Ambling in the Andes of the Equator - kit-list
Drawing on a longstanding aspiration, I visited the Andes of Ecuador this year. I divided my time between backpacking, multi-day trekking, and reaching peaks as well as visiting friends and other activities. Here, I have laid out some general notes on what to bring for such a trip, first in a short-form list and in more detail below. I have based this on what I have brought and what I now reckon that I ought to have brought. If you are planning your own trip, exercise you own judgement about what to bring but be extremely sparing.
- Large rucksack (backpack)
- Shell layer (rain-jacket and rain-trousers)
- Warm mid layer
- Waterproof hiking boots
- Light shoes
- Light buff (neck gaiter), helmet liner cap and gloves
- Sunhat, sunglasses and sunblock
- Personal first aid kit
- Maps and compass
- Hidden wallet and money
- Wash-bag and toiletries
- Important documents
- Phone and other gadgets
- Socks and undergarments
- Shirts and upper base layers
- Trousers, shorts and lower base layers
- Water bottle(s) etc.
If you plan on camping:
- Insulating jacket
- Smaller day-bag
- Zipper storage bags
- Small repair kit
- Writing materials
- Swiss-army knife / multitool
A note on buying goods in Ecuador or abroad
Ecuador is an inexpensive economy (average working wage was c. $440 per month in 2017), which makes staying on the mainland affordable if you avoid the most extravagant tourist locales. However, Ecuador places tariffs on many imported goods, which means that you there are some things you should bring with you, especially when it comes to technical gear. This includes boots, cooking and camping gear. Also consider bringing a decent supply of sun cream. Bear in mind also that theft (including in camping grounds in some places) is not unheard of, so top-of-the-line gear is also a liability, especially when camping.
A traveller who is mostly staying in hostels and who will make only occasional forays into the outdoors will be much better off with a backpack designed for that purpose. However, camping or trekking in wilderness necessitates an assortment of gear, much of which you will only need part of the time and a purpose-built rucksack to carry this comfortably over long distances. I have brought the Lowe Alpine Manaslu 65:75 litre, which I cannot find fault with. Of course, like gas in a container, the amount of gear you brings tends to expand to fill your bag, so be very strict and sparing with your kit and with the size of your rucksack if you have options available.
A rain-jacket is essential and rain-trousers are desirable. In both cases, a decent, breathable and lightweight shell layer without insulation is preferred. They can be used as an outer layer in highest peaks of the sierra and also in rainy weather lower down in the valleys or in the warm and humid coastal or forest areas. I brought a Mountain Hardware jacket which was ideal and a cheap pair of rain-trousers, bought in Brazil, which were too heavy. Rain-trousers with fully zippable legs would be ideal.
Active warm layer
A thin synthetic fleece or technical woolen layer can function as a casual pullover in peacetime and also keep you warm and stay dry during activity in the mountains. I had a thin, decade old Lowe Alpine fleece, which was ideal.
If you own boots, which can fit a crampon but are still comfortable on long walks in equatorial climes, by all means bring them. However, avoid bringing warm, heavy, full-shank B3 boots, which will be unwearable at low altitude and sub-optimal in the sierra below the snowline.
In addition to your boots, you will want a pair of shoes to wear when in an urban environment, when at camp or to go running or other activities. They ought to be small, light, quick-drying, and durable and ideally to be acceptable in any premises. One compromise is to use a pair of running shoes or approach shoes in muted colours which can double up as a casual shoe for establishments in the city. I suggest a pair of trail-running shoes in boring mid tones, such as these.
Light buff, helmet liner cap and gloves
A light buff (neck gaiter) is invaluable protection from the sun and occasionally from wind and cold. Synthetic buffs can be easily got from outdoor stores in Ecuador. An insulated buff is too warm for nearly all conditions. A helmet liner cap (a.k.a. skull cap), made from synthetic material or wool, would be compact, suitable for chilly weather at altitude and as the name implies, provide insulation under a helmet, for technical conditions.
