Thursday, 10 February 2011

Jo's Kathmandu Blog - Top tips for first time trekkers

Kathmandu - Buddha eyes

Welcome to NTY2011

Not quite sure what NTY2011 is exactly? My guess is that most people outside of this bumpy, beautifully beleaguered country don't either, but I'd love to be proved wrong. NTY2011 stands for Nepal Tourism Year 2011 - this wee hill state aims to attract over 1million visitors this year - a mere tripling of the present numbers.

Have you seen the ads, watched the promo clips or spoken to your local Nepali tourism rep? Hmmm, thought not. In typical fashion the Very Good Idea has turned into a Slightly Wobbly Plan that no one is really in charge of or has any idea of how it will actually happen. NTY2011 was due to start on January 14th (perhaps a two week warm up was necessary, or they didn't want to ruin the party by celebrating on NYE?). Having known for over a year that NTY2011 was definitely happening, only on the afternoon of January 13th did our gracious leaders announce a Public Holiday (for the following day) - take the day off work tomorrow and come and celebrate with us, they said. Employees rejoiced, employers wailed. A few hours later there was a change of heart and on the evening of the 13th the New Public Holiday was abandoned - stay at work and we'll celebrate with our mates, the leaders said. So on January 14th the Powers That Be had a wonderfully self-congratulatory opening ceremony, closing the major roads around the city for the VIP blue-plated limos and land cruisers to get to the event stadium unimpeded.  The rest of us road-users sat in a whole-day jam: a first even for Kathmandu. What a marvellous way to welcome friendly foreigners! Mind you anyone attempting to get into the capital on that auspicious occasion would have needed all of the 13 million gods on their side: high winds shut Lukla, the Terai was cloaked in dense fog closing roads and runways and Tribhuvan Airport was under siege -‘a simian invasion', said the newspapers (some monkeys swung too high and hard from the electricity cables and everything came tumbling down). Only in Nepal!

So if you've heard of NTY2011 and have changed your travel plans as a result I'd be delighted to hear from you! If you were already planning to come to the land of happy chaos for some wild and wonderful adventures then enjoy the extra services and warm welcome anyway.

Over the last couple of months, whilst many people were soaking up sherry and other festive spirits, I had the pleasure of leading a happy band of trekkers out in to the hills for a Christmas Carry On up the Khumbu: Everest Base Camp (and back). We had a chilly, but wonderful trip on near empty trails under big blue skies and the towering peaks of some very impressive mountains. For many people it was their first venture into the world of trekking, and for one or two, their first experience of hill-walking - a steep learning curve coming to the world's highest mountain range in the middle of winter, but good on em! As we walked and talked we discussed some of the things we've learnt about life on trek and what can help make it more comfortable and enjoyable. So I thought I'd share with you the fruits of our womblings: some top tips for first time trekkers. Please feel free to comment and particularly to add any useful tips you've picked up along the way.

Happy New Year from Nepal!

Top tips for first time trekkers


You can't have too much water when on trek - but what's the best way to carry and consume this essential liquor? We recommend carrying at least one 1-litre water bottle plus either another of the same or a Camelback, Platypus or similar bladder system.

Bringing bladders

Camelback type systems are great for being able to sip water constantly whilst on the move, but need lots of careful managing to prevent the mouth piece and pipe becoming a home for lots of happy, but harmful bacteria. Popping that mouthpiece in and out of sunscreen coated lips, to wash nicely sugary bits of chocolate, power bar and other tasty treats away not to mention the odd dangle in the dust in warm and sunny conditions are all excellent for stimulating microbial growth. Be ready to sterilise every other day. And if it's not warm and sunny it'll doubtless be freezing cold and you'll be sucking up ice crystals unless you invest in a tube insulator. The biggest hazard for plastic bladders though is our refill system. On trek our kitchen teams will be boiling up bucketfuls of water getting it safe for you to drink. Just boiled water tends have a deleterious effect on bladder seals - they pop and burst all over the place. So if you're using a bladder, bring a bottle too to put the hot water in, let it cool down for a few hours then top your plastic pouch up.

A lot of bottle

Using bottles? Simple, safe and they double up as a hot water bottle for toasty toes on those chilly evenings. On the trail find a way to hang them / stash them so you can reach for them easily without having to take your ‘sac off. Net pockets on the side of sacs (and a friend if you've stiff shoulders) or an insulated pouch attached to your rucksack waist-belt are ideal. Wide necked Nalgene are the best and most reliable in our experience.


One of the effects of exertion, dehydration and adjusting to new altitudes can be a headache. Your first action should be to drink a good dose of water (1L +) but if that doesn't sort it some pain relief will be effective. We've found paracetamol (Tylenol) to be the safest and most effective. Brufen based drugs (ibuprofen, nurofen etc) are less useful when going up high and aspirin or codeine based ones are a no-no.

