Top experiences when backpacking Nepal
- Catching your first glimpse of an 8,000-meter peak
- The sense of accomplishment you get from completing your Himalaya trek
- Exploring the old towns of the Kathmandu Valley
- Getting acquainted with Tibetan culture in small villages — or big cities like Boudhanath
- Chatting with guides, porters and trekkers around a yak-dung stove in a cozy tea house dining room
Your Nepal itinerary will probably be dictated by your trekking trip, if you’re doing one. Most treks are between 10 and 21 days. Even if you’re a strong hiker, don’t plan on being able to do your trek significantly faster — altitude will slow you down.
You should definitely leave ample time at the end of your Nepal backpacking itinerary for travel troubles getting back to Kathmandu from your trail. This is especially true if you’re reliant on domestic flights, and especially if your trek ends in Lukla. Due to frequent weather-related cancellations, the general rule is to leave at least three days at the end of an Everest region trek for a flight out of Lukla.
Don’t miss out on spending a few days in Kathmandu and the Kathmandu Valley when you’re backpacking Nepal. You can easily spend four days based in Kathmandu, with day trips on public transport to Boudhanath, Patan and Bhaktapur.
To give you a sense of what’s possible, in three weeks I did the Manaslu Circuit Trek (14 days) and spent four days in Kathmandu. I had no possibility of being able to fit in a jungle or rafting trip on that timeline.
Nepal weather and the best time to visit Nepal
It may be hard to believe when you’re freezing your a$$ off in the snow at 4,000 meters, but technically Nepal is a tropical country. In fact, when you’re standing at the top of Mount Everest, you’re parallel with Algeria, Myanmar, Egypt, Mexico, and parts of Florida.
The tropical climate means Nepal experiences wet and dry seasons with largely consistent temperatures. October-November is the driest time of year and the best time to go trekking and backpacking Nepal. March-May is the second best time to visit Nepal — you’ll get some precipitation and more haziness in the lowlands, but it’s still mostly dry and pleasant, you’ll get to see the amazing rhododendron blooms, and the crowds are fewer than in the fall.
Other times of year are best avoided if your main aim is to trek while backpacking Nepal. December-March see lots of snow at elevation, which can make high pass crossings dangerous. The monsoon season (June-October) sees daily deluges and miserable conditions for being outside 12 hours a day. Most tea houses and shops on the trails close at these times.
The one popular exception to Nepal’s seasons is Mustang. This region has its dry season during the summer, while the rest of Nepal is in the monsoon.
Nepal is an extremely diverse country, and people speak dozens of different languages. When you’re trekking, you may greet people with “namaste” in the lowlands and “tashi deleg” on the Tibetan plateau. In Kathmandu you thank people by saying “danyabad,” while in the Everest region the Sherpa “lolo ouskham” might be more appropriate.
Nearly everyone speaks Nepali, although it’s often their second language. Nepali has a lot in common with Hindi (including the script). It’s known for being one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn.
Most people who interact regularly with tourists speak at least some English. However, even in Kathmandu, if you venture outside the tourist areas you’ll meet many locals who don’t speak English at all. This is especially challenging when you’re trying to take public transportation — at a minimum, make sure you can correctly pronounce your destination in Nepali.
The biggest factor in your Nepal trip cost is how you trek — independently, with a guide, or on a pre-planned package trip. On the low end, you could spend as little as $25 per day both on the trails and in cities while backpacking Nepal. On the high end, if you choose a restricted-region trek that requires expensive permits, guides, camping crew, and a flight to the trail head, you could be looking at upwards of $100 a day.
Two-person room in a tea house: 300 rupees below 3,000 meters. 500-700 rupees at elevation.
Dal bhat (rice and veg curry): 500 rupees
Locally brewed Tuborg or Everest beer: 400 rupees
Cup of masala tea: 50-100 rupees
Museum or historical site admission: 1,000 rupees
Local bus ticket: 50 rupees per hour or less
Taxi from Kathmandu to Patan or Boudhanath: 400 rupees
Elephant pants from a Thamel shop: 500 rupees
Guide/porter per day: 2,500 rupees/1,000 rupees
For most nationalities, getting your Nepal visa is very straightforward. You can get your visa on arrival at the airport or at most land border crossings. Indians do not need a visa to go backpacking Nepal at all.
A 30-day visa for Nepal costs $40, or get a 90-day for $100. If you want a multiple-entry visa, you’ll have to fork over an extra $20. Bring U.S. dollars. You need a passport photo (you can have one taken for free at the Kathmandu airport).
