I have nothing against traveling by public transport; but I think everyone will agree when I say that true fun of traveling to a place like Ladakh is by your own vehicle. You can travel at your own pace, take break whenever you want; follow an itinerary by your own convenience and not by the schedule of a bus or taxi. The biggest question however is whether or not your vehicle is good enough for Ladakh. You may own a car or motorcycle but can you really bring it to Ladakh? And if you can, what are the some of the things that you must consider? In the previous part of this article, I provided some details on best motorcycle for Ladakh trip and in this one, I will discuss the same in terms of cars; best car for Ladakh.
Which is the Best Car for Ladakh Trip?
Quite honestly, this question was easier to answer about motorcycles but tough when it comes to a car. For a motorcycle, it is mostly the riding comfort and engine size that matters majorly but in case of a car, several other things like ground clearance and length of the vehicle come in to the picture too.
During all my trips to Ladakh, I have seen all kinds of cars on the roads there. From a Maruti 800 to a Pajero, from a small hatchback to a 4×4 SUV; everyone is bringing in what they have. My weapon of choice would be my Mahindra Thar; will never take my Amaze or Honda City up there but then a friend of mine did his Ladakh trip in a Maruti 800 with 4 other guys and their luggage. So I guess it is safe to say that there is no best car as such but certain cars definitely have an edge over others.
Your car’s ground clearance will play the most important part while driving to Ladakh. You will be driving on some of the most challenging roads you have ever encountered. There will be numerous water crossings (some of them quite deep); broken roads, dirt trails, slush, lose gravel, sharp rocks on the roads and you need to be well prepared to drive through all of it. Even then, if your car has low ground clearance, it is bound to hit the ground at several occasions, especially at water crossings.
Driving through lose gravel means stones flying and hitting the belly of your car. If you encounter slush like at Rohtang or Zoji La, you will have to think twice about how to take your car across. If you are in a Sedan or a hatchback, you are best avoiding some of the routes like Agham Shyok road and if you do go that way, be prepared for some serious damage to your vehicle.
This comes next in the picture. While driving a smaller engine car to Ladakh, you will have to ensure that there are not too many people in it and you travel as light as possible. Or else, your car will struggle at those steep ascents, while climbing up the high altitude passes on the way. You need to be seriously good at wheel to make sure that your car doesn’t stall. With smaller engine cars, you cannot even imagine bringing them on stretches like Wari La and Marismik La.
Length of the vehicle
This too plays an important role to some extent. With long cars, the problem will be around those sharp turns. Due to its large turning radius, you will have to engage the reverse at several places. If the sharp turn is at a steep ascent, the problem will double and your driving skills will again come into picture while you maneuver the car through.
Driving to Ladakh doesn’t meant only the passengers and their luggage but also additional fuel that you will need to carry. There will be several liters of fuel occupying space and adding weight which may become a problem with hatchbacks.
Last but not the least; it is going to be a really long drive. You will be sitting in the car more than at the hotel. The entire trip consists of driving around for hours on a daily basis. Good leg space and comfortable seats are a must for a hassle free drive.
Categories of Cars Available
Keeping the above in mind, let me break it down further in four categories of cars and where can you take them while in Ladakh. A lot will also depend on whether you are traveling solo, with friends or family but let me first explain it in terms of performance.
SUV 4X4 Drive: Goes without saying, you can pretty much take it anywhere you like. This car is built to handle some of the worst stretches of roads.
SUV 2X4 Drive: You will be Ok even if your SUV is not a 4×4 however it will cough at several places which I will further explain in the article.
Sedan: You may bring it to Ladakh but with extreme care to make sure you take it back home without any damage. Some of the areas in Ladakh will remain off limits for a Sedan.
Hatchback: You really need to be good at the wheel while driving your hatchback to Ladakh. You also need to plan your itinerary in a way that you only visit the major tourist destinations and keep any adventurous thoughts away.
With all this being said, mentioned below are the routes that you will be covering during a Ladakh trip. I will explain the road conditions in that particular followed by how a particular car will perform there.
