Youth Hostel Association of India (YHAI) has been hosting trekking camps in the Himalayas for several years. I have attended a number of these camps. Today, I share my experiences and observations about these camps because many people ask me, “How good are these camps?”
Here is the lowdown:
1. Camp Leaders
Every camp has a camp leader that supervises the staff and the guests, trekkers. YHAI regularly invites applications from interested (male) candidates. These candidates undergo a camp leader training organized by the association. The candidates who successfully pass the training are deputed as camp leaders. But they are volunteers. That means, no salary is provided for the service. But boarding, lodging, and travel are free for the camp leaders.
2. Extra Luggage and Rucksack Weight
Participants, especially, the first time trekkers, ask repeatedly what the ideal weight of the rucksack is. How heavy is actually heavy? I have no direct answer to this question. Participants, however, should consider the following factors while packing the rucksack that they will carry:
2.1 Purpose of trekking: Enjoyment, Entertainment, or Relaxation
So no one should overload their rucksacks like professional coolies / porters.
2.2 Individual Weight Carrying Capacity
Everyone should know the amount of weight one can carry comfortably. That means one should be able to walk with the rucksack easily in the mountains, look around, take pictures (everyone likes this) freely, and do any other favorite activity. The rucksack should not restrict any movements of the carrier.
2.3 Remember, adventure travel is not about dressing up like a king.
Carry bare minimal things, including one extra pair of clothes, a small toilet kit-a toothbrush, small paste, travelling soap, moisturizer-, a lightweight torch, an extra light small thin towel, and woolens if required. A lunch box for pack lunch. The lunch box can double as a utensil for eating the other meals served in the camp.
2.4 Bedding and Luggage Store
Remember, YHAI provides bedding (sleeping bags and blankets) at all the camps along the trail. You have to carry just a hygiene sheet issued by YHAI at the base camp.You can leave your extra or unwanted luggage at the base camp. YHAI provides space in temporary stores at the base camp.
3. Field Directors + Staff
Field directors and field staff play a crucial role in success of YHAI trekking camps and maintaining the quality standards. Many directors are efficient, professional, and personable. The camps supervised by them run smoothly. However, there are directors who neither have communication skills nor man management skills. If unluckily your selected trek is managed by this kind of unprofessional field director, overall quality standards will be low. For example, washrooms will be unkempt. Daily schedules will not be followed. Food will be substandard.
The association serves mainly simple North Indian style food. In some of the camps, you may find separate dishes for Jains who do not eat onion and garlic.
A small portion of salad is served for dinner. However, reddish dominates the salad. Some of the attendants serving food will not let you select the content of the salad even if you do not want reddish.
5. Free Time
YHAI gives lots of free time in between the various practical and theory sessions at basecamps. On most of the trekking days, evenings are free. While trekking, the participants stop at a number of short and long halt points along the trail.
6. Group Leader, Deputy Group Leader, Environment Leader
Every day a group of trekkers leave the base / reporting camp for the higher camps during the trekking period. This group has to select a group leader, a deputy group leader, and an environment leader.
But how are these leaders selected?
This selection process is fully faulty?
Each trekking group consists of mini groups hailing from different states of India and solo trekkers. The largest mini group imposes its choices on the main group. This mini group’s recommendation for the position of group leader is accepted blindly. The deputy leader will also be similarly recommended by another mini group depending on its strength. Boys and men are always preferred for these two positions.
For the environment leader, who is actually playing a role of collecting garbage and cleaning the camps, is always a girl / woman. A highly biased practice.
Most importantly, all three leaders are selected randomly. That means, selection is not based on merit. Selection is based on the principle of majority rule.
YHAI does not provide porters for participating trekkers. All trekkers therefore have to carry their rucksacks. Depending on group size, one or two guides accompany to the trekkers for the Himalayan adventures. On request, these guides carry the rucksack for a fee, say, INR 300 for a half day climb. However, two guides cannot carry luggage of 50-60 trekkers.
8. Punishment for Late Comers
Punishment is not the rule. But sometimes adamant participants are given easy punishments, including making the participant stand at the stage and asking fellow participants to clap for the guilty, or making the guilty hold his/her ears and squat. The second option is rarely used in YHAI trekking camps in the Himalayas.
YHAI offers affordable good quality beds in dormitories and rooms across India in two types of hostels:
- Hostels Owned by YHAI and
- Franchise Hostels.
Both have some drawbacks.
The hostels owned by YHAI are not available during family camping season. For example, currently, YHAI is running a family camping program in Leh. So no rooms are available for individuals in YHAI Leh.
Service standards in the franchise hostels cannot be assured. For example, once I stayed in the franchise hostel located in Shimla. It was a complete disappointment because of rude staff and shabby room.
10. Trek Grade
Another frequently asked question is, how hard are the treks organized by YHAI?
There are no standard trek grades. However, I can tell you an important thing: YHAI organizes trekking camps in the Himalayas for masses. The camps are therefore relatively easy to complete but acclimatization is a must. You must be healthy and moderately fit, that means able to walk with a rucksack (<=10 kilograms) for long hours (5-6 hrs.).
Generally, you will trek 5-6 hours daily except one day when you will trek up to the main destination of the trip, say a high altitude pass. This day will be long (8-9 hours) and relatively more demanding.
In 2017, I noticed there were separate brick-and-mortar washrooms for the participants and YHAI employees at the basecamp. But, earlier, I observed that both used the same washrooms. So, they were always well-kept.
Now-a-days, YHAI provides gender-specific tent toilets featuring stable Indian toilet seats in higher camps.