So you’ve managed to navigate the world map and narrow down your list of trekking destinations. Maybe you’ve already picked ‘the one’ and booked it in. You’re starting to think about all those hill climbs and heavy pack walks you should schedule in to get fit enough for your trek. But what about your gear? Are your trusty boots going to hold out? Should you pack poles? How can you possibly fit it all in one pack and under the minimum baggage weight?
Don’t leave these questions to the last minute – plan ahead with these six essential trekking gear tips!
Featured image: Salcantay Trek, Dave Casey
1. Finding the ‘perfect’ boot is essential
No other piece of equipment can impact the enjoyment of your trek more than your boots. There’s a huge range of suitable footwear on the market, and it all comes down to your foot and the type of terrain you will be trekking on. How much ankle support do you need? Should you opt for leather or fabric? Is it worth sacrificing a bit of breathability for the waterproof gore-tex lining?
We recommend: On all of our treks graded 3 and above, it is recommended that you walk in a full boot for ankle support with sturdy vibram sole to help with stability on rough and uneven terrain. Quality does cost more, yet it’s worth it when you consider how long your boots will last and how much they can make or break your trek.
Your ‘old faithful’ boots: If you’re considering packing your ‘old faithful’ boots, take a moment to consider if they really have enough life in them for the conditions ahead. Extreme heat or cold and constant wetting and drying can deteriorate the stitching and glue in old boots, meaning you’ll potentially find yourself digging around for a spare shoelace or gaffa tape to keep your sole attached.
Leather vs fabric: Full grain leather boots are denser and therefore more water resistant, durable and supportive. They are fantastic for longer treks, rocky terrain and carrying loads. Though they will conform to your foot over time, leather boots do require a bit more of a break-in period than fabric boots and are slightly heavier. Fabric boots have the benefits of breathability, lower cost and relative ease of breaking in, though they are often not the best choice for a challenging alpine hike requiring durable and waterproof footwear.
The ‘perfect’ fit: Every boot is built around a different “last” (foot shape) so each one will fit a little differently. The only way to know is to try them on! Don’t rely solely on your usual shoe size, as sizing may vary by brand. Furthermore, consider that your foot will swell after a day on the trail at altitude and going up a half size is recommended.
Other boot fitting tips:
- Before fitting, test that the sole flexes/bends where your foot does – at the ball of the foot.
- Try your boots on with the right socks – eg thick hiking sock or liner + hiking sock.
- If one foot is larger, fit your larger foot first. You may need extra socks or an insert to take up the extra space in the other boot.
- Before lacing up, slide your feet forward in the boot while bending your knee (to mimic walking down a hill) and try to stick one finger between your heel and the back of the shoe. One finger should fit snugly, if two can fit then the boot is too big.
- Lace up the boots and push your feet forward again. Your toes must be free to wiggle and should not touch the front of the boots – if they touch the front then the boots are too small.
- Do some deep knee bends. Your heels should not rise in the boots more than about 3mm.
- Stand flat on the floor with someone holding the boots to restrain movement. Try to move the front of the foot sideways with the heel as a pivot. No side movement of the ball of the foot should be noticeable.
Try and try again: Once you find your ‘magic’ boots, walk around in them in your home to make sure you are confident with the fit and there are no niggling areas. By testing them at home, you give yourself that little extra time to allow for an exchange.
2. Blisters can be prevented with a few easy tips
After concerns about fitness, blisters are the second biggest worry for new trekkers. Blisters are caused by friction, heat and sweating. Prevention is far better than a cure, so here are our top tips for blister prevention.
- Make sure your shoes fit properly – too tight or too loose will often cause issues.
- Break your boots in before your trekking holiday – especially leather boots. Start with short walks around the house, graduate to daywalks and then take them on longer hikes. Learn your ‘hot spots’ to focus on for prevention.
- Quality socks are essential – many trekkers prefer to wear a liner sock under a heavier hiking sock to wick moisture and keep the foot dry. Try a merino wool or polypropylene liner in cold conditions or a Coolmax liner for warm to hot conditions.
- Keep dry – using foot powder with the right sock can really help to prevent moisture from gathering.
- Lubricant – Body Glide is great for reducing friction. Many runners and walkers use it on their feet as well as other friction points on their body to prevent chafing.
- Blister blocks and second skin – if you have ‘hot spots’ that are prone to blisters, try applying these items prior to your walk. They can also be used for protection and cushioning after a blister has formed.
- Wrapping and taping – tape any pressure points or hot spots each day with athletic tape or moleskin. Make sure there are no wrinkles in the tape that might rub.
3. Trekking Poles are worth all the hype
Studies have shown that walking with poles can reduce the pressure strain on the opposite leg by approximately 20% (Dr G Neureuther, 1981). Furthermore, while walking on an incline, poles reduce the body weight carried by the legs by approximately 8kg (5kg on flat terrain).
Using poles also allows trekkers lengthen their strides, putting less strain on their knees (American College of Sports Medicine Journal, 2001). Though it still may be an exhausting day on the trail, trekking poles can certainly make the long days easier and more enjoyable.
