Two roads diverged in a wood…
You must have read Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken. Apart from the obvious reference to choices in life, this poem has some literal allusions for the trekker… should I choose the attractive and easy sahib path or the daring, non-conformist independent path?
Let me first lay down for you what each type of trekking style entails.
In this type of trekking, the trekker is self-sufficient in all aspects of the trek for the entire duration of the trek.
To be self-sufficient, one of the most important aspects is what the independent trekker carries in his backpack.
- Food: Say for 3-4 days or till you get to a place where you can replenish food supplies
- Fuel: Petrol/kerosene to cook your meals for about a week
- Utensils: Plates/ladles/vessel for cooking/eating
- Clothing: Sufficient warm clothing (assuming you’re trekking in the mountains). However, you must be really selective if you want to travel light. The rule of thumb is that if it is not needed for survival, you don’t need it in your backpack.
- Tent: 1-2 man 3 / 4 season’s tent
- Sleeping mat
- Sleeping bag
- Water bottle/hydration pack
Ensure that you are really fit and prepared to do the trek, both physically and mentally, as you know that there is no one to help you in case you have trouble during the trek.
Choosing a trail
Some independent trekkers like the popular/established trekking routes while others prefer less explored routes. Personally, for me, it is most important to determine whether the trail is easy to find. When I say easy, I mean that if I have a good trekking map, I should be able to find the trail by looking at footprints, animal droppings, tracks, stone cairns and the general lay of the land.
Some research on the terrain is also critical as this (along with the season) will determine the kind of equipment you need to carry. For example, do you expect landslides, scree, boulder zone, river crossings, snow/ice/crevasses. Depending on this, you may need to take rope/ice-axes/crampons/snow-shoes. The challenge when you have to carry a lot of equipment is that your backpack becomes too heavy to carry it yourself. Then you will need to hire a porter. If the trail is too fraught with danger (say crevasses) or not easily identifiable, then you will need to employ the services of a local guide. If you employ a guide/porter, then some would say that you are no longer trekking solo. So, you need to choose the trail carefully.
Personally, I prefer somewhat established trails so that I can avoid guides/porters.
Choosing the season
The season (time of the year) for going on the trek is another important factor. It determines whether you can even do the trek. Some trails are closed in winter (especially the high altitude passes) and some are not suitable in the rainy season. The season also determines the kind of views you might get.
This is one of the annoyances one has to prepare for before the trek. Some treks require no permits; for others, it is easy to get. For some trekkers, the amount of red-tapism and bureaucracy one has to endure is unimaginable.
Learning to be flexible
For me, one of the keys to enjoying travel in the Himalayas is to travel without time constraints (difficult to imagine for folks in the corporate world!). What I mean is that in the mountains one has to learn to submit oneself and enjoy the vagaries of Mother Nature.
Regardless of your best planning efforts, there may be delays, say because you are snowed in for days together. There may be cases where despite your best preparation (fitness/equipment), you may just not be able to reach your destination. Say there is a river crossing, and the river is in full flow and crossing it seems dangerous, then you have to be prepared to wait it out or even abort the crossing and retrace your path.
- Differentiating between wants/needs for the trek: Knowing that you must carry your own backpack, you will start differentiating between your wants and your needs easily. You will be surprised at how little you actually need.
- Knowledge/study of the trail/terrain & logistics: A person who travels independently does more research and has more knowledge about the trail, how to reach it, what permits are required and what logistics need to be in place than someone who is going through an organised trek.
- Sense of accomplishment: Far greater than on an organised trek; something that needs to be experienced!
- Discovering yourself: You get to discover your own limits and will be surprised by the extent to which your mind and body can push itself, especially when faced with adversity. When you’re fatigued, you will find reserves of energy you never knew existed within you. Once you experience this, you will find that it is beneficial in other aspects of life as well.
- Risk analysis/Decision Making/Planning: Your risk-taking/risk analysis, decision making and planning skills are tested every day, as it is your life at stake. If you don’t make the right decision you have only yourself to blame and no one else.
