Ladakh Trekking: A Beginner’s Guide

Prayer Flags and Mountain Views Greet us at the Top of Gongmaru La Pass - Ladakh, India
Prayer flags at the top of Kongmaru La pass (5130 meters/16,800 feet). Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh

Every year we try to go on a big trek, one that takes us far far away and high into the mountains. For us, it’s not only a way to exercise our bodies, but to clear and challenge our minds. It’s a way to disconnect from all that is part of our daily life — technology, social media, blogging — and reconnect with nature and ourselves.

Last year’s trek of the Markha Valley in Ladakh in India’s high Himalayas was one of our favorite treks of all time. We had dangerously high expectations, having dreamed of this region for over a decade. Fortunately, what we found in Ladakh and on our trek far exceeded what we had imagined, not only in terms of the stunning landscape but also the Ladakhi people.

Having fielded numerous questions about trekking in Ladakh — which trek to choose, how to find a trekking agency, when to go, how to get there, and more — we’ve created this Ladakh Trekking Beginner’s Guide. We hope it encourages you to make the long journey to Ladakh overland from jumping off points like Srinigar, Kashmir. You won’t be sorry.

Dan and Audrey Begin Markha Valley Trek - Zingchan, Ladakh
Ready to hit the trails. Day 1, Minute 1 of our Markha Valley Trek.

Short attention span warning: This is a long post. The reason: it contains all we wished we’d found when we researched our own trip to Ladakh. Although we bought the Lonely Planet chapter on Ladakh, we found it lacking in many of the details and practicalities we needed. Here is my attempt to put together all you need to know to choose, organize and then enjoy a trek in Ladakh. If questions remain, let us know!

If you’d like to skip ahead:

Choosing a trek in Ladakh

There are loads of trekking choices in Ladakh. Your choice will depend on the amount of time you have, how remote you’d like to go, and the difficultly level you seek. Some of the more remote treks require special permits as they may go into sensitive border areas, but trekking agencies can easily take care of this for you within a day or two.

Hankar Village and Mountain Views - Ladakh, India
Room with a view from Hankar village along the Markha Valley Trek.

There are endless variations of treks you can take in Ladakh, with many taking you to remote areas and can go up to three weeks. You can find a full list of Ladakh trekking options here.

Some of the more popular treks in Ladakh include:

  • Markha Valley Trek (6-7 days): This is the one that we chose because it combined hiking and landscapes with people and culture by incorporating homestays with families in villages along the way. For us, this combination is ideal and resulted in a trekking experience that exceeded our expectations. The Markha Valley Trek is also the most popular Ladakh trek and we’re told it can get crowded in the high season (July and August). If you travel to Ladakh during high season, take this into consideration and perhaps choose a less popular trek to avoid crowded trails and home accommodations.
  • Hidden Valleys of Ladakh, Zanskar Range (5-6 days, but can be extended): This trek takes you into the Zanskar range and through small villages throughout the valley area. Camping gear is required as it’s not possible to do homestays for the entire trek.
  • Nubra Valley (2-3 days): This trip doesn’t include as much trekking, but features more of a ride, trek and camel ride experience. We’ve heard it’s quite beautiful so it might be a good add-on if you have extra days in the area.
  • Kharnak trek (15 days): Begins like the Markha Valley trek but continues further south for another week. A Ladakhi trekking guide told us this is one of his favorite treks.
  • Rumtse to Tsomoriri (7-8 days): This was another favorite trek from a guide we spoke to because of the beauty of the lakes and the joy of interaction with shepherds along the way. This trek is on the short list for when we return.

To trek independently or with a guide?

Some treks require a guide due to the difficulty of the trail or local regulations. Other routes like the Markha Valley Trek can be done independently (e.g., without a guide) because the trail is pretty well marked and there are villages to stay in throughout the way. You then have the decision of whether to go on your own or hire a guide. Factors include: budget, your trekking experience, skill at reading trekking maps, and weather. Let’s examine these.

