I finally got round to editing the footage I took from my expedition to Nepal. Enjoy!
To trek, hike, plod, march, trudge, tab, yomp. Whatever label you choose to use, put simply it is walking (throughout this post I will refer to it as trekking, purely for continuity). Something humans have done for 200,000 years. It is the purest form of human powered transport. Requiring minimal equipment and little formal lessons and training. It’s a great feeling, being completely self-sufficient on the road, relying on nothing but your feet to get you from A-B.
This guide is a collection of the experience and lessons I’ve picked up from the 11 years I have spent as an Infantry soldier and officer in the British Army. I have also completed a number of self-sufficient solo treks without the military. Here is the link to the post with tips and details from my 220 miles, 10-day walk through the UK and a trek through the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia.
I will give you all the information you need to head out on your first solo trekking expedition.
If you do find it useful, please be a hero and share or even better leave a comment with your advice or experiences.
‘Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail’ said somebody in the Army one time.
As you are still reading this post it is likely that you’re sat in front of your laptop, tablet or phone thinking ‘I would love to go on a solo trek someday. But am I prepared? I don’t know where to start.’
You’ve come to the right place.
Everybody started as a novice once upon a time. Even the experts such as polar explorers, Everest conquerors, survival experts and special forces soldiers were beginners at one point.
This post will cover the following topics:
- Mental toughness
- What equipment to pack?
- The most important items
- Final thoughts and tips
The first aspect you need to consider is the capability of the device you wish to complete the expedition with. Your body.
Walking/trekking is a repetitive action. Over a period of time and with added weight, it can lead to injuries. Before heading off to complete any long distance solo treks I would advise you to have a medical check-up with your doctor. If you have any injuries or health issues, a doctor can advise you on what you can safely do. If you are fit and healthy you are ready for the next step.
You don’t need to be super fit to trek large distances. Trekking fitness is best attained by……Trekking! If you are a complete novice, start with low distance and a steady pace.
Take a slow 4km trek with zero kit and equipment, a few times a week. Each week increase your trekking distance by 1 km until you are able to complete 10km. There is no need to trek too fast too soon. Keep a steady 4-5km per hour pace. Once you can trek 10km in under 2hr 30min with ease, try carrying a light backpack. Start with 5kg (roughly 2 litres of water a waterproof jacket and jumper). Again increase the weight gradually. Add 1kg per week until you are able to trek with 15kg for 10km in under 2hr 30 min on fairly flat terrain.
Once you are at this level of fitness, you will be able to continue to gradually add more distance and weight. A word of caution. If you add too much weight, too soon, you are likely to become injured and this is the last thing we want. Continue to mix your treks up. Add a trek over hilly, rough terrain. Go for a trek on the beach. Enjoy a grassland stroll. Ultimately you should aim to enjoy trekking. Go and explore new places to keep it fresh.
Worse case is you will get fit on your solo expedition. If you start fit, it will just make trekking slightly more comfortable to start with and reduce your chance of injury. It doesn’t mean that you need to be in peak physical shape to go on a solo trek.
This is something that is often overlooked. People who don’t complete long distance treks are usually fit enough. It is often mental toughness they lack. Not being stubborn and giving up. Long distance trekking is tough. If it wasn’t everyone would be doing it. What makes solo trekking tough is relying purely on your own motivation and not that of anybody else.
Other tough aspects of trekking solo are having nobody to talk to for long periods of your journey. Not sharing the experience with anybody else. If you get ill or injured, having nobody to help immediately. The blisters. Chafing. Not washing for days.
Still, want to go?
There are ways to negate some of these issues. I find that posting my progress on social media or in this blog a good way to share my experiences. But even this can be tough. After walking all day, who wants to sit down and type a semi-coherent post about your miserable blisters, chaffing, hunger and smelly clothes? Sometimes posting a short video can fill this void but this isn’t for everyone. Often you won’t have signal, coverage of the battery power.
Other people like to disconnect completely. It’s a beautiful feeling in this modern age, to fully disconnect. To have no emails, requests or notifications. Leaving the nagging draw for our attention.
