Updated: Apr 2, 2022
Words and pics by Dan Eden (@thewaywarddan)
The Otter Trail is South Africa's most popular multi-day trail. As a result, many first-time hikers are lured into doing it. But beyond the essentials for a typical trail, there are important, if not daunting aspects to take into account when planning to taking it on. Here are some tips to help make tackling the Otter Trail that little bit simpler.
Getting a booking
This is probably the most challenging part. Bookings open a year in advance and are often filled very quickly. We have had success in the past by putting our name in the hat even earlier by emailing the SANParks reservations office before the bookings for the following year open and being flexible with our dates. You can try aiming for weekends and public holidays to reduce the amount of leave required, but it is better to be more flexible as this will increase your chances of getting a booking.
There are two main logistical issues to deal with. The first is getting to the Tsitsikamma Area. Secondly, the Otter Trail is an open-ended hike, meaning unlike a round-trip or loop, or an out-and-return, it starts and ends at two different places. Therefore, the other logistical consideration is transport to and from the start and end points.
Whether travelling from Jozi, the Cape or Durbs, it is quite a trek to get down to the Storms River/Natures Valley area. Your options are either to one, drive yourself down or two, fly to the nearest airport, either George or Port Elizabeth and then get a shuttle. Either way, we recommend staying somewhere close to the start at Storms River the night before and sorting out your bags to be ready the next day.
If you choose to fly you will need to stop and shop on your way to the trail as you cannot fly with gas canisters (needed for cooking). For transport to and from the trail heads we highly recommend using a shuttle service to avoid having to waste time shuffling a car to the end, you will also have to go through a toll booth both ways - which is a pain!
If you choose to fly you will need to stop and shop on your way to the trail as you cannot fly with gas canisters.
Our preferred spot for the nights before and after the trail is Tsitsikamma Backpackers. They have a range of accommodation options, can organise shuttles, have a café on site and are very close to a number of restaurants in Stormsrivier town.
Very Important Gear
For the Otter you will need all your standard hiking gear for a hutted hike: footwear, hiking bag, sleeping bag, camp stove & cooking gear. The non-standard gear that is very important is what you need for the river crossing over the mighty Bloukrans and any of the other rivers should they be in flood. This consists of a heavy duty survival bag and zip ties to allow you to float your hiking bag across and keep it dry - a dustbin bag is not suitable. A dedicated dry bag is also a “nice to have” for any valuables and electronics. A headlamp is also recommended in the event that you have to hike pre-dawn to reach the Bloukrans.
You have to time your crossing of the Bloukrans to coincide with low-tide, so it is an absolute must to consult a tidal table before your trip for the date of your crossing (Day 4 of the trail).
What to pack
All the important gear mentioned above as well as food, clothes and toiletries (only environmentally friendly soaps are allowed), meds and white gold (aka toilet paper). Some luxuries are good idea but avoid making your bag too heavy. A hip flask and some chocolate (or similar) are good choices! (Ed: a pre-cooked peri-peri chicken and a beer - or Steri-stumpi - on the first night go down like a treat!)
Don't forget to download the free Otter Trail offline map on your Forge app before you start!
Prepare your mind and body
At a total of 41km, the Otter Trail is not a particularly long hike in terms of distance but it is technical in parts and there is significant elevation gain each day. As with all hiking, the fitter you are, the more you will enjoy it and the more comfortable you will be on the trickier terrain. The steep paths are staggered with standard gum pole stairs and these can vary in height so expect some big steps up and down. The best way to prepare for this is by going out and doing stairs as well as some strength work in the gym such as lunges and squats.
A good hiking stick will also be a great help on the trail.
The more technical sections require boulder hopping and navigating the jagged coastal rock formations. For this, it is best to go at a pace you are comfortable with, test your footing before moving your full weight onto that leg and keep your bag as light as possible.
This is a tough trail and shouldn’t be underestimated, it’s not a slack-packing trail - you need to earn your views. If you are looking for an easier hike with more luxuries we recommend looking at the Dolphin Trail (same coastline) or the Whale Trail further west.
The Otter is definitely a bucket list hike for any serious hiker and is well worth the effort. We have done it a few times and would definitely go again in a heartbeat.
Follow @thewaywarddan & @wayward_south_africa on Instagram for plenty of hiking inspiration.
Be sure to get the free Forge App on your mobile and download our offline maps to take with you onto the mountain, then share the stoke using #ForgeSA
Free Mobile App 📱