Last Updated on July 12, 2020 by mountainswithmegan
The Great Himalaya Trail stretches across the length of Nepal’s Himalaya mountain range. It goes through remote villages and across dangerous mountain passes. There are no exact statistics, but it’s estimated that less than 50 people have ever completed the hike.
In 2017, myself and my hiking partner went to Nepal to do a self-supported hike of the Great Himalaya Trail. Over the course of four and a half months we hiked 800 miles across Nepal. On most days, we gained or lost 3000-5000 feet/ 900-1500 meters of elevation. We also both lost 20-25 pounds/ 9-11 kilos of weight from strenuous hiking without access to high calorie food.
I’ve hiked about 5000 miles worth of trails in my lifetime, and this hike was by far the most challenging. Looking back, I’m surprised my hiking partner and I were able to complete it. I honestly don’t think a more difficult thru-hike exists in this world.
In this post, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about planning and executing your own trek across Nepal’s Great Himalaya Trail.
Check my Nepal archives for the posts I wrote during my thru-hike.
Table of Contents
Fast Stats on the Great Himalaya Trail
- Distance: 800-1000 miles/ 1300-1600 kilometers
- Time: 3-5 months
- Accommodations: Guesthouses and camping
- Budget: $1000/ month average
- Guides & Permits: Some regions are guide mandatory, most aren’t. Permits are required.
What Makes the Great Himalaya Trail Difficult & Why Do So Many Hikers Fail?
There’s almost no aspect of the Great Himalaya Trail that is easy. Everything is a challenge from logistics, food resupplies, navigation, cultural and language barriers, local transportation to the trail, and personal health.
Some of the more difficult aspects include:
- There is no easy way to organize food drops. You have to bring backpacking food from home, store it in resupply bags in Kathmandu or Pokhara, then take a bus or a plane back to the city when you need to resupply. Local shops exist in the mountains, but you won’t find much beyond noodles, cookies, and Coke.
- Local food is not calorie dense, so you lose a lot of weight. When you stay in guest houses, the majority of the time you’ll be eating dal bhat for dinner. This is basically a meal of rice, lentil soup, and curried vegetables. It’s filling, but difficult to eat more calories than you’re burning.
- Sanitation is not up to par with what Westerners are used to. Expect to have diarrhea regularly. I’ve stayed at guest houses where dishes aren’t washed with soap, just cold water. There’s not usually anywhere to wash your hands after using the toilet, and you must have your own soap because it won’t be available. Runoff from toilets sometimes drains into water sources. It’s hard to stay healthy.
- Navigation is a challenge. There are so many tiny, intersecting trails through the mountains and no signs. The abundance of trails is because most locals walk everywhere they need to go. Choosing the correct path is often a guessing game. Forget about hiking off-trail either. The jungles are dense and full of plants that cause painful allergic reactions. The alpine areas are full of cliffs and impassable routes.
- Local transportation is exhausting. A bus ride to the city often takes the entire day. Domestic flights are cancelled when there’s clouds or bad weather. There’s not much organization involved.
- The constant and dramatic changes in elevation is draining, especially on a low-calorie diet. The trail on the low route is always either on a steep uphill to a pass or a steep downhill to a river. While trekking on the high route, the elevation makes hiking with a heavy pack significantly more difficult. Sometimes the air is so thin, you can only walk for a few minutes between breaks.
- There’s no such thing as being ultra-light on the Great Himalaya Trail. More gear and clothing than usual is required. Plus, the more food you carry the longer you can stay out between going back to the city to resupply.
- The monsoons come in the summer. They move from the East to the West, and I suggest you do too. The hope is to hike fast enough to stay ahead of them. The year I thru-hiked, monsoons came two months early. The afternoons were full of torrential downpours and eager leeches.
There’s been lots of accomplished hikers quit the Great Himalaya Trail. While I don’t know any of them personally, I do know quite a bit about the American style of hiking. I don’t think it meshes well with the Himalaya style of hiking.
Thru-hiking in the USA is often about hiking a lot of miles in a short amount of time. Not everyone has this philosophy, but I think we generally have an efficiency-minded culture. In Nepal, you have to go slow. The altitude slows you down, as well as the difficulties in navigating.
In the USA, it’s normal to hike until sunset while thru-hiking. In Nepal, if you try to force yourself to hike for the entire day you are going to be draining your body. Like I said before, you simply cannot consume enough calories from local food to be able to push for 12-hour hiking days in a healthy way.
