planning an expedition

Organizing an Expedition
Part 1 Expedition Planning
by survival expert James Mandeville

expedition planning reader rating=4
Article completely revised December 2015


I think many people dream of travelling to some remote exotic place; few actually make it past the dreaming stage. Success depends on several factors, but without driving passion and dedication from the originators of the concept, and without a proper structure and detailed planning, the expedition is probably going to die at some stage long before it gets off the ground. For an expedition to have meaning the goals have to be well thought out and be very clear.

The initial questions should be:
  • Why go on this expedition, what will it achieve?
  • Who will be interested in it and how will we fund it; will anyone sponsor us?
  • Can we get insurance?
Inspiration in my young days came from reading accounts of the great explorers: Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Henry Walter Bates, to name but a few. Inspiration is more likely to come these days from watching TV programmes on Discovery and the National Geographic channels! I hope my writing here inspires some younger people to try their hand at organizing and running an expedition of their own. Hopefully, my experience will save them some time, money and heartache, because learning the hard way is a tough route to go — especially when there is so much to know.

For some, an expedition is scientific exploration, for others, the desire to cross oceans, travel waterways, climb mountains, explore caves, to experience new cultures, or just to go someplace they otherwise would not visit. So an expedition can be a shared personal adventure or a serious journey of discovery and scientific learning. Wherever inspiration comes from, in some people there is a spark ignited that refuses to go away — the desire to explore.

Fuelled by reading library books, my first expedition was a solo trip to the British Lake District at the age of eleven (I told my mother I was going on an organized school trip, but went on my own – a bit wayward and not something I am suggesting to other children – parents should always be told what you are intending to do and this was quite wrong of me). I roamed around on the high fells with my camping gear packed in an ex–Army Bergen, lived on baked beans cooked over a Tommy cooker, and summited Scafell Pike. Even after expeditions to the Amazon, the Andes, all over Africa and Asia in my adult life, the thrill of that first adventure in the Lake District is never forgotten. The obsession that gripped me led to weeks of detailed planning, teaching myself new skills, such as, map reading and using a compass, trying out living under canvas in our back garden and breaking in new boots by tramping miles around the streets until my toes stopped blistering and my feet hardened. I read everything I could find on camping, climbing and the Lake District, and in the months leading up to the summer holidays, my school work slipped to abysmal levels. I was obsessed.

What my first boyish expedition taught me was an invaluable set of basics; you need a plan, you need to be equipped, you need to be able to fund the venture and you need the physical strength to make the journey. I should have added a crisis plan, but at eleven, speculating on disaster doesn't enter one's mind — especially when so foolish as to vanish to place my parents didn't even know I was going to! Fortunately, nothing went wrong except I discovered I did not have good enough wet weather gear and spent a lot of the time with wet feet and wet clothes! Funds were a problem too and I didn't always have enough to eat. But the experience was new, exciting and character building; also the start of a suborn and independent streak that not everyone found endearing, as I recall.

If the spirit of adventure lives in you, I hope my book will inspire you to overcome all the difficulties and practical issues that surround organizing an expedition of your own, and help to turn your dream into a reality.

Starting point

All good planning starts with a pen and paper (or computer and word processing program); you probably have in mind some idea of where you want to go and why, if not, this becomes your starting point. Think about why you want to embark on your expedition. It may be linked to your own passion for outdoor activities, a hobby, such as, photography, or to practically further your training in, for example, art, social studies, geology, or archaeology. Whatever your personal reason, a thirst for adventure, a school field trip, a gap–year or a university research project, think about the activities you want to undertake and the field work you really would like to do. Perhaps you would like to do aid work in some remote area of the world. At a higher level you may want to be part of a scientific expedition if you have the relevant training to be a valuable team member. If the initial idea is yours, the first difficulty is to find people to join you and you will need a good plan in hand to sell your idea to them.

