8 Ways to Mentally Prepare for a Solo Adventure

By Marinel de Jesus

Mentally prepare 1Being a solo traveler, and even more so, a solo hiker or backpacker can be an intimidating endeavor to undertake.  I cannot emphasize enough the need to be comfortable when partaking in anything serious such as hiking or backpacking in the wilderness by yourself.  The same goes for traveling as it’s just not worth it to feel overwhelmingly anxious to the extent that it outweighs the joy of traveling or trekking solo.

I, too, have gone through anxiety over being alone on my travels or in the mountains in my prior travels/treks in the past 15 years.  Despite being fully prepared, sometimes, the unexpected happens and the best you can do is to stay calm.  That way you can assess your situation more clearly and decide on the most appropriate action. But before you even dive into going solo on an extended travel or trek, it’s important to take baby steps to get you to a point where solo hiking/traveling falls within your comfort zone.   Here are some of my tips based on my own personal experience with hiking/trekking/traveling solo that will help prepare you mentally for the solo experience:

Start small

If you are completely new to traveling or trekking solo, then start out with a day hike or day trip.  Then, as you feel more comfortable with solitude and organizing the logistics of your hike or travel, you can build that up by adding more days, thereby transforming it into a weekend trip.  There’s no reason to go extremely extravagant on your first time hiking or traveling solo.

Why would you want to spend so much money on a 4-week solo trip only to find out that you dread the experience of going alone?  Avoid regrets and do a test run first.  Start with a day or two, and then build up.

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Study your itinerary

Sure, at some point you will want to be spontaneous. Book the flight and go.  But to calm down that anxiety from going solo, it’s recommended that you do plenty of research on your destination or the trail you wish to hike.   You can never have enough information, especially if the place you’re traveling to or hiking in is a first time destination.  Even with a place you have been to before, I would still recommend doing plenty of research because oftentimes when we go with people, we tend not to pay attention to the logistics the way we normally would when it’s only us that we have to rely upon for guidance.

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Get advice and tips from others who have been to the trail or place you are eyeing

Mentally prepare 7This is part of your research and it’s crucial to take advantage of any resources that are out there for you to learn about the trail or place.  For example, when I went to China, the resources for the trails in that country were hard to find because it was either the trails were still unknown to the western world or the blogs or information were written in Mandarin.  However, still, I managed to find a few websites which turned out to be heaven sent as they helped significantly in planning my trip.  An equally better resource is, of course, an actual consultation with someone who had been to the trail or place of your choice.  The advice given is usually invaluable as you won’t find such information online or anywhere else.  Note that most people are more than happy to share their travel wisdom and experiences so there’s no reason to be shy.

 

Learn to love yourself

Somewhere along the way on your trek, travel or both, you will get frustrated with yourself.  You will make mistakes here and there.  Before you venture out on your own, it is important to have a good grasp of self-love.  By that, I mean, learn to be easy on yourself.  Be forgiving of your mistakes and learn to go with the flow of life.  Understand that mistakes are inevitable including yours, and that’s okay.  In addition, loving yourself also means taking care of you.  While on the trail or the road, eating healthy and maintaining a workout routine are critical.

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Learn to smile and be friendly

This should really be a given even if you’re traveling with others.  But in the world of solo trekking or traveling, a friendly demeanor can truly save you at times.  A smile can easily attract the right stranger to help you with directions or a fellow hiker who can become your trail friend for days.  At the same time, be mindful of the level of friendliness that you are exhibiting, especially if you are a female who finds herself interacting with a male.  An appropriate level of friendliness is the key.  Practice smiling and chatting with strangers in your daily life and you’ll soon make this a habit that will carry over to your solo adventure with ease.

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Practice fine tuning your intuition

Mentally prepare 5Expect chats and interactions with strangers when you venture on your own.  It’s part of the adventure, and in most instances, it’s really the highlight.  Oftentimes, the people you strike a conversation with in far-away places or in the middle of nowhere are exactly the ones that become your long-time friends.   At the same time, learn to pay attention to your intuition.  You have it for a reason.  Your intuition is your imaginary friend – it knows better than you at times even though the actual circumstances in front of you may not clearly support the sense of danger that your intuition is warning you about.  So, listen to that intuition the same way you listen to your body when you feel pain.  It is nagging you for a reason.

 

Disregard all the above preparation and go for it (assuming you keep an open mind)

Having said all the above tips, you can still opt to disregard them all and just take the leap into the abyss of solo traveling/trekking.  By doing so, you will learn at a faster rate all the above.  It’s a crash course that can potentially maximize the lessons learned in a little bit harder way.  As long as you are aware of the risks, then, sure, why not just go for it all at once?

So, there you have it.  This list is just a start.  Preparing your mind for that solo adventure is as important, if not more, as the things you put in your backpack.  So, take the time to prep!

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A review on High-Altitude Trekking in Ladakh, India

Political Location Map of Ladakh (Leh)
Political Location Map of Ladakh (Leh)

Getting there:

The easiest way to get to Ladakh is by flying from Delhi to Leh (the biggest town in Ladakh).  It’s a two day drive from either Srinagar or Manali and you will pass over some of the world’s highest motorable passes.  Be prepared for road closures, altitude sickness, motion sickness, and at least a few adrenaline filled moments.

 

Reviewed by:

Carley Fairbrother, British Columbia Canada.

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Carley is a self-declared nature nerd from British Columbia, Canada.  She spent seven years  as a backcountry park ranger in northern BC before becoming an elementary school teacher.  She enjoys hiking, canoeing, cycling, climbing, wild foraging, snowshoeing, skiing and most things outdoors.  She also runs a YouTube channel dedicated to teaching people about nature and inspiring them to get outside.  She travelled Ladakh in the summer of 2017 with her husband, Clay.

 

Best time to visit:

Peak season in Ladakh is mid-June to August. The weather is warm and all of the roads are open. However, September and early October are less crowded, and monsoon season is over, making the roads safer and rivers on trekking routes easier to cross.

 

Climate/weather/temperature & appropriate dress

Ladakh, nestled in the rain shadow of the Himalayas, is classified as a cold desert. Winter temperatures average well below freezing. In Leh, summer temperatures can get into the high 30s (celsius) during the day, but nights are still chilly, and most treks will take you into higher elevations where temperatures are cooler.  There isn’t much shade n Ladakh, so when the sun is shining, it is relentless.  Expect a windchill of -20° celsius if you are going over 6000m.

Bring warm clothes, especially if you are trekking or climbing.  Don’t forget a rain coat. June-September is monsoon season throughout India, even in the desert.

Leave your shorts and tank tops at home.  While Ladakh can get hot, it’s important to note that local women, even the ones who wear western clothes, will rarely show their arms or legs. While nothing horrible is likely come from you wearing shorts, covering your shoulders and legs shows respect for the local culture. Plus you may save yourself a nasty sunburn. Bring light breathable pants and t-shirts.

 

Main attractions/Must dos

The mountains.

Just being surrounded by them may be enough, but here are a number of “trekking peaks” over 6000m.  These peaks are advertised as non-technical, but usually require ice axe, crampons’, and rope, so unless you are an experienced mountaineer, they are best attempted with a  guide.  At 6,153 m, Stok Kangri is by far the most popular, but it is far from easy.  It requires at least three days (usually 4-5) of trekking, a midnight start on summit day, a glacier crossing, some nerves of steel, and plenty of acclimatization.

 

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Looking up at the mountains on the drive to Pangong Lake

 

Trekking.

If clinging to the edge of a mountain with an ice axe doesn’t appeal to you, there are many milder treks.  The Markha Valley trek is a popular 4-10 day trek. It is one of the few treks in Ladakh that offer homestays the whole way, so there is no need to carry a tent or hire ponies.  There is also lots of information available on the route and is  easy to do without a guide.

