Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Pakistan

backpacking pakistan travel guide

Backpacking Pakistan for the first time a few years ago is where it all started at Off the Atlas.

I admit, my mind was blown by the experience. Like so many other travelers who visit Pakistan for the first time – the feeling I had being in the mountains, driving the Karakoram Highway with the huge peaks rising to the sky in all directions – it felt like how I imagined travel 40 years ago – before the age of Instagram and Google Maps.

Travel in Pakistan is raw, wild, and one hell of an adventure. Nowadays many parts of Pakistan still offer that same feeling. At this point, I have been to Pakistan 10 times and have spent a total of 17 months in the country over the last 5 years.

The tradeoff with Pakistan being a hugely underrated and underdeveloped travel destination is that it is not always easy to travel here – but that’s part of the adventure, right?

This guide to backpacking Pakistan is the product of many years of traveling and going on expeditions here. The goal is to get you the information you need to get Off The Atlas in Pakistan as well for a life-changing travel adventure that you will never forget.

Getting Started: Visas and Paperwork

pakistan visa letter
The old tourist visa sticker

You need to get a visa to enter Pakistan – full stop. But don’t be intimidated! The process is actually very simple now. In the past, you needed to send your passport to a Pakistani Embassy in your home country. Now, one can apply for an Evisa online via the NADRA platform.

For the majority of travelers coming from Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and many Asian countries – you will need to apply for a tourist visa.

Note: If you plan on doing any trekking or mountaineering in restricted areas like Central Karakoram National Park, then you will need to apply for a Trekking and Mountaineering Visa – which take a minimum of 4 weeks to get.
It is not something I suggest you do in-country, but rather before coming to Pakistan.

Getting a Letter of Invitation (LOI)

Before you apply for the visa though, you will need to obtain a Letter of Invitation from an authorized travel company in Pakistan. Now there are a lot of tour operators who might try to sell you an LOI. I have even heard of some scammers selling fake LOI

Let’s keep it simple.

Go with a company/person very well known in the backpacking community: Haris Ali Shah of Adventure Planners. Haris is one of the few Pakistani tour operators who can provide an LOI without needing to book a tour with him (though he offers motorbike rentals and affordable tours as well). He can provide an LOI quickly with no hassle. No need to shop around for any other operator – Haris is the man! He also runs the best backpackers hostel in Islamabad, Islamabad Backpackers.

The price for a Letter of Invitation (LOI) is around $75 USD.

Tell Haris Chris from Off the Atlas sent you and you can have a small discount.

Haris’ Whatsapp number: +92 301 858 5054

Other Documents Needed for Pakistan Tourist Visa

In addition to the LOI, you will also need the following things to ensure your application goes smoothly:

  • A digital passport photo of yourself
  • A copy of the Pakistani ID from the person who issued you the LOI (usually the tour operator)
  • A copy of the tour operator license from the company that issued the LOI
  • If you are an independent traveler, you will need a hotel room booking for at least 1 night
  • The visa authorities may ask you for a letter from your employer, but maybe not also.
  • A copy of your passport

Best Time of Year to Visit Pakistan

Since the real draw for adventure travelers are the mountains in the North – you’ll need to plan your visit according to what you want to do.

Spring Time is Blossom Season (March – May): Arguably the best time to visit. The landscapes explode with spring color as the apricot and cherry blossoms come into bloom The weather is still cool but there are many days with sun. Spring is still a little too early for any serious trekking in the high mountains. Any trekking above 4000 meters will be limited until at least the middle of May.

backpacking pakistan
Spring cherry blossoms in Hunza

Summer Time is Trekking Season (June – August): If trekking and mountaineering is what you are looking for, the best time to come is June and August. This is when all major climbing expeditions are here and when the high mountain passes are in a condition to cross. In high mountain meadows, wildflowers explode across the landscape. Note that in Punjab and Sindh, monsoon rains can wreak havoc with floods.

K2 base camp trek
Summer at high altitude!

Fall Time is Autumn Foliage Season (October and November): Similar to parts of New England, USA – Northern Pakistan erupts in stunning fall foliage, starting usually in October. Golden, orange, and red hues dot the hillsides as the weather starts to edge told winter cold again. For photographers, fall time is right up there with the cheery blossom season in terms of beauty.

fairy meadows fall colors
Fairy Meadows and Nanga Parbat in the Fall

Winter Time is the Slow Season (November – February): Due to cold, snowfall, and the roads being overwhelmed by winter conditions – wintertime in the North is SLOOOW. Unless you are a photographer keen on capturing some of the frozen lakes and snow-dusted hills, I would avoid traveling to northern Pakistan in Winter. Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan are great winter options though as the oppressive heat that dominates there most of the year is temporarily at bay.

kalam valley hiking
Wintertime in Swat/Kalam Valley!

