Trekking in the wilderness – where you’re far from the noises of the city and the demands of daily life – is one of the best experiences you’ll ever have. Trekking broadens your horizons and challenges you, not only physically but in other ways too, as it often takes you out of your comfort zone. We highly recommend giving trekking a go, but we also recommend you ease your way into it safely and sensibly. With this in mind, we present you with our top trekking tips for beginners!
But first, a quick disambiguation. Let’s clarify the differences between trekking and hiking (in case you were wondering). Then we’ll dive into the tips themselves.
Hiking vs trekking
Hiking refers to a long journey on foot with the purpose of enjoying the challenge and the scenery. A walk in nature that lasts just for one day or part of a day is generally referred to as a hike. Trekking, like hiking, refers to a long journey on foot with the purpose of enjoying the challenge and the scenery. In some ways the two words are synonymous, though trekking usually refers to walking in a remote area, while you can go hiking in just about any location. Trekking also tends to be more arduous. And finally, when you talk about walking a trail for many back-to-back days, you tend to refer to that as trekking.
Right, now it’s time for the tips!
We’ve grouped our trekking tips for beginners into the following categories:
Planning involves considering things like where and when you’ll go trekking. We guide you in the process below to make it less daunting.
1. Pick an introductory route
By this we mean pick a reasonably easy trekking route. Your early treks should be about getting familiar with long-distance, multi-day hiking. Focus on building your strength, getting used to your pack and knowing what to pack. Consider which route can serve as an ‘introductory’ route.
- Choose a route with minimal elevation gain, which is to say choose one that’s reasonably flat so you don’t freak out your body and mind by tackling something overwhelming
- Don’t go for a route that takes you into extreme weather – not only will this require possible very expensive equipment that you don’t yet have, but it will also tax you physically and mentally in a way that you should perhaps build towards
- Don’t go for extreme terrain, like a very rocky path or one with tons of scree.
2. Choose your season carefully
Trekking often takes you into extreme terrain, such as mountainous territory with snow and glaciers, or deserts with fierce winds and intense heat. You’ll need to do your research thoroughly before choosing when in the year to go. Often winter isn’t the best time, but it all depends on where in the world you are. In some places, spring means a miserable world of flies, midges and other critters. So yes, research is essential.
Firstly, you want to choose a safe season in terms of things like blizzards or possible landslides from water-clogged ground. Not only could such seasonal hazards make your trek unsafe, they could also lead to authorities closing certain paths or parks, which can derail your entire trip.
Check the weather forecast just before heading out.
Trekking often takes you into remote places with little or no cellphone connectivity, few to no people, and few to no services. If you come across trouble of any sort, help isn’t nearby. So you need to be sensible – choose a safe season and head out only if the weather forecast is amenable.
Research any water crossings
Some treks involve a river crossing or two. If it’s a tidal river, then you might well need to cross at low tide, or things could get very wet, even rather hairy. So you may well need to set your starting time for the day in accordance with when you need to arrive at the river for the crossing.
3. Tell someone when and where you’re going
It’s important that someone outside of the trekking party knows exactly when and where you’re trekking. Often this is imposed on you whether you like it or not by park authorities, who make you sign the park register. At other times, the onus is on you to ensure you sign the mountain register. Never, ever forget to do this, as this is what’s used by authorities to assess if anyone is missing and send out a search party. If you’re trekking in unmonitored wilderness, it’s even more vital that you let someone know exactly where you’re going. But we don’t recommend heading into such terrain as a novice. Better that you stick to a well-marked trail in a properly monitored park or reserve.
Linked to this is the necessity of sticking to the stated itinerary and trail. This isn’t your daily jog where a spontaneous detour along that intriguing path to the left is a good idea.
4. Try slackpacking before trekking with a rucksack
We recommend your first few treks be slackpacking adventures. This means you carry just a daypack and have someone else transport the bulk of your belongings. Carrying a heavy rucksack filled with your clothes, food, cooking equipment and camping materials just makes your trek that much harder and more daunting. You want to ease yourself into trekking, not be whacked over the head with the practicalities, rigour and expense of doing it all yourself.
