A Guide to Independent Trekking in the Himalayas

Having spent nearly four years in the Himalayas, much of it independently trekking throughout the region, I thought I would help others by sharing my knowledge of how to trek independently and economically in the Himalayas.  Its not necessary to spend $30 to $70 a day through a travel agency in order to enjoy the splendor of these mountains as many people seem to think.  All it takes is a bit of self confidence and knowledge.  I've divided independent trekking into three types or styles of treks, Tea House/Homestay, Local Style (meaning basic shelter), and Full Camping.  Whatever style of trek you undertake if you are going it alone you will need to learn some basic navigation and trail finding skills.   

Altitude Sickness (AMS):  The main difference between hiking in the Himalayas and hiking in North America or Europe, where most people have no problem hiking on there own, is that the altitudes are generally much higher.  Since altitude affects different people differently it is important to be very conservative in your ascents if you have not been in high altitude before and do not know how it tends to affect you.  Even if you have not had problems with altitude in the past it is important to remember it is always possible that you may during each new ascent.  It is therefore important that anyone trekking independently be familiar with the symptoms and affects of AMS.  See ismm.org  for a good review of symptoms and treatment of AMS.


Maps and Guidebooks:  In Nepal there are a plethora of cheap good maps and guidebooks available especially for the Everest, Annapurana, and Langtang regions.  For independent trekking I like the Trailblazer series of guidebooks which has books titled Trekking in the Everest RegionTrekking in the Annapurna RegionTrekking in the Langtang Region (only one edition difficult to find), and Trekking in Ladakh, Unfortunately the only book that has been recently updated is the Everest one and the others are getting harder to find as they go out of print.  The Cicerone guides are a good alternative.  Cicerone has recently updated books on Trekking in Ladakh, Everest Region, and Annapurna.    The Lonely Planet Trekking in the Indian Himalaya, Tibet, and Trekking the Nepal Himalaya are ok overviews of various treks but are of limited use when navigating though certainly better than nothing.  In some cases such as in the Indian Himalaya and in Tibet it may be your best bet.  Another option for the Indian Himalaya is the now out of print Trekking and Climbing in the Indian Himalaya by Harish Kapadia is similar in detail to the Lonely Planet trekking guides but cheaper and also includes outlines on how to climb some trekking peaks as well as more serious climbs.  

Good maps in India are much more difficult to find than in Nepal.  Overall the best I've found in India are the Leomann Maps 1:200,000 Indian Himalaya Maps series unfortunately they have no contour lines but do have ridges, valleys and peaks indicated.  They also do contain some errors in trail positions and they are not always easy to find either but if you run across them they are usually your best bet.  In Ladakh the Edition Olizane maps are by far the best but also the most expensive. The Ladakh map is broken into three sections, NorthernCentral, and Southern, each is sold individually.   Due to the unreliability of Indian maps its best to use a couple in conjunction with each other.  For a contour map of the Himalayas you can download the U502 series 1:250,000 from the University of Texas library here.  Unfortunately it is old and also not a 100% reliable and does not contain many trails, but used with a less detailed map it can be helpful, and hey its free so you really can't complain. UPDATE 2015: A new project at www.himalayamaps.com plans to make digital contour maps available with GPS routing for popular trekking routes.  This could go a long way to solving the "map problem" in the Indian Himalaya.

On The Trail:  In the end what you will rely on predominately to navigate is your own "trail sense." When I meet people trekking with guides and they find out I'm on my own they ask me with a shocked intonation, "How do where to go?"  Its actually not to difficult I follow the big wide trail I'm on to my destination.  Independent trekking is best done on well established trails that are either in significant use by organized trekking groups or locals.  If you want to go along some obscure route it may be worth enlisting the services of a local guide.  Of course that is if you want to go somewhere in particular.  If you are well supplied you can just head of and explore as long as you confident you can retrace your steps.  However, for the most part you will be trekking on well established routes.    This means in general when you come to a junction most often you will want to continue on the most heavily used path especially if that junction is not on your map.  Look for foot prints and pack animal dropping in addition to direction in which each trail is headed to try to determine the right trail.  Many times if there is a junction not marked on your map and it looks like equal traffic on both forks then the trails will eventually merge again.  If you do find yourself of a trail that doesn't seem to be right don't be too stubborn to throw in the towel and retrace you steps to where you went wrong.  Trails across glaciers and rocky areas are often marked with cairns (stone stacks) they can be tricky to find in some cases but with experience you will learn to pick them out.  If you have gone for a while and after seeing cairns at regular intervals and do not see them anymore you probably wandered off the path, retrace your steps until you see a cairn and scan the area for the next one.  The most important part of navigation on the trail is anytime you meet some one on the trail, ask, and then ask again to make sure you get consistent directions from multiple people.  Essentially trail navigation is a mix of reading maps, common sense, and a descent sense of direction.  Its really not that hard.

