Is it ethical to hire a porter in Nepal? The truth behind a porter's life
I was going to Nepal to trek in the Himalayas!!! For the past few years, I had dreamed about this moment, and this was too good to be true. It was something so amazing to do, but also, so different than anything else I have done. It is natural to have your mind spinning while you prepare for something so big, right?
I had a million things going on in my mind and many questions I needed answers for.
What trek to choose? How cold will it be? Am I going to accomplish my trekking goal, or am I going to feel the effects of the altitude? Should I hire a guide? Should I hire a porter for my trek or carry my load myself?
I chose to trek the Annapurna Base Camp and I did my homework to try to understand more about the culture in Nepal. But the question, if I should or should not hire a porter, was in the back of my mind. As someone who's constantly trying to support ethical traveling, it didn't sound very ethical to pay someone to carry all my belongings up the mountains.
You may also want to read:
- Hiking the Himalayas - FITNESS preparation guide
- The best Everest Base Camp - Heli Trek
- Nepal - Homestay in a rural village
Anyway, what is a porter?
If you are not familiar with a porter, let’s take a break to understand them better. They are Nepali people who live in the rural villages of the Himalayas and carry loads of gear for trekkers, climbers, hotels, and lodges.
Porters can work 5 to 10 hours a day and carry weight from 10 kg to 100 kg using a namlo, which is a strap that rests on the front of their heads and around their load. Or they carry a doko which is a type of bamboo basket.
Trekking porters typically carry 2 full backpacks at the same time, your backpack, plus their own. If they use your pack, you will notice that they are not going to use the waist strap and carry all the weight on their shoulders and/or head.
Porters are not guides, but sometimes you can find a porter-guide. This is usually a porter who has been on a number of treks, speaks some English, and aspires to graduate to the guide role. It’s not that easy to find a porter-guide, especially in the peak season.
Porters are not Sherpas, a Sherpa is an ethnic group from the northeastern Himalayan mountains. They are respected for their adaptation to high altitudes and are often hired to assist expeditions to Himalayan summits, including Mt. Everest. Read more here
Your porter does so much more than carry a load for you. Your porter makes sure you have the best experience possible! This is what makes a porter as valuable as a well-worn comfortable pair of hiking shoes on a long trek.
Can you do it without them? Yes. Is it the same enjoyable experience? No.
Porters are the eyes and ears of you and your guide. The porters will keep an eye on you and monitor how you are doing. The porter knows how far you are going that day. They know how many steps you have left to climb or descend each day. They will slow you down so you don't burn out too early or motivate you to keep climbing to the next rest point. Porters will make sure you are staying hydrated and make sure you don't forget anything after each stop.
Porters will "race" ahead (with full loads on their back) to the tea house where you will have lunch and make sure everything is ready for your arrival. They will arrive at the tea house where you will spend the night and make sure you have a bed and food. The porter will check your room before you leave in the morning to make sure you didn't leave anything behind. Your porter will place an order for food for you and make sure you have refills of boiled water.
The average price you will pay for a porter will depend on the trek route that you choose – but it can vary from 10-20 USD per day. While a guide can range from 20-30 USD per day.
Why you should hire a porter to trek the Himalayas
As I shared before, it sounded very selfish to hire a porter. I started to do some research online and talked to my tour operator prior to my trip so I could better educate myself. Surprisingly I learned that the answer was YES, IT IS ethical to hire a porter for the following reasons:
- The money they earn while trekking is essential to the cash-starved local economies of rural Nepal.
- They need this job. It helps them provide for their families.
- By paying a porter, you are empowering the local people and valuing the Nepali culture.
- And last but not least, for your own cultural interaction. A porter will give you a unique view of life in the Himalayas.
If you are booking your trek through a tour operator, make sure you do your research to make sure they do it ethically and treat the porters well. They should follow the International Porter Protection Group’s list of guidelines for ethical trekking
A Porter is not superhuman
As an athlete, I was amazed by the strength and energy level of the porters. After some research, I found some scientific studies on porters to find out how they can carry so much weight, sometimes heavier than their own body weight. Recent studies reported that they didn't find anything particularly special about how porters walk. They simply go, and they keep going.
