Day pack hiking tours

This item appears on page 43 of the October 2017 issue.

Kip Sturdevan of Encinitas, California, wrote, “Several of our friends have taken walking tours on which the organizing companies had arranged accommodations and made sure the luggage would be moved every day to the next night’s lodging, thus allowing the walkers to carry only day packs. Each day’s hike tended to vary from 7 to 14 miles.

Anne and Simon Lowings enjoying dinner at a ryokan in Japan.

“I am 70 and my wife, 60, and I can’t get her to do anything too extreme, but hiking tours where you carry only day packs and spend the evening in comfort sound attractive. We would like to hear from anyone who has done this sort of trip. What firm do you recommend? What tips do you have for making sure an advertised trip is one that will fulfill its promise?”

We printed subscribers’ responses in the last two issues and are printing the remainder now.

Anne Lowings on a trail in Japan. Photo by Simon Lowings

My wife, Anne, and I love to travel overseas, especially to go hiking. We rarely go walking in the same country more than once. An exception, however, is Japan

Many people are familiar with the big-city tourist destinations of Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, etc., but very few get into the small villages and the mountains. For the adventuresome traveler, the Japanese countryside is a delight. The scenery is spectacular, the people are friendly and hospitable, and spending the night in a ryokan (traditional inn) — sleeping on a futon, having wonderful food and soaking in a hot pool, usually outdoors — is a great finale to a day’s hiking.

• In September 2014 we signed on with Oku Japan (offices in Japan, the UK and Australia; phone, in the US [except AK & HI], 888/683-4929,

We had the option of joining a small group or hiking alone. We chose the latter, as we liked the thought of being independent and getting a total immersion into Japanese culture. We chose two separate treks with just a couple of rest days in Kyoto between them. Oku Japan designed the trip to our requirements and recommended a private tour guide in Kyoto. 

The first trek was four days and the second, six days, with the total trip lasting 16 days and costing $3,500 per person, including many meals but excluding international airfare.

The walking was fairly moderate, covering 2 to 10 miles per day — nothing too strenuous but a nice little challenge for a couple of 70-year-olds. After all, we wanted to meet the people, enjoy the scenery and make any detours that seemed interesting.

There are two big advantages of hiking in Japan that we have not found anywhere else in the world. The first is that it is possible to ship a bag from one hotel to another just about anywhere in the country, usually overnight, for about $14. 

The second advantage is that all you need in your day pack is a lunch, water, medicines and any clothing desired for the day’s hike. At your hotel or ryokan, you will be provided with a yukata (Japanese kimono), jacket and indoor sandals plus toothbrush, shaving stuff, etc. On arrival, you change into these lovely fresh linens, grab a towel and head straight to the onsen (hot-spring bath). Welcome to Japan! 

Wearing clothes provided by the ryokan, you will be totally at home in the street or dining sitting on the floor of your restaurant. Staying at a ryokan means breakfast and dinner are included, and they’re always made with local specialties. We loved the food.

We flew the direct United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Tokyo. At the hotel, we were given a large package from Oku Japan. It contained maps, descriptions of our lodgings and a booklet detailing the day-to-day itinerary, including photos of sections of the trails plus emergency phone numbers, etc. 

Simon and Anne Lowings in front of a hotel in Japan.  Photo by Simon Lowings

The treks were not totally linear. The company chose the most scenic highlights, and public transport was used to get to the trailheads. Bus and train tickets were provided.

Our first hike was along the Nakasendo¯ Way, the royal highway over the mountains from Kyoto to Tokyo. It was used hundreds of years ago by the emperors and shoguns and their retinues. Small villages were established along the route, and we stayed in the same inns used by the royalty. 

Everything worked perfectly. The accommodations were first-class, and the trails were well marked; we never got lost.

After completing the hike, we had two days’ sightseeing in Kyoto. Our guide spoke perfect English, we had a private tea ceremony with the abbot at a monastery, we ate noodles at the best noodle shop in town, and we got behind the scenes at temples. It was well worth the extra money for the private guide.

Our second hike was on the Kumano Kodo¯ on a pilgrims’ trail connecting Shinto shrines in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula. This time, however, things did not go so smoothly. Halfway through our itinerary, a typhoon headed directly for us. We contacted Oku Japan and they made arrangements for us to return to Osaka. They gave us a full refund on our canceled lodgings.