 

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The fertile Markha Valley

 

The culture.

Many people travel to Ladakh solely for the culture and history.  Ladakh is sometimes referred to as “Little Tibet,” and is culturally and geographically similar to Tibet.  There are plenty of ancient monasteries and palaces to explore.

 

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Looking up at Thiksey Monestary

 

Key Highlights for me

Sunrises at 6000 m

We climbed two mountains over 6000 m while in Ladakh, Stok Kangri and Mentok Kangri  Both required midnight starts, so dawn hit as we were nearing the top.   They were both extremely challenging, exhausting, and a little terrifying, especially when trying to navigate at night.  Once the sun came up, we got our second wind and up we went. 

 

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Our trek through Changtang

Chantang is part of the Tibetan Plateau and home to the nomadic Changpa people. We spent seven days crossing it do get to the base of Mentok Kangri, our first climb.  Among the highlights were the settlements of Changpa nomads, spotting the numerous kiang (wild asses), camping while surrounded by grazing yaks, ponies, donkeys, and goats.

 

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Yaks visit our tent at Korzok Pho, a summer camp of the Changpa Nomads on the Chantang Plateau

 

 

Exploring ruins

I loved exploring the many old, crumbling buildings.  My favourite was the ruins at the top of the hill above Shey Palace.

 

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The ruins above Shey Palace

 

Things that make this experience different or unique

The landscape

This is easily at the top of the list.  No matter where you are in Ladakh, you are surrounded by breathtaking views.  Be it giant mountains, windswept plateaus, or lush green valleys, Ladakh is the perfect blend of vibrancy and sparseness.

 

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The green pastures of Tso Kar Basin

 

The people

I found their honesty and kindness refreshing after the hustle and bustle of Delhi.  I especially enjoyed the Changpa Nomads, with their genuine smiles and tendency to sing while working.

 

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A local Changpa man provided the ponies for the trek

 

The animals

From the domesticated yaks and donkeys to the wild asses and blue sheep, I loved all the animals I saw in Ladakh.  We didn’t see one, but there was always the chance of seeing a snow leopard.

 

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A blue sheep visiting camp on the way up Stok Kangri

 

The roads

Ladakh is home to most of the highest motorable passes in the world. They navigate steep mountainsides on narrow, bumpy tracks.  They are often closed from landslides, and motorists often have to cross creeks, gullies, and washouts.  By then end of the trip, I was sick of them, but they sure did get the heart pumping.

 

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Things visitors should be aware of

Altitude

Leh is at 3,500 metres, which is high enough to get altitude sickness.  To travel most places, you will have to travel even higher.  Be aware of the symptoms and give yourself lots of time to acclimatize.  Consider bringing diamox to help you acclimatize.

 

Traveler’s Diarrhea

High altitude can alter your stomach flora, which, combined with India’s reputation for water and food borne pathogens, can be a nasty combination. Be wary of any raw foods that might have come in contact with water, including fresh juices and ice.   Bottled water is safe, but I’d recommend bringing a pump and treating your own water, as Ladakh has trouble dealing with all the empty bottles.  Consult a travel doctor about antibiotics for traveler’s diarrhea before you go.

 

Internet

Don’t count on internet access.  In fact, count on not having internet.  It can be down for months at a time.

 

Money

Always have lots of cash stashed away somewhere.  There are plenty of ATMs in Ladakh, but most of them don’t work.  Look for ATMs with lineups.

 

Booking tours

If you aren’t on a time crunch, don’t book a tour until you get there.  You can probably get a better price if you plan from Leh, and you’ll have some flexibility if a good opportunity comes up.

 

While here you should:

Go trekking

Trekking should be at the top of your list.  It’s the best way to meet locals, spot wildlife, and get a feel for Ladakh.

 

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Visiting with a pair of curious Changpa boys

 

Climb a mountain

If you can, don’t miss out on your chance to climb a Himalayan Peak.

 

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Clay’s final push to the top of Stok Kangri

 

Climb to the roof of Namgyal Tsemo Fort to watch the sunset over Leh.

 

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Visit Thiksey Monastery, a short drive from Leh. If you go early in the morning, you can listen to the monks chanting and avoid the crowds.   The 15 m statue of Maitrya Buddha is the biggest indoor one in Ladakh.  Its intricate details are pretty.

 

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 Ride the bactrian (two-humped) camels in Nubra Valley. This ended up being more of a tourist trap than I’d hoped, but it was still completely worth it.

 

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Budget considerations

Ladakh is a good deal more expensive than the rest of India. Expect to pay 30-50% more for food and accommodation than in the rest of India. You can probably get good deals on the shoulder seasons (spring and fall).

Transportation is probably the biggest expense.  Public transport isn’t as easy as the rest of India, so most tourists opt for taxis, which are unionized and have fixed rates.  This means less stress haggling, but higher fares.  Try to make friends at your hotel and share rides or keep your eye out on bulletin boards outside the many, many tour agencies for bulletins of people wanting to share taxis.  Expect to pay around $100 -180 USD a day for a taxi and driver.  Flights to and from Delhi cost around $100-300 USD.

A fully supported trip with a certified mountaineering guide, ponies, and a cook will cost around $50-100 per person per day, depending on how many people are in your group, your haggling skills, permit fees, and transportation costs. Be wary of price that are too good.  You will pay less if you have more people on your trip.  Just a mountaineering guide is around $25 a day.  Trekking guides cost considerably less.  Equipment rentals will cost around $12 a day per item.  Trekking peaks over 6000 m require permits, which can range from $50 to $300 or more.  Many places in Ladakh require inner line permits, but don’t panic – they are easy to get and cost a few dollars a day.

 

Facilities/nearby activities

Medical – There is a hospital in Leh.  Most larger towns have a small medical centre, and there are roadside medical tents at some villages and army checkpoints.

Transportation– The airport in Leh has scheduled flights to Delhi, Jammu, Chandigarh, Srinigar, and Mumbai.  Taxis and public buses are easy to find and both have central stands near town.  There are many motorcycle and bicycle rental shops.

Banks/ATMs – There are several banks on the Main Bazaar.  The State Bank of India has the most reliable ATMs.

Internet – WiFi is available at most hotels and tourist restaurants.  An internet cafe on Main Bazaar has extremely slow computers.  Unfortunately, Ladakh experiences frequent region-wide outages.

Phone – Phoning home can be tricky.  We needed to call home, and ended up using local’s cell phone because the internet phones were down.  Satellite phones are available in some villages for emergencies.  Cell service is surprisingly good along the roads, but SIM cards are hard for foreigners to get because of the proximity to the borders.

Tour Operators – There are hundreds of tour operators in Ladakh offering car tours, cycling, motorbike tours/rentals, cultural tours, bird/wildlife watching, meditation and yoga, white-water rafting, climbing, and paint balling (yes, paint balling).

Restaurants – Most tourist restaurants have similar menus with a variety of Ladakhi, Indian, Chinese, Israeli, and Western food. Take a short walk away from the tourist areas for cheap Indian food.

Shopping – Leh is absolutely packed with shops selling pashmina shawls, made from the wool of the adorable pashmina goat of the Changtang Plateau.  There are also plenty of handicraft and souvenir stores selling hippie clothes, wool hats, and knickknacks imported from Nepal.

 

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If coming here, don’t forget to bring:

A good first aid kit. There is a hospital in Leh anda few first aid posts in Ladakh, but if you hurt yourself trekking, you are on your own.  Make sure you bring antibiotics for stomach problems and consider bringing diamox for altitude, though it’s definitely better to acclimatize naturally.

