How to trek ethically in Nepal: guidelines, tips and etiquette
If you’re a responsible traveller keen on hiking in the Himalayas, this guide contains everything you need to know to trek ethically in Nepal, including how to choose a sustainable trek operator, minimise your impact, and empower the local communities you visit.
If you’ve made it to Nepal, you’ve probably also got a sturdy pair of hiking boots and a few pairs of thermals stashed in your backpack too -and why wouldn’t you?!
This is the mecca of mountain trekking adventures, after all.
Long-time readers of this blog will know that having hiked to Everest Base Camp, up and around the Annapurna Circuit, and most recently, scrambled our way up the 3,000 steps of the Poon Hill trek, we are massive advocates for trekking in Nepal.
In fact, getting into the mountains is our favourite way to experience this achingly beautiful, incredibly welcoming country.
But we’re also massive advocates for sustainable travel, and ensuring that our trekking adventures don’t come at the cost of environmental or cultural damage to the people and places we visit.
With talk of overtourism and pollution in Nepal’s mountains dominating the media lately, there’s never been a more important time to talk about how to trek responsibly and ethically in Nepal.
The good news is, with a little more awareness of the issues surrounding trekking in Nepal, and a few small adjustments made to the way you trek, you can make a huge difference to the impact you leave behind on the trail.
Here’s our complete guide to ethical trekking in Nepal, with everything you need to know to hike sustainably and responsibly in the roof of the world.
ethical trekking in Nepal: everything you need to know
ethical trekking in Nepal | Should we still be hiking in Nepal at all?
Not too long ago, trekking in Nepal was an active holiday reserved for the most intrepid, thrill-seeking, and hardy of travellers.
It was an experience that drew professional mountaineers and experienced alpinists seeking the adventure of a lifetime; those who brought with them an inherent respect and understanding of the towering giants and the nature and communities that surrounded them.
These days, the buzz of high-altitude adventures isn’t limited to the professionals. The trekking industry is a billion-dollar business, and each year, tens of thousands of everyday backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts like you and I now stubbornly trudge along the trails.
As visitor numbers continually increase, particularly in the Everest and Annapurna regions, so too do the problems that accompany them: littering and pollution, overtourism and crowding on trails, exploitation of local porters and guides, and environmental and cultural degradation.
It’s clear that the thrill we’ve all grown to love so much is also fraught with ethical dilemmas. In some cases, it also threatens to destroy the fragile environments and communities that are the reason trekkers are there to begin with.
All this begs the question: is it still ethical to trek in Nepal at all?
Trekking in Nepal boosts the local economy and has helped to raise the standard of living significantly in one of Asia’s poorest nations.
Not only should we not boycott the Himalayas altogether, we should be actively encouraging travellers to travel there, and to return over and over again.
But we need to be encouraging our fellow travellers to trek in a responsible, respectful manner; one that considers their impact and works to benefit locals, the mountains, and tourists alike.
In that way, you can support Nepal’s largest industry (tourism) in a healthy way, while not partaking in its unethical side.
Ethical trekking in Nepal | what to consider before you trek
trek with a company that aligns with your values
Travel is a huge purchase - probably one of the largest you’ll make this year - and finally fulfilling an epic, lifelong dream of trekking in Nepal can often form a pretty large chunk of that purchase.
You wouldn’t purchase items from a company that knowingly exploits people or places (we hope!) - so why should your travels be any different?!
Do your research and choose a company that reflects your values and beliefs. Some questions to ask yourself are:
Does this company care about the communities they visit? Do they empower women and protect children?
Do they care about minimising their impact and protecting our planet as they travel too?
Do they condone cruel practices like elephant rides?
Do they give back to their local communities?
And more importantly - do they actually live by these values, or are they just words on a marketing page to them?
Large global responsible operators like G Adventures (our personal fave!) use on-ground operators (in this instance, Royal Mountain Trekking), who are wholly aligned with their overall values, so if you’re considering booking via a global operator, book with them.
Sustainable trekking in Nepal | Environment
Trek at the tail ends of the season
Peak season sees some of Nepal’s more popular trails transform into somewhat of a trekking theme park; full of excited trekkers making their way up the mountains like trails of ants.
If you’re willing to gamble a little more with the weather, trekking at the tail end of the season will not only provide you with a more relaxed, enjoyable experience, but also take some of the pressure of over tourism off the trails, both for nature’s and the communities that call it home's sake.
We did our Poon Hill trek at the end of May (technically the start of Monsoon), and save for the odd afternoon thunderstorm — which we avoided by getting to our teahouse before they began — the weather was perfect.
