Requirements, assessing your fitness levels, hiking at high altitudes
Long-distance tours – whether hiking, trekking, cycling or on skis – are healthy activities you can pursue at virtually any age, given that they are more about endurance rather than short bursts of intensive strain. Having said that, it’s a good idea to consider how the term ‘long-distance’ translates into reality. Depending on your physical condition, hiking tours of 10 to 25 km a day (plus altitude changes) can definitely push the body to its limits as the day goes on; the same is true, of course, for bike tours involving daily distances of 40 to 80 km.
We’ve probably all seen descriptions of fantastic trekking, bike or ski tours without having any real way of knowing if we would be able to manage them ourselves. At Bookyourtrail.com, we endeavour to explain the fitness requirements for each journey in as much detail as possible. As is customary for alpine hiking trails, our duration estimates follow the guidelines of the German Institute for Standardization (DIN). But none of these details are especially helpful without the relevant background knowledge – which is what these following chapters are intended to provide.
Assessing your fitness levels
Most likely, you will have completed some minor or even major hiking, cycling or ski tours before embarking on a long-distance adventure. We suggest you simply make a note of the distances you covered on previous excursions and compare them with the specifications for some of our routes (simply click on the ‘Stages’ button that accompanies each Trail). This should give you a fair idea of how challenging (or easy) you are likely to find the experience.
- Take a look at the longest stage of your intended trail and its estimated duration. If you have completed similar tours within roughly the same timeframe, a multi-day journey should give you no particular problems – meaning that you should be able to carry on hiking/cycling the following day without any concerns for your wellbeing.
- If you haven’t done an excursion you could use as a suitable reference, simply try out an equivalent day tour. You don’t need to travel all the way to the Alps – prospective long-distance hikers, for example, should be able to find a 20-km walk with a few ascents in a variety of places.
- We calculate our hiking times according to the automated calculation by Outdooractive (we also do this for the ascent times of ski touring stages). Outdooractive's calculation is based on the formula used in Switzerland to calculate hiking time + about 10% additional buffer time. The formula is complex and can only be calculated manually with high effort. In our experience, however, a modified version of the walking time calculation according to DIN standard 33466 will result in similar hiking times: Time = 4 km/hour + (400m ascent/hour + 600m descent/hour), the smaller value will be divided by 2.
Example: Section with 20 km + 800m ascent + 900m descent = 5 hrs + (2 hrs + 1,5 hrs)/2 = 6 hrs 45 min walking time. With this formula you can calculate your own personal test track incl. target time, which should be similar as the longest stage of your desired Trail, in terms of distance and ascents/descents.
In general, the hiking times of Outdooractive are pure hiking times without breaks or rests and require a fast pace.
- Calculating the timeframes for our bike trails is considerably more complex, since the ratio of horizontal distance to elevation gain has an even stronger bearing on the results. As a guideline: on an asphalted road without notable variations in altitude, a cyclist pedalling at a leisurely pace will travel at a speed of around 15 km/h.
- If you found your practice run rather challenging, we suggest you make every third or fourth day of your Trail journey into a rest day – all you have to do is book your itinerary accordingly. Everyone reacts differently to physical challenges, and recuperates at their own pace. And there is no denying that the daily exertion of a long-distance journey can have something of an accumulative effect.
- If you are new to extended hiking/cycling tours, simply book two or three stages of a Trail, in order to test the waters and gauge your level of fitness. This may also whet your appetite for a longer Trail journey next time round!
- A medical check-up prior to your Trail journey is always a good idea, especially if you have any questions or concerns.
- If you suffer from any orthopaedic problems (i.e. knee ailments), we strongly recommend consulting your practitioner, to find out whether exertion over consecutive days may worsen your condition – and whether you could counteract your symptoms with a physiotherapist’s training plan.
- The special requirements for Trail journeys in high-altitude areas (exceeding 3000m, for example in Nepal) are detailed in the chapter ‘Hiking in high altitudes’.
We have a great deal of experience, but ultimately, only you can decide whether a specific Trail journey is right for you. Thanks to our in-depth Trail descriptions, however, you can certainly make an informed choice.
Requirements of your chosen trail: getting the full picture
When detailing the requirements of a Trail, we focus not only on fitness levels, but also list a number of other prerequisites. This is what they mean in context:
- Sure-footedness: All of our Trails rely on a certain degree of sure-footedness on unpaved paths – our routes take you almost exclusively through natural environments. Consequently, if a Trail description specifically lists ‘sure-footedness’ as a requirement, it means you must also feel comfortable walking without defined paths and on rocky ground, if you are to fully enjoy the experience. The Trails in question are comparable to alpine long-distance routes such as the ‘Karnische Höhenweg’.