Although our Markha Valley trek could have been done without a guide, we were thankful to have one. Having a local guide provided us with the peace of mind that we were always on the right path (as some of you may remember, we have a history of getting lost in mountains). As luck would have it, we crossed our first Markha Valley trek mountain pass in the middle of a snow storm. Without our guide, we never would have found the correct approach. Two guys trekking independently with us said they would have turned back that day if it weren’t for our guide to help them find the path. Word to the wise: It pays to hitch a ride with Dan and Audrey…if they have a guide!

Our local guide also provided local context and culture (e.g., Ladakhi Buddhist) to the experience. We asked him many questions about his life growing up in a remote village in Ladakh and the changes he’d seen in his short lifetime. He served as an interpreter, providing us the flexibility to have conversations with families we stayed with or ask questions of people we’d met along the way.

Ladakhi Women, Mother and Daughter - Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Friendly mother and daughter running a tea house where we ate lunch.

So while trekking Ladakh independently may save you some money and perhaps allow you a little more flexibility, our experience proved to us beyond a doubt that the benefits of having a guide in this region far outweighs the costs.

Ladakh Accommodation and Sleeping Options: Camping or Homestay?

Some treks will give you the option of either camping or homestays (staying with Ladakhi families in villages). Here are the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Camping: The primary advantage of camping (if you are going with an agency) is that it includes a horse to carry your bags so you don’t have to haul your stuff on your back up to 5,000+ meters and back down again. Another bonus: you can sometimes camp closer to passes, making for easier ascents. A perhaps obvious disadvantage of camping: sleeping in a tent when it’s rainy and cold or blowing snow can be unpleasant. In addition, this option is usually more expensive as you’ll need your own cook and horse guide in addition to your trekking guide.

Homestays: If the trek you choose offers the option of homestays, we suggest taking it. Staying with Ladakhi families in villages throughout our Markha Valley trek was absolutely one of the highlights and delights of the experience. The people, culture and tradition ground you. Food (see below) is also a fun facet. Not to mention, homestays are typically less expensive than camping.

Grandfather Takes Care of Baby - Skyu, Ladakh
Proud grandfather in our homestay in Skyu.

What to expect in a Ladakhi homestay:

  • Home-cooked meals: All food is vegetarian, which is better and safer for the digestive system, particularly at altitude. Alert the trekking agency, your guide and host families in advance if you have any food allergies. Dinner is often quite hearty and is either a traditional Tibetan/Ladakhi meal like momos (Tibetan dumplings) or temo (twisted bread dumplings) with daal (lentils) or greens from the garden. All our dinners were made freshly for us and were very tasty. Breakfast, a little less remarkable, usually consists of Indian flat bread (chapatis) with butter and jelly, while lunch is some sort of bread with packaged sliced cheese, hard boiled egg and some snacks.
  • Sleeping area: Sleeping in homestays usually consists of mattresses on the ground with lots of blankets piled on top. If you’re trekking in the high season you might need to share your room with other trekkers. For us, we had our own room most nights. Take a sleep sack with you. Sheets looked pretty clean, but it was unclear when the last time blankets were cleaned.
  • Toilets: Expect bleak. Outhouses or compost toilets are usually attached to the house or just outside. They do the trick, but don’t expect any luxury here. Bring a headlamp so you don’t, um, accidentally slip and fall.
  • Common room: Some of the best memories at the homestays come from hanging around drinking tea around the traditional stove in the big common room. The bedroom is for sleeping, but this common room is where you should spend most of your time during a homestay.
Fisheye View Inside Ladakhi House - Yurutse, Ladakh
Traditional Ladakhi house with a big common room and stove.

What to look for in a Ladakhi trekking agency and guide.

Book a tour in advance or on the ground?

We did not make any bookings or inquiries for treks before arriving in Leh. We figured that we would use the two to three days acclimatizing in Leh (absolutely required if you plan to enjoy your trek) to research all our options and book our trek. Since we traveled in shoulder season, this provided plenty of time to make our arrangements.

If you decide to travel during high season (July-August), you may not have the same flexibility. Consider sending a few email inquiries in advance to be certain that agencies are not already at capacity with their guides and tours.