Manali to Leh
An almost 500 kilometers long stretch filled with all kind of challenges. You will be driving across 5 high altitude passes, numerous waters streams, slush and lose gravel. Traveling earlier in the season will only increase the problems with melting snow.
- SUV: As long as you are good at wheel, an SUV will easily take you through it without having to engage a 4×4.
- Sedan / Hatchback: With Sedans and Hatchbacks, you will have to drive very carefully but there will still be a high chance of your car’s belly hitting the ground at several places. Slush at Rohtang top will pose a serious problem. The dirt road at more plains, lose gravel at Tanglang La will be second in line. Rest of the stretches usually have tar on the road so you will be able to manage it with the exception of high altitude passes where you car may struggle to climb.
Srinagar to Leh
It is pretty much the same deal as Manali Leh highway but a bit easier. The condition of the road from Srinagar to Leh is relatively better though there will still be water streams, slush, high altitude passes and tough sections of the road to drive through.
- SUV: As long as you are good at wheel, an SUV will easily take you through it without having to engage a 4×4.
- Sedan / Hatchback: With Sedans and Hatchbacks, you will have to drive very carefully but there will still be a high chance of your vehicle hitting the ground at several places. Steep ascent and slush at Zoji La will pose a serious problem
Nubra Valley is one of the most visited places of Ladakh and the roads in the valley are mostly good. There is a steep climb of about 35 kilometers from Leh to Khardung La post which it is all downhill and then good straight roads throughout Nubra. While returning to Leh, the climb is a bit longer until Khardung top but not that difficult. The only challenging stretch on this route is between South Pullu and North Pullu. While climbing from Leh, the first 24 km until South Pullu check point is a good paved road. From there to Khardung top another 15 kms to the North Pullu checkpoint is all loose rock, dirt, and rivulets of snow melt.
- SUV: An easy drive throughout Nubra Valley. Climb of Khardung La can be a bit steep from Leh side but nothing that an SUV cannot handle. The section between North Pullu and South Pullu is a bit challenging but doable in an SUV without the need of engaging 4X4. If however traveling in the months of May or early June, there will be a lot of slush around Khardung top due to melting snow which can be tough to cross for even an SUV, may even need a 4×4.
- Sedans & Hatchbacks: Drive will be smooth in Nubra valley for a Sedan and hatchback but tough around Khardung La top, between both of the Pullus. If traveling early in the season, it will be extremely challenging and your car may even get stuck in the slush at some places.
Being another most popular destination in Ladakh, nowadays there is a lot of tourist movement on the road from Leh to Pangong Tso via Chang La. This entire stretch is a mix of good, bad and really bad, with good taking the majority. Challenging part again would be around the high altitude pass, Chang La. After Sakti, it is a steep climb of which the first 30 odd kilometers is mostly a tarred road. As you get closer to Chang La top, conditions will start to deteriorate and can get really ugly at some spots. On the descent, the first few kilometers are again really bad, post which it is an average road until Durbuk. From Durbuk to Spangmik, it is again mostly a good road. There is a dirt trail from Spangmik to the camp sites at Pangong, no paved road at all.
- SUV: This entire drive is mostly easy for an SUV with a few tough sections between Shakti and Durbuk; mostly around Chang La top. You will not need to engage 4×4 anywhere on this stretch.
- Sedan & Hatchback: The drive until Shakti is easy for a Sedan or hatchback. From Shakti the climb can be challenging and crossing Chang La can be really tough. If traveling early in the season, several spots near Chang La top can be extremely treacherous.
Tso Moriri via Chumathang & Tso Kar
This entire stretch is mostly easy with an exception of the last 35 kilometers to Karzok after Sumdo. Until Sumdo, the road remains a mix of good and bad and doesn’t involve any steep climbs anywhere. Tar from the road vanishes about 10 kilometers after Sumdo and then it is just a dirt trail all the way. You will be navigating your way at several places by following the track marks made by other passing vehicles. There is a high altitude pass as well after Sumdo, Namashang La, but it is an easy one and you will hardly notice the climb at all. This is for the road that bifurcates from Manali Leh highway at Upshi to Chumathang.
