Trails (suitable for hiking) in the mountains exist for various reasons:
Connecting neighboring villages in a valley
Connecting villages and meadows (grazing cattle)
Connecting neighboring valleys through passes
Pilgrim routes (temples, lakes, peaks)
Shepherd routes to alpine meadows (grazing)
32 thousand Himalayan villages / dwellings in the Western Himalayas are mapped in Open Street Maps, all interconnected by trails, thereby unlocking a real treasure for hikers. Although more roads are being constructed deeper in the valleys to connect remote villages, many of these remote settlements are still connected by trails. Approx. 2000+ passes are mapped in OSM connecting villages in adjacent valleys making beautiful traverses for hikers across high ranges.
Meadows are important to villagers and shepherds to graze their cattle – many of these are marked and named in the Survey of India maps and most of them are accessible from the base valleys / villages through beautiful trails. Finally, there are many sacred locations, lakes, peaks, temples which form seasonal pilgrimages in many cases accessible through beautifully built pathways. Some 2000+ alpine lakes are mapped in OSM, some inaccessible, some forming beautiful hiking destinations.
Trail vs Path
We can distinguish two types of hike-able routes in mountains: trails (left below) which generally form naturally / automatically by frequent use vs. paths (right) which are specially constructed / wider / more prominent. Paths are constructed for traditionally important routes between villages, valleys or pilgrim destinations.
Survey of India maps mark tails (red dotted) and paths (red dashed). Trails / paths are marked with red arrows when following a river bed, ridgeline or boundary. There are approximate 1.5 lakh kilometers (4x perimeter of planet!) marked on SOI maps forming beautiful hiking destinations in remote, lesser known valleys of the Himalayas. This is more then can be explored in multiple human life times!
Paths are usually also more gradual (less steep) than trails by using hair pin bends to reduce the gradient while climbing up steep slopes. Therefore paths are more suitable for horses or mules carrying up loads / transporting goods between villages compared to narrow trails which might be suitable only for people / hikers.
When falling in disuse, trails are likely to disappear faster compared to paths when taken back by nature through landslides, vegetation overgrowth, etc. and are therefore preferred candidates for exploration. Trails also disappear quicker when covered by snow in winter compared to wider paths.
The success of tracking or exploring a new trail mainly depends on (recent) usage of that trail. Trails which are no longer in use by local villagers, shepherds or pilgrims will quickly fade away in the landscape and become hard to track even after just a few years of disuse. Trails which are actively / seasonally used are much easier to spot in the surrounding landscape. A frequently used trail can easily be identified by:
fresh exposed soil uncovered by foot steps of people or cattle
rocks covered by soil
animal dung (sheep poop by shepherds, horse poop by hiking groups)
bushes/grasses stepped on / flattened by sheep
A no longer in use trail will quickly fade out:
overgrown by vegetation / grass
covered by fallen leaves
wiped out by landslides (no longer repaired)
It’s very important for the alpine style explorer to identify frequently used trails in order to stay on track. Chances of successfully exploring a trail fallen in disuse are much less.
Routes in the mountains are marked in various ways. Common in high altitude desert landscape of Ladakh is the use of cairns – piles of stones seen from afar to guide you along the right route. Similar, passes across ridgelines are usually marked with colorful prayer flags visible from afar.
As mentioned in previous modules certain routes are inaccessible during certain seasons mainly due to flooding of the streams during either monsoon (excess rain fall) or early summer (peak winter snow melt). Therefore the presence or absence of (makeshift) bridges makes it either possible or impossible to hike these routes during those seasons. Important bridges required to cross certain streams are clearly marked on Survey of India maps.
Acknowledge your understanding of Himalayan trails