Guided Vs Independent Trekking

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Mount Kailash Kora, Tibet, 2006

In western countries, the majority of people backpack without the assistance of guides, porters or travel agencies. Yet when many of these same hikers journey to developing nations, they make the decision to go on guided treks.

Why?

Guided Trekking

Guided trips provide hikers with a relatively “worry free” wilderness experience.

Details such as getting there and away, route finding, navigation, potential campsites and language barriers are all taken care of by the people in charge. Generally speaking, you have your tent set up for you, your food cooked for you and the bulk of your gear carried by porters or pack animals. For many hikers, a significantly lighter load equates to a much more comfortable experience, no small matter when you are undertaking an arduous multi-day (or week) trek at high altitude. In addition, by going with a guided service you will often be providing employment for local people, and a guide may provide insights into local flora, fauna and the nuances of village life.

If you are short on experience, fitness and/or time and just want a hassle-free holiday out in nature shared with potentially like-minded people, then a guided trek may very well be for you.

Independent Trekking

In contrast, hiking independently means the acceptance of all responsibilities. If something goes wrong the onus is upon you to make it right. Pre-hike preparations can at times be lengthy, complicated and dealing with bureaucracy in developing countries is rarely easy.

Cam Honan | Laguna Hoja Larga | Sierra Nevada Del Cocuy, Colombia.

Sierra Nevada Del Cocuy, Colombia, 2015.

However, despite the logistical challenges, most independent trekkers will attest that the rewards outweigh the inconveniences. Principal amongst these benefits is a sense of freedom – the freedom to choose where you camp, what you eat, whom you hike with (if anyone), when you take a break and how fast or slow you walk.

While a guide may provide valuable insights into regional culture, it is equally true that when local people see someone hiking independently, carrying their own pack, taking the same dodgy buses and broken down pickup trucks that they do, an affinity is created without a single word being exchanged. In a sense the independent hiker represents a more empathetic figure, simply because he or she is attempting to accept and adapt to local conditions without the safety net of a guided trip.

Cordillera Blanca Traverse, 2014

Ascending to Ishinca Pass | Cordillera Blanca Traverse, Peru, 2014.

Costs

Let’s get down to brass tracks. Hiking independently is cheaper. How much more affordable depends on a number of factors including length of hike, whether or not you have your own gear, level of accommodation, trailhead travel, the type of service you are contracting, and whether or not you book from overseas or organise it locally upon arrival (i.e. the latter is usually cheaper, though it sometimes comes with less of a guarantee).

If you are wavering about which way to go for economic reasons, do your sums beforehand. Chances are if you have all your own gear, it will work out to be significantly less expensive to hike independently. That said, don’t forget to consider the “time” factor. A lot of folks lead very busy lives and have little in the way of time off. In such cases, having someone take care of all the logistics can be worth it’s weight in vacation gold.

But don’t guides give you a better chance of completing your trek?

If you have done your research, have the right gear, and possess the appropriate experience for the conditions into which you are headed, the answer is no. If you don’t tick any of the aforementioned boxes, the answer is most probably yes.

Wadi Rum, Jordan, 1996 | One of the highlights of my first trip to the Middle East, was a few days spent rambling around Wadi Rum. I was joined on this hike by Craig and Kev, whom I had met a couple of days earlier on the ferry from Taba to Aqaba.

An Open Mind

Whether you hike independently or with a guide largely comes down to personal preference (Note: There are some treks and regions around the world in which a guide is obligatory). We all have different motivations, family and work commitments, levels of fitness and experience. Ultimately the most important thing is to go with an open mind. If you can put aside preconceived ideas and accept a place and its people on their terms rather than your own, chances are you are going to have a fantastic time no matter how you choose to hike.

Disclosure: Over the past two and a half decades much of my hiking has been done in developing countries. With one roundabout exception in Sikkim, India, all of the trips have been done independently. The “freedom” factor is the main reason, though I genuinely enjoy the planning process as well. Plus, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit I’ve always had a thing about carrying my own stuff………..it would drive me round the twist to watch someone else carry my pack!

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Shimshal Pamir, Pakistan | In the western media you rarely hear good things about Pakistan. However, my experience while hiking in the Karakoram Range in 2008 was nothing but positive. Indeed, rarely have I met friendlier or more hospitable people than those that I encountered during that six week trip.