Best Itineraries For Backpacking Pakistan

old lahore drone shot
Old Lahore, Wazir Khan Mosque

One thing should be very clear to you before you start planning your Pakistan trip. The distances in Pakistan are massive and the roads are generally pretty shit. If you only have a few weeks, try not to make your Pakistan travel itinerary unattainable by trying to cram too many destinations into your plan.

As mentioned, I have traveled to Pakistan 10 times and even now, I only choose a few new places to visit if I only have a few weeks. Public transportation is available but it can take a long time to get from A to B.

Below are a few “classic” as well as off-beat travel itineraries for backpacking Pakistan.

Pakistan 2 Weeks Travel Itinirary

When you factor in “Pakistani time” and the vast travel distances, two weeks gives you just enough time to glean a solid understanding of Pakistan. If your budget allows – I recommend taking at least one internal flight ($90, PIA Airlines) to the north to save time.

I do recommend coming by road at least one way so you get to experience backwater Pakistan and the sights along the Karakoram Highway through the lush valleys of KPK.

I am intentionally not putting specific amounts of time you should spend in each place because we are all different and most likely you will find a place where you want to spend more time in. Give yourself a minimum of 12 days to physically be in Gilgit Baltistan though so that you have some flexibility and won’t feel rushed

  • Islamabad – Naran / Chilas – Travel through the stunning Kagan Valley and Cross Babasaur Top.
  • Chilas – Aliabad – Entering Gilgit Baltistan, this is your first exposure to the big mountains.
  • Aliabad – Hunza – Treks, Homestay opportunities, local wine – all of these things are possibilities.
  • Patundas Trek in Hunza: Easily the best 3-day hike in Northern Pakistan.
  • Passu Area: Take a day or two to explore around Passu village.
  • Patundas Trek in Hunza: Easily the best 3-day hike in Northern Pakistan.
  • Hunza – Chapursan Valley: Step back in time and discover the untouched Chapursan Valley
  • Flight Back to Islamabad from Gilgit: Save a day to explore Islamabad by taking a flight back.

Pakistan 1 Month (or 2!) Travel Itinerary

hiking in pakistan
The more time you have, the more time you have to do some hiking!

Now we’re talking! In a few months, you can really cover some ground and truly get a feel for what life is like in Pakistan. There are many ways to go about this backpacking Pakistan itinerary – but I do suggest hitting most of the 2-week itinerary mentioned above first as most of those places are not to be missed.

Some modifications include spending a week between Lahore and Islamabad/Rawalpindi before you head north. Lahore is a fascinating city worth spending some time in before you blitz off to the mountains.

Here are some of the must-see places during your 1 month Pakistan itinerary.

  • Lahore: Great food, ancient mosques, bustling markets. It’s all here. Spend at least 4 days here.
  • Rhotas Fort: Interesting for history buffs, a bit of a side journey if you don’t care.
  • Rawalpindi: Pindi is where the action is if you are staying close to Islamabad.
  • Peshawar: Pakistan’s oldest city, close to the Afghan border.
  • Chitral: Most first-time visitors to Pakistan don’t come here, but that is a mistake!
  • KalashValley: One of the most unique valleys in Pakistan from a cultural perspective.
  • Swat and Kalam Valley: An off-beat paradise for hikers in the summertime.
  • Yasin Valley: One of the more picturesque, off-beat valleys of the north
  • Karimabad-Altit: Cool forts and homestay opportunities
  • Hunza – Shimshal – Chapursan: See my 2-week itinerary above!
  • Fairy Meadows: Touristy, but the Nanga Parbat BC trek makes it worth it.

How to Travel in Pakistan

motorcycle karakoram highway
A motorbike road trip down the Karakoram Highway is a must if you dare…

As mentioned, the distances and poor road system in Pakistan mean getting from A to B can be a challenge if you are traveling independently. Depending on your budget and time frame, there are a few different options.