Use the services of a porter
A common service along many trekking routes around the world is porters. We highly recommend using a porter if one is available. Not only do porters literally take a load off you, which as a beginner trekker is a massive help, but in many regions this is an important means of employment.
When trekking in Nepal, for instance, porters are standard practice. Sometimes they carry your packs themselves, other times they make use of pack animals like yaks. When you climb Mt Kilimanjaro, you actually have no choice but to use porters. This is partly because no one person can carry all that they need, given that even drinking water for the week must be carried with you. Another reason is that it’s mandated by the Kilimanjaro National Park Authority.
5. Research national and park permits
Most parks and reserves require you to pay an entry fee of some sort. Some countries also require travellers to pay a fee. The important thing is to do your homework and know what costs to expect. Also find out if these must be paid beforehand or in person, and if you need to pay in cash.
One of the perks of going on a trek with a reputable tour operator is that they deal with such details and admin for you. At Follow Alice, for instance, we work all necessary park and government fees and permits into our tour package price. This way you don’t have to worry about any surprise costs. We also acquire the permits on your behalf to save you the extra admin.
6. Choose your fellow trekkers carefully
Going on a trek with experienced friends or family is a great plus as you can look to them for guidance in both the planning and execution of the trip. Obviously don’t go on a trek with that uncle who thinks everything is a competition. Rather choose people, if possible, who will be encouraging and patient with you.
If you go with a company, research them well. Are they experienced in leading trekking tours? Is the trek guide trained in first aid? A good idea is to read independent reviews of the company before choosing them. Let the organiser know that you’re a novice trekker and would like extra assistance and advice in the lead up as well as during the trek itself.
7. Make a checklist
Every seasoned trekker has a checklist they work through diligently before heading off on a trek. A good checklist should include a to-do list as well as a packing list. The to-do list will include items like checking on park permits and looking up the weather forecast. You’ll add to and improve this checklist with time, eventually developing your own fine-tuned list.
Naturally, the fitter and stronger you are, the easier any trek will be. If you’re taking on your first multi-day trek, then we highly recommend putting in some focused physical training beforehand. Trekking involves challenges beyond just physical endurance, so the more you can reduce the physical challenge, the better. You’ll then be able to focus on any other challenges as well as simply enjoying the experience.
8. Do some preparation hikes
Trekking requires strength and stamina. Naturally, the best physical preparation for trekking is doing exactly what you’ll be doing on the trek itself: hiking. If you can do some preparation hikes in the lead up to your trek, you’ll be doing yourself a world of service.
As much as you can, walk the same sort of terrain in your prep hikes that you’ll cover on the trek itself. Also try to walk the same number of hours that you’re likely to cover on the average trek day.
Ideally, start your preparation hikes at least two months before the trek.
9. Train with your backpack
Your preparation hikes should ideally mimic the trekking conditions as much as possible. This means things like wearing the backpack you’ll be using on the trek. Even better, fill the backpack with the items you’ll be taking on the trek. This way you’ll not only get used to the weight of it all, but you’ll also quickly discern if anything is unnecessary, or there’s something you’re missing. Further to this, you’ll be able to determine if your backpack is comfortable and suited to the task.
Look for a rucksack or backpack with wide shoulder straps as these distribute the weight better. You don’t want thin straps digging into your shoulders as you trek. You also want padded hip belts, especially with a rucksack. These let you carry some of the weight on your hips – a must! We also recommend a pack with multiple compartments besides the main bin. This makes it easy to store and find things. When it comes to the pack’s fabric, polyester or very strong nylon works well. You should also look for a pack that has a netted back panel, as this allows your body heat to escape.
10. Train in your hiking boots
Similarly, you want to train in the boots and socks you’ll be wearing on the trek. Again, this is about checking that everything is comfortable and suitable. For instance, finding out that your sock seam is uncomfortable or that your boots are sponges on a low-stakes hike is far better than discovering this on the trek when there’s nothing you can do about it.
