in India - a Beginner's Introduction
Which is the first country that first comes to mind when you mention the Himalayas? I bet it's Nepal, and perhaps more specifically Everest Base Camp. Nepal and perhaps Pakistan are considered the flag-bearers of Himalayan hikes due to their eight thousand metre peaks. But don't let the grandeur of altitude overshadow other Himalayan nations, most especially India. While the tallest has its appeal, there's real adventure to be found among the (slightly) lesser elevations. India is a stunningly diverse country to hike in.
Every Indian mountain region and trekking route has its own special character. Standing on the zenith of a mountain where the world compresses into a tiny island, or staring at the gigantic mountain tops where your existence seems like an ant. Strolling on the paths where sky diminishes to zero as forests grow big, or running on the open ground where the sun hits hard on your eyes. Plodding the nerve-wracking glaciers or meandering on heart-warming muddy paths. Verdant valleys or barren brown, hiking to a frozen lake or walking on a frozen river, name your most-sought hiking adventure, and India probably has it. Having witnessed this vastness, I will help you get closer to your memorable trek in this mega diverse nation. Here is a treasure map to the finest Indian trails.
Trekking Culture in India
The popularity of trekking in India has surged in the last decade after a boom of IT culture and a general outburst in travelling. An increase in the number of commercial hiking companies has led to developed base villages and well-documented hikes. However, the less well known routes still lack facilities, lending them the advantage of comparative wildness. All of the contemporary hikes are discoveries of the explorers and mountaineers in the 1800s and 1900s, and that may be the reason why most trails lead to the base of a major peak or a high pass. Not many are aware that these paths or high passes were originally trading tracks for villagers, and grazing routes for shepherds, who are known to caper into the wild for 3-6 months in search of healthy grass for their cattle. Following their footsteps are the modern trekking trails.
If you are an Alps devotee, you may find the Himalayas both tougher and more charming. There is a lot of walking in no man's land, it's warmer and you may be startled to see no traces of snow below 13,000 feet. What may be a small weekend outing in the Alps will be a week-long jaunt in the huge mountains. Therefore, be ready for lots of footslogging and a memorable journey.
There are a number of ways to make the experience of walking at altitude easier. Check out my video tutorial on efficient pacing techniques here:
The Indian Himalayas span a total of 11 states and union territories. Amongst these, only five have a full-fledged trekking culture: Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim. Geographically the chain is so diverse that treks between states have no resemblance.
Due to the strategic placements of the greater and lower Himalayas, treks in India run all year round. March-June is the busiest due to optimal temperatures. The second best time frame is September-October for cooler weather and greenery. Winter and Monsoon are less liked, but hiking in the snowy season is still possible. What makes India great is that each state has a distinctive hiking season. Therefore, if you are planning an excursion based on the month of a year, it is important to understand which states are open during that window.
Trekking in Uttarakhand
Garhwal range of Uttarakhand offers the most hikes. The second highest peak Nanda Devi (7816 meters), stunning Shivling peak, beautiful Thalaysagar, the toughest Meru Shark Fin, Char Dham (Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri), Yoga hub Rishikesh, are some of the esteemed getaways. The treks mostly start from towns, Dehradun, Rishikesh or Uttarkashi and they can be reached from Delhi through trains, buses or flights.
Not as intricate, the Uttarakhand hill-walking tours are mainly forest-covered (reducing AMS danger), easy grade, stretching to 16,000 feet at most - suitable for beginners. Chopta Chandrashila, Dayara Bugyal, Roopkund are crowded ones. If you are a seasoned hiker looking for high intensity, rocky and glacier courses, you cannot miss the Gangotri region. Owing to the density of arduous peaks, magnificent Shivling, Thalay Sagar, emerald lake Kedartal and the pristine granite walls, this section of Himalayas is an unsung gem of alpine climbing. Hard hikes like Kedartal, Bali pass, and Gomukh Tapovan are gems of this realm. Treks on the Kumaon side are less popular, making it best for solitude - the Pindari glacier trek for example.
Apart from the coveted summer season, the Garhwal mountains have risen in popularity in winter. For an epic winter journey, Uttarakhand is a treat! A shimmering white carpet right from 7000 feet, snow-crowned trees, knee-deep snow paths, frozen lakes and rivers - you'll find delights such as these on the Kedarkantha, Brahmatal, Chopta Chandrashila and Dayara Bugyal treks.