You can save yourself some time at the airport by filling out the visa form online in advance. You have to do this within 15 days of starting your trip backpacking Nepal (i.e. do it too early and it won’t be valid), and you need the full address of a hotel. You don’t pay online — you get a printable copy of your application to bring to the airport visa desk.
Both on and off the trekking trails, accommodation when you’re backpacking Nepal is good value for money.
In the cities
Kathmandu is the most expensive place in the country to stay — but you can still find private rooms with private bathrooms for around $12, and dorms for under $5. Rooms at that price range tend to be bare-bones, with thin mattresses, thinner walls, and little natural light. But they’re clean and generally have good hot water supplies and Western toilets. The best places have pleasant communal gardens and great roof decks.
In the Kathmandu Valley and in gateway towns to trailheads (like Besi Sehar and Lukla), you’ll find cheaper guesthouses at about the same standard. Rooms typically share a bathroom, which may be an Asian toilet, but they come in around $5.
It’s worth booking in advance in the peak trekking seasons of October-November and March-May. If you don’t, you’ll probably still be able to find a room, but not at your first-choice guesthouse.
Tea House Trekking
Most people backpacking Nepal are coming to trek. On the most popular trails, you’ll typically stay in “tea houses” — simple mountain lodges catering to tourists. The rooms are often very small. They can be scorching at low elevations and freezing at high elevations. The mattresses feel like cardboard. The walls rarely reach the ceiling. But they’re also super charming and an essential part of the experience of trekking in Nepal.
The amenities at tea houses vary widely depending on the trek and the elevation. On the Annapurna Circuit trek and the Everest Base Camp trek, you’ll find Western toilets, hot showers, electronics charging stations and WiFi nearly everywhere. On less popular treks you may only find WiFi every several days, and if there are hot showers at all, they’re often bucket showers. Above 3,500 meters on all treks, cleanliness and sanitation standards plummet.
Tea house accommodation costs about $2.50 a night in the lowlands to around $5 a night at altitude. The expectation is that you will eat at the tea house you stay at — the room is subsidized with the price of food. In fact, if you choose to eat outside or bring your own food, the price of the room may be higher. Generally the entire town agrees on fixed prices for rooms and food, so don’t try to bargain. Budget an additional $3 a day in the lowlands and $5-8 a day above 3,000 meters to buy hot showers, WiFi, or access to electronics charging stations.
You can usually find a room wherever you feel like stopping for the day when you’re hiking in Nepal. However, it may be worth calling ahead (earlier in the same day) to reserve a room during peak season. This is especially true at high altitude — where there may only be one or two tea houses in a town — and in any of the typical places where people take rest/acclimatization days. If you roll into town and all the rooms are full, you’ll either have to trek on to the next town or sleep on the floor of the dining room.
If you’re doing a camping trek while backpacking Nepal, you’ll need to be much more self-sufficient in terms of food and gear. Generally camping treks are arranged through as Nepal trekking tours through a travel agency in Nepal due to permitting requirements. The agency will handle all the logistics.
Some of the more remote tea house treks, including the Manaslu Circuit and the Kanchenjunga trek, sometimes involve a night or two in permanent tents. These can actually be warmer and are invariably cleaner than tea houses at altitude.
First, the good news: Kathmandu has one of the world’s best international dining scenes. You can find excellent Korean, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Cajun, Thai, Indian, Bhutanese, Nepali, and Italian food all within a five-minute walk. It’s not cheap — meals come in at $5-$10 — but it’s worth the splurge after weeks on the trails. Menu prices generally don’t include the additional 10% service charge and 14% tax.
Now, the bad news: You’re going to get really sick of tea house food when backpacking Nepal.
Most tea houses have a virtually identical menu, which gets more limited as you go up in altitude. The Nepali staples of dal bhat (all-you-can-eat meal of rice, lentil soup, and mild veg curry), vegetable and potato curries, and momos are always available. Beyond that, food mostly consists of fried rice, fried noodles, fried potatoes, eggs, soup, and chapati. Pizza and spaghetti are widely available but the tomato sauce is sickeningly sweet.
On popular treks, meat — often in the form of yak burgers — is on the menu until you get up to around 4,000 meters. On quieter treks, you may find no meat along the whole trail, or only in tropical towns.
Since accommodation at tea houses is more or less identical within a town, and you’re expected to eat where you stay, it’s worth choosing a tea house based on the restaurant. One important factor at altitude: do they have a heater in the dining room?
