Trekking in Nepal
With many of the tallest peaks on Earth, a tradition that has outlived the ages and some of the most beautiful landscapes to be witnessed, trekking in Nepal is without a doubt one of the unique experiences of Asia. Eight of the top ten highest summits in the world reside in this small landlocked nation, and with few roads penetrating the country's mountainous interior, the only way to get there is to walk.
Despite what many may perceive, trekking in Nepal is not wandering alone through an uncharted wilderness, going where no man has been before. As they walk along the well-marked trekking paths, travellers will often discover quite the opposite; hundreds of locals passing through each day as they haul food, water and other odd necessities back to their tiny villages, along with dozens of fellow trekkers. The regularly-spaced villages and teahouses allow trekkers good opportunities to rest and recover, either for a few minutes or the night. The strong culture and unreserved friendliness of the Nepalese people can also be witnessed as one traverses the hill tracks.
Trekking has become the most popular and most rewarding activity in Nepal, and travellers will be bombarded both online and on the streets of the capital Kathmandu with guides, organised tours and gear. The huge variety of options allows for people of many ages and capabilities to attempt a trek in the country. One one hand, you could spend a year planning an expedition to wild and lofty places that few would dare attempt; however, on the other, you could land in Kathmandu with no plans and be on the trail to the Everest Base Camp in a matter of days.
Types of trekking in Nepal:
"Teahouse trekking" along the main trails is the most common style, with decent lodges in every settlement (and between), it is possible to trek in comfort with minimal preparation, equipment and support. There is no need to camp and a selection of western style foods are readily available from a menu system. No special permits are required on some of the more popular treks, just national park entry tickets and the TIMS permit. The main areas for these treks are Everest/Khumbu Langtang and Annapurna. Since 2010, the Manaslu Circuit Trek has become possible without the need for camping, using tea-houses along the route, though it requires a USD50 per week permit and must be trekked with a guide as part of an organized group. The trek to Lo Manthang in Upper Mustang is similar: no camping is required as many comfortable lodges are available, but an expensive permit for a minimum of 10 days is required which keeps many budget travellers away.
Facilities available in remote areas are less extensive than in the more popular areas. Off the main trails where there are no lodges and food from menus a Nepali guide becomes essential, and it may be advisable or necessary to visit such regions with organised groups, including guide, porters and full support. Kanchenjunga, Makalu Barun, Rolwaling, Dolpo, Humla are in remote areas. Many of them also require special permits.
Only TAAN registered trekking agencies in Kathmandu and Pokhara can legally organize treks and provide the services of a guide and/or porter with insurance. Be aware that no one else, no hotel, no street broker, no nice person you just met, not even a trekking guide is legally authorized to organize a trek. During the main seasons the agencies run regular group treks, both tea-house and camping styles, and it is generally possible to join a group doing a trek of your choice. Independent trekking is quite easy in the main trekking areas.
Required Permits A trekking permit issued by the Department of Immigration is required to trek in any part of Nepal, except the most popular areas of Annapurna, Khumbu and Langtang/Helambu. Those areas were declared permit-free in 1999. The joy was short-lived, though, as a new system called TIMS (Trekker Information Management System) was recently created for those three areas. Be sure you have a TIMS card with you when trekking independently or with an organized group. There are two types of TIMS cards, a green card for independent trekkers and a blue card for trekkers who are part of a group with a guide. Individual TIMS (green cards) are obtainable only from Nepal Tourism Board offices (Kathmandu and Pokhara) and from the Trekking Agents Association of Nepal office. Not even Trekking Agents are legally authorized to obtain individual TIMS (even though some small Trekking Agents may offer the individual TIMS). Police check points and Park officers can at any time check your permits.
Several National Parks and Conservation areas like ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project), MCAP (Manaslu Conservation Area Project) and Sagarmatha National Park (Everest area) require trekkers to pay an entrance fee. As of November 2013, a single entry fee for Annapurna and Manaslu was NPR2000 (approximately USD20) for each area.
