Piece by Nick Bramer— When he’s not stuck at his desk crunching numbers or analyzing data as a performance & insight manager, Nick has made it his mission to climb, hike or mountaineer his way around some of the world’s most beautiful mountain ranges. Read more of his writing at the Merrell Pack.
Many years ago, when I was a volunteer trekking guide in Guatemala, I took on the Volcan Acatenango. It was an amazing adventure with a little bit of everything, but in many ways my friend Jeff and I were underprepared despite our previous hiking experience. There was a lot we learned while hiking Volcan Acatenango about taking on adventures off the beaten path, and I wanted to pass along this set of tips for anyone looking to go off and explore.
Setting the scene:
It was our second day of the trip— we had packed up camp and were about to head back down Acatenago. We estimated we had climbed a combined total of over 4921 feet that day and had been on the move for about 12 hours, all of this with only 1.5 liters of water each and a small amount of food. Needless to say, during the ensuing six hours on that forestry track (which would have been two if we hadn’t gotten lost), and in the days that followed, there was a lot of self-reflection by Jeff and I as to where it went wrong and what lessons we could take with us on our next epic trail.
Tips for treks off the beaten path:
1. Go with a Guide: Spectacular surroundings and amazing experiences have a habit of distracting you from issues of security and safety. Enjoy your time in the mountains, but always keep in your consciousness the seriousness of your situation. In the case of our hiking trip in Guatemala, the rural highlands have a history of robberies and assaults, so we hired local guide Don Martin to lead us to the Volcan Acatenango. Always check with the local tourism office for information on guides or consider joining a larger group for added safety.
2. Memorize the Paths You Take: As you’re hiking, make a conscious effort to memorize the paths that you take, looking back when possible, taking in landmarks, tying fabric to branches at tricky trail junctions and taking notes if need be. You should always travel with a map and compass or GPS, but if you don’t have either of these, memorizing your location is even more important. We added an unnecessary four hours to our trek by attempting a shortcut that turned out to be anything but.
3. Keep Calm and Pause Before You Carry On: Our desperation to get back down off the mountain as quickly as possible, combined with our tired and dehydrated state, meant that our judgment had become clouded. Don’t let laziness get in the way of taking the safe bet in a dangerous mountain environment. Stop and take stock of your surroundings every so often, check your map and consult with other hikers in your group.
4. Prepare for all eventualities: Always take more than enough food and water— and be prepared for ‘getting lost.’ It’s likely that if we had more water we would never have attempted the ‘short cut’ in the first place. Always carry a water purification system with you on your hikes, whether it be a water filter, iodine tablets or another filtration device, so that you can refill your reservoir on trail if need be. Make sure you have the proper outdoor clothing for any weather and hiking boots that will help you trek various terrains.
Despite all this, we had an incredible time hiking in Guatemala, and risks are part of any adventure. That being said, better preparation can lead to a better— if less memorable— climb, and I have always kept this in mind on the many adventures that have followed.
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