Some my favorite Trekking and Travel Gear

Kindle: I was skeptical when I finally took the plunge and bought a Kindle but this thing is great for traveling and for trekking.  The e-reader rather than the full tablet version is smaller, lighter, cheaper, and the battery life is extremely long because power is only used when the page is changed unlike a tablet, computer, or phone display.  I've trekked with my Kindle and not had to charge the battery over a 3 week trek.  Its great for long trips to multiple countries because you can carry multiple guidebooks and a more recreational reading than you could ever get through all in a small light weight device that fits in a large pocket.

Steripen: This is a great device for sanitizing relatively clear water, which works well for tap water in developing nations and mountain streams when you're out trekking.  I usually also bring some iodine too as a backup for dirtier water sources and in case of technical difficulties with the steripen.

Keen Hiking Boots: Hiking boots were alawys my biggest problem while I was living in Asia, it was very difficult to find good quality boots and impossible to find them in my size.  So I needed good boots that would last me until someone could bring me new ones.  My latest pair were Keen Oregon PTCs I've been very happy with these.  I like the big rubber toe coverning which protects from loose rock on scree slopes and grips well when climbing.  My foot is a bit wide and these boots fit my feet really well for me and were basically broken in from the time I put them on.  As far as durability I haven't tested them as hard yet as some previous pairs of boot but so far they show no sigificant wear.

Trek Types

Tea House/Homestay Trekking:   If  you are visiting the region as part of a larger trip and don't want to lug camping gear around with you for your whole trip, or are new to trekking in the Himalayas, Tea House or Homestay trekking is a great way to enjoy the region at a reasonable price and with minimal specialized equipment.  Nepal is the most well developed and easiest place to Tea House trek, specifically the Evererst, Annapurna, and Langtang regions.  Several treks in Ladakh can be done as Homestay treks, while in India, the state of Uttarakhand (formally Uttaranchal) probably has the most extensive system of trekking and pilgrim Lodges.  However, in general it is usually possible to stay under some sort of roof anywhere there is a permanently inhabited village, although the availability and amount of food villagers will have available to share/sell will very from region to region and season to season.  The great thing about this style of trekking is that it allows one to travel light and trek for long periods without carrying heavy supplies of food. Hiking with a light bag is particularly nice at higher altitudes where each additional bit of weight is magnified with increasing altitude.  In the more specific case of Homestays, trekkers are provided a unique window into the cultural life of the people in that region as they eat and sleep in the same manner as the local family.  Of course the disadvantage of this style of trekking is the loss in flexibility since the routes and stopping points are dictated by places where you can eat and stay.  Another knock on this style of trekking especially in Nepal is that these routes tend to be the most popular and are therefore "too touristy" and "highways of trekkers."  I don't believe this is a justified criticism, I've hiked some the most popular routes in the Himalayas and never felt this was a problem.  The trails are long enough that you can usually space yourself away from the big groups, and if you want to see less people choose a less popular route.  I enjoy this style of trekking and I feel the ability to travel light far outweighs any of the negatives.  


Clothing (type depends on season and region), comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots, snacks (depending on availability along the route), map/guidebook, water bottle, water purification method, sleeping bag (recommended but not essential I trekked the Annapurna region without one just relying on blankets at the lodges), trekking pole or walking stick (not essential but often useful crossing rivers or going down steep descents), compass (if you don't have a good sense of direction), medical kit (tweezers, small scissors, bandages, antibiotics for diarrhea i.e. cyprofloxin, basic pain killer, cold/cough medicine, ect.)

Full Camping:  If you want to camp and hike like you would at home with with complete camping gear its best to bring your own gear from home.  Failing that Kathmandu is the best place to buy camping equipment.  In India try major cities like Delhi and Calcutta, but invariably you will get better priced better quality gear in your home country. You can by substandard overpriced gear in Leh and Manali.  The benefit of having your own full supply of camping gear is you can pretty much go where you like, or at least where the authorities let you.  Of course the draw back is carrying all your own gear and especially food is heavy and when you are crossing over 5000 m plus passes its really heavy.   Food is generally the limiting factor, carrying all of your own food for much more than a week trek in the Himalayas is tough to say the least.  If you are going on a longer trek where you need to be completely self sufficient it may be necessary to hire porters or pack animals.


Clothing (type depends on season and region), comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots, food, map/guidebook, water bottle, water purification method, tent, stove (multi-fuel stove recommended for many areas do not bring one that only takes exotic clean burning fuels which are only available in the west, good sleeping bag, sleeping mat, trekking pole or walking stick, compass (if you don't have a good sense of direction), medical kit (tweezers, small scissors, bandages, antibiotics for diarrhea i.e. cyprofloxin, basic pain killer, cold/cough medicine, ect.)