Sunhat, sunglasses and sunblock
The sun is deceptively dangerous in the Ecuadorian sierra. In general, UV radiation is strongest here at the Earth’s equator but the mild temperatures you may experience at altitude can lull you into complacency. Nonetheless, UV radiation is even stronger up there than in the blistering heat of the coast (and this is worsened by reflection from snow and ice on the highest peaks). Even on cloudy days, precautions must be taken. Full body cover, with long sleeves and protection for your face and neck is therefore advisable, in the highest parts of the mountains. A sunhat or visor is necessary for walking in the hottest part of the day and sunglasses are required to protect your eyes. High factor (50-100) suncream is available in pharmacies but is not particularly cheap.
Personal first aid kit
I brought a first aid kit, comprising a small dry bag containing some gauze and tape, waterproof plasters (band-aids) and blister plasters, antiseptic wipes, small sterile water capsules, a finger splint, CPR micro-shield and (marigold rubber) gloves. Bar the splint and micro-shield, I made use of every type of item on this trip, including a restock of blister plasters (go for good quality ones).
Maps and compass
Navigation by map and compass is not at the forefront of thinking in Ecuador. To source paper maps for navigation within the country is unduly complicated. Some maps for the more famous montane areas can be bought, for instance, at Tatoo in northern Quito. The full range can be found at the Instituto Geográfico Militar, the national geographical survey in Quito for 3.50 dollars each. You will need the names of the maps you need in advance, serviceable Spanish and to momentarily surrender some ID, this being a military establishment. Alternatively, 1:50 000 ordinance survey maps can be found here and printed in advance. This option, of printing the maps on A4/letter pages yourself is more straight-forward and can be done at home, although there is a superabundance of printing stores throughout Ecuador, if need should arise.
Magnetic compasses do, in fact, work at the equator! They respond to the polarity of the Earth’s magnetic field and, consequently, work (in the same orientation) at all points between the poles. I recommend having a compass if you plan to deviate at all from the most trodden routes, or even if not. You can easily find cheap magnetic compasses at outdoor stores in Ecuador. These will work fine though they will (i) be slower to orient than a high quality compass and (ii) they will lack features such as a large base-plate with map scale, for precise map-reading and navigation. It should be fine for most needs, however. If you bring a compass designed for a part of the globe closer to the poles, note that it can become unbalanced, such that the needle hits the case and doesn’t work well. This can be avoided by buying a compass designed for the Magnetic Equator zone or a global compass, such as the Silva Expedition Global which circumvents this.
I brought the eBook version of the guide Ecuador Climbing, Hiking and Trekking, by VIVA Travel Guides and found it useful. However, it is over a decade old and out of (physical) print and a number of things are out of date, especially viz. mountain conditions. For instance, in the meantime, it has become prohibited to climb above the glaciers of glaciated Ecuadorian summits without a guide and the volcanic activity of several peaks have changed, affecting their accessibility. Don’t be tempted by a short e-book entitled The Great Guide to Ecuador, which is of little use. Preparations for your trip may be enlivened by the following antiquated literature: Travels amongst the Great Andes of the Equator (if you can overlook the hauteur) by Edward Whymper and Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Years 1799-1804 by Alexander von Humboldt.
Hidden wallet and money
Ecuador is safer than most other countries in South America but pick-pocketing is common, especially in crowded areas or public transport in the urban areas, and muggings are not unheard of, particularly in Guayaquil. I have been using a Go travel wallet which I have found excellent but there are many similar products available. A waist wallet which fits inside your trousers/shorts seems to me to be the best option, though it does look a bit ludicrous when you discretely open it to get out money etc. It can also fit a phone, when needed. Carry a small amount of cash in your pocket so you don’t have to constantly extract your wallet, or to hand over in case you are mugged. Don’t worry about RFID protection for your wallet, as this is not a real concern. Do worry about cloning or theft of your card, which is an issue. You may prefer an exterior waist-pack for your needs, which are frequently worn by locals (though more ungainly when combined with rucksack straps and multiple layers). If so, make sure that yours is not easily unclipped and snatched with all your valuables inside. In Colombia, I walked into a man at a street corner, apparently rifling through the contents of a just-stolen pack (who on seeing me, grinned absurdly to break the tension). The currency of Ecuador is the US dollar. If your store of silver is in a different currency, consider signing up in advance to an internet money transfer provider, such as Transferwise or Revolut, which offer travel debit cards with lower exchange rates than you would otherwise face (and virtual cards for internet banking in the case of Revolut which can be acquired in situ).