Comments

Guided Vs Independent Trekking — 10 Comments

  1. I would love to do the Quilotoa loop in Ecuador either solo or with a friend. My spanish is ok, but as much as I hate to admit it, being a more than a middle aged, 5 foot tall on a good day female might not make me a really good candidate for a solo hike in Latin America ( or am I being alarmist?).
    If you have done the loop, would you have any navigation/ camping/ hostel info to share, pretty please?

    • Hey Judy,

      I’ve done a few different hikes in Ecuador, but that wasn’t one of them.

      Not much you can do about the height at this stage, but the Spanish will definitely come in handy whether you go independently or with a group!

      My favourite hiking in Ecuador was definitely in Cajas National Park close to the town of Cuenca.

      Best of luck!

      Saludos,

      Cam

      • I hiked solo in Cajas National park (I’m a female in my 40’s) and didn’t see a single other hiker. The park rangers were very helpful in getting me on my way and I never felt unsafe hiking there. I also hiked near Cotopaxi and felt fine. Just my two cents if that helps.

        • Great to see Cajas NP getting some love! It reminded me a little of a high altitude version of the Scottish Highlands……..just with more lakes, less people and no pubs!

          Cheers,

          Cam

  2. When I hiked solo in Nepal I definitely felt respect from porters and guides. I felt more of a connection with them than with the groups of tourists. It was pretty cool.

  3. I am used to doing independent backpacking trips in North America but I recently hired a guide (recommended by a friend) for a trek in Nepal – my first in the developing world. We definitely didn’t need a guide but I found that the cultural experience was sooo much better with a guide. Although I usually enjoy planning a trip almost as much as actually going on the trip, taking a guided trip was a lot less stressful since I was so busy with work leading up to the trip that I didn’t have a lot of time to plan. I actually wrote a post on my blog recently about trekking in Nepal with a guide: https://happiestoutdoors.ca/hire-a-trekking-guide-in-nepal/

    It’s nice to see the opposite perspective of mine though! Because of course there is no “right” way to travel 🙂

    • Hey Taryn,

      Thanks for the message. It would be a boring old world if we all had the same perspective!

      Great that you enjoyed your time in Nepal. I spent a couple of months there back in 2008 and it’s an incredible country.

      Cheers,

      Cam

  4. Hi Cam,
    Thanks for this unbiased post. I’ve been a guide / owner, (mostly day trips, w/ some overnights in Joshua Tree), in SoCal, (Palm Springs) area for over 20 years. I also love the freedom & independence of going it alone, but would most likely hire a guide if I journey to foreign lands, (if I’m attempting a challenging climb where I can benefit from the local knowledge on route finding, safety etc.
    On the other-hand, I would want to be solo, (or at least un-guided) on many treks where there’s lots of info available on the area, route, camping, H20 etc.
    Of course, most of my clients are relatively inexperienced, and really enjoy learning about the local flora & fauna, plus some history, local tips etc.
    Thanks for your insights & very useful info as always,
    Happy trails, Scott 2

  5. One thing to consider – many of the people who hire guides/porters in the developing world are not otherwise what you might call “backpackers” – the Inca Trail, Kilimanjaro, and Everest Base Camp are more adventure-tourist destinations than classic “backpacking” trips. And the people who undertake such treks are, by and large, not particularly experienced backpackers. This is in no way a criticism of such adventurers, it’s just to point out that they’re, by and large, a different group of people than the backpackers you typically see in the States.

    So to compare the two groups and their respective uses of guides is a bit of an Apples vs Oranges situation. If such adventure-tourists had the inclination to go backpacking in the States, and if guides were available on the cheap in the US like they are abroad, I have no doubt that these adventure-tourists would be employing guides by the dozen.

    All this to say – there’s no necessarily “right” answer to employ guides or not, particularly where you don’t speak the language, but to compare the domestic and international situations is a bit difficult because of demographic distances.

    I think that’s what you’re getting at with this comment: “If you are short on experience and/or time and just want a hassle-free holiday out in nature shared with potentially like-minded people, then a guided trek may very well be for you.”

    • Hey LarryBoy,

      Sorry about the delayed reply.

      Whilst it is true that many of the people who go on guided treks in the developing world are not regular backpackers, based on what I’ve seen over the years, there are still quite a lot that are. My article wasn’t just referring to the small sample of well known “adventure tourism” destinations you mentioned. From Ladakh, to the Copper Canyon, to the Cordillera Blanca, over and over I’ve seen hikers with a wide range of experience levels, choose to go with guides/porters when hiking in the developing world, for the reasons I allude to in the article.

      Cheers,

      Cam

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