There’s a weak joke that mountains are nature’s way of saying “high”. Although said in jest, it holds more than a kernel of truth; mountains are an exciting and challenging way for us to connect or re-connect with the natural world. They’re characterised by spectacular views, quiet and peaceful spaces, along with specialised and, sometimes bizarre, creatures. In addition, our mountain ranges are often declared Wilderness Areas – allowing us to slip back in time to a place where nature dominates, and the ever-connected modern world we live in is left far behind. In short, mountains make our spirits soar.

However, steep and technical ground can provide hikers with some very real physical challenges. And these challenges often get exacerbated by the extreme weather for which mountainous regions are known. So it makes sense when entering theses glorious, albeit unforgiving domains that you do so fully prepared.

That said, here are five top tips to help you plan for your next mountain mission and stay safe when heading into the hills:

1. Get the route right
Most successful adventures always start with a good map. Slingsby Maps make excellent hiking-specific maps of the Drakensberg and the Cedarberg ranges. But for some of the other ranges, hikers may have to use maps produced locally by hotels and resorts, or the 1:50 000 RSA Ordinance Survey maps.

Now you’ve got a map, you can start planning your route depending on your objectives. For example: Are you aiming to bag peaks, undertake a major traverse, or just taking a fun ramble with friends? Once decided, you then divide your planned route into manageable daily chunks, and prepare route cards detailing distances and how long each leg will take you to walk – taking into account things like altitude gained and lost, important features to look out for and other pertinent navigation aids.

2. Choose your group carefully
We were recently in the Fish River Canyon and helped rescue a dehydrated, heat-exhausted hiker with our Garmin inReach satellite communicator (read about it here). The main reason he had to be rescued was that he was a late addition to the group and had not adequately prepared himself physically for the task at hand. The rest of the group had trained for the trip and this poor chap was struggling to keep up. Learn the hard lesson from this group: If you’re taking a group into the mountains, make absolutely sure everyone is suited to the route and able to do what is necessary to keep up. If there’s any doubt, go back to step 1.

3. Pack the right kit
I was once told by a Scots friend while in a snowstorm in the Scottish Highlands that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. Mountain weather is famously fickle. It’s not unusual to head into the hills on a balmy morning, only for the afternoon to turn into an edition of Fifty Shades of Grim.

The actual kit you take with you is dependent on the length of your trip, the altitude you’ll be going to and the actual mountain range you are in. However, there are some fundamental principles for you to adhere to: The first is layering. Don’t go for one thick jacket to keep warm. Start with a tight-fitting base layer made from fabric that maintains its thermal properties when wet, and wicks moisture away from the skin. Your mid-layer should be a lightweight fleece; once again with moisture management properties. A high collar is also nice to keep the neck warm and a full-length or quarter zip in the front helps with temperature regulation. In cold environments, a heavier outer fleece or softshell will also be necessary.

The technology in fabrics, especially in softshells, is developing rapidly and some of the top garments are almost fully waterproof. However, you’ll still need to have a fully waterproof and breathable hard shell outer garment. Unless you are in a desert range, that is.

The same principle applies to the legs. Thermal base layer with comfortable walking trousers and a hard outer shell. Complete your clothing list with good gloves, a beanie, buff and sun hat, just in case the sun does actually shine.

Wearing the correct footwear is of obvious importance. Again, it depends on what terrain you’re heading into, but the basic principle is simple: Your boots should be waterproof, have adequate tread and ankle support and… most importantly, they should be well worn into your feet. Blisters from new boots are not only torture, they can have a knock-on effect that puts your entire group in danger.

Next, you’ll need to select your pack, tent, sleeping bag, cooking equipment and all the other fun stuff that you have to carry on your back. The discussion on the best kit is too long to have here, so if you’re in doubt I suggest you find a reputable gear shop where the staff have good product knowledge and get their advice.

4. Like an army, a mountaineer moves on his or her stomach
The physical effort of moving in mountains, combined with the metabolic requirements of keeping warm, means that mountain walkers often burn serious calories. However, carrying enough of these calories in the form of food can make one’s backpack heavy. There are some very good brands of freeze-dried meals which are tasty, nutritious and light but these can be expensive. Here are some simple solutions: Evening meals can consist of quick-cooking rice or pasta or couscous, to which you can add a sachet of tuna or chicken or a few pieces of biltong for protein. Add a pack of pre-made pesto for taste. There are many flavours and brands available for you to experiment with.

Crackers, processed cheeses, nut butters, dried fruit and biltong all make good daytime and lunch snacks. Pita bread and hummus also make a good lunch. For breakfast try pre-mixing powdered milk with a meal-sized portion of cereal or muesli in a zip-lock bag for a convenient breakfast. This can be eaten out of the bag, saving on washing bowls.

5. Have backup and always tell someone where you’re going
Ever seen 127 Hours? If you haven’t, do so. It’s a good reminder why you should let someone else know where you’re going, and when you expect to be back. Some of SA’s mountain ranges, like the KZN Drakensberg, have a formal procedure for this. When you enter the Maloti Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site a portion of your entry fee goes to a Rescue Levy that can pay for a SAAF helicopter to come fetch you if things go pear-shaped. Also, every hiker going into the ‘Berg is made to fill out a Rescue Register detailing the route, exit times, equipment the group is carrying and other crucial information for a rescue.

Other mountain ranges are not so organised. So take the time to find out about rescue options and make some preparations before you head into the hills. Make sure you get all the appropriate phone numbers before you go and do a bit of research on your communications options. If there is no cellphone signal in the mountain area you are heading into, you might want to consider taking a satphone or the more reasonably priced Garmin inReach. – (c) 2017 NavWorld

About The Author

Nic Shaw

Nic Shaw is a keen mountaineer, trail runner and adventurer. He's also a Mountain Leader Instructor and the Director of Entabeni Expeditions & Outdoor Centre based in the Central Drakensberg and Stellenbosch.

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