Thursday, 30 June 2011

Trekking Tips from a fellow traveller

Ajit Chaudhuri from shares some tips for trekking this monsoon season:

It’s the monsoons, and we are all looking to experience the outdoors. Some of us will head to the hills, some of this group will try a trek, and some of this group will be relatively new to trekking. This paper is aimed at the last group, and is written by an irregular and inexpert trekker who has made plenty of mistakes.

Yes, that stuff you read in the glossies that mountains are beautiful and trekking is a great aesthetical experience that fills your soul and brings you closer to nature and helps you recognise your inner being and so on is true. What they don’t say is that treks are also a test of physical and mental endurance, and that stupidity, overconfidence, inexperience and bad luck can be costly. This paper is based upon personal experience, and attempts to help you to prepare without repeating obvious stuff from trekking guides.

At first, let me clarify that by trek I mean at least two days walk in the hills with nights spent in tents or basic accommodation en route. I do not mean a day’s expedition, no matter how strenuous, with a return to the comfort of one’s hotel room. And I also do not mean anything that requires technical skills and/or climbing equipment. I categorize my advice into matters relating to the route, the altitude, and the weight on one’s back.

The Route:

Select your trek carefully (my group finds Outlook Traveller to be a good source of possibilities – the trekking write-ups are written by someone who has actually done the trek), and, once you have, do some homework regarding it. You should know a little about the road heads, the degree of difficulty of the route, the terrain, the major climbs and descents, the altitudes, and possible weather conditions. Find people who have done the trek before, and talk to them. Good websites for relevant advice include for weather and (and into the forum on trekking and mountaineering in India) for almost everything else. And don’t worry, no matter how much you prepare, you will still be surprised.

Don’t go alone! The human mind does strange things when it does not have company, including losing its sense of proportion in difficult situations. There is both physical and mental safety in having a group of people with you. But, be selective about your group – you are going to be in close contact with these people for 24 hours a day for several days. You will find that, no matter how well you know someone, you never know how s/he will behave in a group, under pressure, in the middle of nowhere. People who are serious about the trek, in that they are involved in the preparations and arrangements and get themselves fit in the weeks before are usually good to have along. People who are casual and non-committal also have a tendency to dropout or bring some pal of theirs along at the last minute – so it is better to ensure that the group is finalised at least three weeks before the trek and all members make a financial deposit into a common kitty about then. Avoid people who are obviously unfit given the trek’s degree of difficulty, and avoid people who are looking for networking opportunities, romance and/or drinking buddies.

Indulge in good group behaviour yourself while on the trek. Do something for the general good of the group every day, and do something for some other member (possibly one who is having more difficulty than you) every day as well. Small acts reciprocate and build a good atmosphere within the group.

A good guide is worth his weight in gold – one who knows the trekking route well, who can gauge the level of the group in the first few days and then adjust the daily schedule accordingly, who is calm when things get tough, and who is able to help along the weaker members of the group. If you are crossing a snow-bound pass, your guide needs to know the highest possible point to camp overnight on one side so as to make it up, across, and down to another campsite on the other side in one day while the snow is hard.

Most daily schedules involve starting in the morning and walking between 10 and 15 km. You should aim to reach the next camp by mid-afternoon or latest early evening. The distance is not as important as the terrain – a 20 km walk across undulating territory can have one arriving as fresh as a daisy, whereas an 8 km steep uphill can really zonk you out. While walking, try and build up and then maintain a momentum. This also means not resting every time you are a little out of breadth – try and rest only when you are tired, or when there is some especially beautiful scenery, or when you pass a water source.

Keep drinking water! Do so even if you are not feeling thirsty. Dehydration is dangerous. How do you know that you are not dehydrated? You are pissing a lot, and often! And keep a watch on your group for this – anyone not pissing is likely to end up dehydrated, and it’s then goodbye trek, so don’t worry about being seen as a pervert because you are tracking pissing patterns.

Don’t try to come first – you are not in a competition.

Don’t just endure the ascents – enjoy them! Don’t forget that downhill may be less tiring than uphill, but it is also more stressful on your knees and thighs.

When you reach your destination road head and are making payments, don’t forget to include a tip to your support staff (guide, porters, cooks, etc.).


If your trek involves going higher than about 10,000 feet (or 3,000 meters), you will be dealing with the effects of less oxygen in the air. Breathing is a little strained, simple movement and activities (such as tying shoelaces or getting up) become tiring, and you may get headaches and have difficulty sleeping. Altitude affects some people more than others, and this has little to do with physical fitness, preparation, or lifestyle issues – you just are susceptible or you are not. The only way to really find out is by going up.

Acclimatization is important. Going up gradually always helps. And if you start your trek at altitude (and have reached the road head by road or air), it may be a good idea to spend some time at the road head doing a daily expedition or two before actually beginning the trek.