- Head for heights: Long-distance hiking is not the same as mountaineering, and generally follows marked hiking paths. However, there may be stretches where a narrow path (less than 1 metre wide) leads through steep terrain with exposed drops (potential risk of falling if you trip), or brief stretches where you may want to use your hands for additional support (though there is never any climbing). Trails that include stretches of this kind feature a lack of vertigo in their list of requirements. Please note that if you suffer from severe vertigo, even Trails that don’t specifically require a head for heights may pose a problem. Many long-distance hiking paths lead through mountainous terrain – so if this affects you, be sure to read the Trail descriptions to find out more about the nature of your chosen route.
- Good navigation skills: Most of our hiking and cycling routes follow marked paths / roads (when booking a Trail journey that runs along unmarked paths, we strongly recommend hiring a guide). However, some parts of a Trail may be marked less clearly than others, and there may be occasions where you have to navigate an unmarked stretch to reach the next section of your route. A basic ability to read a topographic hiking map is, therefore, a prerequisite for setting out on any hiking journey without a guide. We provide this map as part of your preparatory touring documents. If a Trail explicitly requires you to have good navigation skills, it means that (in addition to our written directions) you will have to rely on the map in order to reach your destination without getting lost. Even for these types of Trails, using GPS tracks (via Google Maps or on a dedicated GPS device) is never mandatory, but there are times when they can serve as a helpful aid.
- Ability to cycle on unpaved paths: The multi-day bike tours we currently offer mostly follow asphalted paths that are at least one metre wide. Some of our routes, however, also include unpaved gravel or forest roads, for which you require a trekking bike. In these cases, we will stipulate the ‘ability to cycle on unpaved paths’ in our list of requirements. This does not mean, however, that you will have to cycle on single-tracks or very rough gravel (for which you would need a mountain bike).
Hiking at high altitudes
Embarking on a trekking tour at high altitudes involves some very particular challenges. Time and again, hikers are caught out by the sudden drop in their performance levels – for example, if they stay overnight at 3500 metres after an insufficient acclimatisation period. In general, when planning a trekking tour in places such as Nepal, you should always take into account that you will inevitably experience a certain decrease in your physical performance.
On the extreme end of the spectrum, a lack of acclimatisation can lead to acute altitude sickness, which can range from piercing headaches, nausea, dizziness and physical weakness all the way to potentially life-threatening pulmonary or cerebral oedemas. In essence, your body has to get used to the lower barometric pressure at high altitudes, which leads to a lower oxygen content in the air you breathe.
But there is certainly no need to be alarmed: all of our tours at higher altitudes (i.e. Nepal) are led exclusively by local mountain guides with in-depth expertise in recognising and correctly responding to any possible symptoms. And, to put you even more at ease: as long as you take your time and ascend at a pace that lets you gradually adjust to these new conditions, your body will automatically respond by producing more red blood cells (aiding the absorption of oxygen). With the appropriate acclimatisation, you should feel comfortable at up to 5500 m within a period of less than two weeks. (You could subsequently go even higher – but only on a temporary basis, as the body wouldn’t be able to fully regenerate at elevations exceeding 5500m.) With all of our Trail journeys, the touring itinerary is specifically designed to allow for this vital acclimatisation process.
Nevertheless, there are a number of points to consider before trekking at high altitudes:
- Everyone has a different acclimatisation capacity. Some adjust to high altitudes very quickly, others take considerably longer. You should know your own ability to acclimatise to high altitudes; please note that it is entirely unrelated to your level of fitness.
- Your body’s response to high altitudes tends to repeat itself provided the conditions are the same – but it can differ vastly from your previous experience if the conditions have changed.
- Having any sort of illness at high altitudes could be an example of such altered conditions. Carrying on with your ascent while suffering from what would normally be considered a minor illness can be extremely risky: the author of these pages narrowly escaped a cerebral oedema due to ignoring flu symptoms. If you become unwell at a high altitude, you must never continue with your ascent.
- Once a tour has ended, your high-altitude capacity will begin to wane, and be practically non-existent after around two weeks. This means that at the beginning of every high-altitude journey, you will once again have to go through the same process of acclimatisation.