If you plan to buy new boots, some advice on find the right fit is in order. Put on your intended hiking socks, then slip your feet into the boots. Leaving the laces untied, push your feet as far forward as they’ll go. Then insert an index finger between your heel and the back of the boot. You want your finger to fit in snugly (too much space and the shoe is too big, too little space and the shoe is too small). Also, about 60% of people have differently sized feet, so always try on both the left and right boots.
11. Hike on back-to-back days
Speaking of mimicking the trek conditions, try to fit in some back-to-back hiking days as part of your physical prep. Consecutive days of trekking can place strain on the body. So you want to build up your body’s strength and stamina in this regard.
If you’re reading this blog post because you’re thinking about tackling Kilimanjaro one day, you might like to read How should I train for Kilimanjaro?
Clothing and gear
Let’s now discuss the items that need to go on the trek with you …
12. Wear broken in shoes and socks
Hiking boots are generally better than hiking shoes, as the former offers more ankle support, has thicker tread, and has a more durable fabrication. But depending on the terrain you’ll be trekking, hiking shoes might be sufficient. As to socks, ensure you have ones warm enough for the climate in which you’ll be trekking. You might also like to consider wearing sock liners or two pairs of socks at once to help reduce the chances of blistering. As discussed in Tip #10, you want to wear both socks and shoes that you already know to be comfortable on long hikes. A good rule of thumb for breaking in hiking shoes is to traverse 100 km in them before the two of you head off on a trek.
13. Bring gaiters
A gaiter is a lower leg covering that extends over the top of your shoes and then ends somewhere below your knee. They can be made from various fabrics, though a popular choice is a waterproof gaiter. Wearing gaiters on a trek has a few benefits, like:
- keeping dirt and small stones out of your socks and shoes
- Keeping water and mud at bay (if waterproof)
- protecting you from cuts and rashes caused by thorns, serrated plants and other nasties
- protecting you from snake bites
If you’re worried about snakes, try to remember this saying: “First one wakes it. Second one annoys it. Third one gets it.” So it’s best to not walk third in line. 😃
14. Pack waterproof gear
We’ve mentioned waterproof gaiters, buf of course no trekker should head out the gate without a few other waterproof essentials, namely a rain jacket, waterproof overpants, and a backpack cover. A rain jacket that doubles as a windbreaker can be a great asset. Note that you can also buy a waterproof backpack. Ideally your hiking boots should be waterproof as well. If not, try to ensure they’re at least water-resistant.
15. Wear layers
When trekking, you want to layer your clothes. This is partly for warmth and comfort, partly so you can strip or add layers piecemeal. The layers you need are as follows:
- An inner layer (think thermal long-sleeved vest and leggings)
- A middle layer (this would be your short and shorts or trousers)
- An outer layer (like a fleece jacket, beanie and gloves)
- A waterproof layer
The specifics of your layers depends greatly on the climate where you’ll be trekking. The clothing requirements for a snowy trek in the mountains are, naturally, far different from those of a warm coastal trek. We offer far more detail about what clothes to pack for high-altitude treks in our blog posts Kilimanjaro packing list, Everest Base Camp packing list and Annapurna circuit packing list.
16. Pack light
Whether the bulk of your belongings are to be carried by you or a porter, you want to keep things to a minimum and pack light. Don’t skimp on essentials, but also accept that you won’t be wearing a fresh set of clothing every day. Certain items, like a fleece jacket, will do hard duty and be smelly at the end of the trek – don’t fret about it, everyone smells. Other essential items might include medications, toiletries and high-energy snacks (unless these can be bought along the trail).
Walking the trail
You might think trekking is just about putting one foot in front of another. What else is there possibly to know? Well, yes, at its most basic, trekking is walking. But there’s also a little more to it. Here are a handful of tips that can make the act of trekking that much safer, easier and kinder to your body..