We enjoyed our Japanese experience so much that I e-mailed Oku Japan and asked for another hiking trip. I was told they were working on a pilgrimage tour of the 88 temples on the island of Shikoku. Six months later, I was sent a message saying the itinerary was ready.

In the 9th century, a Buddhist monk named Ko¯bo¯-Daishi walked around the island of Shikoku performing miracles and helping villages. After he died, 88 temples were built around the island in his honor. Visiting them is a popular pilgrimage in Japan. It takes about three months to complete the circuit, and hardly anyone in the USA has heard of it. 

We wanted to take the 10-day trek, on which we would see about 20 of the temples. However, there was a problem for us. Each day’s hike was 3 to 8 miles long except for one day on which there was a 12-mile hike with a climb of 4,000 feet in elevation. I complained that this was too much for us.

Oku Japan replied two days later saying that for an extra $60, a taxi would meet us at the end of the bus ride and take us halfway up the hill to a spot where the trail crossed the road. We booked the tour and the taxi immediately. The self-guided, 10-day tour cost $2,200 each, again with many meals included but excluding international airfare.

We flew to Osaka in October 2016 and checked into the hotel, where, again, a package awaited us with instructions: “Catch the 9:25 a.m. bus from the bus stop opposite the hotel and give the driver this piece of paper telling him where to drop you off. Get off the bus and walk 100 yards in the direction the bus has come from. This is the trail. Turn right and start walking.” 

Simon and Anne Lowings at an entrance to a temple in Japan.

Once again, everything worked. We spent some nights in temples high on the hillsides with the monks, attending their ceremonies, and some nights in ryokans. In both places, we became addicted to the hot baths after each day’s hike. All the temples were different and all were beautiful. 

We bought the white jackets the pilgrims wear and learned to bow at the main entrance gate, wash our hands and faces upon entering the grounds and ring the big bell to make our presence known to the deity. The Japanese people were delighted to see us. We met only a handful of foreigners. Again, it was a wonderful adventure.

I have a couple of comments regarding our trips. We found that very few people spoke English, but everyone we met was supportive and helpful. 

We have hiked sections of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, but in Japan we found the pilgrimage trails to be less crowded and the experience more spiritual. 

If you are interested in the pilgrimage trek, we recommend you go soon before Hollywood makes a movie of it. We are already working on our third trip to Japan but are not telling anyone where we’re going so we can have the trails and the wonderful Japanese people to ourselves.

I would be happy to answer questions; email

Simon Lowings, Sebastopol, CA


Do not forget about New Zealand for day pack hiking tours. 

The most famous trail in New Zealand (and, perhaps, the world) is the Milford Track. I did this in February 2017 at age 76, and it was my third time for the Milford Track. I had a blast.

The trail is 33½ miles long and excellent. 

All New Zealand Great Walks and many other trails can be walked under two different systems: 1. Freedom Walkers carry their own food and sleeping bags and either stay in government cabins, which have stoves, or take a tent. (The exceptions are that the Milford Track allows no tent camping, and the Routeburn and Kepler Great Walks both have individual cabins where there is no tenting.) 2. On a guided trip, walkers sign up with a hiking company and stay at the company’s cabins (a few use government cabins), which have bedding and hot showers and provide food. 

The distance hiked is the same. I have hiked both ways, and each has its advantages of cost versus luxury.

An example of a guided Great Walk is the 5-day “The Milford Track,” which costs NZD2,295 (near $1,650) per person, multishare, in high season (November-April) with Ultimate Hikes (P.O. Box 259, Queenstown, New Zealand; phone +64 3 450 1940 or, in the US, 855/882-1411,

You carry only a day pack and stay three nights at Ultimate Hikes’ lodges, which have double and single rooms (“multishare” is for up to six people in a bunk-style room; one night I was by myself), and the last night at a hotel near Mitre Peak at Milford Sound. 

By the way, low season (May-October) on the Milford would require winter mountaineering skills. I would never suggest people go in low season.

There are a total of nine Great Walks in New Zealand, all of which have a guided, day-pack option or a Freedom Walker (self-guided) option. 

The best information about Great Walks in New Zealand is always from the New Zealand Department of Conservation. Visit and click on “Great Walks.”

