The options for trekking in Nepal are endless. There are 20 designated protected areas in the small country of which there are countless trails to choose from. You only need to stand in a book store in Kathmandu and look at the wall full of trekking maps to see the different national parks and treks available.
So, how do you choose a trek in Nepal? And how do you know if you should do it alone or with a trekking company? And which company should you choose to go with?
This post will outline what you need to consider before choosing a trek, as well as, what you need to think about if you’re planning on trekking independently in Nepal.
Different types of treks in Nepal
Treks in Nepal tend to be divided into two categories: teahouse treks and camping expeditions. This can obviously sway your decision about which trek to do because teahouses make the experience a bit more comfortable, more affordable and easier to organise. Teahouses offer a bed, toilet and hot food and even added luxuries like Wi-Fi and hot showers, if you’re lucky. They usually charge a modest fee for the bed and then make their money on the expensive dal bhats (Nepali meal of rice, dahl and veg curry) that rise in price with elevation.
Camping treks are generally more involved affairs as it requires a bigger guide and porter team and more equipment. With a full team of porters and guides, you’ll still get hot food but the level of comfort may be lower than what you’ll get in a teahouse. Still, camping treks are generally more remote and in places untouched by human settlement, meaning you often get a more exclusive experience of the raw Himalayas. Many camping treks also require a special permit, such as Manaslu Circuit or Kanchenjunga.
Teahouses are being built in most of the trekking areas and national parks in Nepal now, even in those which traditionally had none. The only area that is still devoid of a teahouse network at all is much of the Dolpo area in Western Nepal. So even if you select a more remote or offbeat trek, it’s likely that you’ll be able to use a combination of tents and teahouses depending on where you spend the night.
When to go trekking in Nepal
For a small country, Nepal has a range of different climate zones and weather patterns change year to year. This means that not all treks are accessible or safe all year round.
The main trekking areas in central and eastern Nepal follow generally the same seasons. March to April and October to November are considered the best months to trek. They are also the busiest times though, so expect heavy foot traffic on the trails and full teahouses. There are some treks open and accessible a little longer. For example, people trek to Everest Base Camp through into May and then into December. I even met people who had done it during winter in January, but it depends on the yearly snowfall.
In these areas which include Langtang Valley, Annapurna Conservation Area and Sagarmatha National Park, I would recommend going in the months of February, May, September or December. They tend to be much quieter as they are technically before and after the peak periods. However, it’s always best to check before setting out on a trek what the conditions are, as in some years high passes remain closed for months longer than usual and avalanche risks can be unpredictable.
Western Nepal towards Dolpo and Upper Mustang is best between May to October when much of the rest of the county is in low season and monsoonal rains. This area is in what is known as the Himalayan rain shadow, and avoids the monsoon. However, during winter from December to February, Dolpo and higher villages are often cut off with heavy snow and it’s almost impossible to trek in those months.
Accessibility and trailheads
Accessibility will likely play a role when deciding which trek you choose, especially if you’re planning on hiking solo and without a guide. One of the main reasons that Langtang, Sagarmatha and Annapurna regions are the most popular is that the trailheads are relatively easy to access. But be cautious, when I say ‘easy to access’ because I really just mean in comparison to other trails in Nepal. Most treks are by no means ‘easy’ to access and logistics play a huge role in your planning.
If you plan on going with a trekking company they will often take care of logistics and transport for you. However, if you choose to organise a trek independently then transportation will be up to you.
People often say that Langtang National Park is one of the most accessible trekking areas. However, despite it being just north of Kathmandu, it still requires an arduous bus journey of 8-10 hours to get to the trailhead at Syabrubesi. Read more about it here.
Treks in the Annapurna Conservation Area are more easily accessible once you get yourself to Pokhara. One of the major trailheads for treks in the Annapurna region is Nayapul, which is just a two-hour bus or jeep ride from Pokhara. From there, you can hike to Annapurna Base Camp, Poon Hill, Mardi Himal and Khopra Ridge.
On the other hand, you also have the choice of flying into some trailheads. For example, Jomsom in the Annapurna Conservation Area has a small airport where you can begin and/or end the Annapurna Circuit, do the Jomsom to Muktinath trek and enter into the protected area of Mustang. Lukla is also home to one of the most famous airports (because of its notoriously dangerous track record), being the main service point for trekkers beginning their journeys to Everest Base Camp or Gokyo.
Flights in the mountains are not cheap though and some people (i.e. me) prefer to swap the high ticket prices for tortuous but affordable bus rides and longer hiking times. For example, instead of flying into Lukla, I took a 12-hour jeep ride from Kathmandu to Salleri and then walked for three days to Lukla to start my Gokyo Lakes Trek.
Read next: A Guide to Kathmandu
Permits and fees
You’ll also have to research the relevant permits and fees required for the national park and trek you want to do. For the most popular trekking areas, it costs around 5000 rupees (AU$65) in fees for independent trekkers. However, there are some restricted trekking areas which have much higher fees and special conditions.
