My experience on trekking independently (without guides or porters)

I am writing this blog post to share my good/bad experiences while hiking in the Himalayas on my own. I hope it’ll be of some help in planning your trek.

How it all started for me

When I chose Chandrashila Peak to be my first trek way back in 2012, I wasn’t even aware that one could hire guides and porters for a trek. I had come across some pictures of the trek on the internet and it left me mesmerized. From whatever research I did, I concluded that this trek can be done on my own. Even my friends were not interested, so I decided to go solo. And just like that, the next day I ended up buying a truckload of equipment for the trek, some of which I didn’t even need! Anyways, so I stuffed a tent, sleeping bag, mat, utensils, fuel, stove, food, clothes, toiletries, tripod, camera, etc. in my 80L backpack and headed for Chandrashila trek. After dragging almost 20kgs of weight on this trek along with me, I realized I actually did not need to carry anything on this trek, except clothes and camera! Almost everything is available everywhere on this trek. And hence, my lessons on independent trekking began from my first trek itself, and it continues till this date.

I have received hundreds of messages over the years from enthusiasts looking for advice on trekking independently in the Himalayas. So I thought of writing the pros and cons of independent trekking and also some advice on planning one. If you still have any questions, feel free to get in touch.

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Pros of trekking independently or solo:

  • You decide your own itinerary and dates: More the people on the trek, more the opinions to consider. I usually like to have just 1-2 more people around me as my trek mates. This way, we are free to change itineraries and campsites at will without wasting much time.
  • Enjoy a more peaceful campsite: This point could be subjective, but I personally feel that more than 5-6 people at any given campsite can feel crowded. I choose to trek to get away from people and be one with nature. Trekking with a big group of people, or having a team of porters and guides with you, can take away the peace and tranquility on a trek, at least for me.
  • Turns out to be cheaper: When you don’t hire guides or porters, the total cost of the trek is obviously much lesser than when you hire them. But at the same time, I have spent money on my gear like tents, sleeping bags, stoves etc. which I wouldn’t have, had I hired guides and porters.
  • Lesser carbon footprint: When you trek in a group, you leave a larger carbon footprint on the trail. While trekking independently, you don’t have the need for mules or porters to carry your luggage. Lesser the people on the trail, lesser the damage to the delicate ecology of the mountains.
  • Fewer responsibilities: I may be acting little selfish here, but I am very selective about who I choose to trek with. If you are trekking solo or have a partner who is as prepared for the trail as you are, then you don’t have to worry about trek mates lagging behind or giving up when the going gets tough. If your partner/s can’t continue, neither can you.
  • A greater sense of accomplishment: When you trek without guides or porters, and most importantly when you do complete it, you will feel a greater sense of achievement compared to someone who did it with everything organized and taken care of. I have been tested constantly on the trail which has only helped me to push my own limits further everytime. It is an extremely humbling experience when you complete a trek after much sweat and toil.

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Cons of trekking independently or solo:

  • Higher risk factor: If something unfortunate happens on the trail to you or your partner, for example, an injury or someone falls sick, or you lose the trail, then it can have grave consequences depending upon how isolated the trek is. If it is not a well-frequented trail, then having guides and porters around you can really help in case something goes wrong.
  • You need to be fitter than an average person: If you want to take independent trekking seriously, then you need to take your fitness seriously too. If you have been leading a sedentary lifestyle, it will not be easy for you to haul your heavy backpack up the mountain, and also have the energy to recee the campsite, pitch your tent, and cook meals before you finally get a chance to rest for the day.
  • Wildlife encounters: It is a well-known fact that wild animals in the Himalayas (elsewhere too) keep away from crowded places. So when you are trekking in a big group, the Bears and Leopards of the forest tend to keep their distance from you. I haven’t had any close encounters with them, but I believe they will be less afraid of a lone person hiking on the trail. 🙂
  • Quality of meals at the campsite: If there is one thing that I’ve envied the most about organized trekking, it’s the fresh delectable food that they get at their campsites. While hiking independently, we have to make do with processed and ready-to-eat food.