Restricted areas require the old trekking permits (but not the TIMS card), which are obtainable only through trekking agents. Restricted areas include Dolpo, Mustang, Manaslu, Kanchenjunga and other similar areas.
Do not try to bribe officers or police personnel; it might get you in more trouble than you think.
Types of Trekking
Tea House(Lodge Trek): Also known as lodge trekking, this is a relatively cheap way of trekking where meals and accommodation are provided in a teahouse or lodge. In Nepal, it is quite popular along many trails, stopping each night to eat and sleep at a local Tea House. Meals depend on the menu at the tea house, usually the simple basic meals of the local people. Although many tea houses and hotels in the hills and mountains are reasonably comfortable, some may be dirty and rather basic. In areas where chimneys are rare, dining rooms may be smoky. Bedrooms and dorm rooms will not be heated.
It's a great way to connect with some of the local culture and definitely suits trekkers not wanting to carry back-crushing rucksacks. The standard of lodgings can vary from very similar to a hotel, to something far more rustic.
Camping (Organized Trek): The classic style of trekking in Nepal and can be conducted almost anywhere in the country. Camping trekking is fully organized and supported with a team of guides (who may or may not be Sherpas), cooks, and porters to accompany you.
All the necessary trekking gear, food, fuel and other goods are carried by the porters. The cook will prepare all the meals during the camping trek. Trekkers need to carry only a small bag as required for the day. At night, tents for dining, sleeping and washing are provided and set up. Mattresses, sleeping bags, tables and seating are arranged by staff. A Sirdar (chief guide) is employed to pre-arrange and then to oversee the entire program. All land transportation, local permits, taxes, porter insurance, port dues and entrance fees to National Parks or sites that are part of the trip are arranged.
Finally, if you are employing the services of guides and porters, it is customary to present a tip to the head guide at the end of the trip. This will be divided up between the various people employed in your group. Like most tips, the amount will vary depending on the quality of services provided, but it could be between 5% and 10% of the total cost of your trek.
- When to go: The best seasons for trekking are either side of the monsoon season, March-June and September-November. During this time the weather is generally fine and the skies clear. It is possible to trek out of season, but expect lots of rain (and leeches) during the monsoon and severe cold and closed passes during the winter months. See also the Nepal climate section.
- Experience & Fitness - there are treks suitable for a wide range of experience and physical fitness, for age 5 to 85. An easy teahouse trek with Nepali support (guide/porter) is quite attainable for anyone who is reasonably walking fit - if you can walk for a few hours each day for a week and are not averse to the occasional (frequent!) hill climb then you can trek in Nepal. Longer treks, crossing high passes and into remote regions do tend to demand a higher degree of endurance. For Trekking Peaks it is usually desirable but not necessarily essential to have some alpine climbing experience.
- Equipment: the main essentials are sturdy and comfortable hiking boots, a sleeping bag and a few clothes (be prepared for a range of weather). It is best to travel light, take only what you need and leave the rest behind. Try to be ruthless when deciding what to take. Your needs while trekking will be simple. If you have the services of a porter then you will need a day-pack for your essentials and the rest goes in a kit-bag or duffel (sometimes supplied by the trekking agency) to be conveyed to your next stop. It is possible to buy everything in Kathmandu and Pokhara although using last-minute footwear is not recommended.
- Hiring support: Whether to join a group, trek with other independent travelers or to hire your own guide and/or porter is a personal decision to be based on the difficulty of the trek and available budget. When signing up with an agency you should speak with several and make detailed inquiries about the differences in service besides just the base cost. If hiring staff independently the be mindful of your responsibilities to ensure that your man is suitably equipped for the job and stays safe.
- Permits and TIMS: "Trekking permits" are not required for the main teahouse treks. Recent rules brought in by the Trekking Associations in Nepal require that all trekkers register with TIMS ("Trekking Information Management System") and have either a blue TIMS card if hiking with a guided group or a green TIMS if hiking independently. These can be obtained via official trekking agencies or the Nepal Tourism Board . Trekking to remote or restricted areas and climbing the designated "Trekking peaks" require extra permits. These are generally obtained by the agent/guide who will be arranging your trek.
