What is different in the Carpathians
Contrary to many other long-distance hikes, in the Carpathians you find few ranges where you can meet scores of tourists – Tatry, Východní Beskydy, Munții Rodnei, Piatra Craiului, Făgăraş, Retezat – these account for about 16% of the thru-hike. So mostly you walk trails, ridges and forest roads where you are the only hiker in a day, a week or two. At some places there is no trail visible and you need to make a trail on your own.
To make the point, in Slovakia I met only 1 multi-day hiker on 200 km between Slovenský raj and the Dukla pass. Apart from Polonina Borzhava I met only 2 trekkers in Ukraine but could see 3 tents at Polonina Svidovec. The number of trekkers I met between Rodnei and Piatra Craiului was 2 (two!) on the distance of 550 km. So apart of the few popular ranges I met on average one trekker per 137 km.
This does not mean there are no humans in the mountains. A settlement is rarely more distant then a day walk and the mountains are inhabited by shepherds along with their herds and dogs in summer. Hikers are visitors in their land and it is better to avoid Carpathians unless you want to accept this fact. Hiking trails follow the paths shepherds have been using for centuries and that is why the sheep-dogs attacks are so frequent in Romania. At many places a walking hiker is treated as a being that appeared out of thin air and the locals simply do not know, how to react in this situation. On the other hand, you can be sure they help you, when in real need.
The Carpathians run through several nations so it gives a hiker the pleasure of using many languages. Do not expect locals to speak any international language. Hungarian is spoken on western slopes of the Eastern part of Carpathians. Young Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks and Poles are usually fluent in English. Many Ukrainian men understand Czech, Slovakian, Polish and Lithuanian from their working abroad experience.
Apart from Slovakian E8 it is very unlikely you meet any long-distance hikers. I almost met with Michał Kulanek who was walking across Carpathians in the same direction and we connected through Facebook.
The other side of the coin of this solitude is freedom. Freedom to walk and camp and collect forest fruits, freedom one hardly experiences in other European mountain ranges today. This of course does not apply to strict national parks (Tatras, Bukovské vrchy, Rodnei, Ciucaș, Bucegi, Piatra Craiului, Făgăraş, Retezat), where hikers must stick to the designated paths and camping areas.
Supply of food for hiking in village shops is wider in Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic, especially dry instant food. Expect limited offer in Romania and poor in Ukraine. However, the supply of basic food is easily accessible in all the countries. I mean oil, sugar, rice, buckwheat, cous-cous, chocolate, raisins, instant noodle soups. Lentil powder is available in Romania as well as sunflower halva, which has superb price/weight/energy ratio. Cottage cheese and milk can be obtained from shepherds. Special food like full-nutrition powder, isotonic drinks tablets, frost-dried fruits is not available along the trail.
Sport/outdoor shops are located in big cities far from the trail. Expect them in Trenčín, Poprad, Sighetul Marmației, Buşteni and Petroşani.
While in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, alcohol fuel can be obtained in drugstores, in Ukraine and Romania in pharmacies. Ukrainian alcohol was the finest quality, cheap Romanian 70% blue liquid was always leaving some unburned leftovers.
I tested poste-restante delivery to post offices in Slovakia and Romania and it worked fine (apart from one case). In Romania I received the first parcel in Borsec, took some stuff and split it to two – one went to Bușteni, the other to Petroșani.
Only once I took a 10 minutes lift from a mountain pass to a nearby village for supplies. All the other supplies I got along the trail.
Water is mostly available across the Carpathians. Eastern Beskydy range and limestone mountains are drier. There is no necessity of filtering water unless dirty or taken from stagnant pools. You can download the water sources coordinates here and look at the description of my water management.
Bears, aggressive sheep dogs, ticks and thunderstorms are the realities you cannot avoid walking across the Carpathians.
Out of those, SHEEP DOG ATTACKS are the most exhausting for a lonely hiker. Expect them in Romania, everywhere out of the few areas with tourist presence (like Rodnei, Bucegi, Făgăraş). I went through as many as 10 attacks a day. Dogs understand well, when in superiority and are naturally set up for attacking lonesome individuals. Being in a group is the best protection from severe attacks.
The worst attacks happen in early morning and in the evening, when shepherds are busy with their sheep, meanwhile both dogs accompanying herds and those staying at the base are united in one pack and got nothing to do. Each attack is individual so there is no universal advice, however, I would suggest the following:
1) track and watch – it is always better to be aware of the dogs before they sniff you. Try to avoid the attack if possible.
2) always keep 3-4 stones in your pocket. If expecting attack, hold both trekking poles in one hand (dogs are for some reason more furious when holding trekking poles in both hands). Keep pepper spray in your pocket and increase ammunition of stones.
3) seek for shepherd’s help first, only he can calm down the dogs.
4) ignore the dogs to the point when the attack is imminent and they break your perimeter (15 meters), do not bother with 1 or 2 dogs, they either do not attack or you can easily repel them.
