Trekking in the Himalayas is Nepal’s most popular tourist attraction, and for very good reason. Every year this magical part of the world attracts 200,000+ visitors who long to explore some of the world’s highest mountains. But, with a lot of visitors can sadly come a lot of destruction…
Travelling responsibly should be a priority at the best of times, but it’s even more important when visiting the most precious, sacred, and breathtaking giants the world is lucky enough to have. If you’re planning on trekking in Nepal’s incredible mountains, here are a few important things to remember to ensure that your hiking adventure is sustainable, ethical, and a positive experience for all:
Trek with an Ethical Company
No matter whether you’re trekking to Everest Base Camp, hiking the Annapurna circuit, or exploring one of the lesser-known trails, it’s vital that you travel with a company that cares about the people, the environment and of course, the animals too. Not only do they need to align with your values and beliefs, but they also need to be open about their policies and standards.
Is it a locally owned/run company?
Do they take care of the porters they employ?
Do they pay their staff fairly?
Do they have strong environmental policies?
Do they give back to the local community?
ETC. ETC. ETC.
The company you trek with is the backbone of your entire experience… If it’s both responsible and ethical, and a company that practices what they preach, then you’re off to a flying start! I did my trek with Outfitter Nepal, a 100% locally owned/operated trekking company based out of Kathmandu — I couldn’t recommend them enough.
(I would advise against solo trekking, as going with a company helps the local economy, and ensures that you’ll be safe throughout your journey at high altitude. If you do trek solo, PLEASE ensure that you pay for your rooms… Asking for free accommodation is not ethical)
LOOK AFTER YOUR PORTERS
As travellers, we must ensure that our porters are treated fairly. Yes, they might seem like the strongest super humans on the planet… But they are really no different from you and I and they need to be treated as such.
Find a tour company that strictly adheres to the International Porters Protection Group. Don’t overload them with an excessive amount of stuff; pack light and don’t force them to carry more than they can/should. The MAXIMUM amount is 10kg per trekker and 20kg per porter (but of course, the lighter the better). Make sure they have adequate insurance, suitable clothing and footwear, are eating well, have water to drink, a place to sleep, and are being paid fairly.
Ask questions, and if you notice something that doesn’t sit well with you, bring it up with your tour company!
Give Way to the Porters
Porters are often carrying huge amounts of goods and supplies on their back (we saw one man carrying over 100kg of steel), and they always have priority on the trail.
Constantly be aware of your surroundings and step to the side to allow them to pass.
When budgeting for your trip, it is so important to factor in the money for your tips. The porters and guides that assist you in the mountains are incredibly hard working people, and are doing this work to support themselves and their families. Tipping them is an incredibly important aspect of sustainable trekking in Nepal.
Do your research before going to make sure you are giving a fair amount — no ifs or buts.
Don’t Give Money to Kids
Albeit very generous, tourists giving to children has become so common that nearly every child you walk past instantly asks you for chocolate… It’s important to remember that although you might mean well, handing things to children (whether it’s money, snacks, stationery etc) perpetuates bad habits and encourages begging.
Even if your intentions are pure, remember that your impact is far more important.
Ask Before Taking Photos
No one likes to have a stranger’s camera shoved in their face… If you want to take a photo of someone, just ensure that you ask them first — simple! If you’re taking photos of children, always ask for their parent’s permission, and if you’re going to be posting it online, make sure they have consent of that too (it’s very important). Even if you can’t speak their language, all it takes is a simple hand gesture!
If they say no, respect their personal space and point your camera elsewhere.
Respect Local Culture
Cover your knees and shoulders. If eating with your hands, use your right hand only (the left one is for washing after using the bathroom). Eat the local food AKA “Dal Bhat Power 24 Hour“. Remove your shoes when entering temples and sacred sites that request it. Learn some local language and traditional names for the region you’re in. Be considerate and greet others with ‘Namaste’, and say thank you with ‘Dhanyabaad’.
