Having just returned to Delhi from another memorable trip to Ladakh, I’m feeling completely inspired and fulfilled by the beautiful people, culture and landscapes. Trekking in this magical part of the world is so unique and memorable, combining rich culture and epic mountain scenery. There are so many options for different requirements, preferences and abilities, it can be hard to choose a trek. The hundreds of agencies in Leh and online advertising their services can also make the process a little overwhelming. Having now completed three treks in Ladakh, I thought I’d offer my advice on navigating your choices and having the best trekking experience in Ladakh.
When to go
The main trekking season in Leh is essentially June to September, with July and August being the busiest months. Outside of the main season, Ladakh sees few tourists and many guesthouses and restaurants shut. However some trekking is still available, even in the middle of winter when people undertake the Chadar ice trek and snow leopard sighting expeditions. If travelling outside of the season be aware that flying to and from Leh will probably be your only option, and you will need to make arrangements before arriving
Whether you arrive in Leh by air or road, a few days to acclimatise are essential given the altitude (Leh is around 3500 metres above sea level). This is a great time to check out your trekking options, get to know the great cafe and restaurant scene, and if you’re feeling up to it have a look at some of the sights around and above town.
Choosing an agency and guide
When you see the number of agencies in town, overwhelming can be an understatement to describe your choice. Indeed, do you even need to go through an agency, or can you just hire a guide yourself, or go without one? This will differ for everyone and there is no general rule. A good guide can completely enhance your trek, providing you with knowledge of land and culture, and helping with directions and safety. However a bad guide can certainly detract from your experience, and I have had both of these experiences myself.
The first thing to note is that you absolutely do not need to make any arrangements before your arrival in Leh. It is perfectly fine to just explore your options and make decisions when you are in Leh, and can speak to agencies directly. Indeed traveller recommendations will often be the best way to ensure you have a good experience. Also, if you are an individual traveller or even a couple, you may like to join a departing group to reduce the costs, and you can find brightly coloured signs advertising such groups at agencies around town. Often, it will just be the feeling you get from an agency that will dictate whether you are happy to go with them, but there are still other important considerations you should make. Do they use local, Ladakhi guides who will have superior knowledge of language and culture? Can you meet the guide before your trek? Also, check what is included and not included in the price, and if you are open to going with others, how much the price will go down by if more people join. Sometimes, it will be easier or better value to just hire a guide and make your own transport and accommodation arrangements, so keep this in mind too.
If time is of the essence and money is less of a concern, then it may make sense to make some enquiries or tentative bookings before your arrival, and I have met some trekkers who did have success this way. However be aware that you may be paying more, and you will still have to take care to ensure you can meet your guide and confirm the details and the feeling you get from the agency when you are on the ground.
From my own experience, I can confidently recommend the fantastic Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company for all inclusive homestay treks. The experience of walking with a female guide is unique and enlightening, and is available to females and those with at least one female in their group.
Some treks, such as the popular Markha Valley route are well marked and frequented during the season, so you may chose to go without a guide on a trek such as this. However a good guide can still enhance the experience and as always, it is best not to trek alone.
Homestay or tent camping
Some treks, such as Rumtse to Tsomoriri are exclusively for tent camping. If you go through an agency, donkeys will be used to carry the group’s tents, food and the majority of your own supplies, and you will only have to carry a small backpack with your daily needs. It is lovely to wake up every morning in a tent, in a remote and beautiful location. However, if you are on a trek that has homestays, I would certainly recommend going with that option rather that camping. The amazing culture, hospitality and food that you experience in a Ladakhi homestay will undoubtably be a highlight of the trip. Beyond this, staying in a homestay is usually the same price as camping in the allocated locations, and is certainly cheaper than an all inclusive camping trek.
Choosing a trek
I have completed three Ladakhi treks, two homestay and one camping, and conveniently one easy, one moderate and one challenging. The three day Sham Trek was an easy walk along relatively flat terrain, with short days but staying in lovely village hometays at night.
The five day Chiling to Shang Sumdo Markha Valley Trek was certainly more challenging, culminating in a 5100 metre pass, but is still quite accessible and involves fantastic scenery and homestays, making for a great choice.
Finally, the Rumtse to Tsomoriri trek involved memorable high altitude lakes, interactions with nomadic people, and beautiful camping, but many high passes and longer days of trekking, so is a more demanding hike.
Other popular options you may like to look into are the three day Zingchen to Chiling trek, which ends with a day of rafting, or an ascent of the 6153 metre ‘trekking peak’ Stok Kangri for those with a little more experience or ambition.
Although your homestay will provide you with three meals a day, including a substantial dinner, lunches can sometimes be a bit light, and the wait between lunch and dinner long. Rather than buying packaged snacks along the route, it can be a good idea to bring some dried fruit or nuts along to snack on. During the main season (July and August) on most of the homestay treks, you will only need to carry a small day pack as a sleeping bag or a lot of warm clothes are not necessary. However these will be necessary on most camping treks, so you will need to carry a larger pack, go with an agency who will provide donkeys, or hire a donkey or porter yourself. A sunhat, sunscreen and sunglasses are vital on all treks given the harsh sun in Ladakh, and despite the infrequency of rain, a rain jacket is still a good proportion. Also, don’t forget your camera and a spare battery and memory card, as Ladakh is a photographer’s dream!