- Arriving mid-travel: If you arrive in Kathmandu as part of your tour of Asia and decide to go trekking then you can easily get equipped in Kathmandu. Plenty of shops in Thamel sell (or rent) any trekking gear that may be required. The copies of brand name goods are not good quality, but good bargains can be had on fleeces and down jackets. While walking boots are readily available it would not be a good idea to be breaking in new boots on the trail. Comfortable and reliable footwear is essential. Permits and guides (if required) can be arranged in a day or two. Recommendations from others you might know who have used the services of guides or trekking companies can be very helpful. Obviously some guides or trekking organizations provide better and more professional services than others. This could affect merely your convenience and comfort or, when significant altitude gain or a difficult route is involved, could become a real safety issue. Having someone along who is experienced, professional and attentive could be very important.
- Rescue insurance: Before the departure check that your travel insurance covers trekking activities and the conditions. Be aware that some insurance companies view even walking in the mountains as "mountaineering" and will not provide coverage. You may have to shop around. Most reputable trekking agencies will require proof of rescue insurance before you start on your trek. It would be very costly to pay a helicopter rescue at 5000 meters.
The Great Himalayan Trail is the Government of Nepal's latest tourism 'product' and spans Nepal connecting all of the main trekking areas (mentioned below) with less visited areas in approximately 1,700 km of trails. There is also a lower or cultural route crossing the pahar or mid-hills of Nepal.
Main "teahouse trek" regions: in each of these areas there are a number of trail options, there is plenty of scope for short treks of less than a week to much longer if you have time and wanderlust.
- Khumbu - Bus to Jiri or fly to Lukla then hike up to Namche Bazzar, capital of the Sherpa lands at the foot of Everest. The most popular trek is up to Everest Base Camp and an ascent of Kalar Patar. Visit the Buddhist Tengboche monastery for the Mani Rimdu festival in November. Explore the Gokyo valley with its sacred lakes and stupendous views of four 8000m peaks. Or a circuit of the region crossing the high passes or Cho La and Renjo La.
- Annapurna - North of Pokhara, from lush middle hills into high mountains. A circuit leads up the Marsyangdi river to Manang, over Thorung La (5400m) to the Hindu temples at Muktinath. Down the Kali Gandaki river valley on the Jomsom trail enjoying Gurung and Thakali hospitality. Up through spring rhododendron blooms to Poon Hill for a dawn Himalayan vista. Trek up into the very heart of the Annapurna Sanctuary for an awesome 360' high mountain skyline. Upper Mustang is also tea-house trekkable with quite easy trails and amazing Trans-Himalayan scenery though it requires a restricted area permit of USD500 per 10 days.
- Helambu Langtang - a short taxi ride from Thamel to the roadhead at Shivapuri leads to a trail through the middle-hills countryside of Helambu, either circuit around and return to Kathmandu or cross the pass to the sacred lake at Gosainkhund, descend and then hike up the Langtang valley beneath mountains that form the border with Tibet. Descend back to catch a bus on a rough road through Trisuli to Kathmandu.
- Manaslu - Unspoiled trails through remote villages and over the remote Larke pass at 5135 m to circuit an 8156 m mountain. Though trekkable since 1991, since 2010 this has become Nepal's newest 'tea-house' trek with the building of a lodge below the Larkya La pass (5135m). Some lodges are currently still a little basic, so it remains for the adventurous, though without the need to camp. Manaslu area and the extremely interesting Tsum side valley are still restricted and need special permits and the services of a guide.
- Makalu - Makalu base camp can now also be reached using tea-house accommodation.
Other more remote regions will require a bit more planning and probably local assistance, not least as the required permits are only issued via Nepali guides/agents. Camping is required on one or more nights.
- Kanchenjunga - far eastern Nepal on the border with India, accessible via flight or bus to Taplejung (Suketar - airport closed until end 2011), from Kathmandu 40min by plane to Bhadrapur with 10 hours by jeep or bus, or 24hrs by bus from Kathmandu. This is a strenuous trek through sparsely populated country to the base camps of the third highest mountain. Note: This trek can also be done by small adventurous groups as a tea-house trek. There is accommodation and food available in all villages, though Lhonak has very limited accommodation but a tent can be rented in Ghunsa from the KCAP official.
