The golden rule of hiking is to go light. You never need as much as you think! That’s even more true on the Sinai Trail because most of the time hikers are supported by camels carrying food, stoves, cutlery etc. For all hikes supported by camels hikers will need two separate bags: a small backpack – or a ‘daypack’ – in which essentials like water, snacks, a warm/ waterproof layer can be carried, and a bigger bag, with tents, sleeping gear and anything else for the evening. Hikers will carry the smaller daypack. The bigger bag will be carried by camels. This is how it works every day: hikers carry a small bag and meet the bigger bag carried by camels at the end of the day. It is essential to come properly equipped for a hike in the Sinai. Finding good quality hiking equipment in Egypt is not easy: particularly specialist equipment, such as lightweight hiking gear or high-end waterproof fabrics. For this reason it is essential to plan carefully and bring what you need. Hikers based in Egypt can order outdoor equipment online and have it posted.
Footwear for the Sinai Trail
Travellers have long bemoaned the damage the Sinai does to footwear. Even today, with modern fabrics and soles, the rugged Sinai landscape is exceptionally destructive. Trails are rough, the rock is hard, sharp and abrasive, and hot, sun-baked surfaces make soles all-the-more vulnerable to nicks and tears. Bring footwear that balances comfort with durability, and don’t bring anything near the end of its life; chances are, it won’t last the whole hike. Always ‘break in’ new footwear before arrival in the Sinai; wear it daily for at least two weeks before a hike, checking it is comfortable, and allowing feet and shoes to get used to each other. Discovering footwear is ill-fitting and painful on the trail can end a hike near the beginning.
Boots and trekking shoes – hiking boots made from leather or tough fabrics give the best protection and support to feet and ankles, but they can feel hot and heavy, especially in summer. Generally, boots are best for the highlands, with their steep, rocky and uneven mountain trails. Specialist trekking shoes with lower cut ankles can feel less restrictive and are a good compromise for hikers walking the whole trail, or hiking in the lowlands and highlands. Whether boots or shoes, stiffened soles will make scrambling easier.
Trekking sandals – these are cool, lightweight and don’t fill with sand, but they leave feet open to falling rocks, thorny desert vegetation, snakes, scorpions and sunburn. They’re favoured by the Bedouin and can be a good option in the summer, when it’s especially hot. For hikers prone to blisters, sandals a can be a good option: hot, damp shoes make blisters more likely. Conversely, feet can dry out too much, with painful cracks developing on heals. Sandals can be good to change into at campsites in the evening.
What to wear on your hike
The way the Bedouin dress is a good example for hikers. Generally, they wear clothes that cover all their skin: trousers, long-sleeves and headwraps. These clothes protect them from the fierce desert sun and are light and loose fitting, to be cooler. In summer, they are lighter colours; often bright white. In winter, they are darker. The Bedouin use different clothing layers to control their temperature; in winter, they wear several layers, from vests to jackets, to stay warm. If they get too hot, they remove some. Whilst it is not necessary to dress exactly like the Bedouin, hikers will benefit from understanding why the Bedouin dress the way they do, using these principles to inform what they wear on the trail.
Base layer – this is the layer closest to the skin, such as a t-shirt. Cotton-based materials soak sweat up, leaving it soggy on the skin and should be avoided. Modern synthetics, like specialist hiking, running or football shirts, make sweat evaporate quickly. Hiking in wet clothes is not just uncomfortable; hikers can be left wet, cold and shivering in cooler months, which can be a hazard. Long sleeved T-shirts protect arms, which is a good idea; the collar on a trekking shirt can be turned up to cover the neck. In winter, the base layer can be a good, tight hugging synthetic thermal, with shirts worn over the top as mid layers.
Mid layer – this is a warmer layer, like a sweater or fleece, worn between a base layer and jacket. In the hotter times of the year, one mid layer might be enough and hikers might only need it in the evening. During colder times, in the high mountains at least two of these layers is necessary.
