No matter if you're thinking about crossing Antarctica or just taking a walk in the woods, planning the trip is always very important: it will avoid the unexpected and allow you to take the most out of your journey.
The first step to planning a journey is gathering information.
- Maps, guides and books can be found in specialized book shops or at local tourist office
- More valuable, fresh and accurate information can be found at Indian Mountaineering Foundation office, Mountaineering Institutes, or simply talking to someone who already did the same trip
- Weather information can be acquired from national and local forecasts and also from local inhabitants (especially the ones who live in the mountains seem to have a sixth sense about weather)
Be very concerned about finding accurate maps and above all reliable and precise weather forecast: the lack of correct information can be very dangerous in these two cases.
Remember: the more background information you get, the better.
A map is a drawing that represents with conventional symbols a part of earth's surface. A map contains a wealth of information for a trekker: distances, altitudes (and consequently differences in level), ground morphology, works of man, and above all tracks. Maps are characterized by the following:
- Scale: scale refers to the size of the representation on the map as compared to the actual distance on the ground. A map on the scale of 1 to 25000 (1:25000) represents 1 kilometer on the ground with 4 centimeters on the drawing. The best scale for trekking maps is 1:50000 but you may need several, different scaled maps depending on the trip (for example one 1:100000 for a global view and several 1:50000 or 1:25000 that cover thoroughly the whole trek)
- Contours: contours are lines that connect points of equal elevation and are used to represent reliefs, shorelines and lakes. Usually the elevation associated with each line is reported using numbers or color codes.
- Colors: maps that follow international agreements usually use black for names and cultures, or works of man; blue for water features (or hydrography); brown for relief (or hypsography); green for vegetation classifications; red for road classes and special information. There are however infinite variations (especially in tourist maps) so be sure to read the legend
- Legend: brief description or key of symbols and conventions used in the map
Planning the Route
When choosing the route to follow during the trip you should consider the following points:
- Difficulties of the route (steep trails, glaciers and moraines to cross, presence of snow, etc.)
- Experience of the trekkers related to the difficulty of the route
- Physical conditions of every member in the group
- Time available for the trip
- Equipment required by the type of track
- Other dangers specific to the area (for example sudden weather changes in the mountains)
Use this simple procedure to calculate approximately how much time it will take under normal conditions (no snow on ground) to cover the route you planned:
- measure distances on beam on the map: compute 1 hour every four kilometers
- measure differences in level: compute 1 hour every 400 meters
- compute 15 minutes of rest every hour of walk
Example: to cover a route 16 kilometers long with a difference in level of 800 meters you need 7 hours 30 minutes (4 hours for distances + 2 hours for differences in level = 6 hours + 6 x 15 minutes = 7 hours 30 minutes)
This formula is a very approximate way to estimate trekking times: physical conditions, knowledge of the ground and specific weather conditions can enormously distort the estimated value. Rangers, alpine guides and your personal experience will give you much more precise information.
Science and engineering have dramatically improved materials and characteristics delivering high quality products: a good trekker should know how to take advantage from both new and traditional gear bringing the right things with him.
The most important piece of equipment for a trekker: poor boots can compromise the success of an excursion. Keywords are comfort and adherence. A good pair of walking-boots is characterized by the following:
- Vamp (the part of a boot covering the instep and the toes): can be made of cordura, classic leather or revolutionary plastic - should wrap up the foot and be very resistant
- Sole (the bottom surface of the boot): very important, must be adherent on every kind of ground, better if provided with shock absorbers in the heel
- Plantar (part of the boot in contact with the foot) better if anatomic, comfortable, exchangeable, hygienic and easily driable
The old, heavy climbing-boot is history, many people still prefer it to modern boots but it's a wrong belief (or at least a very personal one). Recent researches show that 100 grams added on the foot (i.e. in the shoes) equals to 500 grams on the back (!) because the weight on the back is distributed on all the body, whereas the one on the foot only on legs. Better to wear light, transpirant, and above all comfortable boots. Prefer the ones to the ankle in height: they give much more support and protect your ankles from scrapes. There's the right boot for every situation: resistant and waterproof models are perfect for hikes high in the mountains with snow problems, light and transpirant for hot climates, but you'll find good compromises. Long trips require two pair of shoes: robust boots for difficult trails and light ones or tennis shoes for easy parts and resting in the evening.