When planning your Pakistan itinerary you should do so in a logical way that allows you to hit the interesting places in one region so you don’t end up crisscrossing vast areas multiple times. Having an understanding of the geography of Pakistan and especially the north is crucial to having an awesome trip.

Modes of Transport in Pakistan

motorcycle karakoram highway
Sometimes the roads can be…rough

Buses are by far the cheapest option for budget backpackers. They are also slow and often require taking multiple connections to reach a place. It is definitely an experience taking a public bus all the way north.

I far prefer taking shared taxis versus the bus. They are a good way to do 5 – 15 hour journeys cheap. For example, getting from Gilgit to Islamabad by shared taxi may only cost $20 USD and will get you there twice as fast as the bus. You can pay more for the front seat as well.

On two occasions I have rented a car and driven myself around. This actually is not that easy though as self-driving rentals are not very common in Pakistan. The major downside is that I am yet to find a car rental place that will give you insurance with your car. It is cheaper to hire a car by the day with a driver than it is to drive yourself (which seems crazy!). For having true independence though, this is the best option.

Driving the Karakoram Highway by motorcycle is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If you are Gilgit, you can rent a bike (or opt for a motorcycle tour) with my friends at Karakoram Bikers. If you have experience driving a bike you will find big stretches in Hunza and other parts of the north where the roads are in great shape. In other places though, you really need to be careful. Always wear a helmet!!

If you have extra cash in your budget, I recommend flying some of the time. Going overland is great and all but taking the plane saves a TON of time. Plus the views are epic from the air of the big mountains. Note that on many occasions I have had many flights canceled by PIA (which I refer to as “Pain in the Ass” airlines) – the national carrier of Pakistan. Be prepared for canceled flights if the weather is not good and count your blessings if the flight runs!

Money in Pakistan

changing money in pakistan
Carrying cash to change is very important in Pakistan

Pakistan is a cash-based economy. Foreign cards don’t really work here and there is not a culture of paying for things with your debit card. Occasionally you can find ATM machines that work with foreign cards, but not outside of big cities (unless you get very lucky). I have found the ATM at Islamabad airport to work – but it will only issue 20,000 rupees at a time ($115 USD) – which means you have to make five transactions if you want to pull out a decent amount of money.

Bringing cash in is always the best way to go. The best currencies to bring are British Pounds, Euros, and USA $100 bills. The money should be in good shape and not have marks or tears on it. Money exchangers can easily be found in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, etc.

Exchange your money in the cities before departing for the mountains.

Budget for Backpacking Pakistan

Traveling in Pakistan can kind of be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. My travel style at this point in my life is something of a mid-range budget.

Whilst I started off taking public transit, eating cheap samosas 2 times a day, and staying in cheap hotels, I now prefer to enjoy a bit more in the way of comfort and convenience.

Keep in mind that the estimates below are not for traveling totally barebones. Accommodation estimates are midrange, but not luxury.

Note: if you plan on doing some multiday trekking while you are here, bring a minimum of $1000-1500 in cash so that you can hire a guide, porter, food, payout tips, and still have money left over to travel in Pakistan for a few weeks afterward.

Midrange Pakistan Travel Budget

Hotel in Islamabad: 4000-7000 rs ($24-41)
Hostel Room in Islamabad: 2500 rs ($15)
Hotel in Skardu: 3000 – 7500 rs ($20-45)
Uber Ride in Lahore: (15 mins) 300 rs ($2)
Shared Taxi from Gilgit to Islamabad: 2500 rs ($15)
Private Car from Islamabad to Gilgit: 17000 rs ($100)
Meal at a simple restaurant: 300-1000 rs ($2-6)
Meal at a western-style restaurant in a city: 1000-2500 rs ($6-15)
Cup of Chai: 100 rs (70 cents) But most locals won’t let you pay for it!
Entrance to a National Park: 800-1200 rs ($4.50-7)
3-4 Day Trek with Guide and Porters: 50,000 – 85000 rs ($300-500)

Travel Insurance for Pakistan

Many people ask me: “is it possible to get insured for traveling in Pakistan?” “Like, do western insurance companies think Pakistan is too dangerous to offer insurance to this wild destination?” The answer is no!

I never go to Pakistan (or any country for that matter) without at least some basic insurance.

My three go-to insurance companies that I have personally used are:

Global Rescue: A few months ago I bought a year-long policy with Global Rescue because they are the best in the business when it comes to emergency rescue in the most remote places on earth. Since I am on an expedition a few times a year, these guys provide all the real coverage I need without any BS or hidden limitations. If you want truly solid coverage – the folks at Global Rescue will sort you out.

