Rafting and kayaking Travel Guide

AS A COUPLE
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Thanks to the Himalayas, Nepal has some of the best, most scenic and most varied whitewater on earth. The shorter trips are hugely accessible, even to beginners, while a few of the longer trips are world classics, offering the experience of a lifetime. As well as the tranquillity of being deep in the countryside, away from towns and roads, rafting offers the thrills, laughter and companionship that comes from shooting rapids. Then there’s the sheer escapism of life on the river: camping on white-sand beaches, campfires under the stars, warm water (most rivers in Nepal are at lower, semitropical elevations), jungle-clad slopes, wildlife and birds. Some of the more remote trips, meanwhile, also entail mini-treks through little-visited areas just to get to the put-in point. Almost all rivers in Nepal are clean, and there are barely any nasty biting insects on the beaches (mosquitoes are very rare).

Your choice of where to raft will be largely dictated by what the rafting companies are running during your stay. Within that context, consider what you’re after in a river trip – thrills, scenery, culture, relaxation – as well as how much time and money you’re willing to invest. Consider also when you’re rafting: water levels make a huge difference to a river’s character. And don’t forget that you don’t have to return to base, and that some rafting trips open up parts of Nepal that you might not otherwise visit.

Note that a number of hydroelectric dams and diversions are either proposed or under construction; this may eventually shorten or eliminate some popular routes, and put more pressure on the remaining ones. Roads, on the other hand – which are often built to access new dams – can open up previously un-rafted river sections by creating new put-in and take-out points.

The descriptions that follow in this chapter are given roughly in order of popularity. Note that the stated grades are only a guideline, and river levels – and difficulties, therefore – can fluctuate dramatically at any time of year.

Costs and red tape

Trips booked in Nepal cost $25 to $80 a day, depending on the river, number of people in the party, and standard of service. For trips on the Trisuli and Kali Gandaki (the most popular rafting rivers), upmarket companies typically charge $30–40 a day to a walk-in customer, which should include transport to and from the river by private bus, good, hygienic meals and a mat in a tent. Budget outfits offer these trips for around $25 a day, but at that price you can expect to travel by local bus and be served pretty unappetizing food – or even pay for your own bus tickets and meals. Other more remote rivers cost $10–20 a day extra.

These prices assume full rafts, which hold up to seven paying passengers each. Note that the most popular high-season trips with the most popular high-standard companies are often fully booked up, months in advance.

When reckoning cost per day, bear in mind that a “three-day” trip is rarely three days of solid rafting: you may be travelling to the river most of day one, with just an hour spent on the river that afternoon, rafting for maybe four hours on day two, and then travelling back on your last day.

Your travel insurance policy should cover the proposed activity: if you’re away from main roads then helicopter rescue may be needed, and no helicopter will take off without cash in hand or the assurance of repayment by an insurance company. Leave a copy of your travel policy with the operator, highlighting the emergency contact number.

Note that at the time of writing, government rafting permits were no longer required.

Equipment

Most companies use paddle rafts, in which everyone paddles and the guide steers from the rear – lots of group participation and fun. On less exciting oar trips, the guide does all the work, giving the clients the chance to sit back and enjoy the scenery.

Your rafting company will advise on what to bring, but you’ll definitely need a swimsuit, sunglasses, sunhat, sun cream, rubber-soled shoes or sport sandals, a change of clothes and shoes for camp, a towel, a head torch/flashlight and spare batteries. T-shirts and shorts are standard river wear, but if the weather is likely to be cold and/or wet, bring thermal tops and trousers; the better companies provide wetsuits, thermal tops and paddling jackets. Tents, foam mattresses and waterproof bags are normally supplied, but you need to bring your own sleeping bag (rentable in Kathmandu or Pokhara). Some companies provide waterproof barrels for cameras.

Information, books and maps

You’ll be able to get most or all of your questions answered by your rafting company, assuming you’re going on an organized trip.