Choosing a trekking agency in Leh

You will see trekking agents everywhere in Leh. Many of them will have signs outside advertising their treks, as well as notices if they are looking for more people to fill treks with specific departure dates. The idea here is that the more people who trek together and share a guide, the lower the per-person cost should be. We originally hoped to join one of these treks, but the timing didn’t work out with our schedule.

Lake Reflections of Kang Yaze Peak - Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Lunch break with a view of Kang Yaze Peak. Markha Valley Trek, Day 5.

We walked around Leh for an afternoon visiting various agencies asking questions about trek options, costs, departure dates and flexibility to add on stops. Most of the trekking agencies gave us a similar price range so our decision was made based on the feeling we got from the agency (e.g., did the agency feel like a middleman or were they actually responsible for their own guides and tours), their patience, and their flexibility to accommodate special requests.

We chose Ecological Footprint in the end because we liked how the owner, Stanzin, explained all our options and was flexible to work with us to create a trek that met our needs, not just one that fit into a prepackaged box. In addition, Stanzin is Ladakhi and knoww the community well. All the tours he operates use local people and aim to invest back into the communities. So while the tour was slightly more expensive than what some of the other tour agencies were offering, we felt that the price was worth it for the quality of the experience. We believed that our money was well spent.

We can also highly recommend our guide from Ecological Footprint, Dorjee Tondup. He is young but wise beyond his years (21 at the time of our trek) and dispenses bits of perspective and peace everywhere he goes. His respectful approach to local people opened doors for us everywhere. His approach to everyone he met served as a lesson for life. He guides on all the major Ladakh trekking routes.

Our Ladakhi Trekking Guide, Markha Valley Trek - Ladakh, India
Our guide, Dorjee, enjoying a moment along the Markha Valley Trek.

Choosing a guide

Although you may or may not have the option to choose a specific Ladakh trekking guide, we offer a few questions and suggestions to help you find a good match.

1) Ask to meet the guide before you leave on your trek.

This is something we usually do before any trek to give us peace of mind that we’ll get along well with our guide. We’ve never had to change guides, but if you do think that the guide assigned to you will be problematic then ask for a change. Remember, it’s a long journey. It will be particularly long if you must spend it with someone who rubs you the wrong way. Not to mention, you’ll want someone you feel comfortable with and trust in the case that weather or health turn south. We know this firsthand because a guide from another agency who trekked alongside us in Ladakh annoyed absolutely everyone, including his own client. We spent energy trying to avoid him.

2) Ask for a Ladakhi guide.

During high season in Ladakh, demand for guides is high and so people come from all over India to guide for the summer. We don’t want to discriminate, but we feel that you’ll have a better experience with someone who is a Ladakhi guide because of the knowledge of local culture and language. Our trekking companions had an Indian guide, and while he knew the mountain trails, he didn’t know the families running the homestays or the Ladakhi language and culture.

3) Explain any special needs to the guide.

This goes for medical needs, as well as any other idiosyncrasies you might have. For example, we take a lot of photos so we stop a lot on the trail and slow things down. Alerting the guide in advance of this behavior lets the guide know not to worry when it takes us a while to go from point A to B. He can adjust his pace accordingly. One of the women trekking at the same time as us had back issues, so her guide would often carry one of her bags for her when her back ached. The idea: help your guide help you.

Estimated Costs for Markha Valley Trek (2013 Trekking Season)

Our total costs for our Markha Valley Trek (6 nights/7 days) including a guide, accommodation (homestay), food and transport to/from the trek was 13,000 rupees ($220) per person. This also included a stop at Hemis Monastery on the way back to Leh. (Not all trekking agencies offer this, so ask about it. We really enjoyed the additional stop on the return and recommend it.)

Novice Buddhist Monks at Hemis Monastery, Ladakh
Why it’s worth stopping at Hemis Monastery on the return to Leh.

This was slightly cheaper than some of the other trekking agencies who had a standard fee of 2,000 rupees ($34) per person per day. A few places offered bare bone prices at 1,600 rupees per person per day. Understand that you typically get what you pay for.

