Trekking in Nepal: Ethics and Etiquette Considerations

on June 13, 2019

Lots of people dream of trekking in Nepal. But with the recent news of Everest’s deadly season, and the internet circulating photos of long queues of neon-jacketed climbers pushing for their chance at the summit, it begs the question: Should we really be encouraging travelers to go trekking in Nepal?

I was in the unique position of just completing the Everest Base Camp trek in April, right on the cusp of May’s deadly summits. I’ve been closely following the news and the widespread critiques of trekking culture in Nepal. Trekking in Nepal, and its ethical implications, is a complicated topic, but it’s essential to address for anyone interested in traveling to Nepal. In this post, I’m sharing ethical considerations for trekking in Nepal, as well as 10 practical tips for trail etiquette.

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Photo by Meghan Young!

Should you go trekking in Nepal?

Many people may say we should boycott Nepal trekking. After much consideration, and fueled by everything I learned and saw in my own time in Nepal, I have the opposite opinion. Not only should we continue trekking in Nepal, but we should encourage it. I believe that if we, as travelers, really and truly act with responsible and ethical considerations in mind, we can continue trekking in Nepal. Why do I have this opinion? Read on!

Related: 25 Photos to Inspire You to Trek Everest Base Camp

Ethical considerations for trekking in Nepal

The definition of responsible tourism is any tourism that has a positive impact on a community’s economic, environment, and social state. In Nepal, trekkers have a unique chance to support the country on all three levels:

  • Economy: Nepal is the poorest country in Asia, and tourism is their biggest economic driver. Of tourism, trekking is the largest sector. If we quit trekking in Nepal, we would be depriving a developing country from their biggest source of income.
  • Environment: Nepal is still recovering from the devastating 2015 earthquakes that killed thousands and destroyed infrastructure. Trekkers and tourists mean more money to maintain the mountain trails, lodges, and stupas, and rebuild what was destroyed.
  • Social: By trekking in Nepal we can support Nepalese entrepreneurs and business owners, from the trekking companies to the tea house owners and market stalls. The trekking industry is often a stepping stone out of poverty for Nepali people and families. Nepal is also ranked 98th for passport freedom, meaning it is very challenging for Nepali people to travel abroad. By respectfully visiting, travelers both have and provide an enriching multicultural experience.

All of these are reasons why I believe it is important to continue trekking in Nepal. But I don’t mean you should just book any old tour and trek Nepal without qualms. The complex truth is that the trekking industry in Nepal is very flawed. Guides and porters are often exploited by larger companies, not earning a living wage whilst risking their lives to care for their clients. And on the travelers’ side, many tourists trek Nepal with little preparation or cultural awareness. So, if you are considering trekking in Nepal, please be aware of this complex ethical situation. We need to balance supporting Nepal’s biggest industry, whilst not supporting its unethical components. How do we do so? It’s a question without a simple answer, here are some things you can do to prepare:

  • Ensure you are going with a company that operates through a local Nepali guide, and pays fair wages to both guides and porters. I went with Travel Her Way, who also fund a year of school for a Nepali child for each trekking group. 
  • Watch the documentaries Sherpas: The True Heroes of Mount Everest and [amazon_textlink asin=’B01E4PYL8I’ text=’SHERPA’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’sarahbence06-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’ad1020a1-41c8-4da9-a96e-892b7a35f496′], both of which demonstrate the ethical complexities of the Everest trekking culture.
  • You can also look into the huge range of treks in Nepal beyond just Everest Base Camp, such as the Annapurna Circuit, Poon Hill, Gokyo Lakes, and many others.
  • Of course, follow respectful trail etiquette, outlined below!
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Sunrise over Lukla, the start of the trek to Everest Base Camp. Photo by Meghan Young!

10 trail etiquette tips for trekking in Nepal

Being an ethical traveler doesn’t end once you’ve booked your trip – it’s important to keep these considerations in mind every step of the way (quite literally!). After observing myself and other trekkers on the Everest Base Camp route, as well as getting input from our Nepali guides, I came up with these top 10 trail etiquette tips that any trekker in Nepal should live by.

1. Prepare, prepare, prepare

From the gear you bring to the amount you train, preparation is key when it comes to trekking in Nepal. If you arrive unprepared, you are not just setting yourself up for failure, but you’re also putting your guides at risk. You are their responsibility so do not put them in danger! Many people believe that this year’s deadly Everest climbing season is due to hoards of inexperienced climbers. You’re probably not attempting Everest summit, but even treks like EBC and ABC can be deadly if you’re unprepared. Related: Everest Base Camp Trek Diary: What It’s Really Like to Trek to Base Camp

2. Walk clockwise around the Buddhist stupas, chortens, and mani stones

On many treks in Nepal, including Everest Base Camp, you will pass Buddhist stupas, chortens, and mani stones. In respect to Buddhist beliefs, these should be passed in the clockwise direction, mimicking the direction of the earth’s turning. Trust me, you’re going to be exhausted and not want to walk those extra steps to go around clockwise, but it’s a matter of respect to both the people and the land you’re on.

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A Buddhist mani stone – commonly found alongside and in the middle of trails in the Khumbu Valley/Everest trekking region.

