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

So, you’re thinking about hiking the Annapurna Circuit? Excellent choice. In this post, I’ll give you the low-down on what to expect, how to prepare and how to make the most of this stunning adventure.
In April 2019, I embarked upon one of Nepal’s most stunning trekking routes: the Annapurna Circuit. I booked the trip somewhat on a whim, having seen Nepal featured in a ‘best value countries to visit in 2019’ list. This, coupled with a selection of photos of the dramatic landscapes was enough for me to book the trip. The trip would also be my first taste of trekking: 11 solid days of walking. Talk about jumping in at the deep end.

The views during our early morning ascent to the Throng La Pass were majestic.

The idea of trekking was new for me. Sure, I do a lot of walking when I travel, but nothing on this kind of scale. It was also the second time that I had been at altitude, and we would end up a lot higher than the 4,000-odd metres I experienced in Bolivia. The trip was going to go one of two ways. Either I’d hate every minute and regret booking the trip, or I’d love it and become a trekker for life. Thankfully, it was the latter.

~ 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.

Whilst the length of the trip varies, depending on where you start/finish, the Annapurna Circuit is typically completed in 11-16 days. Itineraries start in Besisahar, some 60km to the south-east of the Massif. From here, hikers follow north-westerlycourse through the Marshyangdi valley, walking along the northern side of the range. The ultimate highlight occurs towards the end of the trek, crossing over the Thorung La Pass, some 5,416m above sea level.
I booked the trip through Intrepid Travel and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made. If you’re thinking of hiking the Annapurna Circuit, I’d recommend them. For more details, check out the Intrepid Website

Sunrise over the Himalayas.

~ Best time for hiking the Annapurna Circuit? ~

There are two key hiking seasons in Nepal: September to November (the Autumn Season) and March to May (the Spring Season). In the Autumn Season, visibility is clear and the weather generally excellent. It’s also a good time to do the Everest Base Camp Trek, given that the summit is generally attempted in the Spring Season.
I hiked the Annapurna Circuit in April/May (the Spring Season). Aside from one day, where there was a downpour as we reached our accommodation for the night, it remained dry. Visibility was good, especially in the mornings. It was warm and, with a lack of cloud cover, the sun maintained a consistent 25-30 degrees temperature for the most part. I wore shorts every day apart from the final ascent to the Thorung La Pass. But even then, I changed into shorts on the way down.
The remaining months are to be avoided. In the winter (December to February), temperatures can drop beyond -20 degrees and heavy snow makes trekking difficult and dangerous. During the summer (June – August), conditions are wet, muddy and leech infested.

~ 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 propositionHowever, 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. 

Posing at the Thorung La Pass

After the final slog to the top of the Throng La Pass, it was time for some celebratory photos.

~ Is the Annapurna Circuit trek hard? ~

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.

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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 levelsThere’s also no correlation between level of fitness and likelihood of developing altitude sickness.

~ Don't underestimate altitude sickness ~

Hiking the Annapurna Circuit is a challenge, not lease because of the altitude. Once you step above 2,500m in altitude, your body will begin to experience symptoms of the higher altitude. I’m talking shortness of breath, a mild headache, needing to pee way more than usual, vivid dreams and trouble sleeping. These side-effects on their own aren’t life threatening and you can take preventative measures against them. But don’t underestimate the altitude – failure to look after yourself can lead to  some very nasty illnesses.
Make sure you drink lots of water and rest when you need to. When stopping in Manang, there’s a chance to sit in on a 30-45 minute lecture run by a volunteer doctor. I’d recommend dropping by and checking it out. The lecture is very informative and helped to allay some of my concerns. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t keep it to yourself – make sure you alert your guide or group leader.
Now I’m no doctor, so I’ll leave it to the NHS Fit For Travel Website to fill you in completely. 

The indomitable peak of Annapurna II

~ Respect the environment and local culture ~

Obviously, this goes with out saying. It is a privilege to visit somewhere as wonderful as the Annapurna region of the Himalayas.  As the old saying goes – leave nothing but your footprints. If you are travelling with guides and/or porters, take the time to get to know them and understand about the local cultures and traditions – it will be a more rewarding experience if you do.  

~ What should I expect on the trail? ~

The simple answer to this question is stunning scenery.The terrain of the Annapurna region is beautiful and rugged. It’s one of the primary reasons to hike the Annapurna Circuit. Day after day, Nepal presented us with views that were jaw dropping. Numerous times a day I would find myself stopped in my tracks, mouth agape, trying to take it all in. Walking accentuates the dramatic impact of the landscape. The scene plays out slowly: evolving and developing with every step. Beign able to spend the best part of a day, walking alongside Annapurna II, and seeing it from every angle, was magical

The rolling, verdant hills hinted at the majestic landscapes that were waiting to be discovered

The landscapes are as varied as they are majestic. Nepal is a treasure trove of visual stimuli. For the first couple of days, we experienced lush green, wide tropical valleys. As we continued, this transitioned into steeper, narrow valleys with waterfalls cascading down to the river below. Next up were fresh alpine forests, backdropped by the first views of the mountains.
As we left the tree line behind, conditions became dry and arid with only the hardiest vegetation surviving. At all times the mountains dominated the skyline. Finally, we ventured onto the mountains themselves, walking through powdered snow. I finished the trek feeling like i’d walked through 3 or 4 different countries, such was the contrast. 
 

~ 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. 

~ What should I take on the Annapurna Circuit? ~

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 ~

It won’t be a surprise to hear that there aren’t any ATMs along the trek. So you’re going to need to make sure that you have enough cash to last until Pokara in a couple of weeks time. There are plenty of ATMs dotted around Kathmandu, tucked between shops and cafes. Most have a security guard present who not only made us feel safe, was able to give handy information on the maximum withdrawal limits
 
How much money should you take? If booking through a tour, the tour cost will cover accommodation and permits. $20 a day should cover even the biggest eaters for food and drink. 

~ 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.

By CHRIS BURCHILL

This Post Has 2 Comments

    1. Thanks very much 🙂 The landscapes were insane!

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