For many adventure travelers, the Himalaya represent the ultimate destination. A visit to those mountains combines physical challenges, stunning landscapes, and spectacular cultural experiences. But whether you’re making a trek to Everest Base Camp, hiking the Annapurna Circuit, or simply strolling to Namche Bazaar, you’ll have to make an important choice before you go – whether to hire a guide or travel independently.
If you have never gone on a trek of this nature before, the choice is a simple one. You should definitely hire a guide for your first long distance hike. But if you have even a moderate level of experience backpacking, then you should consider the choices quite carefully, as both have their advantages and drawbacks, which can have a direct impact on a number of aspects of your trip.
The first element of your journey that will be impacted by this choice is the cost. Going independently will certainly be a cheaper option, as you won’t be paying for a guide and possibly porters as well. While on a day-to-day basis, a guide doesn’t seem all that expensive, his fees can add up quickly over the course of a trek that can last anywhere from 10-30 days. But even this isn’t necessarily so cut and dried either, as a guide might also work closely with some of the teaouses and restaurants that you’ll visit along the way, earning you discounted rates. Those discounts could end up saving you a substantial amount of money, although certainly not enough to make up the difference in price for hiring the guide.
Speaking of accommodations, that is another area that will be directly impacted by your choice of going guided or independently. On the one hand, if you travel on your own, you can bring a tent, and camp out in specified areas. This will, of course, save you more cash, but be sure that that the tent is a warm one, and that you also bring a very warm 4-season sleeping bag. Even during the warmer months, it can get quite cold at altitude. Teahouses are always available as an option of course, even when traveling independently, but during the busier seasons they fill up quite quickly and you could end up paying a premium. When traveling with a guide, you’ll likely have reservations for the lodges in advance, and you won’t have no wonder whether or not you’ll have a comfortable bed, with a roof over your head, on any given night.
Traveling independently also allows you to go at your own pace, which means that if you’re not feeling well or want to spend an extra rest day in one of the villages along the way, you can. You’ll also be able to pick your own route, and there are multiple paths for reaching Everest Base Camp for instance. On the other hand, the guides usually have a planned out itinerary designed to get you to and from your destination in the time that you have allotted. They also have built in rest days to make sure you’re acclimatizing properly, but they want to see you up and back down the mountain on an orderly schedule, which helps them to run more treks, and gets you back in Kathmandu in time for your flight home. There are times when a well regulated schedule does prove to be handy.
Having a guide along with you does provide a measure of safety however, as they generally know what to watch out for in terms of altitude sickness. They also know the best routes to take through the mountains, and can provide information on the surrounding peaks, the villages you pass through, and various other sites that you’ll come across along the way. Your guide will probably also come with a porter or two, who will carry your larger backpack, freeing you up to travel lightly with just a day pack. if you’re not use to carrying a heavy pack over uneven and demanding terrain, this alone can be worth the added expense of hiring a guide.
On my recent Himalayan trek I joined a guided trekking group in Kathmandu, and I personally feel it was the best decision for myself. I did indeed have a limited time in the country and I wanted to take advantage of that time to the best of my ability. Having a guide helped greatly in that department. It didn’t hurt that our guide was also very knowledgeable, had a great personality, and was fun to be around either. Going in a guided group also meant that I was meeting new people and sharing the experience with others. In this case, we had members of the group from all over the globe, making it a multicultural affair.
There were a variety of times when I was very happy to be a part of that group. For instance, just getting a flight from Kathmandu to Lukla could have been tricky on my own. The weather was less than stellar the day we were making that trip, and we were forced to wait in the airport until the skies cleared. But being part of an organized, guided trek, meant that we already had our tickets and reservations, before we even arrived at the airport. Had I gone independently, there is a good chance I’d have gotten bumped, throwing my schedule off completely.
Later in the trek, while we were descending, there was a sign in one of the teahoues that we were staying in that said that they were booked for the next four nights. We had reservations to stay for the night that we were there, but that “no vacancy” sign made me very happy that I wasn’t arriving in the village, at the end of a long day on the trail, hoping that I could find a place to stay.
After a few days in the Himalaya, I did notice how easy it would be to make the trek independently. The infrastructure is in place to make it as simple as possible. The trails are well marked and easy to follow on your own and there are villages every hour or two along the way. For experienced trekkers and backpackers, the option is there and it is an attractive one. By going independently, you’ll certainly save some cash and have some freedom to explore the mountains at your own pace. But should you elect to go with a guide, you’ll find that the benefits likely outweigh the costs, and you’ll find plenty of reasons that it is a good option as well.
Both options are viable and it is important to pick the one that bests fits your style of travel.
Next: Preparing for the Trek