3. Use operational flexibility

What do I mean by this? Let me tell you a short story. During our trek, I was walking on the right-hand side of the trail behind our Nepali guide. Then, along comes this white Swiss man with a rolex who pushes past, and snarkily says to our guide, “In Nepal, we drive on the left.” I mean first of all, what a douche. I was happy when a friend on our trek had quick wits enough to call after him “Oh thanks for telling him, he wouldn’t know seeing AS HE’S NEPALI.” But the moral of the story here is: when you are trekking in Nepal, there is no walking on the left or right. You walk where you are able, where there aren’t boulders or people or Yak poo. You just walk, and keep walking! If something is in your way, have the operational flexibility to move around it. And try not to be a self righteous jerk as you do so 🙂

4. Let animals pass on the outside of the trail

Treks in Nepal are in remote regions, and so animals are often used to carry goods (and trekkers’ gear) up and down the mountains. You will come to recognize the distant jingling of harness bells, which means a band of Yaks, Yows, or Donkeys are approaching. Always, always, always move to the inside (mountain side) of the trail, and let animals pass on the outside edge. This is for your safety – during our trek to Everest Base Camp, one man didn’t follow this guidance and was knocked off the mountain to his death by a donkey.

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One donkey in a long train of donkeys along the trail. They look cute but they can be dangerous if you’re standing in the wrong place.

5. Be aware of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) symptoms

AMS, also known as altitude sickness, is no joke. Symptoms can start around 8,000 feet elevation, so chances are that if you’re trekking in Nepal you will pass this elevation (sometimes twice over). There are limited things you can do prevent AMS, like cardiovascular training or taking Diamox, but the only way to stop it once it’s started is to descend in altitude. Please, please, please be aware of your AMS symptoms and let your guides know at the first sign – DO NOT hide your symptoms or continue if you are sick. This will endanger you, your guides, and your entire trekking party. Your ego is not worth it! During our descent from Everest Base Camp, a trekker died in our teahouse due to AMS. This was a tragic death that could have possible been avoidable if the right precautions were taken.

6. Pack out your trash

You may have heard by now that China closed their side of the Everest Base Camp trek due to an overload of litter and garbage from the increased tourism. Trekking in Nepal, the trails were not covered in trash the way some media would have you believe. But there were definitely candy wrappers to be found. Leave No Trace is an important principle to explore by, but it’s not widely acknowledged in Nepal. As a tourist, please don’t boycott or shame Nepal (or any country) because they don’t fit your Western standards of LNT (they’re kinda busy trying to, ya know, recover from devastating natural disaster and poverty). Instead, practice LNT and promote it in a respectful way along the trail. Pack away your wrappers, use a filter water bottle so you don’t waste plastic bottles each day, and bring a [amazon_textlink asin=’B01N0AS7QO’ text=’brown paper bag’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’sarahbence06-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’b3bde650-2b0d-4d9a-8f18-aff8b5ed745c’] to pack out your used toilet paper (yes! This is something I learned – we should pack out our TP rather than using biodegradable TP).

Related: The Best Travel Filter Water Bottle & Why You Need One!

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Leave No Trace also includes the wildlife.

7. Don’t complain about the facilities, or lack thereof

While trekking in Nepal, you’ll likely become familiar with the good ol’ squat toilet (otherwise known as a hole in the ground). You’ll also experience peeing outdoors, sleeping in unheated accommodation, purifying all water that passes your lips, and various other standards of living that are different to what you’re used to. But y’all. You’re on a mountain in a remote region! It might be overwhelming, but think of it like a cultural experience, and don’t complain. In some cases, complaining can even be offensive to your guides or other Nepali people, who either live in these standards on a daily basis or are working hard to ensure you have a safe and fun experience.

8. Always make way for porters

Although animals are used to carry goods up the mountains, it is truly the human porters who are the lifeblood of the region. Porters are astounding – often carrying 4x or more their body weight, bounding up and down difficult rocky trail. Chances are, if you are trekking in Nepal you will have your own assigned porter who carries your duffel bag for you. When you see a porter, always let them pass. It’s even advisable to call out “porter on the left/right” when you see a porter, so the people in front of you can move aside and let the porter through. We need to do everything we can to make porters’ jobs easier.

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See what I mean? Porters are the definition of badass.

9. Learn the peaks’ native names

Many of the names we know mountains by are actually not their original names. Instead, they are the names given to them by white colonizers. This is an erasure of the complex history and the native people who knew these mountains first. For instance, Mount Everest was named after George Everest, the British Surveyor General of India, in 1865. However, the original name in Nepali is Sagarmāthā, which means “Holy Mother.” On the Tibet side, it is called Chomolungma, or “Goddess Mother of the World.” Acknowledging and giving space for dialogue and respect of native names is so important, and I have Meghan Young to thank for opening my eyes to this.

10. Be careful where you pass

And finally, please be careful where you pass other trekkers on the trail. Yes, with increased tourism there are more trekkers than ever in Nepal. Sometimes, you will want to pass slower trekkers in front of you, but always be aware of your surroundings (terrain, wetness, edges, wind, etc.). Only pass when it’s safe. The most crowded section of trail on the Everest Base Camp trek was the final hour before base camp, where you have to clamber over boulders. We witnessed so many people rush through and pass in completely unsafe ways, endangering everyone involved. Keep in mind that trekking, no matter where, is not a race. Your destination isn’t moving, so calm down. With this, I will also say that there were hours on the trail where we didn’t pass a single soul. The trails are not clogged with trekkers the way recent Everest summit photos may have you believe.

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One example of poor passing was a man who tried to pass this yak on a suspension bridge! He was okay, luckily. But don’t be like him!

Nepal trekking for the ethical traveler

I learned so much about the ethics and etiquette of trekking in Nepal during my recent trek to Everest Base Camp. It was a huge educational experience, in which I certainly did things “wrong,” but I learned so much from my fellow trekkers and our incredible Nepali guides. There are things on this list that I wish I’d known before my trek, but the important thing is I know them now, and will incorporate them in future travels. To be ethical travelers we need to let go of our egos, and embrace the willingness to learn from our mistakes and the people around us. My hope is that you learned something from this article. Instead of boycotting trekking in Nepal, I believe we can all take steps to create a more sustainable future for trekking, in which not only the tourists, but the Nepali people, economy, and environment can benefit.

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