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The Backpacker’s Guide To Independent, Budget Travel In Mongolia

***This post may contain affiliate links.***

Mongolia is one of those places that’s super cheap to live, but somehow ridiculously expensive to travel to. I’m always baffled by how this works, but it’s not the first country I’ve traveled to that’s like this. The cost of living in Mongolia is dirt cheap, but the second you want to actually travel somewhere, bam, you better be made of money.

Why is it that Mongolia is so cheap to live in, yet so expensive to travel to?

It mostly stems from the fact that the tourist trail is not very well developed in Mongolia. Because of this, it’s really hard to travel the country independently.

What Mongolia has to offer is its stunning open countryside with rolling hills, big mountains, winding rivers, and vast desert. But, public transportation throughout the countryside is virtually non-existent. This most likely the result of the fact that roads are also virtually non-existent.

Another obstacle Mongolia throws in the way of independent, budget travel, is the fact that nothing, whatsoever is marked. Not a trail, not a road, nothing. So unless you’re a map and compass wizard like Justin, you’re basically up shit creek.

Between the lack of transportation and the lack of signage, traveling in the Mongolian countryside can be rather problematic, especially if you’re going alone.

In order to actually experience the Mongolian countryside that you’ve traveled so far to see you’re basically stuck with one of two options. One, bring all your own gear, including transportation, or two, book a tour.

As traveling with all of your gear is often times completely unfeasible, the majority of people, myself included, opt for taking a tour. And while there are a lot of great things about tours they all have one huge downside, and that’s the price tag.

Luckily, not every tour is out-of-this-world expensive, and there are a couple options for those adventurous enough to try their hand at traveling the Mongolian countryside without a guide.

How To Find Affordable, Good Quality Tours In Mongolia

Your best bet for finding affordable good quality tours in Mongolia is to show up in Ulaanbaatar and book something in country.

Staying at a hostel and talking to fellow travelers is a great way to start asking around for recommendations. You’ll get an honest opinion about the quality of their tour and they’ll usually tell you straight up whether you should go with the same person/company or try something different.

Reaching out to the other travelers is also a great way to meet people who, like you, are also in the process of planning their tour to the countryside. Provided you’re both interested in going to the same area, you could easily team up and travel together to cut costs. Generally, the more people are in a tour, the less it costs per person.

Booking In Ulaanbaatar

budget-travel-mongolia

Two great hostels to stay at in Ulaanbaatar that book affordable, good quality tours into the Mongolian countryside are 99 Guesthouse and Golden Gobi. The owners of both hostels have connections with local tour guides and drivers all across the country and can help you plan an incredible trip through the Mongolian wilderness.

Waiting until you get to Ulaanbaatar and booking a tour with 99 Guesthouse or Golden Gobi will cost between $50-100 US dollars per person per day depending on where you want to go and how many people you’re traveling with.

To maximize cost savings you’ll ideally want to end up traveling with a group of 4-5 people. Tours are operated via Russian van which can comfortably hold 4-5 tourists plus one guide and a driver. Any more than 5 people and you’ll have to pay for another van and driver.

If booking a tour in-country is not an option for you and you need more set dates there are tons of tour companies out there offering both packaged and customized tours that will let you book ahead of time online.

But there’s a catch. Booking ahead is usually around 4-5 times more expensive than booking in-country. Ridiculous, I know, but such is life.

After doing a ton of research, both online, and on the ground in Mongolia, I’ve come across all of two tour companies where you can book tours in advance that charge a reasonable price. The first is Ger to Ger, and the second is Steppe Riders.

Booking Ahead Online

tsaatan-reindeer-herders-mongolia

While Steppe Riders is a traditional tour company in the sense that you are provided with a guide, driver, food, etc. Ger to Ger does things a little differently. Ger to Ger has two options for trips, fully packaged and supported tours with a guide, or, non-supported local treks and homestays that they call “Nomadic Adventures”.

Ger to Ger

When you book a Nomadic Adventure with Ger to Ger, they will arrange all of your travels for you, including nomadic homestays and excursions, but you are not provided with a guide. Instead, you are responsible for following their instructions and getting yourself to the correct location.

No guide also means no translator, so if you book a Nomadic Adventure with Ger to Ger be prepared for a bit of a language barrier. The locals out in the countryside speak little to no English, so when you stay with them, communication will be in the form of hand gestures and translator apps. Ger to Ger does prep the families about the does and don’ts of hosting foreigners, but ultimately, once you’re there, your own your own.