Opt to trek Nepal’s less popular trails
Consider whether it’s ethical to trek some of Nepal’s more popular hiking routes right now, including Everest Base Camp (and beyond) and the Annapurna Circuit.
Everest particularly, has been the subject of backlash recently, after a spate of viral images have shown hours-long pedestrian traffic jams and increased deaths near the final summit after a record number of permits were granted and more inexperienced climbers have attempted the feat than ever before.
Beyond the highest summits though, Nepal’s two most popular treks suffer the consequences of overtourism in the following ways:
Resource consumption | Whether it’s firewood or gas for cooking, or vegetable / edible wildflower cultivation, increased trekker numbers leads to huge strain on the resources required for survival by local communities
General environmental degradation and soil erosion | With more trekkers on the hiking trails comes the increased risk of trampled undergrowth, path widening, and soil erosion, which in turn leads to increased risk of landslides, inability to sustain growth, and damaged ecosystems.
Environmental contamination | Inadequate recycling in the mountains, trash dumped by trekkers, and faecal contamination all contribute to destruction of the local environment and increased health risks for local communities.
Uneven wealth distribution | Obviously those communities who live on the more popular trails benefit more from tourist dollars than those living in other remote communities. Help to distribute wealth equally amongst Nepalese communities by opting for less popular routes too.
Opting to trek lesser-known, less-frequented routes (for example, Mohare Danda, Upper Dolpo, Kanchenjunga, and Mardi Himal treks) takes the pressure off the communities and environment around Everest and Annapurna, as well as often providing a richer cultural experience for everyone involved.
Bring a reusable water bottle
We’ve said it a million times, and we’ll say it again: there is no reason a modern traveller needs to buy bottled water. Ever.
Thanks to our trusty water filtration + purification bottles from The Grayl, we haven’t bought a single bottle of water in over 18 months, despite travels through India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, SE Asia and eastern Europe.
That’s not virtue signalling, but showing you it’s entirely possible to have your clean water and drink it too, no matter where you are in the world.
Plus ACAP (the Annapurna Conservation management body) provide numerous filling stations in the Annapurna region Annapurna Circuit where water bottles can be refilled with UV-treated water.
A few other options:
Water-To-Go | a reusable water bottle meets powerful filter device (designed by NASA!), which removes 99.9% of all nasties from any water source. Our only complaint is that it tends to leak, often.
The Lifestraw | either purchase separately or with a 1l bottle as well.
Purification tablets | the original solution. Just drop the tablet into affected water and it’ll be drinkable in around 30-60mins.
SteriPen | A compact device which uses ultraviolet light to sterilize water and make it safe for drinking
On that topic - if you’re keen for soft drink or juice on the trail, be sure to order the canned version too!
Why plastic is your problem too: how to use less plastic when travelling
Say no to plastic - and take anything you find out with you
Unfortunately, this is a part of the world where proper waste management and plastic recycling programs are still very much a far-off dream.
Due to their remoteness and (sometimes) altitude, many of the villages don’t have adequate waste disposal methods, and instead have to make the choice between either burning the rubbish off, or carrying it off the mountain themselves.
Add in thousands of trekkers traversing the paths each year and you quickly realise that a lot of waste is either being burnt off each day, left on the trails, or dumped on teahouse operators to deal with.
Say no to plastic and opt for the sustainable option when it comes to your snacks, toiletries, etc where possible.
What’s more, if do you come across rubbish on your trek, collect it in a tote bag and take it off the trails with you to dispose of properly later.
Stay at teahouses that use renewable (or cleaner) energy sources
In previous times, it was near impossible to trek in Nepal and not stay in a teahouse that used wood-burning stoves (bad for emissions and also deforestation).
Today, plenty of teahouses have invested in solar panels for hot water and electricity, which makes them the perfect option for a more sustainable trekking experience.
If that’s not possible, try to stay in teahouses that have either switched to gas, or even better, are using yak dung (a traditional, sustainable way form of energy provision - and a safer way to dispose of Yak poop!).
Nepal’s prettiest short trek: your ultimate guide to the Poon Hill trek
Stick to the trails and leave no trace
We’re all about taking the path less travelled and exploring pristine wilderness, but trampling a delicate ecosystem is a totally different thing altogether.
A single wrong step of the boot on undesignated part of the trail can take the local flora years to regenerate, literally expanding the impact of your footprint long after you’ve gone.
Whether you’re hiking, exploring desert landscapes, or wandering along a coastline, stick to the trails and leave no trace behind.
