Are you a researcher, nonprofit fieldworker, or traveler, whose work often includes traveling to rural areas and hiking to far-flung, marginalized communities? If this is one of your first times in fieldwork and you don’t know where to start preparing or what to bring on your trip, this post is for you! Over years of regularly hiking to remote tribal settlements for fieldwork research for Batak Craft to study the vanishing Batak Tribe of Palawan, Philippines – I’ve created this go-to list for must-have items in a fieldworker’s backpack… so you can enjoy your trip as fully as you can without having to go through the bad experiences I did on my earlier excursions (sandfly bites, anyone?).
Clothing and Protective Gear
Hiking Pants. I cover myself from head to toe. Sandfly bites are nasty, itchy, and leaves you with scars. Leeches fall from branches and you don’t want them to land on your face or limbs or else you’ll have a hard time getting them off. Try to wear pants or leggings that won’t get snagged easily, as some parts of mountain trails are paved with thorny bushes (like makahiya roots). Also, did I mention the leeches?
Merrell Women’s Hiking Shoes and Tribu Women’s Adventure Sandals. I use the hiking shoes for when in the city or for short hikes, while I use the sandals for longer hikes that involve crossing rivers.
Extra Slippers (if there’s extra space). Sometimes in the most unexpected moments, our footwear breaks. This is bad if you’re trapped in the middle of the forest and there are no extra slippers to be borrowed because everyone has only one pair and they’re wearing it. You don’t want to end up like this guy who had to improvise:
The North Face Brimmer Hat. A comfy, 360-degree cover for your head. Great for sunny hikes where you can’t be bothered to wear sunglasses.
Sunglasses. Essential for the long (and dusty) motorcycle rides.
The North Face Waterproof Jacket. Essential. But don’t sleep in this, because if you stay in a bamboo house, the bamboo and nails on the floor could snag your jacket (even through the sleeping bag). Use a softer jacket for sleeping.
Deuter 35+10L Backpack and Rain Cover. I love everything about this backpack! It’s just the perfect size for me (it’s Slim Line so it’s designed for women who are more slender at the torso and wider at the hips). It also has a special metal frame so air can pass through your back as you hike.
Dry Bag. You’ll need a waterproof sack for your camera, phones, and notebooks. The cheaper alternative is to have them in ZipLoc gallon bags. But I prefer the dry bag because there are days where I have to cross rivers and bring just my camera gear and need easy access.
Sleeping Bag with Netting. Because you don’t want bugs flying over your face while you sleep.
Energizer Head Lamp. The night vision mode helps conserve battery, and it helps you move discreetly whenever walking around a house where the entire family is sprawled on the living room. It’d be rude to wake them up on your way to your wee-morning toilet break.
Emergency Whistle. Just in case you get lost in the wilderness, break your leg, lose your voice and can’t scream for help, and don’t want to get any more lost than you already were (not that you can walk with a broken leg). Yeah, I’m paranoid like that.
Scarf / Shawl. Serves as both face mask during evening motorcycle rides (where flying insects abound in the air), and as extra blanket for when you’re cold. And man, does it get cold at night – fog and everything.
Handkerchief. May not seem necessary to some, but this actually doubles as wound cover (if you ran out of bandages). There was one time that I gashed my foot at a sharp stone while crossing the strong-current river, and the wound was directly under my sandal straps. Needless to say, it was very painful to have pebbles and sand rubbing against an open wound while trekking back, so the handkerchief was handy enough to wrap around my feet and leave the debris out. Also you don’t want a leech latching itself onto your open wound. The horror!
Small or Medium-Sized Towel. Doubles as your pillow. Preferably the microfiber types because they’re lightweight and they dry faster. You can find very cheap ones for PHP 100 – 200 a pop at Surplus Shop or invest in more expensive brands.
Brita Water Pitcher (group or solo) and Filter Replacement. Essential – I can’t stress this enough. When you hike to the remote mountain settlements and stay there for days or weeks at a time, having access to clean water becomes a challenge. Tribal settlements usually rely on the river for their water source… for everything from drinking, cooking, laundry and dishwashing, and defecating. Multiply that to include livestock and wild animals who share the water source. As city-dwellers, our gut has its own ecosystem that’s not prepared for wild nutrition. Having a water filtration system can mean life or death.
Section 1: Essentials
Texturized Vegetable Protein / “Veggie Meat”. Truly a marvel of science. It’s dehydrated, lightweight, easy to cook with anything, satisfies both vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, and it’s cheap. A kilo of veggie meat (supplemented with rice and other viands) lasted 2 families for 3 days… 4 days, actually, if the dogs hadn’t stolen our supplies. Secure your food items in a metal pot or plastic box and hang it so dogs, cats, and chickens can’t access it.
