How to prepare for your first Himalayan trek?

After having trekked quite a lot, I decided to put together a small post about what helps when it comes to preparing for a trek in the Himalayas.

Following is my personal view on the topic, something I've learned myself.

Travel and planning:
One important and often neglected aspect of trekking is how to reach the trail head and what season to trek during? Many forget to plan for contingencies for travel. Most of the cities/towns in the Himalayan region having winding, ill-maintained roads. The average speed to consider is around 30-40km/hour. Plan your travels based on this estimate (a 150km journey usually takes around 4-5 hours of travel by road).

Seasons - The best time to trek is from end of July to mid of November. End of November hails the start of the winter season which extends up to Feb/March. After that comes the summer/rainy seasons that extend up to June end/mid July.

Solo/Organised treks:
Most of the Himalayas are rife with trekking agencies and guides. These agencies/guides charge based on the season and the trails involved. Almost all the agencies employ the locals. The difference comes in terms of the luxury these agencies provide. Most lack a conscious view towards security and safety.

From my personal experience, the easier trails can be done solo without much of a hassle. But if you are someone taking up the first steps towards the big mountains, it's better to be safe than sorry. There are lots of day trails around the major cities and towns which can be done solo.

Clothing/Gear:
Irrespective of the season in which you trek, the nights are always cold up in the Himalayas. So always carry layers. My go to layers are - thermals + fleece + down + windcheaters. Unless you are going to trek in the middle of the winter, these layers should suffice. The number of shirts/pants you take is a personal choice. But I usually carry one pair for 2-3 days. You hardly get to bathe while on the treks (almost never to be honest), but carrying extra clothes means carrying a lot more weight.

Never forget to carry -

  • Gloves (water resistant and fleece).
  • Woolen socks (2 pairs - mostly for nights).
  • Head cover (hats are better than caps as they cover your neck as well).
  • Balaclava (very important to keep your head warm in the evenings).
  • Bluffs (protects your face from sunburns).
  • Trekking shoes (most of the terrain is not suitable for sports shoes) and socks (according to your needs).
  • Sun screen and shades (the sun in the Himalayas is brutal).
  • Poncho/rain jacket.
  • Torch.
  • Personal medications/sanitary needs (this goes without being said).
Optional items:
  • Trekking poles - this is a personal preference. I never use one.
  • Slippers - I never carry one as it's an added weight.
Physical fitness:
Most of the Himalayas lie above 3500m. Some treks go up to 6000m. These are high altitudes. This implies two things - you might be walking up inclines a lot, and that you are also prone to AMS. Most of the treks in the Himalayas have at least 2 long days. So be prepared to expect around 5-6 hours of hiking on those days. The fitness required usually translates to more of stamina than strength - lifting weights in the gym might not help much. Aerobic activities like swimming, cycling, running, brisk walking help. There's no fixed number on this. Someone who runs a 20minute 5km does not translate to a person who wont struggle on the trek. The trek has a lot more than just walking - the weather, the backpack weight, the altitude et al. Hence, the best that can be done is to improve the stamina and deal with the situations as they arise on the slopes.

A typical day:
A normal day on a trek in the Himalayas start off early. Around 8 am you start to trek. The terrain would depend on what part of the Himalayas you are in. The lower Himalayas are green and the terrain might be anything from thick forests to green grasslands. The upper Himalayas are mostly barren deserts. Always carry 2 liters of water while on the hike. Many trails have streams and rivers gushing next to you. Most of these are muddy and might not be suitable for normal drinking. Unless you are sure of a clean water source in between, it might not be a great idea to carry less and struggle later. 

Most of the days end before 3pm - i.e the trekking ends before 3pm. The reason being the unpredictable weather after 3pm. It's always a good idea to be pitching the tents before this time. The evenings/nights are cold. Make sure you have a good sleeping bag and a sleeping mat to insulate you against the cold ground. 

Cost:
  • The guides cost depends on the trails and the popularity of the guides. The typical day charge is anything between INR 1500 to INR 3000 per day. Having multiple people allows for a bargain to be struck. 
  • Porters cost around INR 800-1000 per day.
  • Mules cost around INR 400 per day.
  • Tents cost around INR 300 per day (2 person tents).
  • Going with an agency will make it easier in terms of handling the logistics. But they would charge more/less based on the trails and the number of people involved.

Final thoughts:
Most of what it takes to get your first Himalayan trek is mental fortitude. Many a days you'll feel tired and lost. But the experience is unparalleled. Also, keep in mind that things change in the mountains all the time. The weather might go wrong, some road might get washed away by a landslide, or you might not get a transport which fits your budget - in any case, keep some buffer days. The unpredictability of the mountains is a part of the adventure - the results are quite spectacular as well. 

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