By `trekking', we don't mean two hours on a lame pony in the Cotswolds. We mean striding the heart-stopping peaks of the Himalayas; leisurely long-distance strolls across the Yorkshire Ridings; or following a camel caravan in the deserts of Africa. And the good news is that there is a trekking holiday to suit everyone's pocket and level of (un)fitness.

WHEN THERE'S BUNGEE JUMPING AND WHITE WATER RAFTING ON OFFER, ISN'T A TREKKING HOLIDAY JUST A BIT TAME?

It all depends on where and how you trek. On a physical level, trekking holidays can range from a ramble through low-level France, with all your luggage carried for you, gourmet food to guzzle and nights spent in comfortable hotels, to following the high-altitude Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, staying in tents or at budget tea houses and carrying what you need on your back - definitely not a walk in the park.

Then there's the social side of a trek. For some people, the idea is to go solo and as far away from sitting at a desk all day as possible. Others prefer the company - and relative safety - of a guided group trek. Make sure that you choose the type of trek that is best suited to you. On a luxury, tailored trip, your fellow trekkers will probably be somewhat tamer (and older) than on a self-sufficient backpacking route through the Atlas mountains.

If you really want to enjoy a trekking trip, make sure you're properly prepared, willing to take the rough with the smooth and love the Great Outdoors even in the rain.

WILL I NEED LOTS OF EXPENSIVE KIT?

Not really. There are a few basic essentials that it is worth paying decent money for (notably a rucksack, sleeping bag, waterproofs and boots - make sure they're properly trampled in before you set off) but aside from these, no, you probably don't need that three-layer, microfibre, self-cleaning finger mitten or its matching accessories. Try a few practice runs first with hired kit (generally available from adventure shops and centres in the UK and abroad) and then decide what you really need.

Research your destination thoroughly and take into account factors such as that at high altitudes, temperatures can change quickly. Within half an hour you could be in need of a thermal vest, a swimming kit, sunscreen and waterproofs. You may also need to budget for visas and, on certain treks, you will need to buy permits to gain access to sensitive areas.

Health is one thing you shouldn't scrimp on. Aside from proper insurance, make sure you take a decent first aid kit; as a basic guide, it should include plasters, antiseptic, scissors, tweezers, bandages, Immodium, rehydration powder, pain killers, antihistamine tablets and any prescribed medicines you may need during the trek. If you're not on a guided trek, you may also want to take a cell phone (if it will work) or flares (big fireworks rather than trousers) for emergency use.

SO WHERE SHOULD I START?

It's meant to be fun so don't try going from sitting at an IMAX screening of Everest to flying out to Nepal in one week. To be able to take your eyes off the long path ahead and enjoy the scenery, you need to be fit. Once you feel your muscles are in suitable trekking shape, try some day treks (consider joining the Ramblers' Association, see below) in Britain or join one of the shorter and more easily accessible treks further afield. The five-hour trek to Boiling Lake in Dominica in the West Indies, for example, or day-walks in the Vercors, in France. Thailand is also a good place to start, since straightforward, three-day guided treks are easy to arrange (particularly around Chiang Mai in northern Thailand) and, if you decide it's just not for you, you can quickly head south and recuperate on the beach.

If you're heading off on your own, you should make sure you've completed the relevant training. Various companies in the UK offer basic hillwalking and mountaincraft courses, including the National Mountain Centres at Plas-y-Brenin (01690 720214) and Aviemore (01479 861256). A five-day hill- walking skills course at Plas-y-Brenin, including all meals, accommodation and equipment costs pounds 295; a five-day mountaincraft skills course at Aviemore costs pounds 305. For a brochure of other courses that are on offer in the UK, contact the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) at 177-179 Burton Road, West Didsbury, Manchester M20 2BB (0161-445 4747).

WHERE'S A GOOD PLACE TO TREK, THEN?

Once you decide what kind of trek you want to do (solo, in a group, on a special interest itinerary and so on) and how long you want to trek for, your main decision comes down to time of year. If you're after a fairly accessible trek with good food and wine en route, then spring is a good time to trek in Italy. For something more exotic, trek in Thailand at this time of year and you will avoid the rainy season and keep dry enough to enjoy the country's other attractions such as elephant rides and temples. For something wilder, late spring is a relatively quiet time to trek in Banff, one of Canada's most popular National Parks, and a sensible time to set off on North America's mammoth Appalachian Trail. It's probably quieter still, though, at the North Pole, even though late spring is the best time of year to attempt a trek there.