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What to keep in mind while planning an independent or solo trek:

Here I’ll be sharing some of my personal experiences that I’ve gathered after trekking on my own. Hopefully, it will help you in making fewer mistakes on the trail:

  • Choose your trek carefully: If this is your first time, choose a trail that is well frequented by trekkers and locals during the season you are planning for. Few examples could be Triund, Chandrashila Peak, Prashar Lake and Kheerganga. Go for one of these treks and carry your own equipment. This way you will understand where you stand. If it gets exhausting for you, or you don’t have any energy left to pitch your tent and cook food after a day’s trek, then you know you need to work on your fitness.
  • Do a thorough research on the trail: Try to read every blog/information/map about the trek on the internet before you embark on it. You should know which campsites you will be halting at, what time to start, how much you will be walking every day, what milestones to look out for, villages en route, etc.
  • Try not to get lost!: While choosing longer and isolated treks, I try to figure out if any organized trekking group/company is doing the same trek on the same dates. This way I follow the group at a distance to ensure I don’t take the wrong trail. For example, YHAI organizes a trek to Sar Pass every summer where a batch of 50 people leaves Kasol every single day for roughly 40 straight days. In case of Dayara Bugyal trek, hundreds of villagers trek from Barsu to the Bugyal to celebrate Anduri, a butter Holi festival during mid-August. Time your trek in such a way that you find these trekkers/villagers on the trail.
  • Pack only what is essential: Lugging weight more than you can handle can take away all the fun from trekking. Be very selective about what you bring with you on a trek. Packing in 3-4 pairs of pants and shirts, or a heavy portable charger or a make-up kit for a trek doesn’t make sense. Also, invest in better light-weight equipment like tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, stove etc.
  • Start early and end early: Always begin trekking early in the morning so that you have plenty of daylight to reach your next campsite. But most importantly, always be wary of how much ground is left to be covered. For example, if it’s about to get dark, and you are lagging behind your schedule and still hours away from your next campsite, keep a lookout for potential and safe campsites where you could spend the night if necessary.
  • Keep a turn-around time limit: If you have a long day of trekking (over 10 hours) ahead of you and you are trying to summit a peak or make a day excursion, keep a time limit in mind where you turn around no matter where you are in case you haven’t reached your end destination. To explain this better, let’s assume I want to do Lama Dugh meadows trek in one day instead of the usual 2-day itinerary. In this case, since I will be covering substantial ground in one day, I will keep for myself a turn-around time. For example, I will start early from Manali and if I don’t reach Lama Dugh by 2 PM, I will turn around to return to Manali no matter how close I am to the meadows. Point of this is to not be on the trail when the sun sets, for it’s much easier to lose your way in total darkness.
  • Inform someone of your travel plans: Do keep your friends/family informed of your plans. Share a copy of your itinerary with them and also any diversions that you plan to take. God forbid if anything goes wrong on the trail and you are unreachable, they can inform the concerned authorities.
  • Take your fitness seriously: I used to have a very sedentary lifestyle before I started hiking. But the inspiration from trekking was such that I decided to take fitness seriously. If you haven’t conditioned yourself for the hardships on the trail, your trek can easily turn into a miserable slog you wished you never came for.
  • Be attentive on the trail: So so important! Always be aware of what surrounds you. At all times be on a lookout for any alternative trails around you, rocks with directions written on them, cairns on passes, etc. Do not listen to music on your headphones while walking on the trail. For all you know someone is trying to call you from a distance to warn you of some danger ahead, or you could miss the howling and grunting of wild animals.
  • Always keep a lookout for water sources: You will be drinking a LOT of water while trekking and you should. Keep a constant lookout for any water sources on the trail while trekking and also at the campsite. Do not take water for granted while trekking. Also, remember that there will be fewer water sources in winters as most get frozen. Secondly, water in plastic bottles will turn into ice overnight during winters, hence carry aluminum water bottles with you.
  • Do your cooking away from the campsite: When you decide to cook your meals, do so at least 100 feet away from the campsite. The smell of food can attract Bears, Foxes, and Leopards in the night when everyone is sleeping. Take extra care of this point especially when you are the only person camping in that area or in a small group.
  • Do not underestimate nature: Nature does not play games. It is as ruthless as it is beautiful. Respect nature and be well prepared for anything that it can throw at you. If the weather seems to be turning bad just before you start your trek, there is no shame in canceling it! Come back next time when the conditions are more favorable. The mountains will always be right there!
  • Take good care of your equipment: When you’ve decided to take up independent trekking, you will need to take extra care of your equipment. Your backpack will bear the heavy load for years to come, your tent will keep you safe in the unpredictable weather of the mountains, your sleeping bag will keep you warm in the night and your shoes will help you cover hundreds of miles on the trail. Take care of them and they will take care of you. 🙂

I hope this blog turns out to be of at least some help for you. If you think I’m missing any points, please do share and I will add them here. Please feel free to get in touch with me via my Instagram handle @mountain.affair or mail me at karankapur.pe@gmail.com in case you have any questions.

Cheers!

 

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