What I love about being alone on a trek is the freedom and space. Making decisions that only effect you at that moment. Being able to be completely spontaneous without consulting anyone. I find strangers talk to me more frequently when I’m trekking alone. If I want to share my story I can. If not that is also OK.
Basically, you can do what you want (within reason, decency and the laws of your country).
Do not underestimate the mental toughness required to trek solo for a long period of time. The only way to find out if you have it is to expose yourself to situations where you are tested.
What equipment to pack?
Some people are obsessed with kit and equipment. Having the latest £200 softshell jacket, snazzy GPS devices, Gortex jackets with pockets and functions I didn’t even know existed and having down sleeping bags that cost a small fortune and weigh as much as a 6 pack of eggs.
In contrast, I have been trekking in Nepal with local porters that wear trainers that were probably made in 1993. For a waterproof jacket, they used a clear plastic bag. They didn’t use sleeping bags. Instead, they slept with blankets. Socks were a luxury.
This shows that expensive items are not an absolute necessity.
Personally, I sit in the middle. I appreciate quality products that make life easier. If I can justify that the price will make a significant difference to my comfort. The more money you spend on an item usually means:
- More comfort
The most important items.
Rather than list all of the items to take on a trek, I am going to focus on just 3 (if you want to see what I took to Nepal, check out the list here). I believe that the key items of equipment that make a big difference to your levels of comfort on a trek are:
- Sleeping bag/bivvy bag
These three things will be used every day. They will become your trusted friends, especially if you are on the road alone.
The fit of a boot is more important than the brand. Where possible, go and try them out in the shop whilst wearing the socks that you plan to trek in.
To Gortex or not to Gortex
That is the question. Gortex boots can be a godsend when the weather is boggy and wet. A wet sock is a sure way to a miserable day. But they are usually warmer and heavier.
I personally wear Gortex trekking boots. Most of my treks are in wet conditions so for me it keeps my feet more comfortable. If you are going to be trekking in hot weather with minimal risk of getting wet, go for the non-gortex.
Sleeping bag/Bivvy Bag
An essential piece of equipment. I’ve recently converted to using a down sleeping bag. Benefits of a down bag are its lightweight to warmth ratio. Do not get it wet though, otherwise you’ll be in for a cold night sleep.
A bivvy bag is a large waterproof bag that goes over your sleeping bag. It keeps you dry and adds warmth. I could write a whole post about sleeping bags and bivvy bags. Others have and have done a great job, far better than I could. Check out:
For a solo expedition, you need to be able to balance carrying your equipment with being lightweight. You need to ensure you carry enough equipment that you are safe but also not to overload your pack. It’s a fine balancing act that can take multiple trips to perfect.
Again, the fit and size in personal. As long as it’s comfortable to your body and can carry all of your required kits it’s good to go.
Chris Townsend has written some fantastic articles about lightweight backpacking. His website also has examples of the kit he packs on solo trekking expeditions. Here is the link:
- Camping (sleeping in a tent at a campsite)
- Wild camping (sleeping anywhere, rough. Can use a tent if needed or just a bivvy/sleeping bag combination. Tarps are also a good option)
- Bother/barns/wild shelter (these are old huts and buildings found in the mountains)
- Staying in hotels/hostels/air bnb’s
- Relying on the generosity and kindness of locals
The more you pay usually means more comfort. My preference is to wild camp. It’s free and I find it pretty comfortable. Here is a link to a post I wrote as advice for people starting out on a first wild camp.
This is probably the most important aspect of this post. It is only natural to be apprehensive about heading out on a solo trek. The risk is higher than if you are in pairs of in a group but there are a number of actions you can take to reduce the risk:
- Carry a sufficient first aid kit and know how to use it. Attend a first aid class if needed. Nothing replaces knowledge. For a comprehensive first aid kit list, check out this post by Andrew Skurka.
- Be fully vaccinated for the country you are travelling.
- Check in regularly with friends and family. If going somewhere remote consider taking a satellite phone.
- Have sufficient medical cover and relevant insurance.
- Check the FCO website for travel advice.
- Speak to locals and people that have visited the place you plan to trek for advice.