When summer appears, head to the places that are almost only accessible at this time of year. In trekking terms this usually means Ladakh, the Buddhist region high in the Indian Himalayas, and Iceland, with its waterfalls, ice caps, hot geothermal springs, and bleak volcanic landscapes. With a greater chance of enjoying sunny skies than at other times of year, however, summer is also the peak season for trekking in Europe. Popular European treks include the verdant ranges of the Pyrenees, the lakes and mountains of Bulgaria, the challenging paths of the Corsica High Altitude Trek and, circling through France, Italy and Switzerland, the 120-mile Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB).

In early autumn, Africa makes an appearance in the trekking calendar. With routes that take in Mount Kilimanjaro and the Great Rift Valley, Tanzania is a popular destination; or you could fly further north to follow a camel caravan through the desert, or traverse part of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. From October onwards, those who can afford the busy season start to climb their way through the steep, snowy mountains of Nepal (often either on the Annapurna Circuit or up to Everest Base Camp). Those with less cash but sufficient stamina could consider setting foot on the Heysen Trail, which makes its 1,000-mile way through a South Australian landscape that includes the Barossa wine region.

Finally, if you want to trek between December and March, go south. Consider a tramp through the rugged mountain scenery of Patagonia (especially Chile's dramatic Torres Del Paine National Park, a favourite with wildlife enthusiasts) or try the Milford Track and the busy Abel Tasman Coast Track, both on New Zealand's South Island.

DO I HAVE TO GO SO FAR?

Not at all. With the variety of terrain that is on offer and the fact you're never far from a pub, Britain is a great place to trek. Membership of The Ramblers' Association (0171-339 8500) costs pounds 18 per year (pounds 9 concessions) and includes details of your local walks programme, a quarterly magazine, a yearbook that includes accommodation lists and also the right to hire maps from the Association's library.

Lands End to John O'Groats and the Coast to Coast route from St Bees Head in Cumbria to Robin Hoods Bay in Yorkshire are, of course, classics. Alternatively, contact the postal department of the Countryside Commission (PO Box 124, Walgrave, Northampton, NN6 9TL, 01604 781848) for a copy of Out In the Country - a guide to good behaviour for walkers that is currently being revised and should be available in October - and a free leaflet that shows Britain's National Trails and long distance footpaths. For details of the West Highland Way and other routes in Scotland, contact the Scottish Tourist Board (0131-332 2433) and, for long distance paths such as Offa's Dyke in Wales, contact the publications department of the Countryside Council for Wales (01248 385574).

WHAT ABOUT THE KIDS?

Part of the appeal of trekking is that it can be a great family activity - and not just in Europe. It is not uncommon these days for people to take children with them on treks to Nepal, for instance, particularly since it is relatively cheap to hire porters (around pounds 5 per day) to carry luggage (and tired children if necessary). Obviously, the practicalities of this kind of trip depends on the age of the children who are going but they will often enjoy being in fresh surroundings, getting to make new friends along the way and generally having a fuss being made of them. A good point of reference for parents considering trekking with children is Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth's book Your Child's Health Abroad (Bradt Publications, pounds 8.95).

Older children may not be so enthusiastic at the prospect of an energetic trekking holiday when all their friends are off to a beach in Mallorca for a couple of weeks. However, the fact that trekking destinations are often fairly exotic countries and that they return home with a real sense of achievement, will often compensate.

If they are particularly inclined to outdoor pastimes, various well- established organisations operate trekking-type expeditions - often involving scientific or botanic research - for teenagers. The British Schools Exploring Society (0171-591 3141) runs six-week expeditions to destinations such as Alaska, Kurdistan and Kenya for around pounds 2,700 per person (fundraising is supposed to be part of the challenge) and Brathay Exploration Group (015394 33942) organises youth adventure/science expeditions in the UK and abroad that cost from pounds 250 and pounds 2,500 per person for up to six weeks (this year's destinations are India, Malaysia and Scotland). But if you want to stay together, you could please everyone by combining a trek with a more traditional family beach holiday in somewhere such as Corsica.

