How to choose a trek in Nepal

The options for trekking in Nepal are endless. There are 20 designated protected areas in the small country of which there are countless trails within to choose from. You only need to stand at one of the walls full of paper trekking maps in the many bookstores in Kathmandu 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 help explain all the considerations you should take before choosing a trek and trekking company, as well as, what you need to think about if you’re considering trekking independently in Nepal.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links which means I get a commission if you buy a product through my link at no extra cost to you. By doing so, I can keep this blog going and continue to create helpful guides for you.

What you need to consider when choosing a trek

You’ve obviously heard of the Everest Base Camp trek, and you’ve probably heard of the Annapurna Circuit. But what about all the other treks in Nepal that start to pop up once you start researching. There are a plethora of trekking options and just because you’ve heard of Everest doesn’t mean the Base Camp trek is the right one for you.

So, what should you consider when deciding on a trek and a national park? Whether your plan is to do multiple treks or you have time for one epic adventure, here’s what you need to think about.

Near Muktinath, Annapurna Conservation Area

Planning on trekking in Nepal? I have a post on the do’s and don’t’s of trekking in Nepal which covers all the things you need to know about being out on the trail.

How much time do you have?

First of all, you need to know how much time you have to complete a trek. If you’ve purchased yourself a three month Nepali visa and have no set time requirements, then you don’t have too much to worry about. However, if you have a week or perhaps, two weeks, then you might be looking at a shorter trek that doesn’t take up all your holiday.

Weather and timing

If you know how much time you have and how long you want to be trekking, you also need to think about the time of year you’ll be out on the trails. For a small country, Nepal has a range of different climate zones and year to year weather patterns change. This means that not all treks are accessible or safe all year round.

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. During winter, Dolpo and higher villages are often cut off with heavy snow and its almost impossible to trek in those months.

The rest of the 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 main trekking areas, I would recommend going in the months of February, May, September or December, as they tend to be much quieter being 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.

You can check trail and weather conditions at the Nepal Tourism Board Office near Ratna Park in Kathmandu or the ACAP Office in Pokhara (the two offices where independent trekkers need to get their permits and TIMS card).

Gokyo Ri, Sagarmatha National Park

Altitude and difficulty

Once you have timing sorted, the next thing to think about is how challenging you want the trek to be. 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, the endpoint of the Gokyo trek and the highest place you sleep. However, most people complete a side hike up to Gokyo Ri, a magnificent viewpoint at 5360m and that 600m difference in altitude can make a big difference.

So when looking at the elevations of a trek, look across the days at the average altitude that you will be walking at and not just at the maximum elevation reached for the whole trek.

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 tackle that one pass over 5000m, knowing that the rest of the circuit is much lower.

The Three Passes trek in the Sagarmatha National Park, on the other hand, 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.

Our bodies are generally better at adapting for a quick or once-off pass over 5000m. The longer you spend at a high altitude, the greater your risk of AMS will be.

Remember that 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.

Khopra Danda community lodge
Khopra community lodge, Annapurna Conservation Area

Teahouses vs camping

Treks in Nepal tend to be divided into two categories: teahouse treks and camping expeditions. This can obviously sway your decision because teahouses make trekking a bit more comfortable and usually, more affordable. 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 the elevation.

Camping treks are generally more involved affairs as it requires a bigger 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.

These days, however, teahouses are being built in most of the trekking areas and national parks, even those who 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.

Accessibility and permits

Along the same line as remoteness, accessibility will play a role in which trek you choose. The common reason that the 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 their organisation.

Trailhead access

If you plan on going with a trekking company they will often take care of this for you. However, if you choose to organise a trek independently then transportation will be up to you. Still, even with companies looking after your transport, how much you’re willing to travel to begin a trek may still influence which trek you do.

People often say that Langtang National Park is one of the most accessible. 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.

Treks in the Annapurna Conservation Area are more easily accessible once you get yourself to Pokhara. A major trail head for a few shorter treks into the Annapurnas is at Nayapul, which is just a two-hour bus or jeep ride from Pokhara.

On the other hand, you also have the choice of flying into some trailheads. Jomsom in the Annapurna Conservation Area has a small airport where you can begin and/or end the Annapurna Circuit, 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 forgo the high ticket prices for tortuous but affordable bus and hiking combinations. 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. Read about it here. There are options for everyone.

National Park fee paperwork and TIMS card for the Annapurna Conservation Area

Permits

The other aspect of accessibility I need to note is the permits. For Langtang National Park, Sagarmatha National Park and Annapurna Conservation Area, a pretty standard park fee entrance along with a TIMS card are needed to trek there. I paid 5000 rupees (AUD$65) in total for each of the treks I did in these parks.

However, some areas in Nepal are considered either too dangerous for independent trekkers or particularly protected because of their old cultures and pristine natural environment. These areas require special permits and different fees.

These permits usually require people to have a group of at least two people as well as an official guide, but the level of organisation differs depending on the area. Prices also differ. 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 compared to the permits and fees for both Upper Mustang and Upper Dolpo restricted areas, which are at a high 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.

