Trekking in Nepal is at the top of many outdoor enthusiasts’ bucket lists. Snow-capped mountains, cozy tea houses, and endless dal bhat are just some of the many things you can look forward to while trekking through the tallest peaks in the world.
So, the question that most would-be trekkers in Nepal ask themselves is: “Can you trek in Nepal without a guide?”
Trekking without a guide in Nepal is only recommended for people who have extensive outdoor experience and who have previously completed treks in the Himalaya. If you are new to trekking, new to the area, or generally unsure of how you would be able to handle an emergency situation in the mountains, then you should hire a guide before arriving in Nepal.
Trekking through Nepal isn’t an adventure to take lightly. Strikes, avalanches, and gastrointestinal illness are unfortunate, yet common occurrences in the Himalaya, so going about things without a guide can be both difficult and scary when things get tough.
Would you be able to get past a strike blockade in Kathmandu, reroute your trip to a totally different itinerary and book new teahouses, or know where the nearest medical facilities are? If you’re like most international trekkers in Nepal, your answer is probably, “no, unless I had a guide.”
But, at the same time, hiring a guide can be a costly, time-consuming process and it can be difficult to vet guides when there are so many people offering their services.
Traveling in Nepal: The Basics
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably contemplating a trip to Nepal. Congrats! Nepal is one of the most amazing places in the world and a trekking experience in one of the country’s innumerable mountain regions is truly incredible.
But, traveling in general – and trekking in Nepal, in particular – are inherently risky activities that you need to be prepared for before you ever leave home. Here are some things you should know about traveling and trekking in Nepal…
Nepal is a very affordable country – but it’s expensive to get to.
One of the attractions of Nepal for many outdoors folks is that nearly everything in the country is overwhelmingly cheap. Meals can be had for just a few dollars and a night in a teahouse will cost you $5-7, if you want a single.
That being said, getting to Nepal can run you over $1000 for a flight from the United States, so don’t be fooled into thinking you’re going to be able to trek on the roof of the world for pennies, even – and especially – if you choose to trek without a guide (more on that later).
Strikes and political demonstrations are very common
If you sign up for US Department of State travel advisories (highly recommended) before your trip to Nepal, you will almost certainly receive emails about current and planned strikes, most of which are due to civil dissatisfaction over constitutional reforms. In Nepal, strikes – known as bandas – can bring the entire country to a screaming halt.
This is because, during a strike, no public or private transportation is allowed to happen, so nearly all shops, cafes, and restaurants close down shop. Usually, these strikes are actually quite peaceful, but figuring out how to navigate a strike as a tourist that doesn’t speak Nepali or know the area is challenging, to say the least.
The tip is king
If you go to Nepal, expect to tip everyone – the hotel employee who brought your bags to your room, your waiter, your porter, your guide, etc. This may seem annoying, especially if you’re from a country without a tipping culture, but consider this: the average monthly income of a person in Nepal is the equivalent of just $272.
So, while $5, $10, or $15 might be the cost of a coffee or lunch to you, it means the world to many of the people you’ll interact with during your time in the country.
Gastrointestinal distress is a fact of life
If you go to Nepal once and you don’t get horribly sick, count yourself as one of the lucky few. Take a few trips to Nepal and escape illness, then you must be doing something right. Trekkers in Nepal are known for succumbing to various forms of gastrointestinal distress, most of which result in spending much too much time curled around a fairly dirty squatty potty when you could be out enjoying the mountains.
These illnesses are almost all caused by contaminated water and food so it’s important to take care when eating raw and undercooked foods and when drinking any unboiled water in Nepal.
English signs are everywhere, but relatively few people speak the language
When you arrive in Nepal, you’ll be greeted with countless English-language signs, trying to sell you everything from alcohol to clothing. While there are English-language signs everywhere, relatively few people in Nepal actually speak English unless they work in guiding, hospitality, education, or the government.
Rather, most people in Nepal speak Nepali and/or a regional dialect or language, all of which are absolutely nothing like Nepali, so don’t expect communication to be easy.
Trekking in Nepal Without a Guide
At this point, you’re probably wondering what it would be like to trek without a guide in Nepal. Do you remember the five things we just talked about when it comes to trekking in Nepal?
These are the things you’ll look forward to if you trek without a guide. Without a guide, you’ll be left to your own devices to figure out how to navigate strikes, tipping, food, language, and the bookings of all your in-country transportation, hotels and teahouses, and meals.
