As a wannabe world wanderer, I’ve certainly been one lucky global traveling ducky the past few years. I hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in the spring of 2012, summited Kilimanjaro on Christmas Day 2012, and trekked to Annapurna Base Camp this past April. I’ve learned a lot since my first abroad trek (mainly from my master-planning, world traveling older sister, Lindsey), and looking back it definitely would have been much easier to have someone who had done this all before to guide me through the process. Lucky for you guys, I’m writing this post to do just that. Below, I’ve outlined my steps for planning a guided trek abroad (sorry go-it-aloners, I’m not the experienced trekker you’re looking for), and I’ve reviewed my three incredible treks in beautiful far away places and the people (and companies) who made them all possible. Hopefully, my long-winded words will inspire some of you to travel to some cool new places and bring me lots of good karma for my future world wandering ways!
Left: the Inca Trail Trek; Center: Mt. Kilimanjaro Trek; Right: Annapurna Base Camp Trek
Steps for planing a guided trek abroad
(1) Save your pennies. When planning a guided trek abroad, things can add up quickly. Unfortunately, this aspect can make or break your dream of trekking abroad, and so I put this as the very first step. You likely won’t know exactly how much your trek will cost until you’ve done some more research and completed steps 2-5, but putting money away in an adventure fund is always a great way to save without having to know exactly what adventure those funds will be used for in the future.
(2) Pick your trek. While a no-brainer, this step also requires a bit of thought. Once you have decided where you want to trek, you also often must decide which route to take to your destination and you must decide how long you wish or need your trek to be. When hiking at high altitude, you must pick your route and time-frame carefully–you will need to give yourself as much time as you can for acclimation (either on or off the trail) and this often means choosing a specific route and pace. During this stage, you will also need to research the best times of the year to go on your selected trek. Some treks are best done in spring and fall, while others are best done during the dry season; these seasons will not be the same in every region, so pick your dates carefully! Lastly, don’t forget to consider your physical abilities. While altitude can affect anyone, even the most experienced climber, differently on different hikes, it’s probably not the best idea to jump on a rugged mountain that tops out at 19,000 ft if you don’t already lead a fairly active lifestyle.
(3) Select your trekking company. This is by far the most important and intensive step of the list. NOT ALL GUIDE GROUPS ARE CREATED EQUAL. It is your job to find the one that not only best suits your needs, but also to find one that is qualified, experienced, knowledgeable and trustworthy. Below are things that you should consider during your selection phase:
- Use a combination of recommendations, reviews and websites to find a reputable trekking company. Listen to or read word-of-mouth recommendations, correspond with trekkers who have used the company, watch review videos, read online reviews, browse a company’s website or even look on the Better Business Bureau. The more sources you rely on, the more sure you can be about picking the right guide group. Remember, it is your job to make sure your selected trekking company is qualified, experienced, knowledgeable and trustworthy–If you lazy it on this step, your trip could be a total disaster.
- Find a trekking company that is owned and/or operated (i.e. guided) by local people. In places like Peru, Tanzania and Nepal, tourism is a huge part of the local economy. If you’re going to be paying big bucks to trek in foreign countries, the money should (in my opinion) be benefitting the people of that country. In many cases, the use of non-local booking companies may be unavoidable or may actually be the best option; however, try your best to ensure your trek is guided and portered by local people.
- Find a trekking company that treats their guides and porters well. The amount of time they are required to be on the trail, their pay, their accommodations, and how much weight they are expected to carry and whether or not that weight follows the law are all things you should inquire about when selecting a guide group for you trek. The best way to look into this is to actually talk to someone who has hiked with the group before, but if you are unable to do that online reviews and even posts on a company’s website can be really telling. You will not have a good trek if your guides and porters are unhappy, but more importantly, the guides and porters on your trek deserve to be treated with respect.
- Inquire about trek specifics, your own accommodations, gear, and add-ons. Most of this can be found on a company’s website, but it is also useful to talk to an employee via email or phone. Questions to ponder: Does the group use tents or cabins? How many people per tent/cabin/teahouse? Will you have to share sleeping quarters with strangers? How many people per trek? How many guides and porters per trek? Can you plan a private group trek? Does the group provide private bathrooms? Is there a separate dining tent? Is or can oxygen be provided (for high altitude)? Can you rent gear from the guide company? Does the trekking company offer add-ons, such as safaris or city tours? This list is not exhaustive, so likely this will be an iterative process. If you don’t get an answer you like from the trekking company you’ve selected, it may be a sign to check out another company. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!
