Few things bring me as much joy as being in the outdoors and I encourage everyone I meet to get out on a trek at least once in their lives. It’s not as difficult or complicated as a first-timer might imagine. In fact, trekking is an easy activity that the whole family can enjoy.
It is, after all, a walk in the hills. And there are many kinds of walks: easy, enjoyable walks; demanding hikes; nature walks to observe flora or fauna; walks to reach a peak or fort; walks for a photo-op, a fishing trip, or camping experience. Everyone can choose a walk that suits them best. Your reason for going determines your destination, and how you prepare yourself to reach it.
Here are some basics that can help make an experience in the outdoors that much more enjoyable and fulfilling. It’s not a complete list, but a great point of reference to start from.
Start by deciding how much time you want to spend in the outdoors. Perhaps you want to start with going out just for a day, walking leisurely through fields and forests, up to a hill fort or ancient rock-cut caves. If you’re an active person, you may feel ready to spend a whole week or even two on an easy trek or even something challenging and remote. The duration of your venture will decide what and how much gear or equipment you will need.
When choosing a walking holiday, consider your current level of fitness and comfort with the outdoors. While anyone who has the right attitude and perseverance can train and get fit, you need to first make an honest assessment of your ability. Based on this you can decide the degree of challenge/difficulty you are ready to face. Keep in mind that when you decide to go on a long trek, there will be little or no transport along the way to return you to civilization. So be realistic in your assessment of yourself and every member of your group and choose wisely.
I usually define a hike as a walk in the outdoors over a day or two, on a well-defined path or trail. Trekking involves a demanding walk, often in terrain without clearly demarcated trails, requiring map and compass to navigate. There is usually no easy access to roads, transport, or medical facilities.
Treks or hikes are usually classified into three broad grades of easy, moderate, and difficult, though even these are eventually relative terms. What one person finds easy depends on their fitness level and their willingness to push themselves physically. While distance is a factor, the difficulty level of a trek is more about the kind of terrain, altitude, and inclines. Weather is another important factor. A trek that is easy in summer can be challenging in winter. And not all treks can be done throughout the year.
These hikes or treks usually follow well-trodden trails and are not very physically demanding. They’re usually close to civilization and offer escapes should the need arise. Basic food and assistance from local sources is usually easily available.
Examples The Sahyadris, Nilgiris, and Western Ghats abound in trails that fit this category. You’ll also find easy grade trails aplenty in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Fitness Anybody who goes regularly on long walks and is generally in good shape can attempt an easy trek.
These treks require you to push yourself a little beyond your comfort zone. Trails are narrower, and more demanding. Moderate treks usually involve a significant amount of uphill walking, and may even require a bit of scrambling but not technical climbing. The distance travelled is greater, between 5-20 km daily, taking you further away from civilization with no easy escape routes. Even a first-timer can attempt a moderate trek with proper preparation and training and the right attitude. On many moderate treks, you may need to be self-sufficient with regard to food, water, and other emergency supplies.
Examples Many of the Maratha hill forts with their circuitous routes to the top or steep escarpments and exposed cliffside trails, or a multi-day walk across the ridges of the Himalayas.
Fitness Those who exercise regularly, run, cycle, and have stamina and strength can attempt moderate treks with some training.
These treks are not for the novice. They demand great fitness, training, and prior trekking experience. Demanding treks involve long, uphill walks in difficult terrains and conditions, making demands on your stamina and perseverance. The region is often remote and uninhabited, so trekkers need to be self-sufficient and prepared to face adversity. The weather could involve extreme cold or heat, rain and strong winds, and trekkers may have to walk on ice or through water.
Examples Multi-day treks in the Sahyadris and Western Ghats to a series of forts and hills. Or a Himalayan trek to high-altitude passes and lakes, the mouth of a glacier, a ridge that affords a great view, or the base camp of a famous peak.
Fitness Only the very fit, with high levels of stamina and strength can attempt a demanding trek after intensive training and preparation.
It’s fairly easy to prepare and train for any venture in the outdoors, whether a short 1-2 day trip or a longer multi-day trek.
• I recommend city dwellers walk up and down stairs to strengthen their legs and simulate walking uphill. Besides that, stamina-building activities like running and cycling can also help. Even when using porters or mules, trekkers need to carry a day pack with warm tops, water, and snacks. Your body tries to adjust to the weight and discomfort of carrying one over a large distance. Prepare your body by climbing up and down stairs with an 8-10 kilo backpack. Keep track by either noting the time or the number of times you walk up and down, and push the bar each week for at least 6-8 weeks.
• Adjusting to cold weather can be tough, especially if you live somewhere near the coast. Take cold showers at home, and when you do feel the cold try braving it till you really need to cover up.
• To prepare for the effects of high altitude on your body, start by reading up on its symptoms, prevention, and treatment. Being aware of these is half the battle won. The golden rule while feeling the effects of high altitude is to descend to a lower elevation. Medication only addresses the symptoms and does not cure the problem. In the days before you trek, drink plenty of water, and avoid alcohol and smoking.