If however you are traveling to Tso Moriri via Tso Kar; or maybe taking this route for your return journey from Karzok; then there is another high altitude pass in between a few kilometers after Sumdo. Polo kongka La is not much of a climb but the road is terribly bad. It is all dirt, badly broken, several deep potholes, lose gravel and full of large stones. However it gets better a few kilometers after the pass and then it is a smooth road through Moore plains all the way till Pang.
- SUV – The journey is easily manageable in an SUV until Sumdo via Upshi and Chumathang. After Sumdo, the drive is flat but on a dirt trail. The last 10 kilometers to Karzok can be a little difficult but nothing that an SUV cannot handle. The stretch around Polo Kongka La however is difficult and will have you driving extremely slowly. There is no need of a 4X4 anywhere on this route.
- Sedan & Hatchback – The drive is mostly easy or OK until Sumdo for a Sedan and a hatchback. It is tough once you cross Namshang La all the way to Karzok. Around Polo Kong Ka La, it is a treacherous drive and you need to be extremely careful if you want to bring your vehicle home undamaged.
Tso Moriri via Pangong, Chusul, Tsaga, Loma, Nyoma, Mahe Sumdo
Let me just say here that this is a route for SUVs only. The entire road from Pangong Tso to Tsaga is Tar amiss. It is a dirt trail with rivulets in between and getting across in a vehicle with low ground clearance can actually break your car. From Tsaga till Sumdo, it is a mix of good and average. After Sumdo, it is a dirt trail as I mentioned previously in the article.
- SUVs – The drive until Tsaga Is just OK for an SUV but some stretches can be really tough to cross. From Tsaga to Sumdo is easy and OK again after Sumdo to Karzok. There is no need of a 4X4 anywhere on this route.
- Sedan & Hatchback – Between Tsaga and Sumdo is doable for a Sedan or Hatchback, tough from Sumdo to Karzok, Spangmik to Tsaga and treacherous at several spots between Spangmik and Tsaga.
Loma – Hanle – Photi La
From Loma to Hanle is a fresh tarmac all the way for 50 kilometers except for a few bad patches. There are no passes in between and it is overall a smooth drive. Photi La is a further 24 kilometers from of which the last 10 kilomteres is all lose gravel and sand with a steep climb.
- SUV – Easily doable without needing a 4×4.
- Sedan & Hatchback – Easily doable until Hanle. Extremely difficult to climb up Photi La.
Chumur & Charchghan La Stretch
No matter where you travel from on this route, either from Hanle or Karzok, it is mostly a dirt trail. The drive can get extremely tough around Charchaghan La and there are a few difficult water crossings as well. From Karzok, there is a tarred road but only for the initial part of the drive. From Hanle, you can expect tar on the road until Punguk, around Indian Astronomical observatory, but after that, it will be a dirt trail.
- SUV – Doable but several sections of the road will be tough to cross. You will however not be needed to engage 4×4 unless you are traveling early in the season.
- Sedan & Hatchback – Extremely difficult and treacherous around Charchaghan La. A few water crossings can prove to be a herculean task to cross.
Agham Shyok Stretch
This is the road that you take to reach Pangong Tso from Nubra valley; or vice versa. By far; Agham Shyok road is the most treacherous stretch I have come across in all my years of traveling to Ladakh. It is unfair to call it a road at all actually; rather it is just a flat path carved out in stones and dirt. It runs right next to Shyok river and sometimes, it travels under Shyok river. Steep climbs, water crossings, river on the road, lose gravel, sharp rocks; you name it and it has it all. This stretch is highly prone to landslides and even the local drivers from Leh do not go this way. It is rare to find anyone traveling this way and if you run in to trouble, you will be on your own.
- SUV: Doable but tough. There are some really steep climbs and if you do not have a 4×4, you will need excellent driving skills to keep your car moving; and even then it can stall.
- Sedan or Hatchback: It will break your car in every possible way. Go here in a Sedan or Hatchback and you may as well bury your car in Ladakh and take a flight back home.