Outer shell – this is the last layer, worn over all other layers, to give an extra warmth and act as a barrier to wind, rain and snow. Above all, it is important for hikers to stay dry. The Sinai is a desert, but it rains every year. Sometimes, it snows. Without a suitable outer layer, lower layers will get wet; once wet, body heat is lost much more quickly, which can be deadly, especially in cold weather. Hikers should in all seasons as a minimum carry a stuff sack waterproof poncho to prevent getting wet. For hiking in the high mountains, especially in cooler months, a specialist jacket that is windproof, waterproof and breathable, such as a GORE TEX jacket, is essential. If a jacket is breathable it will allow hot, moist air to escape outside, meaning it doesn’t build up inside. It is just as important to stay dry from the inside as well as the outside and different jackets have different degrees of breathability, so investigate this carefully at the buying stage.
Leg wear – for cultural reasons, avoid shorts. Lightweight, specialist trekking trousers are a good option, especially ones with enough pockets to hold small, personal items. Check trousers do not constrict leg movement. This can be a problem when scrambling and reaching for high footholds.
Headwear – wide-brimmed sunhats give good protection. Baseball caps with neck curtains, usually known as ‘legionnaire hats’, are another good option. Warm, woolly hats help in winter. The traditional Arab shemagh or headwrap can also be considered. This can be wrapped around the head, face and neck to protect from the sun or cold, and many other uses can also be improvised from it: it can be everything from a pillow to a mosquito net, to a a sling bandage, or a tablecloth.
Toiletries – there are not many places to wash on the Sinai Trail, so do not carry unnecessary toiletries. Essentials are a toothbrush, toothpaste, and perhaps a small bar of soap. Some hikers bring toilet paper for use on trail; others do as the Bedouin do and use stones. Some bring antibacterial hand gel or wet wipes for cleaning hands. A small pair of scissors or nail clippers is also useful on long hikes.
Basic first aid supplies
The Sinai Trail is remote and far from help. First aid is likely to be basic in the Sinai and it can take more than a day to arrive. This makes a personal first aid kit essential. Hikers should all have a knowledge of first aid and be aware of how to use every item in a first aid kit. Attending a first aid class that focuses on medicine in a wilderness environment and carrying a pocket guidebook on first aid are sensible. Here are some suggestions for items to include in a basic first aid kit:
Basic first aid kit – Bring plasters/ Band Aids in various sizes for cuts and grazes and steri-strips to close bigger cuts. Specialist blister plasters are important, especially for hikers prone to blisters. Dressings are useful for bigger wounds and non-adhesive dressings are good for burns. Antiseptic cream, safety pins, tweezers, tick-removal forceps and a small pair of scissors all have uses. Dehydration is common in the desert and rehydration salts are potential lifesavers to include in every first aid kit. Diarrhoea is also common and can cause dehydration so bring anti-diarrhoeal medication such as Imodium. Aspirin and paracetamol are good as painkillers and anti-inflammatories. Hikers who suffer from joint trouble may benefit from a warming, deep heat-type cream. Remember inhalers and personal medication.
Water bottles & purification – ordinary plastic bottles from the shops can spring leaks if dropped, so if you’re using these, take care. Tough, specialist bottles, such as the kind made from lightweight aluminium or plastic, are better. Bladder bottles with a drinking tube are also good options: these encourage regular drinking. Water purification is important too. Sometimes, hikers might use water from natural sources, such as springs or wells, all of which should be purified prior to drinking. Chlorine or chlorine dioxide tablets are two methods; iodine is not recommended for potential side effects and its sale as a purifier is now banned in the EU. Other options are filters that strain water and treat it chemically, and steripens, which use UV light to sterilise bacteria. Purifying water is good practice for hikers and is to be encouraged; it means hikers can re-fill their water on trail, rather than bringing large supplies of bottled mineral water onto the trail, which has to be carried, and which creates waste every day.