Trekking in Himachal Pradesh
North from Uttarakhand, is the Dhauladhar range in Himachal Pradesh (HP). The mountains here are an incredible amalgamation of exuberant Garhwal and desolate Ladakh. The benefit of being the union of two discrete ranges is having both their hiking seasons ie. being open for 12 months. That is the reason why HP has become a desired tourist destination. Most of the treks start from Manali and Dharamshala, having excellent accessibility from the capital city.
Trekking in Himachal Pradesh is like walking into eye-soothing greenery. Monsoon time is unexpectedly more famous than the summer and autumn months. Hampta Pass - I like to call it the celebrity trek - receives 3000-4000 trekkers passing through every season. This one enchanting pass separating Kullu and Spiti has seemingly been responsible for a surge of commercial trekking. I would suggest this hike to everybody - even if it's flocked, this mystical experience is a must!
A multitude of treks are in the greener part of Kullu and Chamba, while the dryer sections of Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur are also getting a lot of attention. With big wall climbing explorations in Kinnaur and Spiti hikes are getting recognised in these regions too. Spiti is also the new adventure hotspot for bikers and cyclists. The grade of difficulty increases as one moves to dry Ladakh, for example, Kanamo peak and Yuman peak expeditions signify Ladakh type journeys.
Trekking in Jammu and Kashmir
Officially heaven on earth, this state is worth every word of praise. Sadly due to the political issues revolving around J&K, humans have less access in this haven. All of the major cities have good connectivity with the capital city. Monsoon, summer and autumn are considered the best time to go. Not many hikes are open yet, although there are non-technical 5000-metre peak expeditions.
Two of the treks to alpine lakes, Kashmir Great Lakes and Tarsar Marsar lake from Srinagar, are speechlessly beautiful.
Another less explored part of the state is Kishtwar. Spires, towers and stunning rock climbs have made this region a new playground for alpine climbers.
Trekking in Ladakh
The barren brown towers soaring against an azure sky, pricking cold that revitalizes every cell of the body; starting directly from 3,500 meters, Leh is a gateway to unconventional joy. The past few years have led to unprecedented popularity making Leh the most crowded adventure destination. As a matter of fact, Ladakh is not known for hiking amongst Indians yet, it is popular for biking and other extreme activities. Being only known to foreigners, most of the tracks of the arid desert are less touched.
When the rest of the high altitude areas are closed in the rainy season, Ladakh gets a chance to shimmer in the desert. From July to September this rain-shadow region entices thrill-seekers. There are flights to Leh from major cities which are most preferred over 1-2 days of road travel. I would recommend that cross-country ride by bus or bike through the changing hues of Trans-Himalayas.
Have you ever wondered about walking on water? Well, Chadar trek is somewhat a fantasy. Stepping on the frozen Zanskar river with the part of the water gushing underneath, the Chadar will send chills through your body. For this out of the world experience, it is one of the most popular treks in the world. Chadar trek is analogous to Everest Base Camp trek, with over 1000 trekkers present at the peak winter season (January to February). Not only Chadar, but Stok Kangri is also a victim of commercialised adventure tourism. Stok has been named as the Everest of India. Owing to bad-tourism, the peak has been closed for three years starting from 2020.
As they say, when one door closes another opens. Other traverses in Markha and Sham valley including Kang Yatse twin peaks and Dzo Jongo mountain are some of the rising hikes. Markha Valley Trek is a symbol of Buddhism. It is one of those rare treks serving homestays throughout with solar-powered heaters and no network coverage. Mani Stones lay on the river banks, ruins of monasteries and stupas, cordial locals; the valley is a pleasant, remote experience.
Trekking in Sikkim
Despite boasting Kanchenjunga (the world's third highest peak) most of Sikkim is off-limits due to government regulations. Only Goechala pass hike is of the highest popularity. It is 10 days long and strenuous to tramp until the last mile of the trek. It is the convoluted trail that attracts adventurers from all over the world. There are a few other treks in Sikkim, namely Green lake, Varsey or Dzongri trek. The entry into Sikkim Rockies is through Gangtok, the capital town, and its trekking season is similar to Nepal's.