Ups and downs to expect

As well as lots of physical ups and downs expect to have a few emotional ones too: some days you'll be tired / homesick / missing your loved ones/ aching for a hot shower and other days will be stuffed full of the best ever moments, where every twist and turn of the trail fills you with elation. Life is a rollercoaster (as that Ronan fella once said) - and so is trek. Come prepared!

To bring for treats and to make life brighter in tough times

I find sugar free chewing gum can really help if you're feeling a bit sickly and it's also great for keeping your throat wet in the dry and dusty air. Some people like to bring their own drink concoctions with them for days when you're done with tea or hot juice- herbal tea bags, your favourite drink powders are good or effervescent Vit C or NUUMs are good for when you're bored of water but need to drink. Chocolate, jelly babies, nice sweets to keep in your pocket always help on big uphills - I find chocolate helps with most things in life but that's probably just me! (KE supply all clients with a bar of chocolate each day on most of our trips). A small tub of Vaseline is excellent for applying to chapped lips and raw noses at night or dabbing on your toes to prevent blisters in the day. Talc tipped liberally into clothing and socks keeps bad smells at bay and reduces scratchiness. A thick moisturiser such as Nivea or cold cream is excellent for cracked fingers and dry skin.

Coughs and colds

Puffing and panting a bit in the cold, super-dry mountain air of higher altitudes can really tickle your airway linings in a non-too funny way. The cold, dry air can irritate your nasal, sinus, throat and lungs causing coughs (the dreaded Khumbu cough for example) and leaving you open to colds and infections. To reduce irritation we've found wearing a Buff or scarf wrapped round the mouth and nose helps: it keeps the dust out and, most importantly, catches moisture from exhalations making the inhaled air more moist and slightly warmer. It can help to suck menthol sweets or chew sugarfree gum, particularly the Airway clearing type. Some people swear by Fisherman's Friends! You'll also find throat sweets like Strepsils are good for soothing itchy, dry throats and reducing coughing and a honey based cough syrup may be worth having along too.

Clean set of clothes for camp / lodge

Bring a set of warm clothes with you that you only wear in camp / lodge. Even if you wear exactly the same things each night and sleep in them too at least you'll always have something (relatively) clean and dust free to change into at the end of each day. Fleecy trousers are ace for cold trips and fleece or down booties are amazing when it's really nippy.


 Keeping clean
Up high and at colder times of year the prospect of a long hot shower is a wonderful thing. Sadly it's unlikely to happen (in the way that the fantasy plays in your mind) until you get back to Kathmandu, Leh or wherever your base city is.  On lodge trips you'll probably be able to buy a hot shower - often a big bucket of hot water, sometimes an overhead nozzle mostly in a chilly floored outhouse (bring flip flops). From the KE crew on camping and lodge trips you'll be provided with a bowl of warm water to wash with. I've found having a small bar of soap and facecloth to hand is the best way to ‘squaddy wash' in your tent porch or lodge room. Some people bring wet wipes that can be really handy but then need to be disposed of somewhere - if you're bringing them make sure they are bio disposable.


Dry bags for everything

Trek bags and rucksacks are not 100% waterproof so make sure everything you have is also stored in a dry bag, sack liner or thick plastic bag. It can and does rain, it may snow, sometimes pack animals, porters or even you may slip and slide into a river. The last thing anyone needs is damp or even wet spare clothes and personal items and you absolutely do not need a wet sleeping bag or down jacket. So keep everything well wrapped up and bring some spare bags for storing dirty clothes too.

Random stuff

Pegs - small, plastic ones can be useful for getting hand-washed socks etc dry on tent guy ropes and other bits of string. Bring some cord if you want to create your own line as well. Small karabiners are dead handy for hanging stuff, attaching things, holding things in place and even keeping trousers up. Gaffer tape - solves most breakage type problems (especially in combination with super glue or stretchy boot glue). A needle and thread are useful for tears, rips and loose buttons.

Psychic leaders

Contrary to popular opinion (amongst trekkers and leaders alike) most KE Leaders are sadly lacking in psychic abilities: they almost certainly wont know the exact temperature at the top of the mountain (whilst sitting in a valley lodge), nor the exact time taken to get to location X if they've never been to the area before and are using a country scale map. Equally they are unlikely to know where the toilet / bar is on a first time visit to a lodge (although they should be able to sniff both out fairly quickly) or how much a coke costs on those particular premises. Most importantly, although they can take a good guess using the usual facial and bodily clues, your leader won't know how you are feeling unless you tell them. So do speak up if you are in discomfort, unwell or indeed overjoyed!

Coming soon...

Living and being in a group
Rucksack types - what to buy
Typical dress for many days on the trail
Mountain flights - an unpredictable but spectacular way to travel
Diamox myths and altitude expectations

Again, please feel free to add your comments and particularly to add any useful tips you've picked up along the way.

1 comment:

  1. Good list. The two things I would add are a head-torch - rather than a torch in the mouth job, which never works quite as well. And the biggest one for me - ear-plugs. I have used them on every trip I have done (apart from the first one) and they are the only thing between a good nights sleep and dead snoring members of the team (also the local dogs who always seem to find the camp).