Good travel insurance.  Check the fine print. Most travel insurance companies will exclude mountaineering injuries, and you can bet they’ll count any ascents of Ladhaki peaks as mountaineering.  Also check if they will cover mountain evacuation and any other dangerous activities you plan on doing.

If it’s in your budget, a SPOT or DeLorme inReach will give some peace of mind to your family.  These devices allow you to send messages and your location via satellite.

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A Diva Cup, or a similar menstrual cup.  Tampons and sanitary napkins can’t go into the toilets, and really shouldn’t go into the composting toilets on trekking routes. If you can’t stomach the idea of a reusable cup, bring your own tampons (they are hard to find in Ladakh) and put them in a trash bin or burn them.

A hat, sunscreen, sunglasses.  Hats drive me nuts, but I learned the hard way and nearly fried my nose off on our first trek.  After that, I got a hat.

 

Reviewer’s rating out of 10

I give it a 9.  I loved the mountains, and the unique culture, but after six weeks, I really missed the forests and lush vegetation I’m used to in Canada.

 

Find Out More

I will be releasing videos about my Ladakh trip throughout the fall and winter on my YouTube channel.   https://www.youtube.com/c/TheLastGrownupintheWoods1

Check out these videos of Carley’s trip in and around Ladakh:

 

 

 

 

The Lean-to Virgin, A Comical Journey

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By Janiel Green

My first backpacking trip turned out to be an utter disaster. The trip consisted of a backpacking, snow-shoeing trip up the mountaineering route at Mount Whitney in California. I labeled myself as a failure, and the weak link in the party of 3 whom attempted the trip. Granted it was my first time backpacking and had not been prepared for the struggles that were endured.

My trip started to unravel when I realized I had inadvertently grabbed the wrong sleeping bag for the November camping trip. I remember laying down to sleep and my shivering turned into jaw shattering convulsions of my body attempting not to freeze. It was the only time in my life I was afraid to fall asleep, because I did not think I would not wake up — I wanted to appear tough, so I stayed silent.

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I said many prayers the next morning when after an emergency blanket, hand warmers on arteries, and my down jacket literally saving my life I decided to always be properly prepared for my subsequent camping trips.

My next camping trip was also to Yosemite National Park, but it was a trip in September and we were packing in our tubes to float on a lake. My roommates at the time & I paired off to help ensure we didn’t forget anything.

 

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My sense of accomplishment came from my list of things I would need. My camping skills were significantly more adept for summer and fall camping then they were for winter camping to be sure. I was paired with my roommate who I lovingly call Jelly Bean, she had far less equipment than I, so I volunteered to gather the needed supplies and food.

lean-to 4With our packs set and the car loaded, we headed southwest from Las Vegas Nevada to our destination. We arrived around 11 am and immediately set out on the trail. I am a slow hiker & had to be kind to myself during the hike that it was only my second time doing a backpacking trip, so it is ok that I was the slow one in the group. I find that if I use my hiking poles it becomes significantly easier for me, due to the fact that I have a constant fire like pain in my feet from  Plantar Fasciitis. If I had one piece of advice to readers here, it is to be kind to yourself during these times — you are doing more than 3/4 of those sitting at home on the couch watching Netflix all weekend. If it takes you longer to climb, hike or walk….who cares…..you are moving and not letting self-doubt and fear stop you from exploring your own boundaries.

My companions were kind and offered frequent stops for me, and encouraged nourishment along the way to help Jelly Bean and myself keep going.

lean-to 5When we finally arrived at our camping location, I was so excited to pull out my two-man tent and use it in the REAL WILDERNESS. I pulled out the tent sack, and after unrolling it realized with a sinking feeling that the only thing contained within was the fly & the little bit of sand from the prior trip.

I panicked……what was I going to tell Jelly Bean……..I just stood there trying to conjure the actual tent with my mind. Jelly Bean came over and asked, “What is wrong Janiel?” …….I replied softly, “Uhhhhh, we have a problem”.

 

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I’m so glad Jelly Bean is a good sport because she just laughed at me and said, “Of course you forget the tent! Guess we are sleeping with the bugs tonight”.  I promised her that we would have adequate shelter from the cold, and there are plenty of people who camp with much less than what we had. A lean-to was decided upon, and the comedy continued. We had the fly, a tarp, and there was a large fallen tree and plenty of rocks.

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lean-to 8I tied the strings on the fly around a few rocks, threw them over the fallen tree and Jelly Bean did the same for the other side, but just tacked the strings down to a pile of rocks at the other end to anchor it.

There were tree limbs everywhere so we stacked rocks and bark on the side of the lean two where the breeze was coming in & some branches on the other side with pine needles as our door. Sleeping bags were inserted and we still had enough daylight to fix our dinner.

Our other roommates who were John Muir Trail Veterans & highly versed in camping supplies watched us build this with entertainment value to rival that of HBO. After all was said and done, Jelly Bean and I were quite proud of our Lean-to and when put to the test it worked exceptionally well.

So, if you ever find yourself lacking supplies in the wilderness, just be creative, mother nature always provides a way. Despite my forgetfulness, Jelly Bean and I now have a memorable story and a certain pride for surviving in Yosemite with our Lean-to (#wildernessbeasts).

 

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Happy Travels, Happy Tales and see you on the flip side! Big thanks to Camping for Women for allowing me to be a part of this amazing group and hope to share more adventures with you in the future.

                                                                                                                                                                                   

Author: Janiel Green from https://culturetrekking.com/

Janiel is a Physician Assistant with a Passion for helping people and traveling.

Culture Trekking LLC and its community are committed to connecting culture, exploring without boundaries, finding unique adventures and serving those throughout the world.

Janiel has been able to visit 5 of 7 continents and 16 of 196 countries and she hopes to visit all 196 within her lifetime.

 

Tips for Becoming a Better Outdoorswoman

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By Andrea Willingham

Whether you grew up in an outdoorsy family, or are just now discovering the joys of outdoorsmanship, there’s a lot to know and a lot to learn about this wonderful world of exploration and adventure in the great outdoors. And despite what the media and history books might have you believe, women have always been a part of this world as well, if not perhaps in different capacities at different times. Believe you me, we have always found our own ways to take part in the fun! One of my biggest pet peeves about the traditional pubic portrayal of outdoor recreation is that you have to be tough, or strong, or masculine to participate. I would argue that spending time outdoors can help you become stronger, but it is by no means a prerequisite to getting outside, challenging yourself, or adventuring.

As women, we are so often deeply socialized to believe that it’s not safe for us to be alone or outdoors without a man along with us. I think in recent years this myth has become increasingly dispelled, but I’m still frequently surprised by how many women I meet who struggle with this. That said, because many of us in the US (and many other countries) live in a culture where we do worry about these things, there are some best practices we can follow to ensure our safety, boost our confidence, and maximize the fun.

 

Do your Research

 

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Anytime I’m planning to go out on a hike (especially if I’m planning on going solo), I put in a little bit of research ahead of time. I’m looking to find out things like how long the trail is, if it closes at a certain time, how strenuous, what the conditions will be like, whether there is cell service, what the road condition is, how far away it is, and how crowded or remote it is. A simple Google search can find you most of this information, but many areas also have good guide books, visitor centers, and ranger stations to consult.

Funny story: Last June I decided to solo hike up in the mountains not far from where I live. It was a warm, sunny 80-degree F day. I thought I had done my research – I Googled it, read some blog posts about the trail, looked it up in my guide book. However, when I arrived, I found the road cut off by a wall of snow halfway up the mountain! Turned out, I had completely missed the detail about the trail only being accessible July-September. So don’t just “do” your research. Also keep in mind what to look for, depending on where you’re going! 😊

 

Be Prepared

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Fortunately when I came across that wall of snow last spring, I had come well-prepared for any conditions. I had plenty of food and water, warm layers that I had been sure I wouldn’t need, a change of shoes and socks, and even had a trekking pole in my car. I parked at the edge of the snow, and hiked in another mile or two and had myself a lovely picnic lunch! My friends often laugh at me for being overprepared whenever we go hiking, but I guarantee you about 85% of the time, someone ends up needing something that I just happen to have thought to bring.

