Most of the trekking in the Himalayas is on well established trails, used by shepherds, or on old travel routes, before roads were made. It is possible to trek without a guide if you prepare well. Let’s consider some tools which can help you get prepared for a trek.
Global Positioning System or GPS is a network of satellites in the Earth’s atmosphere that allow you to calculate your position with high accuracy. The satellites send out time stamped data constantly and your GPS device receives it; by comparing the differential time data from at least 4 satellites, it calculates your position.
GPS, along with dedicated devices or smartphone apps, allow you to record your route and back track if you get lost. You can also download maps and routes to your device and follow it.
2) Topographical Maps
A topographical map or topo map is a map marked with contour lines. The contour line connects points with same elevation, giving you an overview of the terrain. By studying contours you can find out the gradient of a slope and predict certain terrain features. This allows you to plan the best route.
High resolution paper topo maps are hard to find. Your best option is digital maps such as Open Cycle Maps based on Open Street Maps (OSM). Many popular trails are already marked on them and by using a free app such as ViewRanger, you can download map tiles on your smartphone for offline viewing and navigate along a route using GPS.
There is a new project based on OSM called Himalaya Maps which is working on making better trekking maps available.
3) Google Earth
Google Earth lets you fly anywhere on Earth to view satellite imagery and route tracks, offering a level of physical information surpassing even topo Maps. It allows you to actually see the terrain including feature like snow, tree line and even prominent trails, in 3D. Best part is that Google Earth is available for free for PC as well as Android / IOS. If you haven’t used Google Earth on your smartphone, try it out.
By zooming down to the ground and observing prominent features on the route, you can learn a lot about any region you want to explore. You can plot your route on PC to get complete elevation profile of the trek and create virtual tour. You can save your track in Google Drive and access it from your mobile app.
Google Earth Mobile app allows offline viewing by storing imagery and data you have viewed so that it can quickly display this information the next time you navigate to these areas. This stored information is called the cache. It is a good idea to study the area on your phone, so you can access it later on the trail without requiring data. Google Earth + KMZ route + GPS is extremely powerful offline navigation solution.
4) Additional Information
At times even GPS, Maps and Satellite images are not enough. For example when beginning a trek under the tree line, there may be many trails through the forest used by local villagers for gathering wood. Following a wrong trail could mean spending hours back tracking. You can gather additional information from local villagers or a guide book.
a) Lonely Planet Trekking in the Himalayas
b) Harish Kapadia Trekking in the Himalayas
c) IMF, NIM and The Himalayan Club Journals
Still there may be still be some information unavailable. Do you think it adds to the fun of exploration or is there a need to for an online database, like an Explorer’s Wiki?
Would love to hear from you what tools you use for Navigation.