Nothing beats trekking in the mountains. But before you lace your boots up in some exotic destination, you need to make a plan.
What's a trekking expedition?
When does a walk become a trek? A trekking expedition can take many forms but it will involve a journey through a mountainous region for at least two days. It may take in high peaks and passes or be through the lower valleys and plains.
The expedition may be self-supporting, with participants carrying all their own equipment and food, or it may be helped by porters, guides, cooks and pack animals. It could be organised by a group of friends, a club, school, youth group or commercial company. It may have an official (or unofficial) leader, who travelled out with the group or have a local in-country guide.
The first stage in any successful expedition is research. Popular treks will have plenty written about them (and good quality maps will be available in the UK or in-country) but for other areas you'll have to search a variety of sources. For remote areas check the BMC site, Royal Geographical Society, Geography Outdoors (previously the Expedition Advisory Centre) and the Young Explorers Trust. Getting off the beaten track is often a more satisfying trekking experience with more chance of interacting with local people.
One of my best trekking experiences was in the Quimsa Cruz, Bolivia. A two-day journey in small 4x4 vehicles, following poor maps, finally saw us beginning our trek, many miles short of our planned start as the road didn't go as far as we thought. We had to interrupt and eventually play in a football match with local villagers before negotiating some porter and mule support. There was little recorded history of trekking in the region but the locals were happy to help.
Trekking company or DIY?
Your options depend on where you're heading. On a popular trek, like Everest Base Camp, you'll have the full range of options: book a round-trip with a UK operator, book local services in advance via a trekking agency, hire a local guide privately or simply DIY as you go. As you get further off the grid, options will shrink to hiring local services or going it alone.
Choosing the best time of year to go is an important part of your planning. For example, in Nepal March to May will bring clear mornings and the beauty of the spring flowers, but go too early and some high passes may be snowy and challenging. In the summer months of July and August, the monsoon season will give heavy rains and restricted views. While late September and October will often have the clearest views of the mountains, snows in late November close most routes until spring.
Permits and restrictions
You may need to obtain an entry visa prior to travelling; allow plenty of time. To trek in some areas you may also require permits. These may be bought at the 'park gate' – as when entering the Khumbu valley on the way to Everest or may require prior permission, such as Ladakh in India. Be prepared: to obtain these you'll need passport-sized photographs, copies of passports or entry visas and often a cash fee.
In some areas, such as Kilimanjaro National Park, entry visas may be paid for on a day-by-day basis. In that case, more than a hundred dollars per day. This can be a hidden cost to an expedition so it's preferable to include this in the expedition budget and avoid individuals having to pay in-country.
Look carefully when booking with a commercial provider – flights may or may not be included. Always ensure any monies paid are safeguarded and that any booking agents have appropriate security such as ATOL or ABTOT bond.
It's possible to travel to a country and make all your arrangements after you arrive, especially if travelling in a small group. But for larger groups or remote destinations, having the support of an in-country agent can save time and ensure that all runs smoothly. Getting the right agent is crucial to a successful expedition and personal recommendation is by far the best way. Ask previous expeditions who they used.
Your support team may consist of guides or sirdars, cooks, porters, muleteers and a variety of animals: horses, mules, donkeys and yaks. Find out the local rules and guidance on load weight for human or animal transport. Take an interest in your porters, ensuring that they have adequate footwear and clothing for the journey on which you are embarking, and make sure that all animals are well treated.
Fire regulations differ outside the UK. Make sure your team are familiar with any fire exits and have an agreed meeting point. Many hostels will not have fire alarms; take along some battery-powered smoke alarms and ensure the group recognise the sound. During your trek you will often camp and taking camping equipment from the UK ensures its quality: poor tents that leak or have jammed zippers can turn an otherwise perfect journey into a miserable experience. Check the quality of the tents before you start. Taking some zip lube can solve some problems. In some countries, lodges might be used so check exactly what is provided – do you need sleeping bags and toilet rolls?
For many destinations you'll require more than a standard first-aid kit as you may be many days from medical support. Seek out wilderness medicine training courses before you leave the UK. Stock your first aid kit with some basic antibiotics for stomach upsets and drugs such as Diamox for Acute Mountain Sickness. Speak to your GP or find a doctor who has completed the Diploma in Mountain Medicine since they will have a greater understanding of your needs.
At the end of a trek, it's traditional to show your appreciation for the services supplied by tipping your team. Find out what is custom so that you do not under or over tip. For example, in Tanzania the tip for the guide and porters is an expected part of their pay and is at set rates.
Mike Rosser (MIC/IML) has been mountaineering and trekking worldwide for the past 40 years. A past Vice-President of the BMC and Executive Secretary of MLT England, Mike is now Manager of Adventure works, the Youth Division of Climb Trek Ski Ltd.
Q. Are there any qualifications for trekking leaders?
A. For trekking around the world there are two qualifications: the UIMLA InternationalMountain Leader and the IFMGA Mountain Guide. The IML is the qualification to lead parties to all mountain areas, except glaciers or where the techniques of alpinism are required. The Mountain Guide qualification is for leading people anywhere in the mountains.
Q. I'm a keen walker but my partner isn't – can you recommend some good treks for beginners?
A. If someone's not a keen walker then they need a gentle introduction. Most mountainous regions of the world offer treks for all abilities. It's important to think carefully to think carefully about where you want to explore, how far you're willing to travel, what's your budget and what standard of accommodation you'd like. Why not go to an area and do some gentle day-walks in inspiring scenery mixed with some cultural rest days. Then try some multi-day hut-to-hut routes and let natural enthusiasm take over. Slovenia is an ideal beginners' playground: it's got low peaks and a great exchange rate.
Q. What boots do I need for a trek in Nepal?
A. For trekking you need good ankle support and room around the toes for descents. A stiffer sole with a good rocker helps. If you're going in the rainy season you might want a waterproof-lined boot. Don't forget, once you've bought them, it's important to break them in well before heading out. The right sock/ boot combo is also essential – try a few on and see what fits best together; I'm a big fan of Merino wool socks.
Q. Do I need to get trekking fit before I go?
A. The fitter you are, the easier it will feel. Most people can walk for a day with no worries but on treks you usually walk for several days at a time. Try to get yourself as hill fit as possible with long walks, if possible on consecutive days.