Chadar Trek - How to prepare to walk on a frozen river in subzero temperatures?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

For the longest time I shied away from this trek thinking of the extreme weather conditions. As much as I’d like to call Himalayas home, I am a plain-dwelling, sunshine-loving mere mortal after all. Extreme cold is not my thing and that’s exactly what Chadar trek is all about – crazy subzero temperatures day & night! Think temperatures ranging from -1ºC to -20ºC.

Frozen Zanskar River, Chadar Trek, Ladakh

Chadar means a blanket, a blanket of ice that forms over the Zanskar River during winters. Zanskar is a wild river flowing through the gorgeous ravines and inaccessible canyons of Ladakh. In winters, specifically during January and February, the river freezes and calms down. She lets the locals trapped in the remote Zanskar valley to walk over her and reach civilization in case of any emergencies.

Of course the fad these days is trekkers like you and me who go there to walk on the frozen river for exclusive bragging rights and a unique experience to last a lifetime! And even though we aren’t prepared to handle the extreme cold, with some preparation, as I find out, we can very well trek and enjoy it as well. So here are my top tips that might help you endure and enjoy Chadar better.

Frozen Zanskar River

Cold is just a state of mind
The day I landed in Leh, the temperature outside was below zero and it was biting cold. I couldn’t last outside for more than few minutes before I scrambled back to the heated room. The next day was no better and neither was the third day. But meanwhile, as we started walking and camping, the body was slowly adjusting to the subzero temperatures and by the end of the trek, it wasn’t that cold anymore. Cold is surely a state of mind, keep saying this to yourself. Prepare mentally more than physically for this trek and you are good to go!

Too cold? Fret not, hand & body warmers will be your saviors
I am someone whose hands and feet get very cold, even with ample protection. So you cannot imagine my joy when I was given these nifty little things that kept me so warm and safe to say, sane. These warmers are small one-time use exothermic pouches that release heat using up oxygen and last up to 10hours or more. They go comfortably into your gloves, socks or jacket and keep you incredibly warm. They are apparently used all over the cold weather countries but I had never heard or seen them until this trek. And from now on, I’m never going anywhere cold without these. This is what they look like - http://www.amazon.com/HotHands-Body-Super-Warmer-count/dp/B0007ZF4Q8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389717306&sr=8-1&keywords=body+warmers. In India, you can find these in Delhi apparently. I got these from two very helpful fellow American trekkers.

Update - Tracked the whereabouts! Pricey, but yay! :) Adventure 18 store in Delhi sells handwarmers and footwarmers. If anyone has used them, please leave a comment below on how well they work.
Also here's a handy list of all adventure equipment selling stores in India, check with these places as well, they might have stock too - Camping and Trekking Equipment in India

Gumboots rule the day, not your fancy hiking shoes
Gumboots cost 350Rs and they are hands down the best thing you can buy for Chadar trek. They have good grip, they keep you warm and dry and they work like a charm on the Chadar. Your normal hiking shoes will be comfortably tucked into your backpack while these magic boots do all the hard work. Take my advice, leave your bulky shoes home and thank me later. If you don’t have hiking shoes, don’t buy them only for Chadar, carry your running shoes and walk in the gumboots. I did the entire trek in these knee length boots and have no complains!

Sleeping Bag keeps everything warm. Carry an extra one
It gets very cold and windy by night, two sleeping bags or a liner + sleeping bag is a must. If your trek agency isn’t providing you two bags, carry your own sleeping bag. You need good sleep and you don’t want to be cold in the night. And tuck your water bottle, socks, gloves and whatever it is that you want to stay warm in the morning inside your sleeping bag. Anything left outside will be frozen and super cold.

When in Rome, act like Roman i.e. do what the locals do
The locals walk on the Chadar as if it is a piece of cake! They walk fast and take strides like a penguin on the slippery ice. They knock the ice sheet when in doubt and sometimes they just keep their feet through the broken ice. They know what they are doing. At least on the first few days, observe them and shadow them. Do not cross and go on your own until you can gauge the Chadar. After 2-3 days you will be an expert too but until then, watch and learn. Trust me, falling into the icy cold water is no fun. No, I didn’t fall but I can imagine the horror.

If you fall, rise and shine.
This is a fact you have to make peace with. You will slip and fall, yes, there is no escaping. At least on the initial days you will. There is nothing wrong in falling down, we are not used to walking on glossy shiny frozen sheets of uneven ice. When you fall down, roll over on your knees and get up slowly and resume the walk. If luck is on your side, fresh snow will cover the glossy ice sheets making it easy to walk otherwise be prepared to fall down and get up a lot. Don’t worry, everybody falls, even the locals. It is just a part of the experience!

