Expedition Leader Jan Bakker Shares His Love of Adventuring, Climbing and Being Outdoors

Traveler and Adventurer Jan Bakker
7105m high Pik Korzhenevskaya in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. Photo credit: Twan van Bakel

My name is Jan Bakker, I’m from The Netherlands but currently live with my wife Carrie and son Sol in Beirut, Lebanon. I work as an expedition leader in places that are off the radar as outdoor sports destination, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

I just love spending time outside, whether it’s in the ocean surfing, rock climbing, hiking or snowboarding — Lebanon has great snow conditions in winter! As long as it’s outdoors. (Climbing) gyms are not for me. I can’t wait to share the love for adventure with my sons (the second one is due in two weeks).

At the moment, I’m in the final stages of finishing the very first trekking guidebook for Tajikistan.

Traveler and Adventurer Jan Bakker
in Afghan Wakhan Corridor

How and why did you get into adventuring and climbing?

I was born in a country without mountains, white water or even rocks. I saw my first mountain when I was 16 on a family holiday in Mallorca, Spain, and I was sold. A couple of years later, just after college graduation, I bumped into an old primary school classmate who thought I was travelling the world all the time, which wasn’t really the case but that was a bit of a Eureka! moment. A few months later, I flew to Central America to chase surf for six months and living the life of a surf bum.

I can’t just travel anymore for travelling’s sake. On longer trips, I would only travel by bicycle because that’s the best and the most honest way to travel. That’s the plan with my family as well in the near future. If I go on a trip without the family I guess it needs to be a proper challenging adventure, whether it’s climbing an obscure mountain, mountain biking unridden trails or rock climb undeveloped walls.

Half the fun is to research a place, using maps, Google Earth, perhaps alpine journals and try to put the pieces together. My wife calls me a cartophile, I’m obsessed with topographic maps. For my Central Asia adventures, for example, I use old Soviet topo maps to plan expeditions. These are actually free to download (loadmap.net). Maps are the key to trip planning, the gear and food part has become routine. I generally don’t purposely train for trips, I just try to get out to the hills and have fun while staying fit.

Traveler and Adventurer Jan Bakker
in Afghan Wakhan Corridor

How do you finance your adventures?

I’m a house dad. My wife works for an international NGO and is the breadwinner. While I have time to venture out in the hills or go for a surf, I have to make sure everything is running smoothly at home. So my wife is my main sponsor and I need to keep her happy! I do guide a couple of expeditions a year and these are obviously paid jobs to bring in the extra pocket money.

I don’t spend huge amounts on equipment. For some reason I am given quite a bit of stuff from people I know who work for outdoor brands. Like recently I was guiding a sponsored ski expedition and was given lots of really nice gear. I try to use things until it’s not functional anymore and prefer multi-functional gear. You don’t need 10 different GoreTex jackets, within the functionality margin you can do with a couple or even one. Better for the planet!

During trekking expedition in Iraqi Kurdistan, Halgurd-Sakran National Park. Photo credit: Floraine Berthouzouz

How do you eat and sleep on the road?

I prefer to travel simple. Whilst it’s nice to spend a night in a fancy hotel after an expedition, I generally either camp, stay in mountain huts or home stays, wherever faith is taking me. If I venture on a remote expedition, I always try to be self-sufficient, bringing a tent (Vaude Taurus 2), my cosy Rab sleeping bag, freeze-dried food and a multi-fuel stove (MSR Whisperlite) with me. This way you’re completely independent and you can pitch your tent wherever you like. The brand Lyo makes very tasty meals and these are super lightweight as well. But in the end, the craving for a nice, fresh home made meal does take over.

What inspired you to write your guidebook?

I did a cycle touring trip with my wife along the Pamir Highway and the Tajik Wakhan Corridor. We tried to plan some hikes but there was absolutely no reliable information available. I plotted a route using Google Earth to the base of a mountain called Pik Engels. It was a wild guess whether it was accessible at all, but we found a beautiful path along an irrigation channel. That was the click for me: these mountains have huge trekking potential and people should know about it.

The year after (2010), I went back but lost a month of research time because I got caught up in an armed uprise in Osh (southern Kyrgyzstan) and had to be evacuated back to Bishkek instead crossing into Tajikistan. I had another setback in 2012 when I planned another big trekking route in the western Pamirs. An armed conflict in the southern Tajik city of Khorog broke out and I happened to be there as well…. So another evacuation and a research trip cut short. What are the odds? These were the only conflicts of this scale in decades. Unlucky I guess. I let the project rest for a while when I got connected to a French lady who suggested she could help finishing the project.

Nevertheless, the best part of writing a trekking guide is the research, roaming the mountains and living the life of an explorer. The mapping part is fun too. Writing can be quite tough as writing descriptions is sometimes a bit tedious. But we’re finalizing the manuscript at the moment and I’ll be very proud when the project comes to a closure. It will be published by renowned UK guidebook publisher Cicerone and is due to hit the shelves in October 2018.