Final thoughts and tips
- So you’ve read through this post and still have a million and one questions. If you do, please ask in the comments section.
- Some of the advice here may have put you off solo trekking. If so, that is OK. It’s not for everyone.
- For me, solo trekking is almost a spiritual experience. I find myself lost in my own thoughts after spending days without talking to another human.
- Solo trekking adds clarity and refreshment to my busy lifestyle. I usually come home a happier person and have a clearer vision of my future and my current identity.
- I can rest when I want, work hard when I want. There is no walking behind a group. Getting annoyed with the small habits you pick up on.
- I feel that everybody should experience solo trekking at least once. Get out there and enjoy it.
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The weather couldn’t be any better for the first few days of the trek. We had the pleasure of clear skies and strong sunshine, accompanied by a cool, refreshing breeze. I wore shorts for the first two days and couldn’t quite believe that I was above 2000 metres. Sun cream was needed to protect ourselves from the harmful rays, especially now we were over a mile closer to the sun. This wasn’t how I imagined trekking in the Himalaya. Pine trees covered the hills. A fast-flowing river cut through the valley. It reminded me of the Canadian Rockies, with its sweeping valleys and tree covered hills. Dolpa has a vast array of landscapes. With each turn of the valley, you are presented with a new magnificent sight. Rickety bridges cross the valley often. I was surrounded by snow topped peaks, towering to up to 7000 metres. The beauty is almost too pure to describe.
These first few days trekking were relatively easy. We followed a track that was an old road and didn’t climb a great deal. Following the river valley was brilliant. There is something pure about following a river that never fails to put a smile on my face. Knowing that you have food and water close at hand and the refreshing lure of a river swim is reassuring.
Nothing beats a river swim
I am a sucker for a river swim. For the first 6 days, I had a swim every day. Only once we started getting high up into the snow line did I take a break from my daily dips. The water was always ice cold. It was also unbelievably fresh. Especially at the higher altitudes, the freshness and coldness were strongly correlated. I got pretty good at swimming in these ice cold waters.
I’ve read that there are benefits to a daily exposure to ice-cold water. Some of the health benefits can be almost unbelievable. If you want to read about cold exposure and its benefits, check out the Wim Hof method.
In a remote place
Civilisation was left behind the moment I left the town of Juphal. I didn’t see a motor vehicle for 13 days (other than an emergency helicopter). This was a welcome break from the world as we knew it. My mobile phone lost its signal fairly quickly. I didn’t even attempt to connect to the internet as it was pointless. There was no more wifi cafes or data roaming. Instead of instantly turning to our mobile devices for entertainment or relief from boredom, we would (heaven forbid!) talk to each other. If we wanted some space, we would read. I got through 7 books throughout the expedition. This is more books than I have read throughout the rest of 2017 so far.
I never really considered it before I departed, but this expedition was a welcome break from the connected, Facebook-Twitter-Instagram-WhatsApp world that we live in. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy using social media. But I enjoyed not using it more. Social media has its benefits. I can connect to old friends and even make new ones with a few swipes of a screen. It can be entertaining, inspiring and engaging but it shouldn’t control our lives. Most young people have never lived without it (now I’m starting to sound like an old man!). I see them in train stations and shopping centres, glued to their screens. Swiping through what will be mostly irrelevant social feeds of cat videos and their friends flipping water bottles.
The people I met in Dolpa don’t have facebook. They don’t have an Instagram account. Hell, if they did I’m sure they would be flooded with followers as they live in one of the most beautiful places on earth. What they do have though is a strong sense of community. On evenings, families gather in one room with a fire burning in the centre. They all help to prepare the meal. Be it collecting fuel for the fire, preparing chia (tea) or cooking the dhal bhat (rice and lentils). Animals roam free in the villages. Children learn how to handle pack animals, start fires and look after themselves at an early age. They are more street wise than any wannabe gangsters on the streets of our British cities.
There were a couple of moments when I realised how remote we actually were. The first came when an elderly lady asked our guide for some eye drops. Her eyes looked pretty sore and she could hardly open them. I doubt eye drops would have actually solved the problem. Only provided a short, welcome relief. Our guide stopped, asked the woman to sit and administered the drops. I asked if there was a local hospital and was told there was one in the next village but there was no doctor.
