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Hema’s Guide to Surviving the Tropics

Words and pics Scott Heiman

If something can go wrong, it will go wrong, so next time you're planning to head off to the Tropics, ask yourself whether you will be prepared to survive in Australia’s tropical environments

Lieutenant General Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys was published as a four-part series in 1908. Its release went on to sell approximately 150 million copies and triggered the beginning of the Scout movement and is one of the best-selling books of all time.

The Scout’s motto ‘Be Prepared’ is shorthand for Baden-Powell’s observations that we should be “Always in a state of readiness in mind and body...and to have thought out beforehand any accident or situation that might occur so that you know the right thing to do at the right moment.” Over a hundred years later, this remains good advice for savvy campers. 

Keeping your family and other travelling companions safe depends on considerations of preparation and foresight. For example — how well do we drive and read the road conditions? How do we react to the actions of other road users? What dangerous animals are in the region? What are the surf conditions? Can everybody swim? What if it’s not you that’s lost but your 10-year-old child? Do they know what to do? The list goes on. Are you prepared for these scenarios? 

Entire books are written on topical survival but for now, here’s some information to get you started.

(Image: A purpose designed survival kit can be small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.)


To know what can go wrong and how to respond, first, you need to understand where you are. In Australia, the Wet Tropics starts at the Tropic of Capricorn at 23°26′11.6”S and goes north from there — so it's not all rainforest. 

Our tropical zone includes the Kimberley, the Savannah and the Central Desert, Arnhem Land, the Daintree, as well as thousands of kilometres of coastal mangrove swamps. With such diversity, you could be in one ecological region today, drive through another tomorrow, and finish your day setting-up camp in a third. Being prepared in the Tropics means having the ability to survive in desert, arid, coastal, and jungle conditions. You may even need sea survival skills if you intend to launch a tinnie or go on a Barra charter. 

(Image: You might be there longer than you think so make a shelter like this in the tropics.)


There’s a well-known mnemonic that applies to all survival situations regardless of where you are. It goes like this: ‘Please Remember What’s First’, telling you your survival priorities in order. The words stand for Protection, Rescue, Water and Food.  

A key thing to remember in a tropical survival situation is that it’s no place for bare feet or bikinis.  Heatstroke can happen unexpectedly and can be life-threatening, and if you’re surrounded by poisonous spiky plants where a single scratch can turn into an infection in no time. Leave it untreated for 24-48 hours and you could have a fever and be so delirious you wouldn’t hear a rescue party hollering from 50m away. 

So, wear light clothing, get yourself some cover, and take time to work out how the hell you plan to tell someone that you’re in a mess. With a distress beacon, you’re ahead of the game, otherwise, you’ll be settling in for the long haul. And you’ll want to heed these next tropical tips for sensible survival.

(Image: Aedes Albopictus or the Asian Tiger Mosquito is a known Dengue Virus vector.)


In the harshest environments, it’s the little things that will get to you. Consider, for example, the difficulties faced by Australian troops fighting in the jungles along the Kokoda Track in 1942. While approximately 625 Australians were killed by the Japanese, over 1600 were wounded. Of these, casualties due to sickness exceeded 4,000 — Mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria took out more of our soldiers than the opponent. 

These days our tropical regions don’t shudder with the sound of machine-gun fire, but your body is still at risk of trembling from fever if you don’t take adequate precautions. Dengue and malaria are found in the northern reaches of Australia, as are Ross River Virus, Barmah Forest Virus, Murray Valley encephalitis, Japanese encephalitis, and others like Zika and Chikungunya viruses that can be brought into the country by international travellers.

(Image: V is the international symbol for needing assistance and all pilots know this.)

Essential Jungle Survival Rules

  1. Treat injuries promptly regardless of how seemingly slight. Humidity and high temperatures increase the risk of infection.
  2. Stay fully clothed. This will reduce water loss and help to cool you down.
  3. Make a shelter off the ground to avoid parasites and dampness. Its roof should have an angle of around 60 degrees to deal with rain and preferably have two layers separated by an air gap.
  4. Make a reflector for your fire and a drying rack above it to dry damp wood.
  5. Set out passive rescue aids — anything bright and shiny to attract the attention of search and rescue teams.
  6. Water should be available. If it doesn’t come straight from a plant or vine’s core, boil it. Water from pools or dripping off a leaf will contain bacteria from bird faeces and rotting vegetation.
  7. Don’t attempt to walk out unless you’re sure of nearby habitation and can hear noise such as regular dog barking or vehicles. If you do move, leave messages and signs of direction. Creeks and ridgelines will provide the fastest travel route.
(Image: Coconuts are natures Gatorade.)

Essential Coastal Survival Rules

If lost in a coastal environment, there are some additional rules you need to follow to mitigate risks. These are:

  1. Don’t drink sea water, urine or sea bird blood. These will further dehydrate you and make you ill.
  2. If you’ve capsized or are adrift in a tinnie, stay as dry as possible to minimise hypothermia and foot and raft/bed sores.
  3. Remain dressed and don’t swim if possible. To do otherwise increases dehydration and the risk of being attacked by sharks, crocs, etc.
  4. Maintain a minimum level of hydration. Collect rainwater. Don’t eat unless you have water to digest it.
(Image: SENDs have their place just remember to replace the batteries.)


A Personal Locating Beacon (PLB) is a distress beacon, much like an EPIRB for land lovers, that is monitored by multi-national governments. Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SENDs such as SPOT, Garmin InReach, Iridium Extreme, Trac Plus, etc.) are commercial entities. Here are some of the main differences:

  1. PLBs have a built in 5W battery with a six to ten year warranty/shelf life. SENDs have rechargeable or replaceable batteries.
  2. PLBs are a one-way device, SENDs are two-way. 
  3. PLBs have an additional homing beacon frequency for search and rescue to zero in on. SENDs do not.
  4. A PLB will emit its distress signal for a minimum of 24hrs. SENDs are variable depending on the state of recharge.
  5. SENDs require a paid subscription after the initial purchase. PLBs do not.
  6. SENDs can’t be registered with AMSA. PLBs can, and with additional information such as medical conditions of your travel party, vehicle type, colour, etc.
  7. SENDs’ distress signals are received by a third party in the United States before being transferred to your local Rescue Coordination Centre. PLBs notify the Rescue Coordination Centre of both the country they are set off-in, and the country in which they’re registered.

(Image: Carry a PLB - always - and let someone know what your doing before you do it.)


Perhaps you’re thinking ‘Yeah, yeah — that kinda thing never happens!’ But it does. We checked-in with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) which is responsible for distress beacon activation and rescue coordination in Australia. Their data tells us that:

  • In 2020, there were 106 real distress beacon activations involving land adventurers. In addition, there were 43 real distress alerts from SENDs.
  • In 2019, there were 109 real distress beacon activations involving land adventurers. In addition, there were 48 real distress alerts from SENDs.

That’s over 150 real time distress activations each year from land loving adventurers. And before you dismiss these figures as small, think of all the people who didn’t have a distress beacon to activate when they got stuck. In Australia’s more populated coastal areas, some of these people used their mobile phones to seek help. Others were lucky enough to be simply found by a passing vehicle. But others perished. Indeed, check your news feeds and you’ll see that travellers and locals alike die in remote Australia all the time. And with temperatures set to rise, things are set to get worse — not better.  

4WDing and exploring the Top End of Australia offers some of the best adventures for Australians and tourists alike and, as long as you’re prepared and cautious, you will arrive back home with some amazing stories to tell.


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