Sherpa culture
Khumjung village, Sagarmatha National Park

Purpose and priorities

After looking at more of the practical sides of treks, you should also take into account your purpose of wanting to trek in the Himalayas in the first place and your priorities of what you want to see.

By this I mean, is it a cultural experience you are after? Is it just to get out there to see some epic mountain views? Or perhaps, you really want to see some of the eight-thousanders or one of the top ten highest mountains in the world? In some treks, you can tick all of these things off, but many of them also emphasise a particular motivation for choosing that trek.

For example, one of the main reasons people choose to pay the special permit fees for Upper Dolpo or Upper Mustang treks is because of the raw Tibetan culture that can be experienced in these former mountain kingdom areas. In comparison, for those who trek to Gokyo in the Sagarmatha National Park, it would be safe to say that seeing the panorama of four of the world’s highest mountains, including Everest, would be considered the main motivation for trekking there. On the other hand, you’ve also got Langtang Valley, which although is devoid of any of the big eight-thousanders, still provides epic mountain views on par with other treks in Nepal.

So, if you think about why you are trekking and what your priority is, it will likely make choosing a trek even easier.

Yaks on the way up to Dhole
Yaks on the trail in Sagarmatha National Park

An independent or guided trek?

For most, if not all, treks outside of the three main trekking areas of Sagarmatha, Annapurna and Langtang, having an organised or guided trek is part of the permit process. However, on the trekking trails within these three areas, you are mostly free to wander alone or at least unguided if you so choose.

So, if you choose a trek inside either Sagarmatha, Annapurna or Langtang, should you trek independently or with a guide? The answer really depends on you.

Deciding to trek independently

Firstly, you should consider your own capabilities and experience. Have you trekked before? Have you hiked independently or alone before? Would you be concerned about being alone on the trail? If you are confident within yourself that you can trek alone then there is no reason why you shouldn’t. Although the signs at the TIMS offices in Kathmandu and Pokhara try to dissuade you otherwise, trekking alone in these three areas 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 a group and want to go independently, it’s also a good idea to at least know each other’s experience and be confident that some of you have hiking experience. You should certainly discuss how you want to tackle the trek independently as a group before you set out.

View from Dobato
View from Dobato, Annapurna Conservation Area

Secondly, the cost factor is sometimes the main deciding point. Obviously, having a guide will increase your overall trekking costs. If you arrange a guide from one of the small trekking agencies in Kathmandu or Pokhara you’ll be looking at paying around US$30-40 per day, including their food and accommodation costs along the way. This will generally mean the guide is well trained and speaks good English. You may be able to hire a guide at a lower rate, but they may not be able to speak English as well or be as knowledgable about trekking. Obviously, this cost for a guide can be shared between a group, so if you have a few people it really doesn’t add much on to your daily budget. However, if you’re alone or a couple and travelling on a budget, then this may significantly influence you to trek independently.

Thirdly, even if you decide not to take a guide, it is still possible to arrange porters. Any of the trekking agencies in Kathmandu or Pokhara can do this for you or even if you begin your trek and are not sure you are capable of continuing with your pack, many teahouses will be able to organise a porter for you along the way. Some people hire a porter for just a day or two, particularly for any days you need to cover a pass like Thorung La on the Annapurna Circuit or Cho La in Sagarmatha National Park. Teahouses either side of these passes will be able to help.

Finally, make sure that you use common sense on the trail and continuously ask people about trail conditions and upcoming weather updates. For much of the time on the trail you won’t have internet access and so any news or important information will be lost on you if you do not ask for it. Guides will 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.

Teahouse managers will often be able to help, as they talk to guides each day and groups going in both directions on the trail. However, the best way is to actually ask other guides on the trail. I found guides with groups very friendly and open to talk and in general, they often offered information to me without me even asking. For example, a couple of guides told me not to go to Annapurna Base Camp because of the high risk of avalanches and forthcoming bad weather. So instead I decided to continue down to Gandruk and back to Pokhara, after doing Khopra Ridge. 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.

Questions you should ask include: How is the weather looking for the next few days? How is the trail to {insert base camp or viewpoint here} at the moment? Is the {insert high pass here} safe to cross at the moment? What do you think if I wanted to go to {insert base camp, viewpoint or high pass here}?

Walking to Khopra
Walking up to Khopra Ridge, Annapurna Conservation Area

Advantages of having a guide

I am a huge advocate of trekking independently and I trekked solo in Nepal across three different national parks. However, in saying that, I recognise that many people prefer to take a guide and there are still some significant advantages of having one, which include:

  • If you decide to trek in off-peak times when trail conditions are more precarious and fewer people are out on the trail, having a guide will be able to assist in times when you’re unsure a trail is safe or if you prefer to have company.
  • On the other hand, if you decide to trek in peak season then teahouses often fill up on the popular routes and guides can sometimes call ahead to make arrangements to save you a bed. Having a guide will also often make you a priority in terms of food and bed arrangements in general and teahouse managers often make independent trekkers wait.
  • It can also be interesting to have a guide as they are usually very knowledgeable in the region’s cultural practices and terrain and you will often learn much more about the regions you trek in if you have a guide with you.
  • You also have to think that guiding is 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.
Trail to Gokyo
Porter team coming into Gokyo village

What you need to consider when choosing a trekking company

If you’ve decided to go with a trekking company in Nepal to take all the logistics and worries out of the organisation, then there are also some things you should consider when picking a company.