West Bengal, also considered to be sharing the Sikkim Himalayas, has one Himalayan trek called Sandakphu. This trek has a strong resemblance with the Nepali culture. It is a perfect blend of Indian, Nepali and Buddhism. It is the only popular trek that has tea houses until the last step of the trek and it is also the only trek that runs for the most part of the year - an all-rounder trek!
Trekking in other parts of India
Wait... it does not end here. Indian trekking is not limited to the Himalayas, there are scenic treks in the south especially Maharashtra and Karnataka states. If the Himalayas guard the north, the Western Ghats encircle from west and south, offering 1-3 days of hill-walking trips from Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and other cities.
All the villagers are welcoming to guests visiting their homeland and are becoming forward-minded. However, being respectful hikers there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Women wearing shorts is mostly a sign of cultural difference, so avoid them.
- Please make sure not to jump into any lakes or waterfalls without the permission of locals. For villagers they are spiritual bodies, and they dislike it if strangers don't abide by it.
- The same applies to virgin hilltops; most of the peaks in India are untouched because locals don't allow stepping on them. They believe God resides on the crest.
- Before entering temples remove your shoes and cover your head.
- It is always helpful to learn a few common Hindi words.
- Try to carry a few stationery items like notebooks, pencils etc. to donate to the kids.
- Most of the foreigners are known to give away their branded expensive gear to the guides, and we highly appreciate such gestures. It is a wonderful idea to give a token of thanks.
- Don't litter the trails.
Indian trek routines
Indian treks are not for the most part Nepali-type tea-house driven walks; this is what makes them true to nature. Camping in tents at high altitudes, snuggling in the cosy sleeping bags and brewing coffee in small stoves is a pleasure, not a chore. Although teahouses and homestays are growing, above 12,000 feet it is all about mountains, tents and me!
Base villages are established with electricity, network coverage and basic sanitation facilities like toilets, baths, and hot water. It is a wise act to clean yourself before and after the trek at the base villages. There are also small grocery shops where you can pick up the necessary items.
The food is not as spicy on treks, despite the myth of Indian food (but you may find it hot). The cuisine is typical North-Indian style, less spicy, more carbs and rice. If you are selecting a commercial group you can ask for dishes of your choice. Additionally, big companies offer a distinct delicacy each day with special sweet dishes after the summit. Let me tell you, the food in the mountains is more luscious than any 5-star hotel.
As a precaution, you must always carry normal digestive medicines. The water of the Himalayas is drops of honeydew but during the journey to base camp, there might be chances of stomach problems due to water. Try to drink bottled water.
All of the base camps have immediate medical facilities. They are sufficient for minor discomfort, but in case of severe injuries or AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), patients are transferred to the nearest district hospitals.
Essentials to carry
- Always carry cash. The remote habitats and base villages mostly don't have ATMs or electronic cash facilities.
- Carry an extra pair of shoes. You don't know, anything may happen, let's be prepared for any mishap.
- Wear full-sleeves and carry a scarf for heat. Sun screen is essential too of course.
- Always contact your tour operator months before you are planning a hike to India. Cross-check necessary trip inventory.
- Avoid carrying numerous clothes. Most of the hotels in India at towns like Leh, Manali, and Dehradun etc. offer laundry services.
- Use public transport to save money and travel like an Indian.
- Ask your trek operator to book your trains in advance for you. Buses can be booked at the last minute.
- Ask for help anytime. Don't assume things.
- Bonus tip: Good thing is to take a flight that arrives before noon, as it gives you the opportunity to settle in the hotel.
Indian Himalayas are calling you and you must come. See you in the mountains!
About the author
Nutan Shinde-Pawar is a climber, writer and entrepreneur from India. She switched from engineering to the adventure field by working as a Content Writer for the popular Indian hiking company, Trek the Himalayas.
Nutan is also a rock climber. She has climbed in all the major climbing places of India and Thailand. She is striving to do big-wall climbing and explore new routes in Indian Himalayas. She has extensively hiked in every Indian Himalayan State, plus the South Indian States of Karnataka and Maharashtra. After completing the Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC) she has led Himalayan and Sahyadri treks.
She has written for various outdoor/climbing companies like UKClimbing, Gearjunkie, ExplorersWeb, Mojagear, Dreamwanderlust and more. She also writes about Hiking/Climbing with kids for the parenting platform Kids Stop Press.
Connect with her on Instagram @nutaneeer