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A column on the art of traveling well
Roadwise Home

Trek Smart
Paul Otteson

It rolls off the tongue so nicely: "Yeah, we're going trekking in Nepal". Even today, years since such a pursuit was almost mythical in scope, trekking through the Himalayas stands out among the many great adventures available to the traveler—as well it should. Few options offer such relatively easy access to remote areas, friendly people, fascinating culture and amazing scenery. It remains a cheap choice as well—dollars, pounds, marks and more go a long way once you get out of Thamel.

Mary and I just finished a modest and comfortable trek in the Langtang region north of Kathmandu. The following points became clear during our adventure:

1) You can do it on your own!

Our trek was both guided and portered. I carried only a daypack and camera. In the morning, Jaman brought us hot water for washing and tea for waking. Our meals were prepared for us, our tents erected, our packs toted, our water boiled, and our wishes honored. Never have I had such an experience as a traveler and, I must say, it was a pleasure. Zooming into Nepal with a gut swelled by inlaw cooking and desk jockeying, I was somewhat uncertain of my physical ability to hand 4000 foot ascents and descents, and to bop around above 5000 meters in elevation. While it proved to be no picnic, going the plush route with guide, cook and porters helped immensely.

But it's not necessary! Nor is it necessarily recommended. If you want to do it all on your own, climbing the steep grades with full pack, you can. Several features of off-road Nepal will help immensely:

  • Trekking routes are often fairly well constructed and maintained. Steps are common on steep sections.
  • Routes are generally easy to follow. It pays, however, to have as good a map as you can find, and to be willing to ask for directions.
  • Tea shops and guest houses are plentiful on popular trekking routes. Usually, they are located perfectly for planning a day's walk. While guest houses can fill up during busy times, the proprietors usually have a 'Plan B' ready—like allowing you to throw down a Thermarest on the floor of the common room.
  • Access to logical trailheads is easy from Kathmandu, Pokhara, and other gateways.

If you decide to save the weight of camping gear (which almost always makes sense on the major trekking routes), you should still carry enough gear to stay warm and dry out of doors. Many guest houses are short on bedding so packing a sleeping bag is a good idea. Ask yourself if your gear will allow you to stay safe if you sprain your ankle on an exposed slope in the late afternoon and a hard, cold rain hits.

2) If you want some trek support, pick a good company!

Let's say your willing to spend a few dollars to enjoy the benefits of some trip support. Well, there are good guides and not-so-good guides, and it's not easy to know the difference in advance. Mary and I were fortunate in having a Nepalese friend in Berkeley whose family operates an excellent guiding company. Everything you'd expect from a good company was in place from the moment we arrived—they were organized, efficient, and reliable—but the key thing to me is that our trek was full of cheer. Our guide, Salam, and Sila the cook laughed and joked as we went. The amazing porters were quick with smiles and seemed ot enjoy each others company. While Salam and his crew made every effort to accommodate us, they seemed to genuinely enjoy the trek themselves.

We encountered a couple of other trekking groups that weren't so lucky. I questioned a bitter looking trekker at a tea shop, inquiring whether or not she'd seen the high peaks. "No," was the answer. Her group's guide had overlooked a mountain-viewing basic when planning the route. Through much of the year and particularly during the rainy season, the high peaks are often visible for only a few hours after dawn, clouding over as the morning progresses until they are completely shrouded. Thus, it pays to be at the best viewing areas—ridgecrests, overlooks, and summits above treeline—in the very early morning. This group missed out on the splendor because they were literally 'misguided'.

