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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!