Washbag and toiletries
Certainly, be minimalistic in your choice of toiletries as with all things. And, of course, bring some toilet roll when camping or trekking. A small shovel is also recommended. Consider bringing an antidiarrheal such as Lomotil, which can be purchased at pharmacies locally. Bring a trek towel and some small containers for toiletry products. For those with the propensity for facial hair, consider if cutting/grooming products are necessary, as occasional trips to a barber are not too expensive here.
Needless to say, you’ll need your passport and a photocopy of it. Bring records of vaccinations and proof of your travel/mountaineering insurance policies. Decide well in advance if you want to bring your driving license and, if so, you may need to order an international driving license to compliment it. I have brought this but did not find myself in need of it. If you have some other less valuable but official(-looking) photo ID, bring this too, in order to keep your passport (and driving license) as secure as possible.
Phone and gadgets
A few particularly liberated individuals will revel in venturing in the absence of a phone or any other electronics, whereas others will not countenance travelling without a top-spec device. A phone is a liability and a distraction from both tranquility and adventure but also a remarkable convenience and a potentially life-saving tool. The more Luddite should at least consider bringing a push-button phone which they can stash in their rucksack, to be used only for emergencies. (Apart from admirable battery life and durability, the keys of your old not-so-smart phone will still function in rain!) There is no need to list the possible uses of connectivity when travelling but among the boons of smart devices to a trekker are keeping track of mountain conditions and GPS functionality (which can work offline with apps, such as OSMand and maps.me). This ought not be your primary tool of navigation and bear in mind that your touchscreen won’t work well in rain. A dedicated GPS device can work better, though the cost can be prohibitive. Given the inconvenience of carrying print books, support for ebooks and audiobooks is a strong case for some kind of screen. A straightforward ebook reader can be a nice compromise for those looking to disconnect. A compact set of headphones is also useful (I won’t suggest in-ear buds, which are terrible for you) but be conscious of when you need to pay attention to your environment.
Bring a wristwatch to help you navigate and to save you drawing out an expensive phone at regular intervals, which might get you robbed. A flashy, expensive watch is a poor choice for the same reason and a liability on the trail.
Socks and undergarments
Two pairs of medium thickness hiking socks are sufficient for the mountains (and a pair of sock liners could also be useful). Also have some thinner socks for evenings and other activities - I brought several pairs of cheap running ankle socks.
Shirts and upper base layers
I had some cotton shirts which are not much use on the trail but I also brought a pair of light wool shirts which were excellent, either for hiking or other sporting activities or for using in a social setting. Wool, unlike synthetics, has the advantage of not being possible to wear for more than one day in polite company without becoming too problematic.
Trousers, shorts and lower base layers
I brought a pair of Patagonia trekking pants and a pair of Fjällräven shorts. The shorts were excellent for mountains and travelling generally but just a tiny bit heavy. As base layers, I took a pair of Inov8 synthetic leggings for running, which can double up as hiking base layers and a pair of woolen Haglöfs base layer leggings. With hindsight, this was excessive and the synthetic pair would suffice. In addition, I brought running shorts which could fit over leggings, if required.
A decent quality LED head-torch (of c. 100 lumens brightness), e.g. Petzl or Black Diamond, and batteries will be appreciated. A small back-up head-torch (or torch, at least) is highly-desirable.