It’s also so easy to get frustrated with the Nepali way of doing things. I’m not immune to these frustrations, but I’ve traveled in Asia enough to be used to them. If you’re trying to stay on a hiking schedule, Nepal is not going to cooperate. I could go on about the struggles of taking buses, getting permits, communicating with locals, getting sick; but I wouldn’t be doing justice to how hard it actually is. Just when you think you’ve seen everything in Nepal, something else comes up.
If it sounds like I’m discouraging you from hiking the Great Himalaya Trail, I kind of am. There were so many amazing things about it and I’m so happy that I can look back and be proud of having hiked it.
But would I do it again? Hell no. It was unimaginably hard. However, I do find solace that I can continue my thru-hiking career knowing that the most difficult hike is behind me.
Regardless, if the idea of hiking the Great Himalaya Trail has taken hold of you as it once took hold of me, read on. Even if I don’t think it’s a good idea, I’m still going to give you all of the information you need to get started.
- Nepal Trekking & the Great Himalaya Trail by Robin Boustead
- GHT Low Route Guidebook by Linda Bezemer
- Maps.me GPS app, download the Nepal maps
- Himalayan GPS maps
- GPS with maps downloaded- We used a Garmin eTrex 20x
- Paper maps- Himalaya Map House Great Himalaya Series (this is a link to the first map)
First of all, if you’ve never navigated with a map and compass before or don’t know how to use a GPS, don’t hike the Great Himalaya Trail. Or hire a trekking agency to take you.
If you’re wondering if you really need all of these resources for navigation, you most certainly do. The guidebooks by Boustead and Bezemer are for the high route and the low route. Sometimes you’ll have to go between the two because of weather, dangerous passes, or not wanting to hire guides.
However, there’s hundreds of trails across the Himalaya and it’s unlikely that you’ll stick to the exact route that either of them hiked. So sometimes the information is not helpful.
As far as having two forms of GPS maps, you also need both of them. Sometimes maps.me app has the trail while the Himalaya maps do not and vise versa.
Always have the paper maps for the region you’re trekking in. Sometimes the GPS is useless. You can order the paper maps on Amazon or buy them for cheaper at a bookstore in Kathmandu.
You can take a look at the maps online here for free. While you will need paper copies for your hike, you can use these while planning from home.
A lot of our navigation process was simply asking locals which way to go. Ask for the next village you’re passing through. If you ask for directions to a village that’s far away, they might not know.
Nepalis will not want to disappoint you though, and even if they don’t know the correct direction they will still guess. Or sometimes they send you on the local shortcut trail, and you end up lost. These are things to be aware of.
Most people in mountain villages will not speak English. Simply say the name of the next village and point. They will point to the direction you need to go.
I already wrote an entirely different article on this topic. Click here to see my Gear List for the Great Himalaya Trail. This list is good for both the high route and low route for spring and summer. If you’re trying to do anything wacky like going to the high route in the winter, this gear list won’t be for you.
Guide Mandatory Regions
On the high route there are several guide mandatory regions: Kanchenjunga, the three technical passes after Makalu Base Camp, Manaslu, and Upper Dolpa.
Guides charge at minimum $30/ day plus tips. In more remote regions (like Kanchenjunga) expect them to charge more. For mountaineering guides, their rate goes up too. You’re also responsible for paying for their transportation to and from the trail.
First of all, I met a handful of thru-hikers who hired an entire team to help them hike the Great Himalaya Trail. They had guides, a cook, and porters. One lady had a team of seven Nepalis helping her. If you have about $10,000 to spare and you want someone to show you the way, cook all of your food, and haul your gear for you, that is most certainly an option.
However, I don’t have that kind of money to spend, so I’m not going to elaborate on the possibilities of a supported hike.
If you’re sticking to the low route, you won’t have to worry about guides because you can hike self-supported the whole way.
If you are hiring guides, make sure you ask lots of questions. Get someone who is either local to the region you’re hiring them for or has trekked there many times. Read trekking agency reviews online. Make sure they have their certified guide credentials.
I’ve heard so many guides gone wrong stories about Nepal. The least awful of which the guide just got drunk for the entire trek and had all of his clients money. The worst was the trekkers who hired a guide to take them over the technical passes after Makalu Base Camp. Turns out the guide lied to get hired and didn’t know how to mountaineer. The trekkers were basically on their own to figure it out and could have all easily died.
Take it seriously when hiring a guide.
Generally, I stuck to the low route when there were guide mandatory regions. Except we hired a guide for Manaslu. In Dolpa, there’s an option to take a middle route where guides are not required, and that’s what we did.
