Alpine Hiking 5A – Settlements

In the previous chapters we covered various important aspects of alpine style hiking. Chapter 1 covered different map sources to plan your alpine hiking routes. Chapter 2 discussed various techniques used for navigation in the mountains. Chapter 3 elaborated on various aspects of planning your alpine style journey. Chapter 4 covered the must-carry gears for the minimalist fast hiker. In Chapter 5 we will take a look at the various types of terrains and other landmarks the alpine hiker comes across in his Himalayan journey:

Module 1 – Settlements
Module 2 – Trails
Module 3 – Valleys & Streams
Module 4 – High Ranges & Passes
Module 5 – Forests & Meadows
Module 6 – Rock & Ice (Scree, Glaciers, Moraines)
Module 7 – Snow

In this chapter let’s take a look at the different types of human settlements we can encounter along the way in the Himalayan terrain. Settlements are very important for independent hikers – they provide guidance, offer food resupply and safe night shelter. During the 2020 lockdown myself and a few volunteers mapped 32 thousand settlements across the Western Himalayas in Open Street Maps, a true treasure for the alpine style explorer.

A beautiful remote farming hamlet in Uttarakhand
Open Street Maps showing names of villages in remote regions


Villages are key in planning your alpine style journey. They are base points between your more remote traverses / pass crossings. I usually (90% of passes are 1-day only) target night stay in villages which offers several benefits:

Resupply food ration (optimizing weight, just carry sufficient food till next village)
Recharge electronics (while eating / sleeping, less time wasted)
Fresh dinner / BF can be had in village (less food to carry)
Fresh food can be packed up in morning for next 1-2 days
Safer night stay (wildlife) / hospitality

Villages are usually located in the valleys (near to water source, in between the ridgelines / high ranges) below 2500 meters altitude (below winter snowline). It’s important to identify the last village before the pass / first village after the pass in order to plan the optimum food ration for your traverse.

Villages connected by road (refer OSM) usually have a dhaba / more facilities than villages disconnected from roads. Nearby villages in a valley / neighboring valleys are usually connected through trails so knowing the name of the next village will allow locals to guide you in the right direction.

Kugti, last village in the Chamba valley
Thousands of villages (large, red), hamlets (medium, yellow) and isolated dwellings (small, green) in Uttarakhand marked in Open Street Maps. Here shown the Gopeshwar region

Summer Dwellings

As we climb up to higher altitudes we come across seasonal (semi-nomadic) or summer settlements. Isolated dwellings (above 2000m) that are inhabited only during summers to graze cattle in the high alpine meadows. In Uttarakhand and J&K you can find thousands of these remote dwellings which are useful checkpoints for the alpine explorer both in summer (hospitality) and winter (shelter). People living here further away from modern society usually display heart warming hospitality to the passing solo explorer.

Deep Got, a summer dwelling at 3000m in the Dhauladar at the base of Gaj pass

Mountain tribes

Beyond the last village in the valley, disconnected from modern amenities (road, power, network), deeper inside the forest you will find mountain tribes or gujjar’s. They usually live in small settlements of a few homes built from natural materials and graze their cattle in nearby meadows. These settlements are usually also located at higher altitudes. People staying here are innocent and extremely hospitable to passing travelers.

Gujjars at Bhansar Koti at the base of the Kalicho pass in Chamba valley


Further up the mountain / at higher altitudes you will find nomadic shepherds who migrate with large herds of sheep and goats across passes and districts to high altitude meadows to graze during the summer season. They usually stay in temporary rock shelters (open or closed) and without exception offer warm hospitality to anyone passing nearby. Shepherds are usually the last human encounter before you venture further into no mans land.

Open rock shelter used by shepherds at Bhedpal camp below the Thamsar pass. Behind the beautiful Dhauladar range separating Kangra from Chamba


At higher altitudes or more in remote / desolate regions you will find many settlements which have been abandoned and now partly laying in ruins. No longer inhabited these are still useful shelters for night stay. Residents might have left the hardship of survival in these remote locations for the comfort (and materialism) of modern cities or might have simply forced to migrate due to climate change, in many cases drying up of water source that brings live to the settlement. In my 2019 journey across 120 high passes and 500 remote settlements I came across at least 50 (10%) deserted dwellings.

Remote settlement of Satok along the Tsarap river in the high altitude desert of Zanskar. Residents have permanently abandoned their home and now earn an easier living as dhaba owners in Sarchu


Acknowledge your understanding of the importance of human settlements for the Himalayan alpine style hiker

Langzha, at 4200m altitude, one of the highest villages in Spiti

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