How to plan a responsible trek in Nepal
Every year, hundreds of thousands of hikers arrive in Nepal to tackle its exquisite mountain trails. How many of them, I wonder, are aware of the kind of impact they have on this tiny Himalayan nation? Last December, I was lucky enough to return to Nepal for the first time in nearly 20 years to hike the Everest Base Camp trek with Encounters Travel, and was surprised by the volume of trekkers I encountered making irresponsible decisions in the mountains. If you’re optioning a Nepal trek yourself (and you really should), here are my tips for making the best possible impact on the country, while having the best possible experience yourself.
Keep your luggage to a minimum
Most international operators heed the International Porters Association’s recommendation that Nepal’s porters carry a maximum of 30kg, advising their clients to keep luggage to a maximum of 12.5kg. This allows the porter to carry luggage for two people, as well as 5kg of their own gear (they travel light). Sadly, most local operators do not impose a limit on guest luggage, which leaves porters carrying loads of up to 50kg for no extra pay. My bag weighed 11kg for a 12-day Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek in winter, and in hindsight, I could have left a kilo of that gear back in Kathmandu. You really don’t need much stuff!
Ensure you’re insured
Many travel insurers do not cover high-altitude hiking as part of their regular insurance policies, so be sure to read the fine print before you go, or a heli-evac from the Everest Base Camp trail could end up setting you back a cool US$3000. During my EBC hike, I got chatting to a lovely Indian lady at one of the tea houses. I later learned she slipped and broke her hand, and required a heli ride out. She was not insured, and I’ll bet she’s hating life right now.
Book a tour or hire a guide
While hiring a guide is not compulsory for all but Nepal’s most serious treks, doing so not only contributes to the economy, but comes with myriad advantages – most guides have an incredible knowledge of the mountains, and their altitude sickness management training might just save your life. You may have a better chance of scoring a high-quality guide by booking an organised tour with a reputable international operator, but if it’s not in your budget, there are more than 200 trekking operators in Kathmandu to choose from. Do your research, and ask plenty of questions before signing on. Don’t forget to tip your guide and porter at the end of your trip if you’re pleased with the service provided – the standard rate is US$3-5 per person per day for your guide, and US$2-4 per person per day for your porter.
Choose your meals wisely
A great tip I picked up from my Encounters Travel trip notes is to try and order the same meals as your hiking buddies where possible in teahouses. Cooking different dishes uses more gas, which, in the case of EBC and many other treks, must be carried or helicoptered in.
Leave no trace
A zero-waste mindset is key in the mountains, where most rubbish is burned (not ideal). So pack out what you can. I managed to pack all of the trash I generated in 12 days (aside from toilet paper) into a Pringles can, which I took back to Kathmandu to dispose of more responsibly. I even carried some recyclables all the way back to Australia. Needless to say, toilet paper (and worse: wet wipes) should never be left in wilderness areas like Nepal, where the harsh climate hinders the decomposition process.
Stock up on reusable and biodegradable accessories
The less waste you produce, the less you’ll need to pack out. Asses your kit to see what could be replaced (when the time comes) with a more sustainable option. Head torches, for example, are now available in USB-rechargeable models, negating the need for batteries. And with so many water purifying devices on the market these days (and water purifying tablets available for peanuts at every pharmacy in Nepal), there’s no excuse for using plastic bottles on your trek. Be mindful of what you put into the earth, too, by ensuring your toiletries are eco-friendly. For more tips, check out my article on eco-friendly travel products worth buying.
Hike in the low season or choose a lesser-known trail
With a whopping 500 hikers per day hitting popular trails such as EBC during the high season (March to May and September to November), it’s worth considering a wintertime departure. Sure, the days can be chilly, but the skies are typically at their clearest and the trails are blissfully quiet. Plus, you’ll be contributing to the economy at a time when work is thin on the ground for guides and porters. But there are literally hundreds of hiking opportunities beyond EBC and Annapurna. On my first trip to Nepal, I hiked the Langtang Trek, and only passed one other group during the whole week. While tourism has picked up again now following the 2015 earthquake, which decimated villages along the trail, I’m told the hike is still a breathtakingly raw, uncrowded experience.
Know your limits
Signing up for a demanding hike without the necessary preparation (from training to investing in appropriate gear) puts unnecessary pressure on your guide and local emergency services. It’s also disrespectful to the other members of your group. Altitude sickness, however, can strike anyone. If you’re experiencing any the symptoms, don’t keep it to yourself – it could be fatal.
Be aware of your social impact
It might seem like a nice thing to do, but child protection experts advise against loading your pack with pens and sweets to hand out to local children you meet on your trek, which has been found to do more damage than tooth decay. The experts from the Child Safe Movement do a great job of explaining how you can help vulnerable children in a more sustainable way.
Where you can, try to ensure the money you spend in the mountains (not to mention before and after your trek) directly benefits hardworking locals. You can do this by purchasing souvenirs directly from artisans (on most treks you’ll find various yak wool products for sale), bedding down at locally-owned accommodations such as homestays, and dining on Nepali produce (fora real treat, book a degustation dinner Krishnaparn at Dwarika’s Hotel in Kathmandu, which supports organic farmers). There are also hundreds of volunteer projects in Nepal you may wish to lend a hand to – just remember to do your research before you sign up for any project to ensure it’s sustainable.