- Most people with good overall health are able to stay overnight at 3000m with no symptoms (aside from, possibly, a minor headache). However, there are those who are simply not made for heights – in fact, mountain sickness can potentially occur from 2300m onwards. If you are planning a Trail journey at high altitudes, you must gauge your individual ability to acclimatise to the conditions this will involve.
To do so, we recommend the following: Before your trekking journey:
During your trekking journey:
- It is important that you test your acclimatisation capacity well in advance. If you can manage a long weekend with overnight stays at 3000m (ideally including a hike that takes you up even higher), you can assume that your adaptation ability is not too bad. But be sure to take it slowly, and abort your trip if you feel unwell.
- We also recommend a pre-acclimatisation trip before setting out on your Trail adventure (for example, on the weekend prior to departure). It’s important to note, however, that a true acclimatisation process (in other words, the production of red blood cells) only happens during an extended stay (for example, overnight) at a minimum altitude of 2500m.
- We strongly advice against the use of pharmaceuticals to aid your acclimatisation process. In fact, doing so can be extremely dangerous: altitude medication is intended for emergencies only. However, taking a headache pill before bed for a better (and therefore more regenerative) night’s sleep is absolutely fine.
- Be cautious with regard to food in regions such as Nepal: our bodies are not used to many of the germs prevalent in faraway terrains, including Asian countries. As a rule, it is best to avoid any uncooked or unpeeled food. Also, always opt for restaurants or food stands that are popular among the locals – chances are that their dishes will agree with you more than the food served in less-frequented venues.
- Should you feel unwell, always approach your expert local guide. As a general rule: with mild symptoms, a rest day is recommended; slightly more severe symptoms require a descent to an altitude that is at least 600 m lower; while anyone with severe symptoms will be evacuated via helicopter.
- Though it cannot always be implemented, the general guideline is that the altitude difference between your current and the previous night’s accommodation should never be more than 400 to 600 metres. Ascending too quickly is the most common reason for insufficient acclimatisation. We have specifically designed the daily stages of our Trails to allow for a gradual adaptation to the increasing altitude.
- Walk slowly, and conserve energy – for example, by keeping down the weight of your backpack: this is a key element of a successful adaptation process. If your resting pulse (just after waking) is 20 beats above your usual count, you are not yet sufficiently acclimatised.
- If you experience severe altitude sickness (drop in performance, dizziness, strong, relentless headaches), you should make your way down to lower-altitude regions as soon as possible. There are various medications that can support you during your descent – your doctor will be able to advise you on this topic prior to your departure.
- Drink copious amounts of water during your acclimatisation process! Not everybody is keen on this, considering that increased toilet visits (especially at night and in the cold) are not the most appealing prospect. However, during the acclimatisation phase it is important that you take in more fluids than your thirst dictates (at least 4 litres per day).
- If you are trekking in a group, keep an eye on each other’s state of health – very often, the affected person initially ignores the early warning signs of altitude sickness.
Special requirements for ski tours
Snow transforms a mountain landscape into an enchanted wonderland. At the same time, any combination of mountains and snow inevitably represents a potential risk of avalanches – even though all of our ski touring routes lead through moderate terrain.
It is also important to note that ski touring trails are not marked – you have to find the route yourself, which can become extremely challenging in poor visibility, or if you find yourself in a proper ‘whiteout’. Add to this the low temperatures and changeable snow conditions, and it quickly becomes clear that any ski tour will require some previous experience in navigating high-alpine winter landscapes.
For our ski tours, we strongly recommend hiring a state-certified ski guide (booking one of our ski tours online without hiring a guide is only possible once you have agreed to a liability waiver). A certified guide will be your navigator even in poor visibility, and take the (sometimes difficult) decisions regarding avalanche risk out of your hands. All in all, the presence of a guide will make your touring adventure through this moderate terrain an even more relaxed and enjoyable experience.
With all of our ski tours, the following minimum requirements apply:
- Completion of a beginners ski training course, including the ability to ascend on skis; do not attempt a ski tour if your skiing skills are still at a beginner’s level.
- You must also have mastered stem turns in off-piste terrain with inclines of up to 35°, and in any type of snow.
Should you decide to go on a ski tour without a certified guide, we will assume that (despite the fact that our ski tours are comparatively moderate) you have numerous years of ski touring experience under your belt, and are well-versed in recognising the possible dangers of moving in snow-covered, high-alpine terrain; this includes the ability to determine avalanche risk, and to find your way even in poor visibility.