Keep your electronics close to your heart
Cold drains out charge out of electronics very fast. Extreme cold drains the charge even faster. Keep all the batteries safely tucked in your jacket pockets. If the battery is blinking low, warm it enough and you can use it for some more time. I carried 3 batteries and stored them in gloves and jacket pockets when not in use. Had enough charge to shoot 64GB!

Extra pair of socks will keep you warm in campsites
The only downside of walking in gumboots is that the sweat collects in your shoes and dampens the socks. Yes, you will sweat while you walk but you won’t feel it until you rest at the campsite. While you are walking, your feet will still feel very warm in gumboots. Keep a spare pair of socks for when you reach campsite, changing into fresh pair of warm socks will feel so good I can’t even tell you. It is something you have to experience yourself.

Leh Market has the best stock to deal with the cold
The Tibetan Markets in Leh have the best stuff to protect you from the cold. Ranging from insulated snow-proof pants to warm woolen socks, you can get all the gear you need for Chadar in these markets. In fact I would suggest you to buy woolens in Leh rather than some fancy city shops. Spend an afternoon wandering in the market to pick up a lot of useful and handy stuff. Worked well for me.

You can carry your metal Quechua bottle without the fear of frostbite
When I think subzero temperatures, I think frozen water. But at times during the trek, neither the river freezes entirely nor the water in your bottle. And neither does the metal bottle give you frostbite. You are always given hot water and gloves are almost always on, so no frostbite. And with the metal bottle, you can use it to warm your hands and keep it inside your sleeping bag as well for warmth. So don’t hesitate to carry those metals bottles and flasks if you want to.

Pick up the chocolate wrappers please?
This is not a tip but a request. I collected so many centerfresh and other candy wrappers thrown on the pristine Chadar that it makes me sad. We go to these places and litter like it’s nobody’s business. Please pick up those wrappers and take them with you. I would like to ask people to stop throwing the candy covers but if they are not listening, I hope one of you will pick up the wrappers at least, whatever keeps Chadar clean.

So now, who all are ready for the Chadar Trek?

Note : I went for this trek on invitation. The trek was made possible by founder of Himalayan Explorers Club, Rohit Khattar(+91-7602865245/ khattarrohit@yahoo.com). Rohit is a former corporate employee who fell for the mountains and now organizes small group treks to Chadar.

I just got back from Chadar Trek 2 days ago and these are my top tips to enjoy the very unique frozen river trek. Let me know in the comments if you have any other questions.

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71 comments

  1. Extremely impressive. Hope to see more photos of it near future. I always love mountains in winters, only for last 2 years i can't go to the mountains in winters. Anyways, you write-up inspires me to go for my solo trip once more.

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    1. Surely more pictures are coming up! :) Have always dreamed of a winter visit to Himalayas but thought it would be a comfortable visit to some hill station and watching the snow fall through the glass windows. Hope you get back to your winter visits soon.

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  2. I have been meaning to do this trek for sometime now, but I have a fear of slipping...and slipping on shiny frozen ice is something I have nightmares of. Your article has ignited some motivation in me...Hopefully next year I will include this trek in my list.

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    1. Suman, slipping and landing on the ice is a fair probability. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try it at all. One of the best advices I've heard while researching on this trek is, "If you fall, which you will, the best thing you can do is pose for the camera on the ground" :D Guess it's a bit too late to register for the trek now. All the best for the next year! :)

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    2. Thanks Sunil. I will keep that advise in mind on my next trek. I had a tough time in snow while trekking to Triund a few years back.But I am more confident that I will do it next year.

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    3. Suman, like I said in the article, it is something you'll have to get used to, the idea of slipping over ice, not falling into the ice cold water! ;)
      It takes some getting used to but after that it is an easy walk, don't worry. You're good as long as you can beat the cold.

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    4. Cold is not a problem with me and I have already started with some fitness regime...hopefully next year I will do it :)

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    5. Anyone intending to join this season, ie, Jan 2016

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    6. Hi, I am registered for Jan 2016.. I found this blog inspiring and helpful :) Thanks!
      I wanted to know how I could train for this trek? Did you follow any particular training regime??

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  3. So finally ur words r Up :) Glad to read ! i'm too trying to write something little bit..

    lets see hows it turns out.. :)

    Regards
    Amar

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    1. Cool, post the link once you are done! :)

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  4. Thanks for yet another great post, Neelima! I've been waiting to read on this, since you posted on Facebook. I had planned long and hard for this trek to be done in Dec 2013, but didn't go ahead with it for the reasons mentioned below. Hopefully, you can clarify my doubts/misconceptions.

