The ultimate destination for most tourist must be Nepal, with its iconic collection of the world’s highest mountains. Just typing those words has set my feet itching to be back, daily wandering through an avenue of sky-scratching, eye-dazzling, mind-boggling peaks in a land of yak bells and prayer flags – for all who love mountains are incurable dreamers.
But to get the most out of any mountain trip, let alone one to the Himalaya, it’s essential to make adequate preparations – physically, mentally and in terms of equipment – whether you plan to stay in hotels, lodges or trek with an organised group using tents.
The need to be physically fit is obvious. Couch potatoes beware; there’s an awful lot of uphill involved in trekking in Nepal, so the more effort you put into getting in shape before taking that flight to Kathmandu, the more you will benefit along the trail. It’s not speed you’re after, but rather an increase in stamina that can be achieved by building up your aerobic threshold and stimulating the cardiovascular system. Begin the build-up months (not days) before you go; make physical exercise a habit, and you’ll not regret it.
The need to be physically fit, however, is insufficient alone to ensure a happy, fulfilling trek. For the first-time trekker, it’s perhaps more important to be mentally tuned – to have the right attitude to deal with the hundred and one unexpected incidents that crowd each day when you’re on unfamiliar territory and come face to face with an alien culture. What is required is commitment, and a positive attitude when things go wrong (as they surely will). Unexpected bad weather, schedules that go awry, poor standards of hygiene, a dose of Kathmandu Quickstep, and realising that reality is not always reflected in an adventure travel company’s brochure photos – all these things can ruin your trek if you allow them to. Resign yourself to the fact that things will not be the same as they are at home; and let that difference be one of your prime reasons for going to Nepal. Let your mind roam free from unnecessary concerns, then you can gather the harvest of experiences on offer. Even the worst of these can be an enrichment.
Since there’s more to trekking in Nepal than simply walking among big mountains, do read in advance all you can about the culture of the region you plan to visit. Follow the basic rules to avoid giving unintended offence to those whom you meet, and you’ll come to appreciate that you may have more to learn from those whose country you trek through, than they have from you. The West does not have all the answers to living in harmony, and trekking among the high mountains of Nepal can be an education in more ways than one. If you let it.
What about gear? Well, I’m no gear freak and find myself mystified by the vast range of outdoor equipment available, so I adopt a simple approach. Look to the essentials, get them right, and you’ll be fine. So what are the essentials? Boots, of course, are number one. Choose a pair that are light, fit well, and will be comfortable throughout the weeks of uphill and downhill trails. Don’t take an old pair with soles as smooth as ballet shoes, for you’ll need plenty of grip.
If your trek itinerary takes you above 3000 metres (10,000ft), you will probably need a down jacket and a good four-seasons sleeping bag – especially if you are trekking in the post-monsoon season (from October on), when night-time temperatures can fall well below freezing. (I stayed in a Gokyo lodge on the way to Everest one night, when the temperature in my room fell to -16°C.) Note, however, that sleeping bags and down jackets are usually available for hire in Kathmandu, so if your trek to Nepal is intended to be a one-off (they rarely are), you can save the expense of buying cold-weather gear at home by renting on arrival in Nepal.
If you’re planning an independent trek with just a local guide, using lodges for accommodation, you’ll need a rucksack large enough to contain spare clothing, sleeping bag, water bottle, etc. But if you’re trekking with a group, with the support of a crew, a day sack will be sufficient, for your main gear will be packed in a kitbag or holdall, and carried by a porter. Most trekking companies provide a kitbag for their clients, but if you intend to have your own, make sure you choose one that is robust and with a good, strong, full-length zip.
Finally, a word of warning: trekking is addictive, and ‘the trek of a lifetime’ often turns out to be just the first of many. Now where did I put my passport…?