Food prices skyrocket as fast as the altitude. In the lowlands, a dal bhat may cost $2.50-$3. That same meal runs more like $8 at 4,000 meters. On average, budget $15 a day for food during a trek while backpacking Nepal.
Tea is a national obsession in Nepal. Locals drink copious amounts of it for breakfast, lunch and dinner — and you’ll likely do the same when it gets cold on the trekking trails.
Most Nepalis drink black tea in the mornings. Masala tea (with milk and spices) is typically reserved for mid-morning, afternoon and evening. Lemon tea, ginger tea, and lemon/ginger/honey tea are popular caffeine-free alternatives and do wonders for the colds and stomach-aches that you may face during your Nepal trip.
Coffee is less popular than tea, but it’s always available, even on remote parts of treks. Usually it’s Nescafe. Kathmandu has a number of good espresso bars serving the real thing, and Himalayan Java is a Western-style coffee chain with shops across Nepal.
Tea and coffee are both affordable even at high altitude. Expect to pay $1-$1.50 a cup at the high end. If you’re on a guided trek while backpacking Nepal, you will still be expected to pay for your own drinks.
Beer is widely available on the treks and in cities, but it’s expensive. Even in Kathmandu a beer runs around $4. Cheaper is the local fire water, which ranges from a very light millet beer to a wickedly strong millet whiskey, always referred to as “raksi” regardless of how potent it is. It’s served warm. Other imported liquor, including proper whiskey and Chinese rice wine, is also available in the mountains, but it’s pricey.
Think twice before consuming alcohol at altitude. You’re more likely to feel its effects, and if you’re already struggling to acclimatize, a hangover isn’t going to help.
Finally, one of the cardinal rules of backpacking Nepal is don’t buy bottled water. The country is suffering from a catastrophic plastic waste problem. Don’t contribute to it — instead, bring a reusable bottle and a purification method. I used a Steri pen — a small UV light that you stir around in a water bottle for 90 seconds. It doesn’t impact the taste and it’s very convenient and easy to use. Purification tablets are another option, but they make the water taste funny.
The main activity that draws people to backpack Nepal is, of course, trekking in the world’s highest mountain range. Treks range from 1-2 days to nearly a month, and the options are endless.
If you trek independently on a popular trail, the only costs will be your food and accommodation. On these treks, you could get away with an average budget of $20 a day. You could hire a guide on these trails for around $25 a day and a porter for around $15 a day. You will have to pay for your staff’s transportation to the trail head, so if you have to fly, hire them locally instead of from Kathmandu.
Restricted region trekking is a different animal. You have to arrange restricted region treks through an agency — there is no way to get the permits independently. You are also usually required to have a guide. The easiest and cheapest way to set up a restricted region trek is by purchasing a package that includes permits, guides/porters, food, accommodation and transportation. Budget around $85 a day for these treks and remember that what you’re paying for is a more authentic, remote trekking experience.
Don’t forget to calculate tips for your guides and porters when determining your budget for backpacking Nepal. Tip guides $10-$20 a day and porters $5-$10 a day (total for the group, not individually).
A couple other essential costs to keep in mind when trekking are your travel insurance and basic protections for any staff you hire.
Helicopter evacuations to Bangkok can run as high as $30,000 — and they’re shockingly common. Do not trek without evacuation insurance. I always use World Nomads for travel insurance — their basic plan covers treks up to 6,000 meters.
If you hire guides and porters, you have a responsibility to protect them as well. It is never, ever okay to risk someone else’s life, health or financial well-being so you can save a few bucks. Make sure your staff has insurance. Make sure they have proper clothing if you’re going up high — specifically check for sunglasses, jackets, and close-toed shoes. Clothing banks in Kathmandu and Namche Bazaar allow you to purchase second-hand trekking gear for porters, who are typically less well-equipped than guides.
Trekking isn’t the only activity available when backpacking Nepal. You can also do a jungle safari, white water rafting, paragliding, rock climbing, mountain biking and more. Costs generally run in the $75 a day range for these adventure activities.
Don’t forget to spend some time exploring Kathmandu and the Kathmandu Valley before or after your trek. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has tons of medieval architecture and fascinating history. Access to historical sites costs $10-$15.
Nepal’s former glory days as a hippie hangout have made it a popular destination for yoga, meditation and wellness experiences. Pokhara is the most popular place for these. Budget around $50 a day for multi-day retreats.
One thing is for sure — transportation is always an adventure when backpacking Nepal, no matter what form it takes.
