Nepal is mesmerizing and beautiful. It is a land of peaceful mountain people who welcome travelers into their homes and show them the serenity of the land and the friendliness of the nation. During our year-long trip around the world, we spent a month in Nepal. During that time, we spent almost three weeks hiking through the Himalayas, and it was one of the best experiences of our life.
Nepal is a backpacker’s paradise. The land is stunningly gorgeous, the people are generous and friendly, and the prices are dirt cheap. It’s no surprise that both “traveling” backpackers and “hiking” backpackers alike have been flocking to the country for quite some time. But fear not, authentic experiences are still around despite the amount of tourists that visit each year. One of the reasons for this is because the Nepalese take their tourism industry very seriously. They want everyone to have a great time, and they genuinely understand why people visit their amazing country.
Most people visit Nepal to see the Himalayas. There’s a very good reason for this. Photos do not do justice to the breathtaking scenery. Furthermore, a myriad of multi-day or multi-week hiking trails in the region allow for total cultural and natural immersion that can not be experienced anywhere else in the world.
Our guidebook explained that a multi-week hike would be the best way to experience all that Nepal has to offer. Admittedly, the idea of spending weeks alone in the mountains put us off a little. Before we arrived we were timid, not knowing what to expect. Would we have to climb a vertical cliff of ice? Would we have to live off of the land in the middle of nowhere? Should we join a guided tour so that we don’t end up executing the “emergency evacuation” clause of our travel insurance?
Fear not intrepid travelers, it wasn’t like that at all. Instead it was serene while physically invigorating. And yes, it was very safe. We were never at risk of getting lost, and we always stayed at small guesthouses along the trails. There were enough people around, both locals and tourists, to make everything safe. And now we’re going to share all of our experiences so that future travelers will have the best experience they can.
All of the following tips and advice come from not just our own experiences, but also from other travelers and some of the tour guides that we became friends with. If you have any trepidation or fear about trekking for several weeks through the mountains, hopefully we can spell it all out for you so that you know what to expect and be inspired to go for it! It really was worth it, and you will think so, too. It will be one of the best experiences of your life.
Trekking: What It’s Like
The basic idea of trekking in Nepal goes something like this. You will walk along the trail each day for hours, but at your own pace. Sometimes you will go uphill, but never so much that you will need any equipment. You will start and end each day at a guesthouse, known as a “tea house”. You will also eat all of your meals at these tea houses. Most of these are in small picturesque villages along the very well marked trail. These trails are usually too narrow and rough for vehicles, so it is foot traffic only. Most of the trails start at lower altitudes and slowly work their way up to higher altitudes over many days. (Going up in altitude too quickly can be dangerous.) Many of the treks will have a high point at which you will then go down in altitude, either by continuing along your circuit or by turning around and retracing your steps.
The tea houses and villages are spaced apart such that you can stop every few hours to eat or stop for the day and spend the night, if you so choose. There are suggested itineraries that will guide you through the various treks in specified amounts of time, but you don’t have to follow them. You can hike as fast or as slow as you like, as long as you don’t gain altitude too quickly. Taking it slow is highly recommended – the scenery is amazing and changes slowly as you gain altitude, and the villages are quaint and cozy.
You also don’t have to do the entire trail. Most treks pass through towns that have airports or bus access. If you want to go for just 2 or 3 days, that is entirely possible and worthwhile.
The times of year to visit Nepal are in the spring (April-May) and autumn (September-October). The winters in the Himalayas are serious, and the summers are extremely wet. The spring and autumn are dry and warm enough to enjoy. At lower altitudes you will be hot and sweaty, and as you gain altitude you will need warmer clothes.
Guides and Porters
Guides and porters are available for hire. Guides will always speak English (or your language) very well and give you many cultural insights into the region. They can also help situate you into tea houses each night and make sure you’re on the right trail. However, guides will generally not carry your bags. Porters can be hired to carry your bags, but will often not speak English very well, or not at all. Furthermore, you can often hire a porter-guide, which will fill both roles. These people tend to be making the career transition from porter to guide. Generally, guides are more expensive than porters. Prices depend on their level of experience and the amount of time they will be needed.
