Many people like the idea of trekking in the Himalayas (whether that’s Nepal, Ladakh, or Bhutan) but don’t know whether it would be too far out of their physical comfort zone. There’s also a lot of confusion between mountain climbing and mountain trekking. Yes, thousands of people flock to Nepal each year to trek to Everest, but only a fraction of these actually attempt to climb the mountain! You don’t need to be a uber-fit superhero to enjoy trekking in the Himalayas.
Like many things in life, trekking in the Himalayas is easier and more enjoyable if you have a reasonable level of fitness. If you regularly attend yoga classes, the gym, go for bike rides, long walks, or swim, a Himalayan trek should not be outside your comfort zone. Of course, if you have any particular health issues—especially related to the joints, lungs, or heart—you should seek professional medical advice before planning a trip. But the Himalayas offer everything from low-altitude jaunts to weeks-long expeditions at high altitude, as well as everything in between.
It’s also important to realise that fitness and the body’s reaction to high altitudes are not related. Some very fit trekkers can feel the effects of altitude badly, whereas averagely fit trekkers may have no problems at all. There are ways to mitigate the effects of altitude but fitness is not necessarily one of them.
Here are a few different options for travellers with varying levels of fitness.
No Himalayan treks are necessarily ‘easy’. They all involve uphill and downhill walking over uneven terrain, often at high altitude and while staying in basic accommodation. But the following treks are popular among less experienced trekkers.
This trek is perfect for travellers wanting a short (four night) but spectacular trek in Nepal. Climb from pretty river scenery through beautiful rhododendron forests to Ghorepani, then up to Poon Hill for sunrise. The panoramic view from here of Dhaulagiri and the Annapurna range is superb. The trek continues through abundant rhododendron forests to a number of Gurung villages and more spectacular mountain views from Tadapani, before returning to Pokhara via Ghandruk. The highest altitude reached is at Poon Hill, which is 3,210 metres, but nights are spent at a lower altitude that should not cause any problems. This trek does involve a steep ascent up many stone steps on the first day, so trekkers should definitely carry poles to help the body along.
The whole of Ladakh is high-altitude, and the capital city of Leh—where most travellers arrive—is over 3,000 metres. The highest point on the Sham Valley Trek is 3,800 metres. It’s really important that trekkers in Ladakh give themselves several days to acclimatise before heading off on a trek. Once that’s done, the Sham Valley Trek is an easy option. The three-four day route allows you to meander through the midst of Ladakh’s barren yet oftentimes surprisingly colourful landscape, pass monasteries, and stay in cut village homestays with the local people.
If you know you’re pretty fit but don’t want to exhaust yourself while on the trip of a lifetime, check out one of these medium-difficulty options. They will challenging you without requiring years of training beforehand.
The five-day Druk Path trek is one of Bhutan’s most famous. It highlights the great diversity of Bhutan’s landscape. It passes through a gorgeous landscape of blue pine forests, high ridges and pristine lakes. There’s also the opportunity to visit ancient dzongs and villages. The highest altitude reached is 4,235 m, so it’s important to take your time. Find out when is the best time to visit Bhutan here.
Mardi Himal is an under-visited mountain with a recently developed trekking trail that’s waiting to be explored. The mountain landscape is as spectacular as the nearby Annapurna region, but the trek itself is less challenging than the Annapurna Base Camp trek. This trek is an ideal option for adventurous travellers who want to get off the beaten path. Walk though pristine rhododendron forests (especially vibrant in March-April), cloud forests, and charming villages to high-altitude pastures where yaks graze. From Mardi Himal Base Camp, the entire Annapurna range is visible, including Hiunchuli, Annapurna South, and Machhapuchhre (Fishtail). Follow the Mardi Khola Valley for part of the way. If you are looking for a short, rewarding trek with stunning mountain views without the crowds, the Mardi Himal trek is the perfect choice. The highest altitude reached is 4,450 metres.
If you’ve done a lot of trekking before, and consider yourself fit and up for a challenge, there are plenty of choices in the Himalayan region. Longer, more difficult treks require good support, so make sure you have a good guide and porter.
The Three Passes Trek offers unparalleled views of dramatic summits and captivating valleys. Take in the entire Himalayan Range from Chukking-Ri and Gokyo-Ri, including the best views of Mount Everest’s summit. Follow the well-worn trail to Everest Base Camp via Kala Patthar before leaving the main trail to climb the Cho La Pass to the cobalt blue Gokyo Lakes and on to Gokyo Ri. The views are spectacular and you will see the spectacle of the Khumbu Icefall cascading from the Western Cwm. Crossing the Renjo La pass, follow a little of the route used for centuries by the Tibetan Traders via Nangpa La to get to Thame. Following the classical route, drop down to Lukla and fly back to Kathmandu. The highest altitude reached is 5,540 metres, which is very high, so be well prepared and know how to act if you or anyone in your party succumbs to altitude sickness.
Trekking in Bhutan is like nowhere else in the Himalayas. It’s an untouched natural wonderland. Rated as one of Bhutan’s most spectacular, the Laya Gasa trek takes you to Bhutan’s northern border with Tibet. Enjoy fabulous views of snow-capped mountains and experience the unique culture of the friendly Layap people in a truly remote corner of the Himalayas. If you’re trekking in October, don't miss the annual Royal Highlander Festival that takes place in Laya. See the local people showcasing their unique culture over a two-day event in the remote countryside. The highest altitude reached is 5,005 metres, so be prepared to stop or take it slow if you need to.