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Himalayan High: guided vs independent trekking
If you have never gone on a trek of this nature before, the choice is a simple one. You should definitely hire a guide for your first long distance hike. But if you have even a moderate level of experience backpacking, then you should consider the choices quite carefully, as both have their advantages and drawbacks, which can have a direct impact on a number of aspects of your trip.
Traveling independently also allows you to go at your own pace, which means that if you're not feeling well or want to spend an extra rest day in one of the villages along the way, you can. You'll also be able to pick your own route, and there are multiple paths for reaching Everest Base Camp for instance. On the other hand, the guides usually have a planned out itinerary designed to get you to and from your destination in the time that you have allotted. They also have built in rest days to make sure you're acclimatizing properly, but they want to see you up and back down the mountain on an orderly schedule, which helps them to run more treks, and gets you back in Kathmandu in time for your flight home. There are times when a well regulated schedule does prove to be handy.
Having a guide along with you does provide a measure of safety however, as they generally know what to watch out for in terms of altitude sickness. They also know the best routes to take through the mountains, and can provide information on the surrounding peaks, the villages you pass through, and various other sites that you'll come across along the way. Your guide will probably also come with a porter or two, who will carry your larger backpack, freeing you up to travel lightly with just a day pack. if you're not use to carrying a heavy pack over uneven and demanding terrain, this alone can be worth the added expense of hiring a guide.
On my recent Himalayan trek I joined a guided trekking group in Kathmandu, and I personally feel it was the best decision for myself. I did indeed have a limited time in the country and I wanted to take advantage of that time to the best of my ability. Having a guide helped greatly in that department. It didn't hurt that our guide was also very knowledgeable, had a great personality, and was fun to be around either. Going in a guided group also meant that I was meeting new people and sharing the experience with others. In this case, we had members of the group from all over the globe, making it a multicultural affair.
There were a variety of times when I was very happy to be a part of that group. For instance, just getting a flight from Kathmandu to Lukla could have been tricky on my own. The weather was less than stellar the day we were making that trip, and we were forced to wait in the airport until the skies cleared. But being part of an organized, guided trek, meant that we already had our tickets and reservations, before we even arrived at the airport. Had I gone independently, there is a good chance I'd have gotten bumped, throwing my schedule off completely.
Later in the trek, while we were descending, there was a sign in one of the teahoues that we were staying in that said that they were booked for the next four nights. We had reservations to stay for the night that we were there, but that "no vacancy" sign made me very happy that I wasn't arriving in the village, at the end of a long day on the trail, hoping that I could find a place to stay.
After a few days in the Himalaya, I did notice how easy it would be to make the trek independently. The infrastructure is in place to make it as simple as possible. The trails are well marked and easy to follow on your own and there are villages every hour or two along the way. For experienced trekkers and backpackers, the option is there and it is an attractive one. By going independently, you'll certainly save some cash and have some freedom to explore the mountains at your own pace. But should you elect to go with a guide, you'll find that the benefits likely outweigh the costs, and you'll find plenty of reasons that it is a good option as well.
Both options are viable and it is important to pick the one that bests fits your style of travel.
Next: Preparing for the Trek