If you can afford it, the most convenient way to get around while backpacking Nepal is with the surprisingly large network of domestic flights. These connect Kathmandu with Pokhara, Jomsom, Lukla (for Everest region) and more. Flights generally run $150-ish for international travelers.
Flights are quick — usually under an hour — if they leave on time. And in a mountainous country with all sorts of weather problems, that’s a big if. Lukla is especially notorious for days-long delays — pilots can only take off in perfect weather. It would be wise to leave at least three days’ buffer between flying out of Lukla and your international flight home.
Safety standards on Nepali airlines are questionable at best. Given the conditions pilots face, accidents are actually pretty rare, but they do happen. Most recently, in March 2018, a small passenger plane crashed on landing in Kathmandu, killing 49 people. None of Nepal’s airlines are cleared to fly in EU airspace due to safety concerns.
If your budget or nerves limit your ability to fly, you can still get around most of northern and central Nepal pretty easily by bus.
At the top end of the bus spectrum are so-called “tourist buses” (also used by locals). These are reasonably comfortable and often air conditioned. They cost about $1 per hour. Some tourist buses are “premium” — they are quite a bit more expensive ($25 for six hours from Kathmandu to Pokhara).
Not all routes are served by tourist buses. If you’re headed to a more remote corner of Nepal, you’ll have to take a local bus. These cost only slightly less than the tourist buses and they can be dreadfully slow, uncomfortable and overcrowded — you may not get a seat. They also tend to cover roads that are unpaved. Be prepared to get stuck if it’s rained recently. My local bus from Kathmandu to Arkhet Bazaar was supposed to take 6 hours and actually took 15 hours due to road conditions, and I had to walk the last 45 minutes into town in the dark and rain when the bus got permanently stuck.
Some routes — like Besi Sahar to Kathmandu — are also served by microbuses. They’re faster and more comfortable than local buses, but they also have alarmingly high accident rates. They cost around $1 per hour.
On truly horrendous roads, the only transportation option is a 4×4 Jeep. These can be hired privately or shared with others. Even the shared Jeeps are pretty pricey — around $3 per hour. They’re brutally bumpy to the point that a five-hour Jeep trip left me more sore than a two-week trek. Most travelers use shared Jeeps to get from Besi Sahar (the gateway to Annapurna) to Chamje or Dharepani to avoid walking on the road.
Regardless of how you get around by bus, it’s easiest to book your ticket through a travel agency. The bus stations themselves are very chaotic and confusing, with little English spoken. Add two hours or more to how long locals say it will take (to account for breakdowns, traffic, and other delays). Buses always stop for breakfast and/or lunch and make toilet stops every 1-2 hours.
For short trips around town or around the Kathmandu Valley while backpacking Nepal, you’ll get to experience a wide range of local transport — all of it very dusty and uncomfortable.
Within Kathmandu, you can walk, take cycle rickshaws, or hire taxis. Walking is by far the best way to see the city, but it can be frustrating and unsafe to constantly dodge motorbikes and cars along streets that are in awful shape post-earthquake. Consider wearing your hiking boots to avoid stubbing your toes or rolling your ankles.
If you take rickshaws or taxis, negotiate prices in advance. A short trip should run you $1-2 max. Taxi drivers make a gentle effort to overcharge, but aren’t hell-bent on ripping you off. It’s not culturally appropriate to negotiate as aggressively as you would in, say, India or Thailand. You’ll know pretty quickly if the price you’re asking is too low — don’t push it or get mad.
Buses for destinations around the Kathmandu Valley leave from the special layer of hell that is the Ratna Park bus station, just outside of the Thamel backpacker district. It’s total chaos, there are no English signs, and no one makes much of an effort to help you find your vehicle. Keep calling out your destination and someone will eventually put you on a bus going in that direction. Use an offline Google Map to figure out when to get off. Your “bus” may be a minivan or a truck with wooden benches in the back, but it will be cheap — around $0.20 for most destinations. You’re likely to be the only tourist on the bus.
Backpacking Nepal is extremely safe from a crime perspective. Robbery and pickpocketing is uncommon. Scams are relatively rare. Violent crime is basically unheard of.
Most of the dangers in Nepal come from one of two things: the traffic and the natural environment.
If you walk around Kathmandu, keep in mind that 40% of traffic deaths are pedestrians. Watch where you’re going and follow the locals when crossing busy streets. For longer journeys on buses, choose reputable companies, avoid microbuses, and travel during daylight hours.