- Dolpa - Upper Dolpa is the remote Land of the Bon, almost as Tibetan as Nepali. Lower Dolpa is more accessible and can be reached by plane.
- Naar-Phu Valley is a hidden Tibetan valley just north of the Annapurna Circuit which was opened to visitors in 2002. Entrance is form Koto near Chame, and exit via 5300m high Kang La pass to Ngawal. A few basic lodges, but camping style trek still recommended. Nine days from Koto to Ngawal with two days in each major village Phugaon and Naar.
Trekking Peaks require a qualified "climbing guide", permits and deposits to cover camp waste disposal. There are 33 trekking peaks in total but the two most popular peaks are.
- Island Peak Trek - The Island Peak trek in the Khumbu region takes in some of the most spectacular scenery in the Himalayas.
- Mera Peak Climbing - Enjoy panoramic views of Mt. Everest (8,848 m; 29,030 ft), Cho-Oyu (8,201 m; 26,910 ft), Lhotse (8,516 m; 27,940 ft), Makalu (8463 m; 27,770 ft), Kangchenjunga (8,586 m; 28,170 ft), Nuptse (7,855 m; 25,770 ft), and Chamlang (7,319 m; 24,010 ft).
- Altitude sickness is a significant risk when trekking on any trails above about 2500m. Be familiar with the symptoms and do not ignore them. People who keep to a conservative ascent schedule and drink plenty of fluids should acclimatize OK. If you or anyone in your party begins to experience symptoms of AMS then do not ascend any further, and if they do not improve then descent to a lower altitude is the only option.
- Water - Streams and piped water to lodges should not be considered safe and although bottled water is often available, the disposal of the plastic bottles is a serious problem with no easy solution. It is best to have some means to purify water for your own use. Using iodine (or chlorine) and/or a UV source like a Steripen or a ceramic filter are the best options.
- Lone travelers - arriving in Kathmandu it is usually easy to find other like minded people with similar travel plans and trek together. Even if you start at the trailhead alone you are likely to meet the same people along the trail and share lodges at night. It is not wise to trek alone (this is true not just in Nepal but anywhere). In the unlikely event that you should encounter trouble or become ill then it is far easier and safer to have some companion to help out.
- Maoists - Since 2006 the political situation has stabilized somewhat, bringing the Maoists back into government and eliminating the monarchy. Consequently there is no "official" justification for the old practices of "taxing" trekkers. That said, it is possible that this habit may continue and if a "donation" is demanded under threats then it is probably best to pay the fee in return for the "official" receipt. This is unlikely on the more popular trekking routes. Constituent Assembly elections in November 2013 may prove inconclusive and some degree of instability (transportation strikes and other troubles) may return to Nepal. It's a situation that prospective trekkers should be aware of as it may affect your plans.
- Trek legally. If you trek independently, you are not allowed to take any staff yourself by law. You need for this a Trekking Agency, the sole authorized to employ staff for foreign trekkers. Do not hire staff through hotels, "independent guides" unless they have a Trekking Agent licence or offer this service through an affiliated Trekking Agent.
- Please make sure you pack out all of your trash, including bottles and cans from goods consumed in restaurants. Bring the trash to the nearest truck-accessible road for the most proper disposal available.
- Trekkers are also asked to refrain from relying on bottled water, since there is nowhere to dispose of the used bottles. Filtering or treating your water will reduce the amount of trash left behind in this fragile environment. Iodine pills are a cheap, lightweight solution.
- Take the time to look at the pollution and lack of trash management all around you, from the trash-clogged rivers in the cities to the mounds of discarded beer bottles in the mountain villages. This is a country struggling with its rapid Westernization and hasn't yet figured out how to dispose of its waste. Don't contribute to the problem any more than necessary!
- After your trek you can give your clothes to the porters' clothing bank which is managed by the KEEP association . This bank is located in Thamel at Kathmandu and provides clothes to the trekking porters.