Monday, November 7, 2011

Guide to the Everest Base Camp Trek: Tips of the Trail and What to Pack

We receive a surprising amount of reader emails with questions about trekking. We are glad to be helpful and love hearing from our readers, but there are a number of recurring questions we find ourselves answering again and again. Perhaps by addressing some of those issues here, we can better inform those of you headed for the trail while helping to reduce our "awaiting response" inbox situation.

We covered a number of great tips for the trail as part of our Annapurna Circuit trek coverage. Be sure to check them out for many great suggestions, especially for novice trekkers. Our guide to the Everest Base Camp trek contains many detailed bits of wisdom we gained on the trail. Anyone headed to EBC should read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, and Part Seven before making the climb. For anyone not sure whether to trek the Annapurna Circuit or to Everest Base Camp we ask, "Why not both?" But if both are understandably not in the cards, see our post on choosing between the two.

But enough throat clearing -- on to the tips.

A Plea: Water Purification
Efforts to eliminate wasteful plastic bottles of water on the Annapurna Circuit have not reached the Everest trek. We saw a very disappointing number of people purchasing bottled water all the way up the trail. We will not go into how wasteful this can be on a number of levels, but we can speak to how expensive it gets. By day two of the trek, the market rate for a liter of water is about $1.50, and soon after that it reaches almost $4. Considering that you should be drinking at least three liters per day, drinking bottled water can be a very expensive habit, more than doubling what you will spend on food and lodging. There are many methods of purifying your water on the trail. Iodine and chlorine tablets or drops are simple and inexpensive. At the suggestion of a friend, we brought Aquamira drops, which purify the water while removing odors and improving the taste. There are UV light pens for those who love gadgets. The most creative method we saw was to fill bottles with boiling water at night (some guesthouses will do this for free, but most will charge you a modest fee for boiled water) and use them as sleeping bag warmers before drinking them on the trail the next day. Some shy away from purification because they are overly cautious and do not want to chance getting sick on the trail. If done properly, though, water purification can be very safe, effective, and inexpensive -- please consider it while you trek.

Two Words: Liner Socks
Neither of us had even heard of liner socks before our Annapurna Circuit trek, and boy did we pay the price. We both experienced blisters, though Claudine was particularly stricken. Determined to avoid a repeat on our Everest trek, Claudine did some serious blister prevention research. One major piece of advice was to wear liner socks made of a thin, moisture-wicking material. They help to keep your feet dry -- a key for blister prevention -- and act a bit like a second skin on your feet, protecting you from harsh skin-to-sock friction. Because I bought my boots without knowledge of liner socks, the addition of a layer of thick liner socks cramped my toes, creating more problems than it solved. Most liner socks on the market are fairly thin, but I needed the ultra-thin, nylon-like model (Wigwam f2152). They worked like a charm, and I had no blisters on this trek.

Pick Perfect Boots
Blister prevention prong one: liner socks. Prong two: better boots. Perhaps the narrow toe box of Claudine's Vasque boots was to blame for the previous blister massacre. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, she researched different options and found suggestions for hiking shoes (not boots) that are lighter weight, more breathable, and more easily broken in. This was of course not the end of her search. She spent over an hour with the experts at REI trying on different boots in all sorts of configurations: two different sizes for her differently-sized feet, various cushioned inserts, complex lacing techniques that would make a sailor blush. REI even has a tool that will custom stretch certain parts of the boot to better fit your foot. After two days of walking around in her new boots, Claudine went back for one last stretching and tweaking session to get the boots just right. Take two lessons from this parable: 1) stop at nothing to get boots perfectly suited to your feet and 2) REI has great customer service.

More on Blisters
Alas, Claudine's sensitive feet were not spared the dreaded blisters. But she had of course prepared for this contingency as well, researching not only blister prevention, but blister treatment should she be unlucky on the trail. The advice varied and at times was contradictory, but a few tips rang true. Tape and moleskin might prevent blisters from forming, but they are not necessarily advisable once a blister has taken hold. Fresh blisters should be drained with a sterilized needle and covered with a product called Second Skin that cushions and protects the blister, allowing it to heal and allowing you to continue trekking pain free. While Claudine encountered blisters on the trek, all of these measures kept them manageable.