Cloves of garlic, onions, and other vegetable ingredients to enrich your viands.
Cooking Oil. Lots and lots of it. 1L of cooking oil lasts us 4 – 6 meals (or 2 – 3 days worth of viands) depending on use. Be careful to hide this too because dogs drink this up.
Soy Sauce, Fish Sauce, and Vinegar. Essentials. Make food tasty.
Sugar, Salt and Pepper. Essentials.
Broth Cubes, Soup Mixes and Sauce Mixes. Chicken, Pork and Beef Cubes, Tomato Sauce, Sinigang Mix, Crab and Corn Soup Mix, Gravy Mixes and Ketchup.
Canned Goods. For the days you can’t cook or don’t have time to cook (i.e. when you just arrived from a long hike and are too tired and hungry to spend another hour cooking). The Batak always like sardines and tuna. Meatloaf, corned beef, and other processed meat products don’t always fare well because many of them are pescetarians or do not eat meats outside of the ones they personally hunt, like baboy damo or wild boars and flying squirrels. Visitors who bring goods should be mindful about introducing processed food to the tribes because they already have a healthy diet of forest bounty (if only they could eat more frequently).
Tuyo, Daing, or Dried Fish. This is also an essential. Although most foreigners find its smell absolutely disgusting (pretty much like the way many Filipinos hate the smell of aged cheese), this is a meal staple in most Filipino households. I have yet to find a local Palaweño who does not eat tuyo. You can buy tuyo in the local fish market – cheaper if you get them straight from the fishermen at the coastal markets. Or you can order them gourmet – try my friend’s Mince and Dice’s Gourmet Tuyo! Everyone’s going crazy over these. Good luck making one jar last for more than one meal.
Carbs: Rice and Stiry-Fry Noodles (indigenous tribes don’t usually like pasta because it reminds them of worms. Once, we cooked Filipino-style spaghetti. Whereas before, they came flocking into our hut, now, we had to hunt for people from the other side of the river who ate spaghetti). Rice is more important than noodles.
Coffee, Milo (or any chocolate drink), Sugar. Lots and lots of it. The tribe drinks coffee a minimum of twice a day, and they like spoonfuls of sugar to go along with it. Neighbors will also come visit to ask for drinks so be sure to bring enough for sharing. Need fun in your drinks? Bring juice powder.
Trail Mix, Nuts. Consume lots of protein before the hike so you can avoid the sugar crash that comes from eating high-carb and high-sugar snacks. You’ll be glad you have consistent energy going (minus the bloat) to meet and greet the rest of the community.
Biscuits, Bread, Popcorn. You’ll eat these during the in-betweens. Spending a lot of time in the forest makes me hungry. During my first research trips, I always underbudgeted because I didn’t anticipate how much food I’d be consuming while on fieldwork. I ended up eating twice (sometimes, thrice) my usual requirements, and this made a considerable dent in my wallet. This, and helping feed 1 – 2 host families and their neighbors during our stay.
Section 2: Pasalubong (Treats)
Hotcake Mix. Dehydrated, lightweight, and an absolute crowd favorite! You have two options with the egg ingredient – you buy it from town and secure them in a tray, seal in a Ziploc, and then wrapped in between clothes; or you buy eggs from the community, as forest villages usually have some form of livestock. But, you’ll have to pay more than you usually pay for store-brought ones because in these areas, eggs are precious. They’re supposed to turn into more chickens which could make more eggs that turn into even more chickens… that could feed the families during the no-harvest periods of the farming cycle. For reference, the Batak Tribe usually harvest sacks of rice in September and October, which will last them until anywhere from December to February. After that and for the next following months, they’ll start using their savings to buy rice from the nearest town.
Oatmeal. Lightweight, but fills stomachs real fast. I personally like the Fruit and Nut medley kind by Quaker.
Chilli Oil. Or anything spicy. Helps make food more exciting.
Cookware and Utensils
Outdoor Knife. Because you’ll be chopping onion, garlic, and tobacco rolls (for the elders who like to chew nganga, a mixture of betel nut and leaf, tobacco, and powdered snail shells). And all other things you need a sharp knife on.
