For those who like to switch off their brain on vacation, and indeed before they go on vacation, small group walking vacations are bliss. You just need to turn up and walk. Your itineraries have been created based on years of experience by the tour operator, meals are sorted and your health and safety will be monitored by an expert group leader.
Imagine going into a bar in a remote rural location and asking who would be the best person to show you around. Well, that’s the sort of person who’ll meet you at the airport and share their knowledge and love of a place throughout. They are local people, well trained in remote trekking and, almost without exception, totally passionate about sharing their country’s natural beauty.
Particularly on some of the more challenging treks, it’s great to have a group of fellow walkers with you. First of all, the ‘ups’ seem easier when you have other hikers alongside and, when you start to lag, the camaraderie is always a boost. For trips in wild places you definitely want pals around the campfire or, for more cushy circuits, mates around a Merlot in the bar at the end of the day.
Small group walking vacations are great for families, as you don’t have to worry about all the organization, including the all-important food stops for those active but hollow legs. You can take time to walk as a family without having the proverbial map reading domestics, and you can hang out with other likeminded families too, of course.
If you are going for one of the biggies like the Great Wall of China, Basecamp Everest or the Inca Trail, you can organize it yourself but it will take months. And a lot of good contacts. This is a trip of a lifetime for many, so traveling with a small group makes the big experience just so much easier, saving you time and money with the stress of all that decision making taken out of your hands. Leaving you to focus on getting fit for the trek.
There are certain wild places which are nigh on impossible to reach without a group, unless you are David Attenborough, but even he has a team of advisors. Such as Madagascar, where parts of the island are so remote you might need to combine walking with kayaking in order to get to the otherwise inaccessible places. Or Patagonia which is so magnificent, it’s just rude not to share it.
On a small group walking vacation, you are following in the footsteps of many experts. Responsible walking companies have spent years getting to know every hill and homestay, mountain and mountain guide, bars and backroads. They have seen what works and what doesn’t works, so that you get all the good bits.
Most small group walking vacations take the ease out of luggage worries, as many have your bags transported from one accommodation to another, usually in a minibus or jeep. In some regions, such as Nepal and Peru, there are porters to help too, although this carries with it certain issues, which you can read about in our responsible tourism section.
For every packed peak, there is nearly always another empty one nearby. Same goes for national parks. 70 per cent of Japan, for example is mountainous, yet most people only want to fawn over Fuji. Switched on hikers are heading south to explore Kerala’s Western Ghats instead of the Himalayas, and worshippers of the Camino de Santiago are discovering heavenly spots along Portugal’s Serra de Monchique's ancient paths.
You know the type, a selfie on every shore or asking everyone to pose for group photos at every headland or, worse, pushing to the front of the group to snap villagers going about their everyday lives in remote mountain spots. And usually without asking which is just embarrassing for other group members who broach the subject of taking someone’s photograph with a little more subtlety and respect.
It’s all very well being attached to the hiking boots your dad wore, and his dad before that. Or that daypack you have had for years, and stitched up again and again. But sometimes it is OK just to let them go, enshrine them if needs be, and acknowledge the benefits of high tech waterproof and breathable walking gear. With the exception of a fine old handed down hipflask of course.
The clue is in the name ‘Walking… Vacation’. They are not about getting to the top first, or rounding that distant headland before everyone else. They are for people who want to step into other natural landscapes, explore culture in remote places, and chill on the hills. Who needs the top? There’ll be plenty of highs along the way.