Learn about the ethnic Sherpa people of Nepal and how to treat these sacred lands with the utmost of respect.
Remember, you are a guest. Always always always be respectful of the local culture and customs… It’s the backbone of responsible tourism, no matter where you are in the world.
Make sure this is something you actually want to do
Don’t do these treks (especially Everest Base Camp) JUST to “tick it off your bucket list” and so you can brag about being to the base of the world’s highest mountain… That’s not what this is about!
When travel is based on ticking off popular sights, counting countries, and mindlessly booking tickets to the places at the top of the TripAdvisor list, that’s when mass tourism occurs and travel can quickly become unsustainable (I’ve written a big post about this topic, you can read it here).
Base your adventures around your hobbies and the things that you enjoy… If you don’t enjoy being in the mountains and being very active, you will hate this experience and will be more inclined to make unethical/unsustainable choices.
Only do this trip if it’s something that you believe you’ll thoroughly enjoy — so important!
Offset your Carbon Footprint
Flying to Nepal from your home country? Carbon offsetting is a great way to balance out the emissions caused by pesky air travel. Offsetting my return flight from Melbourne to Kathmandu was $65 AUD through the Carbon Neutral Charitable Fund. The contribution re-establishes native trees in Australia, captures greenhouse gas emissions, and encourages natural ecosystems and biodiversity to thrive.
If you can afford to spend an extra few dollars to balance out your emissions, by all means, do. And for those that are trekking around Sagarmatha National Park, don’t forget about your flight to Lukla too!
Be Cautious of Deforestation
Most of the heating in the tea houses, lodges and rural homes is by wood burning. Despite there being a lot of dead wood on the ground in the lower elevations, this unfortunately forces the local people to carry heavy loads of wood on their backs, so many will turn to cutting down new trees instead.
The best way to help alleviate the pressure on wood resources (deforestation is rife) is by supporting any local initiatives that are implementing/investing in more energy efficient solutions. You may come across tea houses run by solar or traditional yak dung fires (which are incredibly sustainable), but otherwise it’s an impossible thing to avoid.
If you can limit your showers on the trek (I didn’t shower the entire time) then that will undoubtedly help, as these require a lot of energy and wood in order to heat the water.
If you have the ability to donate to some reforestation projects, that is incredibly helpful too (I came across a few on the trail)!
Carry All of Your Waste Down the Mountain
I bet you’ve heard about the excessive amount of waste that seems to accumulate in the Everest region… It’s even obtained the label of the “world’s highest garbage dump” (not a title that we should be proud of). There aren’t any sustainable waste management systems in the middle of the Himalayas, so I’m sure it comes as no surprise that human waste hasn’t got anywhere to go. Locals have to resort to burying the waste in numerous tiny landfill-like holes, burning the trash (pictured below), or carrying it back down the mountains themselves.
Trekking to such a magical part of the world is a privilege — not one that should ever be taken lightly — so pack a reusable tote in your bag and take all of your waste back to Kathmandu with you. Even better… Pick up any other trash you see along the way too!
If you’re heading home after your trip, it is best that you take your trash back to your country of origin (I took mine back to Australia) so that it can be disposed of in the most sustainable way possible.
Say NO to Plastic!
If you can, try to avoid plastic at ALL cost! “Zero waste” travel (aka. minimal waste travel – it’s impossible to be perfect) should be paramount at the best of times, but it’s especially important in the mountains where waste management doesn’t exist.
You might be thinking… “But what about water?!” When you’re having to drink up to 5 litres of water per day, the plastic bottles create a HUGE amount of waste. But here are the alternatives:
– Water Steriliser/Filtration System: SteriPen, Lifestraw, Grayl Bottle etc.
