So you want to go trekking in Nepal in the winter. Are you going to get frostbite/hypothermia? Will there be 5 feet of snow? Will there be running water? How many layers should you pack!?!?!? Come inside for answers to these questions and more, in Laura’s guide to winter trekking in Nepal! 😀
Winter trekking in Nepal means being subject to a wide range of temperatures, depending on the elevation. In Kathmandu it could be a balmy 70 degrees F, while at 18,000 feet it could be -20 degrees F. This basically means you have to be prepared for anything and everything, though while trekking you’ll probably mostly just be cold 🙂 .
Below, I’ve complied a list of FAQs one might have if trekking in Nepal for the first time, particularly in winter (I basically thought of everything I’d be paranoid about and made it into a list 😛 ). At the bottom there is also a suggested packing list.
Here we go!
How cold is it?
Welp, it can be pretty darn cold. On our coldest days at higher elevations, it was single digits (Fahrenheit) during the day and well into the negatives (again, Fahrenheit) at night.
This also depends on the region you visit, though. When David and I did the Annapurna Circuit and Annapurna Base Camp treks in December/January 2013/2014, it was very cold at the higher elevations, but there were blooming flowers at the lower elevations and you could sit outside comfortably without a giant puffer jacket (while the sun was up!). However, for our recent Renjo La Pass trek in the Everest region, it was pretty much cold as soon as we landed in Lukla. Our guide also confirmed that the Everest region is generally colder than the Annapurna region, and a lot of the Annapurna treks spend more time at lower elevations.
How crowded is it?
For the supposed “off season” – surprisingly crowded! Of course this also depends on the trek you choose. If you pick a trek that’s super popular during peak trekking season, it’s also going to be popular in the off season!
When David and I completed the Annapurna Base Camp trek in the off season several years ago, there were so many people that sometimes our guide ran ahead of us to try and insure that we had a room for the evening, if our given destination only had a few tea houses!
On our more recent Renjo La Pass trek, which shares the same trail as the Everest Base Camp trek for the first few days, there was a decent amount of traffic on the trail and the teahouses were rather busy as well! However, once we diverged with the base camp folks, the teahouses were decidedly less crowded and there were fewer groups on the trail with us.
Is there running water?
The plumbing in the teahouses is not insulated in any way, so if the temperature is below freezing there’s a good chance you won’t have running water! This is what happened to us most days on the Renjo La Pass trek because it was so darn cold.
Do the teahouses have heat?
The sleeping rooms and toilet rooms have no heat – the only source of heat will be a big metal stove in the middle of the dining room, usually fueled by yak poop (teahouses in lower elevations might not have these). Once the sun goes down, the innkeepers light up the stove and everyone scrambles for a spot next to it! Those things can put out some serious heat, luckily, so you can get nice and toasty before scurrying back to your icebox sleeping room and jumping in your sleeping bag!
A few times we stayed in teahouses that only had propane heaters (that sometimes barely worked). At Annapurna Base Camp, we all huddled around a table that had propane heaters underneath it, and received a charge for the propane the next day. Thanks, Annapurna Base Camp!
What kind of food is available in winter?
Even at high elevations there are still fresh vegetables available, ferried in from the lower elevations. I’ve never trekked in Nepal during the peak season, but I think the menus are mostly the same (fried noodle dishes, fried rice dishes, lots of soups, momos). The only thing you might not be able to get in the winter are seasonally grown items like mint, so maybe no mint tea for you (we still had mint tea once during a winter trek).
Are all of the treks doable in winter?
Ehhhhh. “Doable” and “recommended” are two different things, and our guide said there are a lot of trails that aren’t recommended in winter, such as Cho La Pass in the Everest region. In any region there can be snowstorms that block the path and create days of delay, or worse, a life-threatening situation.
The higher you have to ascend during your trek, the higher the chance of encountering bad weather or a blocked path in the winter months. For both of my winter treks in Nepal, high passes were included, and I added extra days to the itinerary because of this. I was also mentally prepared to modify the plan entirely if a high pass became impassable!
How do you keep yourself clean?