If you’ve got an adventurous spirit and are looking for the most authentic local experience possible, booking with Ger to Ger is a great, budget option for you. To book a Nomadic Adventure with Ger to Ger you’re looking at paying somewhere between $25-50 US dollars per person per day, depending on the tour. This includes your itinerary and all travel arrangements as well as the cost of accommodation, food, and excursions for the duration of the trip.

To book a packaged tour with Ger to Ger which includes a guide, driver, and hotel stays in addition to the local accommodation, food and excursions provided on their Nomadic Adventure tours you can expect to pay somewhere between $75-100 per person per day depending on the tour.

Ger to Ger offers a range of tours throughout the Mongolian countryside. Tours focus on everything from horseback riding to trekking to mountain biking and are run all around the country. Virtually anything you want to do, anywhere in Mongolia, Ger to Ger can help you do it.

Steppe Riders

Steppe Riders, as the name implies, focuses mostly on horseback riding adventures in Mongolia. They own a ger camp in the countryside outside of Ulaanbaatar where you can stay and take daily rides through the steppe, or you can book one of their packaged tours which run in all the major national parks and across Mongolia’s vast steppe landscape.

Steppe Riders runs all-inclusive tours, meaning everything is planned for you, you’re provided with a guide, driver, and all equipment (including horses), and the cost of all your accommodation, food, and excursions are included in the trip price.

Booking a packaged tour with Steppe Riders will cost you anywhere from $100 – 150 US dollars per person per day.

How To Travel Independently In Mongolia

If you’re really hellbent on not taking a tour, insanely adventurous, and have good outdoor survival skills, there are a few routes you can take to travel Mongolia without a tour. Independent travel in Mongolia is tough, but not impossible.

There are 4 viable options for independent travelers to go it alone in Mongolia, focused on 4 separate activities and requiring varying levels of experience and budgets: hiking, cycling, horse trekking, and off-road-tripping (I’ll explain later).

1. Hiking

hiking-mongolia

We’ll start with hiking as it requires the least amount of experience and gear. Mongolia is ripe with hiking opportunities, as virtually the entire country is covered in beautiful grassy hills and rocky mountains.

What you need

  1. Good orienteering skills (i.e. the ability to read a map and use a compass)
  2. A moderate level of fitness
  3. Camping skills (i.e. the ability to pitch a tent, use a camping stove, etc.)
  4. Hiking and camping gear (backpack, tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, etc.)

How To Hike Independently In Mongolia

There are two schools of thought when it comes to planning an independent trek in Mongolia.

The first way to do it is great if there’s nothing in particular you want to see besides just the overall countryside. Most people with this mentality simply get a ride out of the city via public bus or chartered car, and then hike alongside a river for however many days they choose, before returning to town.

The reasoning for this is that one, it’s pretty hard to get lost if you’re just following the same river your whole trip, and two, you’ll always have a constant supply of fresh water.

This method works really well, but admittedly, it can get kind of boring as you won’t really get to climb any mountains or see anything that’s not that one river and its surroundings.

To remedy this, we have option two, which is to pick a destination, such as a national park, and, with local help, plan a route along the hiking trails in the area. There are tons of hiking trails throughout Mongolia, the problem is not one of them is marked, so having a detailed map of the area is crucial.

The one detail you’ll want to map out before you get started is approximately how long you want to hike for and if there’s anywhere along the route for you to stock up on food. Most likely there won’t be, unless you can buy some meat off of a local nomad, so come prepared to pack all your necessary food with you.

Water is less of a problem, unless you plan on trekking in the Gobi, as streams, rivers, and lakes are abundant throughout central and northern Mongolia.

Where To Go Trekking In Mongolia

Some awesome spots to hike in Mongolia include:

  • Gorkhi Terelj National Park
  • Hustai National Park
  • Lake Khuvsgul
  • Altay Mountains

For a full guide to independent trekking in Mongolia, check out this awesome article from Goats On The Road about their personal experience going on an independent trek through the Mongolian countryside.

2. Cycling

cycling-in-mongolia
Photo Credit: Bookmundi

Cycling is best done on a mountain bike in Mongolia as the roads, to put it nicely, are rather questionable. To put it realistically, they’re basically non-existent in most places. Piloting any type of vehicle in Mongolia is almost entirely an off-road experience.