Independent rafters and kayakers, however, should get hold of a copy of White Water Nepal by Peter Knowles and Darren Clarkson-King (Rivers Publishing, 3rd edition Jan 2012); it provides comprehensive river descriptions (including detail on a host of little-rafted rivers not mentioned here), maps, and excellent advice on logistics.

For more information, updates and links to operators, visit w raftnepal.org or the website of the Nepal River Conservation Trust (w nepalrivers.org.np). Himalayan Map House publishes rafting maps for the more popular rivers (such as the Sun Koshi and Trisuli), showing rapids, put-in points and so on. For other areas, trekking maps can keep you oriented.

Kayaking

Nepal has taken off as one of the world’s leading destinations for recreational kayaking, and is recognized as one of the best countries for whitewater multi-day trips. There are rivers for all abilities, including beginners.

Most visiting kayakers start by booking on a rafting trip for a warm-up – often on the Sun Koshi or Kali Gandaki rivers. If you book on as a kayaker, the rafting company will normally provide you free use of a kayak as part of the deal, or give you a discount of around $10 a day if you have your own boat. If you’re thinking of bringing your own kayak, talk to others who’ve visited Nepal recently, as some have ended up paying high excess-baggage charges on the way back. There’s a wide selection of modern kayaks available for rent at around $25 a day in both Kathmandu and Pokhara – the latter has become quite a thriving centre for kayakers, with an excellent rental outlet, Ganesh Kayak Shop. You’ll need to leave a passport or a significant cash deposit. Kayak guides can be hired for around $20 a day. It’s worth bringing all your own kayaking gear with you, but this is also available for rent if necessary.

Kayak schools are a recent development in Nepal, mostly operating out of Pokhara and offering a half-day introduction on Phewa Tal and another four-days’ practice and paddling on the nearby Seti, with rafting support. The Seti is warmed by geothermal springs, making it a very pleasant place to practice rolling. Other kayak schools operate out of the riverside resorts on the Bhote Koshi and Upper Sun Koshi rivers, not far from Kathmandu. Typical prices for a five-day course start at around $300, which includes tuition, gear, food, transport, raft support and camping – that’s great value.

While not so popular, another conveyance for enjoying Nepal’s whitewater is the hydrospeed, a sort of boogie board for swimming down rivers. Pokhara’s Ganesh Kayak Shop rents out hydrospeeds with wetsuits and helmets for $20 a day. It also rents out inflatable canoes (known as “duckies”) and catarafts for those planning a do-it-yourself trip.

This chapter was updated with the assistance of David Allardice.

Nepal’s rivers at a glance

River

Class

Volume

Total days

River days

Scenery/wildlife rating

Overall rating

Elevation (start/finish)

Trisuli

3+

Big

1–4

1–4

*

**

330m/170m

Upper Kali Gandaki

4-

Med

4

3

**

**

750m/500m

Seti

3-

Small

3

2

**

**

345m/190m

Upper Seti

3+

Small

2

½

**

**

1050m/980m

Bhote Koshi

4+

Med

2

1–2

**

***

1020m/760m

Upper Sun Koshi/Lower Bhote Koshi

3

Med

2

1

*

**

730m/650m

Marsyangdi

4+

Med

6

4

***

**

850m/370m

Sun Koshi

4-

Huge

8–10

6–8

**

***

625m/105m

Karnali

4

Huge

10

8

***

***

560m/195m

Tamur

4

Med

11

6

**

***

635m/105m

Bheri

3+

Med

8–10

6–8

***

**

770m/195m

Lower Kali Gandaki

2

Med

5

4

**

**

370m/170m

Key

Volume Relative volumes are given – the actual flows vary enormously according to season.

Total days Days from Kathmandu or Pokhara and back.

Key

Overall rating This is a subjective score of the river as a rafting trip, taking into account whitewater, scenery, logistics and cost:

*** = Highly recommended

** = Recommended

* = Specialist interest

Rafting operators and agents

A fairly sophisticated river-running industry exists in Nepal, with dozens of Nepali and Western-associated rafting operators offering both scheduled and customized trips. Unless you’re an experienced kayaker or are on some sort of a self-organized expedition, you’ll go with one of these companies. The standards of most operators exceed international guidelines, but you get what you pay for, and Nepal has its share of sub-standard companies, too.