For many treks, all hikers need a TIMS card (Trekkers Information Management System) which is 2000 rupees and can be purchased from the Nepal Tourism Board offices in Kathmandu or Pokhara. This green cards require a form to be filled out and a couple of passport photos and must be carried with you on your trek.
On top of that, you’ll also need to pay national park fees. Most of the popular national parks including Annapurna Conservation Area and Sagarmatha National Park cost around 3000 rupees. You can either organise this before you leave for the trek in Kathmandu or Pokhara, or pay for it on the way at the entry gates or checkpoints.
Some areas in Nepal require special permits and different fees depending on where you plan on going and for how long. These permits usually require people to have a group of at least two people as well as an official guide, but this can differ depending on the area. For Kanchenjunga treks, for example, there is a National Park fee of USD$20, as well as a Restricted Area Permit fee of USD$20 per week.
This is modest, however, compared to the special permits and fees for both Upper Mustang and Upper Dolpo restricted areas. These areas cost USD$500 for the first 10 days and then USD$50 per day for additional days. Usually, these treks must be organised through an official travel agency as well.
Read next: 10 Essential Tips for Trekking in Nepal
Difficulty and altitude of treks in Nepal
The difficulty of the treks in Nepal can vary, although the main factor people consider is the average or maximum altitude. However, you also need to consider the length of the trek and the changes in elevation as well, because this also influences how difficult a trek might be.
Any treks that reach a maximum elevation under 4000m would automatically be considered a relatively medium trek in Nepal. However, the maximum elevation a trek reaches should not always be considered a telling point of how difficult it is. Often the maximum elevation is a side trek up to a peak or viewpoint which is optional and the actual teahouses that you sleep are generally lower. For example, Gokyo village sits at 4750m, but most people complete a side hike up to Gokyo Ri, a magnificent viewpoint at 5360m.
It’s also worth noting that if there is only one high pass or one high viewpoint on the whole trek, your body should be able to handle it much better. For example, the Annapurna Circuit trek is mostly under 4500m, except for the Thorung La pass which sits at 5410m and must be crossed to complete the circuit. People tend to stay at a teahouse just before the pass at 4540m and then cross the pass the next day to go all the way down to Muktinath at 3800m. This means that many people can safely tackle the pass, knowing that the rest of the circuit is much lower.
On the other hand, the Three Passes Trek in Sagarmatha National Park, consists of three passes over 5000m as well as the option to climb to Gokyo Ri and Kala Pattar, both also over 5000m. A trek like this is much more difficult and carries a much higher risk of altitude sickness, simply because the amount of time spent over 5000m is quite significant.
Altitude can affect everyone differently and at different times. Although a good level of fitness and health will reduce your chances of succumbing to altitude, it does not make you immune to it. Anyone can fall victim to Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and you should take altitude very seriously, as it can be fatal. So don’t necessarily think that because you are relatively fit, picking a trek that takes you over 5000m will be a walk in the park.
Independent or guided trek in Nepal
For the popular trekking regions including Langtang, Sagarmatha and Annapurna, trekkers are free to travel independently, solo or in a group and with or without a guide. However, for some regions and trails such as Upper Dolpo, having an organised or guided trek is part of the permit process.
If you do decide to trek in an area where you can trek independently or with a guide, it’s important to think seriously about the advantages and disadvantages of both options. While I trekked solo throughout Nepal, there are definitely some positives to having a guide and/or porter which can suit different people.
Advantages of trekking with a guide
- Fully guided and organised treks can take care of all the logistics, permits and planning for you. This way you only need to pick which trek you want to do and the rest will be handled on your behalf.
- Having a guide can be a safer option, particularly if you don’t have a lot of hiking experience. They can assist you on the trail, provide local expertise and have knowledge about altitude illness and other common issues.
- If you’re trekking in high season, especially on busy trails such as Everest Base Camp, having a guide can help ensure you get a room at one of the teahouses. They can call ahead or arrange porters to organise rooms for you, instead of hoping to get a bed whenever you arrive. In comparison, solo hikers are often at the bottom of the pecking order!
- Guides are usually from the region where you’re trekking as well. They can provide an incredible insight into the local culture and people of the region, which means you’ll likely learn a lot more as you trek.
- Guiding is also a very important employment opportunity for people in Nepal and by having a guide you are effectively giving someone a job that may be helping an entire family. It’s also seasonal work so the more money they can make in the short few months each year when trekkers come, the more stable their life will be in the off-season.
Deciding to trek independently in Nepal
If you are confident that you can trek alone or at least without a guide, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t. Trekking alone in the main trekking areas such as Langtang, Annapurna and Sagarmatha is not too difficult or dangerous, as long as you use common sense and have some hiking experience under your belt.
The trails are relatively easy to follow, with the main trails having well-signposted junctions. In high season, it’s also unlikely that you will go for an hour without seeing someone else on the trail, which is always reassuring. However, it’s also good to have a backup navigation tool like Maps.Me downloaded on your phone or a paper trekking map, or both. You can never be overprepared, but you can certainly be underprepared.
