10 Tips to help you complete the Drakensberg Grand Traverse

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Picture credit: Sarah Lowe

Willem Boshoff shares some tips from his Drakensberg Grand Traverse (DGT) experience, and also gets some pro-tips from accomplished Drakensberg hiker Jonathan Newman (first back-to-back DGT) and newly initiated DGT finisher Romy Chevallier, who did a 13-day DGT in December 2017.

1. Plan your route

The official DGT has a defined start, finish and some compulsory peaks to tick off in between. Your route in between these sections could be pretty much anything but given the magnitude of the endeavour we recommended that you use the “record route” waypoints as a basis, with specific variations where you choose to do so (read more here). A crucial part of the planning is deciding in how many days you want to complete the DGT – having targeted overnight spots will help you stay on track. It is however recommended that you budget an extra day or two in case bad weather, injury or some other adverse event slows you down.

It is also important to be aware of your exit options along the way, as well as the options to descend to lower ground in case of severe weather.

2. Choose the right season

The DGT can be done year-round and each season has its pros and cons. Consensus is that spring (late August to October) and autumn (March to early May) is the best time of the year. The ideal is to have sufficient daylight hours, warmer temperature and a minimum incidence of bad weather. It is also worthwhile to keep an eye on the long-term weather forecast (up to 10-days) to try and avoid any major snowfall, especially during winter and spring.

Jonathan: for a speed hike (assuming you will hike sections at night), try and time your hike over full moon.

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This screenshot of the weather forecast for Giant’s Castle peak at 3315m altitude (on the left) and the surrounding foothills at 1800m altitude (on the right) shows two things: Severe weather can occur any time of the year (in this instance October snowfall and extreme cold) and in case of extreme weather it is useful to descend to lower ground, with about 0.8 degrees increase in temperature for every 100m you descend.

3. Get fit, and then backpack fit

The DGT is hard! Very hard when you do it unsupported. It is important to get into good all-round shape – you will need endurance to get through the long distances as well as strength to carry a heavy backpack and minimise the risk of injuries. Starting a proper exercise program at least 6 months in advance is advisable, even if you hike regularly. Leg, core, back and shoulder strength must be developed in combination with endurance and cardio-vascular exercise. One should also do a couple of long distance trails with a heavy backpack to ensure your body gets “backpack fit” and your feet harden.

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Jonathan: if you’re doing a speed-hike, practice night hiking beforehand.

4. Fine-tune sharing and weight saving

Even a pack-animal like myself needs to plan and pack carefully to keep the backpack weight down. If you do it unsupported, the 10+ days’ food will be a disproportionate part of your pack’s weight (your clothing and equipment will be the same as for any multi-day tented hike).  The good news is that your pack will become progressively lighter as you munch away. Your targeted pack weight should be between a quarter and third of your bodyweight.

  • Do not unnecessarily duplicate items that can be shared like stoves, pots and a first aid kit.
  • Plan, measure and pack lightweight meals
  • Decant just the right amount of consumable items (toothpaste, soap, sunblock etc.)
  • Stick to the essentials only

Romy: Why not get a porter for a few days? Our Group employed two porters for the first 4-days to carry the extra food. We also arranged a food drop at Sani pass which helped to keep backpack weight manageable. The current (2018) cost for a porter is R700 per day and they will carry around 15kg. It is also a cool way to help the local economy!

5. Maximise calories

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It is guaranteed that you will be hiking on a caloric deficit – this is your opportunity to smash all those diet plans and still lose weight. What is important is to look at food’s calorie-to-weight ratio, where fat comes out on top (37 kJ/g), followed by alcohol (29 kJ/g), protein (17 kJ/g) and carbs (16 kJ/g). One cannot however simply pack a tub of cream and a couple of bottles of whiskey – you need a balanced diet with energy rich foods added in the mix. Spend some time researching the calories for your food options and maximise. See the calorie/100g chart below – oily/fatty foods, dry grains and nuts are the most weight efficient energy sources.

