For her 33rd birthday, Houda Al Kaissi didn’t want cake or candles. She had no desire for a massive brunch with friends. She didn’t even want to hide under the duvet and watch Netflix. Al Kaissi wanted to climb mountains. Hiking would be her preferred method of celebration.
“So staying true to my ‘last-minute-dot-com’ approach to everything, I joined the Life Happens Outdoors team on the Tour du Mont Blanc,” laughs this FlyDubai PR exec. For eight days, she hiked 170 kilometers with a combined altitude of 10,000 meters across France, Switzerland and Italy. “The whole week was filled with ‘I can’t believe I’m here’ moments,” says Al Kaissi. “I have to say it was one of the most difficult and beautiful experiences of my life.”
Join a hiking group
Life Happens Outdoors is one of the many UAE groups that takes people into the mountains. It’s joined by more casual style meet-up groups, like the hiking-focused UAE Weekend Lovers; by more regionally focused companies, including Absolute Adventure; and more extreme luxury offerings, such as Oman-based hudhudtravels. All involve the great outdoors.
“I started Life Happens Outdoors because I wanted to share my passion with the many people I felt were a mirror image of myself, back before I found my own transformative moment in the outdoors,” says Rami Rasamny, Life Happens Outdoors (LHO) founder. Rasamny points to a past where he was a 110kg chainsmoker who struggled to even climb a flight of stairs.
“The outdoors have been wrongly marketed,” he continues. “It’s either about exceptional athletes doing insane things, or it’s about places that none of us will have the finances to go ourselves.” But between those people climbing Everest or cruising down to the South Pole, there’s another demographic: “Just ordinary people who are doing incredible things that are profound to them,” says Rasamny.
Locals and women
In the Middle East, Rasamny’s seen a growing interest in hiking trails and camping trips both near and far. As a result, it’s not so surprising that around 60 percent of the LHO community is made up of locals, he says. “But what is really surprising is that the majority of them are women.”
There’s a deliberate effort to cater to the local market with small touches, Rasamny adds.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as trying to have fresh Turkish coffee on our Kilimanjaro trips.”
While LHO has a full-on business model, UAE Weekend Lovers takes a more casual approach.
“I founded it around six years back,” says René Düettra. He was looking for people like him: fitness enthusiasts who want to be active and spend their time outdoors at the weekends. “As there was no similar public group in Dubai back then, it attracted a lot of great [people] from different nationalities, cultures and ethnicities!”
Explore the Middle East
UAE Weekend Lovers is focused on exploring the region. The rocky terrain make hiking in Oman and the UAE a bit more challenging, admits Düettra. “Don’t let this intimidate you though. With the right preparation, you’ll reach incredibly beautiful places.”
“You don’t need to fly all the way to Switzerland to enjoy a nice trek,” agrees Al Kaissi. “There are tons of things to do here in the UAE. Or it’s a short drive to Oman and a short flight to Georgia.” The latter is considered a hiking-friendly country.
UAE company Absolute Adventure emphasizes exploring the local area, yet unlike UAE Weekend Lovers, it involves getting together your own small group of friends and booking a guide. The offerings are varied, spanning from family weekends spent climbing to adrenaline-fueled water soloing trips. There’s even an adult survival course where guests are invited to test their mettle for 24 hours. This involves improvising shelter, finding and filtering water, signaling for help and other “fun” tasks. But don’t worry, suggests the website: “Our expert guides will be there every step of the way.”
There are luxury hiking tours, too
For the ultra-luxury travelers, there’s Hud Hud Travels. Here, travelers trade pop-up tents for private camps in breathtaking, exclusive locations. Experiences can involve a bit of hiking or walking — but only at your request, and often with gourmet food to be had at the end after a serene shower. There’s even the option to book a 1,000km expedition from Muscat to Salalah via boat, car and quad bike.
If you’re considering a trip, there are a few things to keep in mind, notes Düettra.
“Be realistic about your fitness on the day of the activity, and let your fellow hikers know if you don’t feel okay. Plans can be adjusted to make it a great day and overall fun experience for everyone. Your safety is a priority — and there will definitely be enough possibilities to push your boundaries.”
It’s also about turning away from what holds you back, says Al Kaissi. “I’ve always wanted to do this trek, but always made excuses. I needed to lose weight, needed to get fitter, needed to train harder… Finally I decided to just go for it.”
It was challenging, she acknowledges. “But it’s motivated me to get into better shape so I can go on the next one and enjoy it even more. I’ve never felt prouder of myself,” she adds.
When it comes to proud moments, Rasamny recalls a recent traveller, UAE resident Ahmed. He joined the group’s Kilimanjaro expedition last March. “Although he had some hiking experience, he had never done anything like a seven-day trek to reach Africa’s highest summit.” Ahmed struggled to sleep and lost his appetite, all making progress particularly difficult.
“The night before the summit, Ahmed informed the team that he would not be joining us.” Then, somehow, he slept incredibly well, so much so that he woke up with a wealth of energy. Ahmed changed his plans and started hiking.
“At 8am that morning, Ahmed stood with the entire team at the summit of the mountain,” says Rasamny. This year, he’s returning in December, bringing along his two teenage boys.
“He believes that there are lessons up there that no person should miss.”
Plan your trip
To keep track of upcoming trips, check out MeetUp or any of the aforementioned company’s websites. LHO has plans for a trek to Annapurna base camp in Nepal, a climb up Kilimanjaro, and a walk on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. UAE Weekend Lovers regularly runs smaller weekend events. FitnessInDXB, a community-led fitness group, hosts occasional hikes open to the public.
Social media is a great spot to find hike inspiration. Check out @arnaud_laviolette for regular photos of amazing hikes around the region, as well as how to get involved. Recently the group took 141 people into the mountains with Adventurati Outdoor (@adventuratioutdoor), RAKRecycles and Emirates Adventure (@emirates_adventure) to collect 880kg of trash. Other inspo-worthy accounts include @coffeeandhike and @monkeyseemonkydo.
While researching and inspiration are all great, Al Kaissi points people back to the simplest thing: Just get out there. Just do it.
“I think we get so lost in the day-to-day, especially in this fast-paced lifestyle we live, that we forget to take a step back and enjoy our surroundings,” she says.
Featured photo: UAE Weekend Lovers
Danae Mercer is a freelance health and travel journalist. In addition to working as editor-in-chief of Women's Health Middle East and Men's Health Middle East, Danae has written for The Sunday Times, CNN Travel, Dubai Tourism, The Guardian, Afar, Bloomberg and many more. She's based in Dubai and is a trainer at Crank. instagram.com/danaemercer