World Nomads: They offer good medical coverage and heli-rescue and have advanced plans if you plan on hiking at higher altitudes. I once had a sleeping bag fall off a van here and they replaced it once I filed my claim back home

Safety Wing: Saftey Wing is basic travel insurance that covers most of your needs but does not cover any personal property loss. They are one of the cheaper options and I use a re-occurring plan every month so I always have at least some coverage. They also off digital nomad-specific insurance if you need something more long-term.

Traveling as a Couple in Pakistan

couple travel in Pakistan
Nanga Parbat Base Camp vibes with my honey.

There is a rumor that un-married foreign couples can’t share hotel rooms in Pakistan. This is not true! Even if an uptight hotel manager asks if you are married a simple “yes” will suffice. In all my years traveling in Pakistan though, I have never been asked or denied a room when traveling with my girlfriend.

Keep in mind that Pakistan is a conservative Muslim country though and basic rules of social behavior should be followed to avoid unnecessary attention and stares. Don’t show public displaces of affection; IE don’t make out with your partner in public.

Traveling as a Pakistani – foreigner couple can be more tricky though, especially if the woman in the couple is Pakistani. In this case, you will likely need to provide proof that you are married to share hotel rooms.

Unfortunately, Pakistani women can be judged unfairly all over Pakistan if they date (or marry) foreign/non-Muslim men, and in some cases in can even be very dangerous for them.

Foreign lads take note: be very careful and sensitive to local stigmas and conservative attitudes if you start dating and traveling with a Pakistani woman. There is no obvious “hook up” culture in Pakistan – and the hookups that do happen are VERY underground. Just be careful.

Is Pakistan Safe?

safety in Pakistan
Hanging with the Police dudes in Besham.
My friends’ joke that I have Stockholm syndrome in this photo.

Despite its reputation for being a country housing millions of terrorists and constantly on the verge of nuclear war with India Pakistan is one of the safest countries I have ever visited – full stop. No country is perfect of course.

That said, there are some annoyances of traveling here and practical safety measures one must take. Getting into Gilgit Baltistan overland often involves many police checkpoints for foreigners. At one point I think I had to go through 15 of them! This causes travel delays but should not be taken as the areas you are passing through are inherently dangerous. The police often want to have tea and hear about your travels – mostly because I think they are bored shitless.

Bombings happen every year in various Pakistani cities – mostly targeting local government/police/religious minorities. That said, you are more likely to die in an American mass shooting event than you are to be unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when a bomb goes off.

There are some parts of Pakistan foreigns should avoid and/or can’t travel to. These areas include:

  • Places near the Afghan border or Waziristan
  • Parts of Balochistan though this is an ever-changing situation
  • Azad-Kashmir – most places are off-limits for foreigners here
  • Cholistan Desert
  • Tharparkar Desert

Traveling as a Woman in Pakistan

woman in pakistan
Roaming round in Swat Valley – a former Taliban stronghold.

My experiences traveling as a solo man are certainly not the same experience a woman would have. I’ll be honest about that. Pakistan is not an easy place to be a woman and the same is true for foreign lady travelers. Like in any country, there are the occasional creeps in Pakistan who see a foreign (or local) woman and stare a bit too hard and have been known to also make inappropriate sexual insinuations or even marriage proposals!

Generally, Pakistani people are kind, welcoming, and genuine. Use your common sense (man or woman) and try to avoid situations that might put you in harm’s way – IE wandering around in a rough part of town alone / late at night.

Pakistani (and foreign) men reading this – please treat women with respect – they are not objects to be steamrolled with your eyes.

Backpacking guide in Pakistan
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Joining a Tour in Pakistan

k2 base camp trek
A group I lead on the K2 Base Camp Trek in 2021

Independent travel in Pakistan, while rewarding can be hard. Traveling solo in Pakistan is not for everyone and can be a true challenge for those who can’t endure the logistical challenges, poor roads, and vast distances without a bit of support. For some long-distance treks you MUST go with a tour operator do to permits and logistics.

Maybe you just don’t feel like backpacking Pakistan alone. Or you are short on time? Want to join a group of like-minded travelers? Well, you are in luck!

Join me on one of the unique adventure tours I lead in Pakistan every year! Check out my company Epic Backpacker Tours for upcoming itineraries and dates!

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