Trekking tips for beginners
According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, trekking is defined as:
The activity of walking long distances on foot for pleasure.
It’s this “pleasure” part we want to help you with. We assume, as a human being, you’re pretty well acquainted with putting one foot in front of the other, otherwise known as walking. And with a little effort and training, scaling it up to cover longer distances isn’t out of your reach either. But to ensure that a trek doesn’t become a slog, we’ve put together this beginners guide. After all, our mission is to inspire and enable more people to walk with nature. So we want you to enjoy your time out there.
Prepare your body
Yes, you can walk. But can you walk several days in a row, with a backpack, on uneven, undulating terrain all the while not enjoying a good rest in your own bed at night? With good preparation the answer is yes. Without it, hmm, perhaps not.
- Walk with a backpack (that’s comfortable and fits properly).
- Break-in your hiking boots.
- Try using poles – they take pressure off your knees going up and down hill.
- Walk long distances on back-to-back days.
- Walk regularly.
Choose a suitable trail
Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Corsica’s GR20 or the Everest Base Camp Trek maybe aren’t what we’d call beginner trails. Not saying that you couldn’t accomplish them. But, to maximise enjoyment and minimise mishaps and misery, we’d say go for something a little less intimidating for your first long-distance trek.
- If you don’t want to lug around a tent, sleeping bag and camp stove, then hut-to-hut trekking is a better option. Pros: lighter backpack, sleep in a bed, no need to cook your own food. Cons: you must get to your daily destination, lack of privacy and no Instagram-worthy view-from-the-tent-at-sunrise images.
- Walking 10km in the city is one thing. Covering the same distance on the trail is entirely different. While you may be able to walk at 5-6km/hr in a flat, urban environment, you should expect to walk at around 3-4km/hr on the trail – slower if it’s really undulating.
- Speaking of undulating, when choosing a trail look for the height gain and loss in metres. Easier trails will have less gain and loss as they will be flatter. More challenging trails will incur larger height gains and losses.
- The first two days and the last day are the hardest – mentally and physically. After a few days you’ll get into the swing of things. So short isn’t always better. You can always add in rest days if you’d like to be out longer.
A daily distance of 15-20km on flattish terrain is what we suggest for beginners doing hut-to-hut treks. If you’re camping, you will want to take more breaks, so 12-17km is more realistic. As soon as you start adding hills and mountains 10-15km is a better goal.
Plan, plan, plan
Read guidebooks, use online forums, ask that friend that’s trekked through India. Get acquainted with maps. You cannot rely on your mobile phone’s GPS working at all times.
Think about this
- Choose your trekking season wisely (winter is not ideal for beginners). Too much rain can lead to local flooding, trail closures and soggy camp grounds. Too hot and you’ll feel tired and need to drink litres and litres of water. Summer time usually means longer days, but hotter, dryer conditions in most places. Thunder and lightning is also more common. Oh, and watch out for monsoon seasons in the tropics. And always, always do a last minute weather check before you go. It might mean you have to change your plans or even cancel, but it’s better than being caught out in a storm.
- Plan where you’re going to sleep, take breaks, fill your water bottle. Have plan Bs for all of these. Mark them directly on your map so you can see where the next rest stop is in relation to your position. You don’t want to be trekking in the dark or confused about which trail to take.
We can’t stress enough how important your clothing is to your welfare and general trek enjoyment.
We recommend following the layering principle
- Base layer – preferably made from fine wool such as merino. Long sleeved and long legged.
- Mid layer – t-shirt, preferably quick drying either lightweight synthetic or wool (wool is a temperature regulator, helping to keep you both warm and cool) & trousers – preferably a pair you can zip off into shorts.
- Insulation layer – a down or synthetic insulation jacket depending on the conditions. (Down is lighter and extremely warming, but synthetic is better when trekking in damp conditions.)
- Shell layer – a rain jacket and trousers with a high level of waterproofness and breathability.
- Cap, beanie, gloves, wool socks and a zip-up fleece jacket or sweater.
Then just wrap up or peel off layers as necessary. Remember, when you stop don’t wait until you’re cold to add a layer. Then it’s too late. Put that extra layer on before you start to shiver. And try to avoid excessive sweating. Sweaty arm pits are normal when trekking; but a soaking wet back is not – you’re wearing too many layers. Either slow down and rest or take off a layer.
- This means you need to get enough sleep to feel rested the next day.
- You need to treat sore skin before it becomes a blister.
- You need to drink enough water to stay hydrated – that 2lt rule isn’t enough when trekking. You’ll need to, at least, double this and in hot conditions you’ll need even more.
- In some places, the water may not be drinkable as it is. You’ll need a water purification method. There are lots on the market and prices vary greatly. But tablets are fine in most cases.
- Use sun protection cream or spray, even if it’s overcast. (Spray is easier to apply, so better if you’re hiking alone.)
- Rehydration salts are never a bad idea. They can also add a little flavour to your water.
- Eat plenty and eat well. Yes a Snickers is great for energy (and it’s so tasty), but pasta, nuts, beans and vegetables are necessary too. Dried/cured meats and hard cheeses are good ways to add flavour and lots of calories without too much weight.
- Take a first-aid kit, including (but not confined to) pain killers, plasters, bandages, anti-inflammatory medication, Imodium, anti-histamine cream or spray, compression bandages and a small pair of scissors and a knife.
Rest, refuel, rehydrate
Short but frequent breaks are best when long-distance trekking, with a slightly longer rest for lunch. We recommend taking five minutes every hour. During this time sit down, take off your boots and backpack, put on your jacket, sip some water and snack on some food. Avoid big meals during shorter breaks and don’t guzzle down the entire litre of water in your bottle. If you’re that hungry and thirsty you need to think about taking a longer rest to recuperate your body a little.
Plan to trek for no more than six hours per day. And get an early start. You don’t want to be rushing to get to your destination before dark.
Enjoy yourself but respect others
So that trekking remains a wonderful experience for all, there are a few little rules of etiquette you should follow:
- Give way to hikers coming up hill.
- Leave no trace – if you take it in, you should also take it out. Litter and rubbish isn’t just unsightly, it’s harmful to flora and fauna.
- Hikers should give way to bikers; both should give way to horses.
- You may be overwhelmed by that view, but you don’t need to scream about it. And nobody, I repeat, nobody, likes that group of hikers over there in that tent that think playing loud music until 3am is a good idea!
- Respect wildlife and don’t approach or feed animals.
- Keep to the marked trail as much as possible to avoid erosion.
- The trail is there to be shared. So hike single file when in a group.
- Dogs should be kept on a lead.
- If the call of wild strikes, walk roughly 50-75m from the trail to do your business. Bury waste, including toilet paper.
That’s it! Now it’s time to get out and fall in love with long-distance trekking. We’ll see you out there.