Ethical considerations

If you want to consider yourself as a responsible trekker in Nepal, then ethical considerations will be a huge factor when deciding on a trekking company. As in many travel arrangements made in poorer countries, there is a great deal of concern about the fairness of pay, working rights and wellbeing of employees in companies who operate in Nepal, particularly surrounding porters and guides on treks.

It should be embedded into our human nature that as tourists we do not want to be complicit in exploitation of people and so it is important that you consider the ethics and values of a company before going with them.

As responsible and ethical travel continues to take hold in the travel industry, agencies and companies are becoming more aware and transparent about their operations and policies. However, it always pays to ask questions if something is not immediately clear by looking at their website or reviews.

The questions you should be asking include:

Do they pay a fair wage to their employees?

Do they provide a rights-based and ethical workplace culture for who they employ?

Do they give back to the communities that they operate in?

Do they have any social responsibility guidelines that they follow or implement?

Do they partake in any unethical practices, such as elephant rides in Chitwan National Park for example?

Porter bringing down plastic through Sagarmatha National Park

Environmental considerations

A company’s ethics and values should also include environmental considerations and impact reduction policies. There are significant environmental concerns about trekking in Nepal and the trekking companies should be at least recognising that and taking steps to do their bit.

Over the last couple of years it has come to light that at the end of the main trekking seasons there is considerable environmental damage and waste disposal issues that plague the major trekking regions. Everest Base Camp (EBC) has copped most of the headlines, as piles of rubbish are left behind and the government is struggling to fund operations to remove it all. However, this is not only a problem at EBC. You only have to look behind teahouses or off the side of some of the major trails to find rubbish dumps left behind by trekking groups and local people trying to cater to the influx of tourists.

So along with questions about employee welfare and social responsibility, you should also be asking if they do anything specific or have policies outlining how they are reducing their impact on the planet. It might be small things like not using plastic water bottles and providing refillable clean water, but it can make a huge difference to the waste left behind in the beautiful Himalayas at the end of the season.

Local vs international company

This is actually a huge consideration that deserves much more attention. There are pros and cons for both local and international companies, and it really comes down to personal preference and things like budget and personal values.

Benefits of using a local company

Supporting smaller and local companies is a good way to become a more responsible trekker and traveller. Often these companies are either family run or they employ a large number of local people, meaning that you are supporting increased employment opportunities in places that often need it most. In Nepal, many trekking companies are run by ex-guides or porters or ex-Everest climbers, and in this way, you are also promoting the idea of self-employment and people working their way up to owning their own business. This is a huge boost for the local economy.

Local companies are also sometimes more in tune with local issues and are more willing to give back to their community. You’ll find that those ex-guides or porters in Nepal who work their way up to become business owners, will often go back to help or support their home village or area in some way and this can be a nice way to know as a trekker that your money is supporting the people who need it.

The other advantage of a local company is also that they are generally much cheaper. They don’t have huge head offices with lots of staff or taxes in multiple countries and so their pricing is usually a lot more affordable and realistic to the costs in the country.

You can find hundreds of local trekking companies on the streets in Kathmandu and Pokhara. It can be difficult to know which shop to walk into as they begin to all look the same with similar treks offered and prices. You can sometimes find reviews online or ask at a restaurant or hostel about recommendations. It’s also good to talk to other travellers and listen to their experiences.

Langtang trail
Langtang Valley

Benefits of using an international company

It’s often much easier to sit in the comfort of your own home, click a couple of buttons, enter your credit card details and boom! You’ve booked a trip to Nepal and you can sit back and wait until the departure day arrives. Using a large international company such as G Adventures or World Expeditions, means that you can feel reassured that everything will be well organised and to a certain kind of standard.

These companies are also more open to criticism and pressure from potential customers and so often that means they also have very well versed and explicit policies outlining their values, ethics and environmental impact reduction strategies on their website. Still, the employment of local people and upholding these ethical standards is tough if a company has its headquarters outside of the country they are operating in. It also might mean that they are out of touch with local problems and any programs they are involved in to give back to communities may not be as appropriate. Still, on this front, these larger companies are always improving and it’s up to you to ask the hard questions when inquiring about a trek with them.

Although you’ll likely be paying sometimes double what you might pay with a local company, you do often get a more reassuring feeling, knowing that generally, everything runs very smoothly as their reputation is very important for them.

Jomsom trek
Near Kagbeni, Lower Mustang Area

So, now that you know how to choose a trek and trekking company and whether you want to trek independently or with a guide…

Read Next:

where to trek in Nepal blog

You might also want to check out my other posts on Nepal, including:

Like this post? Pin it!

One thought on “How to choose a trek in Nepal

Leave a Reply