a SAR (search and rescue) once you are not accounted for. Don’t panic, as you can get disoriented.”

Veteran jungleman Jimmy Liew says every trekker must carry a very lightweight and affordable survival tool – the whistle. More advanced trekkers can learn up the “international whistle code” – the call for help is three short blasts of the whistle!

Leo from MNS adds that hikers should also ALWAYS bring a headlamp/torchlight (with spare batteries), snacks (muesli bars or chocolate) and drinking water EVEN for a short hike.

Trek leaders MUST brief group members on do’s and don’t before going into the jungle.

“All this will help a hiker keep calm and make a sound decision in the jungle during an emergency.”

Avid hiker Jason Cheong lists other things that hikers should bring such as: first aid kits and medicines, clothes to keep warm in (eg: jacket or rain coat, heat blanket etc), penknife and waterproof matches.

“If you get lost and have prepared the above, then you just stay on the trail or by an open area that’s visible from the sky like a riverbank or jungle clearing. Don’t worry as someone will come looking for you.”

“And you can wait calmly when you have everything to keep warm, food and drinks and can see in the dark. You can then start a fire for cooking, heat and as signal smoke.”

Of course, if trekking in a small group, it’s crucial to tell someone (especially the police or other authorities) that you are going into the jungle – so that there WILL be a rescue.

Follow rivers?

4WD enthusiast Paul Si says, “As scouts, we were taught to find a stream if we got lost in the jungle, and follow it downstream, where civilisation is usually located. But falling into the stream is obviously not SOP!”

However, Chan Nam Hong, another OBS veteran, clarifies, “At OBS, we found out that what we were taught as scouts (to follow rivers) may not always apply in our thick Malaysian jungle as the terrain can be difficult or dangerous.

“But if a stream is followed, do so at higher ground with less undergrowth. Also remember that wild animals may come to drink there.”

Another OBS veteran, Yeoh Sam Heng, advises, “Do not cross any fast-flowing river without a rescue rope tied across it.”

Liew adds, “River trekking does not always lead to Rome as accidents can happen. One must not trek where the river bed isn’t visible. And when one hears a thunderous sound from upstream, leave the river immediately and scramble up to higher ground.”

Headlamps are crucial not only for caves, but also when trekkers are stranded at night in the jungle.


Outdoor leadership is crucial.

SAS says trip organisers should do advance pre-briefings to all participants about whether the trek is easy, moderate or difficult (based on beginners’ fitness).

Leong Dee Lu, the founder of Corezone outdoors shop, says, “Safety is everyone’s responsibility. Trek leaders MUST brief group members on do’s and don’t before the trip.

Don’t act like only you need to know everything with everyone else just following you. What if the group leader himself gets into trouble? No one is Superman.”

Chee underlines: “Trip leaders should have a checklist of compulsory things to bring and manage risks. They should assess the capabilities of participants, don’t push them beyond their limits.

“If leaders do proper planning, they can avoid a lot of problems during the expedition.”

Related story:

Water safety

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Keeping safe in the jungle


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