What You Need

  1. Mountain bike (you’ll have to rent one in Ulaanbaatar or bring your own)
  2. Paniers (to store your gear in on your bike which you can also rent)
  3. Camping gear (i.e. tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, etc.)
  4. Bike maintenance tools (spare tubes, wrenches, etc.)
  5. A knowledge of bike mechanics (to fix anything on the bike that might break)
  6. Basic orienteering skills (ability to read a map, use a GPS, and navigate yourself through the countryside without routing)
  7. A moderate level of fitness
  8. Good bike handling skills
  9. How To Plan An Independent Bike Tour In Mongolia

Start by deciding which area of Mongolia you want to explore and where you want to ride to. To avoid paying for a van to drive you a long way out of the city, your most economical bet is to plan a route that goes in a loop, starting and ending in Ulaanbaatar where you can procure and drop off your bike.

With so many incredible sights and national parks around Ulaanbaatar, planning a loop like this shouldn’t be hard. The bike rental or tour company you rent your bike from should be able to give you some guidance on routing and logistics for your tour.

Road conditions in the countryside are bumpy dirt tracks that intermingle and weave randomly throughout the grasslands. There are zero roadsigns, arrows, or markings of any kind to delineate which way the road goes, and sketchy creek and bridge crossings are frequent.

To navigate a mountain biking tour by yourself through the Mongolian countryside definitely requires some good navigational skills.

Where To Mountain Bike In Mongolia

  • Khenti Mountains
  • Khangai Mountains (Orkhon Valley)
  • Altay Mountains
  • Gobi Desert
  • Lake Khuvsgul

For more info about cycling in Mongolia check out this article about adventure cycling in Mongolia from Traveling Two.

3. Horse Trekking

horse-trekking-mongolia

There is truly no better way to experience Mongolia than on the back of a horse. Horses are at the core of Mongolian life. They’re ingrained in the culture in a way that no matter how much modern technology is out there horses will never lose their place.

If you want to truly immerse yourself in Mongolian life, horse trekking is the way to do it. Horses can take you places in Mongolia that a motor or even your own two feet can not. A Mongolian horse can ride effortlessly through the bog, across rivers, and up and down steep muddy trails nearly impossible to traverse by foot.

What You Need

  1. 2 horses (one to ride and one pack horse)
  2. Gear (tack for the horses plus camping equipment, riding boots/chaps and food for you)
  3. Necessary knowledge and experience to take care of horses on your own
  4. Good horseback riding ability
  5. Good orienteering skills (ability to navigate with a map and compass or GPS without routing)
  6. Decent fitness (enough to allow you to spend several hours in the saddle every day)

How To Go Solo Horse Trekking In Mongolia

The best place to start planning your own solo horse trek in Mongolia is at Steppe Riders. At their ger camp outside of Ulaanbaatar, you can learn everything you need to know about riding and taking care of Mongolian horses. They’ll also brief you on what routes to take, what to expect, and how to go about interacting with local nomads and their animals that you’ll meet during your trip.

After spending a few days at the Steppe Riders ger camp, they’ll then rent you two horses and all the necessary horse gear for your trek. Once you feel comfortable handling the horses you can set off on your solo trek.

Steppe Riders welcomes travelers interested in solo horse trekking through the Mongolian countryside to come and stay for as long as they need to feel comfortable trekking on their own. There’s no time limit for how long you can stay, although there is a daily fee for your training and accommodation there of $65 US dollars per day.

Where To Go Solo Horse Trekking In Mongolia

  • Bogd Khan Uul National Park
  • Khan Khenti Protected Area
  • Hustai National Park
  • Gorkhi Terelj National Park
  • Lake Khuvsgul

For more information about solo horse trekking in Mongolia, check out this article from Wanderlust of Dill about writer Linda’s personal experience on her solo horse trek across Mongolia.

4. Off-Road-Tripping

mongolia-road-trip

I was torn between calling this a road trip or off-roading, so I combined the two and coined my own term, which I am oh so cleverly calling off-road-tripping. What is off-road-tripping you ask? Well, it’s a road trip, just without any roads.

Basically, I didn’t want to get your hopes up by calling this a road trip and leading you on to think there were actual paved roads through the Mongolian countryside. Because roads, my friend, there are not. Rock laden, bumpy, dirt tracks through the grasslands, now that there are.