5) if the pack of more than 3 dogs is approaching, do not show fear and attack the pack leader first, the bigger the stone is, the better. If there are no stones in the area, make movements as if you were picking them up from the ground and throwing in between throwing your reserve real stones.
6) try to keep dogs in the distance and far from each other (split the attackers – if 2-3 hesitating dogs leave the pack after being hit, the others stop attacking).
7) constantly search for shepherd’s help.
8) if they manage to get closer: face them moving towards a shepherd or your direction, continue throwing stones, do not turn your back or run away. Do not rely on trekking poles – they are too short, block your palms and make dogs more furious. Shouting loudly sometimes helps to stop the attack. I was advised firecrackers are the best solution. Whip should work as well, I tried slingshot for few Romanian treks but it did not work as the dogs do not know it.
9) respect that the dogs are just doing their job and be nice to a shepherd. There is an ongoing conflict between shepherds, hunters and tourists in Romania even at legal level. Showing your sympathy to a representative of this centuries old craft is appreciated. Give a smile, shake a hand with a shepherd, exchange few words and apologize. Make mountain brotherhood, do not feed animosity.
I got five BEAR ENCOUNTERS during my Carpathian solo thru-hike. It is hard to say how many times a bear got out of my way without me noticing, but my guess is at least dozen times. On the other hand, I had not encountered a single bear on many of my previous Carpathian hikes. I can see the following reasons for that: a) bears usually avoid the popular higher ridges with tourist footpaths, b) while walking in a pair or group we make more noise and watch the surroundings less, c) bear population was considerably smaller in the past.
In the Carpathians there are ranges with high bear density (Veľká Fatra, Călimani, Vrancea) and then there spots and daytimes where meeting a bear is imminent. I shall not write about the bears used to humans that are begging along roads in Romania or regularly attack tourists at the footpath between Bușteni and Cabana Caraiman. They are the most unpredictable and the only advice is to avoid them.
Unless curious (happened to me once), the brown bears you encounter in the wild have the paramount desire of not meeting a human. And we should help them with it following few simple steps:
– Do not walk at dusk or at night (this is no. 1 advice).
– Keep pepper spray easily accessible (I have it in the pocket of my hipbelt and move it to the pocket of my trousers, when the signs of bear presence occur).
– When in the terrain with visibility below 150 meters, make noise (I use jingles).
– Keep your food in a sealed drysack and near to you overnight (some might dispute this, but it has worked for me). Avoid any attractive smells around your campsite (e.g. food leftovers, grilled meat). If cold soaking in a pot – seal it and keep it either close to you or away from your campsite.
– When you can see the signs of bear presence, be vigilant and make extra noise (e.g. combine jingles with singing). The signs of bear presence are: bear tracks, shattered rotting trees, upturned stones (bears search for insects below stones and in the wood), rummaged anthills and wasps’ nests, scratched tree-trunks and of course bear droppings. In summer bear droppings are typical by the purple color and it is quite easy to assess, how fresh they are.
In case you meet a bear:
– assess the situation, if the bear is far from your trail and your movement cannot be intercepted as dangerous, follow your way, without paying attention to the animal.
– if the bear is close to your trail and has not noticed you, slowly and silently retreat and try to walk around in considerable distance.
– if the bear has noticed you, identify as a human by speaking softly while retreating. Once I made a nice monologue lasting several minutes with a bear staring at my campsite from 60 meters distance. However, try to avoid looking into its eyes or casting flashlight during the conversation.
– if you meet a playful cub, retreat immediately. No time for pics or selfies with it, frightened mum will follow.
– if the bear charges, it could well be a false charge and the bear stops near you. I have never been in this situation, however there are two options depending on your equipment:
1) You have your pepper spray ready: discharge it from about 3 meters towards the bear’s face.
2) You do not have a pepper spray: the advice is to stand still or slowly lay on the ground with your face down. When lying on the ground, put your hands around your neck to protect your head and face. Be passive and remain as quiet as possible until the attack ends.
I can remember an account of a Slovakian surgeon who treated forest workers injured by a bear during his career. He was surprised that such a mighty animal makes relatively mild wounds to humans. It is obvious European bears do not treat humans as food for they are able to tear a horse to pieces. We should also mention, there is on average one fatal bear encounter a year in the Carpathians.
What not to do: do not immediately lie down on the ground – this could make the bear curious, do not scream, do not make fast movements, do not try to scare the bear away – might work several times but could as well turn into disaster. Do not run away. I could see a running bear near the Oituz pass and believe me they can run really fast. Do not leave food leftovers near your campsite.
I encountered a wolf only once, but could hear howling and track it quite frequently in different parts of the Carpathians. They pose no danger to humans. My friend even encountered a wolf-pack in winter while camping on a remote ridge and they passed by the tent with two frightened humans inside.
Seeing a lynx is a lifetime experience. I could see it only once from distance in Eastern Poland. They pose absolutely no danger.
