These are three ways you can tackle hiking in Nepal.

The easiest (and most expensive) is to sign on with a trekking company (or other tour operator). Some 20 outfitters now offer trips across the country. These companies range from the granddaddy, Mountain Travel, down to small operators who literally haul in hikers off the street.

An outfitter provides just about everything . . . tents, sleeping bags, cooking gear, food. Guides lead the way. Porters carry the gear, put up tents, even bring hot water to your doorstep each morning. The food is geared to western tastes and larger companies often carry along their own doctor.

It's gotten so organized, some of the trips specialize-bird watching, for instance, or natural history. The difficulty ranges from relatively easy trips of just a few days around Katmandu Valley to major mountain climbing expeditions or 35-day forays into outlying regions which have hardly seen westerners before.

Such trips follow a predetermined schedule. They range in price from $10 to $50 a day, the difference often being one of reputation rather than service. Most companies prefer to sign people on at least two months in advance but it is possible to show up in Katmandu and join a group with only a week's notice.

The second method is to hire guides and prters on your own. Here, you will have to provide either all your own gear or rent it. On the popular routes, you have the option of staying at village inns rather than sleeping in a tent. Most hikers prefer the inns because it gives them a chance to meet locals and other trekkers. The atmosphere is strictly youth hostel, with half a dozen people from half a dozen countries arguing politics in pidgin English. Conditions are crude at best . . . usually limited to a cotten sleeping pad on a wood cot, and meals are mostly rice with fried vegetables plus an occasional fried egg for variety.

Lowland guides run about $4 a day, porters are about $1.50. High altitude people run a bit higher. Meals average 50 to 75 cents a shot and beds run less than a quarter. I rented quite a bit of cold weather gear (sleeping bags, boots, tents, etc.) for our guide and porters, and even so, the whole tab including food and lodging averaged $7.31 a day.

Hiring your own people, however, is a matter of Russian roulette. Most are honest and work hard, but on every trip you'll meet at least one forlorn group of westerners with a familiar story . . . their guide and/or porters first demanded a raise, then got drunk with the money and walked off leaving them to lug 60 pounds of gear apiece back to civilization.

The final option is to carry your own gear, either camping in tents or staying at inns. This, of course, leaves you free to nothing. But it also means you have to tote your own gear (anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds apiece). You might think twice before attempting that over 17,000-foot passes in the snow.

The hiking season in Nepal runs seven months, from October into May. In fall, you can still catch the lush greens over from monsoon months. Winter is mercifully cooler in low altitudes but bitterly cold up high. Winter also affords the driest weather and clearest skies. In spring you catch new growth, with wildflowers peaking in March. Later, the valleys become hazy from the smoke o burning rice paddies.

No matter how you opt to go, certain gear is essential. Sturdy, medium-weight boots will handle most mountains trails. You'll also want lighter shoes (I used my jogging shoes) for those long ups on the stairsteps. A decent down parka and wool clothing are necessary at higher elevations, especially in winter.

Finally, laugh as you might, seriously consider a long skirt if you're female. They're downright handy for pit stops on a bushless cliffside trail or in the middle of a rice paddy field when there's not so much as a six-inch clump of weeds for cover.