Booking with an agency in your own country is more expensive, but it guarantees arrangements – and in high season the best trips are fully booked months in advance. Some of the cut-price outfits in Kathmandu and Pokhara aren’t bad, but making recommendations would be misleading – companies come and go, and standards rise and fall from one season to the next. Shop around, and press operators hard as regards the criteria given below. Only use a company belonging to the Nepal Association of Rafting Agents, a trade body that sets safety standards, requires its members to employ only trained and licensed guides, and handles complaints.

Many places advertising rafting trips are merely agents, who usually don’t know what they’re talking about and who will add their own commission (low or high) to the operator’s price, so you’re strongly advised to book directly with the rafting operator. In that way, too, you can find out who else is booked on the trip, which might well influence your enjoyment.

River classifications

Below is a summary of the international classification system of rafting river difficulty.

Class 1 Easy. Moving water with occasional small rapids. Few or no obstacles.

Class 2 Moderate. Small rapids with regular waves. Some manoeuvring required, but easy to navigate.

Class 3 Difficult. Rapids with irregular waves and hazards that need avoiding. More difficult manoeuvring required but routes are normally obvious. Scouting from the shore is occasionally necessary.

Class 4 Very difficult. Large rapids that require careful manoeuvring. Dangerous hazards. Scouting from the shore is often necessary and rescue is usually difficult. Kayakers should be able to roll. Turbulent water and large irregular waves may flip rafts. In the event of a mishap, there is significant risk of loss, damage and/or injury.

Class 5 Extremely difficult. Long and very violent rapids with severe hazards. Continuous, powerful, confused water makes route-finding difficult, and scouting from the shore is essential. Precise manoeuvring is critical and for kayakers rolling ability needs to be 100 percent. Rescue is very difficult or impossible, and in the event of a mishap there is a significant hazard to life.

Class 6 Nearly impossible. Might possibly (but not probably) be run by a team of experts at the right water level, in the right conditions, with all possible safety precautions, but still with considerable hazard to life.

Safety and responsibility

By and large, rafting is reasonably safe with a much better accident rate than, say, mountain biking or skiing (or, for that matter, trekking). However, there are few government controls on Nepal’s low-end operators and in the early 2000s and in 2009 there were a couple of fatalities – the first in two decades, mind you.

Make sure the company supplies life jackets (and not ancient ones), helmets and a full first-aid kit, and satisfy yourself that the rafts are in good running order and that there will be a safety demonstration. There must be a minimum of two rafts, in case one capsizes. In high-water conditions or on any river more difficult than class 2, the rafts should be self-bailing and there should be safety kayakers to rescue “swimmers”. Most important of all, guides must be trained, certified (including first-aid certified), have experience guiding on the stretch of river in question, and speak adequate English – there should be an opportunity to meet guides before departure.

The more distant but potentially catastrophic safety concern is from landslides or rare GLOF or glacial lake outburst flooding events. If you hear an unusual, thunderous sound coming from upstream while you’re on or beside the river, scramble for high ground. A big wave might be coming.

Rafters have the same responsibilities to the environment as trekkers, particularly regarding firewood, sanitation and litter (see Conservation tips).

The Bheri

The Bheri offers a shorter and easier alternative (Class 3+) to the Karnali, of which it’s a tributary. It’s one of the most scenic rivers in Nepal, with golden cliffs, green jungle, crystal-clear green water, white-sand beaches, excellent fishing and good birdwatching, all coupled with a powerful current and sparkling rapids of moderate difficulty. Access is from the Nepalgunj–Birendra Nagar road, just short of Birendra Nagar – a total of about 15hr of bus travel from Kathmandu (via Nepalgunj). Few companies raft the Bheri at the moment, but it is likely to become more popular as the road improves. There’s also a newish dirt road, creeping up the valley all the way up to Jajarkot, which offers the attractive possibility of a higher put-in.