(4) Book your trek. Booking an abroad trek should be done more than a couple days in advance, especially with three more very important steps left to do before leaving for your trek (see below). At a minimum, booking your trek will require a down payment–be sure you have saved your pennies well before jumping on this step! Some guide companies will plan and book everything trek-related for you (and so, you only have to worry about paying them on this step), but often the flight(s) and sometimes extra lodging before or after the trek will be up to you. Again–so many pennies (make sure you have them)! Booking your trek in advance will allow you to find the best priced flights and lodging (if necessary) and to gather all the necessary gear (see below).
(5) Collect your IDs and paperwork. Make sure you have a valid passport! Many foreign countries require your passport to be valid for six months AFTER your trip, so be sure to look into these rules either through your trekking company or through the county’s tourism website. You will likely have other paperwork to fill out for permits and/or visas–the trekking company may require this as a part of the booking process, but it also may be something they have you do after you’ve put in your down payment.
(6) Gather your gear. Start hunting down items you need for your trek as soon as you book the trip. Trust me. You do not want to be running to REI hours before your flight leaves. Trekking can be an expensive hobby, and the more time you give yourself between booking and leaving, the better chance you will have at finding gear on sale! Every trek is different, but generally high altitude and mountain treks tend to have very unpredictable weather and thus require a variety of gear. This step is even more important for those who are new to trekking as you will need to drop even more pennies on gear you never thought you would need (i.e. Gore-Tex rain jackets, crampons, trekking poles, gaiters, etc.). Most trekking companies have extensive gear lists that you can follow, but I think it’s always useful to talk to someone who has either (a) done the same trek or (b) who has hiked in the same region. If there are expensive ticket items on your trek gear list that you are unlikely to use again, such as heavy down jackets or below zero rated sleeping bags, see if you can rent them from your trekking company.
(7) Take care of medical. Go to a travel doctor as soon as you can after booking your trip. Visiting your physician is fine; however, travel doctors will not only have better knowledge about the vaccines and medications needed in far away and/or high-elevation places, but also will have the said vaccines and medications in stock (your physician likely will not). Also be aware that some vaccines require multiple doses and will need to be administered far in advanced–do not put off this task! Some countries, such as Tanzania, require proof of specific vaccines for you to enter the country, so don’t think you can get away with avoiding this step. If you will be hiking at altitude, consider altitude sickness medication. Lastly, be sure your current medical insurance will cover you while abroad OR purchase travel insurance (which often includes med-evac airlifts out of high-elevation, rugged terrain). If you hurt yourself while abroad and only have U.S. based coverage, you likely will be paying for all medical services in CASH (kind of a problem if you don’t have the big dollar bills to pay for a med-evac ride to a hospital). Travel insurance is often designed to avoid this exact situation, and some trekking companies require it before you are allowed to hike with them.
(8) Sit back and anticipate! As your trek approaches, double, triple and even quadruple check your pre-trip tasks and packing list. But more importantly, be sure to make everyone around you extremely envious of your upcoming travels.
My abroad trek reviews – a little shove toward step (2) & a little help for step (3)
If you have no idea where to begin or if you’re new to the whole process, picking a trek (2) can be a little daunting, and word-of-mouth recommendations (3) can be hard to acquire. As I have been fortunate enough to go on three amazing abroad treks in the past few years, I wanted to share a good summary of each of my treks (2) as well as the trekking companies that made it all possible (3).
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru: Warmiwañusqa (highest pass) 13,829 feet (4,215 meters)
About: The Inca Trail (four-day trek) is situated in the Andes Mountains. It winds through a variety of environments including rain forest, cloud forest and alpine tundra. On the trail you pass modern settlements as well as a handful of Incan ruins on your way to the awe-inspiring Machu Picchu. This hike was really stunning, and between the alpacas, huge valley walls and snow covered mountain-tops there was always something to look at. The Andes Mountains were the perfect place to complete my first trek, and I highly recommend this trek for anyone who finds higher altitude or colder treks extremely daunting (plus you get to end in a pretty amazing ancient city). You definitely will not be isolated on this trek, so be prepared to deal with some trail sharing (patience is key).