Camping gear for the Sinai Trail
There are no hotels or guesthouses on the Sinai Trail. Hikers make wild camps or stay in Bedouin camps or traditional orchards with very basic facilities. Sometimes, caves or boulders give natural shelter but most of the time hikers simply sleep in the open, under the big, starry desert skies. This is how the Bedouin of the Sinai have been doing it for centuries: today, they call it the ‘million star hotel’. It is a memorable experience to sleep out in the open on the Sinai Trail, the Bedouin way.
Tents – tents are rarely used by the Bedouin. Even so, tents can be useful, especially in the colder, more unstable times of the year. They give warmth and security from the wind and rain, plus a barrier against mosquitoes and desert creepy-crawlies. The sense of private space a tent creates can also be welcome on a hike. Generally, a good quality 2-3 season tent is sufficient. Bivvy bags that are waterproof and breathable are another option, along with a ‘basha’ or waterproof sheet, that can be rigged onto trees.
Sleeping bags – these are essential. In winter a 3-4 season bag with a sub zero temperature rating is vital; for sleeping in the highest parts of the mountains in winter its comfort rating should be -10 degrees. For hiking in warmer times, a 2-3 season bag, with a comfort rating bewteen 0 and 5 degrees is usually enough. Sleeping bag liners will help make bags warmer on colder nights; on the warmest nights, a sleeping bag liner can be used as a sleeping bag in its own right, so consider these.
Sleeping mats – these make both rocky ground and soft sand more comfortable and are important for staying warm, giving insulation from the cold ground. Inflatable thermarest-style mats give maximum luxury but can puncture easily, with so much thorny vegetation in the desert. The safest option is to bring a roll up foam mat; it will be bulkier, but there is no puncture risk.
Cooking equipment – generally, unecessary. Bedouin guides bring pots, pans and a gas cylinder to cook on; otherwise, they will cook on a fire. Hikers should bring a plate, knife, fork and mug.
Navigation – Bedouin guides are recommended for hikers and will be the chief navigators on a Sinai Trail hike. Many hikers still like to participate in navigation though and this is to be encouraged on many levels: it is one way to get more involved in the hike and it also improves safety. Maps for the Sinai Trail can be downloaded in English and Arabic. Ideally, these should be laminated to ensure they remain in good condition throughout a hike. A Google Map is also available for the Sinai Trail, which can be viewed on a smartphone. An official GPS file can be requested too: this can be uploaded to a personal GPS unit or even viewed in Google Earth or another navigation app on a smartphone. Remember to bring a sufficient supply of batteries or back up power for any electronic navigation devices.
Emergency – it is important to carry equipment that may be required in an emergency. This is essential in winter, especially for hikes in the mountains. Hikers should consider an emergency group shelter that can be opened quickly to give protection against the elements. Specialist survival bags made from heavy duty plastic or double thickness foil are another option: they are small and lightweight enough to carry and are potential lifesavers in bad mountain weather. A whistle will help attract attention in the event of a search situation: a reflector can be used to reflect sunlight too, at least in daylight hours. Satellite phones would give extra security in the Sinai but there are various restrictions on use in Egypt and a specialist licence/ official permission must currently be sought in advance from the authorities.
Other important gear – hikers should always carry matches/ cigarette lighters; it’s important to be able to create fire for many reasons. A torch/ flashlight is also important: a strap-around headtorch is best as it keeps hands free for other things like putting on sandals or rummaging in a bag in the dark. Remember to bring spare batteries or a back up power source for electronic gear: solar chargers are good options. For evenings or caves or huts, candles are good items to bring. A knife is important for many things; the Swiss Army style, with tools like can openers, a mini saw and tweezers, are best. Trekking poles help to support joints and are useful in mountain areas, with plenty of uphill and downhill. Binoculars are good for hikers who enjoy viewing landscapes and wildlife and don’t forget a camera and spare memory cards.
Personal items – foreign hikers must bring a passport/ valid visa, Egyptian hikers must carry their ID cards. Bring a travel insurance policy too, in case it is needed.