Wari La Stretch
It is another of the less travelled roads of Ladakh. The final 20 kilometers of the climb to Wari La top will have you popping open the hood of your 4×4; allowing it to cool down. This road too remains mostly in bad condition and you will hardly find a living soul traveling. If your car breaks down here, you will be on your own.
- SUV – Doable but the final ascent to Wari La top will have you wishing that you bought a 4×4. I have been here in a Safari 2×4 and though we were able to make it; it did take some effort and our car almost stalled at several places.
- Sedan & Hatchback: It is doable but with someone with excellent driving skills on the wheel; otherwise no. A wise thing would be to not take your Sedan or Hatchback at all on this road.
Phobrang & Marismik La
At 18,314 feet, Marismik La is one of the contenders for highest motorable pass in the world. Even my Royal Enfield at some places refused to climb here with a solo traveler and no luggage. After Phobrang, the mettle road will convert to dust and then to rubble. It is full of loose rocks sharp enough to tear a tyre’s sidewall. As you get closer to the top of the pass, these loose sharp stones will turn in to large rocks that will make the drive a nightmare.
- SUV 4×4: Doable but you will have to stay in 4×4
- SUV 2×4: Extremely difficult and you will have to be an excellent driver and even then your vehicle may just refuse to climb.
- Sedan & Hatchback: Just do not go this way if you have any love for your car at all.
Chushul, Satatho La, Kakasang La, Hor La, Mahe Stretch
I am not really sure how to even describe how bad this entire stretch is. It involves a really steep climb to Kakasang La top on some nightmarish roads. Majority of the road is either dirt track or lose gravel. This is one of the roads in Ladakh that needs to traveled on in only a 4×4.
- SUV 4×4 – Doable but with extreme caution.
- SUV 2X4 – I do not believe it is doable in a 2×4. It would need an extremely good driver if to be attempted.
- Sedan & Hatchback – Do not even think about it.
Zanskar Valley (Kargil to Padum)
The entire road from Kargil to Padum is a dirt trail. There is a high altitude pass on the way but it is so easy that you will barely notice the climb. The road, though damaged, never really gets too difficult.
- SUV – Easily doable without needing to engage 4×4
- Sedan & Hatchback – Doable but tough at several spots due to low ground clearance and lose gravel underneath.
The entire Batalik stretch is freshly laid tarmac and drive remains to be smooth.
- SUV – Easily doable, no need of a 4×4
- Sedan & Hatchback – Easily doable
The road from Leh to Sham Valley is a mix of good and a few bad patches. The drive on Srinagar Leh highway is mostly smooth all the way and the few bad patches are after you enter Sham Valley, around Likir, Suspool, Hemis Shukpachan and Ang.
- SUV – Easily doable without needing to engage 4×4
- Sedan & Hatchback – Easily Doable
Leh is the district headquarters of Ladakh and the roads here remain mostly in good condition. No matter which car you have, you will have no problem using to drive around within the small town of Leh.
Best Car for Ladakh
With all the above being said, best car for Ladakh trip would be a 4×4 SUV, doesn’t really matter which one. If you are with a couple of friends out to have fun, an open Mahindra Thar will probably be the best for the trip; however if you are with family then any other 4X4 SUV like Fortuner, Safari, Scorpio will be the best. If you do not have a 4×4, then even a 2×4 SUV will do the job equally well, just avoid some of the stretches I mentioned above as suitable for 4×4.
If you do not own an SUV, then by all means you can travel to Ladakh in your Sedan or Hatchback but you will have to be extremely careful to ensure there is no damage to the car; and plan your itinerary avoiding all the places I mentioned above as suitable for SUV only. No matter which car you have, they key is to get it serviced well in advance and be confident of your driving skills. If you are someone who just learnt driving a few months back, or have never been to hills in a car before then it is best to let someone else drive who has a bit of experience.
In the end, It all pretty much boils down to:
- How good of a driver you are.
- How much off roading you intend to do.
- Who are you traveling with.
- What time of the season you are traveling in.
I have seen the locals in Ladakh use a Maruti 800. It of course heats up but when it does, they just allow it some time to cool off before being on their way.
I hope this information on best car for Ladakh trip was helpful. If you have any further questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below and I will be glad to answer.