Showers in the winter months can be iffy, especially if you are in the Khumbu region (for the reasons mentioned above about the pipes having no insulation!). On my Annapurna Circuit + Annapurna Base Camp trek several years ago I took a surprising number of showers and the longest I had to go without showering was 4 days. On my Renjo La Pass trek in the Khumbu, I only had 1 shower on the entire 10-day trip. Hand sanitizer is a necessity, and I’d recommend bringing baby wipes as well. I have very greasy hair so I also usually bring baby powder everywhere I go, and never take my hat off! If you’re a woman with long oily hair, I’d also suggest braiding your hair in tight plaits to decrease the knotting and general feelings of ickiness that come with long, unwashed, greasy hair 🙂 .
I will also warn you that “hot shower” can mean anything from steaming hot shower to lukewarm bucket, depending on the teahouse… definitely ask before you decide to take a shower!
How much money do I need?
This depends on your snacking/drinking habits, but the higher the elevation, the more expensive things get! Meals in the teahouses can range anywhere from $2 at low elevations to almost $10 at the highest elevations. At lower elevations we paid under $1 for snickers bars, while at higher elevations they were over $2, and a can of Pringles was $5. David, Glenn, and Kim blew through a lot of their cash purchasing expensive high altitude beer, as well (around $6 per can). The largest towns have ATMs where you can take out cash (if the machine isn’t empty) but I’d definitely stock up in Kathmandu with lots of cash before you leave for your trek, particularly if you are going during the high season and the trekking route ATMs are likely to be emptied by fellow trekkers. Make the assumption that you won’t get to restock your cash reserves and plan accordingly!
How does tipping work?
I am still not 100% sure about this, but I used the guidelines listed on this website because they specifically discussed tipping when in a group vs. tipping while trekking solo. I like how they also discuss the length of your trek when making tipping considerations.
Just to be safe, I went with the upper limit of the tipping ranges suggested on the website and then added a bit more, and very much hope that I gave an appropriate tip, especially to the porters, who work SO HARD for less pay than the guides.
Is there internet?
The bigger the town, the higher the chance there will be internet, but you might have to pay for it. On the Annapurna circuit in 2013 we had free internet in a few of the large towns, but in the Everest region, even the hotels in the large towns wanted you to pay an exorbitant price for wifi (like 500 Nepalese rupees, or $5 USD!). Of course if you are in one of the aforementioned bigger towns, you can always just stroll down the street to a coffee shop advertising free wifi with purchase…
Will I be able to charge my phone/camera/etc?
Yes, but you might have to pay. Again, in the Annapurna region we had free charging in perhaps half of our teahouses, but in the Khumbu everyone wanted you to pay to charge things, and the outlets in the sleeping rooms didn’t work! My solution was to bring three camera batteries and to keep my phone off or in airplane mode!
Will I get altitude sickness?
Maybe! I am pretty sensitive to altitude and got altitude sickness on our first trek in 2013 when trying to sleep at 13,500 ft. For the most recent trek I just started taking Diamox on day 1 to avoid the issue entirely. I still had lots of altitude-related malaise, but I had no problems sleeping through the night or altitude-related headaches. The magical sickness cutoff for many people is around 10,000 ft, so if you know you are going above that height, just listen to your body and look for signs of altitude sickness. I would also definitely get a Diamox prescription before you leave for your trip – better to be safe than sorry!
What is the bathroom situation?
This all depends on what you’re used to. If you are from a western country, then comparatively not great! In larger towns or low elevations, there can be western toilets, but those are gross if the pipes are frozen! On the other hand, in frozen conditions the squat toilets don’t have a backup of human excrement, but there can be frozen pee pretty much encasing the entire basin from lots of tourists with bad aim. The toilet rooms also have no heating, so going to the bathroom can be quite a chilly experience as well.
Also an important note – none of the teahouses will supply you with toilet paper – you have to bring your own! And if you run out you will probably end up paying $5/roll 🙂
How are the beds? Do I get my own room?
All of the teahouses have rooms on a twin sharing basis. In the off season you can easily take an entire room for yourself if you are traveling solo, but I’m not sure of the protocol for rooming when it’s the peak season and space is in limited supply! Almost all of the beds consist of a foam mat several inches thick on a wooden platform. I have back problems but found the beds very tolerable and they didn’t contribute to any back aches. The beds also come with a pillow, a fitted sheet, and in the winter, usually a blanket as well (you can also ask for more blankets). You are expected to have a sleeping bag.