Traveler and Adventurer Jan Bakker
at Annapurna Circuit, Nepal. Photo credit: Jan Bakker

How do you bring your things with you?

Bags… I said I’m trying to use a little gear as possible, but bags are definitely a weak point. That’s partly because I like so many different mountain sports. For cycle touring, I’m using Ortlieb Paniers, just because these are bomb (and water) proof. I probably own eight packs, all different sizes. My absolute favourite is the Arcteryx Altra 85 — that’s my expedition pack and a beast of a rucksack. Arcteryx is expensive but their packs last so much longer than any other brand. And if something is faulty, even after a few years, they fix it or replace it, no questions asked.

For climbing, I use the Mammut Granit 30. Also indestructible. I’m a big fan of duffel bags as well. I use the classic The North Face duffels in different sizes. One of them I’ve had for more than 10 years. It’s been on top of many yaks, has been tossed around in lots of airports and is still going strong. The main trap with bags is: the bigger it is, the more you tend to shove in it. So if you’re planning a trip, first think through what you really need and choose the bag that fits with that. Not the other way round as you will end up with lots of useless stuff you don’t need.

Traveler and Adventurer Jan Bakker
On the rooftop of a guesthouse in Leh, Ladakh, India. Photo credit: Jochem van Drimmelen

How do you organize things in your bags?

I use drybags in different sizes and colours to organize everything inside my backpack or duffel. This way it’s easy to find your kit, especially when you’re dog tired after a long day trekking or cycling. And it keeps everything dry. If I do a trip-supported (with porters or pack animals), I bring a daypack for a bit of food, water, camera, map and some extra clothes.

For self-supported, everything goes in a big pack with the top lid reserved for the things I need throughout the day. I’m still looking for the ideal drybag. They are either super solid and heavy or lightweight but tear easily. No problem if you’re in an arid environment but a nightmare in a wet climate. I’m still waiting for a brand that makes drybags completely transparant so you can see what’s in it without having to dig and guess what’s in it. During an expedition you always end up with rubbish. I think in every pack there should be a designated pocket for waste. Having a flimsy plastic bag strapped on the side of the pack is not the way. The pocket should be waterproof in case something is leaking and easy to wash (so easy to pull out). I should patent this.

Traveler and Adventurer Jan Bakker
Camp 1, Mountain Paldor in Central Nepal

How do your bags and gear hold up?

Every pack and bag serves its purpose. Mine are all heavy duty but not necessarily heavy and I expect them to last long. I’m happy with the brands that I use at the moment. But no matter the pack, a weak spot is always the waist buckle. If somebody stands on it, it is likely to snap and you’re screwed. So top tip: always bring a spare buckle!

Any gear you wish you had brought with you from the beginning?

Every expedition you learn something new, gear wise. People in your team may do something a bit different and you think, “Hey, that could work for me.” Recent additions to my equipment list are a Power Monkey power bank to charge my camera and for my latest trip in the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda I brought Muck Boots Arctic Sport. Lots of mud and water in this part of the world.

What has been your best adventuring purchase below $100?

The best things I’ve bought under $100 is my 0.5 liter Thermos thermos for about $20, can’t remember exactly. Nothing better than a hot cup of tea on an ice cold mountain!

For my other favorite gear, I always bring my SPOT satellite messenger. It gives peace of mind for the people at home and if something really goes wrong, wherever you are you can hit the emergency button that should trigger a rescue operation.

Traveler and Adventurer Jan Bakker
High camp at 5300m climbing Stok Kangri, in Ladakh, India. Photo credit: Jochem van Drimmelen

What is your best advice for other adventurers and climbers?

I tend to go to places that are not well known for tourism or mountain adventures. My advice for adventurers is to look beyond the reputation of a place or how it is portrayed in the media. For example, Iran is the most welcoming country I have visited, the people are so generous and welcoming while governments and (conservative) media make you think your life will be in constant danger.

Many areas in both Afghanistan and Iraq are dangerous to visit, no doubt, but if you do a bit of research, you will learn that within these countries there are safe and beautiful places to visit. Iraqi Kurdistan is safe, it has great mountains and the Kurds are a lovely bunch. Same for the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. Obviously, you have to stay informed about the security situation but these are actually places you can visit. Do your homework and a range of new, exciting destinations can be added to your bucket list.

Traveler and Adventurer Jan Bakker
Jan with wife Carrie and son Sol in Cedar Forest of Lebanon. Photo credit: Brett Garland

What will the future bring?

There are some exciting trips in the making. Bike packing in Iran and climbing the two highest peaks in the country is on the table for next Summer. And I might go back to guide a climbing trip in the Afghan Wakhan Corridor next Fall, attempting two unclimbed peaks. As I said, my second child will be born in a couple of weeks so I will stick around in Lebanon for the next six months. But the biggest adventure is around the corner as my second child will be born in a couple of weeks!

Follow Jan Bakker on his website and Instagram

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