Homestay costs on Markha Valley Trek:

If you do decide to do the Markha Valley Trek independently, find out in Leh what the official rate is for homestays that year. The official rate is a standard amount set every year by the homestay association so that the families all charge the same amount and don’t try to underbid each other (thereby causing tensions in the community). During the 2013 trekking season, the standard homestay rate was 500 rupees ($9) per night per person. This included dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch.

When to Trek in Ladakh?

The trekking season in Ladakh really begins to take off early-to-mid June and runs until September. The high season is July and August with August being the busiest month. Rains usually start late August to September. If you can time it, we recommend going early in the shoulder season in June. Note that weather is always the wild card, however.

Chortens in Skyu - Day 2 of Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Chortens in the village of Skyu, Day 2 of the Markha Valley Trek.

Our trek was mid-June and there was hardly anyone (6 people) along our entire Markha Valley route. This meant that the homestays were not crowded and there were no traffic jams on the paths. We experienced a surprise snowstorm on our second morning at the first pass, but that just added to the excitement and meant that all the mountains around us sported a beautiful covering of snow.

Acclimatization in Leh before Trekking

No matter which trek you choose, be sure to spend at least two days acclimatizing in Leh (or wherever the setting off point of your Ladakh trek happens to be). Take a walk through the old town up to Leh Palace and Namgyal Tsemo Gompa. This helps get the blood pumping and the legs moving. It also gives you some experience climbing hills at altitude.

Leh Palace and Namgyal Tsemo Gompa - Ladakh, India
Good acclimatization walk in Leh = climbing up to Namgyan Tsemo Gompa on the right.

If you are susceptible to altitude sickness, consider taking even more time to acclimatize in Leh. Your hike will be more enjoyable and successful for it.

Food recommendations in Leh:

Summer Harvest: Best momos in town. We feel confident in this statement as we sampled momos in four different restaurants and kitchens in town. Be sure to ask for the homemade hot sauce. We never ventured beyond momos (they were that good), but other dishes emerging from the kitchen looked tasty as well.

Best Momos in Leh at Summer Harvest Restaurant - Ladakh, India
Fried momos from Summer Harvest Restaurant in Leh, Ladakh.

German bakeries: Don’t ask me why, but Leh is bursting with German bakeries. They don’t all have their own ovens, so it seems like they get their baked goods from a central German bakery source. If you’re craving a cinnamon roll or some quasi European pastries, stop by one of these and enjoy with a chai. Quality is mixed, but when you consider how remote you are, you’ll be grateful.

Lassi guy: In the alleyway just to the right of the mosque on Leh Bazaar is a tiny place with this friendly guy making and selling yogurt and paneer (Indian cheese). For a few rupees he’ll create a fresh sweet or salty lassi for you and invite you in to enjoy a seat while he explains how he makes it all. Highly recommended.

The lassi man of old town Leh. His secret sits in the blue bowl: freshly made yogurt every AM. #phenomenalassi #Ladakh
Making Lassi in Leh.

Transport: How to get to Ladakh

Unless you have your own set of wheels (or wings) there are three main routes to get to and from Ladakh.

By Bus to Leh:

Srinigar to Leh: You have the option to take a two-day “Super Deluxe” bus (overnight in Kargil) or a 12-hour shared ride in a private jeep (with 6 other passengers). Both leave from the same area in Srinagar. Please note that the roads are only open for a short period each year, usually from May – September.

We flew from Mumbai to Srinagar and then took the bus up to Leh and a shared jeep for the return leg to Srinagar. If you have more time, consider taking the train from wherever you are in India to Jammu and pepper in a few strategic visits and stops along the way to Srinagar.

Our Super Deluxe Bus from Srinagar to Leh - India
Taking the “Super Deluxe” bus from Kashmir to Ladakh.