    1. You need to be really fit to do this trek. I'm not sure if there is only one path to do this trek, but the one which most people did seem to be really tough. My health was not at it's best and it was a tough decision I had to make between losing sleep and heading to the gym or get normal sleep. Having to work in shifts, I couldn't imagine losing sleep. Did you work out differently before taking up this trek?

    2. A lot of woolies and trek equipments like poles need to be bought for this trek. Ok, I buy them. After the trek, what next? I didn't intend to do any Himalayan trek again any time soon. I can't use them in Bangalore even in the coldest of winters.

    3. Thin tents by organizers. This was a bit scary. I saw photos where some local organizer carried extremely thin tents and all of them suffered in the cold.

    4. Who's the best in this business? Each one claims they are the best and it was also about the temperature being just right on the Chaadar. Some were claiming that the ice wouldn't be thick in a lot of places due to slightly elevated temperature.

    For people who are still considering this trek, stop thinking and just go for it! This place will not be there anymore after 4 years since the govt plans to build a road to ease traffic movement. It sucks, but looks like it is a necessity.

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    1. Hi, I did this trek 4 years ago with Overland Escape - we were just two of us. They took such good care of us and the trek was a breeze. Since you mostly walk on a flat surface, you never get out of breath - so that's one luxury compared to other treks. The tough part in fact is when the day's walk is over and you reach your camp. I always preferred sitting in the kitchen tent till it was time to sleep. At times they used juniper as firewood and that smelt so lovely. A guy called Tundup Dorje runs Overland Escape (+919858394400). He had provided us with this amazingly helpful guide, Namgyal. I would definitely recommend that anybody who goes for this trek must push themselves out of their sleeping bags at least once after nightfall, just to see what the river and the night sky look like in the dark. It is just so beautiful.

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    2. Hi Sunil,

      pixiesworkshop has rightly answered some of your questions here. And here's what I have to say.

      1. The trek is not difficult on the body but more on the mind. The altitude isn't very high either so not many chances of AMS since you are always walking on a flat land. Just make sure to keep at least 2 days at Leh to acclimatise and you should be good. I generally consider myself a decently fit person, I do not workout at all unless some occassion calls for it. like I went to gym for 2 weeks to prepare for Stok Kangri climb, otherwise my past treks have thankfully kept me in good shape so far. I haven't done any trek in the last 16odd months yet I was able to complete the trek easily. So, no, it isn't very daunting but some amount of workout or at least daily walk is recommended before going on the trek.

      2. This is a valid problem, not much for me because I am going to use the equipment for long and I didn't buy anything specific for this trek. For shoes, you get gumboots, 350rs. No need for trekking pole, take a stick and walk. I did the same, Also you can rent out trekking pole from Leh if you'd like. Buy thermals and socks, you have to. For jackets/backpack, try borrowing it from on of your other trekking friends, else go to Leh and buy it for super cheap prices. You might spend an additional 5/6k on gear in Leh but it is necessary investment even if you don't intend to trek in Himalayas again.

      3. Thin tents are a problem yes, we were given one sleeping bag + outer liner to get into, was super comfortable and very warm in the nights. There are many operators for all price ranges, choose a tour operator who caters mainly to foreign crowd. They usually have better gear suited to the foreigners standards, pricing will also be high though. Or you carry an additional sleeping bag for yourself and use both.

      4. Indiahikes and TrekTheHimlayas are budget trek operators and while most of their services are enough, there's no comfort(a luxury in such places) accounted for. I went with HEC(mentioned at the end of the post) and the Overland Escapes mentioned above seem good options if you are looking for some luxury in the trek.
      The thing about Chadar is unpredictable, only the guides will make all the difference. For instance this year, few batches turned around because the chadar broke for about 3 days. It keeps changing and there is no telling. mid-jan to mid-feb is the recommended season nonetheless.

      Hope this helps.

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    3. Hii Neelima , ME and my frnd are planning for season 2016 . we are bit confused about the equipment's required for this trek. Can you please guide us with your experience. my contact details are below.
      Mob. - 7696424807
      Email - amrinder126@gmail.com



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  5. It must have been such a wonderful experience for you, Neelima.looking forward to more of your photos and write ups

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    1. It was Anu, a very unique experience and a small glimpse into the mountain life. Lots of pictures coming up, filled about 70GB! ;)

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  6. As they say forewarned is forearmed...good tips for anybody planning a serious trek like Chadar..which can challenge even the toughest of us. Add the high altitude, low temps, sleeeping in tents and frozen landscape. Good to read...hopefully I will do it one day...

