Trekking in the high Himalayas can be a truly rewarding and fulfilling experience, with some of the most remote and beautiful landscapes you’ll find anywhere on earth. As well as their beauty, the high mountains can be a hugely diverse environment regarding both the geology and flora and fauna. In fact, Sargamartha National Park in Nepal is home to several critically endangered species including the elusive Snow Leopard. Spend any time at all in these mountains and you’ll struggle not to fall in love with the place.
However beautiful, these mountains can also be an extremely tough and hostile environment – as you ascend and the air pressure reduces, you’ll struggle with, effectively, less and less oxygen, the temperatures reduce rapidly at night and out of the sun and the weather can turn at any moment.
Trekking here you will undoubtedly experience sudden changes in weather and temperature while moving over increasingly rugged terrain. Add in, the essential need to stay well hydrated to combat AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness – separate article to come on that one…) and it can be tough to know just what you should pack regarding clothing and equipment especially if trying to pack as light as possible, after all, less oxygen you’ll be working twice as hard at altitude so you’ll want to avoid carrying too much weight wherever possible.
Here is our list of 10 essential items (in no particular order) that should help keep the weight down, but also give you a versatile, adaptable kit to make your trek through this beautiful but hostile environment much more comfortable.
In no particular order:
We cannot stress enough the benefit of the layering system. This involves many layers smaller items of clothing that you can mix-and-match and whip on and off quickly, to adapt to rapidly changing conditions.
A typical layering system should include:
Take for example our early morning trek through the moraine of the Khumbu glacier on our way from Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp – the sun was warm but low in the sky. At 5000+ meters altitude this meant the temperature difference was as much (or sometimes more than) 20 degrees C, -5 in shade to +15 in the sun. You could walk for 10 minutes in relatively warm weather and the next minute be plunged into freezing shade.
Using the layering system we can quickly adapt to these changing conditions. Both Gem and myself prefer to use merino wool base layers, although there are several very good synthetic alternatives, we both find merino is the best. You could wear just one base layer or combine a couple of items if the weather is really cold. Our main reasons for choosing merino include:
Some of our recommended products, and those that we use ourselves include:
It will get seriously cold at some point, regardless of the time of year, so this really is an essential-essential, especially at night, or on days with early morning starts.
Our pick is of course a good quality down jacket. Not a huge Everest summit type duvet! Down is nature at its most beautiful – we just haven’t been able to replicate the insulation properties of down as effectively as nature has achieved over millions of years of evolution – Its warmth to weight ratio simply can’t be beaten. So, a comparatively lightweight layer of down is going to give you a lot warmth in a small package.
Down jackets are a little more expensive than synthetic alternatives but for good reason – They tend to be lighter and pack smaller. That said, there are some fairly good alternatives for a little more weight.
We experimented with all kinds of jackets from the super-light, weighing less than 200g, to a more modest 400g. The slightly heavier jackets have a little more insulation and features – such as adjustable hood and peak for protection against the weather, which we ultimately prefer. We definitely think that a touch more insulation and enhanced comfort features is a good trade for a few grams here.
Our top picks include:
Rab Microlight Alpine
Montane Featherlite Down
Tip – If your jacket has a peaked hood, we’d recommend protecting it when packing away by folding the arms and chest into the centre and then rolling the jacket inside its own hood. This bundle is then the perfect shape to pack into a compression packing cube such as those from Eagle Creek. The compression packing cubes keep the peak flat and compress the jacket just as well as the provided stuff sacks but also give you a more regular, defined shape to efficiently pack in your bag.
Similar to the insulated jackets, shells are often a trade off between features and weight. There are a huge number of options available from loads of manufacturers – all very good. Aim for something light that is fairly lightweight and we’d recommend to try on jackets from as many manufacturers as possible as it’s amazing how differently they can fit, especially for women specific products – models must vary hugely between brands!