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6. Gear-up with down (and other lightweight gear)

It will be either cold or freezing on the escarpment, so warm clothing and a below-zero rated sleeping bag is required. High-fill Goose down has the best warmth-to-weight ratio and combining a down sleeping bag with a (thick) down jacket will save a kilogram or two compared to the synthetic equivalent. A sleeping bag with a comfort rating of around -5 degrees Celsius in winter and 0 degrees in the other months is recommended. Please note the difference between a “comfort rating” and “extreme/survival” rating – read more here.

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For the gear-junkies and fast-and-light aficionados, there’s a host of other weight saving gear options from tents, backpacks, sleeping mats to cutlery. Do not sacrifice too much durability and functionality for weight savings though – your gear will be tested.

7. Sleep like a champ

For most mortals the DGT is a 10+ day excursion. Not sleeping well will really catch up to you, so putting out a bit of money and weight budget to a good mattress kit is well worth it. There are two considerations: comfort and insulation (denoted by the “R-value”). We recommend a combination of an inflatable mattress (for comfort) and light gaper pad (adds insulation, smooths out sleeping terrain and prevents punctures).  See this gear review for a great combo of around 600g and combined R-value of 2.8. (R-value of 2 to 3 recommended outside winter; 3+ in winter.)

8. Use trekking poles

Trekking poles are great to transfer weight and effort to your arms, as well as providing stability and helping to minimise the risk of injury. A no-brainer in my opinion, and the scientists agree.

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Picture credit: Romy Chevallier

9. Body care, mental preparation and comforts

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Picture credit: Sarah Lowe

In addition to the physical exertion and consequent niggles that show up, you will be exposed to the elements which will take its toll on multiple levels. Looking after your body will also help you to maintain a good headspace. Some tips:

  • Pack some intense moisturiser for your lips and face and use moisturising sun-lotion on your body
  • Use a thin application of anti-chafing cream on chafing hotspots (toes, heel, hips, thighs, under-arms – wherever it shows up) Romy: walking long stretches on pathless slopes caused chafing and blisters on my feet where I have never had them before. Pay attention to any hotspots and have some proper blister care available.
  • Stretch and massage tired muscles daily (budget 10 to 20mins per day). Jonathan: rubbing/massaging tired feet helps improve circulation and repair. Do it every day to prevent sore feet.
  • Romy: use good quality socks! Your shoes will probably get wet at some point; quality wool socks will help prevent chafing and stays fresher for longer.
  • Jonathan: the DGT is more psychological than physical; prepare yourself mentally (especially for the long uninteresting sections like the Jarateng) and stay positive. Remember to have fun!
  • Romy: we prepared mentally for each day by sitting with the map the night before and studying the following day’s route – especially knowing when and how severe the climbs will be.
  • Romy: reward yourself each day with some treats – be it a nice cup of hot chocolate, flavoured drinks or something to eat.

10. Be a team with a captain

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Picture credit: Sarah Lowe

Team dynamics are very important – a good sense of humour, camaraderie and sharing are all essential ingredients.  Who you do the DGT with is more important than how many you are (for practical purposes I would suggest an absolute maximum of 12 people in a group). Smaller groups are easier to manage, whereas larger groups enhance the safety factor and gives more options in case someone gets injured. It is useful to appoint a captain who will take responsibility to navigate, set the pace and decides when to start and stop – these can of course be group decisions, but when you are wasted it helps to have someone who can make the calls.

Do you have any other tips that helped you complete the DGT? Please leave them in the comment section below.

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About Willem Boshoff 19 Articles
Willem is an actuary by profession and an adventurer at heart. He spends as much time as possible outdoors - camping, hiking, mountain biking, surfing and rock climbing are his activities of choice – and he enjoys reading and writing. He has hiked and trekked in the Himalayas, Andes, Patagonia, Alps, Corsica and done the Camino Portugues, and thinks locally the Cederberg and Drakensberg offers some of the best wilderness-hiking experiences in the world. He is also passionate about conservation and sustainability. He lives in Cape Town.

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