In the UK we moan about the NHS without realising how lucky we actually are. Yes, there are plenty of issues and problems with healthcare in the UK, but when compared to rural Nepal it pales into insignificance.
The Nepal Department of Health Services reported in 2015 that a child born in Kathmandu has 82 years of average life expectancy whereas a child born in the remote district of Jumla has only 36 years. This is crazy but having seen how remote these villages are it is not hard to imagine.
Another stat – according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) – for every 10,000 people, there is only one doctor in Nepal. The WHO state that there should be a provision of 15 doctors for every 10,000 people.
I think we should count ourselves lucky that in the UK we have some of the best healthcare in the world and we should strive to help those that are less fortunate than ourselves. This could mean helping in a number of different ways, be it charity work, donating or offering your skills and expertise.
Meeting the only other foreigner of the expedition
During the 13 days in the Dolpa region, I only met one other foreigner. His name was Alex Conty and he is walking 1700km – the length of the Himalaya in Nepal – in an attempt to raise £100,000 for children affected by autism in Nepal and the UK. Even more impressive is that he is attempting the feat alone with minimal support from porters and guides.
Alex was just past half-way when I saw him. He seemed in great spirits considering how far he had already walked. His guide had to be evacuated from the mountains just as we met him as he was coughing up blood. This shows how difficult walking the length of Nepal can be. It was strange to meet a Westerner in such a remote spot in the Himalaya. Even though I had been away from civilisation for such a shorter period of time than Alex, we still had a lot in common. It was nice to share our stories and hear about his experience so far.
I wish Alex the best of luck for the rest of his challenge. You can support Alex by donating at his website: https://www.himalayasforautism.org.uk
If you enjoyed part two of my adventure in Nepal, you can sign up for updates for future posts below. This is only part two of what will be a number of posts about the Dolpa region in Nepal.
Dolpa is one of the most remote regions of the Himalaya. Only open to foreigners from 1989, it is far away from the standard tourist routes in Nepal. Throughout the expedition, I was stunned by the beauty of the mountains, the kindness of the local people and the amount of wildlife thriving in this often arid and dusty landscape.
This is the first of a series of posts about my almost month-long expedition to the Himalaya in Nepal. There will be tips and advice for anyone that is planning to visit the Dolpa region or any other part of the Himalaya.
All of the photos are taken by me using either a GoPro 4 or a small Nikon 1 compact camera.
This expedition was organised by the Army Mountaineering Association to celebrate its 60th anniversary. A total of 24 of us were selected and split into two teams: a climbing team and a trekking team. As I have little climbing experience, I was selected for the trekking team.
Route and Stats
Below is a detailed GPS track of the route that I took along with the GPS coordinates for each campsite. Here are some quick stats of the final route:
Distance: 114.1 miles
Minimum elevation: 6,581 feet (2,005 metres)
Maximum elevation: 17,070 feet (5,202 metres)
Total climb: 37,132 feet (11,317 metres)
Total descent: 35,868 feet (10,932 metres)
After spending 2 days in the UK as a group – organising kit and receiving cultural and medical briefs, we were finally on the way to Nepal. After a short stop in New Dehli, we finally landed in Kathmandu and could get some well-needed rest. Some of the group planned to do some last minute kit shopping before heading off to the mountains.
I didn’t feel the need to buy any kit. The Army had issued us with all of the latest gear and it was pretty amazing. Mountain Equipment sleeping bags, jackets and trousers, fancy Thermarest roll mats, a Rab down jacket and more. It’s by far the best kit I have ever been issued by the Army. It is a long way from my early days of leather gloves that ruined once wet, for warmth a ‘Norwegian’ jumper and the good old leather combat highs that took about a year to break in.
Swayambhu Stupa or ‘Monkey Temple’
For some cultural emersion, I decided to visit the Swayambhu Stupa or ‘Monkey Temple’. According to Wikipedia, “It is probably the most sacred site among Buddhist pilgrimage sites. For Tibetans and followers of Tibetan Buddhism, it is second only to Boudha.” I thought the site was really interesting. As soon as I entered, there were women burning incense and praying to statues of Buddha. They were also having a communal feast. This was one of the first of many instances of increased sense of community in Nepal when compared to the UK. This turned out to be a common theme throughout the adventure.