According to the studies, they found out that the porter's muscles were slightly more efficient at turning oxygen into work. However, there was nothing unusual about their gait or energy use.
The Nepalese porters adapt over a lifetime of carrying loads, often beginning in childhood, and they do daily physical work. Basically, they train their bodies to do this amazing type of work the way an athlete trains to perform well in their sport.
The positive side
One thing that I would love to share is the relationship that I saw among the trekkers and their porters.
It made me so happy to see that relationship develop over the course of the trek in the Himalayas. At the end of a long and tiring day, everyone would hang out together at the lodges (or tea houses) and have black tea together, while playing games or having conversations. It was an amazing atmosphere where everyone would laugh and smile at each other and relate stories from the day.
Trekkers would teach their porters how to say a new word or a phrase in English or how to play a Western game. Porters would teach the hikers a Nepali song or how to dance.
It was beautiful to see, and it made me believe that the porters who work in the tourism industry are treated well and with respect. They enjoy what they do and benefit from interaction with foreigners. I saw relationships develop based on mutual respect.
I cannot count the number of times Niraj, my porter, gave me words of encouragement or motivation.
My porter was an endless fountain of smiles and positivity that added so much to my trek experience in the Himalayas! Niraj made my experience so much better than it would have been otherwise.
ETHICAL TRAVEL GUIDELINE TO HIRE A PORTER IN THE HIMALAYAS
Don’t abuse your porters –
- Remember what I said before? They are not superhumans. They also feel tired, feel the effect of the altitude, and need proper rest to do their heavy work.
- Keep those things in mind, and be respectful of the amount of weight you are carrying with you, make sure to bring with you only what is necessary.
- The limit of weight a porter can carry is up to 30 Kg, and if you hire a guide-porter, then they can carry a maximum of 15kg.
Tip: My husband and I left the majority of our belongings at the hotel in Pokhara, where we started our adventure in the Himalayas. We combined our "essentials" into one load of 10 kg. Even our guide said we were taking too little with us, but let me tell you, it was enough, even during winter. While our porter carried the large backpack with our belongs, including 2 sleeping bags, we had our daypacks with water, snacks, camera, video gear, my laptop, and layers of clothes that we would take off and carry with us.
Make sure they are being treated well –
- Observe if the porters are having their meals, have a place to rest at the lodges (or tea houses), have proper clothes and shoes for the hike.
- Sometimes they have to pay for their own lodging and food, and it can be very expensive, so make sure they do not skip their meals.
- Trekking companies have the main responsibility to improve the working condition and to create a sustainable future for Nepali trekking porters. Make sure your trek agency is treating the porters well.
Tips: Make sure the tour agency that you hired follows the 5 guidelines for the Ethical Traveling – This guideline covers important issues like insurance, equipment, healthcare, shelter, and loading. Also, on top of the daily wage, make sure you tip them at the end of the trek. This will be a bonus that will help them and their family tremendously.
How we can help to improve a porter’s life:
- They are amazing people and take outstanding care of you, and they will also want to practice their English with you.
- If at the end of the hike you have any trekking gear that is unwanted equipment, clothes or shoes, please consider donating.
Tip: At the end of our hike, I met my porter Niraj in the city and took him to a shop to buy him some hiking shoes, and I cannot forget his smile of pure joy and appreciation. You can also sponsor the education of your porter. Niraj wants to be fluent in English because he wants to become a tour guide. I felt thrilled to be part of his dream, and I am very proud of him. He is studying English in Pokhara. If you would like to help Niraj improve his English and to help provide for his family, please contact me.
Are you planning a trip to Nepal? Check out my complete Nepal Travel Guide
Paula supports giving back to the communities
“If you have plenty – more than enough, and someone else has nothing, then you should do something about it.” Sir Edmund Hillary
Edmund Hillary was born on July 20, 1919, in Auckland, New Zealand, and took up mountain climbing. In 1953, he and Tibetan climber Tenzing Norgay were the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Hillary also cultivated resources for the people of Nepal. He died on January 11, 2008.
Epic Adventures supports engagement on social work and distributes 20% of their profits to charity. They promote and support sustainable tourism in underdeveloped regions and have provided many job opportunities to the locals and even encouraged the local businesses to prosper.