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    1. Well you'll have to be on this trek in the next 2-3 years as the road is almost done, in the next few years the road will reach Zanskar. Even as we walked on the chadar we could see stones from the blasting landing on the Chadar, road is being laid parallel to the river.

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  7. Good one on cold being a state of mind. When I first landed in Germany, a colleague advised: 'There is no bad weather, only bad clothes'. That line has stuck with me. Crampons help me a lot too on icy stretches. All the best for your future hikes.

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    1. Thanks! I've used crampons on climbs but not on this trek. The river is frozen solid like a glass, crampons must make it more difficult. Sliding with the gumboots is far easier IMO. :)

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  8. That is more of an insider story, you make it look like it is cakewalk. Let the charisma prevail, but yes, the last part, about wrappers, we are one nasty breed.

    Great post, and adventure :-)

    Cheers,
    Blasphemous Aesthete

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    1. ha ha, if you can take the cold, it is indeed a cakewalk as long as the guide is charting the route for us of course! ;)

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  9. The whole experience sounds so wonderful. Scary being in the snow with no one about, but I would really love to see that night sky

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    1. It was wonderful and very unique Aathira! :)

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  10. Hi...can someone tell where to get these Hot hands-body-super warmers in Delhi? I m going for the trek next week and would be great help if I can get them before I leave as I have super cold hands!!

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    1. Tracked the whereabouts! Pricey, but yay! :) Adventure 18 store in Delhi sells handwarmers and footwarmers. If you get to use them, please leave a comment back on how well they work. Have a great trek! :)

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  11. Congratulations on completing the trek Neelima. I can only imagine how gruelling it can be on one's mind and body. I was planning to do it this year myself(inspite of the fact that I haven't really done any high altitude trek before in my life), but all my friends backed out on me. I hope I will be able to do it next year.

    And again, a very nice, informative post. You've provided us all with a lot of tiny tit-bits of information that one doesn't usually get about the Chadar Trek. Waiting for your other post.

    Keep travelling, keep writing :)

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    1. Gruelling only on the mind, human body is capable of so much as we realized on this trek. :) This is a simple trek in all other ways except for the insane cold and since you are always on a flat walk, not very exerting as well. Do try it out soon, the road is almost done and in the next few years there won't be walking on the chadar anymore.

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  12. I read your 'walking on the ice and falling' part twice and imagined how it must be. Amazing truly amazing. It is indeed adventurous. Can't believe the unexplored places we have in India!

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    1. There are scores of unexplored places in India! And about falling on the ice, here's a small video from my friends, falling on ice is fun too ;) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNiZpXP0sVQ&feature=share

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    2. Thanks for sharing the video! :)

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  13. Loved the blog neelima!!! a very good description of the trek.....waiting for the photos@hrishi..

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    1. Oh Hrishi, it's you! I didn't recognize you only. Thanks about the blog, pictures coming soon. :)

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  14. Nice post! Brought back good memories. Chadar is indeed a great experience. In addition to the Tibetean market, the army stores at the end of Leh market have some great stuff at very reasonable prices. We ended up buying a whole lot of stuff (sweater, woolen socks, baravlava) there and all of it served us very well on Chadar!

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    1. Yeah, we saw the army stores too, actually it's better to buy all stuff there. Good quality and good variety too.

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  15. Planning to do this trek next year.Enjoyed reading the post.

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    1. Glad to know. All the best for next year!

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  16. thanks Neelima for info. I would love to experience the Chadar trek in near future.

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    1. You should, soon. Time's running out. :)

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  17. Cheers! nicely written, superb pics and very inspiring for a middle aged dude. I have been to Ladakh once [more of a motorcycle guy though I have done couple of decent treks in the ghats]. I got into some trouble with AMS because I ignored almost all the statutory precautions, and it was a case of once bitten, twice shy. But the Chadar is too good to miss. And I am glad to know that one doesn't need killer fitness to do this.

    Thanks!

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  18. Thanks for the detailed information. I wish to do this trek. I have done so far 11 Himalayan treks including Annapurna circuit, Kailash Mansarovar, etc.

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  19. Hi, Did you buy some waterproof track pant and hand gloves? where to buy them?, in low budget? :)

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  20. Hi Neelima,

    I am doing the Chadar Trek in Feb'15. I would like to speak to you as I have a few queries. Can you please share your mail id? Thanks.

    Regards

    Prathiba

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    1. Hi!
      Im pretty sure you wouldnt have been able to undertake Chadar in 2015, just as we weren't able to! However, we're re-attempting it in Jan 2016! :-D

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  21. Hi would you recommend this trek to a beginner?