So, unless you’re comfortable with excessive amounts of pantomime for communication and are a fairly seasoned traveler in Southern Asia, it’s really difficult to recommend that you trek without a guide. Sure, you can probably figure it out if you’re patient and resilient enough, but things will go much more smoothly if you work with a reputable and experienced guide while trekking in Nepal
The Truth About Trekking With a Guide in Nepal
While many people know that they should hire a trekking guide in Nepal, many people choose not to because they don’t want the added expense. They also don’t want to be constrained to someone else’s schedule or be stuck with someone they don’t know for days and weeks on end. Thankfully, many of these beliefs about trekking with a guide in Nepal are either untrue, misguided, or both.
While it is true that hiring a trekking guide in Nepal will cost money. if you hire a high-quality Nepali guide, you are likely to actually save money – and a lot of stress – in the long run. When hiring a guide from Nepal to accompany you on your trek, you can expect to spend about $100 per day for a more popular route and upward of $150 per day for a trip down a less traveled path.
This might seem like a lot of money, but often, this figure includes your airport transfer (both ways), your hotels in Kathmandu and tea houses on the trek, all in-country transport (including flights), nearly all of your meals, and wages for your porters and experienced guides. If you trek alone, you will have to pay for all of these expenses, except for a guide, and you’ll have to figure out how to arrange all of this by yourself.
Even if you trek without a guide, it’s highly recommended that you hire a porter, regardless of whether or not you’re willing and able to carry your own gear. Tea house and lodge owners frown upon tourists who don’t contribute to the economy by hiring local guides and trekking without a porter is equivalent to a slap in the face.
Doing so indicates that you’re in Nepal just to take away an experience, not to give and contribute to the wonderful people who live in the country and have made your stay magical.
Moreover, hiring an experienced guide that is from Nepal will make all of your logistics much more efficient. This will actually save you money in the long run as you won’t end up spending your hard earned money on extra flights, hotels, and meals when a problem arises because it often just takes someone who is familiar with Nepali customs to sort everything out.
Plus, if you hire a high-quality guide, they will not only teach you appropriate Nepali customs and give you insight into the amazing world you’re trekking through, but they’ll help ensure you have a fantastic experience. The most experienced guide will go to great lengths to ensure that your food is cooked properly and that all of the water you’re given is boiled or disinfected.
They can even completely re-route your trip if necessary, something that would be nearly impossible to do on your own if you don’t speak Nepali.
Ultimately, hiring a guide in Nepal can help give you the peace of mind you need when you’re trekking in the mountains. Although it may seem like an added expense, it is well worth the cost in the long run when you come home with tales about your amazing experience.
Tips for Hiring a Trekking Guide in Nepal
Although we highly recommend hiring a trekking guide in Nepal, it can be a very difficult task due to the sheer number of guides offering their services. To help you out, we’ve compiled this list of top tips for hiring a trekking guide in Nepal:
- Hire a guide before you leave home. While you might be tempted to hire a guide in Nepal when you arrive in the country because it gives you a chance to meet the person before you hand over your money, doing so adds another layer of complexity to your journey. With some due diligence and research, it’s very possible to find a quality guide in Nepal from the comfort of your own home.
- Hire a Nepali guide service. There are plenty of Western-owned Nepal trekking companies claiming to be the best in the business, but you’ll often pay two to five times more for their services when all they’re doing is sending along a Western person to act as a liaison between you and a Nepali guide. While you might be tempted to go with a company with a flashy website and a big-name reputation, you’ll spend a lot more for the same service.
- Get personal recommendations from people who have been trekking in Nepal before. The best way to ensure that you’re getting the best guide is to get a recommendation from someone you trust who has been there before. Ask what guide service they used, what they liked about their guides and what they didn’t. Usually, this will help you find a guide service you trust without having to read through hundreds of TripAdvisor reviews.
- Keep an eye out for flashy new websites. Many new companies have popped up in recent years, purporting to be experienced trekking guides. They may have flashy new websites, but they don’t have the boots-on-the-ground experience to actually provide quality service as guides. The best guide services are the ones that have been around for decades and have the client testimonials to back up their claims. If you can get a personal recommendation for one of these companies, that’s even better.
- Be prepared to pay using an international wire transfer or cash. Many guide services in Nepal are small businesses and are not set up to take credit card payments. Thus, you’ll likely have to send a deposit via international wire transfer and pay the rest in crisp, clean, and new US dollar bills upon arrival. This might seem odd to Westerners, but it’s just part of the experience. Check with customs before you fly to determine what your maximum cash allowance is for import into Nepal.
If you’re looking for a specific recommendation for a Nepal trekking guide company, I recommend Chandra Subba at Himalayan Icefall Trekking, one of the most experienced guides in the country. Chandra started his guiding career as a porter over 30 years ago and slowly worked his way up to owning his own guiding service.
To say that Chandra is an experienced trekking guide would be an understatement. My friends and I have personally trekked with Chandra on a number of occasions and he has proven himself time and time again to be a reliable, professional, and high-quality trekking guide throughout the various regions of the Himalaya.
David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.