A Guide to Independent Trekking in the Himalayas
Having spent nearly four years in the Himalayas, much of it independently trekking throughout the region, I thought I would help others by sharing my knowledge of how to trek independently and economically in the Himalayas. Its not necessary to spend $30 to $70 a day through a travel agency in order to enjoy the splendor of these mountains as many people seem to think. All it takes is a bit of self confidence and knowledge. I've divided independent trekking into three types or styles of treks, Tea House/Homestay, Local Style (meaning basic shelter), and Full Camping. Whatever style of trek you undertake if you are going it alone you will need to learn some basic navigation and trail finding skills.
Altitude Sickness (AMS): The main difference between hiking in the Himalayas and hiking in North America or Europe, where most people have no problem hiking on there own, is that the altitudes are generally much higher. Since altitude affects different people differently it is important to be very conservative in your ascents if you have not been in high altitude before and do not know how it tends to affect you. Even if you have not had problems with altitude in the past it is important to remember it is always possible that you may during each new ascent. It is therefore important that anyone trekking independently be familiar with the symptoms and affects of AMS. See ismm.org for a good review of symptoms and treatment of AMS.
Maps and Guidebooks: In Nepal there are a plethora of cheap good maps and guidebooks available especially for the Everest, Annapurana, and Langtang regions. For independent trekking I like the Trailblazer series of guidebooks which has books titled Trekking in the Everest Region, Trekking in the Annapurna Region, Trekking in the Langtang Region (only one edition difficult to find), and Trekking in Ladakh, Unfortunately the only book that has been recently updated is the Everest one and the others are getting harder to find as they go out of print. The Cicerone guides are a good alternative. Cicerone has recently updated books on Trekking in Ladakh, Everest Region, and Annapurna. The Lonely Planet Trekking in the Indian Himalaya, Tibet, and Trekking the Nepal Himalaya are ok overviews of various treks but are of limited use when navigating though certainly better than nothing. In some cases such as in the Indian Himalaya and in Tibet it may be your best bet. Another option for the Indian Himalaya is the now out of print Trekking and Climbing in the Indian Himalaya by Harish Kapadia is similar in detail to the Lonely Planet trekking guides but cheaper and also includes outlines on how to climb some trekking peaks as well as more serious climbs.
Good maps in India are much more difficult to find than in Nepal. Overall the best I've found in India are the Leomann Maps 1:200,000 Indian Himalaya Maps series unfortunately they have no contour lines but do have ridges, valleys and peaks indicated. They also do contain some errors in trail positions and they are not always easy to find either but if you run across them they are usually your best bet. In Ladakh the Edition Olizane maps are by far the best but also the most expensive. The Ladakh map is broken into three sections, Northern, Central, and Southern, each is sold individually. Due to the unreliability of Indian maps its best to use a couple in conjunction with each other. For a contour map of the Himalayas you can download the U502 series 1:250,000 from the University of Texas library here. Unfortunately it is old and also not a 100% reliable and does not contain many trails, but used with a less detailed map it can be helpful, and hey its free so you really can't complain. UPDATE 2015: A new project at www.himalayamaps.com plans to make digital contour maps available with GPS routing for popular trekking routes. This could go a long way to solving the "map problem" in the Indian Himalaya.
On The Trail: In the end what you will rely on predominately to navigate is your own "trail sense." When I meet people trekking with guides and they find out I'm on my own they ask me with a shocked intonation, "How do where to go?" Its actually not to difficult I follow the big wide trail I'm on to my destination. Independent trekking is best done on well established trails that are either in significant use by organized trekking groups or locals. If you want to go along some obscure route it may be worth enlisting the services of a local guide. Of course that is if you want to go somewhere in particular. If you are well supplied you can just head of and explore as long as you confident you can retrace your steps. However, for the most part you will be trekking on well established routes. This means in general when you come to a junction most often you will want to continue on the most heavily used path especially if that junction is not on your map. Look for foot prints and pack animal dropping in addition to direction in which each trail is headed to try to determine the right trail. Many times if there is a junction not marked on your map and it looks like equal traffic on both forks then the trails will eventually merge again. If you do find yourself of a trail that doesn't seem to be right don't be too stubborn to throw in the towel and retrace you steps to where you went wrong. Trails across glaciers and rocky areas are often marked with cairns (stone stacks) they can be tricky to find in some cases but with experience you will learn to pick them out. If you have gone for a while and after seeing cairns at regular intervals and do not see them anymore you probably wandered off the path, retrace your steps until you see a cairn and scan the area for the next one. The most important part of navigation on the trail is anytime you meet some one on the trail, ask, and then ask again to make sure you get consistent directions from multiple people. Essentially trail navigation is a mix of reading maps, common sense, and a descent sense of direction. Its really not that hard.
Some my favorite Trekking and Travel Gear
Kindle: I was skeptical when I finally took the plunge and bought a Kindle but this thing is great for traveling and for trekking. The e-reader rather than the full tablet version is smaller, lighter, cheaper, and the battery life is extremely long because power is only used when the page is changed unlike a tablet, computer, or phone display. I've trekked with my Kindle and not had to charge the battery over a 3 week trek. Its great for long trips to multiple countries because you can carry multiple guidebooks and a more recreational reading than you could ever get through all in a small light weight device that fits in a large pocket.
Steripen: This is a great device for sanitizing relatively clear water, which works well for tap water in developing nations and mountain streams when you're out trekking. I usually also bring some iodine too as a backup for dirtier water sources and in case of technical difficulties with the steripen.
Keen Hiking Boots: Hiking boots were alawys my biggest problem while I was living in Asia, it was very difficult to find good quality boots and impossible to find them in my size. So I needed good boots that would last me until someone could bring me new ones. My latest pair were Keen Oregon PTCs I've been very happy with these. I like the big rubber toe coverning which protects from loose rock on scree slopes and grips well when climbing. My foot is a bit wide and these boots fit my feet really well for me and were basically broken in from the time I put them on. As far as durability I haven't tested them as hard yet as some previous pairs of boot but so far they show no sigificant wear.