Get realistic
Dreams lead to achieving things you would not otherwise do, but reality is the key. Having decided where you would like to go and why, the purpose of the expedition, and if you plan to go alone or in a group, have a look at the costs involved. Cost can be the dream killer. You need to jot down the key expenses: equipment, travel, insurance, etc., and do the maths. If you can fund the project, then start the detailed planning. It is possible to find sponsorship but this is not an easy task and I will cover this in a future article. Only the lucky few find this form of funding, so don't take it for granted in the initial stages. You also need to take into consideration the cost involved if things go wrong: medical attention, emergency travel home, replacing a broken or stolen vehicle, etc. Do your research well; freighting scientific equipment by sea, for example, can be costly and time consuming, taking months. Airfreight is faster but very expensive.

Think about your level of physical and mental fitness; is it sufficient for the undertaking? By definition, an expedition is taking you out of your comfort zone and away from any existing personal support system. You need to be in good shape and medically fit. Start with a visit to your doctor and have a check up. If all is well, begin to build up your personal level of fitness. You have to be both physically and mentally fit enough to see your undertaking through or you risk potential disaster and risk becoming a liability to other expedition team members.

You need to investigate the cost of a sufficient level of insurance to cover a worst case scenario as well as things like loss of equipment and personal belongings, third–part claims, etc. You may have to negotiate a separate medical insurance. Your normal medical policy isn't sufficient and holiday insurance will not cover you. Try to find an insurer who has experience of expedition insurance and get a quote and be prepared for a shock – premiums will be high and the conditions (small print) will include many exclusion clauses. They will need a comprehensive risk assessment and a detailed expedition plan. If you are seeking group insurance cover they will want details of all others involved, especially the expedition leadership who will need relevant experience. They may refuse to give you any sort of insurance cover at all; on the other hand, they may act as a sponsor. It is also worth noting that they may not give individual life cover and even an existing life insurance policy may be invalidated by taking part in an expedition the insurers regard too high risk. The same applies to insurance cover for invalidity and the loss of limbs, etc. Also, they may not be prepared to give third part cover so any claim made against an expedition member or the expedition itself by a third party may result in the individual having to pay damages or the collective group having to pay damages. The message being, shop around when finding insurance, and ask a lawyer to read the small print and explain it to you.

It takes time
You also need to think about the time the expedition will take. Bear in mind that expeditions do not always run like clockwork, so taking a month off work may not cut it. In remote regions especially, travel can become protracted and in certain areas weather can delay an expedition for days – sometimes even weeks. You need an understanding boss who is supportive of your project. You need an understanding family too!

Necessary permits
The world is a smaller, and more regulated place than in the days of the great explorers. Even in remote places you may need a visa to enter the country, permission from government departments for your expedition, local permits, and there are many remote places that are protected habitats requiring permission from wildlife officials and local rangers. A trip to the embassy of the country you plan to visit may help you establish some of the legalities involved in visiting their country, but be aware that consular officials may not know anything at all about local customs and permits. Be sure to ask about permission to film or take photos because not all countries are quick to agree to this. You also need advice on the stability of the region you plan to visit and the politics of the area. Having visited the embassy of your host country, visit your own embassy and cross–check all you have learned. If your own embassy advises you not to travel to a certain region, you would be foolish to ignore their advice.

If you:
  • Have sufficient funds;
  • are medically and physically fit and mentally strong;
  • have the necessary skills;
  • have the time;
  • can secure all the necessary travel documents.
  • Can obtain sufficient insurance cover.
Then it is viable to begin to plan your expedition in more detail.

Create an overview

Every expedition has some sort of objective, whether this is to gain personal experience or to contribute to scientific or artistic achievement. Some venture out for financial gain by making a documentary film or planning to sell the intellectual property rights of the photos, perhaps writing a book about the journey. Do not automatically expect to achieve any of these unless you are skilled in the areas and have arranged to sell your work before you go.