Metal Plates, Cups and Utensils. They’re lightweight and easy to sanitize. Avoid sharing utensils, if you can. This seems like common sense, but when my team and I visited the settlements, the Batak were very communal about everything so much that both adults and children alike drank from the same cup and ate using the same spoon (they’re not fans of forks). It seemed rude not to share, so there were times that I shared. However, I stopped after I learned that some of the adults had diagnosed tuberculosis. Illnesses aside, look at this ingenious way of plating: using banana stalks as plates.
Pots and Pans (optional). The pots that the tribe kept already had holes in it, so when they fry, they have to turn the pan sideways to keep the contents intact, like so:
Lighter + Gas Refill. Deep forest nights are always damp, so starting a fire in the morning takes ages when our firewood pile still has morning dew on them. Additionally, matches aren’t recommended for hikes because they can get wet during the river crossing, or just stops working when moisture touches the matchstick tips. We recommend bringing a couple of lighters to your hikes so you always have backup.
Anti-mosquito Lotion / Spray. Avoid the ones with DEET. Use Human Nature instead (they have variants in lotion and oil). Or any other natural alternative that contains citronella and eucalyptus oils.
Wet Wipes. Because you don’t always have accessible water in the makeshift toilet (which is a hole on the ground that hides a soil pit below). Or you know, the bushes.
Rubbing Alcohol. This works great for wasp stings. Spray as soon as you are stung and don’t touch again. Also helps with leeches. I was bit by a 2-inch long leech once during a hike. It really latched itself onto my skin. As my teammate pulled it off, I could see my skin getting tugged away. It left a very itchy patch afterwards, so I used alcohol to try and calm the itch and sanitize the area).
Caladryl, Calamine Ointment, Anti-Itch Cream, etc. You’re going to itch in a lot of places so better prepare. Sandflies are everywhere. You don’t want scars. I have plenty of them on my legs and my butt. Yes the butt, because when you squat in the makeshift toilet, your privates are up for grabs to the army of insects in the area. Speaking of toilets, make sure you use the white light setting of the Energizer Head Lamp so you can see every insect in the vicinity. If this sounds morbid, please hear me out. Using makeshift toilets at night make you vulnerable to poisonous creepy-crawlies like centipedes, scorpions, and snakes. I once almost got stung by what they call an alubayud, which looked like a centipede-cockroach hybrid. It was long and had a long line of legs except its feet were arched up like a cockroach’s. The chieftain said it was poisonous. I’m just grateful that the universe decided to give me a gut feeling to switch from red light to white light setting at that very moment, and I was able to avoid the alubayud.
Combs / Brushes. 2 pieces: One for your personal use, hidden from sight; another one for sharing. I’m not elitist nor am I “holier than thou”, but in reality, majority of people in tribal communities have lice. It’s just reality, and a reflection of their harsh living conditions. I consistently caught lice every single time I visit the settlements and sleep over. I’ve had days where the kids borrowed my comb, and I don’t want them to feel bad about not sharing, so I shared. In my experience, I usually lose the lice after 2-3 months of leaving the communities and moving back to the city, but this entails using anti-lice shampoo and using a very fine tooth comb after every bath to remove the eggs. Having lice is a bane to my sanity and confidence as a social worker, and so I try to avoid it as much as I can.
Lotion & Face and Body Sunblock. The high-mineral content of the river water can be drying to the skin, so always pack a bottle of lotion. The harsh tropical sun (and lack of air pollution to shield you from it), on the other hand, can give you sunburns, so always protect your skin.
Salonpas, Muscle Pain Patches, Eucalyptus Oils, etc. Hiking for hours and carrying heavily-loaded backpacks can wear us out. I recommend taking a long nap or hours of rest before taking a bath to clean up, as muscles tend to get sore if exposed to cold water. At the end of the day, use the oils and patches, and you’ll be sure to have a good night’s rest. The oils double as anti-itch for mosquito bites.
Scrunchy, Hair Ties, Head Band, etc. Essential, and often gets lost. So bring extras. You don’t want to be hiking in the wild, sweaty and hot, with your hair clinging to your neck. It’s just uncomfortable and adds to the heat fatigue. There were times where I lost my hair tie, so when hiking back to the city, I’ve had to find roots or vines as substitute. I’d hate to mistake a small (sleeping) snake for a vine and end up with a cold, reptilian guest crawling on my neck.
Toothbrush, Toothpaste, Tongue Cleaner, etc. The toothpaste is for sharing so bring enough.
Soap and Shampoo. Also for sharing. Isolated tribes don’t always have access to or can afford shampoo and soap, so when offered, they’d happily take the chance. My soap and shampoo get to lather half a dozen kids simultaneously.
