Category Archives: Leave No Trace

Leave-no-Trace Trekking in Nepal

We all know that tourism can have benefits for local cultures, especially if the economic infrastructure is set up in a way that provides good jobs (and training for even better jobs) and sources products locally. But there is a careful balance to be maintained: Too many tourists can shift the balance and cause harm, as well as good. Overdependence on tourism may threaten traditional ways of making a living, leaving locals vulnerable to global economics that affect tourism in their area. Well-meaning gifts can encourage children to turn to begging rather than education. Cultural conflict, economic disparity, and pollution can follow in the footsteps of well-shod tourists.

Treks on Nepal’s famous routes such as the Mt. Everest Trek or the Annapurna Circuit are on the life-list of many adventure travelers. That means crowds. Both the fragile alpine environment and subsistence culture are vulnerable to damage from tourism.

Environmental Issues for Trekkers in Nepal

High Country is Harsh and Fragile

The high altitude and alpine environment of most of Nepal’s trekking areas, such as the popular Annapurna Circuit and Everest Trek, makes these regions extremely vulnerable to pollution and overuse. Surprisingly, guided groups may actually have less impact than unguided independent trekkers, especially if the groups are run in an environmentally responsible manner.

Take cooking fuel. It’s a seemingly small issue, but it has big ramifications. Environmentally responsible groups bring in their own cooking fuel, rather than relying on locally sourced (and rare) wood.  In contrast, food prepared for independent trekkers is often cooked on wood-burning stoves, which contributes to deforestation — a major problem in fragile alpine areas. Cut-rate tours arranged in the back-alley outfitters of Kathmandu may not adhere to the same environmental standards as groups run by established tour agencies. When arranging a trek, ask about environmental issues.

Waste is another problem. Some popular sections of trails are strewn with waste, including toilet paper. The same leave-no-trace rules you follow at home should be followed on Nepal’s trails: Pack out all batteries and plastic waste, and as much as possible, all other trash. In the dry cold air of high altitudes, it takes a long time for anything to decompose, and this includes those pink “flowers” of TP.  Dispose of toilet paper by burning it, disposing of it in outhouses when they are available, or leaving it in a toilet refilled with earth – anything to be sure it won’t resurface as litter.

More Minimum Impact Tips

Annapurna Sanctuary
  • If camping with a group, share a toilet pit, and fill it in so no trace remains after use. It should be at least 100 feet from a stream or river.
  • There is no way to dispose of or recycle plastic water bottles in the remote villages. Instead of buying bottled water, use a purifier.
  • The widely available local staple food, dal bhat, is a combination of lentils and rice (and sometimes vegetables). It places fewer burdens on local villagers to produce this meal, as the ingredients are available locally.
  • Wash with bio-degradable soaps — again, not near a stream or river.

Cultural Issues for Trekkers in Nepal

For us tourists, the chance to interact with another culture is a precious one, and it can be hard to see that we can be doing harm when we visit a village, give presents to children, and photograph sacred sites. But too many tourists, even well-meaning ones, can place stress on indigenous and subsistence cultures. A society that has functioned on its own for centuries can find itself suddenly dependent on tourist dollars. Western values may erode cultural norms. To lessen impact:

  • Nepal’s’ culture is very religious, combining aspects of Buddhism and Hinduism. Always walk to the right side of the many mani walls (walls with carvings found alongside the trails), or counterclockwise around stupas and monuments. This ensures that no matter which way you go, when you return, you will make a full circle.
  • Resist the urge to give gifts to begging children. Begging undermines a culture. Those who wish to help can give a package of pens to a local school, share some food, or make a donation through one of the many aid agencies in Kathmandu. Himalayan Rescue Association is a worthy cause, as it provides medical aid to rural Nepali villagers and mounts an altitude sickness prevention education program for trekkers.
  • Hire porters. This is at traditional way of trekking in Nepal, and is a way of contributing to the economy without giving alms or undermining the culture: Trekkers pay for work performed. The cost is minimal, and the positive impact is huge.
  • Ask guides about the appropriate behavior at shrines and religious sites.
  • Ask people before photographing them; they aren’t objects.

By following these simple precepts, visitors can help ensure they are following the Leave-no-Trace edict of taking only pictures, leaving only footprints.

FAQs on Long-Distance Hiking

So, imagine that you are 11, 12, or 13 years old and you have just completed a 10-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. Now you’re watching a slide show about long distance hiking. What would YOU want to know?

I spoke to a group of adventure-program campers at Lakeville, Connecticut-based Camp Sloane’s. The kids asked dozens of questions. Interestingly, they were much more concerned about the experience than the equipment. I have no doubt we’ll be seeing more of these awesome kids on the trails.

Q) Did you ever get into really bad trouble or think you were going to die?
A) No, but that’s mostly because I’m the kind of person who reads everything before doing anything, and if the book says take two quarts of water, I take three, and if it says be sure you know how to use a map and compass, I take a class or get someone to show me. Most backcountry emergencies can be prevented by planning ahead, following the “rules,” and using common sense.

Q) What were the most dangerous animals?
A) Besides mosquitoes? Rattlesnakes and bears are two animals you’ll often see, and many people fear, but while both can be dangerous, neither of them is usually a problem unless something weird happens — like stepping on a snake, so keep your eyes peeled!

Q) Who were some of the friends you made while hiking?
A) There’s a long list, but one example is that I met some Norwegian girls in Nepal, and we kept in touch, and I later visited one of them in New Zealand and the other visited me in Massachusetts. We still keep in touch. I have many other hiking friends scattered around the world.

Q) How long is the longest you ever went without a shower? (meaning a real indoor shower with hot water).
A) About 20 days. But there were lots of cold showers and lakes and streams during that hike. The longest without washing up at all was an eight-day winter trip.

Q) How much water did you carry?
A) Anywhere from none (in the snow-covered High Sierra, where water was everywhere) to almost two gallons in the southern California desert. Of course, as soon as you start drinking, you are carrying less.

Q) Who did you hike with?
A) My husband (now ex-husband). We invited friends to join us for short (and sometimes long) sections along the way, and we also met people while hiking with whom we hung out for a while.

Q) When did you first feel like you were a successful hiker?
A) Well, I was pretty proud of my first really long hike, which was 200 miles in California’s High Sierra. But I think success in hiking really means enjoying all the days you’re out there… You don’t want to have 180 miserable days and then call it a “success” because you finally got somewhere. So I would say that really feeling like I was enjoying every day on the trail made the hikes feel successful.

Q) How did you adjust back to regular life after you stopped?
A) I tried not to. I don’t live in or near a city anymore; I live here in the mountains. I work at home, and I travel about six times a year.