When to Go
I started my hike in late-March and ended in August. Generally, the spring and autumn are the best times to hike in Nepal. Summer is monsoon season and winter in the Himalaya is a dangerous time for trekking.
If you’re sticking to the low route, you could probably go almost anytime of year. When we started on the low route in March it was already hot and humid. The passes on the low route do get up to 14,000 feet/ 4,300 meters, so I imagine they get snow during the peak of winter. Nepal is closer to the equator than the USA though, so it’s not the same weather as 14,000 feet in Colorado for example.
Basically, avoid the low route during peak summer and peak winter.
Some people do start their thru-hike in the autumn. If you do this, you have to move fast to avoid dealing with winter weather. I think it’s better to start in springtime because even if you take a long time to hike it, it’s better to get stuck dealing with summer monsoons than Himalayan winter weather.
I met one guy who was hiking half in spring and half in autumn. He probably had the most ideal weather.
Choosing a Route
I have an entire post about the High Route vs. the Low Route if you want to know exactly what path I took and the comparisons between the two.
It seems like a lot of people get attached to the idea of hiking the entire high route. The best advice I can give you is to let go of that. The parts of the low route I hiked were harder than the parts of the high route I hiked. You’re not tougher for doing the high route only.
Plus, you have to be flexible with your hiking plans. Sometimes the weather does not allow you to hike the high route.
When we arrived in mid-April, the Kanchenjunga region was still snowed in so we couldn’t have done it even if we wanted to hire a guide to take us there. But we couldn’t have delayed our start date either because we needed to stay ahead of the monsoons that would begin moving in during late-spring.
If you want to do the entire high route, it’s going to get expensive paying for all the guides and their transportation to get to the trail. And it’s going to be logistically difficult to plan resupplies.
For reference, here are my blog posts I wrote about each section of the trail:
- Eastern Nepal
- The Milky Danda
- Makalu Base Camp
- Rowaling & Panch Pokhari
- Manaslu & Annapurna
- Dolpa & Mugu
Technical Passes on the Great Himalaya Trail
I didn’t hike any of the technical passes, so I don’t have any first hand knowledge to offer you. Here’s what I do know.
There are four technical passes on the high route. Three of them are between Makalu Base Camp and the Everest region. They are called Sherpani Col, Amphu Labsta, and West Col. There’s another technical pass called Tashi Labsta after the Everest region. If you want to do the technical passes, you need guides and mountaineering equipment.
I met two different GHT hikers who had guides, and still had to turn back on Tashi Labsta because weather was so bad. One porter even had to be helicoptered out due to frost bite.
You can easily avoid the technical passes and take the low route. We hiked up to Makalu Base Camp just for the fun of it, then took the low route towards the Everest region.
Organizing Permits & Visas
You can get a 90-day visa on arrival at the airport. The price may vary according to what country you’re from, but I paid $100 for mine. I needed to say longer than 90 days, so I had to extend my visa at the immigration office. It takes a few hours and costs more money, but it’s not too bad of a process.
Do check the visa requirements on the official government website. Nepal visas have always been easy for me to get upon arrival, but requirements do change. Check the most up to date information before going.
This does vary depending on the specific route you’re taking. If you’re not trekking in a region, then you won’t need the permit. These costs are per person. Generally, the national park permits are $32 and the conservation area permits are $20.
Permits to Organize Before the Trek
- TIMS permit, $20- get one for the entire Great Himalaya Trail. Buy at the Nepal Tourism Board office in Kathmandu or Pokhara.
- Annapurna Conservation Area Permit, $32. Also get it at the Nepal Tourism Board office.
- Dolpa permit, $10/ week. For the Dolpa high route, it’s $500/ week. Both must be organized via a trekking agency.
Permits to Buy at the Entrance
- Makalu Arun Valley Entrance Permit, $32
- Sagarmatha National Park Permit (Everest region), $32
- Gaurishankar Conservation Area Permit, $20
- Lang Tang National Park Permit, $32
- Shey-Phoksundo National Park Permit, $32
- Rara Lake National Park Permit, $32
Permits Your Guide Will Organize
- Kanchenjunga Conservations Area Permit (I’m not confident on the price, but probably $20)
- Manaslu Conservation Area Permit, $20
If you find yourself overwhelmed by the permits, you can hire a trekking agency to organize them for you. They’ll charge a small office fee, but it does take the stress off of you.