Clothespins (optional). It’s hard enough to dry clothes without a dryer, but try drying them in the forest, where it’s damp! And if you’re sensitive to scents, traveling with “amoy kulob” clothes is the last thing you want. I don’t like fermenting in my own sweat. My clothes usually take 2 days to fully dry when hung on the clothesline in a moderately sunny area. You can speed up the process by using clothespins to hang just one end of your clothes so the surface is fully exposed (unlike where you hang a shirt in half and have the folded insides all damp). Your clothespins also double as food clip so it’s worth the extra bag space.
First Aid Kit. Contains:
- Plaster, Bandages + Clips
- 70% Isopropyl or Ethyl Alcohol
- Betadine / Iodine
- Hydrogen Peroxide
- Cotton Balls + Cotton Buds
- Small Metal Tray + Tweezers + Scissors
- Sewing Kit (you’ll need this when you need to come up with makeshift wound covers)
- Oral Rehydration Salts (for diarrhea)
- Loperamide (for diarrhea)
- Paracetamol (for fever and muscle pain)
- Mefenamic Acid (for muscle pain and headaches)
- Loratadine (Antihistamine)
- Flu Pills
Anti-Malaria Pills, if it’s a short-term trip, as in once or twice a year and less than a month at a time. The type your doctor recommends also depends on your existing health conditions, weight, diet, allergies, etc. So consult your doctor and ask for a prescription because these aren’t available on the shelves. Note: Because I’m a frequent traveler, I’ve foregone taking these meds. It’s my personal preference to not take any chemical medications, and I avoid antibiotics like the plague (unless I have a very bad, and contagious illness). Also, taking even small doses of antibiotics means removing both the good and bad bacteria in the gut, and the effect on me is that I get more fatigued (because the body has use up energy to regenerate those good bacteria, while you trek). Not good when you’re in the middle of a long hike in the wilderness and hospitals are several hours and hundreds of miles away.
Vitamins and Supplements. You’ll need the extra boost. I use Enervon C to keep flu away. There was one time where I hiked with a flu. The sun was on steroids at noon, and while my teammates were sweating, I was wrapped up in a sleeping bag, shivering with fever and intense headaches. I missed out on a lot of great moments while I slept my way through the flu, and so after that episode I made sure to take vitamins regularly.
Hardware and Research Materials
DSLR Camera. Essential.
Tripods. One for the camera, one for the recorder.
Portable Audio Recorder (optional). I love having an audio recorder on hand because it documents conversations. When I share stories with tribe members, I make sure that they have my full attention. I don’t make notes unless I’m given special names for things, people, places and events. Having an audio recorder behind the scenes helps me stay present in the moment, and also, I can always go back to it whenever I need to recall specific details when writing up journal entries.
Extra SD cards.
Chargers. Not that you can charge anything in the forest. But if you can hike to the nearest jumpoff point that has electricity, you can ask the sari-sari store owner to charge your gadgets for you for a small fee. For us, it was Php 10/hour for phones, Php 15/hr for tablets and cameras, and Php 20/hr for laptops. You’ll have to stay there to watch over your gadgets, though. While we were lucky because the sari-sari store owner was a good friend to the tribe and we could leave our stuff in good hands, I don’t recommend leaving your gadgets even to seemingly welcoming people. There are some really sneaky folks everywhere, that our trusting Batak friends have frequently lost their phones to pickpockets. Trivia: In traditional Batak culture, stealing is a foreign concept. In Batak communities, whenever something is stolen, the first to be suspected are outsiders and people from other tribes. The Batak uphold peace and would rather flee from conflict than face it head-on (unless completely necessary, like in land-grabbing issues). An ex-chieftain’s husband, a Cuyunon, once theorized that the tribe was named so because Batak means “to pull back”… Literally to run back to the forest whenever foreigners approached them back in the day. Cool, huh?
Notebook and/or Sketch Pad, Pens and Pencils. Bonus points if you can bring crayons and paper for the kids.
Identification Cards. You’ll need these when you log your visit at the Barangay Halls for registration before your hike.
And that’s it! It looks like a lot, but with great packing skills and hiking buddies to help share the load, I’m sure you’ll have a blast! It’s better to be overprepared than underprepared.
Hope this comprehensive list helps you with your adventures. If you have any suggestions of items to add, or have your own stories to share, feel free to comment! 🙂 I’m excited to see how you travel.
Note: I’m a member of the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and have posted affiliate links in this post, for the products I love and use regularly, or recommend. When you buy something from Amazon through these links, you help us continue aiding the vanishing Batak Tribe, through the commissions earned from the sale.