Outside of the trekking trails, the environment can still put you at risk. Remember, Kathmandu experienced some of the worst destruction from the 2015 earthquake. There is little you can do to avoid being caught up in a random natural disaster, but at least stay out of buildings that are marked as structurally unsafe.
Trekking in the highest mountain range in the world carries a number of serious risks. Given the popularity of trekking in Nepal, it’s easy to forget how dangerous it can be. But a few basic precautions can go a long way toward keeping you safe.
Most importantly, never trek alone. If you’re traveling solo, it’s very easy to find trekking buddies or to hire a porter. It’s not worth the risks to set out totally by yourself.
The second important factor is to pay attention to the weather. While the next 2015 earthquake may be unpredictable, many catastrophic weather events, including blizzards, avalanches and landslides, are very predictable. Seek local advice at every stop you make and don’t set out across a dangerous area (like a high pass crossing) in poor weather.
Avalanches are often triggered by storms (as in 2014 when a blizzard killed dozens of trekkers crossing the Thorong La Pass on the Annapurna Circuit). The risk is highest after 9 am when the snow starts to melt. If you must cross an avalanche- or landslide-prone area, travel in a group of at least three and cross one at a time (so you have someone to watch for falling rocks/snow on both sides as you cross).
Donkey and yak trains transport goods up from the lowlands. Always let them pass by stepping to the inside of the trail (away from the edge of the cliff) to avoid being pushed off. If you encounter them on suspension bridges, wait to cross until they clear it.
The other serious risk while trekking in Nepal is altitude sickness. Most of Nepal’s popular treks take you above 5,000 meters, and keep you between 3,500 and 5,000 meters for several days. Altitude sickness can be fatal at these elevations. A handful of trekkers die each year from altitude sickness in Nepal.
There is no rhyme or reason to who experiences altitude sickness and who doesn’t. Even if you’ve been to high altitudes before and never had problems, you could get sick the next time. Your physical fitness has nothing to do with your ability to acclimatize, nor does your age.
The good news is, severe altitude sickness is entirely avoidable. All you have to do is ascend slowly, monitor yourself for symptoms, and stay put or descend quickly if your symptoms worsen.
Once you’re above 3,000 meters, you should avoid sleeping more than 500 meters higher the next night. That means your trekking days will get shorter — you may arrive at camp before lunch. No matter how tempting it is to continue, do not ascend higher. Instead, drop off your stuff, have lunch, and do a day hike to a higher altitude. Hiking higher than you sleep that night is thought to help with acclimatization.
Many people experience mild altitude sickness in Nepal. You may get headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, and fatigue. If you experience these symptoms, do not continue your ascent — stay where you are or descend until the symptoms subside (generally within a day). You can take a painkiller to cope with a headache. Diamox can help relieve or avoid symptoms, but it’s a diuretic so be sure to drink tons of water if you take it.
If your symptoms worsen to include difficulty breathing at rest (5-10 minutes after you stop trekking) or disorientation, you must descend immediately to below the point at which you started experiencing symptoms. These are signs of more serious versions of altitude sickness that can become fatal within hours. You may need to be evacuated if you are unable to make a fast descent under your own power. Even if you experience these severe symptoms at night, you should descend immediately — most villages can arrange a porter to help get you down in the dark.
Traveling with a guide can be hugely helpful when you’re not feeling well. Plus, guides often carry oxymeters to check the oxygen level in your blood a couple times a day. This can be life-saving in cases of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, which can often go unnoticed until it’s too late if you’re relying on spotting symptoms alone.
But a guide can be a double-edged sword — guides on group trips often push their groups too high too fast, especially if slowing down would mean splitting up the group. In fact, a disproportionate number of altitude sickness deaths occur on guided treks. Insist on a rest day or a slower ascent if you don’t feel well, and make others in your group aware of your symptoms. Don’t ever hide or lie about your symptoms to your guide.
To be clear, it’s possible to trek to high altitudes safely and comfortably while backpacking Nepal. Just make sure you fully understand the risks and warning signs before you set out.
For women alone
Traveling to Nepal alone as a solo woman is extremely easy. While you may meet the occasional flirtatious guy, you’re highly unlikely to face anything more threatening.
Choose male hiking buddies, guides and porters carefully while backpacking Nepal. You’ll share close quarters with them for an extended period of time, and things can get awkward if anyone gets the wrong idea. It isn’t always possible to get your own room or a same-sex roommate on tea house treks, especially at high camps where rooms are limited.
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