The Bhote Koshi

The Bhote Koshi, which runs alongside the Arniko Highway to the Tibetan border northeast of Kathmandu, is probably the steepest and hardest commercial rafting river in Nepal (Class 4+). In low water it’s like a pinball machine (and you’re the ball); in medium flows it’s more like being flushed down the U-bend of a toilet. A few companies specialize in this deviant experience, offering it as a one- or two-day trip out of Kathmandu (it’s only a three-hour drive) using road support, empty rafts and safety kayakers. At higher flows in late October and November most companies run the Upper Sun Koshi on the first day as a warm-up and the Bhote Koshi on the second day. If you have previous rafting experience or are just looking for an adrenaline rush, then this is the one for you. It’s a cold river, so if you are running it in the winter months between December and late February then look for a company that provides wetsuits and paddle jackets. An enticing option is a two-day trip, staying the night at one of the comfortable riverside resort camps.

Note that a dam is under construction near the Tibet border; when it’s complete, which may be in the lifetime of this guide, it’s likely to kill off rafting on the Bhote Koshi.

The Bhote Koshi resorts

In the last few years, several companies have bought land on the banks of the Bhote Koshi and Upper Sun Koshi and built fixed safari-style riverside camps, with luxuriant gardens, flush toilets, showers, hammocks, restaurants and bar areas. Only two to three hours’ drive from Kathmandu, each of these mini-resorts offers its own mix of activities: all offer rafting, but there is also canyoning, kayaking, trekking, rock climbing, bungee jumping and mountain biking available. They also regularly host adventure events such as mountain-bike races and the Nepal International Kayak Rodeo (held annually in Nov). If you just want to stay and hang out at the camp, then typical daily rates are around $50–60 for food, accommodation and transport to and from Kathmandu. Many overseas rafting and kayak groups now go straight from the Kathmandu airport to one of these riverside resorts.

The Karnali

Nepal’s biggest and longest river, the Karnali provides perhaps the finest trip of its kind in the world. Way out in the remote far west, it requires a long bus ride to Birendra Nagar (many groups fly to Nepalgunj) and then about three hours’ rough bus ride to the small village of Sauli. From here it is either a 2hr trek to the river or, if the road is in good shape, you can drive onto Dungeshwar right on the Karnali. Most rafting trips last eight days, with challenging, big-water rapids, superb canyons, pristine wilderness and plentiful wildlife. The biggest rapids (Class 4) come in the first three days, with the river gradually mellowing after that. You can raft the Karnali right into Bardia National Park, where wild elephants, tigers, crocodiles and rhinos may sometimes be seen from the river. Pulling into a luxury safari camp and being met with a tray of cold beers makes a magnificent climax to this long river trip; many parties take the opportunity to spend a few extra days watching wildlife in Bardia.

The Karnali is best run at low to medium levels – it’s a particularly good choice in March and April, though the nature of the channel makes it lively at all times outside of high water. There are plentiful driftwood supplies for campfires, so this makes it a popular choice for overseas kayak groups around Christmas. It’s also renowned as Nepal’s premier fishing river, with giant mahseer (a freshwater perch) and catfish. Note that the Upper or Humla Karnali, from Simikot down to the Lower Karnali put-in, is a Class 5 terror for skilled, committed expedition kayakers only.

The Lower Kali Gandaki

The lower section of the Kali Gandaki, starting from Ramdi Ghat on the Siddhartha Highway, offers a longer alternative to the Seti. It’s a medium-volume and relatively easy river (Class 2), with the same beautiful scenery as the Seti, and it flows through a completely unspoilt and seldom visited valley of pretty villages, small gorges and jungle-backed beaches. Although the river is easily accessible, it takes longer to get to than the Seti (5hr from Pokhara to the put-in at Ramdhi Ghat), making it less crowded – ideal as the perfect river for a relaxed, romantic, away-from-it-all break. Like the Seti, this is probably a good choice for a do-it-yourself trip in a “duckie” (inflatable canoe), rentable in Pokhara.