Hints to correctly service your boots:
- never dry boots near heat sources (sun rays, fires or stoves) but always naturally
- clean the vamp from dirt using a hard brush and always when the boot is dry
- when extra waterproof is needed spray some silicon on seams of the vamp (use grease only in leather models)
- at the end of trekking season you should always dry, clean thoroughly and stock boots filling them with balls of paper and lacing them up
Last tip: never (repeat never) start an excursion with a new pair of shoes, modern boots are very adaptable but some fitting (blisters included) is always required.
Socks are very important because they are in direct contact with skin. They should be comfortable, transpirant, keep the foot warm and dry and protect from irritations, abrasions and blisters. Cotton is cheap and comfortable but absorbs sweat and becomes rough after a little washing, wool keeps warm but doesn't allow transpiration and is too rough, synthetic fibers are good because they keep the foot warm and prevent diseases like mushrooms. Some models are also stuffed to increase comfort and prevent blisters.
Shirts should keep warm the body but allow transpiration. Again wool is bad because it absorbs sweat becoming wet. Cotton is generally good but don't use it for warming: it easily gets wet and cools the body. Polypropylene (Pile) is a right choice because it's light, soft, promptly eliminates sweat and keeps warm (but it's expensive). A good combination can be to change your underwear cotton shirt every time it's wet and use a pile sweater over it to keep warm.
Long pants in robust cotton or Cordura® or even Gore-Tex® in cold season keep warm and are needed in presence of ticks, thorns, etc. Short pants are excellent in warm season and for large trails (without brambles). Pile is warm and soft but too fragile to be used for mountain trekking. Do not use jeans: they are too rigid, get easily wet and hardly dry.
Coats Jackets and Windbreakers
Coats in Gore-Tex® or other new materials are perfect for cold season, lighter jackets are good for mild climates, windbreakers are ideal to protect against rain but usually don't allow transpiration. Only one hint when choosing a jacket: be sure it has lots of pockets to store seperately and find easily all your little gadgets.
Gloves, Hats and Sun Glasses
Never leave for a trek without these three objects. Better to bring waterproof, filled and transpirant gloves that let fingers move freely. Use wools or pile hats for winter and colonial-type or baseball hats (with a bandana to cover the neck) for summer. Sun glasses are fundamental: protect yourself with high quality lenses both on snow or in the desert and prefer models that cover totally your eyes avoiding rays to enter from the sides.
A backpack must fit well your back and feel very comfortable: prefer anatomical models with filled shoulder-straps, a large belt around the waist and a smaller one on your breast. There should be lots (repeat lots) of pockets and the main bag should be divided into parts to better organize your stuff. Newer models also have a spacer between the backpack and your back to avoid sweating.
Hints for successful packing:
Packing everything you need (even for the unexpected) but nothing more. Fill the backpack starting with things you'll hardly use putting on the top the stuff that must be available immediately (i.e. sweatshirt and windbreaker), put important things inside a waterproof bag (backpacks are never that waterproof), organize all your stuff balancing well every weight to avoid extra stress to your back (heavy objects near the body, bony ones on the external side). Remember that pleasure in travel is directly proportionate to how light your bags are: before leaving walk to the end of the block loaded with your backpack, than return home ... you'll certainly think something you packed isn't that vital!.
There are basically two instruments a trekker can't live without: compass and altimeter. Both let you position yourself on the map and exactly know where you are, the second usually has a barometer that allows you to estimate weather forecast (increasing pressure generally means good weather, decreasing bad weather). For important trips high precision compass and altimeter are required, for easier ones may be the instruments present in some digital watches are enough (but the map should be accurate).
Recently, new high technology devices are able to help even further a trekker. GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers, relying on a network of satellites, allow you to determine actual postion and altitude. Advanced models are also capable of locating your position on a digital map and, if your previously set up your course, indicating the direction to take. Precision for normal GPS instruments is +/- 50-100 meters for position and +/- 200 meters for altitude. More precise values can be obtained if your device is able to decode DGPS correction on ultra short waves.
First Aid Kit
Never leave without a first aid kit. It should be adequate to the trip and cover at least the most frequent traumas (distortions and abrasions). Use a waterproof, shockproof and possibly thermic box to protect medicaments and try not to exaggerate: disinfectant, gauzes, cotton wool, band aids, scissors and forceps, anti-inflammatories and analgesics are the main items ... complete the list yourself.