Worse, I think, was the day we spoke not to trekkers, but to a guide who had lost the British couple he was working for. We were in a moderately populated area of Helambu, below the village of Tarkegyang where several paths went off in different directions to homes and fields. The guide was walking about at a great pace, whistling and yelling, searching irrationally for the pair. We had passed the three of them far below, near a river crossing. Salam reasoned with the guide, pointing out that his charges were not likely to have come up so high through such a confusion of paths without him, and that they'd probably made a simple mistake, taking the wrong fork near the river below. The guide headed back down with new motivation—we never learned whether they were reunited. The point, of course, is that he should never have lost them in the first place. The guide had apparently stopped at a store to talk with friends, telling the British pair to go ahead, and that he would meet them somewhere that, to him, was an easy rendezvous.

What do you look for if you don't just e-mail me to hook you up with Salam? First, consider your options. There are a variety of ways to combine style and staff:

  • Teahouse Trek—This is a trek with no camping involved. You'll spend every night in a bed or bunk, or on the floor of a guest house. All of your meals will be teahouse or guest house meals. Teahouse trekkers often have some combination of porter(s) and guide, but rarely a cook.
  • Camping Trek—Relatively few trekkers carry camping rigs, even if they are trekking independently—porters are often involved, as is a guide. Even with a small group, a designated cook is often along. An extra porter or two are frequently needed to carry fuel, stove, cookware, dishware, and food. Trekkers may spend some nights in lodges, most of which have spaces available for the mobile kitchens of the trekking company.
  • Guide—This person will almost certainly speak your native tongue, or be able to communicate with someone who translates for your group. Their job is to fill in all of the leadership and organizational gaps that you have while allowing to shape your own journey to the extent you desire and can manage. The guide is usually also in charge of the porters and cooks.
  • Porter—Usually, porters are paid relatively little to carry heavy loads, period. Occasionally, the role of guide and porter are combined—usually when an individual or very small group hire one person to support their trek.
  • Cook—Generally only used on full service camping treks, a cook will often not have to carry anything more than his personal gear on the walk, leaving the toting of kitchen gear to porters. The cook is responsible for making sure your food and drink are free of microbes.

Obviously, full service camping treks are the most expensive options (maybe around $40 to $50 per person per day including local transport, less per person for larger groups). Hiring only a guide or porter for a teahouse or semi-independent camping trek is considerably cheaper (from $5 to $25 per person per day, perhaps).

Once you know what you want and can afford, you have to hire those you need. Unfortunately and not surprisingly, there's no simple answer regarding how to do it. Word of mouth and common sense are your best allies. Guidebook recommendations come in a distant second. The ads and admonitions of the companies themselves should be tuned out.

3) Get Personal

If you're going in cold, wandering the lanes of Kathmandu and trying to pick a company with no advance knowledge, I've got one recommendation:

Meet your actual guide—Try not to deal solely with booking agents and other non-trekking staff.

A guided trek is a very human experience. Unless you speak one or several of the languages of Nepal, your guide will be your only consequential interface of human understanding. Regardless of your general savvy as a backpack adventurer, you will necessarily be placing some responsibility for the quality of your trekking experience into the hands of another. Try to meet that person and get to know them a bit. Lay out all of your concerns, curiosities, and goals and see how they respond. Does it feel right? If not, there are dozens of other options just down the street.

It's different of course, if you're with a big group and you've been handled all the way along, booking your trek through a home-based company. With that kind of advance notice, you should have plenty of time and resources to do some good research.

It's different as well if you're just stopping in a village to contract with a porter to have your pack toted over the pass. In this case, you'll need some business savvy and your own ability to be a bit of a boss. Even if your porter can't converse with you, make sure you can communicate adequately regarding destination, schedule, expectations, and money. Never pay too much in advance. Look for that vibe that says you're hiring a decent, able person.

As I read over this article, I see that it suffers from what infects so many advisory pieces—it might lead you to think that it's difficult to end up with a great trekking experience. Not so! As is typically the case worldwide, the great majority of people are worthy, and wise enough on their home turf. Expect the same in the altogether splendid realm of the Nepal Himalaya!

Happy Travels!

Paul Otteson
The World Awaits: How to Travel Far & Well
Managing Editor / Hostels.com