Monsoon trekking tips for The Western Ghat

Monsoon trekking, especially in The Western Ghats requires a skill set and gear that is different from trekking in the Himalayas. While the basics like physical fitness and being mindful of your surroundings remain the same, monsoon trekking offers a different set of challenges for an aspiring trekker. This article is a compilation of trekking tips. Tips I have compiled after a few months of monsoon trekking in the Sahyadri and The Western Ghats.

1. Use a Poncho

On a monsoon trek, the choice of rain gear can oscillate between an umbrella, a two-piece rain suit and a poncho. I find an umbrella on a trek about as useless as an ejection seat on a helicopter. Sharp gusts of winds on plateaus play truant with the umbrella. It snags at every vine and tree branch. Yet, a far more serious repercussion of using an umbrella is that it ties up one of your hands. Keeping hands free is important as it helps the body maintain its balance and a free hand helps break a fall.

A two-piece rain suit provides the best wet-weather protection. But, a two-piece rain suit takes a lot of time to take on and take off. With most rain suits, you may have to take off your shoes to put on the rain pants. This makes the rain suit ineffective in a quick and heavy shower, the kind one frequently experiences in the Sahyadri. A two-piece rain suit also traps a lot of moisture due to inadequate ventilation, respiration and heavy humidity.

A poncho is a perfect compromise for the Sahyadri. It takes no more than 10 seconds to put on or take off. It also protects your backpack dry as it fits loose. The loose fit prevents moisture build-up due to perspiration and humidity. A poncho packs small and on our monsoon treks we keep a poncho tucked in our backpack’s hip belt for quick access.

2. Sandals / Floaters are not hiking shoes

On most of our Sahyadri treks, we have seen and photographed numerous sandals discarded along trekking trails. Sandals are perfect for ventilation and fording streams but they are not as robust as shoes. Unless you have a pair of dedicated trekking sandals like Salomon Men’s Black Flea Mesh or Keen’s Newport H2 leave your sandals for the night at the campsite. Keen’s Newport H2 is available with robust straps and closed-toe design but they are not cheap.

The slippery terrain on a monsoon trek, places a lot of lateral strain on the shoe especially if you slip. Sandal side straps are usually not robust enough to handle this lateral strain and may break under heavy stress. Furthermore, an open toe design sandal provides little to no protection against a stubbed toe. Despite these shortcomings, we do carry sandals on our monsoon hikes. Although, we only use them for stream crossings, as camp shoes and when walking through a gentle terrain in a really heavy downpour. Remember a broken sandal can effectively wreck a trek and it may mean a painful, slow and potentially dangerous hobble back to the base camp.

3. No Cotton Shorts Or Jeans

Cotton is best avoided on a trek. This holds true for the Himalayas but is especially true monsoon treks. Cotton or denim gets excessively heavy when wet and does not wick and insulate as well as wool or synthetic clothing. [Read more]({% post_url 2015-09-17-Clothes-For-A-Himalayan-Trek %}) on why cotton should be avoided while trekking. In monsoon, trekkers prefer shorts and t-shirts for maximum ventilation, but I prefer a synthetic full sleeve t-shirt and a convertible, quick-drying trekking pants. Full sleeve t-shirts and pants provide better protection from stinging nettles, thorns, sunburn and they are more effective against mosquitoes and other critters on a monsoon trek. Remember that clothing is your first line of defence against inclement weather, falls and scrapes.

4. Lugged shoes that ventilate well

Shoes are the most important piece of gear on a wet and slippery monsoon trek. The Sahyadri and The Western Ghats are notoriously unforgiving on shoes. In monsoon, the terrain is a mix of wet rocks, slush and slippery roots. Therefore, the shoes that you choose need to compensate for this lack of grip. Just like Mud Terrain tyres on off-road vehicles, we recommend shoes with oversized (at least 5 mm) and aggressive lugged outsole. On shoes with smaller lugs, mud gets trapped between the lugs turns the outsole into a flat and slippery surface.