17. Get an early start
It’s best to start your day’s trekking early. It’s decidedly un-fun worrying you won’t make your destination before darkness falls. As a beginner trekker, aim to walk for no more than six hours per day. You don’t want to push yourself too hard.
18. Take a 5- to 10-minute break every hour
It’s important to take regular rests. This applies to beginner trekkers just as much as seasoned ones. Remember that trekking is a marathon, not a race. You’re in it for the overall experience, so take things slowly, and rest often. And as trekking is a team effort, you should endeavour to go at the pace of the slowest person. Don’t be the person who sets off after a break the moment the slowest soul catches up!
19. Take long strides on flats, short steps on inclines
There will be times on a trek when the going is easy, and you trot along happily, thinking little about what you’re doing. Wonderful! But for those times when the going is tough and fatigue is setting in, you’d do well to employ a little strategy in your steps. When walking along a flat route, try to extend your stride just a little. It also helps to swing your arms a little more determinedly. And then on ascents and descents, shorten your steps a little. This will reduce the impact of the step on the downhill, and reduce your fatigue on the uphill. Also try to keep a relatively even use of each leg on big uphill steps.
20. Wear your pack correctly
Don’t risk short- or long-term discomfort (or even an injury) by wearing your backpack or rucksack incorrectly. If you have waist straps – which a good pack should have – then ensure they’re sitting on your hips properly to take some of the load off your shoulders.
You also need to ensure the contents in your pack or rucksack or evenly distributed, so you’re not lopsided. You also don’t want the pack pulling you backwards.
21. Try using trekking poles
Trekking poles are great at helping you to stabilise yourself on uneven terrain. They also can help cushion the impact on your knees on steep or long descents. They’re not intended for hooking the backpack in front of you when you’re struggling to get the person’s attention. If you already have ski poles, use these instead of forking out for trekking poles. That said, one of the nice things about quality trekking poles is that they can be collapsed for easy storage, and can also be lengthened or shortened to suit your frame.
22. Look after your eyes and skin
It’s important to protect your eyes and skin while trekking. For your eyes, this means wearing sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection. This is especially important when trekking near water (to avoid the glare) or in snow (to avoid snow blindness – a real thing!).
Protect your skin by covering up, wearing a sun hat or cap with a wide brim, and using a sunscreen with a high SPF factor. Remember that the higher the elevation, the stronger the solar rays. So even if you’re bundled up against the cold and snow on a high-altitude trek with only your nose and cheeks exposed, that very same nose and cheeks are in danger of being burned. A spray sunscreen is often easiest as it can be reapplied without needing to first clean your hands.
23. Bring your camera
Obviously you want to capture some of the beauty and special moments of the trek. So don’t forget your camera. But even better is assigning one person in your trekking group to take pics. There’s no need for five cameras to emerge when you spot a duiker in the clearing – why not let the most skilled photographer among you capture the sight, and the rest of you just stay present in the moment?
24. Stick to the path
It’s important to stick to the marked trail when trekking. Not only should you do this as a safety precaution, but it’s also about conservation. Stepping off the trail could harm fragile flora and potentially upset the ecosystem. We want to keep our literal human footprints to a minimum!
You also want to stick to the trail from a safety point of view. Firstly, stepping off the trail increases your chances of twisting an ankle or falling, as you might not see clearly where your foot will fall. Grass and vegetation can mask holes, exposed roots and more.
Secondly, and more importantly, wandering off the trail jeopardises your safety. There might be literal and figurative pitfalls just off the pathway. Also, if mist or fog descends, you might struggle to find your way back to the route. If a mountain rescue team has to be sent out for you, they can’t be guaranteed of finding you if you’ve left the trail.
Exception: Going to the loo
When you’re out in nature and nature calls, you’ll have to step off the path to find a quiet place. Try to go 50 m or more away from the trail, and be sure to bury any waste. Carrying a small trowel might be a good idea for certain treks. Do your best when navigating your loo run to step on as few plants as possible.
