After giving up competitive race walking, recreational race walking kept me fit but it didn't fill my need for a challenge. After an invite to join my friends on a trek to Everest Base Camp, I was hooked on a new challenge: trekking.
Within a year, my single-minded mentality seized on this new challenge and upped the ante. My goal was to hike the ten best treks in the world. Five years later, I have completed all but one of them. (Check out Jeff's new photo books related to his trekking at www.twofeetgallery.com.)
While race walks continuously repeat lackluster 2K loops, treks are hiked along stunning landscapes that may include roaring rivers, majestic mountains, or remote villages. Some treks are destination oriented, like climbing to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and its rapidly shrinking glacier. Other treks are a circuit, like the twenty day "stroll" along the Annapurna Circuit.
Often my friends confuse trekking with climbing. They hear that I've gone to Mount Everest, Mount Kilimanjaro or to Patagonia and they assume that I am climbing with an axe and rope. I don't climb, people die climbing. Trekking is a non-technical hike lasting a few days to a few weeks, and for some, even a month or more. While what I do may seem risky, I am very risk adverse. When you take the proper precautions, trekking is adventurous but relatively safe.
Should I Hire a Guide?
When trekking you have many choices and it's not just about choosing the destination. You can trek independently or you can hire a guide. Both have advantages and disadvantages. This summer my wife and I hiked the Tour de Mount Blanc (TMB) and the Haute Route. While along the TMB many people trekked independently, almost no one on the Haute route hiked unguided. Just about everyone was part of a formal organized outing. Our independence allowed us great flexibility in route options, pace, and lodging, but it came with a price. At times, more times than we would have liked, the trail simply vanished. Without a guide, we often went the long way around.
A guide is often helpful with your communication with the locals. In Europe, this was not an issue as my wife spoke fluent French. In Nepal, I always hire a guide. Beside the benefits of knowing the trail, assisting with lodging and helping hire porters, it's also a great way to support the local economy.
Do I Need a Porter?
Another decision to make is whether to carry your entire load or to hire porters to lighten it. Porters are not always available, as in Europe. Instead, for hikes connected to the road, your extra luggage may be driven to the next stop each day. On hikes like in Nepal, there are no roads so individuals are usually hired to help share the load. For treks in remote areas like Burma, where food and tents must be carried, porters are a must. In fact, they outnumber the trekkers. This helps make your hike much more comfortable and again provides an income to locals that desperately need the money.
It's important to pay attention to how your porters are treated. Different countries have different regulations. In Peru, porters were strictly limited to the amount of weight they could carry and were inspected multiple times on the trail. In contrast, in Nepal, it is common practice to overweigh porters who are not properly clothed for the conditions. Even the guides from agencies rarely take up a concern; they tell you what you want to hear.
There are countless other variations when you trek that range from whether you stay in a tent or lodge, what equipment you need, and how much food should you carry with you. Stay tuned for coverage of these and many other issues in future articles on trekking.