Ask ten experienced hikers to nominate the best treks in the world and they'll give you ten different answers. Some treks are epic because of the scenery. Some are epic because of the almost superhuman levels of effort and endurance required to reach the end point. For some trekkers, it's all about the destination; for others, it's the journey and the camaraderie along the trail.
But the world's top treks all have one thing in common–a sense of mission that transforms the simple act of walking into a life-affirming expedition. With this in mind, we've compiled our own list of the world's top treks, from jungle trails to breathless tracks through the mountains of Nepal. All require a sturdy pair of lungs and a fit pair of legs, but the experience of trekking is its own reward; we promise you'll still be talking about these hikes decades later!
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Top Tips for Trekkers
Before you load up your backpack with trekking socks and Kendal mint cake, give some thought to the infrastructure on the route you plan to conquer. Some treks require total self-sufficiency, sleeping under canvas and purifying water as you go; other routes have refuges or rustic teahouses every step of the way. Here are some of the key considerations:
- Travel light: every extra gram will weigh you down on the trails; if it isn't essential, leave it behind.
- Respect your feet: boots offer more support, but all-terrain trainers are lighter and dry more quickly after a soaking.
- Protect your knees: trekking poles can help control the knee-crushing descents that are a feature of pretty much every trek.
- Climb slowly: Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can kill, so ascend slowly and take rest days to acclimatize on any trek above 2,500m in elevation.
- Heed the weather: when treks go wrong, it's normally because of the weather, so check the forecasts; if conditions look bad, stop somewhere safe and sit it out, rather than pushing on over the next pass.
- Be prepared: don't launch straight from the sofa to the summit–warm up with gentler walks, hikes and runs to get your body used to the exertion.
- Plan ahead: many trekking routes require a permit and advance booking for lodges and camp sites; for some routes, you need to book months ahead.
Everest Base Camp, Nepal
Best trek for: would-be mountaineers
Distance: 80 miles (130km) round trip
Duration: 2 weeks
Climbing to 18,193 feet (5,545m) at its highest point, the 2-week trek to Everest Base Camp is Nepal's best-loved trek, with 8849m Sagarmatha (Mt Everest) rising ahead like a petrified giant. Tracing winding river valleys and the creaking mass of the Khumbu glacier, this mighty mission visits mountain monasteries, soaring lookouts and precariously balanced Sherpa villages, with gruelling days of altitude gain that will test your muscles and endurance to breaking point.
It's not all hard work though. The trekking infrastructure is unparalleled: porters and guides wait on arrival at Lukla's tiny mountain airstrip, cosy teahouses provide warm beds and nourishing plates of dal bhat (lentils and rice) along the entire route, and side trails open up a mountain playground of summit ascents and high pass crossings for a taste of real mountaineering. Sure, the trails are mobbed in season, but the sense of camaraderie amongst trekkers is hard to beat.
The golden rule, however, is respect the altitude. Acute mountain sickness is a risk if you rush, so take it slow and steady and pause for the recommended rest days to let your body catch up with the elevation.
2. GR20, Corsica, France
Best trek for: people who love challenges
Distance:104 miles (168km) round trip
Duration: 15 days
This character-building slog through Corsica is legendary for the diversity of landscapes it traverses, and for the level of grit it requires from trekkers who brave its rugged trails. There are forests, granite moonscapes, windswept craters, glacial lakes, torrents, peat bogs, maquis, snow-capped peaks, plains and névés (stretches of ice formed from snow) to conquer, and the tough terrain weeds out all but the most dedicated hikers.
Created in 1972, the GR20 links the town of Calenzana, in the Balagne, with Conca, north of Porto Vecchio, but the thrills don’t come easy. The path is rocky, uneven and frequently steep, with crossings over rickety bridges and exposed scrambles over slippery rock faces and loose, skittering scree–all part of the fun! You'll be drawing water from springs and sleeping in rustic mountain refuges, but two weeks later, you'll be able to tell the world you conquered Europe's toughest trail.
3. Inca Trail, Peru
Best hike for modern-day explorers
Distance: 20 miles (33km) round trip
Duration: 4-5 days
The 20-mile (33km) trail to the 15th-century Inca citadel of Machu Picchu was used for centuries before it was brought to global attention when explorer Hiram Bingham 'discovered' the route in 1911. Today, the secret is definitely out; the trail to Peru's most famous ruin is packed with backpackers, but with giddying views of high cloud forests and Machu Picchu waiting ahead like a beacon, we suspect you won't mind.
The trail climbs to 7,972 feet (2,430m) from the Sacred Valley, winding its way up, down and around mountains, and crossing three high passes en route. As a consequence of its popularity, the number of hikers permitted each day is restricted to just 200 people to protect Peru's not so lost 'lost city'. The result is a more tranquil experience for those fortunate enough to get permits, but hikers should still take extra care to make sustainable choices when visiting.
4. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Best trek for: snow in the tropics
Distance: 23–56 miles (37-90km)
Duration: 5–9 days
Okay, it's the favorite trek of fundraisers everywhere, and an almost obligatory trip for visitors to East Africa, but the week-long ascent of Africa's highest mountain is still an epic undertaking. From the moment you first spy its misty prominence rising above the dusty plains, you'll know that Kilimanjaro simply has to be climbed. Lions and elephants may mill around at its base, but the summit is snow-capped and desolate, and lofty enough to bring a risk of altitude sickness at 19,340 feet (5,895m).
