A Beginners Guide to Hiking: Lessons Learnt by a First Time Trekker Traversing the Himalayas
Expertise in anything is gained slowly; eked out from years of practice and experience before one achieves eventual mastery of a chosen discipline. Dedication to the perfection of a craft affords one a degree of authority, the ability to bestow knowledge on others based on lessons learned over the years.
The information contained here does not come from this type of authority. I am no expert at hiking. In fact, hoisting my flabby haunches from the couch to grab some food from the fridge was what I previously considered a workout. This guide instead comes from jumping headfirst into an endeavour far beyond my physical limits and capabilities, and surviving to reflect on what I could have done to make things easier. This advice comes from lessons learnt the hard way, the painful way, and is offered so that you don’t need to repeat the same mistakes I did when your start to hike.
There is something magical about waking up and experiencing a sunrise in the great outdoors, far from the maddening crowds and suburban sprawl of cities, mountains and valleys stretching out as far as the eye can see. And whilst taking on the mountainous peaks of Nepal may not be an ideal introduction to trekking for everyone, there are some fundamental rules to follow to ensure you make it to the end of your trek safe and comfortable no matter what type of trek you’re embarking on.
Consider Trekking With a Friend
Whilst taking off on your own whenever you feel like is one of the joys of trekking, there is also an argument in favour of trekking with company. Travelling with a friend or a group motivates you during the more difficult moments, provides someone to chat to whilst you’re out on the trail and means you have assistance if something goes wrong. If you do prefer to take on the elements solo, make sure to tell someone where you are going and advise them when you reach your destination. The missing posters on the side of the Annapurna trail are a sombre reminder that things can go terribly wrong when people take to the mountains on their own.
When you’re already hauling your own bodyweight as well as water, snacks and other equipment up a mountain, it makes sense to not be carrying a whole lot of unnecessary gear. Excess weight is your enemy, so be ruthless. Ask yourself if you really want that extra t-shirt or a fourth pair of socks. You’d be surprised at how little you really need for a multi-day hike.
Packing light doesn’t mean you should skimp on essentials, however. There are many areas where the temperature can plummet once the sun goes down, so make sure you have adequate protection from the elements. Each circumstance is different, but a night spent shivering in an uninsulated cabin was enough to convince me that a sleeping bag was in fact a worthwhile addition to my pack.
Don’t Skimp on Your Footwear
As with most things in life, you get what you pay for, and outdoor gear is no different. Make sure you invest some time into getting yourself some decent hiking boots or shoes. Throughout my trek there were days where we were walking for nine hours straight, and whilst there is always going to be a degree of discomfort when you’re on the trail for extended periods, a sockful of blisters is never fun.
It’s also important to make sure you wear in your footwear before taking on any significant treks by allowing your feet the time to adjust to the boots. This not only moulds the shoe to your feet to prevent rubbing and discomfort, but also conditions the foot for walking.
Know Your Limits
If you’re looking to tackle a significant hike, it’s important to prime the body. The conditioning I engaged in for my three week hike took the form of smoking ridiculous amounts of cigarettes and drinking liberally during the previous month across Asia. It’s fair to say that this did not do me any favours.
It’s not necessary to train like a professional athlete to start hiking, but it is important to have a frank assessment of your level of physical fitness. If you’re new to trekking and out of shape, tackling a huge peak in unmapped wilderness is a pretty foolish idea. Start slow and build your level of fitness, and before you know it you’ll be able to take on even the most significant hikes.
It’s important to stretch muscles prior to engaging in any physical activity to prevent soreness and avoid injury. Both before and after a hike, try out some leg swings as well as calf, hamstring and quad stretches. Pre-exercise not only warms up the muscles, but also increases circulation, heart rate, flexibility and performance.
Pack a Snack
Prolonged periods of exercise burn a lot of calories and dehydrate the body. You should make sure you’ve got enough water (experts suggest 1 litre of water per hour) with you on the trail as well as something to help replenish some of the energy you’re burning. Fruit, nuts and trail mix are great ways to refuel whilst you’re trekking, and provide long lasting energy. It’s also a good idea to bring some salty snacks as you can lose a significant amount of salt through sweating. When both of my legs cramped up at the same time, it was the salty goodness of a packet of chips that got me back to my feet and through the day.
Protect Your Joints
When I was told that the only thing harder than going uphill was heading downhill, I scoffed. Days of trekking uphill had pulverized my legs and a leisurely downhill jaunt seemed the perfect way to take some of the pressure off my calves and quads. Turns out ‘they’ were right. Heading downhill puts enormous pressure on your knees and ankles, so it’s important to make it as easy as possible on those joints. Try taking small steps to minimize the impact and consider the use of a knee brace and a trekking pole. These can help alleviate some of the pressure placed on the knees whilst hiking down the trail and avoid stiffness, soreness and potentially more long term damage.
Carry a First Aid Kit
Any accident victim across the world will tell you that things go wrong — and whilst you may not be able to prevent every accident, you should at least be equipped to deal with situations as they arise. A properly equipped medical kit and knowledge of how to use its components is a critical step in staying safe on the trail. One of our group across the trek had a nasty fall that required extensive strapping of his ankle. Without strapping tape and bandages, it’s likely he wouldn’t have been able to continue the journey.