Some people (UK hikers in particular) are afraid of wild boars. There are cases of their attacks in Central Europe, but I got several close encounters without any trouble. One night we even got to the middle of a wild boar herd crossing the footpath. I could feel them touching my legs but they were just going their way. Once we found a den with three piglets and could see their mother running away. However, in this case it is advised to leave the site immediately. Wild boars are more frequent in the western Carpathian ranges, less in Romania and Ukraine.
TICKS are very common all across Carpathians in altitudes below 900 meters. They transmit two diseases: Tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) and Lyme borreliosis (LB). Vaccination is the best protection against TBE virus. From the time my friend ended up confined to bed totally paralyzed, I suggest everyone to apply the vaccine.
Lyme borreliosis is a bacterial disease, while vaccination is possible in North America, European vaccine is still in the testing process. However, it could be easily cured if discovered in early stage. First step in prevention of the disease is taking tick out of your body as soon as possible and disinfecting the spot immediately. Normally the place is itching for few days and small red circle (an inch or two wide) appears around the spot. However, if the red spot grows over time into several inches or even palm-size, the LB bacteria got into your body. In this case you need to apply antibiotics (like amoxycilin). Keep in mind that many times the tick leaves your body unnoticed. To comfort folks from non-tick areas: I personally caught well over 1000 ticks in my life and am still alive, no TBE and (hopefully) no LB.
There are basically two types of THUNDERSTORMS in the Carpathians:
1) thunderstorms originating from local evaporation. These thunderstorms occur more often later in the day. They are bound to cumulonimbus clouds and thus localized to area of few square kilometers. One year we got this type of weather for 5 days in Grohotiș and Ciucaș mountains – every afternoon there was a thunderstorm. As these thunderstorms are well visible from distance in the high mountains, their movement can be predicted and a hiker got time to get ready.
2) thunderstorms during cold front crossing. These thunderstorms are not localized, can come any time of a day, last longer (especially when the head of the front stops at the mountain range) and are usually followed by hours of rain. Lightnings during these thunderstorms can turn night into a day with constant light and thunder drumming. As weather forecast is easily available these days, I suggest hikers to watch it and find a shelter out of the high ranges for the hours of a cold-front crossing.
Unlike in the Alps, outdoor shops are far away from the mountains and you can easily tear your gear while elbowing through bushes or new growth at places where once might had been a path. The “land management” has been changing significantly in Romania and Ukraine since 1990s. After clearcuts and thunderstorms paths are blocked by logs and overgrown by high grass and bushes. Often old paths diminish in the new growth as they are not used so frequently today. This means lot of improvisation and preparedness.
My backpack was not the lightest one for I knew I might not meet a person for days and wanted to be prepared for all sorts of troubles. Its base-weight at the start was 9,3 kilos but I reduced it later to 8,6 kilos. Along with water for a day and food for 7 days I tried to be always below 14 kilos of the total weight. Anyway, water and food management play the most important role at the end of the day.
Thinking back I did not use about 450 grams of repair kits, first aid stuff and pepper sprays but I would not give up more than a third of it next time to keep on the safe side.
Things that are most probably not relevant to other hikers: keyboard (177g) for e-mails and the blog; Epipen (2x55g) as my beekeeping led to a bee-sting allergy development, 5 drysacks (total 157g) because I like to have order in my stuff, 3 pieces cookware for I like cooking, scout scarf (50g).
Changes I shall consider for the next thru-hike:
- lighter sleeping bag – 400g of 800+ cuin down was too much, 250–300g should be enough;
- replacing Leatherman Charge with a lighter multitool;
- less medication (there are many pharmacies along the way);
- if I can buy fast-charging power bank, I would consider changing the solar panel for it; read more about my electricity management;
- better hiking shoes – either with a waterproof flap or lightweight ones that soak and dry out easily;
- consider a pair of waterproof socks;
- take small 12V adapter – shepherds, some shelters and crosses with eternal lights operate on 12V.
In general my advice regarding the gear for Carpathian thru-hike is:
1) Do not apply experiences from popular US trails to Carpathians and mind that the guys out there making videos about ultralight backpacking earn their money from your clicks.
2) Fast charging is a must. Unless staying overnight in civilization, there is no way, how to charge a powerbank with a 6 hours charging time. I got the opportunity of overnight charging only 5 times during 74 days.
3) Despite outdoor shops’ claims, hiking is not about gear.
However much I did not considered my journey a sport performance but a pilgrimage, I must admit that the fact I wanted to walk all the Carpathians in the given time turned the hike into kind of a contest. Unlike during my previous journeys I felt I lost large part of the feeling of freedom once I was comparing my advance with the schedule I prepared before.
But in other aspects I followed the philosophy I had embraced 25 years ago: local sources + less comfort = less weight = nicer experiences. The philosophy I learned in the book Carpathian Games by Miloslav Nevrlý.