I knew a person who returned from an exciting expedition, only to be told that her camcorder did not produce a film of the necessary quality to interest a TV company, and on another occasion I knew a person who spent two years writing a book on his exciting Amazon adventure, only to fail in finding a publisher. The same applies to publishing scientific papers. You have to make these agreements before you go if your main objective is financial gain. There are many well–known scientists, film makers and authors out there doing this for a living and they get priority.
  1. Write down a clear statement that defines the aim of the expedition.

  2. Write down secondary objectives for the expedition.
Weight how important it is to achieve your secondary objectives; this has a great bearing on deciding the feasibility of your project. Secondary objectives are the things you would like to achieve if conditions, time and money permit. Make an honest appraisal of your primary aim and secondary objectives. Can you, or your team, really accomplish them? If you are not too sure, perhaps you should trim down your list or tackle a lesser challenge. It is important that the team all agree on the aim and secondary objectives of the expedition. If you have sponsors, or people backing you with publishing rights, they also have to agree. Get this right from the outset or it will lead to all sorts of problems and disappointments later.

  1. Appoint your leadership.
From the outset, it is vital to establish leadership. The expedition may have been your idea, and you may at this stage have done a lot of the ground work, but dig deep and decide if you are the best qualified person to take charge. If yours is a solo expedition this is the time to consider if you should employ help in the form of local guides or even local security. It depends how well you know yourself, especially if you are young and inexperienced. Ask people who know you well if they think you can handle such responsibility; be prepared to hear a few home–truths.

If you are forming a team there are a few things you should be aware of when it comes to selecting leaders.
  • It is a common mistake to put in charge the person who contributes the largest amount of funding.

  • It is also a common mistake to put in charge someone who is the most popular, the most educated or who has the highest perceived social standing in the group.

  • It is a common mistake to put in charge someone who has been on other expeditions but has no experience in actually leading an expedition.

  • It is a common mistake not to have a specific leader or leaders, rather to share the responsibility collectively. This does not work well if a tough decision has to be made like sending someone home and can easily lead to arguments and the whole team falling apart.

  • It is a common mistake for one person to be responsible for everything.
Good leadership is critical to the success of the expedition. Consider using the skills–mix of your team wisely. The role of leader can shift from person to person at different stages of the project. For example, a person may be an excellent organizer. This person can take charge of the pre and post–expedition work, travel arrangements, etc., and then hand over to someone else. A person with medical training can be in charge of all things relating to health issues with the responsibility to decide if someone can stay or has to go home because of ill health. The moment the team leaves for their destination, you should have one person in charge and a deputy to back up the role. The leader's role will be looked at in more detail in a future article.

  1. Expedition identity.
At this stage, you have an agreed primary aim, a set of secondary objectives you would like to achieve and an expedition leader, plus deputy, in place. Your expedition team now has an identity. Click below to see an example:

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We are the 2015 British expedition to Lago de Coari, Brazil.

Expedition Leader: Major John Smith
Deputy Leader: Dr. Marin Aymes, MD (Expedition Doctor)
Science Officer: Dr. Anne Brown, Ph.D.

Expedition Members
List of them and any special qualifications.

Duration: 6 months

Budget: £260,000.00

Our aim
To travel by foot and canoe, 75 kilometres along the unnamed river feeding into the west of the lake from coordinates: 4° 07'22.88''S 63° 46'05.26''W elevation 43 m to coordinates: 4° 16'07.92''S 64° 30'55.51''W elevation 73 m To film the wildlife along the river bank.

Secondary objectives:
To capture Discus fish and determine if both gold and green species exist in the river and if any hybridization is evident between the species.
To keep an expedition log for future publication.
To take anti–malaria medication and give mosquito nets to the natives living in the area.

You now have the five key elements of your expedition in place:
Purpose, size of team, necessary expertise, duration and cost.

Your expedition has an identity that can be presented to sponsors, used for publicity, as the basis for designing an interactive expedition website, etc.