Use a toilet, not the wilderness
Human waste (we’re talking poop, kids!), is a huge issue in the mountains of Nepal, affecting human health and sanitation as well as the biodiversity of the natural surroundings.
Where possible, hold onto your ‘business’ until the next teahouse, where you can ‘dispose’ of it accordingly.
Use eco-friendly toiletries
Switch to plastic-free, biodegradable, chemical-free, eco-friendly toiletries that won’t add to waste on the mountains, including: compostable toothbrushes, switching to solid shampoo, bodywash, and soap bars (we use Lush and Ethique), use a menstrual cup, toxin-free and biodegradable wipes.
Pack for the planet: our favourite zero waste travel essentials
eat dal bhat, save the planet
‘Dal bhat power 24 hour’ might be the most common catchphrase you’ll hear on the mountain, due in part to the porters and guides deep love of the tasty lentil curry, and also to its superhuman-power-giving properties for trekking.
But there’s also another reason to consume dal bhat at meal times, and it comes down to resource consumption. For one, dal requires less fuel to prepare than other meals, particularly if cooked in a pressure cooker (the most energy-efficient method).
If you’re trekking with a group, try and order the same meal, at the same time to cut down on fuel expenditure.
Secondly, as Dal Bhat is the staple dish in Nepal, it means that ingredients tend to be more readily available than those required for a western meal, and therefore require less farming or transport to get them to the teahouses in the mountains.
Ethical + responsible trekking in Nepal | People, culture, and communities
Respect your porters and treat them fairly
They seem superhuman as they glide past you with ease on the trails despite the heavy packs on their backs.
They’re the first to cheer you on during a tough day on the mountain, and the first to celebrate with you when you finally make it to the summit.
Unfortunately though, while Porters are the backbone of Nepalese trekking, they’re also often the most poorly looked after by the industry they serve.
Often subsistence farmers from disadvantaged communities, porters stand a higher chance of being exploited, overworked, underpaid, and poorly treated (think no sleeping bag, lack of food, lack of appropriate medical care).
Ensure you opt for a trekking company that complies with the International Porter Association’s guidelines for treatment of porters. When booking your tour or hiring porters, ensure that you choose an operator that provides its porters with the following:
Appropriate warm and waterproof clothing, footwear and sun protection
Fair and stable basic pay (that doesn’t rely on tips to make it a sustainable income)
Proper shelter (including a dedicated bed or sleeping mat, blankets)
Adequate medical care and life insurance
Weight restrictions (ideally 6-7 kgs per trekker, and no more than 12-14kg per porter).
Minimum age requirements
Plan an epic Nepal trip: our ultimate guide to what to see, eat, and do in Nepal
Don’t ask your porters to carry more than they should
We’ve heard of trekkers asking their porters to carry more for an extra fee, and this is super poor practice.
While the feats of your porters may seem superhuman — particularly when they glide past you effortlessly on the trail despite carrying huge packs on their backs — they are, in fact quite human, with human muscles and backs that are equally prone to injury.
Help them out by only packing your absolute essentials, and sticking to no more than 6-7kg of weight for them to carry.
And it should go without saying, but please don’t risk their spines, livelihoods or ability to support their families by asking them to trek overloaded.
Don’t give money or gifts to kids on your Nepal trek
We’ve only encountered begging once or twice on Nepalese treks, but if you do yourself, please don’t give them money, candy, pens, or other similar gifts.
Even when gift-giving comes from a very kind-hearted place, it actively encourages kids to beg, which in turn keeps them out of school, perpetuates the false belief that all tourists are both safe and wealthy, and encourages organised begging syndicates and human trafficking groups to recruit young, vulnerable children to work for them.
Respect the local culture
For some, Nepal treks are all about personal achievement and self motivation and that’s totally valid, but also keep following in mind: the mountains are where Nepal’s unique cultures and customs can be found, and the Annapurna region is celebrated as one of the most significant cultural and sacred regions of the country.
Nepal is generally quite conservative, and it’s important to respect that and behave accordingly.
Remove shoes before entering certain temples and holy places and be aware that non-Hindus may not be permitted at some religious sites. Dress modestly, take care not to offend and ask your leader if you are unsure if something is appropriate.
Treat locals how you’d wish to be treated as a guest, take your cues from how they behave and dress, and always travel with respect at the heart of your adventures.
Learn some of the local language, and the traditional names
A little bit of language goes a long, long way, no matter where you are in the world.
In addition to learning how to say hello (namaste) and thank you (dhanyavad), also try to learn the traditional names for the mountains in the region you’re trekking in.
