Should Nepal Have Banned Solo Trekking in the Himalayas?

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This article was originally featured in National Geographic Traveller (UK).

One of the captivating aspects of trekking in Nepal was the ease with which adventurers could embark on their journeys. However, on April 1, 2023, the Nepalese government introduced significant changes to the country’s trekking regulations. Previously, travelers could freely hike alone anywhere in Nepal, but now they are required to hire a guide when exploring the country’s 12 national parks and six conservation areas, including popular destinations like Everest Base Camp and the Annapurna and Manaslu circuits. Additionally, obtaining the mandatory Trekkers’ Information Management System (TIMS) card, necessary for trekking in these areas, is now exclusively available to those who arrange a guide through a government-approved trekking agency. As a result, is Nepal’s era of hassle-free solo trekking coming to an end? The answer depends on the specific hiking preferences and locations within the country.

What prompted the rule change?

“The primary objective of mandating guides for trekkers is to ensure the safety and security of visitors trekking in mountain regions,” explains Ram Chandra Sedai, CEO of the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal. However, the secondary objective, equally important, is to generate local employment opportunities. “Requiring guides also serves to formalize their work, leading to improved social security services, better wages, and safer working conditions,” adds Ram.

How has the change been received?

Nepal’s hardworking guides have embraced the job creation and safety implications brought about by the new regulations. Shiva Bastakoti, a guide from the Nepali trekking agency Snow Cat Travel, shares a poignant example: “I recently returned from Everest Base Camp, where I witnessed a solo trekker pass away due to acute mountain sickness while staying in a teahouse. Perhaps he would have survived had he been accompanied by a guide who could have advised him on how to manage the symptoms of AMS.”

Beyond their knowledge of the trails and hidden gems that one might otherwise miss, experienced guides possess local language skills, a deep understanding of the mountains, and the ability to immerse trekkers in the rich culture, customs, and cuisine of the Himalayas.

However, veteran hikers exhibit less enthusiasm toward the end of the era of unrestricted solo trekking. Bradley Mayhew, author of Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya guidebook, explains, “For less-experienced trekkers, having a competent guide can undoubtedly enhance the trekking experience. Nevertheless, the consistency of training among guides in Nepal is lacking. Rather than mandating guides for all trekkers, regardless of their experience, it would be wiser to encourage trekkers to hire better-trained guides.”

While trekking agencies have expressed support for the new rules, concerns have been raised about the way these changes were announced.

Abhi Shrestha, COO of Snow Cat Travel, comments on the matter, saying, “The new rules are well-intentioned, considering the sporadic incidents of solo trekkers going missing. However, the hasty implementation of the regulations and the ambiguity in their phrasing leave us with many questions about their effective implementation.”

How will this impact travelers?

If you are planning a trekking tour to Nepal through an international operator in the UK or a Nepali trekking agency, these changes will likely have minimal impact on your trip. However, independent trekkers will now need to allocate a minimum of £20 per day for a Nepali guide. Overall, the costs associated with trekking solo alongside a guide may become comparable to joining a supported group trek. Expect to spend at least £1,000 for a two-week trek to Everest Base Camp and considerably more to visit restricted areas such as Upper Mustang, Humla, and Upper Dolpo. The Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal maintains a directory of licensed operators.

Can I still trek independently in Nepal?

Yes, the new restrictions still leave hundreds of miles of lower-altitude trekking trails accessible to solo hikers. These routes include the paths used by early Himalayan mountaineers in the 1950s. For those yearning for the freedom of unaccompanied trekking, the trails meandering through the Middle Hills around Kathmandu, Bandipur, Gorkha, Dhampus, and Panchase near Pokhara still offer a taste of the adventurous spirit reminiscent of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

This article was published in the June 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about solo trekking ban

Q: What were the changes introduced by Nepal’s government regarding trekking rules?

A: Previously, solo trekking was allowed anywhere in Nepal, but the new regulations require trekkers to hire a guide when exploring national parks and conservation areas, including popular destinations like Everest Base Camp and Annapurna and Manaslu circuits. Additionally, a mandatory Trekkers’ Information Management System (TIMS) card can only be obtained through a government-approved trekking agency.

Q: Why did Nepal implement these changes in trekking rules?

A: The primary objective of these changes is to ensure the safety and security of trekkers in the mountain regions of Nepal. Additionally, the government aims to generate local employment opportunities and provide improved social security services, better wages, and safer working conditions for guides and porters.

Q: How have the new rules been received by trekking guides?

A: Trekking guides have welcomed the job creation and safety implications brought about by the new rules. They believe that having a guide can enhance the trekking experience, provide valuable advice on managing risks such as altitude sickness, and offer insights into the local culture, language, and customs.

Q: What is the reaction of experienced trekkers to the ban on solo trekking?

A: Experienced trekkers have mixed feelings about the ban on solo trekking. While they acknowledge that having a competent guide can enhance the trekking experience, they express concerns about the varying levels of training among guides in Nepal. They suggest that instead of mandating guides for all trekkers, it would be better to focus on improving the quality and training of guides.

Q: How will these changes affect travelers planning a trekking trip to Nepal?

A: Travelers booking trekking tours through international operators or Nepali trekking agencies will experience minimal impact as these agencies already provide guides. However, independent trekkers will need to budget for a Nepali guide, increasing the overall costs. The new rules may make trekking solo with a guide similar in cost to joining a supported group trek.

Q: Can travelers still trek independently in Nepal?

A: Yes, the new rules still allow for independent trekking on hundreds of miles of lower-altitude trails. Areas such as Kathmandu, Bandipur, Gorkha, Dhampus, and Panchase near Pokhara offer opportunities for solo adventurers to experience the freedom reminiscent of early Himalayan mountaineers.

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