Deep in the Mauritanian section of the Sahara Desert is the famous Iron Ore Train. This train is over 2km long and runs for over 700km from deep in the desert to the Atlantic Ocean. The train calls to the most extreme of adventurers as it is an extremely rugged and remote adventure. In recent years, people who crave the best kind of adventure have made their way deep into the desert to hitchhike on this massive and powerful train. It’s not an easy adventure to plan, and you definitely have to be prepared for it. In 2021, I hitchhiked on this train and rode it all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Now, I have crafted the ideal packing list for the iron train in Mauritania so that other thrill-seeking adventures can successfully take on this extreme trip.
I’m going to warn you right now, this is not your normal packing list.
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Things You MUST Bring
This may sound ridiculous, but the number one item that you MUST include on your packing list for the iron ore train in Mauritania is ski goggles. When you picture iron ore, usually you think of giant rocks, but the reality is that the train carries every size piece of iron ore from boulders to dust. You will find that when you board the train, the dust is unavoidable and permeating. It will get in everything no matter how hard you try to keep it out.
When the train gets moving, the dust will kick up and fly directly into your eyes. Sunglasses will do nothing to keep the dust out of your eyes so it is essential to bring goggles. I got a cheap pair off of Amazon before I went and threw them away when I was done. The front face of the goggles got scraped up pretty badly from the iron ore so it wasn’t worth keeping.
Multiple Garbage Bags
Ok, I think most of this packing list actually sounds ridiculous, but then again, so is hitchhiking on a massive train in the middle of nowhere. One item that you might not have thought about while planning for this trip is garbage bags. Basically everything you own will be covered in dust. Once on the train, I covered my backpack with a garbage bag, my camera stuff with a garbage bag inside my backpack, and then my camera again with its own bag. Iron ore still got in everything.
Bringing extra dry sacks or garbage bags will at least help protect some of your valuables on the trip.
No matter what style you decide on, a headscarf of some sort is an essential part of your packing list for the iron ore train in Mauritania. You will undoubtedly want something to cover as much of your head as possible to protect it from the sun and the ore. I used a scarf that I had bought in Atar to cover my head as much as possible. You might even consider bringing a balaclava to protect yourself on the train. I bought one and then forgot it at home.
Even with my headscarf, my face was still tinted an iron-like color. Please appreciate these before the train and after the train selfies. Also, I was one of the cleaner people at the end of the trip. That should give you a good estimate of just how dirty you will get.
Thick Face Mask
One thing that you may not think about but is an important element of your packing list for the iron ore train in Mauritania is a thick facemask to go under your headscarf. The train ride is a minimum of 12 hours long which is an extremely long time to be inhaling iron ore dust. Putting a thick, well-ventilated mask under your headscarf can make a world of difference. I used a basic facemask that broke halfway through the ride. If I were to do it again, I would get a more heavy-duty facemask like this. It can’t be healthy to be inhaling all of that dust so you want to limit it as much as possible.
There are no lights on the train except for at the very front, but the iron ore train is two kilometers long! Riding on the train will take you through the middle of nowhere Sahara where absolutely no one lives or goes. It will be the darkest night you have ever seen. Do yourself a favor and bring a headlamp. You will also need it for getting onto the train in the dark.
This one should be obvious to you if you are planning a trip to Mauritania, but I would regret it if I didn’t mention it and someone went without water. You MUST bring water with you on the train. In the evening and when it is dark, you won’t notice your need to hydrate as much. However, it is especially important to stay hydrated as the sun begins to rise because the desert sun is BRUTAL. There is no heat like that of the sun beating down on you. Plus, you are sitting on a dark-colored rock that absorbs the heat from the sun.
Also, it is worth mentioning that iron ore dust will get in your mouth. There is no way of avoiding it (even with all the tips I share below). However, bringing water to drink will help you wash some of it out. I would plan on 2 bottles of water per person for your trip. You can get them in Atar (the last city before reaching the point where you jump on the train or there is a little store in Chuom if that is where you are catching the train from.
Helpful Items For Your Packing List For the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania
Protective Bag For Your Cell Phone
It is completely unadvisable to bring a real camera on this trip. I did it anyway because I refuse to go anywhere without it, but I would never recommend anyone doing that. Your phone should be your camera on this adventure. That being said, you will want to do your best to keep iron dust out of the nooks and crannies of your phone. I recommend bringing a water protector pouch or something similar to give your phone an added layer of protection.
Blanket (buy in a town before arriving)
It gets cold in the desert at night so you will definitely want a blanket or sleeping bag of some sort. Do not UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES bring your expensive or favorite sleeping bag on the train. It will absolutely get ruined. On your way to Choum or Zeurat, you will inevitably stop in the city of Atar. There, you can buy blankets or cheap children’s comforters that you can use on the train and throw away afterwards. They run around $10 each. You can also leave them where the train ends in Nouadibou and locals will pick them up, clean them, and find a use for them which is better than simply throwing them away.
I found that my ideal setup to deal with the cold was my Northface fleece jacket (It got dirty but the ore washed out fine), my sleeping bag liner, and the cheap kids comforter from Atar. Some people in my group even opted to buy floor mats in atar to make their ride a bit more comfortable. I chose not to and was fine, but a lot of them were glad to have them.
The train is really loud, and it never stops being loud. Having a cheap pair of headphones will save you a headache and give you a nice soundtrack for the ride. Be sure to download your music offline though, you will 100% not have any cell phone service out in the desert.
Side note: you cannot buy a SIM card in Mauritania. SIM cards are reserved for citizens only and can be incredibly difficult to obtain.
Empty Bottle For Pee
When I rode on the train, my group leader had one major rule: “Don’t pee over the edge.” He was absolutely convinced that someone would fall off and die if they tried. I think that’s probably a good rule to have. Instead, I would bring an empty water bottle (or a full one and finish it before you have to go) and use that for your bathroom needs.
If you are a female, you can get a pee device or funnel that will help you pee in a bottle. I will say that a few of us brought them on the trip, but they weren’t successful for everyone.
Every well-seasoned traveler knows to never go anywhere without some extra toilet paper on hand. This is also true on the train. Make sure to bring a little bit of toilet paper as well as a doggy waste bag to pack out your waste!
For this trip, you will definitely want to wear different layers of clothing. At night in the desert, it can get brutally cold. Plus, the speed of the train will cause a wind chill which will make it feel even colder. However, as soon as the sun rises, it starts to get HOT. You will want the ability to take articles of clothing off depending on the temperature.
Even though deserts are known for being notoriously hot, they are also famous for how quickly the temperature drops at night. Unless you want to be FREEZING, make sure that you bring a jacket for the train ride so that you can stay warm.
- Don’t bring anything that you wouldn’t mind throwing away. Seriously. Just about everything I brought was absolutely wrecked by the end of the trip. The iron ore will wash out of your clothing so as long as it doesn’t get torn, then that isn’t an issue. However, it took me a long time to get iron ore out of my headphones and off my camera body even though for most of the trip, the camera was well protected.
- If you are on a guided tour, leave as much as you possibly can with your guide. The train will get iron ore in everything so it is important to not bring everything with you. Your guide can give you back your stuff when they pick you up in Nouadibou.
- Make sure to download music and maybe an offline map of the area before you go so you can listen to music during the ride and also track where you are at.
- Bringing snacks isn’t a bad idea, but we found that we weren’t super happy eating chips because of all of the iron ore grit in our mouths.
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