What Should I Pack on the Trail?
We covered lots on this front in our Annapurna Circuit trek tips. This time, our packing list was a bit different because we would be spending more time at higher elevations during a colder season. By popular demand, here is our packing list for the Everest Base Camp trek along with some commentary. Keep in mind that the timing of your trek will determine the nature of your clothing layers and sleeping bag. For comparison, we departed for our trek on October 3rd.

Common items split between two packs:
Add to basic pre-filled starter First Aid kit:
Second skin
Needle (for blister drainage)Gauze pads
Roll of bandage tape
Antibiotic eye drops
Metronidazole (antibiotic for Giardia)
Diamox (for altitude sickness)
Rehydration salts
Any personal medications

Cell phone + charger
Point-and-shoot camera + charger
Kindles + charger
Ziplock bag with photocopied trekking guide pages and map
Face sunscreen (no need for body sunscreen since we always wore long sleeves and pants)
Travel-sized shampoo
Small tube of toothpaste
Nail clippers
Hair comb

Contact lens solution
Toilet paper
Extra batteries for headlamps
Water purification drops

In your own pack (assuming you are wearing hiking boots and socks with liner socks, hiking pants, and a base layer long-sleeve trekking shirt):

Travel-sized hand sanitizer
Energy bars/Snickers
Quick-drying travel towel

Toiletries Kit
Contact lens case + extra contacts
Face moisturizer for those who have dry skin

Shower sandals
Wool socks x 2
Liner socks x 2
Sun hat
Fleece ear covers/winter hat
Rain jacket
1 pair of comfy pants and undergarments for tea house evenings
Thermal underwear
Fleece pullover
Down jacket

3-liter Camelbak water bladder
1-liter water bottle
Trekking poles
Sleeping bag
Sleep sack (only necessary if you are renting a sleeping bag)

1 extra pair of boot laces

Travel Folio
Trekking permit
Airline tickets

Some people would probably suggest packing less. Certainly do not pack more. Filled with four liters of water, our packs weighed about 25 and 30 pounds respectively. Try to keep yours the same or lighter.

Consider renting your down sleeping bag and jacket in Kathmandu. High-quality down products can be an expensive investment, but we were able to rent these items for less than a dollar a day each. In addition, the shop we rented from has a wide range of weights and will provide you with the appropriate gear for your season and trek, eliminating your worry about whether your gear matches your ambitions.

I cannot speak for women, but men should wear "tech" or sports apparel underwear that will do all the right things to keep you comfortable. Consider each day on the trail like a day hitting the gym and you should be fine. Some companies even offer trekking-specific garments like wicking boxer shorts -- check out Patagonia's selection here.
How Much Should I Budget? Guide: 800 - 1300 NPR per day
TIMS card: 1450 NPR per person
Everest region permit: 1000 NPR per person
Round-trip flight from Kathmandu to Lukla: about $240 per person
Food and accommodation: We budgeted 2000 NPR per person per day, but this amount is very generous. We actually spent somewhere between 1200 NPR and 1700 NPR per person per day.
Pet Peeves of the Trail
Our number one complaint on the trail was the large percentage of people who bought bottled water rather than purifying it. After that, we noticed a number of things that bothered us.
 --Message to women and European men: short shorts and skin-bearing tank tops are not appropriate attire on the trail.
--Bluejeans are less offensive, but they look so uncomfortable! And they are, of course, horribly impractical.
--Guesthouse walls are paper thin. We can hear everything you are up to next door. Everything.
--Given the paper-thin walls, have some courtesy and keep unnecessary noise to a minimum especially in the middle of the night and early in the morning.
--No matter how loud it may be, always flush the toilet. Seriously.
--Littering on the trail should be punishable by death.
--An ounce of respect for the local people and their culture would be nice. Consider yourselves guests in their homes.
--Hey you in the headphones: pay attention to what's going on around you on the trail. Yak trains are approaching, we would like to pass, and have you even noticed these mountains?

With that out of our systems, we wish you a wonderful trek!

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