Here I literally do mean a stick of wood, which you can obviously get as you travel. I raise this purely because I was taken by surprise by the challenge of fending off dogs. In the urban areas there are many stray dogs, which are typically remarkably friendly. However, in the rural areas most houses have guard dogs (usually Labrador sized or smaller), with varying ferocity and brashness. I reckon a heftier walking pole would also suffice. (Remember also to consider rabies and tetanus shots in advance.)
Water bottle(s) etc
You will need to carry two litres of water. Tough bottles, like Nalgene, work very well and boiling water can be added to them directly. Hydration packs in the style of Platypus/CamelBak are convenient in some ways but are a pain to clean and the tube can easily become constricted in a full pack. Ordinary plastic bottles work just fine too. Also, take chlorination tablets or another sterilization device. A water filtration device would also be useful.
I have brought a Vango Banshee which fits 1.75 people and has been fine. However, I think it may be worth a little bit of extra weight to have a tent within which you could sit full upright. This would make a lot of sense when getting caught out on rainy days. Hilleberg make excellent tents.
Stove and cooking accessories
I brought an MSR Reactor integrated stove because I had it but this was really overkill given the mild climate and dried food suitable for this system was not easy to find or necessary in the populous sierra. A general purpose camping stove would be a good option and even a small stove, like an MSR Pocket Rocket would work very well. Gas canisters can be bought at a few places, such as outdoor shops in Quito. I bought a flint but a standard cigarette lighter works for most eventualities.
You will of course need to decide between a solid ground mat or among the variety of inflatable or self-inflating mats available for insulation and comfort. Affordable solid ground mats can be bought in Ecuador (though not cheaper than elsewhere).
An insulation layer such as a down jacket or synthetic belay jacket is quite useful. This may seem excessive at the equator but in the coldest weather at altitude, at night, in bad weather and when not in the best health or spirits, a supererogatory warm layer can be greatly appreciated. A not-too-thick insulation layer can be quite light and compact. I prefer a synthetic material, such as Primaloft, in this instance because it retains much of its insulation when wet, even if it is not as warm per weight as some natural fibres. With a hood is better than without.
For many activities a bag might be useful but a trekking rucksack is clearly excessive. These include short hikes from camp, trail running, sightseeing, socializing or to keep certain things with you on a bus. This presents a dilemma, in that any bag will take up valuable space and add weight and will not be a perfect size for all eventualities. (The logical extreme is a succession of nested smaller backpacks, like Matryoshka dolls.) A good day-pack should be supremely small, light and packable (to somehow stuff in your main rucksack) and a few such possibilities exist. A running backpack or vest could be an ideal solution. I brought a 25 litre super-light mountain-running backpack that was in many ways ideal but a bit too big to pack comfortably with all my other kit. If you prefer not to bring a dedicated backpack, something like a fabric shopping bag may meet your needs.
Zipper storage bags
Seek out the best quality small (c. 1 litre / 1 quart) zipper storage bags that you can find and buy c. 15-20 of them. The best ones have a double seal at the top which closes easily and repeatedly. I find these invaluable for (i) keeping things dry, (ii) keeping loose things together and visible and (iii) storing food.
I am undecided on whether a lantern is a good choice to bring. I bought an affordable lantern here, unbranded but almost identical to this. It’s fine and quite bright but not particularly lightweight or compact. I thought that I would use it every evening to read or sort gear but I used it less than anticipated. Perhaps, a very compact light lantern (like the Black Diamond ReMoji) would be ideal.
An excellent aid to keeping your shins and feet dry and extra protection when on ice. Yet, also a bit more kit which you will not need every minute. A possible reason to wear gaiters is a little extra protection from overzealous canines (see Stick).
A small sewing kit is useful, as are patches for waterproof clothing or a tent. I carry silver duct tape wrapped around various objects for instant ‘repairs’.
A pen or pencil and a notepad would be a worthwhile investment. (Pro-tip: make a holder with duct-tape for a pen along the spine of your notepad.)
Swiss-army knife / Multitool
A supremely useful piece of kit for any number of things. Lighter ones and those with a locking blade are preferred. Cheap knives can be bought in Ecuador.