Extra layers, rain gear, a change of socks, extra water, extra snacks, first aid supplies, and a back-up plan I think are the best ways you can be prepared for any outdoor day hike or overnight trip. Take a photo of the trail map for where you’re going, too, if there is one. Whether this is on a kiosk sign, in a guidebook, or online, get a picture of that map, because you may want to consult it later!

 

Be resourceful

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Focus on keeping your bearings as you hike. Note which way the water is flowing if there’s a stream or river (you can always backtrack upstream or downstream if you know which way you came from). Keep an eye out for landmarks. Note the direction of the slope if you’re on a mountainside or hill. Listen for traffic if you’re near a major road. If you’re a real nerd like me, you’ll probably try to learn the local flora and fauna ahead of time – what grows near water or in dry areas, which plants are edible, which are dangerous, the geology of the landscape. Being aware of your surroundings and the signs of nature around you is an enormously useful tool for becoming comfortable in the outdoors.

 

Trust yourself

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There’s a lot to be said for trusting yourself, and I think it’s actually easier to trust yourself when you’re alone rather than when you’re in a group. In recent years, I’ve become a lot more comfortable calling it quits even when the rest of the group wants to keep going. If you’re exhausted and your body says, “Nope, I’m done,” or if you have that tingling sixth sense that something just isn’t right, trust your gut. Make a plan with the rest of the group to either wait for them, or meet up at an agreed time and place. Stick with a buddy if you can (usually if you’re hiking in a group, there’s probably at least one other person who feels the same way you do!). Clear communication is essential when you’re looking out for your own needs and safety outdoors. Anyone who makes you feel bad about having to stop or turn back is not worth your time.

 

Attitude is Everything

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Whether you’re hiking alone or in a group, attitude really is everything, and it can be the difference between a great experience, or the most miserable day of your life. There’s a practical component to this as well though – having a positive attitude can actually increase your chances of survival in some emergency situations. Sometimes called “The Attitude of Survival,” having control over your state of mind can help you keep calm, clear-headed, and thinking straight even when you find yourself lost, in a sticky situation, or unsure of things. As difficult as it is sometimes, we are almost always in control of our attitudes; it can be hard to switch from being panicked or upset to feeling determined and upbeat, but it can be done and it can empower you to find the strength and resources you may need to change the situation you’re in.

These are just a few of the “tools” I keep in my own personal mental toolbox as an outdoorswoman. What are some of yours? What kinds of experiences have you had that have made you the outdoorswoman or outdoorsman you are today? What tips do you make sure to follow when you’re out adventuring? It’s always great to learn from others who enjoy similar activities and have their own tricks of the trade to share!

 

Trekking in Bhutan – From Dream to Reality

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View of Haa Valley, not long after we started our trek.

By Mary Lyons

Bhutan had been a dream destination of mine for a long time, since before I moved overseas. Fifteen years ago I saw a quick blurb about it on television and thought, “I have to go there.” Just a couple of years ago, I finally went. Bhutan is more accessible than many people realize, even though it only has two airlines that fly into the country. The government does limit tourism numbers, but they have never reached their yearly limit since tourism began there in 1974. That year, 287 tourists visited Bhutan.

A lot more tourists do visit these days, but you’ll probably never see a crowd the entire time you’re there. What draws people to this beautiful Asian country? Trekking. Bhutan offers numerous trekking options, but all will be a bit challenging because of the altitude, although I did not experience headaches or altitude sickness like I did on Kilimanjaro. The highest point on our trek was 14000 feet, but we didn’t sleep at that altitude.

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One of many spectacular views on the second day of our trek.

My friend Alan decided to join me for this trip, and I was pretty surprised since he lives in Boston. I lived in Kuwait at the time, so the flight was much shorter for me. We decided to see some cultural sights, do some day treks to popular monasteries like Tiger’s Nest, and do a three-day trek. The three-day trek began in the Haa Valley and included two nights camping, three days trekking, and unimaginable views every day.

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Tiger’s Nest Monastery is amazing and not treacherous, but parts of it are steep. So worth it.

Walking the Walk in Bhutan

We started near the small (tiny?) town of Haa Valley where we walked through some farm land and gradually climbed throughout the day. After a leisurely picnic lunch at 12000 feet, we continued on for about an hour and camped at Saga La at 11,800 feet. We arrived at camp around 2:00 I think, and I fell asleep in my tent just as rain started to fall. We had tea and snacks around 3:30 and dinner at 6:00. Lots of time to rest, read, write, and chat. Our guide never stopped talking, but fortunately for me, he shared some fascinating information about Bhutan and seemed willing to answer any question I asked, even if the subject was a bit sensitive.

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Cook, me, Alan, horseman, and in front the helper and our guide, Sonam. Sonam is not shy, but the others sure were.

The next day we started out around 8:00AM and had about five hours trekking, but with frequent rest breaks that we didn’t really feel we needed. It wasn’t actually that strenuous, even though we were trekking between 13000 and 13800 feet nearly all day. We had amazing views of Chomolhari on this day. We arrived at camp just as a hail storm and rain hit, but our guide, Sonam, and the other members of the staff set up our camp and managed to dry our tents on the inside so we could wait out the rain. On this night, we camped at Ningula above 13000 feet where we were surrounded by rhododendrons and had an incredible Chomolhari view the next morning before the clouds moved in. I’m glad I was prepared for the cold at that elevation.

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View of Cholmolhari from our campsite. This photo is unedited.

On day three we started around 7:00AM so we could finish before the afternoon rains, but not to worry! It didn’t rain at all on this day! We ascended to the highest peak of the trek, Kung Karpo, at 13500 feet where there is a small temple highly revered by Buddhists. From there we walked down to Chelela Pass through the thousands of prayer flags where we met our driver. Day three had a couple of steep climbs, but wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. The steep climbs were fairly short and had switchbacks.

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Kunk Karpo Temple at the highest point of our trek at 14000 feet.

We arrived at camp in the early afternoon both days and had plenty of time to read, write in a journal, have tea and snacks, and talk to our guide who has some interesting insights into Bhutanese culture and how it has changed in last 15 years. If you do decide to book a trek in Bhutan, take some time to talk to your guide and learn about the country and the culture. Be prepared for some surprising answers.

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Me at the highest point of our trek at 14000 feet.

Our views were mostly of Chomolhari and the mountains on the border of Bhutan and Tibet. With such stunning scenery, we didn’t miss technology at all. Trekking in Bhutan shouldn’t be taken lightly though, because of the elevation and rain, which when combined with cool temps can be dangerous. My trekking company, Snow Leopard Treks, sent me everything I needed to know before arriving so that I could be prepared.

Preparing for Your Haa Valley Trek Bhutan

Or any trek in Bhutan really…

Preparing to trek in Bhutan is not difficult because the tour operator will provide nearly everything you need. Mine did at least. If your tour operator doesn’t specify what they provide and what you should bring, ask them. Don’t arrive unprepared because, oddly enough, you cannot buy any gear in Bhutan. It’s not like Kathmandu where you can arrive with nothing and buy whatever is needed for trekking, although I don’t recommend that. There are no shops selling gear or even trekking clothes in Thimpu or Paro.

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Welcome to the tiny town of Haa, where nary a decent cup of coffee can be found.