For example, Everest is the english name for what locals refer to as ‘Sagarmatha’ (‘forehead in the sky’) in local Sherpa Language, or Chomolungma (‘Goddess mother of mountains’) in Tibetan language.
Chaos and colour: explore the best of Kathmandu with our travel guide
Pay fair prices
One of the greatest reasons to go hiking in the Himalayas is that it helps to distribute money into rural communities that may otherwise go without.
While haggling prices and bargaining in markets is pretty commonplace around the market (and in Nepal), be fair about how low you force vendors to go.
Positively support the livelihoods of providers in the mountains by remembering that the goal is to pay the fairest price for everyone involved, not the cheapest.
Always ask permission before taking photographs
It’s easy to get super snap-happy up in the mountains, considering everywhere you look there’s a stunningly beautiful scene just waiting to be captured.
That said, Nepal is culturally quite conservative and religious, so it’s really important to behave respectfully - especially when photographing.
Responsible travel photography is all about placing yourself in the subject’s shoes, and thinking about whether it would feel appropriate if someone took a similar photo of you and your family.
Would you be okay with it? Is it exploitative in anyway (i.e. is it of people or locals ‘down on their luck’)? Have you sought permission from the subject?
Always ask permission before photographing local people, particularly when photographing the older generation). Building rapport with your subject will also lead to a much more beautiful and engaging photo anyway, so everyone wins!
Be mindful that in many temples and religious sites, photography is forbidden. If you photograph sadhu (holy men), don’t be surprised if they ask for money after.
Don’t barter for your accommodation
We’ve heard of trekkers bargaining for free accommodation on the trail in exchange for paying for their food and drink instead.
Please, don’t be those people.
As a traveller who can afford to come here and hike through Nepal’s landscapes, you’re already in a position of privilege (even if you’re on a meagre backpacker budget!).
Many of the communities here rely upon the income made from hosting accommodation and providing meals to trekkers during the season.
Be fair; a few dollars to you means a whole lot more to the communities that rely on them for survival.
READ | Our guide to accommodation in Nepal
The women of Panauti: how a community homestay is transforming women’s live in rural Nepal
Don’t complain about the facilities
Obviously this isn’t about legitimate concerns you may have about your teahouses (no bedding, doors that don’t lock, issues with your hosts, etc), but rather about recognising where you are, and that your accommodation and facilities may be, at times, a little rudimentary.
Many of Nepal’s trekking areas are remote, and even getting basic supplies in can be a struggle.
What’s more, Nepalese people are amongst the most hospitable you’ll encounter anywhere, so you can be assured that if you’re staying in a teahouse, they’ve done everything they can to make it a clean, comfortable experience for you.
Some will be more comfortable, others much less so, but try not to be that person who complains about it, and instead focus on the epic experience of a lifetime.
Ethical trekking in Nepal | Animals
If you must take a horse ride, ensure that they’re well-treated
There are certain trails in Nepal that are accessible only via two feet, or on horseback.
We don’t necessarily agree with the use of horses on these trails, but we totally get that for those with mobility issues in more difficult terrain this might be the only way for them to see the mountains.
If you really must take a horse, please ensure that you’re not riding them on steep or uneven paths, or putting the lives of these animals at risk by travelling with an unethical or cruel operator.
And please, don’t use them on the Poon Hill trail - the paths are difficult even for humans to navigate, and most of the horses we encountered were very much worse for wear (malnourished, bleeding, poorly shod).
PLANNING TO VISIT NEPAL?
We have a heap of essential reading before visiting or trekking in Nepal!
ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT | Everything you need to know before you hike the Annapurna Circuit
ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT PACKING LIST | Everything you need to pack for the Annapurna Circuit
KATHMANDU GUIDE | Our essential guide to the best of Kathmandu
THE BEST OF NEPAL | The top things to see and do in Nepal
NEPAL TRAVEL TIPS | Everything you need to know before visiting Nepal
TRAVEL INSURANCE | Don’t leave home without travel insurance (seriously, don’t!). Click here to get the best deals with World Nomads, our trusted travel insurance provider
PHOTOGRAPHY | Love our photography? Wondering what gear we use to get all of our photos around the world? Click here to view our detailed photography gear guide, as well as our top travel photography tips!
ECO FRIENDLY PACKING ESSENTIALS | Don’t leave home without our favourite eco-friendly travel essentials
We hope this guide is super helpful in allowing you to trek responsibly and ethically in Nepal.
If you’ve got any further tips please let us and your fellow readers know it the comments below.
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