Trekking safely and sustainably in Nepal

Trekking in the Nepal Himalayas has been one of my most rewarding travel experiences. The sense of adventure that comes from a multi-day trek coupled with brilliant vistas of some of the world’s highest peaks is what makes this activity so attractive. If you are preparing your own Nepal trek, this blog of tips and tricks may be of interest to you as it will help you understand how to maximise your own safety during the trek as well as provide advice on how to ensure you trek in a sustainable way, so that you’ll leave only footprints in this pristine part of the world.

This blog is based on my experience of a 5-day trek in the Annapurna region but can largely be applied to other regions and to longer treks in Nepal.

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  • Bring a trekking buddy

Generally, hiking trails in Nepal are very safe in terms of your personal security. There are few notices of trekkers being a victim of criminal acts in this part of the world. However, as a general rule for trekking and hiking anywhere, it is recommended not to hit the trails alone but to walk with a trekking buddy. If you are a lone female traveller, you may wish to consider hiring a female guide as there have been reports of rare occasions where female trekkers have become a victim of (attempted) assault by either local men or male guides and porters. Not venturing out alone is also important given the risk of sustaining injury along the trail; in case you break your ankle or tumble down a ravine you’ll be glad to have someone there with you who can alarm medical emergency services. Phone coverage is not always guaranteed on the trails.

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  • Be aware of high altitude sickness symptoms

Nepal’s trails attain considerable altitudes – not surprising considering that you’re in the Himalaya range. Most of us live our lives on low altitudes around or somewhat above sea level, and our bodies are not accustomed to the environment you’ll find higher up in the mountains. Allow your body time to acclimatise by taking your time climbing: do not try to cover too much difference in altitude in a day and if you climb considerably during the day, it is recommended to always descend and sleep on a lower altitude to allow your body to re-adjust. Be aware of the symptoms of high altitude sickness and act upon them immediately: remember that this disease can be deadly if not taken seriously. Symptoms include dizziness, lack of appetite, fatigue, headache, vomiting and shortness of breath. If you experience these symptoms, stop ascending immediately and rest; if the symptoms do not disappear you should descend to lower altitudes as quickly as possible.

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  • Personal belongings

It is no problem to bring valuables with you on your trek – by definition you will be walking around with stacks of cash as you won’t be able to pay for things electronically here. I have not heard reports of robberies and have never felt unsafe during the trek.  Just keep an eye on your belongings and ensure that you sleep in a room that can be locked from the inside. If you hire a porter for your bags, carry your valuables on your own body.

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  • Know where you’re going


The trails in the Annapurna range are well defined and easy to follow, even though they are not always signposted. As long as you follow the trails, you will pass through villages every few hours where you can get your bearings and ask for directions if needed. You would have to try really hard to actually get lost. I do recommend buying a good quality map (available in Pokhara’s many bookstores) and bringing a GPS or compass with you.

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  • Beware of the yak trains


The trails that you will be walking on are also used by local people and their yak and mule trains: long parades of beasts of burden that carry food and fuel up and down the mountains. Most yaks and mules carry bells around their necks so you will hear them coming from some distance. Always give the animals priority: step aside on the inside shoulder of the road to avoid being knocked off the edge and wait for the animals to pass. You will also encounter random buffaloes on your way; these you can easily pass as they are typically harmless. Mules can be more aggressive so should be approached more carefully, best let them pass you instead of trying to overtake them.

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  • Food and water

It is easy to find food and water along the trail as you will be passing through a village every few hours or so. There are some precautions to take, though: try to avoid eating meat, for example chicken, as you gain altitude as this meat will likely not be fresh. We found the best choice to be a dish called dal bhat: steamed rice combined with a lentil sauce and fresh vegetables which will keep you going for hours (as the popular saying goes that you will find on many tourist t-shirts for sale in Pokhara: dal baht power 24 hour!) We brought some snacks along with us which kept us energized in between meals. Our favourite was a granola bar called Trekker’s Favourite which consists only of natural ingredients. We had bought these snacks in Pokhara. You can also buy them in the villages along the trail but you will find them to be more expensive there. Of course you should take any empty wrappers and other rubbish with you and discard them when you are back in Pokhara.

Also make sure that your drinking water is safe. You should drink plenty of water during the day to keep you hydrated and as a preventive measure against high altitude sickness: carry at least a 1 litre bottle with you. Some people buy plastic water bottles along the way, but I do not recommend this for various reasons. Bottled water becomes progressively expensive as you gain altitude, as the bottles have to be carried all the way up on foot. More importantly, by buying plastic bottles you contribute to an increasing environmental problem in the Himalaya. There is no waste management service in this part of the world and your used bottles will not be recycled. They will end up polluting the environment: this has already become an uphill battle in this region and I urge you not to contribute to this growing issue. The best solution is to buy a sustainable and re-usable aluminium water bottle that you can fill from public water points along the way. Don’t forget to buy water purification tablets, which are available for about 2 dollars for a package of 50 tablets in Pokhara’s convenient stores. Drinking water directly from the source is risky – we used purification tablets at all times, even when taking water from the so called ‘safe drinking water’ points. Use 1 tablet per 1 litre of water, let your bottle rest for 30 minutes before consumption. You can also consider purchasing a steripen or a water bottle with a built-in filter.

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  • Use sustainable energy sources

Bringing your own water bottle also helps you avoid buying boiled water at the trail’s tea houses. Fuel is very scarce up in the mountains and wood fires lead to excessive and illegal logging, which is another environmental issue. Try to avoid wood fires; there are now more and more tea houses that generate energy with solar power and these should be your preferred choice. Also check the heating system of the lodge’s showers: here, solar energy is also top choice, not just to favour the environment but also because there are known cases of people succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning caused by ineffective heat sources (wood or gas fuelled boilers) combined with poorly ventilated shower stalls. When ordering your food, try to order the same dish as your traveling companions, as it will save fuel when the cook can prepare a large batch of the same meal rather than having to use the fire for a prolonged period of time in order to cook different types of meals. You will be able to charge your phone and camera at many lodges along the way against a small charge. We opted to bring our Waka Waka, a great solar power bank which doubles as a flashlight. This is a more sustainable solution plus you will have access to charging power at any point along your trek.

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  • Supporting the locals


Don’t forget to support the local people who depend entirely on agriculture supplemented by income from tourists like yourself. If you can afford it, hire a guide and/or porter to support the local economy. By paying for the services of a guide or porter, you will be sustaining his or her entire family. Ensure that your guide or porter is adequately equipped for the trek with proper footwear and clothing and do not let your porter carry excessive weights. Up to 20 kg can be considered fair although a bag not exceeding 10-12 kg is preferred (we have seen porters carry loads of up to 40 kg, which undoubtedly has adverse ergonomic effects!) Also ensure that the bag your porter has to carry is suitable for the occasion (a well fitted backpack rather than a duffel bag for example). We also paid for our porter’s meals to ensure he was adequately fed for the demanding trek. Pay fair prices for food and lodging and you can support the locals by buying small artefacts and souvenirs from them. Do not give money or sweets to children – giving money will perpetuate the cycle of poverty as it will keep them out of school, and sweets are detrimental to their teeth in an environment where dental health care is unavailable.

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By keeping an eye out for your own safety and for the amazing environment you are walking in, you will enrich your experience and that of those who live in the mountains. Happy trekking!

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