  1. Critical path analysis
Now it the time to get down to the nitty–gritty detail.

Break your critical steps down under the following headings:

  • Understanding the challenge

  • Science plan (if field work is involved)

  • Logistics plan

  • Insurance

  • Equipment

  • Assessing the time spans involved

  • Medical support / crisis management

  • Financing / sponsorship
Critical path analysis allows you to see all you need to do set out as priority actions and shows the overall timescale of events and dependencies.

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Example of initial cut at developing a critical path analysis

expedition planning critical path analysis

This detailed analysis if vital for a major expedition; it is very useful even for a minor expedition in one's home country. As the number of headings is expanded to break things down into small detail, the priority actions become very evident and the dependencies are more obvious. For example, it can be very time–consuming to obtain necessary travel permits, local permits and insurance. Equipment selection, training and testing is a long process. Determining what needs to be done first saves embarrassment later and it is easier for the expedition leaders to assign responsibilities to team members and give them sufficient time to complete their allotted tasks.

Time line and financial needs
Once the whole critical path is drawn out (can be a very large piece of paper!); assigning timescales will be a matter of using accurate information and intelligent guesswork. Allow a good contingency because there are always setbacks and delays; things rarely run smoothly.

The critical path should also be used to control or develop a budget for the expedition. Every action has a cost and this should be reflected on your plan.

Look at each area you have selected and draw up a set of contingencies for each.

  1. Risk assessment
Once you have your plan, it is time to sit down and draw up a second critical path analysis, this time, try and second–guess all that could go wrong. Some headings you can add too are:
  • Illness.
  • Political instability, war, local insurrection.
  • Threat of kidnapping, theft and other crime.
  • Vehicle breakdowns, other transport issues.
  • Adverse weather.
  • Failure of equipment, especially communications equipment.
  • Supplies not arriving.
  • Problems with officials in host country.
  • Sponsors backing out.
  • Team members backing out.
Not pleasant in the high energy and excitement of planning an expedition, but you also need to think about what you will do if an expedition member is killed. You may be deep in the Amazon rainforest and getting a body back home may not be possible. Someone has to inform close relatives; you need to think about these things from the outset. For the same reason, have a lawyer draw up an agreement indemnifying the entire expedition, especially the leaders, from claims by grieving family members. Everyone has to accept and go on the expedition at their own risk. If someone is killed, this has a very depressing effect on the others, you should decide before you go how your team will try and handle this situation.

The Home Base Management Team

The purpose of the Home Base Management Team is to give "soft support" to the expedition. This may range from sending out replacement equipment, handling the expedition's publicity, arranging or replacing documents, reporting on progress to the families of the expedition members, maintaining an expedition website, updating social media, sending out funds, etc. This team has to keep in regular contact with the expedition's leadership and is involved with all aspects of the expedition from its conception to its conclusion. The responsibilities and duties of the Home Base Management Team have to be carefully thought out, documented and understood by everyone involved in the expedition.

Dire Emergency Management Team

Any serious expedition needs immediate and full support on hand in the case of a dire emergency. The Emergency Management Team is not the same as the team supporting the on–going expedition from the home base, although the home base team members could be part of the Emergency Management Team.

For this purpose a dire emergency could be defined as:
  • Fatality, serious injury, or circumstances in which an expedition member might be at serious physical or emotional risk and a body has to be returned home or an expedition member returned home for emergency medical treatment;
  • A situation where an expedition or part of the expedition team needs emergency rescue and local resources to mobilize in a search, rescue and recovery operation.
  • A situation where expedition team members have been taken hostage or have been kidnapped;
  • A situation where a serious life-threatening illness, for example, contagion by expedition team members of a life–threatening disease that puts the lives of the other expedition members at serious risk and requires local hospital isolation;
  • A situation where negative press coverage or a legal case may result or local hostility is involved requiring diplomatic intervention.

