Thinking of heading to Nepal and hiking the Annapurna Circuit? Here’s a detailed overview of everything you need to know about it before you go…
Hiking the Annapurna Circuit: what to know before you go
The views during our early morning ascent to the Throng La Pass were majestic.
~ What is the Annapurna Circuit? ~
The Annapurna Massif is a range of the Himilayas running through northern Nepal. The massif is 55km in length and features 30 peaks of more than 6,000m (20,000 foot) in height. Fourteen of these peaks exceed 7,000m (23,000 ft) in height, and one of those exceeds 8,000m (26,000 ft). Annapurna I Main measures in at 8,091 metres and is the tenth highest mountain in the world. The Annapurna peaks are some of the most dangerous on the planet and many climbers have lost their lives attempting to scale them.
Sunrise over the Himalayas.
~ Best time for hiking the Annapurna Circuit? ~
~ Hiking the Annapurna Circuit: why do it? ~
This was a question I found myself answering on many occasions. And I get it, for large swathes of people, the idea of walking for ten days straight isn’t likely to be the most attractive proposition. However, I would argue that the benefits far outweigh any negatives.
So let’s get the negatives out of the way: I finished the trek with a sore pair of knees. That’s it. People are talking about mental health and wellbeing more than ever. It’s becoming more prominent in most aspects of our lives. I definitely go through phases where I use my phone and social media far more than I should. Being able to switch off from these things and to embrace a simpler, slower way of life – eat, walk, eat, sleep, repeat – is important.
Oh, and the locals are pretty damn cute.
I find being outdoors and away from the daily grind is soul refreshing. As I’ve said, it also offered a great opportunity to disconnect from social media and the world back home. By the time I was ready to come home at the end of the trip, my usual levels of cynicism were severely diminished and I felt the happiest that I had in months. Despite all the walking, I didn’t feel tired; inn fact I felt refreshed and re-energised.
A trip like this, which isn’t always easy, brings with it a wonderful sense of accomplishment. None more so than day 9, when we reached the Thorung La Pass. Day 9 brought with it a 3am start time and a 1km ascent up to our maximum altitude of 5,416m. It’s a hard feeling to describe, the first glimpse of those multicoloured prayer flags fluttering in the constant wind. Knowing it was just a matter of steps until I would reach the pinnacle of the trip. All those tiring days of walking coming to a joyous mountain top crescendo.
After the final slog to the top of the Throng La Pass, it was time for some celebratory photos.
~ It's Tough ~
Earlier, I described a sense of accomplishment in completing the Annapurna Circuit. Over the course of ten days we walked approximately 160km and experienced altitudes of up to 5,400m. Throw in the varying weather and climates and it’s no walk in the park. Day six sticks in my mind in this respect – we endured a punishing hour-long ascent up to 3,700m. The sky was clear and there was no protection from the unrelenting rays of the sun. It wasn’t easy and my calves burned. This was one of those brief moments on the trip where I thought “why didn’t you pick something easier for your first trek?”. But pain is only temporary and the rewards far outweigh it. The views when we reached our mid-morning stop were spectacular.
Posing at 3,700m in front of a stunning backdrop.
~ How fit to I need to be to hike the Annapurna Circuit? ~
It does help to have a base level of fitness. There are a lot of steps to cover and sore legs are the order of the day. So if you have chance to get a few walks in and up your cardiovascular game before going it isn’t going to hurt. That said, I was in the worst shape I’ve been in for five or six years and, on the whole, I managed pretty well. There were a couple of mornings where my legs felt a bit stiff, but once we got walking again and they warmed up, I was fine.
The one area preparatory fitness won’t help you with is when it comes to dealing with the altitude. Unless you already live altitude, pre-trip fitness regimes aren’t going to prepare your body for the lower oxygen levels. There’s also no correlation between level of fitness and likelihood of developing altitude sickness.
~ Don't underestimate altitude sickness ~
The indomitable peak of Annapurna II
~ Respect the environment and local culture ~
~ Spectacular Landscapes of the Annapurna Circuit ~
The rolling, verdant hills hinted at the majestic landscapes that were waiting to be discovered
~ Dal Bhat Power, 24 Hour ~
Dal bhat is the unofficial fuel of the trekker. If you know anybody who’s trekked in Nepal, chances are they will have tried dal bhat at least once (and many more times thereafter). Dal bhat is healthy, filling, cheap and pretty damn delicious. So what is dal bhat? Well dal means rice and bhat means lentils. Along with the cooked rice and lentil soup, the meal includes seasonal curry, sautéed spinach and pickles. And I haven’t even mentioned the best part – dal bhat always comes with a second, complimentary helping!
The food on the hike is generally to a very high standard. Above a certain height, our guides advised us to pass on the meat, so I ended up being a veggie for 2 weeks. The mainstay, as described above, was dal bhat – the fuel of the trekker. You’ll see the t-shirts in Kathmandu and Pokara and it’s true, dal bhat does power you 24 hours a day. This came to be a well-used phrase in the group.
~ The food is delicious ~
Dal bhat was the mainstay during the trek. But, after 6 solid days of dal bhat for lunch and dinner, I needed to mix things up a little! There were plenty of other decent food options on offer.
The tea houses we stay at or stopped at for lunch offered a consistent menu. Around 85% of menu options were the same, regardless of the location. The remaining 15% depended on local produce and altitude. With all the walking, getting our fill of carbs was important. There’s a plethora of carb options available for the 3 main meals of the day, with porridge, noodles, potatoes, rice and bread all serving as a base option. Throw in vegetables, curry, cheese, jam, honey peanut butter (not all at once, I’m not a complete animal!) and there was enough variety to get by with.