Due to erosion of the trail, including degradation of the thousands of original Inca Stairs, the Peruvian government limits the number of trekkers allowed on the trail (only 500 people can enter the trail per day–this includes guides and porters) and they are very strict about the guide companies allowed on the trail. If you want to do this hike, you will have no choice but to book far in advance.
Best times to hike: May to September (My sister and I hiked in March–the only day we didn’t get rained on was Machu Picchu day)
Add-ons: Extra days in Lima and Cusco, tour of sites in Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Trekking company: Booked through Peru for Less, guided by Wayki Treks
Peru for Less planned everything perfectly for us, including our add-ons in Lima, Cusco and the Sacred Valley. They didn’t miss a single beat, and I would highly recommend planning a visit to Peru through them. We had extremely knowledgeable guides take us through Cusco and the Sacred Valley, and our lodging was pretty incredible.
Wayki Treks was wonderful as well; the guide, the chef and porters were all local and despite the language barrier we had a lot of fun conversing with them. Every day our chef and porters would run ahead of us to set up lunch somewhere and then do it again after lunch to set up camp (they were so coordinated on the stairs I could not believe it). We had a very small group (four people total), which was pretty great and unusual. Lindsey and I carried our gear, so we did not hire a personal porter; however, that appeared to be the option most people favored on the trail. There were minor items that we weren’t made well aware of before the trek, such as you can’t have large backpacks in Machu Picchu and that we would be doing a super speedy mad-dash to Sunrise Gate on Machu Picchu day, but overall the trekking company did a really amazing job.
Biggest lesson of the trip: four days of hiking in the Andes is tiring–do yourself a favor and stay an extra night near Machu Picchu. You will appreciate the ruins so much more if you didn’t just spend the first 4-6 hours of your day running with gear on your back to Sunrise Gate.
Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania: 19,341 feet (5,895 meters)
About: Kilimanjaro is absolutely beautiful, and it is my favorite place that I have ever hiked. However, this trek is hands-down the hardest thing I have ever done. Kilimanjaro isn’t technically difficult, but the altitude is brutal (and can be extremely dangerous if you are not careful). Depending on the route, summit day on Kilimanjaro requires a climb of at least 3,800 feet (4,545 ft if you summit from Barafu Camp on the south side of the mountain like my group did), so this climb is not for the faint of heart (all of the Base Camps on the mountain sit at higher elevations that the 14ers in Colorado). Despite the altitude challenges, if you only are able to do one trek abroad ever and you are an adventurous spirit, this would be the trek I would tell you to do.
The route my group chose was the Shira 8-day Route (10-day trip). The Shira route on Kilimanjaro is perhaps the most beautiful, scenic, least-populated route on the entire mountain. It allows trekkers to see corners of the mountain that other people rarely see, such as Arrow Glacier during one of the afternoon acclimation climbs. The route starts on the west side of the mountain and takes you through forests, moor-lands (which often looked like a faux-under water world), alpine tundra, rugged boulder lands (base-camp) and the snow/glacier filled crater edge and summit. Because the Shira route is much less populated than many of the other routes, you don’t see much of any other groups until the last two days of climbing, and in my opinion, this is one of the best aspects of this route. We summited on Christmas day (hence the Santa hats in the photo) and despite torrential downpour most of the prior 5-days, mother nature decided to gift us with perfect summiting weather.
Best times to hike: January, February, September. (June, July, August are okay, but much colder).
Add-ons: Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crate and Serengeti Safaris; visiting Zanazibar
Trekking company: Booked through Peak Planet, Guided by African Walking Company
Like Peru for Less, Peak Planet made our trip planning and booking super, super easy. Lindsey and my mom added on safaris before our climb as I was finishing up my semester abroad in East Africa, and they had nothing but good things to say about the job Peak Planet did planning their initial part of the trip. Peak Planet even worked with my last minute trekking buddy add-ons, who I met through my study abroad program, and made sure they were in the same trekking group and stayed in the same hotels before and after the trek.