What is an average day on the trail like?
Early in the morning you pack up your giant bag, and if you hired a porter, you give it to them! You also pack your daypack and then eat some breakfast at the teahouse before checking out and heading on. You will walk several hours until lunch time, and stop at a teahouse to have lunch. This usually takes around an hour so it’s a nice mid-day break. After lunch you probably have to walk another few hours, and arrive at your teahouse for the night some time in the mid-afternoon. After that there’s a lot of lounging in the teahouse dining room, reading your kindle, playing cards, talking with fellow trekkers, and sipping tea. You eat dinner at the same teahouse you sleep at, and might huddle around the stove for a bit afterwards. Usually people start going to sleep pretty early, so you might call it a night by 9pm! It’s a high octane life, I tell ya.
Do I need to hire a guide service?
Ehhhh. “Need” is a strong word, but I like to do it for peace of mind, especially in winter. A lot of times the trail is very obvious and there will be locals and trekkers walking on them during the day, so you will seldom be completely alone. However, the trails typically have many unmarked forks, and I had many instances of mentally noting that I probably would’ve gotten lost if it weren’t for our guide. It’s especially nice having a guide for more physically demanding days, like going over a high pass, because if something were to go wrong, you have a larger support system and someone with a cellphone that works in Nepal!
Hiring porters is also an incredible luxury, particularly because you are at high altitude. As a sea-level human, I find it hard enough to schlep myself around the higher elevations with just a day pack and my body weight, and I’m not sure I’d be capable of doing these trips without the assistance of porters, if I’m being honest. We hired a company that included guide + porters, but whatever you do make sure that the company you hire has reasonable expectations for the porters, such as a strict maximum carry limit (standard is around 18kg max carrying weight).
Kim addition: Kim made the good point that a full-service guide service is great for pre- and post-trekking logistics as well. We were picked up at the airport when we arrived in Kathmandu, our guide service arranged all of our Kathmandu hotels and Lukla flights, and all of our trekking permits. It’s nice to not have to worry about these things – it is a vacation, after all!
Winter packing list:
I bring 3 changes of clothes on trekking trips, which some people might think is extravagant, but I like to imagine I smell slightly less bad than everyone else 🙂
Here is what I brought on my most recent winter trekking trip in Nepal (or in some cases, what I wish I brought 😛 ):
- Three long sleeve baselayer tops in a quick drying synthetic
- One pair of long johns
- Three pairs quick drying synthetic pants (I’m currently addicted to the Athleta soho joggers)
- Three pairs of quick drying synthetic underwear
- Three pairs of synthetic sock liners
- Three pairs of thick wool hiking socks
- One mid-weight fleece zip (I brought a Patagonia R3)
- One lightweight synthetic jacket (I brought a Fjallraven keb padded hoodie)
- One giant down puffer jacket
- Pair of insulated pants for sitting around the teahouse at night
- One pair liner gloves
- One pair warm outer gloves or mittens
- Sturdy hiking boots (I brought winter insulated ones)
- Crocs to wear around the tea house or in the shower (if you’re lucky enough to take one!)
- One buff
- Warm insulated hat that covers your ears
- One rain jacket (didn’t use)
- One pair rain pants (didn’t use)
- Winter rated sleeping bag (I brought my -30 Fahrenheit bag because I’m extra and I had no regrets about it)
- Microspikes (didn’t use)
- Hiking poles
- Headlamp (mostly just for going to the bathroom at night)
- Water filter (if you don’t bring a filter you have to pay for boiled water)
- Two wide mouth Nalgene bottles (we also brought camelbaks)
- Low oxygen chemical warmers
- Quick drying backpacking towel
- Battery pack to charge electronics
- Hand sanitizer (a MUST)
- Baby wipes (also a must?)
- Toilet paper
- Deck of cards (we made a lot of use of this on the Annapurna Circuit)
- Kindle or books – there is a lot of down time in the afternoon/evenings
- Diamox and other meds (Imodium is a good one to have as well…)
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it includes most of the things that are perhaps more specific to a winter trekking trip in Nepal!
Feel free to post any questions you might have, or if you have some amazing tips, for, say, keeping sparkling clean hair, let me know!!!