Happy trails!

Dave Brown, Wailuku, HI


In response to Kip Sturdevan’s inquiry about good, reliable companies that specialize in walking tours, for well over a decade our company has been working with Walking Adventures International (Vancouver, WA; 800/779-0353,

They have arranged walking tours in conjunction with our river cruises all over the world, including in Russia and China, and can also arrange hiking tours.

We highly recommend them for their their integrity and longevity! We have no other interest outside of liking them and giving them exposure.

Samo Toplak, CEO, Value World Tours, Fountain Valley, CA


My husband and I have done a number of trips that would qualify as “day pack hiking tours.” We have been doing fairly strenuous tours, as we are trying to do them while we still can. As a result, many of our experiences might not be directly applicable to Kip Sturdevan’s questions. 

The term “day pack hiking tours” can encompass a wide variety of trips. They can be guided or self-guided. They can involve camping or staying in inns/lodges/hostels. They can involve strenuous hikes in high mountain ranges or strolls between charming villages. They can range from expensive trips with high levels of service to budget trips with just the basics. All meals can be provided or you can be on your own. There can be longer or shorter options for any given day’s hike. There can be the option to skip a hike by taking a taxi/bus/cable car or riding with the luggage. They can be done in many countries around the world. 

The category of “supported trekking” generally includes the most active trips. They have guides running the expedition, cooks providing meals and porters or stock animals moving gear for the hikers. 

They can be camping trips, such as the trip we did climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 2005 with Tusker Trail Adventures (Lake Tahoe, CA; 800/231-1919, or trekking in the Indian Himalaya in 2015 with Mountain Tours, Treks & Travels (West Sikkim, Sikkim, India; phone +91 03595 241248,

Alternatively, they can use lodges, inns or hikers’ hostels/huts, such as on the Ausangate trek in Peru that we did in 2016 with Andean Lodges (Jose G. Cosio 307, Urb. Magisterial, Cusco, Perú; phone +51 84 224613,

A short, supported trek can also be part of a longer, more standard tour. That is how we did Peru’s Inca Trail in 2006 with G Adventures (19 Charlotte St., Toronto, Ontario, M5V 2H5, Canada; 416/260-0999,, the Patagonia “W trek” in 2007 with Andes Adventures (Topanga, CA; 310/395-5265, and the Laugavegur trek in Iceland in 2013 with Icelandic Mountain Guides (Stórhöfði 33, 110 Reykjaví­k, Iceland; phone, in the US, 866/750-8599, In these cases, the luggage is more likely to be moved by car.

Based on the description, it sounds like Kip is most interested in self-guided inn-to-inn hiking trips in Western Europe. The trip we did that best fits this category is the “Tour du Mont Blanc” trek we did in France, Italy and Switzerland in 2007 with Sherpa Expeditions (1B Osiers Rd., Wandsworth, London, England, SW18 1NL, U.K.; phone +44 [0] 20 8577 2717, We were happy with this tour and would do another trip with them. 

Note that Sherpa Expeditions is now part of World Expeditions (47 William St., Ottawa, ON, K1N 6Z9, Canada; 800/567-2216 or 613/241-2700,, which offers a greater variety of hiking tours.

Deciding whether an advertised trip will work for you depends a lot on what you are looking for. A guided trip will provide someone to answer questions and take care of logistical details, but you are likely to have to walk at the group’s pace, in which case group size and composition (i.e., age distribution) can be important. 

A self-guided trip lets you walk at your own pace and decide when and where to eat, but it requires more navigational skill. Often, the trickiest part is finding where trails leave towns and villages, but the locals are usually helpful, even if there is a language difference. 

In terms of determining the difficulty of a hike, tours often describe a day’s hike by saying it should take a certain length of time, like four to five hours. I find those numbers to not be very useful in judging a hike, as they don’t say what hiking speed they used in determining that time. 

Ideally, the tour provider would provide a profile of the hiking tour, showing daily elevation versus trail distance. If that isn’t available, the company should at least be able to provide numbers for the daily miles/kilometers plus elevation gain/loss. 

We expect to do more of these day pack hiking tours in the future. Maybe we will see you on the trail! 

Pauline Ho, Albuquerque, NM