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    1. I would ! its a simple hike/walk & not much of uphill/downhill trekking

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    2. Its a simple hike !! all organizers like India hike, trek himalayas, renok adventures says that its a challenging trek

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  22. hi neelima!
    I am planning to go for the chadar trek next year that is 2016... well what you have given us to read is very inspiring and motivating. thank you for that. but i have heard of a couple of friends who had gone earlier but had to return as there were prblems like landslide or something and the weather was unbearable.....hearing about this i dont know if it is going to be the same as it was for you.....and I am a hot weather person .. so the temperatures there do pose a problem for me....im keen on goin for this trek very much ....have been dreaming about it for a couple of years now....so please do suggest how to go ahead and what more I can do to help myself!!

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  23. Thanks for the informative post, Neelima. Cant wait to do this hike, been a dream to get here since I saw a documentary on how the locals trek through Chadar to drop off their kids in school when it reopens after vacation

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  24. I read your post and was truly inspired to take on this challenge. So i booked myself on the trek. I was wondering if you could give me information on what clothes i would need for the trek. Like what kind of warm clothes?
    Thank you

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  25. Anyone intends to join this upcoming season, ie, Jan 2016???

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    1. yes we are planning .
      please drop me a msg @ 7696424807

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    2. Yes i am planning, Please drop a message to me in January 2017 09034051328

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    3. Yes i am planning, Please drop a message to me in January 2017 09034051328

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  26. Hi Neelima,

    Thanks for this amazing read. One can closely get the feeling what you had standing in the middle of the ice, surrounded by the epic beauty that the valley offer.

    I can call myself an amateur hiker, I think. I've lived in the hills multiple times and have trekked small to average. High altitude isn't an enemy and cold had only ever been a state of mind. Have lived in snow as well. A trek like Chadar, would be a first for me though. The length and the type. I've previously done Tawang-Bulma, Kasol-Malana, Sidhabari and Dharamshala hike ups. While these may not necessarily qualify for the level of trek that Chadar.

    I here want some advice on me taking up this trek. How tough would it be for an amateur as myself,? I am working towards building my stamina and lung power, but what other preps must I do to be ready to take on this journey. Hope to read more from your travel diaries.

    Keep the adventures going :)
    Cheers

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  27. Hello - thanks for the lovely post - did you wear gumboot liners at all? Or just socks?
    Cheers

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  28. Hi
    Planning this in January/February 2016. And I have a question, if you could please advice. What are the chances of sighting wildlife during the trek and how feasible is it to walk with the camera slung across the shoulder, ready for wildlife? That's what I normally do when trekking in the Himalayas. But if I must fall I don't want to fall with the camera on. How did you carry your camera? Would you advice that I don't carry any heavy camera at all? Actually I don't have a light pocket camera. Please advice me on this. I hate taking my camera out of my backpack while walking. If I do that, chances are I would end up just carrying it and not take any photograph. And it is not that I want to shoot only wildlife. I want to shoot normal landscape photographs too.

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  29. Julley Nilima,

    Great tips indeed. My query is, whenever water over chadar is not above ankle, isin't forclaz 500 a comfortable option than walking with gumboots? Your view please.

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    1. 90% of the people will be wearing gumboots, so probably that should give you an hint which is the best suited option. You really cannot predict when you will get ankle length waters/slush and that would mean that you will have to change your shoes and wear those gum boots. This adds to the weight of your back pack, and your wallet as well. Gumboots worked perfectly fine, and thanks to Neelima for this post. One of the reason why I didn't buy Forclaz was because of this post :)

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  30. I did Chadar this year....And it was - as they say in mountains "Shaandar, Zabardast & Zindanad".
    Feel free to drop me a note @jajodia.vivek01@gmail.com incase you want to know something. Below is a link for my travel diary as well:
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=iyif4pjWbqA&feature=youtu.be

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  31. awesome tips and experience dear. i want to know how much budget it may need?

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  32. In India:
    http://www.amazon.in/HotHands-Body-Super-Warmer-count/dp/B0007ZF4Q8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389717306&sr=8-1&keywords=body+warmers

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    1. If anyone from Mumbai needs Hot Hands, they can take it from me. I have few unused ones, which I bought last year before the trek.

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  33. Good information to prepare for Chadar!

    How is Lingshed village? Is it worth going there at the cost of 2 days? Wanted to get your opinion on this. Do you know any trekking group which arranges trek till this village?

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  34. Very nice Information ...;) I never been to winter trekk ...

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  35. can you recommend some gumboots? are these like Hunter ones?

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