When you are in altitude, always come down to your overnight camp i.e. go at least 1,000 feet higher and come down to it.
Accept the breathing difficulties, the headaches, and the broken sleep. It doesn’t mean that you are going to die, and by the second or third night in altitude you should get used to it (much like the aches and pains from walking and carrying weight) and also overcome it. If you don’t, or if someone does pick up acute mountain sickness (at least two symptoms out of headaches, swelling of hands and feet, breathlessness even when lying down, nosebleeds, lack of appetite, nausea, vomiting, etc.), try and get down to a lower altitude. Yes, even if it means breaking up the trek.


The philosophy differs depending upon whether you are carrying your stuff yourself. If you are not, it would make sense to carry a small rucksack with your day’s stuff (water, some chocolates, camera, a layer of clothing, some waterproofing, etc.) so that you are not dependant upon your porter or mule being in the vicinity when you need something. The rest can be carried in a suitcase (easy to pack on a mule) or a rucksack (if a porter is carrying it).

If you are, then you need to prioritise and minimise. There are basic necessities that you have to take along, some things that are situation specific (if the situation arises, it is critical, but if it doesn’t, you’ve just lugged something around that you didn’t need – like a raincoat), and some things that depend upon your own interests (like camera equipment). I personally throw out anything that I don’t deem necessary, and I don’t plan for every possible form of emergency. This policy has occasionally backfired, most spectacularly when I didn’t have a waterproof tent for a Leh to Spiti trek (cold desert, no precipitation, an ordinary tent should do!) and it rained and snowed every night. You should not have more than 10-12 kilos on your back. Be sure that, while it won’t seem much when you start out in the morning, it will get heavier as the day progresses until it is a source of agony as you approach your evening camp. And also that, by the third or fourth day, your shoulders will get used to it and you will be fine after that, even missing the weight on days when you return to the same camp and therefore don’t have to carry it.

Your rucksack is critical. These can be very fancy (and expensive) or very basic. The minimums, for me, are that they have a separate enclosure at the bottom for a sleeping bag (so you can take it out without emptying the rucksack) and that they have a strap at the waist so that your hips can take some of the weight. A waterproof protective cover, too, is useful.

I always take a metal shit-mug along – one with a closed handle so that I can tie it on the outside of the rucksack and access it easily. In addition to washing up after morning duties, it can be used to drink (and heat) tea, coffee and soup. And it is easy to fill it up from a stream that you are passing – a bottle takes longer and you have to bend more, especially problematic in altitude.

A cap is necessary to provide protection from the sun, which is sharper the higher you go. You need sun cream for this as well. Dark glasses are important when you are in a combination of sun and snow; they protect you from snow blindness. For the rain, I use a poncho raincoat that covers my rucksack along with me. All these need to be easily accessible while walking.

Your sleeping bag needs to be suitable for the conditions you are likely to encounter. A 0 degrees sleeping bag is different from a -10 one, which is different from a -30 one. Don’t expect to sleep well until you get used to the constraints of a sleeping bag, which usually happens by the third night.

I take some basic medicines; a crepe bandage, a bottle of Dettol, some Vaseline, painkiller, Band-Aids, light bandages, and something for headaches. A torch is necessary, and now you have a type that is attached to the forehead (and so leaves your hands free). Talcum powder (freshens your feet and lightens the odour of socks in the tent)! Super glue! Salt (the only thing, apart from tobacco, that gets leeches off your body parts)! Swiss knife!

Your tent should have a separate outer cover for rain protection. Your shoes should have ankle support and a thick sole with a good grip for icy, snowy or wet conditions. It is also good to have got used to your boots a bit – the middle of your trek is not a good time to discover that they don’t really fit.

Dealing with weather is important! There is a Norwegian saying that translates to ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing and bad preparation’. The weather in higher regions is unpredictable, and when it is inclement it can get difficult. Violent thunderstorms can go on for a long time, heavy rainfall can challenge your waterproofing, and having only a tent for protection in heavy wind, rain and snow can be terrifying. And then the next day can be perfect – sunny, cloudless, with magnificent 360-degree views. 

Regarding the cold, some learning from two winters in the Changthang region of Ladakh included that layering of clothes is more important than the clothes themselves, that air trapped between layers is an important protection from cold, that you need tight ends (sleeves, ankles, neck, waist) to trap air effectively between layers, and that, below minus thirty, there is nothing as effective as natural fur (with due apologies to PETA).

So, I use a cotton T-shirt and then layers on top of that with a windproof jacket on the outside, and a pant with a track pant under that in colder weather, and one, two or three pairs of woollen socks, again depending upon the cold. I wear the inners for two days (yes, including sleeping in them), and this decides the numbers that I need to carry. And I pack everything in my rucksack in plastic bags for one more level of protection from rain.

To conclude, I hope that this paper encourages rather than discourages you to go ahead. If it does, may I add a warning – this may be the beginning of a lifelong addiction to walking on soft ground with a bit of weight on your back. And if that happens – join the club! We should do one together some time.

- Ajit Chaudhuri


lily said...

I come to visit you blog naka. ^-^

Diti said...

wow !!! everything i wanted to know abt trekking but didnt knw whom to ask....thnx