If you’re a fan of adventurous independent travel in gorgeous and fascinating lands, you may have already heard the disappointing news: independent trekking is no longer allowed in many regions of Nepal as of April 1, 2023.
Trekking in Nepal used to be an enchanting mix of rugged mountain hiking and hospitable tea houses in small villages, one of the best “hut to hut” experiences in the world. Now travelers must hire a licensed guide from a government-registered agency in order to trek the trails and stay at the tea houses in all regions that use the TIMS card system. Though the Nepal Tourism Board says travelers will benefit from improved safety and the cultural knowledge of their guides, many independently-minded travelers are now crossing this otherwise dreamy destination off their adventure travel wishlists.
If you’re thinking about trekking, mountain biking, or bikepacking in Nepal, this is a very important change to be aware of. Read on for the details.
Why the Change?
The Nepal Tourism Board cites safety concerns, saying the new rule will prevent accidents and rescues due to increasing numbers of inexperienced trekkers venturing into Nepal’s rugged and remote regions. They acknowledge that the change will “create employment opportunities for workers in the tourism sector” and say it “paves the way for sustainable, responsible, and eco-friendly tourism in the Himalayan region of Nepal.” Apparently it’s been in the works for years, and is only now finally being implemented.
The response from travelers has been largely negative, with many accusing the Nepalese government of a corrupt money grab. The going rate for a trekking guide is $20 to $40 per day. For a trek like the Annapurna Circuit, which takes most hikers 3 to 4 weeks to complete, this could add over $1000 to the total cost. Though that’s arguably reasonable from a travel perspective, it’s a lot relative to the frugal daily budgets typical of wilderness hiking and long-term bicycle travel. Though I do think it’s fair for locals to earn income from their tourism industry, the rest of us have our own finances to consider too.
I’m sure money is a factor, but also – just speculating here – I have to wonder if Nepal is looking to dial down the impact of tourism on their country and culture. I have not been to Nepal, but I’ve traveled enough to understand the delicate balancing act of encouraging tourism without detracting from the daily lives of locals. Most travelers are prepared and respectful, but a small percentage are not and in large numbers they can do harm. If I were in Nepal’s shoes, a smaller number of tourists paying more money each would probably be preferable.
Though I can understand it, as a hiker and bikepacker this new rule really bums me out. I’ve hired guides where necessary: on Kilimajaro for example, and a remote trek in Guinea. A good guide can add ease, safety, and cultural context to the experience. But in exchange you give up the independence, flexibility, solitude, serendipity, self-reliance, and general feeling of “adventure” that many of us seek.
For a more nuanced look at the new rule’s impact, this thread has some interesting comments. Notably, many areas already required a permit from an agency, so Annapurna and Langtang regions are the big changes. Commenters also point out the difference between hiring a single guide / porter versus joining a big group; apparently either would satisfy the requirement. As an introvert I certainly prefer the idea of a single guide, but as a solo woman it’s not always comfortable to travel alone with a sole male guide for so long. I think the rule will affect different types of travelers in different ways.
What About Bicycle Touring and Bikepacking?
Though in much smaller numbers than hikers, bicycle tourers and bikepackers also venture into Nepal’s rugged places for a similar experience. Especially as more of Nepal’s trails transform into gravel roads, biking can be an ideal way to experience them. The famous Annapurna Circuit, for example, has been gaining popularity as a bikepacking route while losing its luster as a hiking route due to new dusty gravel roads taking the place of peaceful foot paths.
Yes, unfortunately, the ban on solo / independent trekking also applies to mountain biking, cycle touring, and bikepacking in Nepal within the specified mountain national park areas. It took me some digging to find this information, which is why I’m republishing it here. According to the Nepal Tourism Board website’s Travel Updates page:
“What if I want to do ACT or similar treks in bikes?
All the treks need to comply with the new rule. You can contact a trekking agency in Nepal for the guide to accompany you in bikes.”
Note that you can still go bicycle touring independently in the country of Nepal as long as you don’t venture into the national parks. The new rule only applies for routes where a TIMS card is required. As the tourism board states, “It is applicable in all national park areas in the mountains. It is not applicable in Kathmandu Valley outskirts, Pokhara outskirts, and hiking areas in and around major cities.” I’ve read that the Everest region doesn’t use the TIMS system and is therefore still an option, but the tourism board’s statement makes no mention of this exception.
For what it’s worth, cyclists and hikers shouldn’t feel singled out. Nepal’s ban on solo “trekking” calls out other possible exceptions and rejects them all: experienced mountaineers, diplomats and expatriates, and even trail runners and fastpackers who can’t find a guide fast enough to keep up with them! The only people allowed to venture unguided into the affected regions of Nepal’s mountains are Nepali citizens.
I certainly don’t have all the context to this new rule, or a deep understanding of its consequences. I’m just a lover of challenging independent trips in beautiful places who has been dreaming for years of a trip to Nepal. Unfortunately now I’ll be waiting even longer to see how this plays out. It’s not off the table, but it’s definitely lower on my list.
In the meantime I wanted to publish this information especially for my fellow bike travelers. If you’ve been wondering whether an unguided bikepacking trip on the Annapurna Circuit is still a possibility, sadly it’s not. However Nepal is still a beautiful country for bike touring. If your heart is set on experiencing it, consider a bike tour through the unrestricted parts and then splash out on a guide for a shorter hike or bikepacking segment through the most stunning and mountainous regions.