25. Stay hydrated
Sating well hydrated means ensuring you’re getting plenty of H₂0 as well as enough electrolytes. You can be chugging endless amounts of water on a strenuous trek and yet still end up with puking up your lunch in the bushes because your electrolytes are too low. Remember that pretty picture as motivation to plan your source of electrolytes for your next trek! Electrolytes can be found in coconut water, fruit juice, sports drinks, and even tablets.
And, finally, remember that if you’re thirsty, you’re already hydrated. So drink little sips often. A hydration pack with a drinking hose is useful here so that you don’t have to reach for your water bottle every time you want a sip.
Bring water purification tablets
Depending where your trek takes place, water purification tablets might be necessary. They don’t taste great, but diarrhoea isn’t a treat either.
26. Eat nutritious food
Obviously it’s important to eat healthy and nutritious food during treks to provide your body with the fuel it needs to keep going. What some of you might not know, however, is that nutritious food is doubly important on high-altitude treks to help keep the symptoms of altitude sickness at bay. So while a chocolate bar can be a great pick me up when your legs are tiring, the main part of your diet on a trek should ideally be nourishing whole foods.
Whether doing a short hike or a multi-day trek, certain universal rules or etiquettes apply. These are directed at protecting the area and making the trail enjoyable for everyone. Many are just good common sense stuff!
27. Walk in single file
Generally speaking, you should walk in single file on a trek. Obviously if the path is very wide, walk side by side. But on narrow footpaths, the etiquette is to walk in single file.
28. Give way to uphill climbers
If the path is a narrow one (and arguably all the best ones are!), then you might need to step off the path when you encounter foot traffic. So this is another exception to the stick-to-the-path rule. Uphill climbers should always be given the right of way on trails. If there are mountain bikers and horse riders on the path too, they also have right of way.
29. Don’t speak too loudly
It’s safe to assume that all other trekkers on the trail are there to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature. Trekking is a great time for reflection, for some solitude, and for benefitting from being in the outdoors. So don’t talk loudly. Remember that your hilarious anecdote could be scaring off the wildlife.
30. No music except through headphones
If you must bring music on a trek, it should only ever be listened to via earphones. This goes for campsites too. Again, assume everyone else on the trek wants to hear the sounds of nature. It’s also better from a safety point of view to be alert to all noises, so no music at all is best. (That said, a little sing-a-long if there’s no other party on the trail can be fun at times.)
31. Never, ever litter
This one doesn’t need explaining, at least we hope! When trekking in remote parts where there’s no bins, you should always carry out what you take in. This could mean taking a few refuse bags with you for sealing things to carry back. Depending on the nature of the item, you could possibly bury it inside of a biodegradable bag. But this depends on the area and the ecosystem. Familiarise yourself with the specifics of the country, reserve or park where you’re trekking before heading out on the trail.
32. Don’t pick wildflowers or feed wild animals
Again, this is pretty basic stuff. No matter how cute the monkeys, rabbits, deers or whatever – don’t mess with their natural habits and digestive systems by feeding them. Instead, be content to coo over them, snap a photo (without flash – don’t scare them), and let them be. And as pretty as that hibiscus might look in your ponytail, refrain from picking the flora. A trekker should aim to impact the environment as little as possible, thereby preserving it for everyone else as well as for the sake of everything in it.
Ready, set … let’s trek!
At Follow Alice we offer a handful of epic trekking adventures. We have our trekking in Nepal trips, which include the Annapurna circuit and the Everest Base Camp trek. We also offer a Mount Kilimanjaro climb, our flagship trip! All three of these treks are high-altitude treks, which means they take place at great elevation. High-altitude treks are particularly challenging because the reduced oxygen levels make breathing and exercise that much harder. But high-altitude treks are also incredibly rewarding, as the scenery and sense of accomplishment tend to be second to none!
We have a wealth of information about trekking these trails to help you learn more about them and the challenges involved. If you’d like to learn more, a good starting point might be one of the following blog posts:
Or if you’d prefer to chat to someone and have your questions answered, please feel free to give us a shout. We’re more than happy to chat! 😃