Sweet treats to the left and momos to the right.
If you’ve read any of my other articles which involve food, you’ll note that I have a rather sweet tooth. I’m pleased to confirm that I kept it satisfied throughout the trek. Hot chocolate, fresh apple pie, snickers roll and snickers pie kept me going. I also came to love masala tea. Looking forward to a refreshing cup of blended aromatic spices helped to keep me going during difficult periods.
I’ll reserve a final word for the best bit of Nepalese cuisine, the humble momo. The momo is a dumpling of South-Asian descent; a palm-sized parcel of tastiness. They come either steamed or fried and with a plethora of fillings. I was more partial to the steamed variety, you know trying to be healthy and all that. However, I would recommend a plate of fried cheese momos if you happen to spot them as a menu option.
~ Drinking Water~
Plastic, as in many countries, is a bit of a problem in Nepal. There’s nothing worse than seeing discarded bottles and bits of plastic strewn across a scenic landscape. Okay, there are worse problems in the world, but I love a good bit of hyperbole. I would implore anybody visiting Nepal to take a couple of re-usable bottles and/or a camel pack and to find a purification system that works for you.
The two main options are to use a steripen or water purification tablets. I went with tablets as I didn’t have time research steripens. These water purification tablets from Boots were fine. Fill water bottles up at a tea house, drop in a tablet, wait 40 mins and boom, good to go.
At various points along the circuit, there would also be safe drinking stations. These offer purified drinking water for a small fee (usually a few hundred rupees per litre), and the group made use of this service when we could.
~ Accomodation on the Annapurna Circuit ~
The accommodation along the trek was basic but comfortable. We generally stayed in tea houses, with two people sharing a room. Rooms are minimalist – two beds, usually a shared bedside table and sometimes an ensuite bathroom or toilet. Aside from Yak Kharka and Phedi, which were the highest two points that we slept at, all the tea houses had charging points in the room. At the higher altitudes, a solar charger or battery charging pack will come in handy.
The cosy common room in Manang was a great place to hang out after a tough day of trekking
The cost of booking through a tour includes accommodation in the price. For those planning the trek themselves, accommodation is cheap – a few hundred rupees a night. Where the tea houses make their money is through food, drink and ‘extras’. Many tea houses had a small charge for hot showers and wifi. Showers were often communal and usually cost 100-200 rupees, although a couple of tea houses did provide free showers. Some of the tea houses only provided solar powered showers. My advice (unless it is day time and the sun is out) would be to get in pronto before all the hot water is gone!
~ Don't be a fool - get travel insurance ~
Rescue helicopters flying overhead were a daily reminder of the danger. On that note, make sure you get adequate travel insurance. I say adequate because a lot of standard packages do not cover trekking at altitude. I get world-wide travel insurance with my bank account, but needed to upgrade to include trekking up to 4,550m. Chances are, that you’ll never need to rely on insurance. But if there’s one place that you don’t want to leave it to chance, it’s the Himalayas! My mate used World Nomads, who are a reputable travel insurance provider.
~ Pack lightly and be versatile ~
Hiking the Annapurna Circuit encompasses a varied selection of climates. From its sticky, tropical beginnings to the sub-zero 3am start when tackling the Thorung La Pass. A versatile wardrobe wardrobe combined with sensible layering is key.
My advice would be to pack light to make the trek easier for yourself and your porters (packing guide coming soon). If you’re on a group trip with porters, you’ll note that they walk the exact same route – even over the snowy Thorung La Pass! Think of their backs and bring only what you need. Bear in mind that there is also a laundry opportunity midway through the trip. In Manang there are a variety of same day laundry services. It was around this time into the trip I was running low on underwear, so it was the perfect time to get some laundry done. Prices were pretty reasonable too.
Prayer flags across the river.
~ Take a trip to the cinema ~
We stayed in the small town of Manang for two nights. There was a fair amount of downtime ahead of the final couple of days to the Thorung La Pass. The best bit of Manang, and one of the highlights of the trip, was a group trip to the cinema. There are a few cinemas dotted around the town. Each screening exclusively Himalayan-themed films – think Everest, Seven Years in Tibet etc.
Now don’t go expecting the luxury of Cineworld, Odean or, heaven forbid, Everyman. Housed in a small wooden building, the cinema comprised of a projector screen facing a handful of tiered wooden benches. It might have held 40-50 people at a push. We watched Seven Years in Tibet, which I’d never seen before. It was great. It was one of those random but unique travel experiences – watching a film about the Himalayas whilst being in the Himalayas. They even paused the film around thirty minutes in to distribute complimentary warm popcorn and jasmine tea. For the equivalent of about £1.60, it was a wicked night and one that will live long in the memory.
~ Tipping ~
If you’re using a guide or porters, it is customary to tip. And let’s face it, without the help and guidance offered by the guides and porters, the trek would be a darn slight harder. The Intrepid trip notes recommended that each person tip $3-4 per day for the group leader. The notes also recommends splitting $3-4 per day between the assistant guides and the porters.
Ram, our experienced group leader, takes in the views over Manang.
~ Money ~
~ A Final Word ~
Hiking the Annapurna Circuit is a once in a life time experience. I found it to be an unforgettable experience, fulfilling and rewarding in equal measure. My final tip is a simple one: embrace and enjoy it!
Working through my repertoire of hiking poses.