There are seven recognized routes to the top, and trekkers can complete the ascent in anything from 5 to 9 days, with longer treks being recommended to reduce the risk of AMS. The final stage usually starts before dawn, reaching the summit as the first light of morning erupts across a vast sweep of African savanna. In practice, nearly two thirds of trekkers opt for the Marangu (6 days) or Machame (7 days) routes on the south side of the mountain.
5. Kalalau Trail, Hawaii
Best trek for: sea views
Distance: 11 miles (18km) each way
When asked to pick the best treks in the US, most reach for hikes along the rim of the Grand Canyon, or the mobbed trails that climb to the summits of El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. However, we prefer to choose something a bit more off-piste. Linking Keʻe Beach and the Kalalau Valley on the north shore of Kauaʻi, the beautiful Kalalau trail follows a towering cliff wall dripping with tropical foliage to reach an overnight stop at a splendidly remote Hawaiian beach.
The route along the Nā Pali Coast starts out easy, but gets progressively more challenging on steep dirt paths; the reward comes in the form of elemental views over primordial valleys, thundering waterfalls, secluded beaches and the churning waters of the Pacific Ocean. There's a definite Lost World feel, and a bit of caution is required, as people have fallen from the track or been washed away by sudden flash floods.
6. Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh, India
Best trek for: spontaneous trekkers
Distance:50 miles (80km)
Duration: 6-7 days
Fewer people trek on the Indian side of the world’s mightiest mountain range, but those that do are rewarded with views to rival anything in Nepal, Tibet or Pakistan. There are spectacular treks all over the Indian Himalaya, from the breathless Goecha La trek in Sikkim to pilgrimage treks to remote mountain temples in Uttarakhand and Kashmir, but for our rupee, the best trekking country of all is in lofty Ladakh, crossing high-altitude deserts in the rain-shadow of the high Himalaya.
The Markha Valley trek strains for a week across a wonderfully desolate moonscape, circling south from Leh through the jagged ridges that flank the south bank of the Indus River before emerging near the famous Buddhist gompa (monastery) at Hemis. Best of all, no complex planning is required; you can reach the trailhead by bus from Leh, crossing the river in a dangling basket and stopping at whitewashed teahouses in timeless Buddhist villages along the trail.
7. Routeburn Track, New Zealand
Best trek for: fans of big landscapes
Distance: 20 miles (32km)
New Zealand’s South Island is as alpine as you can get without actually being in the Alps, and the 3-day Routeburn Track is one of the best ways to cross this pristine natural wonderland. This is a trail for fans of big vistas and open skies, following glacier-carved fjords, truncated valleys and rugged ridges through the plunging landscapes of two stunning national parks: Fiordland and Mt Aspiring.
The preferred route runs from the Routeburn Shelter (north of Queenstown) to Milford Road, with overnight stops in spectacularly located campgrounds. Highlights include the views from Harris Saddle and Conical Hill, and chilly dips in spring-fed mountain tarns. The main challenge for this popular hike is securing a place among the limited numbers who are allowed at any one time–make bookings well ahead through the NZ Department of Conservation's Great Walks booking site.
8. Gunung Rinjani, Indonesia
Best trek for: early risers
Distance: 15 miles (24km)
Duration: 2 days
There simply has to be a Southeast Asian volcano hike on the list, and for our money, it's Indonesia's Gunung Rinjani. While Lombok's blissful beaches simmer at sea level, the island climbs to a breathless height of 12,224 feet (3,726m) at the summit of this enormous lake-capped volcano, which still periodically rumbles into life, most recently in 2016.
Trekking to the summit of Gunung Rinjani is up there with hiking the Himalaya as one of Asia's favorite adventures. To make the best of the views, the final push to the top starts in the dark, in order to gain the crater rim as first light pushes back the gloom, revealing the crater lake and its sinister cinder cones like a lost valley of the dinosaurs.
9. The Haute Route, France-Switzerland
Best trek for: yodellers
Distance: 125 miles (200km)
Leading from Chamonix in France through the southern Valais to Zermatt in Switzerland, the 2-week-long Walkers' Haute Route trek traverses some of the highest and most eye-popping scenery accessible anywhere in the Alps. Hiking here is a summertime endeavour, tracing a different course to the famous winter Haute Route for ski-tourers. Every stage will test your endurance, with ‘pass hopping’ that demands a high level of fitness on many sections of the walk.
So why put your body through all this exertion? The mountain views, obviously! Some days pass through yodel-worthy alpine meadows, while others struggle over glacier-carved outcrops guarded by mountain giants. And with this being northern Europe, the infrastructure along the way is excellent, with hotels, gites d’etape (rest shelters), auberges (inns) and mountain refuges dotted all along the route. You'll appreciate a warm bed and a hot meal as you tackle over 46,000 feet (14,000m) of elevation gain.
10. The Torres del Paine Circuit, Patagonia, Chile
Best trek for :photographers
Distance:85 miles (136km)
Many visitors to Chile's Torres del Paine National Park draw up short when they see the scale of the terrain and opt for the shorter 'W Trek', but we recommend following the full 9-day 'O Trek' circuit, to soak up the sheer variety of landscapes in this magnificent wilderness reserve. As you follow the trail from Las Torres, you'll pass some of the world's most photogenic vistas: crystal-clear rivers, sculpted mountains, open grasslands, old-growth forests, deep and silent lakes and the icy tongue of Grey Glacier.
That's a lot of variety per trekking mile, but you need to plan ahead as only 80 trekkers are permitted on each section of track at any given time, and camping sites and refugios are in heavy demand. Make bookings with the companies operating the lodges and camping areas months in advance if you hope to secure a slot during the busy November to March trekking season.
This article was first published in November 2010.