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to the bus and jeep. While the bus ride from Srinagar to Leh is long and not particularly comfortable, you are able to take a lot of photos out the window, as the pace is glacial, snail-like for much of the way. It’s also an experience to travel with locals (e.g., Buddhist monks hopping on and off) and fellow adventurous travelers. Suggestion: try not to focus on the missing guardrails along the way. A dose of fatalism may also help.

Cost: Bus tickets = 1,050 R/person. Jeep price depends on your negotiation skills, but usually costs between 1,500-1,800Rs/person.

Manali to Leh: This route from the south also features the option of a 2-day bus trip vs. 16-20 hours in a shared jeep. We didn’t take this route so can’t speak to it firsthand, but we met several people who did. The roads seem to be in worse shape than the Srinagar route, but you go over four large mountain passes which are supposed to be stunning. If you’re coming from Delhi, this is the more direct route. The roads are usually open for a few months of the year, again from June – September.

By Plane to Ladakh

Flying into Leh is certainly more expedient, but you’ll miss the beauty and adventure of the roads. The views from the skies in the mountains are supposed to pretty spectacular, however. Be sure to leave buffer days in your travel schedule if you fly as flights are frequently canceled due to bad weather.

Most planes fly from either Delhi or Srinagar. Try to book your tickets early as prices go up very quickly.

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Note: Originally we were going to put our trekking packing list here, but as this article was already rather long we decided to publish it in a separate post. Here is the Ultimate Trekking Packing List with all the details on what to bring with you on a Ladakh (or any other) multi-day trek!

Still have questions about Ladakh and trekking there? Ask away in the comments below!

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Comments

  1. says

    I can see why this was one of your favorite treks, not just for the nature but also for the homestays and the people you got to know. The information you give here is so helpful!

  2. says

    @Quyen: We tried to be thorough to get all the information needed in one place :) Although we did meet a few independent trekkers on the Markha Valley Trek, we were thankful to have our guide.

    @Jenna: Our favorite treks usually include a combination of nature/landscapes and people/culture. No matter where we’ve been in the world, homestays are usually the best option. Glad you found this helpful!

  3. says

    Thank you so much for all of the useful information in this post. It’s great to get the lowdown from well-seasoned travelers who have been there so recently. We are looking forward to putting your advice to good use this summer. One question: How would you rate the difficulty of the Markha Valley trek? What was the footing like? Did you have to ford any rivers? I always like to have an idea of what I’m in for…

  4. says

    @Alison: So glad you found this useful and hope it helped answer some of the logistical questions you had for planning your own trek.

    I’d rate the difficulty of the trek as medium…leaning towards medium high. The big challenges come from the two mountain passes at around 5,000 meters at the beginning and the end (but these are nowhere as difficult as the ascent to Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit). The idea is to leave early in the morning and go slow. Take your time…one foot in front of the other.

    We just had regular low rise hiking boots and we were fine – there was no real difficult footing that I can remember. We did have to cross a couple of streams and just took our shoes off, rolled up our pants and walked across. However, if you go later in the season the streams might have more water due to melting glaciers. Ask at the trekking agency about how the streams are during the time of year that you’re going.

    I’ll be publishing next a packing/gear guide that will have suggestions on what clothes, medications and other things to take with you.

    Any other questions, just let me know!

  5. says

    You know, at EBC in Nepal I didn’t take a guide and probably would have defaulted to the same decision here but your discussion of the cultural interaction it opens up make me think maybe that isn’t the right decision. I love that you guys commit to at least one long trek per year, by the way.

    This has me sort of daydreaming about it, but perhaps when I finally get around to India it’ll spark the memory of reading this and push me up north!

  6. says

    @Stephen: At the beginning of our journey we didn’t deliberately plan a long trek each year – it just sort of happened. Then we realized that it was something we really looked forward to and so for the last few years we’ve arranged the rest of the year’s travel around the trek. Still doing some research to decide on this year’s trek.

    I can completely understand choosing to trek independently. Next time you have the decision just think about whether there are cultural/language issues where the guide can help to make deeper connections. Safe travels!