It’s important to note that different parks have different policies, and they are not cohesive across the country. For example, our TIMS permits were organized by a trekking agency thus were blue to indicate that we were with guides. Green permits are for independent trekkers. One police officer tried to give us trouble because our permit was the wrong color for independent trekkers. Other officers didn’t care or notice.
Additionally, dates must be close to exact. If you try to leave a region after your permit is expired, the police are going to want more money. Don’t try to organize all of the permits at the beginning of your hike. Organize what you need during your resupply trips to the city.
For more information on permits, follow this link to Great Himalaya Trails.
Food & Resupplying
I would encourage you to stay in local guest houses as often as possible. This way, you won’t have to carry as much food or go into the city as often to resupply.
In most villages along the Great Himalaya Trail, you can expect typical Nepali meals of dal bhat. As I mentioned before, it’s basically rice, dal soup, curried vegetables, and some spicy pickled vegetables for flavor. Sometimes you can get fried noodles and vegetables.
Meat will be available sometimes, typically chicken, yak, or buffalo. Don’t expect it to be available at every guest house though. If you’re at a high elevation and you don’t see any farm animals roaming around, be wary to eat the meat. Sometimes it’s carried up the mountain without refrigeration in order to reach the guest house.
Breakfast will likely be eggs, tea, and roti. Roti is a flat bread that’s cooked in a pan. This is not the place for coffee lovers. If there is coffee available it’s almost always instant.
While you’re trekking through more touristic areas, you can really indulge in meals. There will be menus with lots of options. At times you can even get pizza and pies.
Bringing Food from Home
Backpacking food is simply not available in Nepal. If you come to the country without any food for resupplies, you’re not going to find things you would typically eat while hiking at home.
Bring an extra backpack loaded with your resupply food, and store it at your guest house in Kathmandu. Once you’ve hiked further west on the trail, you can move your resupply bags to a guest house in Pokhara.
Time your trips to the city for when you reach larger towns along the Great Himalaya Trail that have lots of buses or small airports. If you want to spend the money on domestic flights, you’ll be able to get to Kathmandu from most places in about an hour. If you would prefer to take the local buses for cheap, it’s going to be a long ride.
We brought so much food from home that we needed two backpacks to store it all.
Food Recommendations for Resupplies
- Mountain House freeze-dried chicken and Mountain House freeze-dried beef. We brought three #10 cans in total.
- A #10 can of freeze-dried cheddar cheese. Mountain House doesn’t offer it, but we got it from a prepper store.
- The Backpacking Kit box of dehydrated vegetables from Harmony House.
- Probably about 80 bags of Lipton Rice & Pasta Sides.
Every morning we made breakfast shakes in a water bottle. We basically mixed together a bunch of stuff and sipped it while we hiked. Our breakfast items included:
- Oatmeal. We brought about 7 gallon ziplock bags of it.
- Carnation Instant Breakfast packets. Maybe we brought 80 in total.
- Dehydrated milk.
- Chia seeds.
- Peanut butter. We brought an industrial-sized container and filled up small water bottles with it when we resupplied.
- Power bars.
For lunch stuff and snacks, we didn’t really bring anything from home. Instead we relied on what was available in Nepal.
Shops in Nepal
In the tourist district of Kathmandu, there’s a sort of Western grocery store where you can get resupply on certain things. I often made trail mix for us from nuts, raisins, and dried fruits I found at the grocery store. They also have granola bars and chocolate bars.
You will often find rural shops in villages along the Great Himalaya Trail. They almost always have Ramen noodles available, so don’t worry about running out of those. Additionally, they typically have packaged cookies, chips, soda, and cigarettes. It’s not anything too appealing to eat, but at least it’s an option if you’re running low on food.
A typical trip to resupply looked like us getting to a larger town along the trail and spending an entire day on the bus to Kathmandu. If you want to know why it took us 4 1/2 months to hike 800 miles, it’s because of our resupply trips.
The urge to stay in the city, have hot showers, use WiFi, and eat at nice restaurants was too much. Usually when we resupplied we didn’t go back to the trail for a week or more. We were just so exhausted that it would take that long to gain a couple pounds back and feel energized again.
After resupplying, we would get on another bus and head back to the trail where we left off. We made four resupply trips in total, during one of which we moved our resupply bags to Pokhara.
To be entirely transparent, we only actually spent 3 months on the trail hiking. The rest of the time was spent relaxing in the city during resupplies. It also took us one week upon arrival to prepare for the hike and one week after it was over to chill and decompress.
