Travelers planning on trekking the Himalayas know it’s no walk in the woods. Still, regardless of their fitness level, the question first-timers always ask is, “How hard is it?” And my answer is always: “It depends.” Each person is different, and how you experience the challenge of say, a trek to Everest Base Camp, varies mostly according to four things:
- Your age
- How fit you are
- How well you adjust to high altitude over 5,000 feet
- Your personality…and ability to laugh
A “moderate-to-difficult” 10-day trek on the Annapurna Circuit for a 50-year-old woman who jogs three miles, 5 days a week might be a “mild” cakewalk for a 20-year-old triathlete.
1. WHERE ARE YOU GOING?
Not all Himalayan treks lead to Everest Base Camp at 17,600 feet. EBC is nearly as high as Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro and starts in Lukla at 9,383 feet. You’ll be on the trail for about 13 days, trekking 6-8 hours a day with a day off here and there for altitude adjustment.
But there are other beautiful and less rigorous trekking options. There are day hikes and shorter treks in Nepal that most reasonably fit, healthy people will enjoy. A fabulous non-touristy Nepal trek, for example, is Mountains and Monasteries.
So be realistic about your current level of fitness and how much time you’re willing to commit to training when choosing your trip.
2. ARE YOU HEALTHY?
Be smart and have a physical check-up before you begin the aerobic, anaerobic and strength training program that will become a part of your life as you prepare for a high-altitude trek. The training and physical exertion you’ll experience on the trail will challenge your body in unique ways. Altitude may also affect medical conditions that you have and the medications you take. We require a doctor’s okay when you book your trip and that he complete a full medical form.
3. HOW FIT ARE YOU TODAY?
Starting a training program six months in advance of the trip is sufficient for most active people. You’ll want to start much sooner if your idea of exercise is reaching for the TV remote. Be sure to include interval training in your program. Sports scientists say High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is the best way to improve fitness, even for well-conditioned athletes.
Of course, you’ll need strong legs— that’s why Stairmaster stints and lunges and squats are de rigueur exercises– but building upper body and core strength are equally important. You’ll walk some steep trails that pull on your posture and carry at least a day-pack that can become quite heavy when filled with a full water bladder plus extra clothing, sunscreen, a camera, notebook, and whatever else you find essential.
5. WHAT TYPES OF EXERCISE ARE YOU DOING?
If you’re not already doing regular aerobic exercise or strength and resistance training, start immediately but go slow. If you’re a beginner, have a trainer help you design a strengthening workout and change it periodically. Begin with two days a week and work up to three days, increasing weights and repetitions as you improve. Pick a strength and resistance training routine—free weights, weight machines, resistance bands, circuit training, HIIT–that you will actually do.
Are you a hiker? If you’re not, start hiking and eventually go on trails that involve hills. Hiking is the best training for trekking. The more miles your hike and thesteeper the climb, the better prepared you’ll be mentally and physically for trekking. Try using a back pack loaded with weights or even kitty litter.
If you’re already doing resistance exercises, increase the types of movements you do and alternate a longer workout of upper body and core on one day with a lower body workout the next. Vary your routine, too, to target all your muscle groups and prevent workout burnout. Yoga or Pilates are also excellent for strengthening the core.
6. HOW DO YOU HANDLE ALTITUDE?
If skiing, snowshoeing or hiking 6,000 feet above sea level or higher has left you gasping for breath and feeling that your legs are made of lead, you may have to be careful when air is thin, and less oxygen is available.
To work around that oxygen-deficit and keep altitude sickness from ruining your trek, try the following steps to help acclimatize. They may be safer and more effective than altitude medications, such as Diamox (Acetazolamide).
- Arrive at the start of the trek with healthy lungs that can hold their oxygen maximum–that’s what HIIT and regularly hiking uphills are for. Practicing deep breathing on your training hikes and/or do yoga breathing exercises to become adept at fully expanding your lungs and slowing your heart rate.
- Stay hydrated. Drinking water may not sound like it needs practicing, but if you’re not already consuming 8 cups a day, start getting in the habit. The Institute for High Altitude Medicine says that when the air is thin, you’ll need to drink an additional 4-6 cups of liquid a day to make up for the water a low-lander will lose at high altitude.
- Take days off to acclimate. Our itineraries are planned to allow days off the trail that allow your body—your red blood cells production, especially—to catch up with the demands of trekking in a low-oxygen environment. A day touring a trading village or just taking in the scenery also gives your body a much-needed rest.
You’ve done it. Now, enjoy trekking the Himalayas!