What You Need

  1. An off-road van
  2. Driver
  3. Camping gear (tent, stove, food, sleeping bag, etc.)

How To Go Off-Road-Tripping In Mongolia

The best way to go about planning your own off-road trip across Mongolia is to first research the region of Mongolia you want to travel to. Then, decide which specific destinations in that region you want to hit. Next, you’ll need to decide how long you want to spend in each spot and how long it will take to go from one place to the next. Combine all that together to figure out how long your tour will take.

To figure out all these logistics it’s best to combine internet research with good old-fashioned on the ground investigative skills. By investigative skills, I mean talking to your hostel owner/staff and fellow travelers that you meet in Ulaanbaatar. They’ll be able to give you honest recommendations and contacts to help you procure a van and driver.

I wouldn’t recommend driving in Mongolia yourself. Navigation’s a bitch and the road quality has moved beyond poor to non-existent. Honestly, I’m not even sure if you’re allowed to rent an off-road van to take into the countryside.

Where To Go Off-Road-Tripping In Mongolia

Some ideas for destinations to hit on your Mongolian off-road adventure include:

  • Gobi Desert
  • Bogd Khan Uul National Park
  • Gorkhi Terelj National Park
  • Hustai National Park
  • Khan Khenti Strictly Protected Area
  • White Lake
  • Black Lake
  • Lake Khuvsgul
  • Taiga
  • Altai Mountains

For more info about how to plan your own off-road-trip through the Mongolian countryside check out this article from Drink Tea Travel about their own independent Mongolian road trip adventure.

Best Time To Travel To Mongolia

budget-travel-mongolia

The best time to visit Mongolia is in the summer from June to October.

Due to its cold climate, Mongolia has a really short travel season. Most places in Mongolia are best experienced after they’ve defrosted. That’s not to say there aren’t cool things to do in Mongolia in the winter for those into winter sports like snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, but if you’re anything like me you’d prefer to do your traveling when it’s not 30 below outside.

How To Get To Mongolia

mongolian-horses

Your two options for getting to Mongolia are to fly or take the train. And the only option that’s budget-friendly is the train. Flights to Mongolia are insanely expensive, even from neighboring countries such as China.

I’m not entirely sure why this is but I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that it’s just not a very popular destination (although it should be). All the other backpackers I met in Mongolia took the train, as it’s way more affordable.

Trains to Mongolia leave from Beijing, China or Russia.

Whether you fly or take the train, you’ll inevitably end up in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. As the only real city in Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar has by default become the gateway to the country.

It’s where you arrive, where you’ll start planning your independent treks, and where you’ll experience your one and only taste of modern comfort in Mongolia.

Where To Stay In Ulaanbaatar On A Budget

tsaatan-reindeer-mongolia

99 Guesthouse

99 Guesthouse is a brand new hostel located on the upper floor of an apartment building in downtown Ulaanbaatar. The owner, Mun who runs the place is an incredible source of knowledge and connections all throughout Mongolia.

He’s also just an all around great guy who’s really fun to talk to. He can literally tell you anything you want to know about Mongolia and give you all the advice you would ever need about where to go and how to get there.

I stayed at 99 Guesthouse for 3 days in Ulaanbaatar and, after getting to know Mun and talking to many of the other guests at his hostel, if I ever go back to Mongolia I will definitely book my next travel plans through him. The other guests had nothing but glowing reviews of their travels through Mongolia on trips planned by Mun at 99 Guesthouse in terms of both their experience on the trip, and it’s affordability.

As for the hostel itself, it’s super clean and modern with private rooms, mixed dorms, an all-female dorm, 3 shared bathrooms, a fully stocked kitchen available for guest use, and a balcony with a view of Gorkhi Terelj National Park. Also, the wifi was top notch, which is always a plus, and they offer free breakfast, including freshly brewed coffee!

Click here to check the latest prices and availability at 99 Guesthouse.

Golden Gobi

Golden Gobi is the original backpacker hostel in Ulaanbaatar, and it has stood the test of time. While I haven’t personally stayed here I know people who have and they’ve all had great experiences.

The owners and staff at Golden Gobi are great at helping travelers plan their own personalized tours through the Mongolian countryside at a price a backpacker can afford. Golden Gobi does a great job of catering to Mongolia’s budget travelers by offering good quality, affordable accommodation and amazing tour packages at a great price.

Click here to check the latest prices and availability at Golden Gobi.

Mongolia Travel Budget

budget-travel-mongolia

Expect your travel costs for Mongolia to range from $10 – $40 per person per day. The cost varies depending on your choice of activity with hiking being the least expensive and hiring a personal driver and van being the most expensive.

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