  7. says

    I love reading travel blogs because I get to experience, so to speak, some things I probably wouldn’t even dream about doing. Thanks for sharing your adventure. My own travel plans will unlikely take me to Ladakh anytime soon, but your post made me realise about the possibilities of traveling somewhere so far off where I’m from.

  8. says

    @Mike: Thank you, glad you enjoyed this. Our guide talked about a family doing this trek with children around 10-14 years old, but I believe they hired a horse to take the kids over the high mountain passes as those were tough considering the high altitudes. I’d also spend more time acclimatizing with kids in Leh before setting off on the trek. Best thing to do would be to contact a trekking agency in Leh (we can recommend Ecological Footprint) and ask their opinion. Would be an incredible experience for kids!!!

  9. says

    Fantastic post, a great resource and instant nostalgia for me as I think back on our two week trek from Manali to Leh in the mid ’90s (we camped and our pony man was nicknamed One Eyed Jack since he only had one eye and wouldn’t tell us his real name). It was easier to pick a guide and route back then since there weren’t too many options! The Nubra valley was spectacular as well, btw.

  10. says

    Great information. It’s a place I’ve thought about trekking after seeing a film – at the Best of Banff Film Festival. You’ve provided a great resource – and the prices sound reasonable.

  11. says

    @Karen: Glad this post brought back good memories from your own time in Ladakh in the 90s. I think you’d be surprised by how much Leh has changed since then, but the village and rural areas are likely the same. The route from Manali to Leh has some big mountain passes, so that must have have been an incredible trek…especially with a guide named One Eyed Jack :)

    @Leigh: Now I’m curious about the film you saw about Ladakh. The prices are reasonable, in my opinion, but a bit higher than some other parts of India or Nepal so we heard a few people voice some complaints. Of course, it may be a bit more expensive in high season but probably not too much.

  12. says

    How cold were you during the trek? What would you typically wear while trekking? at night? How would you say the temperature/conditions compared to Kilimanjaro?

  13. says

    @Alison: Temperatures will partly depend on when you go trekking. We went mid-June so it might be warmer if you go in July/August.

    The key for this (and most treks) is layering. For most days we would wear a pair of hiking/travel pants with several layers on top including a t-shirt, fleece, windbreaker. Depending upon how warm the day got sometimes we went down to a t-shirt and other times we’d add extra layers. A sun hat and sunglasses are necessary as it is so strong up at that elevation.

    However, on Day 2 & Day 6 where we had the mountain passes to cross we were dressed in long johns, hiking pants, waterproof pants (for the snow storm) and an additional jacket or two on top. After we got over the pass we’d strip off extra layers and put them in our backpacks.

    At night I had pajamas to change into (I always like sleeping in something other than what I hike in) which included silk long johns and yoga pants + t-shirt and fleece on top.

    Kilimanjaro was definitely colder on ascent day, but on other days Kili was warmer.

    I’ll be writing a full post on packing, clothes and gear for this (and other treks) soon!

  14. says

    @sfadley415: The cost of getting to India depends on where you are coming from originally. If you can, try to fly into Delhi as it’s closer to Ladakh.

    Once in India we flew from Mumbai to Srinagar (and back) on IndiGo airlines. Because we didn’t book that far in advance the one-way tickets went up to $130/person while on the return it was more like $80/person. The price of the bus from Srinagar to Leh was around $20 and the jeep return was around $25.

    Hope this information helps.

  15. says

    Brilliant information. Extremely useful. I am thinking of doing a trek in the Himalayas at the end of the year and maybe I will end up here rather than the usual Nepal circuit.

  16. says

    @Nathan: India and Ladakh prices are certainly very different than the US :) The quality of the experience was extremely high for us, but it’s important to manage expectations. Let’s just say that the toilets were on the rough side…

    @Ross: We also loved the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, but if you’re looking for something that is a bit more remote and less trafficked then Ladakh is a great choice. Good luck with your trek!

  17. says

    @andrew: So glad that your trip to Ladakh went well! Loved looking through the photos on your post of the delivery of hockey equipment, especially the smiles and look of surprise when they took out the gear. And yes, you will need to return in the summer to do some trekking.

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