I also maintain that despite the marketing propaganda there is no such thing as a waterproof shoe. Shoes made of waterproof materials like Gore-Tex or coated with hydrophobic materials may resist water ingress better but it also reduces their ability to vent perspiration and the take a longer time to dry. In a humid environment, a pair of shoes with lots of ventilation lead to less clammy and therefore less blister prone feet. Trail running shoes with a synthetic mesh upper and an aggressive outsole like Salomon’s Speedcross are excellent for monsoon trekking.

The oversized chevron pattern on the Salomon Speedcross series provide outstanding mud grip
The oversized chevron pattern on the Salomon Speedcross series provide outstanding mud grip

5. Taking good care of your feet

A trekker is only as good as his feet. Feet kept wet, become macerated (soft and wrinkly). Macerated feet are sore, itchy and succumb to blisters easily. There is a greater possibility of skin cracking as it dries out after being macerated. This occurs because the skin has been robbed of its natural oils by the moisture. These cracks can be very painful and difficult to treat, depending on the size and location on the foot. Foot maceration may be prevented by

  1. Using a thin pair of socks, because thicker socks hold moisture.
  2. Changing socks at least once during the day.
  3. Taking off shoes and socks to let the feet dry during any rest stop that will be longer than 20 minutes.
  4. Using a pair of fresh dry night socks.
  5. Applying Vaseline to your feet before going off to sleep.

6. Jungle orienteering and whiteout

Orienteering through a dense forest comes with its own set of challenges. A thick canopy can cause a GPS to lose its signal and the dense overgrowth means visual landmarks cannot be easily identified. In such a situation learning to orienteer with a compass and paper maps is invaluable. Another potential orienteering hazard is a whiteout on any Western Ghat plateau over 500 metres. Cloud cover can significantly reduce visibility and make recognising physical landmarks difficulty.

On the flip side, a whiteout does not affect a GPS’s functionality. Read our [in-depth review]({% post_url 2016-12-16-Garmin-Etrex-20x-Review %}) of Garmin’s Etrex20x GPS Unit. Therefore always supplement electronic orienteering gear with paper maps and compass and vice-versa. If you feel you have strayed from your intended path, follow the STOP technique. [Read more]({% post_url 2015-11-23-Emergency-Kit-For-Himalayan-Treks %}) about STOP.

Other assorted tips

  1. Use a cap. In monsoon a cap’s bill keeps the rain off your eyes or prescription eye glasses.
  2. Pack frequently used items outside the pack. Every time you open your pack, a bit more rain/water gets in. This moisture builds up and will probably stay with you for the rest of the trip. To minimise this, store all your regular snacks and heavy-use knick-knacks in pockets or on the outside of your pack.
  3. Carry extra water or a portable water filter. High humidity means you will sweat more than usual. Make sure to carry extra water supply or a water filter like a Lifestraw that can convert non-potable water to drinking water.
  4. Touch screens don’t work when wet. It is difficult getting a touch screen to work when it is wet or with wet fingers. A phone and a GPS with physical buttons or keyboard is better off in the rain than a smartphone with a touchscreen. If you have to use a touchscreen, carry enough microfibre rags to wipe the screen and your fingers.

One last thing – Positive Mental Attitude

One of the most important factors to having a good time during a monsoon trekking trip is having a positive attitude. If you’re mentally prepared to be wet and still have fun, you’ll probably have a great time. One concept that’s tough for beginners to accept is that, if it rains for an extended time on your trip, you’re going to get wet, and there’s no avoiding it. However, if you do choose to brave the wet weather you will be rewarded with some awe-inspiring views, lush greenery, mist and numerous waterfalls. So go out there this monsoon and seize the moment.

If you do choose to trek in the monsoon you will be rewarded with vistas like this!
If you do choose to trek in the monsoon you will be rewarded with vistas like this!