Backpack the Himalayas like a pro with these insider tips.
Backpacking the Himalayas is a classic tradition for anyone looking for adventure and spiritual connection. For thousands of years, this expansive mountain range has birthed religions and myths, drawing pilgrims and explorers from all over the world. Despite the ubiquity of the Himalayas, one must not forget that it is wild and untamable. For this reason, a little insider knowledge can not only help the prospective traveler survive but also thrive in the icy peaks and valleys of this house of snow.
Preparation And Safety In The Himalayas
The first thing to consider before heading to the mountains is the weather. During peak winter - between November and February - the roads are blocked with snow, which means that the supply chains are also frozen. At this point in the year, the safest way to get there is by plane, but flying has its disadvantages. Flights are expensive and unreliable due to adverse weather conditions, and ascending too quickly by air can take its toll on the body due to the high altitude.
Spring is a beautiful time to be there, but it is also a risky time to travel. Due to the ice thawing, floods, avalanches, and rock slides are common. Roads may be slippery or damaged, and hungry wild dogs are on the prowl after a hard winter.
The ideal time to visit the Himalayas is in the summer or fall, between June and September. In these months, there is plenty of sunshine, the roads are safer, and the supply chains are operational.
The second thing to consider is healthcare, specifically high-altitude healthcare. The air is so thin that in Himalayan towns like Leh, many stores sell oxygen tanks. In order to prevent altitude sickness, it is wise to stagger the ascent by spending a night at certain points along the way. This is important for acclimatization and reducing the chances of getting sick.
In India, pharmacies are referred to as "chemists", and travelers can buy Diamox (altitude sickness medication) without a prescription at most chemists along the route to the Himalayas. Make sure to have some handy before ascending to higher altitudes, and prepare for side effects such as excessive urination and nightmares.
In the event of illness, most hospitals in the region provide free healthcare and medications.
- Tip: Don’t take photos near Military bases
Transport In The Himalayas
As mentioned previously, flying is not ideal because it can lead to altitude sickness. Traveling by road is, therefore, the best option.
When the weather permits, there are daily bus services that connect the various towns in the Himalayas. In some rest points like Keylong, there is one operating bus a day. It is important to catch this bus, as tickets run out quickly and are only sold in-person at the bus stand.
Sometimes it's not enough to get to the ticket booth early because scalpers will buy up all the tickets before everyone else. If this happens, and it's common, the next best option is to hire a taxi.
Taxis are more expensive than buses but they do provide flexibility. There will usually be some minibusses or cars parked near the bus stops where drivers are anticipating tourists who were not able to get a seat on the bus. Prices are negotiable depending on the size of the group and the time of the year.
- Tip: Keep a copy of your passport and visa on you at all times
If all else fails, there is a last resort for getting around the Himalayas. Hitchhiking is normal in these tough terrains. In such a remote environment, people are dependent on one another for survival, so locals, if they are in a position to help, will never leave a stranded tourist behind. Simply stand on the side of a highway and wait for a truck or car to drive by. More likely than not, a friendly samaritan will happily provide a free ride.
No matter how one might travel, it's worth knowing that the winding roads, coupled with the altitude, make for a nauseating trip. Travelers can buy motion sickness medication for cheap at any chemist and are encouraged to keep some on hand. It is very common for first-time visitors to experience debilitating nausea if they are unprepared.
Accommodation In The Himalayas
In many ways, the regional economy is optimized for catering to the needs of visitors and backpackers. As a result, there is no shortage of dorms, hostels, and guesthouses to choose from.
Towns in the Himalayas are usually small and walkable. For backpackers arriving in the daytime, it is a reliable option to scope out potential lodging on foot. The best and cheapest places to stay will not always be visible online.
Apart from dorms and hostels, which specifically serve tourists, and therefore charge premiums, the mountains have a big guesthouse culture. Small families who own land will lease out cottages or rooms to travelers who are lucky enough to find them. Being family-owned, most guesthouses will also have spinach gardens and resident pets, so there's plenty to do and learn while staying there. Choosing to stay at unlisted guesthouses also circulates money into the hands of locals as opposed to corporations, while providing visitors with a unique opportunity to interact with residents who have roots in the Himalayas.
- Cost: As little as $5 a night
- Perks: Home-cooked meals, opportunities for intimate cultural exchange, prime location, authentic living
Avoid the usual mistakes with these insider tips and experience how backpacking the Himalayas can be an incredibly enriching and meaningful adventure.