We both prefer a slim fit jacket but with plenty of room in the sleeves to allow full range of comfortable movements from your arms, so be sure to check this when trying on shells. And don’t forget that this should be done both with all of your other layers (down jacket included) and without. This will allow you to check that the jacket will comfortably work in your layering system when you need every layer but also ensure that it isn’t going to be flapping around annoyingly when you’re stuck in a warm semi-tropical shower that might hit you low down when you only need a base layer and the shell.
Gem tends to find that Rab shells fit her body shape best, I find Mountain Equipment works for me, but you may just as easily fit one of the many other brands better.
Our top picks include:
Rab Spark Jacket
Mountain Equipment Firefox
Mounatin Equipment Zeno
Something that must not be underestimated in this environment is the strength of the sun! In the thin atmosphere you will be burned to a crisp in minutes! It is absolutely essential to protect yourself from the sun – especially your eyes!
Good quality sunglasses are a must. And this does not mean fashion “quality” sunglasses. Leave the Raybans and D&G glasses at home – while they are perfectly adequate around town or on the beach, the mountains require something with much more protection. I once wore genuine Raybans skiing – never again. If you’ve ever burnt your eyes, you’ll never do it again, trust me, not a comfortable experience.
The additional glare from the bright white mountain sides can also add to the problem. A good quality pair of sunglasses with side protection and a rating of Category 4 is recommended which means somewhere in the region of 3-8% light transmission.
You can also find some photo chromatic lenses which will adjust between Cat. 2-4 so allowing adaptability moving between sun and shade which can be a great convenience.
Our picks include:
Serengeti Sunglasses – Photo chromatic Range
Julbo Chameleon Cat 2-4 – Various frame styles
As above, protection from the sun is essential. When we trekked I didn’t actually have a sun hat and it’s the one item I would never do it again without. You feel a bit silly with a spare T-shirt wrapped around your head.
Take a light sun hat of any description to keep the sun off your head or risk a spot of sun stroke, even if the air temperature isn’t that hot the sun can still be ferocious! Consider as well keeping the sun off the tops of your ears and the back of your neck – a Buff can be very effective here as well.
Good quality sun cream is essential, as is lip balm with high SPF.
When using cream on our faces we both prefer something that isn’t greasy and doesn’t feel like you’ve oiled yourself up for a beach bronzing contest. There are some great products out there and I was surprised at how Gems favourite felt once applied, barely noticed I had it on.
La Roche Possay – Anthelios XL ultralight SPF50+
Whilst myself and Gem agree completely on the need for good quality, hard wearing footwear we ended up preferring different types of footwear for duration of our trek in Nepal.
We both took a pair of boots and a pair of trekking/trail running shoes each. I never wore my trekking shoes, Gem never wore her boots. So, yes, the lightweight packers needlessly carried two extra pairs of footwear with us… we shan’t make the same mistake again.
Gem preferred the trekking shoes due the increased breathability, lightweight and range movement in her ankles at the expense of some support. I have, over the years, become more used to solid, stiff soled climbing boots, and once you adjust to them it’s hard to go back – I love that I barely feel the rugged terrain under foot, and for climbing and scrambling you have a solid platform to step on the smallest of edges and confidently move over rough ground.
Shoes are such a personal thing its important to find something that is comfortable for you. We do recommend that whatever you pick has a good, grippy and supportive sole. Also we found that the very rough ground found us regularly catching our toes so a shoe or boot with, at a minimum, rubber toe protection, preferable a broader rubber rand around the whole toe area is essential.
Boots or shoes should be well worn-in before you leave. And it would be a good idea to carry some spare laces – the trails were littered with broken laces and while we didn’t actually take spare laces this time I’d strongly recommend them given the casualties we whitnessed.
La Sportiva Savage GTX
Scarpa Rebel Lite GTX
Strangely, this year I got my boots out, blew the dust off, and realised that my middle aged feet have stretched by about half a size my toes where touching the end of my boots! I loved those boots and they are no longer made so reluctantly I had to begin the search for a new pair.
