You’re surrounded by peaks so steep they look like cartoons. Ice hangs precariously from their tops, as if a toddler dolloped icing about the landscape. Everywhere you look the jagged knife edges of the Himalaya stare back menacingly. You peer cautiously over the edge of the trail, even that makes you dizzy. The milky glacial river roars below you. SPLASH! PLOP! As you turn around you see your guide and partner chucking rocks into the icy waters below. Chuckling, you pick up your own stone and give it a throw. PLUNK. Down it goes. It’s just another brilliant day on the trail of the Himalaya; and one of the many reasons to hire a guide in Nepal.
I’m an independent person. Having traveled via local transportation through Java, solo adventured through Mongolia, and backpacked over 100 miles on the Colorado Trail I understand how to dive right into a place unsupported. However, for my visit to Nepal I hired a guide and a porter. Could I have navigated the trails on my own? Sure. They are well marked. Could I have managed to find myself a place to rest my weary head at night? Absolutely. But should you trek in Nepal without a guide? Unless you have lived here, been here many times, or have close local connections I wouldn’t recommend it.
Reason 1 to Hire a Guide in Nepal: Support Nepal
Tourism is the number one industry in Nepal. For those not in the know, Nepal boasts 8 of the 10 world’s tallest peaks. In essence, this is a mountain mecca and hundreds of thousands flock here each year to tackle her challenges and admire her beauty.
However, don’t be fooled, Nepal still struggles to develop. It is a new democracy lacking a constitution with plenty of hurdles ahead of it. According to the World Bank the annual household income in this humble land-locked nation is a mere $730. Nepali people are extraordinarily resilient; always looking at the positive and depending on zero help to better their situation.
The single best thing you can do as a tourist is to find a Nepalese trekking agency, hire a Nepalese guide, and utilize a Nepalese porter. By doing so you are not only giving people much needed work, but you are also giving back directly to the community.
Make a Friend
Guides offer you a window into the fabulous culture of Nepal. Nepal operates on a community based culture. It is all about who you know. If you’re traveling solo you’ll know no one. The only successful solo travelers we came across either lived in Nepal or had visited many times and made local friends. If that’s not you a guide can help you engage with the local community on a meaningful level.
Guides, especially good ones who have been doing this for years, are a part of the community surrounding your trekking route. You stay in lodges where the guide is welcomed and by default, you are welcomed too. We stayed in one lodge where our guide said we could do some laundry. So we bought soap in Namche and got some much-needed washing done, for free. Since I was fresh out of even passably clean socks and underwear this was a god send!
Look Through Local Eyes
The insights our beloved guide Krishna provided were invaluable. You really get to know the people you spend most of your day walking with. We spent hours talking about anything and everything. We learned from each other. Nestled in a stunning backdrop we sat and shared stories about our past, our dreams, our hardships and successes. We laughed, we sang, and carried on with practical jokes. Genuine cultural exchanges are the heart of travel, don’t miss out by going alone.
Gain Local Respect
Throughout the trek I spoke with both solo trekkers and Nepali alike about having a guide and porter. One trekker was shocked that an outdoorsy couple from Colorado would hire a porter to carry their baggage. We explained that we could have carried our own gear, but we chose to provide someone with work for 2 weeks instead. All around us we got approving nods from the locals.
One place we stayed we watched this man, rather rudely, set up a hammock across the lodge’s vegetable patch and smoke from a vape. The owner ran out and questioned him because a) it was rude – he was stomping about their livelihood, and b) he didn’t even ask – he just sort of did. Both Krishna and the owners looked on disapprovingly.
Having a guide and porter isn’t a sign of being a newbie in the mountain world or being weak, it’s a sign of respect. Locals pick up on this. They are more curious about trekkers with guides and much more welcoming.
Ensure You have a Room
People who trek without guides and porters most certainly receive different treatment than those who don’t. We not only witnessed this first hand but spoke to a few lodge owners about it. To put it simply, if you’re traveling solo you will get the lower quality room. You will pay more for it. If you are traveling during the high season and the lodges are busy, even full up, and you’re alone chances are you will be turned away.
People sleep in common rooms during the high season because there simply is not enough room in the small villages along trekking routes. Lodge owners informed me that if I were to show up with a guide and the lodge was full he would find my guide, porter and me place to sleep. If the same were to happen with a solo trekker, they would be turned away or given a tent.
Be Treated Better
We witnessed several solo trekkers in Nepal have difficulty with lodge owners. Some had trouble ordering food. Others would attempt to bargain for something only to be told to go pound sand. It happens and there’s a reason for it.
Why all of the preferential treatment? The answer is simple. Nepal is a community driven country that provides for those who choose to provide Nepali people with work. In essence, it’s disrespectful to their livelihood so they exclude you from the community.
How to Find a Guide
One of the most frequent questions I get asked about Nepal is how to find a guide. There are two methods: one is to wait until you get to Nepal and the other is a good old web search. Regardless of which method you choose make sure your guide is a TAAN member. TAAN or Trekking Agency Association of Nepal sets forth a minimum standard for safety, health, and the environment with a trekking agency. Trekking agencies often display on their websites if they are TAAN, and you can always ask an outfit to show their licenses. For example, the company I trekked with, Trekking Planner Nepal, has all of this information on their webpage.
Most people don’t have the time to head to Nepal, shop for a guide, and hope it works out. Simply google around for the tour you want to do. Find several companies with different itineraries and prices then send out inquiries. Ask questions you do and don’t know the answer to. Next, judge the responses. In the end, I went with Trekking Planner from their response time (Dipak was quick to respond) and how honest I felt he answered my questions. You’ll know when you’ve found the right fit. The disadvantage here is that you don’t meet your guide beforehand. However, this was certainly not a problem for us – Trekking Planner has unbeatable guides.
This method is a bit trickier and I would honestly advise against it unless you’ve done it before or have loads of time. Basically you show up in Kathmandu and search for a guide there. The reason I wouldn’t recommend this method is because you are much more susceptible to scams. However, the method remains the same. Ask questions that you do and don’t know the answer to and go with your gut.
Trek with a Guide
Trekking isn’t going to break the bank, but it isn’t a budget activity either. The people must work harder than you can imagine to haul building materials, food, and supplies up to villages so you are more comfortable. Going out alone, disrespecting their traditions, and attempting to low ball them will only alienate them. Hiring a guide and porter not only helps the local economy, but it ensures you will have a welcoming Nepali experience. Be a part of the community, not apart from the community.