Don’t be surprised if your guide or porter is not the legendary muscular Sherpa that can carry an ox up the mountain. Many porters are in their late teens or early twenties. They will be only slightly larger than the oversized backpack that you are asking them to carry up the mountain for three weeks. Their smaller size may induce much guilt in you when you first meet them. However, they will still end up being stronger and faster than you are, even when carrying your bag up the mountain while you struggle with nothing.
At least, that was our experience. We hired a porter-guide and he was terrific and energetic despite his lacking physical stature. He wanted to impress us because he was trying to become a full-fledged guide, and we became friends. However, other travelers had mixed results. It is very important to get a recommendation for a guide or a porter. It is extremely easy to find a guide on the streets of Kathmandu or any other large town in Nepal. Some will actually approach you when you first arrive. While most are good and professional, some do not have the experience that they claim, and they stop to rest much too often or leave their customers behind for several hours. Always get a personal recommendation or go through a reputable tour company, travel agent, or hotel to find one.
It is also important to treat the guides and porters with respect, as you’ll be spending multiple days or even weeks with them. We heard stories about trekkers being mean to their guides and porters to the point where they quit.
Remember, while the prices for porters and guides may seem cheap to you, it is actually a substantial salary for them. A lot of them are supporting their families, and many only work during the tourist season. Even if you feel like you can carry your own bags, remember that you are helping the local economy by hiring someone to go with you along the trail.
Along the trails you will find many tea houses which serve meals and provide rooms. They are like mini-hotels. Many villages have several, and some of them can actually be quite large and luxurious. Prices will vary depending on the level of luxury, but all will have beds with blankets and usually hot water.
It is important to understand that the price for the room will be significantly cheaper if you agree to eat your dinner and breakfast there as well. It is also important to remember that the prices will go up the further you get from civilization. This is because almost all of the supplies and food must be carried up the trail by a person or a donkey. Many of the villages grow rice, corn, apples, chickens, and goats, but anything else has to be brought up. On your hike you will often see porters carrying large sacks of food, crates of chickens, plastic furniture, or any other random item that villagers and travelers might need.
Warning signs and messages about altitude sickness can be found almost everywhere in Nepal. Gaining altitude slowly and keeping a lookout for the warning signs of altitude sickness are very important. Most guides and porters take this issue very seriously, as altitude sickness can affect anyone, even the young, healthy, and physically fit. Even the Nepalese people can suffer from it.
If you don’t want to go up high, you don’t have to. There are plenty of trails that don’t get too high. There are also plenty of trails that can be done part-way without going up or over the higher parts of the route. Trekkers can either turn around or catch a plane or bus ride out at certain locations.
Packing for your Trek
As we stated, there are no vehicles, and everything must be carried. Even if you hire a porter, or several, you should only pack what you need. At lower altitudes you will want shorts, but as you climb, you will want warm clothes and a heavy coat. It gets colder at night, so be prepared. Many travelers take a silk or nylon sleeping bag liner for comfort and extra warmth. The tea houses provide very heavy blankets, so sleeping bags are not needed. If you are going to higher altitudes, there will be snow on the ground, and perhaps falling from the sky as well.
You will also want to take reusable water bottles and some sort of water filter. You can buy water in every village, but it becomes more and more expensive as you trek along the trail because someone has to carry it up the hill. Reusable bottles are also better for the environment, and Nepal has undergone a huge movement lately to reduce the amount of waste along the more popular hiking trails. If your filter (or anything else) requires batteries, buy plenty before your trek to bring with you. Hydration at high altitudes is extremely important.
Towels are needed for showers, as most tea houses don’t provide them. Take a swimsuit as well, as some of the trails have hot springs or other swimming holes.
Good outdoor hiking shoes are a necessity. Hiking boots aren’t really needed; instead you could take trail shoes. Bring lots of socks. You should also take some sandals or other comfortable shoes for when you’re just hanging around a village.