WON'T I GET LOST IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE?

If you're with a guide or you're trekking one of the popular routes, it's very unlikely that you'll amble astray. Many routes are easily marked and some even run from village to village. There are teahouses (both to eat at and sleep in) practically all the way along the Annapurna Circuit, for example. For some, this is at odds with the idea of trekking and getting close to the natural environment, but for others this is a chance to enjoy some regional culture and also an opportunity to speak to local people.

Having said that, some treks have become so popular that there are just too many people following them and, in order to manage the inevitable environmental impact, you now have to book a year or two in advance (one such trek includes the Grand Canyon in America).

If you don't want to go with a group but you're not confident of striding off alone, there are two solutions. In countries such as Thailand or Nepal, it is simple and cheap to hire a guide (who will often act as porter, too). For little extra cost, not only will this give you peace of mind, it will also help you open it by pointing out elements of interest along the way that you might not otherwise have noticed. For this type of trek, you should expect to pay around pounds 3-10 per person per day, including food, accommodation and a porter.

In European countries it is certainly less economic to hire a guide to accompany you (a guide for the Kungsleden Trail in Swedish Lapland will cost around pounds 120 per day, although this can be shared between a group). But this needn't mean that you have to join a large group. For example, Inntravel (01653 629014) offers a "Summer Inn-active" programme that arranges self-guided walks in France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and Norway, staying in hotels and with food provided. The idea is that you and your partner or family are given maps and detailed walking notes for a planned route while your luggage is transported from hotel to hotel, waiting for you when you arrive. For seven night's half-board in Italy's Appennines, for example, prices start from pounds 332 per person (for two people travelling), on a self-drive basis.

BUT I REALLY NEED TO BE ALONE

Fine. But read up before you go and make sure you have the relevant maps and guides. For example, Adventure Holidays by Victoria Pybus (Vacation Work, pounds 7.99) advises "detailed maps such as the Ordnance Survey/ Jarrold Pathfinder Guides (1:25,000 scale) show selected walking routes and all rights of way and are essential when hiking". Trekking in the Annapurna Region by Bryn Thomas (Trailblazer, pounds 10.99) recommends "if you're a single woman contemplating a trek but concerned at travelling alone, there are several ways to find a trekking partner. In Kathmandu you can leave a message on billboards at the Kathmandu Guest House and at the Pumpernickel Bakery. For something more organised, Three Sisters Adventure Trekking is the first trekking agency in Nepal to cater exclusively for women trekkers."

The Inca Trail by Richard Danbury (Trailblazer, pounds 9.95) advises "the altitude can do funny things to you [but] it's so common that the better restaurants and hotels have oxygen available", while the Dolomites section of Lonely Planet's Walking in Italy (pounds 11.99) mentions that "typical Alpine carnivores like the bear, lynx, wolf and bearded vulture (known in Italy as the gipeto have been extinct in the area since the beginning of this century. Projects are now underway to reintroduce these animals to their natural habitats, but it is very unlikely that you'll manage to spot one".

In addition to maps and books, it may also be worthwhile checking the newsagents for magazines such as Global Adventure (01454 620070) and Wanderlust (01753 620426). Not only do they cover trekking destinations fairly regularly, they also run masses of adverts for trekking companies and equipment manufacturers. And, if you're feeling particularly worthy, they're a good source for finding out about organised treks for charity.

AND IF I DECIDE THAT I FANCY SOME COMPANY?