In summary, the use of trekking poles while walking reduces fatigue, increases speed, provides excellent stability, increases the distance that can be comfortably travelled each day and reduces accumulated stress on the feet, legs, knees and back.
Step-by step instructions on how to set your pole length for a good compromise between uphill and downhill:
- “Unlock” the upper and lower sections of both poles.
- Extend the lower section of both poles to just less than the maximum limit and “lock” the lower sections.
- Stand up straight with shoulders relaxed.
- Place one pole under an arm and adjust the length so that the top of the pole is halfway between your armpit and elbow.
- “Lock” the upper section of that pole in place.
- Use the fully locked pole as a “ruler” to adjust the length of your second pole.
4. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing
As much as we all want every day to be mild temperatures with a splash of sunshine, the reality is that an alpine environment is completely unpredictable.
A quality waterproof jacket and pants are essential. You pay for what you get – the bigger the price tag, the lighter, more durable and breathable the jacket. For most of our treks where you only carry a daypack, a lightweight waterproof jacket should suffice. Ensure it is breathable and durable and comes down over your hips with a proper storm hood. We also recommend lightweight and breathable waterproof pants, or ‘overpants’ for our alpine treks. For very little weight or space, these pants can really make your day more enjoyable when the skies unexpectedly open up!
Wash your jacket regularly: Waterproof garments can lose their effectiveness overtime due to the build up of dirt, sweat, oil and sunscreen. These contaminants, along with general wear and abrasion, cause the DWR (durable water repellent) finish to wear off. This means the water no longer beads up and rolls off. Instead, you will experience ‘wetting out’, which is that feeling of dampness on the inside of your jacket, due to dirt allowing water molecules to be drawn into the face fabric. If you’re starting to feel damp and clammy, or if your jacket is no longer shedding water, then it’s time to wash and dry!
Simply wash your jacket according to the instructions on the label, usually in cold water on a gentle cycle with a free rinsing soap – you can put it through the rinse cycle twice to make sure the soap washes out. Don’t forget to remove anything from the pockets and zip all zippers first. Once clean, spray a DWR all over the wet garment and dry it on low/medium on a tumble dryer.
5. The ‘layering principle’ is the key to dressing for all temperatures
You’ve probably heard of a ‘layering system’ – but what does this mean?
Essentially, you wear a larger number of light layers of clothing, rather than a few thick layers. This gives you versatility in ever-changing conditions and climates. It also allows for extra warmth by trapping air between and inside each layer, creating a higher level of insulation.
There are four basic layers:
- Base Layer – the layer closest to your skin which wicks sweat from your skin and disperse it to the next layer where it can eventually evaporate. A base layer should fit snugly but not be restricting.
- Mid Layer – something you wear over your base layer for a bit of extra warmth, such as a merino thermal or lightweight fleece. Ideally you’ll want your mid layer to feature a zipper for more venting options. Mid layers should be more robust than your base layer, but still comfortable and lightweight. In mild conditions, your mid layer is also your top layer.
- Insulation Layer – this layer is solely for additional warmth. Look for something that is breathable, lightweight, low-bulk and able to retain warmth. Down takes the gold medal for the most trusted insulation layer with its ability to provide lots of warmth for very little weight or bulk. Synthetic down is also becoming popular with its ability to retain thermal efficiency even when wet. If you’re going somewhere cold and wet, synthetic down is a great option.
- Outer Layer – your outer layer is all about protecting you from the wind, rain and snow, while also being breathable to allow your sweat and body heat to escape.
Even if you’re trekking in a traditionally warm climate or season, keep in mind that temperatures drop at altitude and also at night. The wind chill can also be a frosty factor as you climb to higher elevations. So, don’t forget your extremities! You can apply the same layering principle to your hands and feet, using a liner glove with thicker mittens or over mittens.
6. Packing light is mentally liberating too
Although you will likely board the flight from Kathmandu to Lukla in numerous layers and your trusty hiking boots, it still can be a challenge for many to get their duffle down to just 15kg. Dragging around a super stuffed bag will also frustrate you every time you need to dig around to find something.
Here are a few easy tips to packing light:
- Packing light takes a bit of thought: Make a list, lay it all out, cull it back, then cull it back again
- Shop light: Professional gear stores stock a massive range of lightweight clothing, knowing that every gram counts!
- Pack less: You’ll be surprised how many days you can wear a quality base layer or pair of hiking socks before they really need to be retired. You really only need 3 pairs of hiking socks and 4-5 base layers for a 2 week trek
- Pick up some wilderness wash: This biodegradable all purpose soap is ideal for washing your body and your clothes
- Use packing cells: These lightweight compartments help to organise your clothing and gear so you can find what you need quickly and separate the ‘clean’ from ‘dirty’
Thanks to our friends at Paddy Pallin, who have been outfitting trekkers since 1930, for their useful and experienced advice for this post. We always recommend that you visit a quality outfitter for the most knowledgeable support when it comes selecting and fitting your boots and trekking gear.