Wilderness trekking travel guide

A sense of connection to the raw power of nature is one of the big draws of wilderness trekking vacations. That feeling of being alone in some of the most pristine landscapes on earth can be quite overpowering. Almost alone, that is. Many wilderness areas are far from uninhabited and trekking through them can offer a financial lifeline for people living in small, out-of-the-way communities.
Wilderness trekking vacations aren’t just about the challenge or escaping into nature. They offer a rare glimpse of day-to-day life in some of the world’s most isolated places.
“Life in Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas is often very harsh,” says Kashka Lantis, from our trekking experts Exodus Travels. “It’s all about maximising the opportunities available. Tourism plays a huge role in the local economy but there’s such a small window to benefit from it.” Our wilderness trekking vacations don’t just wow you with nature. They also provide valuable employment opportunities for local people through guiding, porter services, accommodation and food provision. In return, you gain fascinating insights into life in these remote quarters of the earth.

Keep reading our wilderness trekking vacations travel guide for me.

Is wilderness trekking for you?

Go on a wilderness trekking vacation if...

… you want to see beyond the views. Our responsible trekking vacations in wilderness areas are typically led by local guides who give their groups the lowdown on what it’s like to live there, offering introductions to their own backgrounds and communities, as well as pointing out interesting animals and plants you pass. It all adds up to a more rounded picture of the place rather than just a stunning landscape. … you want a challenge. Wilderness trekking vacations will test your physical stamina and mental resolve. They’re far from exhausting, but they do require an extra layer of resilience. You’ll be in remote landscapes some distance from major urban areas, often staying in quite basic accommodations, perhaps helping out with tasks such as cooking or setting up camp when the day’s walking is at an end. … you’re sociable and love meeting and sharing experiences with new people. Most wilderness trekking vacations are small group tours led by an expert trekking guide. You’ll have the option to share a room or tent – especially if you’re a solo traveler on a group trip – and mealtimes are a convivial, communal affair. Motivation and friendly company are in good supply. … you want to support communities for whom there are few economic options. Established routes through isolated regions can be an economic lifeline for local people. Go further by walking with a tour operator that offers support year-round, not just during the often limited trekking season.

“The Markha Valley is a summer destination, completely cut off from the world in winter,” says Kashka Lantis, from our trekking experts Exodus Travels. “We visit some eco cafés that give local people another livelihood. During the winter months, they work on the crafts to sell in the summer. While there are some female porters, most are men – but this scheme involves women too. The cafés really bring the community together and there’s a lot of local pride. People are trained to run the cafés so women are learning about running a business.”

Don’t go on a wilderness trekking vacation if...

… creature comforts are important to you. Not all accommodation will be under canvas, but even if you’ll be sleeping in a refuge, guest house or a family’s village home, the accommodation will be simple. As a general rule, you can expect amenities to become more basic the more remote, and the higher in altitude, you trek. … you don’t want to do some regular long-distance walking before you leave. (Think 10km-plus at a time.) You don’t need to be super fit to take part in most wilderness trekking vacations, but it’s necessary to have a love of walking, to be confident over uneven terrain and to possess a base level of endurance. … you don’t know how your porters are being supported. With limited road access, many wilderness trekking vacations use porters to carry your clothes, bags, food and equipment along the trail. Exploitation is rife, from underpaid staff to carrying dangerously heavy loads in inadequate clothing. … you haven’t broken in your walking boots. The start of your trek is not the time to dust off your brand new boots for the first time – not unless you’re packing plenty of blister cream too. Make sure your boots have been well walked-in, preferably over some long-distance treks back home.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Wilderness trekking or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

What is trekking in the wilderness like?

Small group tours vs. tailor made trekking

Wilderness trekking vacations generally fall into one of two camps. The majority are small group tours where you’ll join a band of travelers from different backgrounds for the duration of the trip, led by an expert local guide. These vacations tend to be a great option for sociable solo travelers, as you’ll get a ready-made group of travel companions to share your journey.