The Marsyangdi

The Marsyangdi is a magnificent, blue whitewater river with a spectacular mountain backdrop. Kayakers rave about it. It’s a full-on, continuously technical river (Class 4+), like a large nonstop slalom, needing experienced river staff and shore support. Companies normally run it as a three-day trip from near Khudi or Bhulbule (along the Annapurna Circuit trek) down to the Kathmandu–Pokhara highway, and many combine this with a scenic three-day trek from Begnas Tal (near Pokhara) to Khudi. The river is particularly beautiful in November, when levels are reasonably low and the mountain views are usually clear. The new dam at Phaliya Sanghu, some 14km by road south of Beisisahar has, sadly, broken the Marsyangdi into two sections of whitewater, separated by a short drive around the dam, and the road traffic along the bank is increasing (though it is still relatively small) – but it remains a classic.

The Seti

Another river easily reached from Pokhara, the Seti (or Seti Nadi) offers a gentler alternative to the Upper Kali Gandaki. It’s a fairly tame (Class 3-) but very picturesque river, taking two or three days to float from Damauli to near Narayanghat.

This is a better choice than a similar trip starting on the Trisuli, as it takes you away from the road and has a fine green “jungle corridor” in its lower section, and beautiful white-sand beaches for camping. It’s a popular choice for birdwatching groups, who often schedule it into their itinerary from Pokhara to Chitwan. The water temperature is incredibly warm, making it a popular choice for winter trips and for kayak clinics.

The Sun Koshi

Widely acknowledged as one of the ten best rafting trips in the world, the Sun Koshi is the most popular of several longer floats in Nepal, and logistics are fairly easy, making it one of the cheapest in terms of cost per day. It’s an eight-day run beginning at Dolalghat, three hours east of Kathmandu, and ending at Chatara, between Dharan and the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Refuge in the Eastern Terai. If you’re planning to go on from Nepal to Darjeeling, this raft trip cuts out most of the 20hr bus ride to the eastern border.

Relatively few companies run scheduled trips on the Sun Koshi, so you’re less likely to see other parties, and the camping, on beautiful white-sand beaches, is great. The river traverses a remote part of the country, flowing through a varied landscape of jungle-clad canyons, arid, open valleys and sparse settlements. Unlike most rivers, which start out rough and get tamer as they descend, this one starts gently, affording a chance to build up experience and confidence prior to a steady diet of increasingly exciting whitewater (Class 3–4). This makes it an especially good choice for those doing their first river trip. It’s at its best for rafting at medium to high flows – from mid-September to late October and in May and early June; from December to March much of the whitewater disappears.

Note that the new Sindhulimadi highway alongside the top 30km of the Sun Koshi is almost complete; when it is, it will allow shorter six-day trips on the river (probably with a put-in at Chainpur, a 5hr drive from Kathmandu) and will also probably halve the return time from the take-out.

The Tamur

The Tamur offers six days of fabulous and challenging whitewater (Class 4) in a remote and scenic valley in eastern Nepal, coupled with a highly scenic trek. The river is at its best in medium flows – it would be a nightmare at high levels – with the optimum time (after a normal monsoon) being late October to late November. Note that the final day of the trip from Mulghat (where a highway crosses the river) can be added as an exciting extra day to a Sun Koshi trip.

The trip starts with a 20hr bus ride to Basantapur, via Dharan followed by a four-day walk in along a high ridge with wide panoramas of Kanchenjunga and the Everest peaks – often described as one of the most beautiful treks in Nepal. It is possible to fly from Kathmandu to Taplejung, only a couple of hours’ hike from the put-in point at Dobhan, but flights may be delayed by weather, so it’s more reliable to fly to Biratnagar and then take a taxi or bus from there to the Basantapur trailhead. You can also drive via Ilam to Dobhan, but it’s a wearyingly long journey on an unreliable road.