If you are part of a group that wants to hike without a guide, it’s a good idea to at least know each other’s experience and ways of doing things beforehand. You should certainly discuss how you want to tackle the trek independently as a group before you set out.
It’s important to ask people about trail conditions and upcoming weather updates as you go on the trail. Guides often have ways to communicate and find out information, so if you decide to trek without one you need to be proactive in finding out information for yourself. It’s not as difficult as you might think though and other guides and teahouse staff will happily provide updates on the way.
You should always listen to the advice given to you and don’t risk your life, the weather can change suddenly in the mountains so if a guide advises you that a trail is not safe it’s best to listen to them.
Even if you don’t want to opt for the fully organised group treks, you can still opt to have a guide or a porter or both. You can hire local guides from places like Lukla or Namche in Sagarmatha National Park, or arrange it prior to leaving Kathmandu or Pokhara with a proper agency.
Choosing a trekking company in Nepal
If you want to go ahead and book your trek with a trekking company, there are plenty to choose from. This can make it overwhelming and it can be difficult to know who to go with. While I don’t have personal experiences with a specific company, I can give some advice on what to think about before booking a trek.
- Ask about fairness of pay, working rights and well-being of porters and guides. Make sure that the company is transparent in who they employ and how they treat their workers. With a very commercialised industry such as trekking in Nepal, you should try to make sure you’re going with a responsible and ethical company.
- You might be inclined to go with an international company such as Intrepid or World Expeditions with the good reputation to match the high price tag. These companies can usually provide a bit more peace of mind that things will run smoothly and everything will be of high quality. However, it can be nice to go with a local company.
- Many local trekking companies based in Kathmandu or Pokhara are run by ex-guides or families. Opting to go with a local company can mean you’re helping local employment and those who have worked their way up from being porters to guides and business owners. Prices are usually a lot cheaper as well and you can often book these treks within a matter of days rather than months in advance which is convenient if you’re already in Nepal.
Trekking food in Nepal
The food while trekking in Nepal is simple and can start to feel repetitive with basic staples including rice, potato and noodles. However, being able to enjoy filling and hot meals while trekking in the Himalayas is a real luxury and you can’t complain too much considering everything has to be brought up by yaks or people.
The main meal on every teahouse menu is dat bhat. The Nepali staple meal consists of rice, vegetable curry and a lentil soup. The best part about this meal is that it’s unlimited refills, so you can fill your empty stomach at the end of the day.
Other menu items include, fried rice, dumplings or momos, spaghetti, soup, porridge, pancakes, eggs, sandwiches, and a long list of teas and coffees. It’s always a good idea to carry some snacks with you to keep you going in between meals.
If you’re opting for a guided trek, make sure that you’re clear whether meals are included or need to be paid for by yourself as you go.
Safety while trekking in Nepal
Trekking in Nepal comes with plenty of risks, which are certainly outweighed by the incredible rewards. However, being in remote Himalayan regions with very little access to medical knowledge or supplies, means safety can be a huge concern.
If you’re hiking alone or without a guide, always carry a first aid kit with you. This should be able to help with minor issues that might happen on the way. There are some medical clinics in the national parks but these are extremely rare and limited. Helicopter evacuations are more common than you think and can be extremely pricey. Check your travel insurance before heading to Nepal!
Altitude is the main health risk in the Himalayas. I wrote about it a bit above, but in order to prevent succumbing to Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) you should drink plenty of fluids and ascend slowly in order to acclimatise properly.
It’s often recommended to not sleep any higher than 500m than the day before. It’s also advised to take a rest day every 1000m ascended. But it really depends on how you feel. If some altitude effects start to present themselves such as a headache or nausea, then rest for a day and if it does not get better it’s best to descend. AMS can be fatal so it’s best not to push it more than you feel you should.
Crime is rare in Nepal, but with trekkers having to carry a lot of cash on them it’s not unheard of. You should try to keep your eye on your bag at all times and spread your cash out in different compartments and pockets. I never heard of anyone having money taken and I also never felt uncomfortable being a solo female hiker either.
Cost of trekking in Nepal
The cost of trekking in Nepal varies wildly depending on where you trek and whether you go independently or with a guided trek.
For independent hikers, you will have to pay for a bed at a teahouse, meals and other luxuries like Wi-Fi, a shower and charging, depending on their availability. For most teahouse treks you can budget around AU$30-45 per day, without a guide or porter. This includes, permit fees, accommodation, food, sleeping bag rental, transport to and from, a couple of hot showers and charging your phone a few times.
A guide can cost around AU$30-40 per day and a porter can be from $15-20 per day. There is also an expectation that trekkers tip their porter and guide around 10-15% of the total amount.
For a fully organised trek, you can expect to pay around AU$1300-1800 with a commercial company for something like the Everest Base Camp trek which is two weeks.