Unlike many other countries, the Nepali people continue to carry goods on their backs using baskets (doko) and a head strap (tumpline/namlo). As I passed people or as they passed me more likely, I wondered how much the load weighed as I was only carrying between 15-20 lbs and anything more would have slowed me down tremendously.
While there are porters for merchants carrying goods to villages in higher altitudes and there are porters that carry bags for trekkers, I mostly saw Nepali people doing their everyday chores of carrying wood, water or gas tanks and was amazed at the amount that each person was able to carry.
One website indicated that “typically men carry 50 kg/110lbs loads and the women carry 40 kg/88 lbs loads, or 80 kg/176 lbs and 60 kg/133 lbs loads respectively for short distances.” Another website reported a sampling test that was done on the trail to Everest base camp and most of the porters were carrying more than 50% of their body weight.
Based on article written in 1995: “The heaviest load encountered was 108 kg (238 lbs), carried by a 44-year-old Rai trader, Bhim Bahadur Sunwar, who stood 146 cm tall (4´9″) and weighed a mere 47 kg (104 lbs). Bhim Bahadur was carrying 228 percent of his own body mass.” Porters for merchants are paid by the kg; therefore, it is more common for the loads to be up around 100kgs/220 lbs .
Our porters carried 2 trekker bags at 16 lbs each and then a bag of his belongings; the “guidelines” state that a porter for trekking companies shouldn’t carry more than 66lbs. A few of my fellow trekkers took the porter challenge and carried the bags for about 30 minutes from our guest house to bus station.
About once a day, we saw donkeys and yaks on the trail carrying goods up to the higher altitude villages. The packs were usually full on the way up and empty on the way back.
There are definitely lots of challenging questions around this practice. For instance, how do you balance fair labor practices and not eliminate jobs with the use of animals or trucks. How do you encourage porters to take care of their bodies when pay is dependent on the carrying amount? Since most porters work individually, how do the porters communicate amongst themselves to discuss these issues?