This is by far the easiest way to get to and from the trail. There are so many tiny airports all across Nepal, and you can take 12-passenger planes to get where you’re going.
However, $160 for a one-way ticket is a typical price. The only time I took a plane during this hike was when it was over and I needed to get from Western Nepal back to Kathmandu. There are lots of Nepali domestic airlines, but you can browse Yeti Airlines to get a feel for flight routes and prices.
Also be aware that planes will not fly during bad weather. After completing our hike, we had to wait in Jumla for five days before we could fly out. Taking a bus or Jeep was not possible because the roads were too flooded from monsoon season. Be flexible when flying in Nepal.
This is the cheapest and most uncomfortable option. Buses in Nepal are not very efficient. It always takes a few hours longer than they say it will. Sometimes the bus breaks down on the side of the road and has to be fixed before continuing. There will be times it’s so full that people are riding on the roof. Sometimes they blast a rotation of Bollywood music over the speakers for 8 hours straight. And just when you get to the outskirts of Kathmandu and think the ride is almost over, it takes another two hours of sitting in traffic to reach the bus station.
They are cheap though. Expect to pay anywhere from $5-10 for a bus ride that lasts all day. The price will be closer to $20 for an overnight ride.
To get to Eastern Nepal, we took a 25-hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Taplejung. We even had a goat tied to our seat for the duration of the journey. And we had the same driver the entire time too.
I’m not complaining about the buses; I actually have quite the affinity for local transportation in Nepal. It’s always interesting and entertaining. However, I just want you to have realistic expectations about what you’re getting yourself into.
Budget & Costs for the Great Himalaya Trail
I averaged about $1000/ month during my thru-hike. This included everything I paid for once in Nepal and excluded my international flights and resupply food purchased at home. Some months I was way under this number. Then other months I was above, like when I had to replace gear or hire a guide for Manaslu.
As I mentioned before, I spent a lot of time in the city relaxing and spending money on whatever I wanted. If you’re planning on spending less time in the city than we did, you could probably get by on $800/ month. If you’re planning on taking domestic flights or trekking in all the guide mandatory regions, you will likely spend more than me.
On the low route, expect to spend about $10/ day for food and accommodations. On the high route, you will pay about $20/ day. This is because supplies have to be hauled in by porters or yaks on the high route, and the guest houses usually only exist for the sake of the tourists. The low route is cheaper because of easy road access for supplies and the guest houses exist for locals.
For more in depth information on this topic, read my article Trekking in Nepal Costs & Budget.
This article is already pretty long, and I could continue going on about all the intricacies of hiking in Nepal. I’m not going to though because I have an ebook you can buy called Tea House Treks of Nepal. It’s basically 40 pages of information that explains everything you need to know to start trekking: logistics, cultural stuff, advice for female trekkers, and loads more. My ebook answers all the questions I had before my first trip to Nepal.
It’s $8 to get the ebook and worth it.
Weather & Wildlife
Be prepared for any weather imaginable: monsoon rains, hail storms, heat and humidity, snow, blindingly bright sunshine. Weather changes rapidly from morning to night, when you gain or lose a lot of elevation, and according to whatever the season is. You must bring the full spectrum of winter and summer clothes.
This was a pretty cool trek as far as spotting animals and wildlife went. In the spring, there was all sorts of baby farm animals in the villages: ducks, chicks, goats, kittens. We also saw lots of animals working and hauling supplies such as mules, yaks, and buffalo. There’s lots of species of monkeys along the low route.
Perhaps the most exciting thing was finding snow leopard tracks and scat. One day we followed snow leopard tracks along the trail for 5 miles. We never actually saw one in person, but it was sort of a fun obsession of ours.
Can You Hike Solo?
I wouldn’t hike the Great Himalaya Trail solo. I’m not saying you can’t, I’m just saying you should think about if you really want to.
There were a lot of situations where we had to put our heads together to come up with the best solution, often when we were lost and trying to decide the best course of action. Furthermore, everything about this hike is mentally and physically exhausting. There were occasions where one of us was mentally checked out and the other person had to take the lead.
There are also factors to consider when trekking solo as a woman in Nepal. Most places are friendly, but in very rural regions you will be a spectacle of the village. If you’re a woman alone you’ll probably have to deal with sexual harassment or worse. For more of my thoughts on this topic, check out my article Female Solo Trekking in Nepal.
That sums up most of the information you need to start planning your Great Himalaya Trail thru-hike. If you have any questions, leave them in the comments for me. Don’t forget to visit the rest of my blog for even more Nepal trekking information.