Most likely, tour companies will provide the tent and either a foam or air mattress. Snow Leopard Trekking provided a wonderful foam mattress and even a pillow! But you will need to bring your own sleeping bag, trekking poles, headlamp, and clothes. Although, for my Haa Valley trek, I didn’t even use my poles. I carried them for three days and never once used them. The downhills weren’t that steep and I preferred to use my hands for balance on the brief steep, rocky downhills. Our packs were light, so I didn’t feel the need to use poles.

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Small prayer wheel at the start of our trek. These were a common site at lower elevations.

We left anything we didn’t need for our trek with our driver, who took our belongings to the hotel where we would stay after finishing our trek. While we were not worried about anything being stolen, we didn’t leave any valuables or paperwork behind. Carry these things with you.

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Cholmolhari in the distance, but this was our view, not our destination.

Specific tips for preparing for a trek in Bhutan

1) Shoes are very important and a personal choice. I wore hiking boots, but for the Haa Valley trek, hiking shoes would work just as well. Because trekkers only carry a day pack with the essentials for that day’s trek, the support of a boot isn’t really necessary. The terrain isn’t particularly rocky either. In my opinion, based on my backpacking experience in a variety of terrains, I think trainers, hiking shoes, or hiking boots are all suitable for this trek. I think it depends on what you are comfortable in and the level of support you need.

2) Socks are also important. It’s cold at these higher elevations. Wear wool! Wool socks help prevent blisters and naturally repel water. They keep your feet warm and dry and offer additional padding. I’m a big fan of Smartwool socks. A sock liner can also help keep your feet warm and prevent blisters.

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Smartwool socks on display on a chilly afternoon before tea time at camp.

3) I recommend a sleeping bag with a 0 degree rating or lower. It’s cold at higher elevations, no matter what time of year it is. If you get hot, you can always stick your leg out.

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Our trust steeds and porters on our Haa Valley Trek.

4) It rains all year round in Bhutan, even when it’s not the rainy season. You’ll need a rain jacket and pants, and a pack cover for your day pack. You should carry both with you while hiking. Horses will carry your sleeping bag, clothing, and anything you need at camp, but you’ll need to carry your rain gear, camera, etc. You’ll need to bring a backpack or duffel bag to use for anything you want the horse to carry. Your backpack will be carried inside a waterproof duffel.

5) A headlamp comes in handy in camp for getting around, making a midnight toilet run, or reading in your tent. We had a toilet tent, so as the only female in my group, I was thankful for the privacy, even though it was basically a portable toilet over a hole in the ground. It was fully stocked with TP, too.

6) Other things you might want to bring include a hat, pack towel, bandana, sunscreen, lip balm, and wet wipes for washing your face. The sun can be relentless when you’re at that elevation.

On being the only female…

I would like to add a note here about being the only female on my trek in Bhutan. The guide, horseman, cook, and helper were all male, and they probably will be when you do your trek as well. Women in Bhutan don’t often do these jobs. But not once did I feel outnumbered, threatened, or fearful. People in Bhutan are some of the kindest I have met during my travels. Everyone on my trek, except for my guide, was actually quite shy and reserved, but it could have been because they didn’t speak English. It was a wonderful experience and until I had to use the toilet, I hadn’t given a second thought to being the only female on the trek. But I was very thankful for the toilet tent.

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My friend Alan and me at the end of our Haa Valley trek with helpers and two dogs that trekked with us the entire three days.
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Another view of Haa Valley.

 

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Lunchtime on our trek. This is our cook. He was amazing.

 

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Our handsome horseman preparing our porters, I mean, horses.

 

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This lovely Bhutanese man was a prayer wheel in his village at the start of our trek.

 

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Prayer flags are a common sight in Bhutan. These were near the end of our Haa Valley Trek.

 

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My guide, Sonam, on our last part of the trek, carrying flowers home to his wife.

 

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Another unedited view of Cholmolhari using a zoom lens.

 

The 5 most beautiful sea treks in Italy

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by Alessia Morello

Autumn in Italy has arrived and fortunately it is the perfect season for trekking along the sea paths.

The temperature in these months is mild and the winter wind has not yet risen.

In addition, the incredible phenomenon of foliage has begun, which in contrast to the crystalline waters of our sea will make your trail an unforgettable experience.

Many people think that the sea in Italy is only sand and beach although in reality this is not so. Our coasts are covered with mostly of reefs and rocks that become hills and mountains where harrowing treks exist with breathtaking views.

Here are the 5 most beautiful sea treks in Italy:

 

  1. Rilke Trail – Friuli Venezia Giulia – North East Italy

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This is one of the most fascinating trails in the northeast.

This 2 hour path connects Duino to Sistiana and is totally built on the Adriatic Sea shore.

This trail is close to a very important location: Trieste, a city that rises on the border of Italy and Slovenia and therefore a neuralgic spot during the Middle Ages and the big wars.

This trail reveals so much past history. You finish the trail in a real 1400’s castle still inhabited from the real descendants that founded the castle built on the sheer cliff that faces the blue sea. You can visit the castle and the anti-war refuge, now a museum and enjoy the panorama from the garden that overlooks the sea. Amazing!

 

  1. Trail ring through Camogli Portofino – Liguria – North West Italy

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This incredible 5 hours trek passes through antique forgotten villages built in small gulfs with no car access.

In the past it was normal to stay in places like this, live just fishing and taking the boat to make trades.

Portofino is also so famous for the incredible architecture that the city has. This city is completely built near the sea and every building has a different color and shade. Stunning and incredible to see.

Liguria is a little region consisting of mountains that reach the sea and the inhabitants have been forced to build homes one above the other.  For this reason it is very famous and popular for tourists and a beautiful place to go trekking.

 

  1. Positano Trail – Sentiero degli Dei – Campania – South West Italy

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The “Path of the Gods” connects Agerola, a small village on the hills of the Amalfi Coast, to Nocelle, a small hamlet of Positano, lying on the slopes of Mount Pertuso.

Just the name alone lets you guess how spectacular this trail is!

The front of the panorama of the Amalfi Coast and Capri is like a 60’s movie that comes to life. Even for an Italian to holiday here is an ambitious goal. Anyway we are talking about trails and this one I’m quite sure that is one of the most breathtaking trails of Italy!

Always sunny and famous for the incredible quality of food, this region is perfect for a trekking and food adventure! Bring a slice of pizza with you (like I usually DO – have a look my video eating pizza at 2000 meters in the middle of the Dolomites here ) and enjoy your trail up and down from the beauties of the south Italy. Ready?

 

  1. Il percorso delle Ginestre – Abruzzo – South East Italy

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I was on holidays here something like 5 years ago and I’m still thinking about this magical place. It’s not so famous overseas but Abruzzo has thousands of kilometres of national park that border the sea and is full of trekking trails.

The Itinerary allows you to cross the beautiful Regional Nature Reserve Punta Aderci where the earth meets the sea and the green of nature ’embraces’ the blue of crystal clear waters.

Another amazing thing you can see during a trek here are the “Trabucchi”. Trabucchi are the old fisherman’s houses built totally out of wood, erected on the sea, like palafitte. Now they are real summer houses or very cool restaurants. My advice is to stop your trail here and have a clams spaghetti and a main course with fresh local fish!

Not a real outdoor break? Hey, you are in Italy!

 

  1. Excursion to the Zingaro Natural Reserve – Sicily – Island in the South of Italy

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One hour west of Palermo there are numerous wonderful promontories leading to incredible wild coves: this is the Zingaro Reserve. The first natural reserve of Sicily since 1986 is one of the most beautiful places to discover on foot. Starting from Scopello for a 5-hour trip, which lasts 15 kilometres.

Here you will find 700 species of plants and 40 species of animals and a small museum about the traditional life of the island.

