Musings of an Independent (Solo) Trekker – “You do your best and trust God to do the rest”
Sathya Venakatachari is an IT professional and a trekker. Satya is unique because he is one of the rare trekkers who treks solo in the Himalayas.
My definition of A Solo/Independent : This is a trek where the trekker is self-contained in all aspects of the trek for the entire duration of the trek.
There are a few key aspects when it comes to being self-sufficient on a trek :
Self-sufficiency and Fitness
First let us look at some key items that would be in the independent trekker’s backpack.
- Food : Say for 3-4 days or to get to a place where one can replenish food supplies
- Fuel : Petrol/Kerosene to cook food for about a week
- Utensils : Plates/Spoon/Vessel to cook food in
- Clothing : There needs to be sufficient warm clothing (assuming you are trekking in the mountains). However, this is one aspect where one has to be really selective if one wants to travel light. My thumb rule 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
Choosing a Trail
The next aspect of an independent trek is identifying a trail that meets your criteria. Some trekkers like the popular/established trekking routes while others prefer the routes less explored. Personally, most important for me is to determine whether the trail would be 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, track, stone cairns and the general lay of the land.
Some research of the terrain is also critical as this (along with the season) would determine the kind of equipment one would need to carry. For example does one expect landslides, scree, boulder zone, river crossings, snow/ice/crevasses. Depending on this one may need to take rope/ice-axes/crampons/snow-shoes. The challenge when one has to carry a lot of equipment is that your backpack becomes too heavy to carry yourself. Then one would need to hire a porter. If the trail is too fraught with danger (say crevasses) or not easily identifiable then one would need to employ the services of a local guide. If one employs the services of a guide/porter then some would say that you are no longer trekking solo -J. So one really needs to choose the trail carefully.
Personally, to avoid guides/porters I prefer somewhat established trails.
Choosing the Season
The season (time of the year) for doing the trek is another important factor. It determines whether one 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 choice of season determines the kind of views you might get.
Arranging the Permits
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 the amount of red-tapism and bureaucracy one has to endure is unimaginable.
One of the keys to enjoy my travel in the Himalayas is to travel without time constraints (something difficult to imagine for folks in the corporate world). What I mean by this is that in the mountains one has to learn to submit oneself and enjoy the vagaries of Mother Nature. Irrespective of your best planning 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 for example there is a river crossing and the river is in full flow and crossing it seems dangerous, then one has to be prepared to wait it out or even abort the crossing and retrace ones path. Though aborting a trek , without a sense of failure/disappointment, is easier said than done -J , it is wiser to live so that one can attempt to cross this hurdle another time.
Benefits of solo/independent trekking
Pre-trek preparation/Fitness : One takes care that he/she is really fit/prepared to do the trek both physically and mentally as you know that there is no one to help you in case you are trouble during the trek.
Differentiating between wants/needs for the trek : Knowing that you have to carry your own backpack you will start differentiating between your wants and your needs very easily. You will be surprised at how little you actually need.
- Knowledge/Study of the trail/terrain & logistics : A person who travels independently has more knowledge & does more research about the trail, how to reach it, what permits are required and what logistical arrangements are required than one who is going through an organized trek.
- Sense of accomplishment : The sense of accomplishment on doing an independent travel is far greater than an organized trek and is something that needs to be experienced.
- Discovering Yourself : One gets to discover ones own limits and is surprised by the extent to which your mind and body can push itself, especially when faced with adversity. As you travel alone when you are fatigued you will find reserves of energy which you never knew, existed within you. Once you experience this I found that it is something that can benefit you in other aspects of life.
- Risk analysis/Decision Making/ Planning : Your risk taking/risk analysis, decision making and planning skills are tested everyday. The stakes are high 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 for non-believers)/ Nature : One’s appreciation of Nature (call it God if you will) and the realization of how much one depends of fate increases. It reaches a new high.
Finally, a few question I have often been asked.
Is it not dangerous to travel alone ?
Yes it is dangerous to trek alone. If you have a friend/partner who would travel with you do go with them.
What happens if you are injured or if you fall sick ?
If you are travelling alone and are injured or fall sick it is a risky business. If it is a frequented trail you may get assistance and if it is not a frequented trail then you would have to bear the pain and fight through your sickness. Luckily, for me I have not encountered this situation and thank god for it.
What happens if you find wild animals on the trail ?
Of course wild animals can attack on trails
- Don’t you feel afraid when you camp alone ?
Due to the above reasons is why I am of the opinion as you trek solo your faith/belief increases. So I conclude this section by saying “You do your best and trust God to do the rest”
Here is a counter-view for the “Independent Style Trekking”.
I ask myself “Why do you trek ?”
The principal reasons are to enjoy nature and to enjoy the walk. If those are the objectives and if I can afford it why not achieve the above objectives with luxury and comfort. That is what “Sahib Style” trekking essentially is.
“Sahib Style” trekking achieves the above objectives without the additional challenges (pains if you will) of “independent style treks”.
The following are some of the key characteristics of “Sahib Style Trekking” :-
- Porters/Mules to carry your luggage
- Guides to show you the way
- Cook to ensure that you have tasty, nutritious and timely food along your way (often with desserts included)
- A dining tent where you sit comfortably in a spacious tent replete with tables and chairs
- A Kitchen tent where the cook & his staff (often comprising a helper or two) cook hot meals for you. Sometimes the staff even carries gas cylinders for use in the kitchen
- A spacious tent for you having a sleeping mat, warm sleeping bags and in some cases I have seen a layer or two of quilt blankets/comforters
- Besides the standard medical kit often the trekking agency would provide for an oxygen cylinder for larger trekking groups in a high-altitude trek. This oxygen cylinder would get carried by a porter who accompanies the trekking group (walking along with them)
- Guides would go to the extent of carrying their clients on their backs if you find a particular stretch (say a stream crossing) tough to negotiate
- There is enough 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
- Throw in a bonfire at night
Now, you probably have a good picture of what I am talking about.
The big question is what does this do your trekking experience ?
Well there are 2 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 camcoders/cameras without the inherent risks/discomforts/challenges of “independent style trekking”.
- Another view is that it by taking away the inherent risks/discomforts/challenges of “independent style trekking” it takes away a lot from the trekking experience and gives one a reduced sense of accomplishment.
Irrespective of which view one subscribes to there are definitely a few non-debatable benefits to “Sahib Style trekking” :-
- It gives you good local company (porters/guides) resulting in a better understanding and appreciation of the local knowledge/culture/customs and practices.
- It helps infuse finance into the hands of the local community better (especially if you arrange for the porters/guides directly as opposed through a trekking agency).
- It keeps you away from the “Red-tapism” and “Organisational hassles” of getting permits
However, as you will all agree, there are no “Free lunches” in this world. All this comes at a price. The cost of an organized trek is often 3-5 times (sometimes more) that of an independent trek. The magnitude of the difference(compared to independent trek) is a factor of the size of your group (in an organized trek), the level of comforts (from the above list) that you seek.
What is my view on “Sahib Style Trekking” vs “Independent Trekking” ?
Well, I prefer to do my treks within a budget and I also prefer solitude during my treks. So, I definitely prefer the independent style of trek. I also like being self-sufficient, carrying my own backpack and finding the route on my own (where possible). However, when route finding is going to be very difficult then I would prefer to employ the services of a guide (who could also double as a part time porter/cook).