Dire Emergency Management
Dire emergency management follow a set of protocols put into place to minimise an emergency and its impact on the expedition team and to comply with the law. These protocols should be documented as the Dire Emergency Plan:
  • The Dire Emergency Management team should be of sufficient size so that they can be contacted at any time night or day for the duration of the expedition.
  • The Dire Emergency Management Team should have a base with all necessary means of communication available both with the expedition team and with external agencies.
  • The Dire Emergency Management Team Base should have a support network that understands their purpose, for example, Embassies, police, medical adviser, legal advisor, local rescue agencies and the expedition's home base management team.
  • The Dire Emergency Management must have access to a database of emails and telephone numbers of all stakeholders, media contacts and close relatives of the expedition members. The database should have the names and contact detail of all the Dire Emergency Team members.
  • The Dire Emergency Management team must have access to immediate funds, which must be sufficient to enable immediate action to assist the expedition members in the field including the repatriation of a corpse or the provision of immediate serious medical treatment.
  • The Dire Emergency Plan should be reviewed and updated regularly.
  • Simulated dire emergency exercises should be tested out before the expedition departs and this could be an integral part of the training of the expedition leadership team, home base management team and the expedition members.

Suggested example of a Dire Emergency Protocol.
For this example we look at the scenario where a member of a UK expedition has been killed in a foreign country. This Dire Emergency Protocol covering this incident would require immediate action by the expedition leadership, the Dire Emergency Management Team and the Home Base Management Team.

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Dire Emergency Protocol for death of an expedition member

Stage 1:
The expedition leader fills out an immediate accident report that details what happened, the name, age and gender of the victim and a positive identification, such as, a passport number. This accident report should include witness statements. This report is sent immediately to the Dire Emergency Management Team and a copy is given to the local police and the local UK Embassy or Consular Office as soon as possible after the incident.

Stage 2:
The Dire Emergency Management Team notifies the UK Home Office and the Home Base Management Team that a fatality has occurred. The Home Base Management Team notify next of kin and set into place agreed protocols for handling any following police investigation (for example, if negligence on behalf of the expedition leadership was involved) and the resulting publicity.

Stage 3:
The Dire Emergency Management Team arrange for the repatriation of the body (assuming there is a body – in some hot tropical countries a corpse is cremated soon after it is released by the police – or it may be impossible to recover the body, for example, on an Everest expedition). This can involve dealing with the insurers to get sufficient funds released, arranging the flight, liaison with the UK Home Office pathologist, etc.

Stage 4:
The Dire Emergency Management Team assesses the effect on the expedition team and decides in co–operation with the sponsors and any other agencies if the expedition is to be abandoned or if it can continue. The Home Base Management Team put in place agreed protocols to assist the next of kin.

From the above scenario and suggested protocol, it becomes obvious that considerable thought has to be given to the various protocols everyone involved needs to follow. This level of planning is costly and time–consuming and the detail to which the protocols are defined depends on the size, scope and scale of the expedition.

Even if the expedition is simply a group of friends going on an adventure the same framework is relevant and support from home, sufficient knowledge of what to do if things go wrong by all concerned, sufficient insurance and ready funds being available to cover a disaster — these are all necessary ingredients of the expedition plan. Without such provisions family can be left with vast expense, for example, having to pay costly medical expenses in a foreign country, for an air ambulance or a search and rescue operation.


The critical path and risk assessment forms the basis for the whole expedition plan and can be used to draw up individual and group briefing notes. It is also an excellent basis for a business plan if you intend to seek sponsorship. This it the language businesses, insurance companies and financial organizations understand, so a smart–looking, well worked–out, plan will go a long way to finding support.

Once all the initial planning has been done, consider making a reconnaissance trip to find out for real what issues the expedition may face. It is valuable to do this even if some of the expedition leaders are familiar with the area you are visiting because you are now looking at matters through the eyes of an expedition leadership team. Although an additional expense, visiting the location of your expedition is a good investment and will help with your planning and risk assessment. The members of this reconnaissance trip should include the key expedition leaders who should collect as much detailed information as possible. Upon your return you will be able to provide much more knowledgeable information to the other expedition members and sponsors. Such a trip enables the expedition leaders to make good local contacts in the host country or region, this will make your final planning much easier.
Expedition leadership