• Research the area, the route, and local weather conditions. Check if there are cultural events or festivals that will make your trip more enjoyable.
Choosing the right adventure company can add a lot of value to your journey. This can be a professional outfit, or an experienced local guide who can organise equipment, porters or mules, food, medical supplies etc.
• Look for someone who is well acquainted with the area and has experience organising treks there. This is crucial as weather in the mountains is unpredictable and you need a guide who knows the mountains, can tell when the weather is changing, and guide you to a safe spot.
• Ask about the kind of food the operator carries on treks. The fare can be local and basic, with parathas and dal-rice or more elaborate based on the operator and what they charge. If you have special requirements or allergies, ask if the operator is able to cater to those.
• Enquire if their staff has first-aid training, and about the medical facilities available with them.
• Go online to check the feedback they have received from clients in the past. You can also ask to speak to previous clients.
• Ask your tour operator whether they employ local staff. It’s always good to give back to the local economy by employing guides and porters from the region.
• Enquire if the tour operator is part of any association or body of operators that establishes safety and quality standards and has a grievance redressal mechanism. Two Indian bodies are ATOAI (Adventure Tour Operators Association of India) and in Maharashtra, ATOM (Adventure Tour Operators of Maharashtra). Members of such bodies often have a proven track record and adhere to a charter.
It is important that you and your group leave as few traces as possible. Carry as little as you can.
• Any non-biodegradable waste that you bring must be carried out of the mountains. Burying it in the ground is only concealment and harms the environment.
• While making a fire, make sure you do so responsibly, obeying local laws and rules. Use only dead wood. Do not harm wildlife or the forest. Leave plants and trees as you find them.
• Avoid polluting streams, rivers, and water bodies. They are used by people downstream.
• Loud noises like shouting, yelling, loud music all count as noise pollution that is harmful to wildlife and to those who come to the outdoors seeking peace and tranquility. Take pictures, sit on a rock and sketch the scenery, write a poem or put your thoughts down on paper—these activities will give you a great sense of achievement and something special to remember the moment.
What you pack depends a lot on how long you’re heading out, the weather, and your comfort with being minimalistic for that time. Everything you’re taking should fit into a single backpack of about 30-40 litres for 2-4 days, or 50-70 litres for more than 5 days. After each trip, you’ll learn more about what you actually don’t need.
• Photocopy your IDs and keep copies in several places in your day or backpack.
• Along with that, put the details of your emergency contact.
• For a 2-4 day trek, carry two sets of comfortable clothing (plus what you’re wearing) for walking and wearing at camp. For a fortnight-long trek, carry 4-5 sets at most. You can always wash clothes when you reach camp.
• In cold or rainy weather, the pants you use for walking should be wind and water resistant. Your top should be moisture wicking so it does not become damp from sweat.
• Always carry a warm top/jacket and layers of warm clothing. It is better to wear layers that you can gradually peel off once you start walking and warm up.
• Get good walking boots that support your ankles and offer good grip. Break them in by walking in them around the city, or while climbing up and down stairs during training.
• Good warm socks are as important as good boots. Put some talcum powder in the socks before wearing to keep feet fresh and dry.
• A good night’s sleep is essential to enjoying your trek. Check local weather conditions and get a sleeping bag that is suitable for that temperature range.
• It can rain in the mountains at any time, so carry a poncho, raincoat, or a jacket with goretex (waterproof) fabric. Umbrellas are only useful in camp.
• Carry caps (one for the sun, and a warm one for cooler weather), sunglasses, and in lower temperatures, a pair of gloves.
• Pack toiletries, but keep them to a minimum. Carry a good (and if possible eco-friendly) shower gel that can double up as face wash, shampoo, detergent for clothes etc.
• A good water bottle that you can keep refilling is a must. You may want to get a rehydration pouch/bladder for your day pack. This has a long pipe that comes around to the front, enabling you to drink without stopping to take your bottle out each time. Carry water purifying tablets or a suitable water filter.
• Whistle in case you get lost.
• Head lamp or torch.
• Knife or multifunction tool.
• Walking stick or (for the regular trekker) walking poles.
Carry some dry rations and first-aid for an emergency, such as a situation in which you are unable to make it to the designated campsite for the night.
• In a Ziploc bag, keep dry fruits, chocolates, nuts, granola bars, rehydration salts, instant soups/beverages, sweets/toffees that will be useful in emergencies. You can keep another bag of similar stuff for snacking on the trail.
• Ensure you have a basic first-aid kit plus any personal medication you may need. Basic items should include a small roll of cotton, 3-4 cotton bandages, antiseptic lotion and cream, band-aids, pain balm or spray. Your main bag should have a more extensive medical kit, with pills for basic ailments, insect repellent, sun screen, salt for leeches etc.
Appeared in the November 2016 issue as “A Handy Guide to Trekking”.