UAE hiking season gets under way with new rules to improve safety

Dh50,000 fines in place for breaching mountain rules in effort to keep walkers safe on the trails this winter

Trekkers have been advised to plan ahead when visiting the mountains in Ras Al Khaimah as the winter walking season begins. Pawan Singh / The National
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A clampdown on large unlicensed meet-up groups and Dh50,000 fines for those breaching mountain trail rules is intended to reduce the number of trekking incidents and rescues as the winter walking season gets under way.

As the cooler days allow for more outdoor activities, November 1 traditionally hails the onset of the best months to get out into the great outdoors and enjoy the thousands of kilometres of stunning walking trails across the UAE.

Rules that came into force on March 1 set out standards to be followed by organised trekking groups, as well as individual tourists and residents looking to get out into the mountains of Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah.

“There is a crackdown on these meet-up groups that come in with 60 people with just one guide as there is the potential to lose somebody,” said Amy Subaey, managing director of UAE Trekkers.

It is not the Himalayas or the most extreme environment in the world, but things can change pretty quickly
Mark Hannaford, expedition leader and founder of Extreme Medicine

“Now, you can't actually even go to the mountains unless you meet certain requirements.

“The biggest thing is you cannot hike alone and that's for obvious reasons. If you don't know what you're doing, it definitely can be dangerous.”

New rules

For groups of 10 people or more, a qualified leader must be appointed to ensure the safety of walkers in the Fujairah Adventure Centre, one of the most popular hiking destinations with more than 20 hectares of walking trails and paths.

Walkers must also register via a code at the start of each trail to notify the time of departure.

Four inspectors and local residents of the mountainous regions have been appointed to monitor trails.

The guidelines aim to bring more organisation to amateurs keen on mountaineering and trekking, while requiring tourist groups to obtain a commercial licence with local authorities.

Organised groups must also have a guide trained in first aid, and an open method of communication at all times.

Lee Ellison, owner of Hajar Mountain Adventures, said while trail leader qualifications from other countries were recognised in the UAE, tour operators were still required to secure a licence from the local authority.

“Like all licences, they're valid for the region they're currently operating in,” he said.

“My licence was Dh5,000. The rules in Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah are similar.

“Notice boards have been put up along trails with clear guidelines as a lot of people from different Emirates were coming in groups of up to 50 people, with just two or three people leading them.

“Most of those people weren't qualified and they had very little experience.”

Tour leaders are required to be qualified in trail leading and must also pay for a licence, tourism authority permit, government fees, insurance and an office – which can be about Dh60,000 in total.

A hiking trail course takes up to four days to complete and includes online tutorials and an assessment. It costs around Dh3,000.

In Ras Al Khaimah, one certified leader working for a licensed organisation is permitted to lead 10 people on a hike.

“That is the international standard,” said Mr Ellison.

“If you have 20 or 30 people, what tends to happen is you're leading the people at the front and the people at the back tend to fall behind.”

Plan ahead

Walkers should have a first-aid kit with them, a power bank to charge a mobile phone, a torch, hiking boots and a sunhat, as well as plenty of water – about a litre for every hour of hiking.

In August, police rescued two Emirati teenagers trapped in Wadi Qada’a, a remote mountainous area of Ras Al Khaimah, after they had become exhausted and dehydrated.

Five months earlier, an experienced British climber was rescued from the same mountain range after losing his footing and falling 10 metres, breaking both his ankles.

It was a stark reminder of the dangers of walking in the mountains. Despite the risks, experts said people should not be deterred from enjoying the beauty of the elevated terrain, as long as they are well prepared and take plenty of precautions.

Mark Hannaford is an experienced expedition leader in Dubai who has led groups all over the world in exploring some of the planet’s harshest terrains.

He currently runs training courses for medics to work and respond in dangerous environments, such as the UAE mountains.

Although acknowledging potential pitfalls, Mr Hannaford said the mountains could be a great place for families to enjoy safely, citing his own experiences of taking his two young children on mountain expeditions when they were young.

Family experiences

“You have a different experience when your children are there, and they are your responsibility completely,” said Mr Hannaford, who has just returned from a hiking trip in Nepal with his son Jamie.

“I think it's given them a degree of some kind of confidence and made them realise that, actually, to achieve something, you just need to go and find it, and do it.

“It is somewhere new, different and challenging that is hard to get around. You have to think about what you must do for your children as they trust you.”

Mr Hannaford has worked as a mountain guide in Morocco, Syria and Yemen – and said the topography in the UAE was very similar.

“I am looking forward to exploring it this winter,” he said.

“It is important people are making sure they've got a way to communicate if something goes wrong.

“Planning your trip well and making sure you've certainly got enough water both on you and in your vehicle is essential.

“Looking at your route is important and making sure you know where it is you're going and if you don't have maps, you've got to find a way to navigate.

“Having people who are at home who know where you are is crucial, then if you become overdue, what sort of steps you want them to take. You need to know where the nearest medical backup is.

“It's not the Himalayas or the most extreme environment in the world, but things can change pretty quickly.”

Updated: March 04, 2024, 6:23 AM