On the way up to the top of the Stupa (wiki again, “is a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics”), there was a large group of people gathered in a circle. I could hear clapping and cheering from a distance so I went to investigate. It was like an impromptu scene from a musical. The girls were all on one side and the men were on the other. At random, a local police officer would grab one of the men and throw him into the middle. The peer pressure of the clapping eventually got him to dance and sometimes one of the girls would join in and show him how it is done. Personally, I think this is a great use of police resources. Genuinely! Everybody seemed to be having lots of fun which in turn means there should be less crime. I’m sure that logic makes sense…. this could catch on in the UK.
The Stupa is surrounded by holy monkeys. Again straight from Wikipedia, “They are holy because Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom and learning, was raising the hill which the Swayambhu Stupa stands on. He was supposed to leave his hair short but he made it grow long and head lice grew. It is said that the head lice transformed into these monkeys.” I don’t really understand most of this either and it sounds a bit crazy to me. Either way, there are loads of monkeys here causing trouble.
They are extremely used to being surrounded by tourists and use this to their advantage to get food. I was holding onto a bottle of Fanta that I had just bought from a small shop. It was a really hot day so I was very much looking forward to the refreshing relief that the drink would offer. One of the monkeys must have recognised the delicious orange goodness in the bottle and had decided that it too wanted the Fanta all for itself. Without even a please or thank you, the monkey leapt, grabbed the bottle (which is in my hand) and tried to snatch it away. Unluckily for this little mite, I had a vice grip on the bottle of fizzy carbonated sugar and thwarted the thieving monkey’s attempt. I received a kick in the stomach from the monkey before it scarpered off. A suspicious American couple were mysteriously filming the whole incident. My conclusion. The Americans must have tipped the monkey off and set the whole ambush up.
Lesson: beware of the holy monkeys and be even more aware of suspicious looking Americans!
This was one of the best journeys I’ve had in an aircraft since my days as a young air cadet when I got to fly in a Tucano over East Yorkshire.
All 12 of us climbed onto a tiny aircraft with only 15 seats (two for the pilots and one for the stewardess). Once the propellers started, you had to shout at full blast to be heard by anyone. This made the safety brief rather interesting.
We left the town of Nepalgunj on the Indian border (150 metres above sea level) and set off to our destination of Juphal (2,175 metres above sea level). It was only a short flight but almost immediately I could smell the tangy, pungent smell of somebody’s vomit. It was dribbling its way from the rear of the plane, under the seats and all the way to the front. Needless to say, it wasn’t a gentle flight. The aircraft winded its way through mountain passes before making a hard bank to the left at what felt ridiculously close to the towering mountainside. The expert pilot, wearing standard issue aviators and enough duty-free aftershave to drown out the smell of the puke, levelled the aircraft and started to make his landing.
We had not joined the list of crashed aircraft that we saw littered at the bottom of the steep drop before the dust covered runway. This was a great way to start a trekking adventure. Stepping off the plane, we were surrounded by snow-topped mountains, lush green valleys and the most remote villages I have ever seen.
Juphal is a fairly large village by Dolpa standards. I imagine this is due to its proximity to the airstrip. It sits high on the side of a mountain and has stunning views.
Upon landing, we were taken through the village to a community centre. Walking through our first Nepalese village was an experience that brought all of my senses to life. Around each corner of the tight, dusty streets were free roaming goats, chickens and donkeys. The small, stone built buildings were filled with smoke from the fires that cooked food. Piles of dried Ox dung were being thrown onto the fires as fuel. It was like going back in time. Children wearing their smartest clothes raced past us with happy faces on their way to school.
Escaping the pollution of Kathmandu and the hectic life that a city breeds, was a welcome relief.
Once we had eaten some Dal Bhat (steamed rice with lentil soup), we were ready to start the trek. Over a 100 miles and lots of climbing awaited. I was excited and couldn’t wait to get going.