- Belief in Fate/God/Nature: One’s appreciation of Nature (call it God, if you will) and the realisation of how much one depends on fate reaches a new high.
Questions I keep fielding about independent trekking
Q: Is it not dangerous to travel alone?
A: Yes, it is dangerous to trek alone. If you have a friend/partner who is willing to travel with you, do opt to go with them.
Q: What happens if you are injured or if you fall sick?
A: When travelling alone, if you are injured or fall sick it is a risky business. If you’re on a well-frequented trail you may get assistance; but if you’re not then you will have to bear the pain and fight through your sickness. Luckily for me, I have not encountered this situation and I thank God for it.
Q: What happens if you find wild animals on the trail?
A: This is a remote possibility on a trek, especially when you are trekking alone. There could be bears, foxes – these are the most likely animals. You have to know about how to deal with wild animals.
Q: Don’t you feel scared when you camp alone?
A: Not really.
When I ask myself why I trek, the principal reasons that come to mind are — to enjoy nature and to enjoy the walk. If those are the objectives and if I can afford it, why not achieve it in luxury and comfort? That is what sahib style trekking essentially is. Minus the additional challenges (pains, if you will) of independent style trekking.
- Porters/mules to carry your luggage
- Guides to show you the way
- A cook to ensure that you have tasty, nutritious and timely food along your way (often with desserts included)
- A kitchen tent where the cook and his staff (often a helper or two) cook hot meals for you
- Sometimes the staff even carries gas cylinders for use in the kitchen
- A spacious dining tent, complete with table and chairs, where you can sit comfortably for your meals
- A roomy tent for you with a sleeping mat and warm sleeping bags; in some cases, I have seen even a layer or two of quilts/comforters
- Besides the standard medical kit, the trekking agency will often provide an oxygen cylinder for larger trekking groups on high-altitude treks. This oxygen cylinder would be carried by a porter who accompanies the trekking group.
- Guides will go to the extent of carrying clients on their backs if a particular stretch (say a stream crossing) is tough to negotiate
- Adequate safety equipment like rope/harness/carabiners (in case you need to cross a stream, etc.). Note that I am talking about trekking and not mountaineering expeditions where all of this is mandatory.
- A bonfire at night
The big question is: what does this do to your trekking experience?
There are two ways of looking at it:
- One view is that it allows the trekker to enjoy the trekking experience, enjoy nature, walk, spend a lot of time capturing nature’s beauty in his/her camcorder/camera without the inherent risks/discomforts/challenges of independent style trekking.
- Another view is that it by eliminating the inherent risks/discomforts/challenges, it takes away from the trekking experience and reduces the sense of accomplishment.
Irrespective of which view one subscribes to, there are definitely a few non-debatable benefits to sahib style trekking:
- Gives you good local company (porters/guides) resulting in better understanding and appreciation of the local knowledge/culture/customs and practices.
- Puts more money into the hands of the local community (especially if you arrange for the porters/guides directly as opposed to going through a trekking agency).
- Spares you the red-tapism and organisational hassles of getting permits.
However, as you all know, there are no free lunches in this world. All this comes at a price. The cost of an organised trek is often 3 to 5 times (sometimes more) that of an independent trek. The magnitude of the difference (compared to independent treks) is a factor of the size of your group (in an organised trek) and the level of comfort (from the above list) that you seek.
Which is better –sahib style or independent solo trekking?
So here we are, back at the two roads of Robert Frost.
I prefer to do my treks within a budget and I love solitude during my treks. I also like being self-sufficient, carrying my own backpack and finding the route on my own (where possible).So, I definitely lean towards the independent style of trekking.
However, when I know that finding the route is going to be very difficult, I would certainly choose to employ the services of a guide (who could also double as a part time porter/cook).
So luckily, unlike Frost, you can try both paths and enjoy the advantages of each style of trekking!