We hiked for 16 days in the Everest region without a guide or a porter. We carried all of our gear on our backs. A decision we made not because we are ultra cheapskates (although we are), but because we wanted to experience the mountains organically.
We wanted this trek to be our own. All decisions, for better or worse, would be on us. We didn’t want to feel coddled or herded or worst of all, led from one relative’s tea house to the next where the guide or trekking company gets a cut of the action. We prefer to search out the best deals and triumph or burn on our own, that’s just how we roll.
There is no right or wrong answer to the question. The guides and porters are a huge and invaluable part of trekking in the Himalayas. The expeditions certainly wouldn’t survive without them and the same is true for many trekkers.
The guide’s purpose is to take you from one destination to the next safely. They should organize your accommodation and in the event of an emergency, arrange for treatment and/or evacuation. Many guides will reserve rooms in the better guesthouses and provide insight to local points of interest.
Porters will basically carry your gear.
The porter culture on the EBC is something else all together and we watched porters carrying 50 kilos who didn’t look like they were 50 kilos soaking wet. Porters have a hard job and deserve some respect. Don’t be oblivious of what’s going on around you while snapping selfies on the narrow suspension bridges, you may be holding up a porter lugging a hundred pounds of equipment (really, this happens!).
Porters are the lowest tier on the trekking totem pole, and there is a history of them being treated unfairly. In the event you hire a porter, please treat them respectfully and pay them fairly (tips too!). We saw some porters carrying insanely enormous loads. One porter had 8 trekking backpacks strapped to him, another carted 75 liters of water bottles (that’s 150 pounds!).
Deciding whether or not you’ll need a guide or porter requires being honest with yourself. What kind of shape are you in? What’s your experience level? Are you a couch potato or marathoner? If you’ve never been camping in the backcountry, meaning carrying a backpack with the necessary supplies, then consider hiring a porter at the least.
If your trekking plans include any of the lesser-known trails (i.e. any of the 3 passes) take into account your experience. Are you an avid hiker, can you read a map, do you even have a map. If not, then hiring a guide is your best option. The high passes are poorly marked and extremely dangerous in poor weather. Trekkers disappear almost every year on these off the beaten path routes. Be smart and consider your experience, preparedness, and the environmental conditions. There is no search and rescue here.
During peak season the main trail to Everest Base Camp is a trekking highway. Hundreds of trekkers and local villagers are going up and down daily and there’s little chance of getting yourself lost. Having a guide is certainly not necessary for this trail.
A more pressing question arises when it comes to carrying your gear. Hiring a porter is a personal call. As a measure of personal pride we opted to haul our own equipment (click here to see our EBC Minimalist Packing Guide). It wasn’t easy, and even though we tried to be minimalists we carried more than we should have. We wanted our EBC experience to be natural and rugged, and that’s exactly what we got. Every day we glared enviously at trekkers carrying next to nothing, gliding past us as if we were standing still.
Having a porter can really make the difference between enjoying yourself during the trek or cringing in agony with each and every step. More than 80% the trekkers we met had someone carrying their equipment (porter or guide/porter). Freeing yourself from all the weight definitely makes for a more enjoyable trek. Not only will you be less fatigued physically, you can also enjoy the aesthetic qualities of the trek, take more photos (and more photography equipment) and have a clean pair of clothes every day.
There are essentially three ways to do the EBC trek. The most expensive option is to sign up for a group tour that should include a guide, porter, flights, and meals. A base price for the 12-day EBC trek is about $1200 (per person). Prices vary depending on what exactly is included and whether you book with a Nepali company or an international company.
A cheaper option is to hire a guide and/or porter in Kathmandu through a trekking shop or agency. Guide services start at $25 a day and they should have a decent grasp of English. Porters start at $15 a day and English will be minimal if any. Some guides will carry a clients’ equipment, others will not (there are guide/porters, basically a guide in training who will carry your bag).
If you hire through an agency there is the likelihood of the guide/porter having to give a commission to the agency. According to a friend’s guide on the Annapurna Base Camp trek, his agency took 50% of the fee, leaving him with a $10/day wage. While this amount is extortionate and hard to believe, I met this guide and believe him.
The luggage counter at the Lukla airport will be surrounded by a gaggle of guides and porters hoping to pick up some business. We suggest turning to your guesthouse for a recommendation should you need a guide/porter en route rather than a random person you meet at the airport.
If your guide accompanies you from Kathmandu, you will need to pay their airfare to Lukla, expect the cost to be about one-third of what you will pay for your own ticket. This is downright highway robbery, but that’s just the way it is in Nepal, get used to the two-tier pricing system.
After meeting many guides and porters along the trail, we gained a tremendous insight into this aspect of Nepal’s trekking culture. Some trekkers had hired the same guide from previous years, and considered the guide’s company and expertise an integral part of their trekking experience. Other trekkers hardly seemed to speak with their guides at all.
In the event you do hire a guide or porter take some time to ask them questions beforehand. Guides should be able to speak English proficiently, porters not so much. Make sure you will be comfortable traveling with this person for nearly two weeks. Discuss the method of payment. We certainly wouldn’t give a porter we met at the airport two weeks worth of pay up front. Paying the porter daily or every other day is fair.
Our intention is not to discourage anyone from hiring a porter or guide. By sharing our experiences and observations we only hope to shed some light on the cost and utility of these services. The trekking industry in Nepal is huge and puts food on the table for many families. We highly encourage anyone who has ever desired to see the Himalayas up close to visit Nepal now and experience this one of a kind trekking culture.
We prefer independent travel, period. Choosing to trek the EBC unguided was the experience we wanted. Some of it was uncomfortable and we even had to retreat on the final day to EBC because of altitude issues. We faced the trek entirely on our own terms, and for us, that made all the difference.
Nepal Trekking Tips: Hiking The EBC Without a Guide or Porter, is part 2 of a 4 part series about our experience trekking in Nepal’s Himalayas.
Click here to read about Everest Base Camp Trekking: Altitude Sickness and Other Annoyances
Click here to read about our itinerary, Everest Base Camp and Gokyo Lakes Itinerary…Unguided