 If  you want a bit more flexibility than is offered by Tea House/Homestay trekking but do not have camping equipment with you, it is possible to put together a cheap trekking kit from typical items found in any Indian or Nepali market which will allow you to camp out for a few days.  For shelter you can usually make do with a large plastic tarp, they are used all over India to protect street stalls from rain or as roofs of slum dwellings.  A 10 ft x 10 ft tarp should cost less than 300 INR (about $6 to $7).   This can be used as a roof for one of the many rock walled herder's shelters that can be found throughout the region or as a make-shift tent using rocks or nails as stakes and walking stick as a tent poll, and some rope to tie it down.  A foam pad  for a mattress can also be bought cheaply in most markets.  Look for the places that sell it by the meter.  If you are going to make do with a crude shelter you will need a good sleeping bag, preferably down.  If you didn't bring one from home, the best place to pick one up in the region is Kathmandu, in India try big cities like Delhi and Calcutta which have a few specialized outdoor sports shops, else poorer quality ones can be found in Leh, and Manali.  For food you can make do with dried food or if you are determined to have hot meals relatively small and light but awkward kerosene stoves can be found in every market for around 200 INR to 300 INR.  This style of trekking is best for short trips (3-5 days) up into areas with no villages or lodges, or bridging gaps in homestay treks where you may need to sleep out for one or two nights.  You will probably not want to go out for a few weeks sleeping under a tarp and eating dried food but I'm not saying it can't be done.  However, if you are going to be that far from civilization, it would be best (and safer) to have a more substantial shelter than I've outlined here in case of unexpected bad weather.


Clothing (type depends on season and region), comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots, food (good dry foods for trekking include: peanut butter, tin of cheese, nuts & dried fruit, biscuits, candy bars, Tang/powdered juice mix, powdered milk with musli/cornflakes), map/guidebook, water bottle, water purification method, plastic tarp, rope, large nails or tent stakes, foam mat, good sleeping bag, trekking pole or walking stick (doubles as a tent pole), compass (if you don't have a good sense of direction), medical kit (tweezers, small scissors, bandages, antibiotics for diarrhea i.e. cyprofloxin, basic pain killer, cold/cough medicine, ect.)

Indie T&T Reviews of Guidebooks & Maps

Published: 2009-03-17
Indie T&T Review in Brief

Great book and gives some really good information about side trek views off the main trekking routes.  My biggest gripe is the inclusion of a Kathmandu city guide section on the more recent editions and no ebook Kindle option, which means half the weight of the book is useless on your trek.  Still the author knows the region very well and gives great info and the maps are easy to follow making route finding a snap, so I'll have to keep its five star rating but with an asterisk.

Published: 2011-03-01
Indie T&T Review in Brief

At one time this was a pretty good book for traveling indpendently in Tibet but now since the area has become tour only, guidebooks are probably less necessary.  It covers a number of treks including Ganden to Samye, Kailash Kora, and Everest Base Camp as well as a few others.  Its still a good book for planning if you trip is only to Tibet, if you are going other places in China you may be better off with the country guide and making do with the skimpy tibet chapter in that book.

Published: 2006-04-01
Indie T&T Review in Brief

A good book covering the basic Annapurna Circuit and Sanctuary treks.  Not as many treks as covered in the Cicerone book and more dated. The book has the good maps and information on side trips that I like about the Trailblazer guides series, though this book does not quite live up to the standard set by Trailblazer's Everest book.

Published: 2013-04-30
Indie T&T Review in Brief

Good up to date book on the Annapurna region.  It covers the classic Annapurna Circuit very well as well as the Annapurna Sanctuary (Base Camp), Mustang, Nar-Phu, and a number of trekking options around Pokhara. 

Published: 2009-08-01
Indie T&T Review in Brief

If you want one book that covers all the major trekking regions of Nepal, all though more briefly than other specific options, the LP is your best bet. For the major teahouse routes its more than enough information, what you miss out are some good side trips recommend in more specific region targeted trekking guides. Treks covered include: Annapurna Region: Annapurna Panorama, Ghandruk Loop, Annapurna Sanctuary, Ghorepani to Ghandruk, Annapurna Circuit, Langtang Region: Langtang, Ganja La, Gosainkund, Helambu, Skyline Trek, Everest Region: Everest Base Camp, Gokyo, Three Passes, Shivalaya (Jiri) to Lukla, Dudh Kund-Pikey Cultural Trail, Eastern Nepal: Lukla to Tumlingtar, Makalu Base Camp, Kanchenjunga, Pathibhara & Limbu Cultural Trail, Western Nepal: Rara Lake, Julma to Dunai, Kagmara La, Phoksumdo Lak, Beni to Dolpo, Around Dhaulagiri, Mustang, Nar-Phu

Published: 2012-02-15
Indie T&T Review in Brief

A good guide for the standard route to Everest Base camp and also covers the approach from the Tibetan side as well as Nepal.  Unfortunately since independent trekking is off limits at the moment the Tibet section is little more than extra weight for those not on a group organized trek.  If you are just planing to do the standard base camp or Gokyo Valley this is a good option.  It is also available in ebook Kindle format unlike the Trailblazer guide, which is great for saving weight.  Unfortunately it does not cover the region as well as the Trailblazer guide, it spends its pages giving more detail on the standard routes instead of supplying more detailed information about interesting side trek options.  But as an ebook option for someone planing to do the standard route with addition of Gokyo its a great option.  Treks covered: Nepal: Jiri to Namche, Gokyo Valley, Thame (Bhote Valley), Everest Base Camp, Tibet: Tingri to Everest Base Camp, Kharta to the Kangshung Face.