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Expedition Planning: Rules for success

What are the keys to successful expedition planning?

So you’re probably the kind of person who has itchy feet. Not the crusty, athletes foot kind, but the kind that makes you not want to sit still. Me too. I often spend my time writing lists of big bold ideas and places to see. My office at home has a 2 metre world map on it covered in pins and post-it notes of where I want to go next and the things I want to achieve in my life. I think it’s healthy to dream like this. But when it comes to making dreams into realities, you do actually have to take some action…starting with a plan.


Planning an expedition can be as easy or as hard as you want it to be. Some people just like to kick up some dust, see which way the wind takes it and go along with it. Others find immense pleasure in meticulously planning every detail. So, I thought I’d write down a few of my expedition planning tips to guide the way.


Start with a clear vision


You may have your big dream adventure, to get to X by means of Y or to climb to the top of such-and-such mountain, and that’s great. But you should always ask yourself a few questions to clear up that vision. Firstly, why are you doing this particular mission? Your motivation for doing something can massively impact the way you approach planning the trip, and whether or not it’s actually a success. If the real reason for your expedition is to raise money for charity, but you don’t think about that at all in planning, then you can be pretty sure you’ll fail on that front. Your reason can be whatever you want it to be, just figure out what it is and set it as your “North Star”. You can of course have more than one reason, too.


Gap analysis


Gap analysis is a simple process which should happen before any expedition, no matter how big or small it is. Gap analysis is just the process of thinking about what you have now, and what you need to have for the expedition. Think of this as a shopping list for all things adventure, it could be equipment, but also things like A good level of fitness, experience in extreme cold, or pitching a tent. Have a think about what things you need to achieve your goal, and then work back to find out what you need to work on.


Bedouin Shack in Desert

Nighttime shelters

Make lists


This brings us nicely onto lists. Lists are a wonderful thing, in my opinion, for two things. Firstly they keep you highly organised (or disorganised) and second they make things a reality by printing/writing them down onto a surface.


As a staple I’d make the following lists: What do I want to see/do on this adventure? What equipment do I need for this mission? What do I need to do now for this expedition to happen?


You could also write other lists to keep things interesting, like a “king of the road list” which includes stupid challenges, or a bucket list to encourage your imagination. Lists will keep you engaged, motivated, and on track whether your goal is to be as unplanned as possible, or the opposite. 


Share the load


Whether you’re going on this adventure alone or with others, you should always share the load as much as possible. Did you know an expedition to The North Pole can involve between 100-120 different people? There’s no harm in asking for help, allocating tasks to your teammates, or getting advice from experts. We actually built an expedition planner to help you do just that…It might actually be the thing that makes or breaks your expedition, so take this seriously and don’t try to do everything yourself.


Make a commitment


In our podcast with The Side Car Guys, they told us that their biggest tip for getting an expedition or adventure or any kind off the ground, is to make a commitment. This is a sentiment echoed by many famous explorers, from Dixie Dansercoer to Alastair Humphreys. Buy your expedition ticket, get your flights, book the annual leave. Something real to set into stone your commitment to the vision.


Jungle tree tops

The mist gathers in the tree tops

Don’t be afraid of failure


You might fail. That’s okay, and you should come to grips with this as soon as possible. Why is this important? Because, if you go into your expedition planning with the mindset that failure is not a real option, then you’re probably likely to overlook or neglect safety measures and backup plans for when and if things get bad. 


If your mission is something like The Mongol Rally, then breakdowns and failures are part and parcel of the experience…and actually most of the point. But, it’s not usually a genuine danger and you will probably be able to blag, hustle or wiggle your way out of trouble. However, if your expedition is a solo or unsupported trek across the Sahara, or crossing of Greenland and your failure is that you break your leg… Then forgetting to plan for this will cost you a lot more than a plane ticket home.


Always keep yourself safe (from total disaster)


Total disaster in this sense means significant risk of injury and/or death. Any expedition you attempt will always carry some kind of risk, and depending on your appetite for it risk can vary. I’d always recommend that no matter how dangerous you’re feeling that you always plan for failsafes. This includes: Getting the right insurance, making sure you have the right equipment for the job, making sure you have the right skills/training for the job, making sure you have an exit strategy


You need half as much stuff as you think, usually


desert sunrise

Dusk in the dunes

You’ll probably find that you’ll need a lot less “stuff” than you think you’ll need. This applies not only to underpants, but to spare car parts, torch batteries, pencils for your diary and so on. You should only bring with you equipment and kit to cover you for the time when you cannot resupply. Autonomous desert and polar crossings come to mind. In these scenarios (autonomous meaning unsupported) you’ll need to carry everything you’ll need for the entire expedition with you at one time. In this case, plan carefully what you’ll need and go for quality. Check out How to stay hydrated in the desert and How to get to Antartica for more info.

In other cases, like driving expeditions, mountain summit bids and so on, you typically only carry with you what you need to get to the next base camp, next town or pit stop. Don’t take a boot filled with spare car parts to re-build your engine in Tajikistan- buy the parts there if you need them. I remember as a young boy on my first trip to Ben Nevis (1345m) I was so excited about the trip preparation that I literally carried 20kilos of gear up to the top in preparation for every possible scenario. It was beaten to the summit by an Italian family in jeans, and a man on a mountain bike! I never used any of my gear…

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