Many of us love the idea of throwing our cares to one side and heading off into the mountains. Sometimes, however, we are a little less sure about what we should take and the often-simple precautions necessary to keep ourselves safe. Here, Alan Palmer, who has been trekking in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains for more than 30 years, passes on a little practical advice.
The first question that trekkers often ask me is what they should take. It’s amazing how many people naively think that because it’s a lovely day in Marrakech, they’ll be able to run up Toubkal in a t-shirt and a pair of trainers when the reality is that it can turn very cold and wet at altitude at any time of the year. Conversely, the sun can become fiercely strong even in winter, so I always begin by emphasising the importance of being properly equipped.
In Morocco, good kit and equipment remain very hard to get hold of, so it’s imperative that you organise all your gear before leaving home. Here are a few pointers, some perhaps rather obvious, others perhaps less so, which I hope will help you to prepare for your trek:
Unless you have a particular attachment to sleeping in your own tent, you really shouldn’t need to take one at all. Any trekking company worth its salt should provide you with one but you should check this with them beforehand. Alternatively, particularly in the Toubkal region, consider staying in local gîtes d’étape (local guest houses) and mountain refuges and avoid the need for a tent altogether. This approach also allows you to come into greater contact with local Berber communities living in the mountains.
Of course, it’s critical that you drink only clean water. The good news is that these days, unless you are trekking in a very remote area, such as the Western High Atlas, you will be able to buy enough mineral water on most days for less than £1 per bottle. Take your own tough one-litre water bottle to keep it cool.
If you want to be more independent, you could either boil water drawn from streams or treat it with chlorine tablets, but remember that neither of these methods guarantees that it will be safe to drink. It’s much better to invest in either a steripen or a filter pump. Sometimes people balk at the price of these, but I’ve been treating some of the most unlikely water for decades with an MSR Waterworks filter pump and have never suffered so much as a squeak from my stomach. I’d say this has been the most important single equipment purchase I’ve ever made.
A backpack is essential: even though your main bag will be bound for the back of a mule, there will inevitably be occasions, either before or after your trek, when you will need to carry it yourself. Also take a small daypack, big enough for your camera, snacks, water and any other items you may need during the day. However, do make yourself aware of your airline’s hand luggage restrictions.
Also essential is a sleeping bag. Even where gîtes d’étape provide bedding, your own bag is likely to be a more sanitised alternative, and warmer, too. Unless you are heading on an extended winter trek at altitude, a good quality synthetic (rather than down) bag will suffice, but think carefully about its weight and how well it will compress into your backpack.
If camping, you will need to take a sleeping mat, not only to help keep you warm, but also to take some of the sting out of the hard, stony ground you are likely to sleep upon at some point. That said, your trekking company really ought to provide one for you. Check with them.
Probably the most common health problem is that of blisters which could seriously diminish your enjoyment of the trek and even force you to stop walking altogether. Therefore, look after your feet, and begin by ensuring that you have the right walking boots and socks.
The choice of boots is between traditional leather boots and modern fabric or, more recently, a hybrid of the two. Leather boots usually hold the advantage when trekking at higher altitudes, as in the High Atlas, and also in wet conditions, when you might take along Nikwax to maintain their waterproof qualities. Lighter fabric boots generally hold the advantage at lower altitude and in drier conditions, such in the Jebel Sahro region.
Take a second pair of shoes, too, such as trainers, for evenings after you have finished your day’s trek. Better still, take rafting sandals, which also serve a useful purpose when washing or wading through streams.
Ensure you have good quality walking socks – at least two pairs, so you can change and wash them regularly to prevent dry sweat or grit accumulating and causing blisters. Some people advocate wearing thin, silk, inner socks next to the skin under thicker walking socks.
A waterproof Gore-Tex jacket is essential at all times of the year, not just to provide protection from the rain but also from wind and cold. Even in summer, you are likely to encounter rain in the High Atlas, notably during afternoons. In winter, particularly during the wet season between October and April, you’ll also need waterproof trousers.
A good quality fleece is very useful for mornings and evenings, as well as during colder moments at altitude. Choose one which will roll up tightly.
Take a minimum of two light trekking shirts, at least one of which should be long-sleeved and with a collar to protect your arms and neck from excess sun. These are practical and comfortable on the trail, they allow perspiration to wick away quickly, thereby keeping you dry, and are easily washed and dried.
For the same reasons, take two pairs of light, full-length trekking trousers. In Morocco, please avoid wearing shorts: you will be trekking in a conservative Muslim area and will cause offence to many, including to those who are too polite to tell you. Show respect and keep your legs covered.
Loose fitting cotton underwear is best for the daytime, while thermal underwear is useful for sleeping in.
Pack two hats: one should be wide brimmed to protect you from the sun and preferably floppy so that it can fit into your daypack; the other should be warm for cold evenings and higher altitudes.
Likewise, take gloves. A neck-scarf is useful both for sun protection and for wiping perspiration from your brow. Good-quality sunglasses, capable of blocking out ultra-violet rays, are important, particularly at altitude. Take a specialist lightweight, highly absorbent travel towel.
Soap and shampoo are available in Marrakech and, to a lesser extent, at trailheads, but it is better to bring all toiletries from home, especially if you are particular about what you use. Take small samples to save space, and consider sharing with a friend. Try to take biodegradable products and avoid contaminating local water supplies by avoiding washing and shaving with soap directly in rivers, streams and lakes.
Water-resistant, high-factor sunscreen, or even total sun-block, is essential. Lip-balm will help prevent chapping from general exposure. Toilet paper is on sale in some larger villages but, since locals often use only water and their left hand, do not rely on finding any on the trail. Bring a lighter to burn used paper.
Tampons, expensive in Morocco, are available in towns and some larger villages but it is wise to bring a supply from home; similarly with contraceptives.
A small medical kit and a basic first aid kit for day-to-day use could prove invaluable. Do not assume availability of either medical resources or expertise in the mountains. Indeed, it is more likely that local people will look to you to solve their own medical shortfall.
Consider also: a head torch and spare batteries; compass; plastic backpack liner to help keep your belongings dry; sewing kit for running repairs; camera with enough memory cards, compact flash cards and batteries (although these are available in Moroccan cities and large towns, you are unlikely to be able to buy these items at trailheads); multi-fit sink plug; plug adaptor (three-pin to round two-pin); pens, pencils and journal; a GPS device; your favourite snacks.
You should not need to take cooking gear or eating utensils if you are booking your trek through an agency.
You would be wise to presume that everything in the Atlas Mountains will need to be paid for in cash with Moroccan dirhams. Although ATM machines are increasingly common in towns and cities, they are yet to reach many trailheads and are not found at all around Jebel Toubkal. Make sure, therefore, that you are carrying sufficient cash before beginning your trek, preferably in small denomination notes.
Do not rely upon your mobile phone on the trail, as signal is not reliable in the Atlas Mountains. Of course, if safety is of paramount concern to you, then consider investing in a satellite phone.
Keep safe and have a great trek!
Alan Palmer is the author of Moroccan Atlas, the Trekking Guide (Trailblazer Publications). His passion for the Atlas Mountains led him to set up his own company Trek in Morocco in 2012, recently re-launched as Yak Travel, which offers bespoke experiences throughout Morocco for individuals and small groups, including treks in the Toubkal, Mgoun and Western High Atlas regions, as well as in Jebel Sirwa and Jebel Sahro.