Rural households throughout the Himalayas are regarded as dependent on non-timber forest products (NTFPs), but very few studies have quantified this dependency. This case study, undertaken in two villages in the Central Himalayan foot hills in Nepal, documents the absolute and relative importance of commercial NTFPs to rural household economies. Data were collected in a one-year period and included interviews with 250 households using a semi-structured questionnaire and monthly interviews with four sub-local NTFP traders, two local traders and two central wholesalers. The conservative estimate of NTFP-derived cash income showed this to be a cornerstone in poorer household livelihood strategies and thus in poverty prevention. An annual average of 578 kg of commercial NTFPs was collected in the wild per household, providing poorer households with a cash income share of 44–78%. Better off households are not NTFP dependent but rely on income from crop production and livestock. Based on a net marketing margin analysis, showing that harvesters capture a large share of the Indian wholesaler price, it is argued that there is scope for pursuing NTFP-based strategies for poverty reduction through leasehold forestry and agroforestry. Both these options are compatible with conserving forest cover and forest corridor functions and may thus present a win–win scenario for livelihood improvement and conservation.