Food & Water
For a long trip, may be without rests in equipped areas (huts, chalets, etc.), food becomes a serious matter. Bring highly nutritional food and don't rely only on snacks. Lyophilized food could be the right choice but do not exaggerate: after some time you'll start hating it. A full breakfast, many little meals during the day (better after a climb) and a complete dinner allow to cover adequately all your nutritional needs. Avoid stodgy food and think seriously about dry or fresh fruit and choccolate for fast snacks to restore energy. Water is also fundamental: trekking means losing a lot of water and mineral salts from sweating that you must promptly restore. Plain water isn't enough, add mineral salts through tablets or directly drinking saline integrators (i.e. sport drinks). Remember: during days before departure try to eat a little more than usual to accumulate supplies, always bring more water than needed ... you never know, during the trek drink regularly even if you are not thirsty: if you are it means your body already lost too much water and is fighting to recover.
This section contains some important information to use when your are "on the field" but the main idea is: be cautious and prepared for the unexpected.
Long trips require an excellent physical preparation but don't leave even for a short trek if you don't feel good. Before leaving for a journey you should practice and improve your body capabilities: start with short walks and a light backpack and gradually increase length, difficulty and weight. Be aerobically prepared for the climbs and concentrate on building your quadriceps muscles to take the strain off the knee joint when descending (down hill trekking can be harder than climbing). Use this period also to improve your skills using compass, altimeter and maps: practicing in known areas is better and you'll be smarter when the moment comes.
During the trek keep constantly aware of your position consulting the map and using instruments (compass and altimeter). The map must be kept in front of you folded in order to show your position and the route you still have to run. Use natural elements (mountains, watersheds, rivers), trails and man works to determine your position. For navigation memorize the next part of the trek focusing on specific characteristics and elements showed on the map. If visibility is scarce or you are unsure about your position you should consult your instruments. Altimeter is very useful to determine your position, compass is mainly used to find the direction you want to take as shown in the paragraph below. It's also very smart to turn back and look at the trails you've just walked through in order to better recognize the route on the way back (do this even if you're not planning to pass through the same trails on the way back ... emergency situations do occur).
How to use compass to find the right direction:
- place the compass on the map making sure the arrow on the instrument coincides with the direction you want to take on the map
- rotate the graduated wheel until its north is aligned with the one on the map
- keep the magnetic needle aligned with the north on the wheel ... the arrow indicates the direction to take
Weather is the most important factor in trekking: the large majority of accidents and tragedies that affect both inexperienced and professional trekkers is caused by bad weather. The one and only lesson you must always think about is: if you aren't sure about weather conditions or if you notice bad weather coming up during a trek terminate the trip immediately!
Fog is a major problem in the mountains, it makes it impossible to orient yourself using instinct and natural elements forcing you to rely only on map and instruments. When you encounter fog check your position more frequently and if in group send one or more trekkers to examine the route in front of you always keeping a voice contact while the rest of the party remains at a well defined point. This will slow down your trip but will avoid taking wrong trails.
Rain is a common phenomenon during a trek. Try to accustom yourself to the idea and prepare yourself to wear a waterproof jacket or better a "poncho" that covers even your backpack. Be also aware that the ground becomes very slicky (slow down).
Summer storms generally mean thunders. In this case remember that thunderstorms arise usually late in the afternoon and that a thunder strucks where distance between clouds and ground is shorter. Avoid high, naked plateaus, old tall trees and above all any sort of metallic object. A thunder usually strikes at most at three kilometers from the storm and you can calculate (approximately) the distance from you and the storm using this simple and famous rule: count the seconds between the lighting and the thunder, that's the distance in kilometers (I'll came up with a more scientific and less rural rule in the next edition). One last observation: if you notice your hair rising, itching of the skin or blue flames in the air ... start praying!
Fresh, powdery snow is bad for walking and you'll need snow-shoes. Old (usually blue) snow is dangerous and subject to avalanches. If you have to cross a dangerous section, do it one at a time: a man overwhelmed by an avalanche has far more chances to survive if the other members of the party can find help.
Respect of Nature
Trekking is aimed at exploring and enjoying nature. This means you must respect it. Don't litter the areas you visit and always bring some plastic bags to carry back home all your garbage. Don't tear vegetation or pull up mushrooms without good reasons. Leave alone wild animals and above all don't feed them: they won't be able to feed themselves when nobody will be there.