What is independent trekking?

I am an unashamed proponent of independent trekking. However, I do receive a lot of emails (most of them from commercial trekking operators) that claim independent trekking is a foolhardy endeavour and it is irresponsible to promote it via this blog.

I end up trashing most emails from organised trekking operators that promote a “sahib style” trekking model. Their arguments stem from a conflict of interest rather than a genuine enquiry about independent trekking. Nevertheless, I also realise that different people perceive “independent trekking” in different ways. Therefore, it is only fair that I try to define what independent trekking means, and how it fits in the broader spectrum of trekking and hiking as a whole.

Table Of Contents

Defining Independent Trekking

Independent trekking refers to a trek that is self-prepared, self-guided and self-supported. It offers freedom of movement, the greatest flexibility and the lowest costs…

So let’s explore these three components of independent trekking together in more detail.

Self Prepared

Since trekkers have to arrange everything themselves, there is a far greater onus on research, preparation, packing and correct gear selection. Preparation involves buying or renting the right equipment, getting transportation to and from the trek site, arranging permits and purchasing and cooking food. An oft-overlooked aspect of being self-prepared requires learning the right outdoor skills and techniques that are relevant to the terrain and physical environment one is trekking in.

But if you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life you should never, under any circumstances, go on long hikes alone. Don’t take short hikes alone either—or, for that matter, go anywhere alone. And avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling in love, or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs. . . . Never cross an intersection against a red light, even when you can see that all roads are clear for miles. And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom you will probably live to a ripe old age. But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time. — Colin Fletcher and Chip Rawlins, The Complete Walker IV

Self Guided

Independent trekking does not preclude the use of local guides on new and novel trails. Nevertheless, for trails that have been attempted and completed before, the orienteering and navigation responsibility lie with the trekker.

Self Supported

Independent trekking does not believe in using porters and mule trains for hauling gear. We believe that a self-supported hiker must choose and carry the right gear in the right quantity to support them over the entire trek.

So why trek independently

“I like feeling self-sufficient and self-contained. You have to think of everything, and that awareness becomes a background for the experience and heightens it.” — Vick Hines (Backpackinglight.com forum)

Independent trekking is more difficult to prepare and execute than a guided trek yet, it is not without its rewards.

Freedom, Spontaneity and Control

“Those of us who go alone do so of necessity, or perhaps because we enjoy the solitary pleasures of thinking our own thoughts, adjusting to our own schedules and needs, and having total, silent connection with the nature which surrounds us. The price we pay is a slightly heavier pack and perhaps an additional element of risk. But hiking alone also carries with it more excitement and less adjustment to the moods and needs of others.” — Fred Coleman, as quoted by Ray Jardine, Beyond Backpacking: Guide to Lightweight Hiking

Independent trekking means being able to make last-minute decisions on leaving time, destination and goals. It means few complications, compromises and coordinations. It is liberating to just grab a pack and go, without the niggling constraints of groups, schedules and pre-defined campsites. An independent trekker doesn’t have to adjust to the moods, whims and needs of others. When backpacking, he or she can get up when they want, eat what and when they want and hike at their own pace.

Lowest Cost

An independent trek also turns out to be the cheapest. No need to pay a trekking agency, guides and porters.

Self Achievement & Gratification

To research, map, plan and then finally implement a trek is a gratifying experience. Drawing your route lines on contour maps, and then watching them come alive in real life is a source of unparalleled joy and achievement.

Explore Trails and Off-Grid Places

Independent trekking helps discover hitherto unknown places. It also helps discover trails in touristy destinations e.g. search for our unmarked trails in and around well-known hill stations like Dalhousie (Himachal Pradesh) and Patnitop (J&K).

Low Ecological Footprint

Trekking in large groups, has a severe impact on the ecology of a place. Visit any trail frequented by large trekking groups and the human impact is invariably visible. Solo, small, self-supported groups tread lightly and give nature a chance to rejuvenate itself.

Silence, Sounds and Solitude

I knew well the argument that solo hiking in a remote wilderness was foolhardy, dangerous, even irresponsible, but I knew even more the great rewards that awaited, rewards that could hardly be glimpsed by those who walk in groups. Alone, I would be able to open myself up to the wilderness, to ready my senses for what was offered, to learn what the mountains and forests, the rivers and lakes, had to teach me. — Chris Townsend – The Advanced Backpacker

These three “Ss” are quite important. Independent hiking involves many opportunities for solitude and quiet time. Since you choose to go solo or choose your ideal trekking partner/s (unlike a guided trek), it involves a profound sense of undisturbed solitude against the constant background hum and noise of people and civilisation. Such solitude allows one to fully tune in to the delicate sounds and smells of nature. Going independent for an hour, a day, a week or longer is the ultimate in this kind of experience.

How Dangerous Is Independent Trekking

“It all boils down to what you perceive as risky and how much of that risk you can tolerate. We humans are very bad at evaluating risks, and certainly if you stay home rather than hike next week you run the risks of being in a horrible auto accident, being a victim of a violent crime (on the average more likely in the city than in the wilderness), and perhaps additional health risks associated with breathing polluted air, not getting enough exercise, or being depressed because you aren’t out in the wilderness where you know you belong.” — David Bonn, Backpackinglight.com

Naysayers will have you claim that independent trekking is risky, dangerous and a foolhardy endeavour. They propagate that guided groups are inherently safer than an independent trekker. Yet, my perception differs in this context.

First , the claim that independent hiking is a risky and dangerous behaviour is a myth perpetuated by safety and security-oriented culture. By and large, most hiking and backpacking activities involve low to medium levels of risk. (Serious climbing and mountaineering is another matter). The truth is that independent hiking is only as dangerous as a person makes it.

Second , I recognise that there are risks to both group and solo hiking, but by following carefully chosen risk management strategies, these risks can be largely mitigated.