Now for the guides. I can honestly say that the African Walking Company is the most amazing group of humans I have ever had the pleasure to hike with anywhere in the world. Our lead guide, Henry, on Kilimanjaro had been porting and guiding on the mountain for over 15 years–he carried a first aid kit with him at all times and personally saw to every single scratch and ailment that occurred in our group (see photo above for proof that Henry literally always had his first aid kit on him). Our other six guides were also trained in first aid, and despite having their hands full caring for the 14 of us on the trail–even rushed to the aid of other hikers who had been ABANDONED by their own guides. Every single hour during our summit night/morning, at least of our guides would check us for signs of altitude sickness, shove some chocolate in our mouths (the best kind of energy), and then tell a glorious white lie about just how close we were to the summit (because we had to stay motivated somehow). Our guides even sang to us as we made our final ascent of the mountain, and two guides-in-training (porters) ran up the mountain ahead of us to meet us at the crater’s edge with HOT TEA (seriously guys, these people were unbelievable). Our 47 (yes, 47) porters were so kind and wonderful–we wouldn’t have made it up the mountain without them. If you’re going to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, do it with the African Walking Company!
Biggest lesson of the trip: slow and steady wins (summits) the race (Mt. Kilimanjaro). Our group managed to make quite a few other groups grumbly over the fact that we were moving slow on the mountain. However, many if not most of the people in those groups actually never made it to the top (they didn’t have guides who properly paced them through not only the night/morning of the summit, but also all the days prior) and they were shocked to learn that our entire group had made it to summit. When your guide company is responsible for getting 14 people to the summit of a mountain with a 60% success rate, you know they’re doing something right.
Annapurna Base Camp, Nepal: 13,550 ft (4,130 meters)
About: Annapurna Base Camp is situated near the base of a series of highly technical Himalayan mountains: Annapurna I, Annapurna South, Tharpu Chuli and Machhapuchhre. The route winds through lush rainforest, rocky terrain, high-alpine tundra and snow/ice ridden valleys and mountain sides, and allows trekkers to stay in enclosed tea-houses (like very rustic cabins) that are owned and operated by local people. This route is one of the more avalanche prone areas of the region (steep walls and heavy snow/rain falls are common-place), so it is very important that you are with a group that knows how to avoid these dangers. On our trek we had to traverse a handful of recent avalanches, and at the summit we could hear avalanches occurring off in the distance.
The views on this trek were unbelievable, but be forewarned, this trek will take you on a seemingly never ending journey of stairs. Unlike Kilimanjaro which stands alone in the Tanzanian landscape, Annapurna sits amongst many other mountains–this requires trekkers to do a lot of ups-to-ridges and downs-to-streams during this trek. However, if you’re a determined trekker like me, this is only a “minor” issue (we’ll just forget my grumblings on the day of 10,000 stairs to lunch). This trek was as tasking on the leg muscles as Kilimanjaro was tasking on the lungs, but the final destination is one of the coolest, geology-rich places I’ve ever been.
I haven’t heard any recent news about the state of the Annapurna Base Camp trail following the recent earthquake in Nepal (we left a mere three days before it occurred), and so if you are interested in this trek soon you will need to do a little follow-up research. I have read that much of Kathmandu is back to business as normal despite some of its great temples and sites missing from the city, but remote areas are likely still rebuilding. The people of Nepal are resilient, and despite this horrible natural disaster, I wouldn’t hesitate to travel back to their beautiful country.
Best times to hike: March to May, September to November
Add-ons: Sacred sites tour in Kathmandu; extra day in Pokhara
Trekking company: Himalayan Glacier
Himalayan Glacier did an absolutely wonderful job planning our trip. They were extremely responsive during our planning/booking stages, and answered all our questions very quickly. Unlike my other two abroad treks, our Annapurna Base Camp trek was a private group trek; however, the cost was no different than if we had joined another group or groups for the trek. Bonus: they are a company completely owned and operated in Nepal!
Our guides on the trek, Rishi and Kesob, and our two porters were extremely hardworking and personable. Between the four of them, we always had our meals on time (they knew the tea-house owners well so we never struggled to get our orders in or to get our food), always had a place to stay (a lot of the go-it-aloners we met had a very hard time finding lodging at the higher camps), and never went more than a few minutes without a good laugh (usually at the cost of Mike doing something silly). Rishi was there for us through our entire trip: including picking us up at the Kathmandu airport, flying with us to Pokhara and back, joining us during our welcome and goodbye dinners, and also getting us in a car to back to the Kathmandu airport. When I go back to Nepal (and I’ll be back for Everest basecamp), I will DEFINITELY be using Himalayan Glacier again.
Biggest lesson of the trip: stair-masters are for wussies.
Happy [global] trekking!