Here are some notes on things to know if you want to go hiking in the Himalayas, especially on a tight budget. We (family of six) had an amazing trek in the Annapurna Himalayas with almost no gear or preparation. It is a heart-achingly beautiful place and an unforgettable experience, and it is possible for people with a wide range of physical and financial ability to enjoy.
You don’t need much gear! There are tiny settlements that exist for the hikers, often within an hour hike of eachother. These are family-run small hotels called ‘tea houses’. They have beds with mattress, sheets, pillows, blankets. They have restaurants with European food (well, a Nepal version) and local food. They even have candy bars, beer, and cigarettes! In fact, there is a fee if you camp in a tent and cook your own food. This blew me away because I have hiked the Appalacians, the Rockies, and the English Pennines and I have schlepped my gear up and down those mountains.
We did bring: 3 small backpacks with- water bottles (4), water purifying tablets (300 rupees for 50 liters worth* I later found for 130 rupees at Thanel grocery store), rain jackets, knit hats, fleece sweaters, bathing suits, one change of clothes each, first aid kit, not much else. If you stay at really high elevations, you may want a sleeping bag and more warm clothes because we heard it gets really cold and tea house blankets are not enough.
There are many kinds of hikes. We saw older people, perhaps on their 70’s and even older, trekking. Some trails are more level than others, some people take rest days or hike a maximum of four hours a day. Some hike twice that or more. We met people going to Annapurna Base camp (ABC) in six days, and others doing the same in 12 days. We met day hikers and a couple hiking 20 days. Some had porters and some carried their gear. We met a woman doing the ABC by herself. Alternatively, one can join a group through one of the many trekking companies in Pokhara and Kathmandu.
**** Bring enough cash! We thought we had plenty, until we looked at the prices for our first meal. Housing is cheap, even free at times, but food is not. Prices were 2-3x what we paid in Kathmandu and Pokhara. One chapati, for example, was typically 80-100 rupees compared to 20 in town. We had to limit our food options and ask for discounts to make the cash last. We met other travelers who were in the same situation, and some had to shorten their trip. The trails are very far from an ATM. For the six of us, we should have budgeted about 2500 per meal rather than the 1000 we were used to.
You don’t need a guide or porter (bag carrier), but if you like there are many to hire. I gathered they charge about 2500 Nepali rupees ($25) per day plus a 500-1000 rupees tip per day is usual. We had 3 small backpacks for 6 people so we each had an hour on/hour off for carrying them. If you go without a guide, get a map of the area you will be hiking in. It will show trails and points of interest (viewpoints, hot springs). They are available all over Kathmandu and Pokhara.
You do need permits, except for children under 10. We got them in Pokhara, but you can get them in Kathmandu as well. They cost 4000 rupees per person, plus three passport photos. You save 1000 rupees/permit if you hire a guide/porter. We went with an FIT permit- Free Independent Traveler- indicating we chose not to hire anyone and if we did, we could get fined and they would not be covered by insurance. So you decide that when you get the permits. We arrived late afternoon in Pokhara (slow minivan) and had to wait until next day for permits because permit office opens at 10. We set off for the park at around noon.
Our path: We thought we’d go to the hot springs and not much else, but it was going so well we decided to go on a ridge trail, too. We started from Kathmandu in a local minivan to Pokhara (5+ hours, 500 rupees each. There is a tourist bus option, probably nicer and worth the extra few hundred rupees, but we didn’t take it). Lakeside is the area of Pokhara with many trekking companies, cheap hotels, etc. When we got our permits around noon the next day, we took a taxi to Kande (1500 rupees). We hiked to Pitim (aka Pitam) Deurali, about 3 hours, with gorgeous ridge views. From there we went to Chinu (aka Jhinu Danda) where there are hot springs*. This took us almost 9 hrs but we did it in one day. One could instead go north on (relatively level) Mardi path, about 15 hours to Mardi Hawal Base Camp. We took this path partway after Chinu (we returned to Pitim Deurali) and exited the mountains via Landuk and Birethanti and a jeep (2000 rupees, FYI there is also a local bus for about 200 rupees/person) back to Pokhara. There are other bus and taxi options. A new (2014) road has likely changed the travel options a lot.
Other areas: Langtang Range looks beautiful and maybe closer to Kathmandu. We heard that the Everest base camp is actually an easier trek (less up/down). There are probably other areas, but we didn’t research much. Annapurna sounded straightforward so we went with it.
Time of year: We kept hearing that October-November is ideal weather wise (but crowded) and that May is not. We rarely saw a complete, clear view of the peaks due to clouds. We had clear, sunny mornings but it rained every day around 4pm, sometimes earlier. Chinu area was moderately crowded, but Mardi path was quiet.
That’s it! I’ll write about our experience soon, happy trails!
*The hot springs are about a 20-minute walk downhill from Chinu. There is a 50 rupee charge. There are changing rooms, outdoor showers, and three pools, very nice but somewhat crowded in the afternoon until closing (6pm). Mornings are almost empty since most people are hiking.