– Purification Tablets
– Boiled Water
Say no to plastic bags, and if you’re wanting to purchase any snacks, juice, or soft drinks, look for the most sustainable alternative possible. I know that it isn’t always easy (desperate times call for desperate measures and you mustn’t beat yourself up) but remember to carry whatever trash you accumulate back down the mountain with you!
Pick up a bag from Sagarmatha Next and carry it back to Lukla (Specific to Everest Trekking)
Sagarmatha Next is an incredible initiative turning mountain waste into art and design. The centre is located in Namche Bazaar and is dedicated to restoring these sacred mountains to their pristine state. They will supply sustainable solutions for waste management and community development, whilst educating tourists about the importance of sustainability in this beautiful National Park. They are still in the early stages of design, but it’s a wonderful initiative to say the very least.
Aside from creating art, they have developed an amazing system where plastic waste is shredded and compacted into #carrymeback pouches. Trekkers are encouraged to stop at the pickup location in Namche Bazaar on their return trip, and carry as many bags back to Lukla as they possibly can.
Some people have even carried 20 pouches (each weighing around 1 kg) but there’s really no pressure… Even just one pouch from each trekker is a simple and effective way to bring down the waste! Collective power is a beautiful thing.
Use the Toilets (And Nowhere Else)
Use the toilets, not the trail. I know it can sometimes be very difficult when your bowel movements are perhaps a bit more eager than usual, but human faeces are causing real havoc in the mountains.
With so many trekkers comes a whole lotta poo (yep)… Bodily fluids are being “produced” at such high rates that it’s becoming hard to manage. It’s being washed into the streams during the monsoon season and infecting the water supply, which of course, is a major sanitary and human health concern. So please… Hold on to your business to the best of your ability until you find a suitable “drop off” location. If you can find a compost toilet, that’s even better.
Once again, I know this isn’t always possible, especially if you fall ill on the trail, but do try your best wherever possible.
Use Biodegradable Toiletries
There obviously aren’t any water filtration systems in the middle of the Himalayas… So if you’re planning on using soap whilst trekking (seems obvious, but trust me, bathing isn’t a very common occurrence) then do ensure that your soap is both biodegradable and environmentally friendly. You don’t want to be damaging the fragile ecosystems with toxic soap if it happens to end up in the streams.
In terms of other hygiene items, avoid any single-use packaging and pack sustainable/zero waste items wherever possible. Ladies, menstrual cups are the way to go.
Stay on the Trails
The flora in the Himalayas is incredibly delicate, so please tread carefully. Stick to the trails and leave little trace. It’s as simple as that.
Avoid Riding a Horse if Possible
The horses in the mountains are small and often malnourished. Being an animal friendly traveller doesn’t become of less importance when you’re in the mountains… It’s vital that you respect them and their health like you would anywhere else in the world.
Don’t get an unnecessary horse ride just for the sake of it, stick to your own two feet instead! I know that avoiding them might not be an option if you get injured and need a mode of transport, or for those with a lack of mobility that still want to explore the beauty of the mountains, but only use them when/if it’s 100% needed. And do ensure that you don’t overload them… Those little ponies can only hold so much.
Always Give Way to the Donkeys/Yaks
Much like the porters, the donkeys and yaks always have right of way. If you hear them coming, step to the mountainside (not on the cliff edge – you don’t want to be pushed off by a donkey) and allow them to pass. And also, watch out for those yak horns… They are dangerous things!
Remember How Important Pack Animals are for the Local Communities
It can sometimes be difficult to see animals transporting such heavy loads on their back, but it’s so important to understand that in the Himalayas there isn’t another feasible solution… There are no roads, and these animals are relied on by mountain communities for their subsistence and livelihoods. Yaks and working equines can support entire families, transport basic goods, empower women and more…
Animals are essential for these communities, and that is so important!
Also, as tourists it is NOT our place to comment on what other communities do to survive… It would be unethical (and somewhat colonialist) to do so. We are guests, never forget that!
Have you got any other tips for sustainable trekking in Nepal? Let me know in the comments below!