We all began the New Year with fitness goals, right? But it’s only really now that we’re actually feeling ready for a challenge. Treadmills are so last year – head into the great outdoors and make the beautiful natural world your gym. Lifelong memories are more important than tight abs anyway – and why not have both?
1. Annapurna Circuit
This life-changing journey through the Annapurna Mountains comes with a dizzying set of challenges – altitude sickness and a distinct lack of Wi-Fi, for starters. But you’ll experience the widest variety of terrain and climates possible within a 15 to 20-day hike.
Most walkers tackle the route anticlockwise, as the daily altitude gain is slower. Varying between 160 and 230km, the trek circles the Annapurna Massif (a cluster of mountains over 6,000m high, including the world’s 10th highest peak) includes the Thorong La pass and touches the edge of the Tibetan Plateau – the world’s highest-elevated and largest plateau, dubbed the Roof of the World. You’ll traverse paddy fields and subtropical forests, waterfalls and cliffs. At lower altitude in the blazing sunshine, you’ll wonder why you brought your thermal underwear – but you’ll remember as soon as night falls, and the temperature drops below freezing. Best hole up in a traditional teahouse and warm yourself with a steaming plate of momo dumplings.
Inside tip: get a Trekking Information Management System (TIMS) permit, and an Annapurna National Park Permit before setting off from Kathmandu, to be verified at checkpoints on the way.
2. The Long Range Traverse
Hiking along the northernmost part of North America’s Appalachian chain is not for novices. If you’re a more advanced hiker, this 35km trek may be for you – just make sure you have a good base level of physical fitness and brush up on your wilderness navigation skills. But if that doesn’t put you off (and you hire an expert guide to lead the way) you’ll be rewarded with a three- or four-day excursion through Newfoundland’s most epic and unforgettable landscapes.
In the Gros Morne National Park, the route begins at the east end of Western Brook Pond, a pristine freshwater fjord enclosed by steep, 600m-high rock walls carved by glaciers. You’ll take a boat across the water before climbing a rugged gorge to the Long Range Plateau, which leads all the way to the Gros Morne Mountain – Newfoundland’s second-highest peak, and the national park’s namesake. Pitch up at any of the five campsites en route to break up the trip and keep you on track.
Inside tip: start your journey in July or August, when the weather is driest (winter can be very foggy and snowy). Make sure you bring insect protection though, as pesky black flies will attempt to ruin your trip.
3. Torres del Paine
Southern Chilean Patagonia is home to the impressive Torres del Paine national park. Spanning over 181,000 hectares of mountains, lakes, glaciers and rivers, a trek here can be as intrepid as you choose. To fully experience the landscape, embark on an epic voyage of hiking, driving in 4X4s and travelling on horseback or by boat. You can slum it on a shoestring, staying in shared dorms in the numerous refugios, but it’s equally possible to stay in upscale, design-centric lodges or even luxury yurts at every stage of the park’s most famous hiking route, the W Trek.
Most trips start in the nearest big town, Puerto Natales – a touristy fishing port, a four-hour drive away. The four- or five-day W takes in three valleys: the Ascensio, which involves an 800m climb to the famous granite ‘towers’ that the park is named after; the French Valley, dominated by a crumbling glacier; and the Lago Grey glacier lake, dotted with electric blue ice floes.
Inside tip: To avoid the tourists and infamous Patagonian summer wind, consider a trip in winter (April-September). But go with a guide, as you’ll likely be trekking through snow.
4. Camino de Santiago
Europe’s most famous trek is a Christian pilgrimage, made of a network of routes that travel to Santiago de Compostela, northern Spain. Often trekked during the lead up to Easter, the UNESCO-protected path leads pilgrims to the tomb of Saint James, a Catholic martyr whose remains were enshrined there in 44AD. While it’s still an important religious site, today many trekkers walk the route for its camaraderie, hearty Basque cuisine (think grilled meats, cheese and tomato-based stews) and medieval architecture.
The most popular route begins in Saint-Jean Pied de Port, in France’s Pyrenees Mountains. Called the French Way, it’s around 790km long and takes around 30 days to complete, via Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos and León. Though long, this trek is very accessible. It’s largely made up of paved roads and flat pathways, and you’re never far from a small lodging or restaurant. Many tackle it by bicycle and it’s easy to hop on a train if four weeks of walking is a bit much.
Inside tip: Don’t bother with a map – the route is extremely well signposted (look out for the famous scallop shell) and there are piped freshwater taps every few kilometres to keep you hydrated.
5. The Lost City of Teyuna
Clambering through vivid-green jungle to discover an ancient city, against a backdrop of squawking toucans and whirring hummingbirds, could be the search for El Dorado. But it’s an experience you can still have in Colombia today, in Teyuna – an abandoned settlement built in 800AD. Made of stone terraces sculpted high into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the pre-Hispanic Lost City has been hailed as the ‘next Machu Picchu’.
Most treks are about 46km long and take around four days, and it’s recommended you only attempt them with a guide. You’ll want one to lead you between campsites and to fuel you with local, indigenous cuisine, so that you can concentrate on spraying yourself with enough DEET to keep the mozzies at bay. Bring a swimsuit for cooling off in swimming holes, and be ready for early morning starts to avoid the mid-afternoon sun. It’s humid and uphill, and the rain can be heavy, but you’ll get to spend each night sleeping in a hammock, lulled by the sounds of the rainforest.
Inside tip: Bring a plastic zip bag to protect electronics from the rain, and consider bringing a light sleeping bag – bed bugs are an issue in some campsites. Check out our essential packing list for every type of holiday.