The sunrise is the best part of the day, looking the sun coming up from the horizon is something magic

 

______________________________________________________________

 

Alessia Morello lives in the north-east of Italy. After working for several years around the world she decide to stop and come back in her homeland and do the things she loves like trekking into the Dolomites with her dog Giorgino and creating posts and videos for her blog. She grew up doing outdoor adventures with the family and now the nature is part of her life. Other interests? Rock climbing, mountain bike trails, cooking vegetarian recipes and having fun!

Follow her travels at www.theitaliansmoothie.com and on Instagram and Facebook.

 

 

Hiking the John Muir Trail

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Le Conte Canyon, one of our favorite parts of the John Muir Trail

By Kristin Hanes

When I decided to hike 230 miles of the John Muir Trial through the California Sierra Nevada with my boyfriend, there was nothing to warn me how hard it might be.

I joined the John Muir Trail Facebook group, with thousands of members, all of them posting beautiful pictures of alpine lakes, craggy mountains, nests of evergreen trees in valleys far below. They wrote quotes from John Muir, said how much they missed the mountains, what a life-changing experience the hike was. But nowhere was there commentary about the daily grind, the bodily torture, the difficulty in motivating oneself to keep going day after day after day.

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Filtering water before summiting yet another mountain pass

It took months of preparation to hike the trail, which is notoriously hard to get a permit for. While the traditional way to hike the John Muir Trail is from north to south, Yosemite to Mt. Whitney, my boyfriend Tom and I decided to do it the other way around. Not only that, we got a permit that began three days, or about 30 miles, south of the main starting point of the John Muir Trail. It was the only way we could get a permit in a saturated market of hikers.

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The gorgeous Le Conte Canyon on the John Muir Trail, one of our favorite spots

The first day of hiking dawned clear and brisk as we got going at 6:30am out of Cottonwood Meadows, down a dry packed path through manzanitas and pine trees. Our backpacks were laden with 12 days of food, and not all of it fit in our bear canisters. We knew we’d have to hike far enough to find bear lockers to store our excess food.

As I hiked down the trail that day, I realized I’d packed the wrong food. My backpack was way too heavy, beyond the scope of my Osprey 65. The straps cut into my shoulders and waist. I’d later realize the pack was between 50 and 60 pounds, about half of my weight! And that first mountain pass, New Army Pass, was huge.

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Me on top of Forrester Pass, the highest pass on the trail at 13,153

We’d started at 10,000 feet and the pass scaled 11,000. That first day, my body unacclimated to the altitude, my pack super heavy, was one of the hardest. I panted up that hill in the blistering midday heat, stopping every few steps to catch my breath. Then, I got a bloody nose and had to jam part of a tampon up one nostril as I continued to hike, trying to breathe out of my mouth as dust rose around me. At the top, I could barely walk and ate some dried mango as I enjoyed the vista of glistening alpine lakes far below. But we had to keep going, down to a valley, many more miles.

That night we stopped and camped at Soldier Lake, and my body felt like it had run a marathon. Everything hurt, and my lungs were wheezy due to the thinness of the air. On Day 1, the John Muir Trial was already kicking my butt.

The John Muir Trail 2
Tom near our first campsite at Soldier Lake

It continued like this for days. There was no break. Every day, we rose with the sun, broke down camp, hiked through amazingly beautiful vistas, then set up our tent, bathed in whatever freezing creek was nearby, and went to bed. Some days, after tramping down miles of loose rocks, my feet hurt so badly I felt like they’d fall off. Where were these stories about the John Muir Trail online? Why was nobody talking about how difficult it actually was?

The John Muir Trail 3
Whitney morning. The sun rising near Guitar Lake right before our ascent

On Day 4, we summited Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States at around 14,500’. We’d left most of our gear at basecamp, Crabtree Meadows, bringing up only the necessities. We started out at 5:30am, motivated for the 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss and 15 miles we’d have to do for the day.

The John Muir Trail 4
Tom and I on the summit of Mt. Whitney

The scenery was breath-taking, with a deep blue lake shaped like a Guitar and views for dozens, if not hundreds, of miles. Wildflowers bobbed among bright green grass. Crystal creeks burbled and curved through meadows. It was some of the most beautiful scenery I’d ever seen.

But when we reached the top of Whitney there was an ominous sight. Thunderclouds at eye level, building up over the valley and the distant mountains. We saw a sign at the summit, If you hear thunder, descent immediately.

The John Muir Trail 5
On top of Whitney. You can see the thunderclouds in the distance

We heard thunder.

We immediately started going down, down, down as fast as possible, stopping once to put on our rain jacket and rain pants. It was the fastest descent ever down 4,000 feet, and I felt my breath become ragged, my skin clammy inside my raincoat. The thunder boomed and reverberated off granite as we ran down switch-back after switch-back.

At the bottom, I felt sick. Nausea swept through me, and I threw up near Guitar Lake. I felt dizzy and spent, the altitude and exertion finally catching up with me. I slowly tried to make my way the last three miles to camp, but had to stop several times to throw up. Tom began to get worried, and encouraged me on. It would be dangerous if I couldn’t make it back to camp. He’d have to go alone, then lug gear back to me. I willed myself to keep walking, and collapsed in the tent at 6pm and fell into a deep and exhausted sleep, skipping dinner.

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Me on the day after Whitney, enjoying the beautiful Sierra Nevada

I woke up at 6am feeling refreshed, and started hiking again. And hiking. And hiking. For 22 days we hiked without stopping, up mountain passes, down into valleys, past crystalline lakes and streams. We hiked through rocky cliffs that looked like they belonged on another planet, and through the lush forests of Le Conte Canyon. Taking a dip in a stream at the end of a dirty, sweaty day never felt so good. Hamburgers and beer at Vermillion Valley Resort and Red’s Meadow never tasted so divine. I felt like on this hike, my senses were elevated, with my body experiencing and feeling everything at a primitive, deep level.

The John Muir Trail is an extraordinary hike, one that will take both your breath and your strength away. You’ll feel like you want to quit, but you’ll keep going just to see the beautiful view around the next bend. We even ran into a Pacific Crest Trail hiker who’d been going for two months already, who said the Sierra Nevada slowed her way down due to the difficulty. I knew we weren’t alone in our struggles.

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Gorgeous alpine lakes along the John Muir Trail

So, you want to hike the John Muir Trail? Just be prepared for how hard it really is. Be prepared for your body to take a beating, and to struggle physically and mentally over each hurdle. But also be ready to be in pure awe and bliss at the scenery around you, to cry when climbing a mountain pass because you can’t believe the beauty. And be prepared to stop and just look, soaking it all in, because those tears are taking your breath away.

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Me at Banner Lake near the end of our long hike on the John Muir Trail

 

About the Author:

Kristin Hanes is a journalist and writer who lives on a sailboat in the San Francisco Bay. Besides sailing, she loves anything adventurous and outdoorsy, including hiking, backpacking and traveling. Besides staying active, Kristin also loves cooking, salsa dancing and drinking a good beer. You can follow her adventures on her blog, www.thewaywardhome.com 

 

How Backcountry Camping can decrease Stress, Pain, and Renew your Appreciation for Life.

Backcountry Camping 1

By Amy Fahlman

Overworked, overstressed, not enough hours in a day, responsible for too many tasks, projects, or people?  As a physiotherapist, I commonly encounter how a high demand, high distraction lifestyle manifests not only as mental anguish, but physical pain.  However, recent research has shown you can actually reverse these negative effects by spending time immersed in nature.  This is why I love backcountry camping – to routinely unplug from devices and reconnect with oneself.  Here are the top 5 ways backcountry camping improves your health.