Sunglasses are also a requirement. A hat becomes very helpful at colder altitudes. Books and a deck of cards are nice to occupy the time, as most of the activity in the towns dies down when the sun goes down.
The Annapurna Circuit is one of the most popular treks in Nepal, and the one that we experienced. The main trail kicks off near the town of Pokhara and heads counter-clockwise through and around the beautiful Annapurna range. Trekking the entire loop takes between 14 and 18 days, depending on your pace. We moved at a fairly leisurely pace and took 18 days, which included an extra few days to hike to the top of Poon Hill. (Poon Hill can be done on its own if you have 2 or 3 days.)
The views are amazing, and the entire trail is splattered with small Nepalese and Tibetan villages which cling to the side of the valley. You’ll see old Buddhist temples and monasteries, clear flowing streams, terraced rice fields and apple orchards, and lots of interesting people. There are a good number of tourists on the trail during high season – just enough to make friends, but not so many that you can’t get away from them.
The trail starts and ends near the large town of Pokhara, which is at a relatively low altitude (900m). You take a short bus ride to a small village where the hike begins. Then you hike for about a week, climbing a small amount each day, and sleep at tea houses in quaint villages. Finally you will venture over the usually snow-covered Thoraung La Pass with an elevation of about 5400 meters (just under 18,000 ft.). Don’t worry, you will not be alone and many before you have accomplished this feat. The remaining trek is all downhill for the next week as you make your way towards Poon Hill (optional). After coming down from Poon Hill (or around it), a nearby town has bus connections back to Pokhara.
It is possible to cut the trek short because several of the towns have airports (Jomsom is the largest). The second half (Western side) of the trek is also on a road that can support vehicles, and it is possible to take a bus the rest of the way. Some people hike up and fly out, while others fly in and hike out. Still others ride bicycles along the trail, but in our opinion they are moving too fast to enjoy the show.
It’s also possible to lengthen the journey with various side trails to lakes, glaciers, monasteries, and temples.
Everest Base Camp
The trek to Everest Base Camp is perhaps the most popular in Nepal. Everyone wants to see the famous mountain, even though they don’t really want to kill themselves by climbing it. Unfortunately the trail has become somewhat overrun with tourists, especially during high season. Nepalese villages can be found along the way, but many of them now exclusively cater to trekkers.
The Langtang trek and the Kanchenjunga region have been described with equal beauty as the other more popular treks in Nepal, but see less tourists. Perhaps one of these routes is where you should go if you want to get away from the other trekkers.
Kathmandu and Preparation
The Thamel neighborhood of Kathmandu is where most of the tourists stay, as it is full of cheap hostels and guesthouses, good restaurants, tour guide offices, dessert cafes, bars with live music, pot dealers, hiking equipment shops, and the occasional Buddhist temple. Don’t be afraid to venture out of this neighborhood into the real Kathmandu. It’s chaotic, crowded, and overwhelming, but that’s what we like about it.
You can also buy anything you need for your trek in Thamel. Most of the stores sell some authentic but mostly knock-off brands of coats, shoes, and equipment such as The North Face, Marmot, Deuter, and others. Shop around, get lots of different prices, and negotiate. An honest shopkeeper will show you the difference between a good knock-off and a cheap knock-off by pointing out the way clothing or equipment is stitched together. If the shopkeeper insists that everything they sell is of amazing quality, go somewhere else. At the very least, you should buy a fun little wool hat for about one dollar, because you’ll need it at higher altitudes. Get one with an inner lining.
Hopefully we’ve convinced you that trekking in Nepal is not as difficult as you might think. If you can only remember a few key points, then focus on these highlights:
- It’s not as physically demanding as you might think.
- You don’t have to camp or carry in your own food.
- Ask for a recommendation if you want to hire a guide or a porter.
- Pay attention to altitude sickness.
- Pay attention to the weather.
Also, check out the travel costs for Nepal.
Good luck, and have a great trek!