A backpacking paradise: The 5 best overnight hikes in South Africa

Do you know that feeling? That one where the whole world is at your feet, all your possessions are on your back, the ones you love the most are by your side and the adventure of a lifetime is one step away from starting? That feeling, so often accompanied by blood, sweat and a few tears, but so overwhelmingly exciting and magical that you’d trade anything to feel it right now? That feeling you’ll never get tired of? That’s the overnight hike feeling, and for us here at Camp Master, it’s right up there with the best feelings in the world.

We’ve explored our beautiful country, climbing mountains, swimming in waterfalls, sharing morning coffee in caves and summitting peaks to bring you the ultimate list of overnight trails in the country. We know, our job is pretty great.

Ready to strap on those trekking boots and get cruising through the most magical multi-day walks South Africa has to offer? Use this checklist to get started, and don’t hesitate to get hold of us on our Instagram page if you think we’ve missed a crucial trail!

  1. The Otter Trail

  • Where: The Garden Route National Park, Western Cape
  • Length: 45.7 km
  • Elevation gain: 1,575 m
  • Difficulty: Hard

The Otter Trail is one of South Africa’s most well-known and well-loved backpacking trails, which is evidenced by the fact that you generally have to book your spot on the trail at least a year in advance.

This breathtaking seaside trail takes place over 5 days and there are ablutions and overnight huts at each stop. Meaning, you thankfully don’t need to be carrying shelter along with you, lightening your pack significantly. Though the longest day of this hike is around 13km, the route has significant elevation, so we recommend starting a training regime well in advance (perhaps even as soon as you book!).

This is a definite “bucket list” route for any avid South African hiker, and depending on which time of the year you go, it’s necessary to look up tide times in order to safely navigate some of the river crossings. For most, the highlight of this route is the scenery, as it boasts pristine beaches and forests the whole way through.

  1. The Drakensberg Grand Traverse

  • Where: uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, Kwa-Zulu Natal
  • Length: 202.0 km
  • Elevation gain: 6,686 m
  • Difficulty: Expert

The crown jewel of South Africa’s backpacking trails, this route features on several “best backpacking routes in the world” lists. It’s a lengthy, challenging route that is not recommended for inexperienced or even intermediate hikers, but well worth it for storied adventurers who’re looking to have an experience that will create lifelong memories.

Officially, the trail has eight checkpoints that most people choose to stop at, but the breathtaking scenery means that route divergence is common for those who want to see specific landmarks. This route takes you across “the Dragon’s back,” traversing the highest mountains in the country, peak by peak, marvelling at what feels like the very top of the world.

To look down 4000 feet to the country nestled below, peering as if on Mount Olympus from the top of the high berg is truly otherworldly, trust us. We’ve seen it. The route starts at Sentinel Car Park and ends at Bushman’s Nek, while fees are required for Royal Natal National Park and Giant’s Castle.

It is absolutely crucial that hikers sign the Mountain Registry as they enter the trail. This is a relatively risky route given the unpredictable nature of weather up on the high berg. It’s a daunting distance and elevation, but if you ever have the opportunity to train adequately and attempt the Grand Drakensberg Traverse, it is widely regarded by many avid hikers as the single most humbling and majestic experience of their lives.

  1. The Arangieskop Trail

  • Where: Dassieshoek Nature Reserve, Western Cape
  • Length: 18.9 km
  • Elevation gain: 1,583 m
  • Difficulty: Intermediate

Nicknamed ‘the Kilimanjaro of South Africa’, this one-night backpacking trail is short in duration, but challenges you with a serious uphill route on the first day. It’s well worth it however, as your aching calves will be the last thing on your mind when you take in the absolutely spectacular views of the Koo Valley from the hiking hut right at the top.

Thankfully, the ascent is not particularly technical and the second day is a breezy downhill back to the car park. It’s imperative that you check the weather before you tackle this route, as the descent can be very slippery in the rain.

The trail has a reputation for being incredibly well-maintained, and the hiking hut is well-appointed, so you won’t be bundu bashing or carrying tents. Make sure you remember to pack your costumes, as there are plenty of stops to swim! We recommend hiking up to the summit at sunrise – the view will astound you!

  1. The Kgaswane Trail

  • Where: Kgaswane Mountain Reserve, North West
  • Length: 20.4 km
  • Elevation gain: 642 m
  • Difficulty: Intermediate

Explore the Magaliesberg in this single-night trail with relatively tame elevation for those who aren’t all that excited about the “ascent” part of the hike. The best time to visit is in summer, as that’s when the veldt is lush and green; though the heat can be somewhat intense, so we recommend getting an early start if you can.

The bush is lush and immersive, but this means careful navigation is necessary to prevent getting lost. There’s a waterfall and river in which to swim, so you can escape the heat and stop for a refreshing lunch.

Shorter trails in the reserve also offer opportunities for mountain biking, cycling, bird watching and picnics, so this could also be an ideal day visit for the family, as it’s close enough to Johannesburg to be worth the drive. There’s also an abundance of wildlife on the reserve if you’re excited to view some game.

  1. Die Hel via Die Tronk Trail

  • Where: Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area, Western Cape
  • Length: 29.1 km
  • Elevation gain: 901 m
  • Difficulty: Hard

Following along a crystal clear river, this trail truly is a hidden gem of the Western Cape. Taking the hiker to the iconic historical landmark of “Die Hel,” a town that separated from civilisation for decades, developed its own isolated culture and was “refound” in the 20th century. Not only is this trail historically rich but the overnight huts in which hikers stay, are about 4.5 km before Die Hel rock pools and waterfall. This means you can offload your packs before tackling the steep descent into this hidden Swartberg valley.

A highlight of this hike is the pool at Die Hel, which is one of the largest natural pools in the province. We warn you though – it’s pretty chilly. If you’re a birdwatcher, the abundance of fynbos and proteas along the route means you’ll have ample opportunities to spot indigenous bird life. This hike requires the most fitness on the second day and can be completed in two or three days, depending on the hikers’ preference and fitness level.

There’s no way to explore the beauty, diversity and sheer scope of South Africa quite like doing it on foot. The magic of climbing mountains with nothing but your two feet, your best friends and what you can carry, bears with it a sense of achievement that carries through into other facets of your life. The experience will always stay with you.

And there’s no gear like Camp Master to take along on the adventure. Our durable and reliable, yet affordable outdoor accessories, are companions you can rely on to get you to the summit – and safely back down again – every time.

We can’t wait to accompany you on your travels. Take a look at our website to start planning your next expedition’s gear list, or stop in at a Builders’ Warehouse, Game or Makro outlet to see the full range in person.

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