 

  1. It improves mental capacity.  Attempting to stay focused and productive in an environment of emails, texts, push notifications, advertisements and noise pollution is mentally draining. David Strayer studies how we can reset these effects by what he refers to as ‘the 3 day effect.’  He has found people perform 50 percent better on creative problem solving activities after they have spent 3 days immersed it nature. The tranquil sights and sounds of nature don’t require the same level of mental focus as our typical day, giving our brains a chance to rest and recover.  This actually restores our mental capacity so when we return to our usual tasks, we are actually more productive.

Backcountry Camping 2

 

  1. It improves physical health and training capacity. Paddling or hiking trips require daily, multi-hour, low level aerobic exertion.  More commonly referred to as zone one heart rate training, during these trips you are working your heart at a low level of your training capacity over a long period of time.  Zone one training builds the base of your cardiovascular fitness, which improves your physical recovery time and teaches your body to burn fat as energy.  Not to mention zone one heart rate training lowers blood pressure, cholesterol, and decreases the risk of heart attacks. Though the intensity of paddling or hiking may not be up to your usual workout standards, you are allowing your body to recover while continuing to be active, so you are getting health and fitness benefits at the same time as you rest from exertion.

Backcountry Camping 3 

 

  1. Less is more. It’s hard not to get caught up in our consumer driven society.   Keeping up with the proverbial Jones’ can leave us unfulfilled and constantly consuming more.  However, one gruelling long portage through a boggy swamp is enough to reconsider the extra amenities.  Pack simple and light.  You don’t need much to meet your needs in the backcountry.

Backcountry Camping 4 

 

  1. The appreciation for an abundant fresh water supply. Living in Canada, I have grown accustomed to fresh drinkable water flowing endlessly from the tap.  Though when backcountry canoeing, water is readily available in the lake and river systems, it is not so easily consumed.   Here you must consider how to safely collect and purify drinking water.  It’s a small extra step, but it brings the ease of first world water consumption to the front of our consciousness.  We are extraordinarily lucky to have an abundance of fresh water in Canada, a privilege billions around the world will never experience.  This serves as a reminder not only to be grateful for the world’s fresh water sources, but also to be conscious of consumption and preservation for future generations.

Backcountry Camping 5 

 

  1. Let go of what you can’t control.  You can’t control the weather, neither literally nor figuratively.  Sometimes the conditions won’t be all that pleasant, and you will have to push forward and tolerate the discomfort if you want to make your destination. Likewise, sometimes it’s going to storm heavily and you’ll need to stop moving.  These things happen.  Yes it will slow your progress, but in the end that’s ok. Eat, nap, meditate, rest, refuel, refocus, and then push on. Certain aspects of life are simply out of your control.  It’s not good luck or bad luck, it just happens.  My advice – avoid checking the weather forecast.  If you approach each day in the backcountry without expectations, you will always be able to find gratitude in what you are given.

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If you have never experienced backcountry camping, but are at all conscious about your health and fitness, I would certainly recommend you give it a try.  You may be impressed by the wellness benefits you gain while exploring the world’s natural beauty.

 

Camping in Beautiful Bhutan is not as Far Reaching as You Think

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Me at Tiger’s Nest Monastery

By Mary Lyons

When I tell people I went to Bhutan, I get mixed reactions. Sometimes I get asked, “Where’s Bhutan?” Others say, “Oh, is everybody really happy there?” in reference to their reputation for measuring Gross National Happiness. But the response I get most often is, “Wow, I want to go there, but ______…” You can fill in the blank. There’s always a but, and when it comes to Bhutan, there are two main obstacles that prevent people from visiting this amazing country. Number 1 is money. Number 2 is lack of knowledge that results in the misconception that getting there is difficult.

 

SAVE YOUR PENNIES, AND NICKELS… AND DIMES… AND PROBABLY A FEW DOLLARS

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Main building of Bhutan’s airport. It was completely empty except for one custom’s official.

Money is a justifiable obstacle. It can be expensive just to get to Bhutan. I flew from Kuwait to Kathmandu, and then on to Bhutan, for less than 500 USD round trip. However, my friend from Boston who met me there paid 1500 USD, also going to Kathmandu first. Before flying to Bhutan, travelers will have to fly into India, Nepal, Singapore, or Bangkok first. There are two airlines that fly to Bhutan. I know, I know. I couldn’t believe it either. One is Druk Air and the other is Bhutan Airlines. The planes are fairly small due to the decent into Paro, between two mountains. You’ll want to be awake for that.

Most people who are aware of Bhutan’s tourism industry already know that everyone pays a fee per day to go to Bhutan, and it is not cheap. It does, however, include everything but tips, alcohol, and souvenirs.

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Town square in Thimpu and view from my hotel room.

Tourism fees are set by the government and do not vary from operator to operator within Bhutan. I consulted several websites for a variety of tour operators within Bhutan and for the trek I wanted to do, every operator charged the same price. That’s because they don’t charge by the activity you want to do, they charge a fee per day that is set by the government. For groups of three or more, the fee is 250 USD a day. For a solo traveler or a couple, it is a bit more per day. I went with one friend, and we paid 280 USD each per day. I think a solo traveler will pay 300 USD per day. This daily fee is probably the single biggest obstacle for people who want to visit Bhutan.

Wow, that is steep, you say? Actually, it’s not a bad considering what is included. All of our lodging, food, guides, visa, and any entrance fees (not sure there are any…), and a 65 USD tourism fee is included to ensure responsible tourism. The only things not included are alcohol, souvenirs, and tips for the guides. If you know how long you want to stay in Bhutan, you can multiply the number of days by 250 USD (or 280 USD or 300 USD) and you’ll know how much your tour costs without even asking. All the tour companies I checked online post this government set fee on their website. Tourists are not charged this fee for the day of departure.

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We were greeted by this stunning sight after returning to Paro after a short walk to a museum.

There are no hidden fees. You will not be asked to pay for this or that when you arrive. I needed to rent a sleeping bag from my tour operator and I was told up front before arriving what that would cost. However, if you are trekking, you need to have your own gear because it is not available to buy within Bhutan. I rented a sleeping bag that belonged to the manager of Snow Leopard Treks, the local tour company I used. Even in Thimpu and Paro, trekkers cannot find gear, so it is important to bring everything the tour company says to bring with you.

VISA TO BHUTAN? THAT’S THE EASIEST PART!

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Bhutanese people at a local temple at one of the largest prayer wheels I’ve ever seen.

Everyone needs a visa to enter Bhutan except people from India, Bangladesh, and Maldives if they have at least six months remaining on their passports. Everyone visiting Bhutan for tourism purposes must also book through a licensed tour operator, of which there are many. The Bhutanese government does this in order to protect their country and their people from the negative effects of tourism, (not sure this is 100% effective) and also to limit the numbers of people who visit each year so they can prevent environmental damage.  They have never reached the maximum number of tourists allowed in one year, according to my guide, but numbers are growing.

Your tour operator will tell you exactly what to send them in order for them to get your visa. The cost is included in the daily fee. No special documents are required. You’ll just need to photocopy and scan some documents to email to your tour operator.

I recommend booking through one of Bhutan’s many tour operators rather than one in a surrounding country that offers a package including Bhutan. Here’s why. One, your money will go directly to the people of Bhutan. Two, you’ll be certain that you are getting the right information about your tour/trek. Three, you will pay less. There will be no extra fees that go to the tour operator. Tour operators in other countries are just middle men. They have to contact and work with a tour operator in Bhutan to book your tour, and you will pay for that middleman service.

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Me, Big Buddha, and the only decent cup of coffee I had during the entire stay in Bhutan.

 

IF EVERYTHING IS PAID FOR, I DON’T NEED CASH, RIGHT?

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Red Panda is one of two local brews, neither of which is worth writing about.