What I found, I cannot recommend enough, they surpassed even my previous classic Scarpa Mantas. Despite trying many boots from many brands I stuck to the Scarpa’s as they just seem to work well with my foot shape. This is goldilocks boot – a stiff soled boot with just the right amount of flex at the toe and ankle to make longer hikes much more comfortable but retaining those properties of stiff climbing boots that I love. In addition, these still carry a B2 crampon rating which means a C2 crampon can still be used (with the addition of some flex-bars) if needed for the occasional glacier crossing or Grade I or II climb.
(I should point out however, I’ve never had the chance to use them with crampons yet. So can’t comment on the crampon experience.) Essentially, this could be the perfect trekking, scrambling and low grade climbing boot for me. What’s more (or less, I should say), is the weight – much lighter than any of my previous boots. Apologies, for the slightly technical bit about crampons, but if any climbers are reading they will know what I’m talking about. Back to trekking…
I could go on and on here about the over use of plastics, landfill and environmental impacts on wildlife but I won’t. This one just makes sense on so many levels, environmentally and financially being the most important.
A litre of bottled water can cost you 100 Rs (1$) low down and as much as 450 Rs ($4.5) high up the mountain. When you need to drink a minimum of 3-4 litres a day it soon adds up. Take something to purify your own water.
The tap water tastes pretty good throughout the Khumbu region, with the possible exception of Gorak Shep, and once purified (I think this is just “belt and braces”, I’m sure it’s mostly ok) you should be perfectly safe to drink plenty of it.
We haven’t been a fan of the swimming pool flavour that tablets can add to the water so our pick is definitely the Steripen UV sterilizing system. Simple, and works a treat.
In my vanity I have always scoffed and poles and those that use them… until now. I’m obviously getting older and my knees are really starting to complain after a day out in the hills. Now I have a new found respect for these things – they can definitely take the strain off the knees going both up and down.
I’ve grown up. These things are brilliant and can make a multiday trek much, much more comfortable and enjoyable. Nothing else to say really.
We both find the quick clip locking mechanism less of a pain than the twist ones, so if you can find them without twist that what we would pick. We compromised on one quick clip and one twist in order to gain an antishock feature on ours – I think this can make it a little more comfortable on the hands and arms over multidays so may be something you should consider as well.
Leki Carbon Antishock
Leki Aluminium Antishock
Another simple one – there aren’t many cash points at high altitude. Work out how much daily budget you’ll need and take enough from Kathmandu. You will find the occasional cash point (ATM), at Namche Bazar for example, but you cannot rely on them either having cash or actually working.
As a rough guide we were recommended to budget $30 a day per person for food and accommodation but ended up spending more like $25 a day per person. If we had been buying bottled water, taking showers everyday or charging electrical items we might have needed $30-$35 each.
How do you go about carrying all this stuff? A good daypack of course!
We saw so many great daypacks, appalling daypacks and everything in between. The biggest problem we saw though is how badly fitting so many of them were. Really everyone is going to have different requirements from a pack and everyone is unique – we are all different shapes and sizes so whatever you go for, please, please go and get a pack properly fitted – it will make all the difference to your comfort and enjoyment while in the mountains.
We think its essential to have a good padded waist belt – this will sit much of the weight onto your hips, directly above your legs, where it should be, rather than hanging on your shoulders. Also getting the back length correct is important as is adjusting a sternum strap to correct height – especially true for women, and even more so for those with a larger bust to ensure comfort.
Lastly, those little adjustable straps between the top of the shoulder straps and the top of the bag are incredibly important! They should be adjusted and pulled taught to keep the load weight pulled towards the back, again keeping the weight over the hips and down through the legs rather than pulling off the shoulders. So many times we see these little straps ignored and it could make all the difference for a comfortable day.
Again, there are loads of great brands but our favourites are:
Osprey Tempest 20
Osprey Talon 22