Companies that organise trekking holidays include: Abercrombie & Kent (0171-559 8500), from pounds 1,280 for a fully-inclusive seven-night Ronda Safari in Spain to pounds 1,799 for a six-night Kilimanjaro trek, including flights; Alternative Travel Group (01865 315678), walking holidays throughout Europe and especially Italy, from pounds 247 for an eight-day unescorted tour to pounds 2,600 for an 18-day escorted tour; Exodus Expeditions (0181-675 5550), worldwide guided treks from one week in Spain for around pounds 400 to three weeks in Bhutan for pounds 3350; Explore Worldwide (01252 760100) worldwide guided treks from one week in Spain for pounds 395 to pounds 1,395 for 17 days in China; Golden Hill Travel (015394 48981), trekking holidays in Nepal and Tibet, from pounds 710 for 15 days in Nepal to pounds 1,390 for 15 days in Tibet, excluding flights; Guerba Expeditions (01373 826611), specialists in South America, Himalayas and Morocco, prices from pounds 415 for 15 days in Morocco to pounds 960 to pounds 1,550 for a trek to Kanchenjunga Base Camp, excluding flights; Himalayan Kingdoms (0117 923 7163), treks in Thailand and the Himalayas from pounds 1,500 for two weeks to pounds 4,000 for a month; Imaginative Traveller (0181-742 8612), from pounds 525 for two weeks in the High Atlas mountains to pounds 935 for the 23- day Annapurna Circuit, excluding flights; Sherpa Expeditions (brochure, 0181-577 7187), guided and self-guided treks worldwide, including one week in Mallorca for pounds 499 and a two week trek along the Tour du Mont Blanc, staying in hotels, for pounds 825; World Expeditions (0800 0744 135), trekking specialists to destinations in the Himalayas, South America, East Africa and Central Asia, prices from pounds 595 for 11 days in Nepal to pounds 3,500 for 30 days in Bhutan, land only.

For details on three of the best hiking boots currently available, see page 8

FIVE WELL-KNOWN WANDERERS WHO NEVER QUITE MADE IT

Scott of the Antarctic

He started from Dundee with great hopes of leading the first humans to reach the South Pole. But he was beaten to it by a Norwegian, and the expedition claimed the lives of his party.

David Livingstone

He embarked from Lanarkshire to take the word of God and then-modern medicine to the uncharted lands of Africa. An American journalist tracked him down when halfway up the Zambezi without a paddle. In the end, Africa consumed him.

Ffiona Campbell

She set out from Scotland (what is it with these Scots?) to walk around the world and drive out some demons. Halfway across America, "drive" became the operative word when she secretly abandoned the walk.

Forrest Gump

Another great work of fiction, but at least this one won an Oscar for Tom Hanks. Simple Southerner decides to jog back and forth across the US, and acquires near-Biblical status in the process. Ends, predictably, in tears.

Bill Bryson

Our favourite American's amble along the Appalachian Trail was abandoned after a quarter of the journey, but became a bestseller with A Walk in the Woods.

... and one who did

Captain James T Kirk

The original Trekker's five-year mission on the Starship Enterprise, to "seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before" was so successful he was promoted to admiral.

THE TOP FIVE CLASSIC TREKS

1 ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT, NEPAL

The most famous of Nepal's treks takes 16 to 21 days around the Annapurna massif, passing banks of Nepal's national flower, rhododendrons, Hindu and Buddhist villages. The trek ascends to 5,416m.

Expect to see: snow-capped mountains, lots of steps and nimble porters.

When to go: October to December and mid-March to May (when the rhododendrons are in bloom).

2 INCA TRAIL, PERU

One of the most trampled treks in the world, 43km into the high Andes to a mountain refuge at the ruined Inca (and World Heritage) site of Machu Picchu. Four days of steep climbing (up to 2,150m) to complete.

Expect to see: cloud forest, steamy ruins, Raiders of the Lost Ark types.

When to go: April to October is official Inca Trail season. To avoid crowds, go in April or May.

3 APPALACHIAN TRAIL, US

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail was established in 1921 and its 2,144-mile track completed in 1937. It runs south along the eastern US from Katahdin in central Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia in the south, crossing 14 states. Walking would take six months.

Expect to see: bears, trees and posh houses in the Berkshire Hills.

When to go: avoid crowds and snow - go in spring or autumn.

4 TOUR DU MONT BLANC, EUROPE

The TMB takes around 12 days (196km), circling the Alpine massif through France, Italy and Switzerland. Start in any of the three and haul yourself up to 2,500m for stunning views. There are hotels.

Expect to see: cow bells, Swiss chalets, peaks, pastures.

When to go: spring/summer.

5 MILFORD TRACK, NEW ZEALAND

This great 53km walk crosses Fjordland National Park, a World Heritage Site on South Island. Lakes, rare wildlife and waterfalls. No hanging around - it must be covered in three nights and four days.

Expect to see: three swoops of Sutherland Falls, people wearing waterproofs and the occasional kiwi (of the feathered variety).

When to go: late October to mid-April, but book early.

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