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Himalayan High: gear for the trek
After spending a couple of thousand dollars on the trek and airfare to Kathmandu, it is a natural instinct to want to save some money on your gear. While I'm all for bargain shopping, it is important that you be smart about it and still purchase high quality equipment. Certain pieces of gear will play an important role in your journey, and it is imperative that you don't go cut-rate on those items, lest you end up regretting it later.
For instance, on my trek it was recommended that we bring a 4-season sleeping bag to ensure that we stayed warm throughout the long nights in the Nepalese teahouses. That type of bag is generally rated down to about 0ºF (-18ºC), and at the higher altitudes, the unheated lodges could potentially approach those temperatures or even lower. Some of my travel companions failed to heed these recommendations however, and arrived on the trek with just a 3-season bag, and within a few days, they were all begging for extra blankets in their rooms in an attempt to stay warm each night. Their bags did end up saving them money, but at the expense of comfort. Anyone who has ever been too cold to sleep can certainly tell you that it doesn't make for a very fun night. By contrast, I took a GoLite 4-season Adrenaline bag, and was plenty warm, and comfortable, the entire time I was on the trail. In fact, I was able to sleep quite snugly in just my skivvies, while the rest of the group piled on layers.
The clothing you take along on the trek plays a vital role in keeping you comfortable as well, but since everything you bring with you needs to fit in one backpack, you'll be limited in your options. Your clothing needs to be versatile, lightweight, and highly packable, all at the same time. At the lower altitudes you'll want something that is cool and comfortable, but as you go up, you'll need to stay warm and dry. Your best bet is to use a layering system, allowing you to pack a few items of clothing that can work in unison to keep you comfortable no matter what the conditions.
Generally a layering system starts with good base layers that stay close to the skin, wicking away moisture, and keeping you cool or warm as needed. From there, you add a fleece layer, which traps warm air between it and your base layer, providing extra warmth. I actually took two fleece layers with me, a lighter, performance fleece for lower altitudes and a thicker, expedition level fleece for when we neared base camp. Finally, you can add a shell jacket over your other layers for when it gets really cold. The three layers work well with one another to keep the warm air in, but the nasty elements out. A system such as this one doesn't take up much room in your travel bags, and is very flexible for the varying conditions you'll find in the Khumbu Valley.
Perhaps the single most important gear item you'll take with you on your trek are your hiking boots. You can have every other piece of gear exactly right, but if your boots are bad, you'll end up having a miserable time. Keep your feet happy however, and the trek will seem like a walk in the park - quite literally! Picking the right boots for a multi-day Himalayan trek is not an easy task, and it is a highly personal choice. You'll want to try on a number of pairs of boots before you purchase the ones that will see you through the mountains, but be very careful in your selection, as this isn't your local trail, and you'll need something more than the light hikers that you're use to wearing along those lesser paths. I recommend shelling out the cash on a good pair of hiking boots, but when you do so, keep in mind that these shoes will last you for years. My boots are made by Asolo, and they have been trekking with me on five continents. They are comfortable, flexible and very durable. Just be sure to break them in at home, long before you leave for Nepal. Trust me, you don't want to try out new shoes on the road to Everest. Bonus tip: wear the boots with you on the plane. If your baggage gets lost in transit, you can replace just about anything else, but again, you won't want to be breaking in new boots on the hike.
That about covers the essential gear for your trek, but there are plenty of extra things you can bring along to help make things easier, just don't bring so much stuff that you're overloading yourself or your Sherpa porter. For instance, I highly recommend taking trekking poles, as they provide extra stability and traction both going up and down the mountain. A good headlamp is essential of course and should be in every traveler's pack no matter where they are headed, and you'll want a wide brimmed hat to help keep the wind and sun off of you as you hike. An iPod has become almost essential gear these days as well, although you my have issues with recharging it on the go, in which case it just becomes dead weight. Don't forget a good camera, as you'll want to document the trip as best you can, and the usual assortment of gloves, beanies, and scarves can be useful in keeping you warm as well.
But if I were to recommend one non-essential piece of gear to throw in your pack, it would be a Buff. This versatile piece of kit is the most useful multifunction headwear you'll find anywhere. They can be worn on your head of course, covering your scalp and keeping the sweat out of your eyes. But they can also be worn around the neck, keeping the wind and rain from running down your jacket, and when the gusts really pick-up, it can be pulled up over the mouth and nose to keep the dust out, something that proved extremely helpful in the Khumbu. Trust me, the Buff is a great piece of gear that doesn't take up too much space in your pack and won't break your budget either, but will provide you with plenty of uses.
When making a long distance trek of this kind, it is important that you choose your gear wisely. Don't skimp on these items, as it may come back to bite you when you need it most, and always keep in mind that your gear is an important element in your enjoyment of your Himalayan adventure.
Next: Dangers of the Trek