Wrong! If you plan to buy alcohol or souvenirs, you’ll need cash. Most places do not accept credit cards. Be warned, most souvenirs are made in China. Or Nepal. Or India. Not so much in Bhutan, although most tour operators will take tourists to the Handicrafts Emporium where people with disabilities are learning to create some beautiful works of art, including mandalas, Buddha sculptures, and traditional weavings.

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The other local brew, also not worth writing about. But hey, it’s beer, right.

The main reason you’ll need cash, though, is for gratuities for your guide, cook, and any helpers during your trek. Tipping is most definitely expected. It was impossible to get a straight answer about how much to tip the guides on our trek. I checked my Lonely Planet guide and that was also no help. My guide was not much help either. It is not in their culture to ask or even really discuss money, but he did give me some idea.

 

I’M A SOLO FEMALE TRAVELER. IS IT SAFE TO GO ALONE?

My response to this question is YES! Absolutely. Bhutanese people are warm and welcoming. The crime rate in Bhutan is one of the lowest in the world and they have too much pride to harm anyone and risk “losing face.” Anyone visiting Bhutan will not need to carry large amounts of money because most everything is already paid for.

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Artists at the Handicraft Emporium.

You’ll be the only female on your trek unless you’ve joined another group. Your guide, your cook, and any helpers will be men. The horses might be female. Either way, it won’t matter because you can rest assured you will be safe.

 

WHERE SHOULD I GO ON MY TREK IN BHUTAN?

Trekking in Bhutan depends on how much time and money a traveler has. Regardless of both, there are several trekking options and tour operators will tell you in detail about the trekking options they offer. There are three most popular treks in Bhutan, but none of them will be crowded. To minimize environmental damage, a toilet tent will be provided and you will be very thankful.

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Cheri Monastery day trek is quite easy for most fitness levels.

Here’s some information to give you an idea of what to expect from these three treks.

Cholmolhari Trek – app 13 days including flight days – 8 days, tent camping – includes a trek to Cheri Monastery and Tiger’s Nest and other cultural sights, like the Folk Heritage Museum – No one is allowed to climb Cholmolhari because it is sacred. This trek is challenging and you’ll be rewarded with absolutely stunning views and a great sense of accomplishment. You’ll also see some yak farms and yaks are awesome.

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Me and our guide, Sonam, at Cheri Monastery. The caretaker wasn’t there so we couldn’t go inside.

 

Gangtey Trek – 7 nights, 8 days – 5 nights tent camping –  includes a visit to the Folk Heritage Museum – considered easiest trek in Bhutan – trek through the valley of Phobjikha which is a glacial valley at 3000 meters above sea level – This is the trek for bird watchers or those who want an easier trek, but one that still showcases the beauty of Bhutan.

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Prayer wheels on the way to Tiger’s Nest.

 

Bhutan Culture and Haa Valley Trek (this is the one I did) –  app 9 days total – 2 nights 3 days trekking – 2 nights tent camping – 1 day trek to Cheri Monastery – 1 day trek to Tiger’s Nest – visit to Handicraft Emporium and other cultural sites and temples in Paro and Thimpu – Haa Valley was opened to tourism in 2001 and is still unspoiled by tourism. There is an opportunity to walk around and see the small, traditional town of Haa.  You’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the Haa Valley and Cholmolhari.

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Tiger’s Nest, this time without my big head in the way. Absolutely stunning and not treacherous, although it doesn’t seem that way from this view.

 

No matter what trek you choose in Bhutan, altitude will be a consideration, but in the three treks I mentioned, the highest point is 14,000 feet, but camping is not at that elevation. I did not experience headaches or altitude sickness on this trek, but everyone is different. All treks will have challenging changes in elevation and some steep ups and downs, but your guide will set a pace that everyone in your group can handle. Trekking in Bhutan doesn’t come cheap, but it does come with many rewards.

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This is a yak. Yaks are awesome.

 

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Spinning the prayer wheels. They are everywhere.

 

Experience the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

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The herd starts to file through the gates into the corrals.

By Robin EH. Bagley

If you’re on the lookout for new, memorable experience, point your compass toward the Black Hills of South Dakota. Every September, Custer State Park rounds up their herd of 1,300 buffalo, not something you see every day. Disclaimer: the proper name for these animals is American Bison; however, they are colloquially referred to as buffalo throughout this region.

In fact, it’s something that might not have happened at all if hadn’t been for conservation efforts in places like Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. Prior to the 1700s, 30 – 60 million buffalo roamed the Great Plains. Their numbers started to fall as settlers pushed west, and by the late 1800s, they were nearly extinct. They were killed for their hides as well as to make way for railroads and settlers, and to deprive Native American tribes of their food source, thus making it easier for the government to force the tribes onto reservations.

It’s estimated that only about 1,000 animals, out of tens of millions, remained. Some brilliant ones hid out in what would become Yellowstone National Park, and they survived. A few were shipped to the Bronx Zoo, and that herd had a huge role in repopulating the western buffalo herds. The rest existed in tiny pockets dotted around the plains, and were saved by a handful of people, including Scotty Philip, who built up a herd after purchasing five buffalo calves in 1901. These five buffalo calves are the ancestors of today’s Custer State Park herd.

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Buffalo are matriarchal and follow the lead cow.

Today the park tries keeps the herd at 900 – 1300 animals. The park is 71,000 acres, but it’s fenced and resources are finite, so managing the herd’s numbers are important for the animals’ health. If the herd grows too large, food becomes scarce. So every fall the herd is rounded up, vaccinated for brucellosis (a bovine disease that can travel between buffalo and cattle), and a number of them are sold at the annual auction in November.

Over 10,000 visitors travel to this remote corner of South Dakota every year to watch the roundup. This year the event is Friday, Sept. 29 and it will be Sept. 28 in 2018. The roundup is held in Custer State Park, which is located five miles from Custer, SD and about 45 miles from Rapid City, SD, which is also the location of the nearest commercial airport. Normally there is a fee to enter Custer State Park, daily and weekly permits available; however, there is no entry fee on the day of the roundup.

This is a morning event, so go to bed early, and set that alarm clock. The roundup itself happens at 9:30 am, but the viewing area parking lots open at 6:15 am. Yes, you read that correctly. Allow yourself plenty of time to get there, leave early because traffic will get heavy as you approach the park and sometimes come to a complete stop. Don’t worry, it will start moving again, just be patient. Personally, I recommend that you leave Custer by 5:30 am. Audio books, podcasts, or plenty of music will help get you through the drive. And once the sun comes up, you can enjoy the scenery.

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There are two viewing areas, equally good.

This is an outdoor event where you will park your car and walk to the viewing area, so it’s nice to have a camp chair or a blanket to sit on. Wear plenty of layers as late September can be very cool in the Black Hills. And it’s nice to have rain gear just in case. It should go without saying to bring snacks, but in case you forget or want a hot breakfast, the park serves a pancake and sausage breakfast at both the north and south viewing areas.

Usually the morning starts cool but heats up once the sun rises, so be sure to have sunscreen. Binoculars are also a good idea to watch the herd as it starts moving in from a distance. You won’t need the binoculars once the herd approaches the corrals. And it’s just fun to absorb the whole spectacle. Bring your camera.

If you stay in Custer, there are a couple of shuttle services that will drive you out and back to the roundup, so you’re free to enjoy the scenery. Many of the hotels also offer an extra-early breakfast as well. And camping? Campgrounds are abundant in the Black Hills.

Camping reservations go quickly in Custer State Park, but there are a number of commercial and Forest Service campgrounds in the area. Helpful links are www.visitcuster.com; https://gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/custer/, and https://www.fs.usda.gov/blackhills.

No two roundups are the same, and everyone experiences it differently. Go with warm clothes, plenty of snacks, and an open mind. See what you experience.

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A bull buffalo taking a snooze.