The Trisuli

Perhaps fifty percent of all raft trips are on the Trisuli, west of Kathmandu, and this is an obvious choice if you want whitewater with limited time or budget. Most itineraries are two or three days. The Trisuli has some rapids of medium difficulty (Class 3+) and good scenery, though it’s hardly wilderness – the main road to Kathmandu follows it the entire way, and in October and November you’ll have to share the river (and perhaps your beach campsite) with many other parties. Some operators have their own fixed campsites or lodges, ranging from private, green, semi-luxurious safari-style resorts to windblown village beaches complete with begging kids and scavenging dogs. Check out the camps and lodges carefully, especially with regard to how close a camp is to the noisy highway.

When booking, ask where the put-in point is: anything starting at Kuringhat or Mugling will, by and large, be a relaxing float. The best whitewater section is upstream of Mugling, from Charaundi to Kuringhat, and this can be done as a full-on half-day trip (perhaps as a break in the journey from Kathmandu to Pokhara).

The Trisuli lies between Pokhara, Kathmandu and Chitwan National Park, so it might make sense to incorporate your raft trip into your travel schedule. Your rafting company will normally be able to help you with logistics and look after your luggage. However, rafting all the way to Chitwan isn’t allowed, so you’ll have to travel from Narayanghat to the park by vehicle.

The Upper Kali Gandaki

The Upper Kali Gandaki is Nepal’s second most popular rafting river and provides an exciting three-day itinerary out of Pokhara. Serious whitewater (Class 4-)starts at Beni, and runs down to the usual put-in point near Baglung and on all the way to the take-out at the confluence with the Andi Khola – where a dam puts a stop to the action. This section of water is away from roads and civilization, set in a stunning valley that offers excellent upriver views of the Annapurnas. However, it’s a popular stretch of river, and camping beaches are limited in number, well used, and may be squalid. There have been quite a few accidents on this river, so choose your operator carefully.

The Kali Gandaki is probably at its best for rafting at low and medium flows: mid-October to mid-December and March to April. It’s a good idea to think about adding this raft trip onto the end of a trek in the Annapurna region. Consider flying to Jomosom, trekking or taking buses and jeeps down the Kali Gandaki to Baglung, and then continuing down the river on a rafting trip – a journey from the highest mountains on earth to the jungle lowlands. You could even carry on from the take-out south on rough roads to Rani Ghat and Tansen.

The Upper Seti

During high water from September to early November the Upper Seti offers an action-packed ninety-minute whitewater trip (Class 3+) from just above Hyemja to the dam at Bajar, just above Pokhara (below here the river goes underground). It is only thirty minutes from Pokhara by road to the starting point and companies do this as a half-day trip.

Upper Sun Koshi (Lower Bhote Koshi)

Only two to three hours’ drive from Kathmandu, the Upper Sun Koshi makes an easier alternative or a warm-up to the Bhote Koshi, especially at higher water levels (and it’s sometimes referred to by companies as the Lower Bhote Koshi). There are two different sections: the top one is a fun Class 3 whitewater run in peak season; the lower, below Sukute Beach, is a mellow, scenic, flat-water float. The river is clean and blue with green valley sides, and the nearby Arniko Highway is relatively quiet, so this stretch of river is an ideal choice for a half-day rafting trip close to Kathmandu, and makes a welcome escape from the city if you stay overnight at one of the resort camps on the riverside. This is a popular river for kayak schools.

When to go

Time of year makes an enormous difference: water volume during the height of the monsoon (July to mid-Sept) is ten or more times greater than in February and March, making the major rivers off-limits to all but experts. The water is more manageably exciting in mid- or late October to November, which is the peak rafting season, and becomes mellower (but colder) from December through to February. March through to May has rising water levels, when snowmelt and pre-monsoon storms begin to add to flows again.

Winter isn’t as chilly as you might think, since most raftable river sections are below 500m elevation, but it’s a slow time for tourism generally in Nepal, so many river operators don’t run trips then. March and April are the best months for long, warm days and excellent birdwatching. However, different rivers are at their best at different times of the year – for example, the Sun Koshi is actually quite good starting in late September – so which river you go on will depend to a large extent on when you’re in Nepal. Note that a given trip will take less time in high water than when the water is running more slowly.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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