During the past 11 months we have finished nine treks on four continents, totaling 378 miles (605 kilometers). Here are the first set of things I have learned while hiking in all different conditions and environments around the world:
1. Little things can become big things
When trekking for multiple days it is important to anticipate the problems that may arise. A little thing like the wrong clothes or a newly developed blister can make a hike miserable or even turn it into something worse. In Laos several little things became big things: pouring rain, treacherous trails, lack of food and water and annoying leeches. As we hiked after a downpour, hundreds of leeches appeared on the trail. We did not plan for leeches and were totally unprepared. The leeches somehow figured out how to get into our boots and soon were trying to get though our socks and to our bare feet.
We stopped at a river to remove our shoes and assess the extent of the leech problem. As soon as we flicked a leech off of our feet, it tried to reattach itself to some other exposed part of our body! This little thing had now become a big thing and, even though only a couple of leeches ultimately made their way through to our skin, this was a big factor in deciding to cut this trek short and focus on school visits. We now try to consider all the worst case scenarios before each trek and plan accordingly.
2. Nothing is impossible as long as you have food and water
We have had some long days hiking. The most distance we covered in one day was a little less than 15 miles (24 kilometers) in Nepal. We also had times where there was a great deal of elevation gain and loss, sometimes with over 1,000 feet (300 meters) in both directions during the same day! When the going gets tough, food and water can make it a lot easier to continue. We have experienced the benefits of having food and water and the cost of not maintaining a sufficient supply.
On our self-supported treks in Australia, Sweden and Jordan we planned carefully to ensure we had the proper food and an ample supply of it. Where we could buy it, we purchased freeze-dried food which is much lighter to carry. If that was not available we bought rice, pasta, couscous or instant mashed potatoes as a base and added other items to it. Having all this food made our packs heavy but we were never hungry and had the energy to continue, regardless of the hiking conditions.
During our first hike on the Overland Track in Tasmania, Australia, we were still getting used to trekking so took frequent breaks to eat and drink. In Laos, we were supported by a guide so did not worry about having our own snacks. This became a problem as he had very little food and it was not enough to keep us going on a steep trail in the humid heat. From that point on we brought our own snacks, even on a supported trek.
We also had a couple of situations on supported treks where there was just not enough water provided. On the last day of our Kenyan walking safari trek we hiked 10 1/2 miles (about 17 kilometers) in the heat with no shade and very little water. I actually fainted after arriving at camp. Going forward we brought our own extra water as well.
3. ‘Trail’ can mean many things
I love to hike but am a klutz when it comes to uneven terrain. So when we planned our trip I tried to ensure that the treks we chose were on trails and did not involve climbing or scrambling. I soon found out that the term ‘trail’ is all relative. It may mean a wide footpath, or a track with huge rocks or tree trunks to navigate around. It may not even be a trail at all but a walk straight up a ridge. Rivers may need to be crossed or actual rock scrambling may be required. We came across all of these situations while trekking.
In Kyrgyzstan we encountered a macrocosm of all these conditions. We scrambled across huge boulders, hiked in snow, and crossed multiple rivers by wading, jumping across rocks and even walking across a narrow log with rushing water several feet below! Probably the most harrowing part of hiking in Kyrgyzstan was trekking along a cliff with a 100 foot drop-off and no trail. I literally followed our guide’s exact steps in front of me to keep from falling.
The hiking that we did in Kyrgyzstan was some of the most beautiful of our entire journey. However, it provided many moments when my knees were shaking from fright. This hike did prepare me for other difficult trekking situations later on in the journey. “What does not kill you makes you stronger”, goes the saying, and that was true in this case!
4. There is no right way to cross a river
We have crossed our share of rivers during our treks. One could only hope for the beautiful wood or metal bridges that we found on Australia’s Overland Track. However, in many cases we needed to find a way to get across rivers, either by a route of rock hopping, or, if all else failed, wading across. At times, when deciding how to cross a given river, Darren and I would differ on approaches. One series of rocks looked good to him, another one looked better to me. We ended up going our own ways across and neither of us has fallen in to date. This was also the case when we had guides. Many times we took their suggestions for getting across but other times I was more comfortable with the way I had chosen so ignored their advice and went my own way.
In the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia we had to cross just one main river during the entire trek. However, there was just no good way to get across. Our guide found one route and was ready to start crossing when I spied a better way just downstream. It was still precarious and I ended up getting my right boot a little wet as I trailed the foot when jumping to the next rock.
While in Sweden’s Arctic Circle, we completed over 20 river crossings during just one of the trekking days. Most of these were easily accomplished but late in the afternoon on the second day we came to a large river with no obvious way to cross it. As we looked for a series of rocks to hop across, it began to rain. Impatient and anxious to get to camp for the night, we took off our shoes and socks and started to wade across. It was ice cold! We went as quickly as possible, with our legs numb from the frigid water. The current was strong and balancing was difficult. Once across, we sat down to put our shoes and socks on and started hiking again.
In the end, staying as dry as possible is the most important thing, no matter how you get across!
5. Walking sticks are your friend
We have hiked on many types of terrain during our treks. This made things challenging, but without walking sticks, some of the hiking would have been downright impossible. In Jordan we had the greatest concentration of stony trails and scrambling during our four day trek to Petra.
We have been big walking stick proponents for quite some time. In addition to making the traverse of uneven paths easier, the sticks help when the going is steep and also take the load off your knees. Our walking sticks fold up into thirds so are small and fit into our rolling duffels when we are not trekking. They are indeed an important component of our trekking gear.
My other five lessons learned will be published next week.