Your other option is a tailor made trip where the itinerary can be tweaked just for you, offering more flexibility on routes and dates. Depending on your destination, you might find you’ll join a small group for the trekking part of your vacation or it could just be you and a trekking guide on a private departure.

Food & accommodation

By their very nature, wilderness trekking vacations spend a significant amount of time in remote areas. Some will have very limited access to daily comforts while other more popular routes may have better infrastructure. You might camp every night, erecting your own tent (with help on hand, of course) or in simple guest houses. Campsites vary in the level of amenities, with some offering little more than a toilet block.

If you prefer a higher standard of accommodation, then opting for a wilderness trekking vacation based in one place, rather than a point-to-point itinerary, can be a good option. Some of the refugios and hotels in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park, for example, make a comfortable base to come back to each night, while day hikes take you into the wild valleys, past enormous glaciers and around ice-blue lakes. You might even get an internet connection!

Depending on your destination and the length of your trek, you might prefer to become vegetarian, especially the more remote you go. When you’re trekking in the Markha Valley, for example, the tea houses at high altitudes will have supplies, including meat, brought in via yak – a journey that might take two or three days or more without refrigeration.

When you’re camping, your porters will go on ahead to set everything up for you, so you can be welcomed with a ready tent and hot cup of tea. You’ll enjoy a hot meal for lunch and dinner too – usually vegetarian, as it’s not ideal carrying meat for several days on the journey – but hearty. You’ll be eating curried vegetables, dhal. “Generally, we find people are amazed at the quality and variety of food that can be produced by our expedition cooks,” says Kashka.

How fit do I need to be?

The amount of preparation you’ll need to do in terms of fitness depends on the place and the amount of trekking you do each day. For instance, if you’re in Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park in late spring, a few weekends of hillwalking at home should see you capable of tackling the daily endeavours.

If you’re trekking in Nepal, India’s Markha Valley, or the rainforests of Madagascar, then you will probably want to be a more experienced walker, and ready to cope with the altitude as well as possibly very different temperatures than you’re used to at home.

“You need to have had experience of trekking at altitude before you tackle the Markha Valley, so you have an idea as to how your body might cope and what reaction you might have,” advises Kashka. “It’s more important here than in some of the other more touristy trekking areas – this is a lot more remote. Obviously, we have all the support and back-up in place, but there isn’t a lot of tourism infrastructure.”

Tailor made trekking vacations can be good in this regard, as if you really want to explore a particular destination, there may be variations in routes you can take according to your abilities. As always, our partners are a wellspring of useful advice on fitness. They’ll ensure you know what to expect and how to prepare for your trip when you book.

Porters & porters’ rights

“What’s lovely about having the porters in the Markha Valley is that while they will go on ahead to set up camp, a lot of the time they are walking with you,” says Kashka. “You have more opportunity to talk with them as you hike than on other similar treks.”

On many wilderness trekking vacations, a team of porters will carry most of your equipment, save what you might need during the day. That might include tents if you’re camping, spare clothes, and even a portable kitchen. While they may make it look easy as they shoulder their heavy packs and spring up the trail, it’s a physically demanding job and not one with much of a financial safety net in case of injury.

Porter work is an important source of income for communities in areas crossed by popular trekking routes. But not all porters are treated equally, and for some the job is low-paid, exploitative and sometimes dangerous.

So how can you make sure your porters on your trip are getting a fair deal? Our responsible vacation partners pay fair wages often significantly above the industry average. They ensure that porters are not overloaded, and don’t resort to unscrupulous tactics like shifting packs around at weigh-stations to bend the rules. In some cases, they will provide accommodation before the trek begins too, as often porters will not be able to afford it and won’t get enough rest before setting off.

Our biggest takeaway when it comes to porters’ rights is this: when you’re researching a trip, ask for the specifics about how your porters are being treated. Only by travelers questioning their vacation companies are conditions going to improve across the board.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: Lydia Steinmassl] [Intro: Claude Piche] [Go if…: Laurentiu Morariu] [Food & accommodation: Zach Betten]