Everything you need to know before hiking the Annapurna Circuit
Post last updated: 09/08/2018 | Planning to trek the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal? A bloody great decision! Here's everything you need to know before your Annapurna trek, including hiking solo vs in a group, what to pack, fitness levels, when to go, and all the money matters.
Hiking Nepal's Annapurna Circuit is one of the most stunningly beautiful, life-changing experiences you can have on your travels, and we're pretty sure that, like us, you'll be absolutely captivated by the area from the very first day.
But take it from us wanderers, this is not a simple walk in the park (pun intended), and there's a great deal to factor into your planning before you even take those first few steps. While it’s super tempting just to turn up, hire a sleeping bag and lace your boots and take off, there are a few more incredibly useful things you need to consider before commencing Nepal’s best trek.
From preparing for altitude sickness and deciding whether to hike solo or in a group, to organising your permits and accommodation, here's the essential insider knowledge you need before tackling the long, epic and beautiful Annapurna Circuit trek for yourself.
20 essential things to know before your Annapurna Circuit trek
#1 - fast facts about the annapurna circuit
Here are a few quick facts about the Annapurna Circuit to give you a little overview, and to help you on your way.
Location | Central Nepal
Trek length | Generally 16-20 days
Distance | this varies depending on route and whether you take optional side treks, but generally between 170km - 230km
Height of Mount Annapurna 1 Main (the highest mountain in the Annapurna Massif) | 8091m
Highest point of the trek | Thorong La Pass - 5416m (17,769ft)
#2 - Know WHEN TO TREK THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT
Hiking in Nepal isn't a 'turn up whenever you like and off you go' kind of affair; seasonal changes (particularly around monsoon period) have a massive impact on where, how, and what you can hike here.
The periods for hiking the Annapurna Circuit are October - early December, and late Feb - April. Go outside of these times and you risk the already tricky Thorong La Pass being totally snowed under (or worse, like what happened during the 2014 Nepal blizzard disaster) or heavy monsoonal summer rains causing slippery and dangerous conditions.
We did our hike at the end of Feb - March and found the weather conditions pretty much perfect; balmy and hot on the lower sections, and crisp with some light snow at the higher levels and the Pass.
#3 - you can hike the annapurna circuit with a group, or go it alone
One of the most debated topics when it comes to hiking in Nepal is this: do it with an organised group, or heave on a rucksack full of your stuff and go it alone?
Personally, we opted for a group hike on Intrepid's 16-day Annapurna Explorer trek (full disclosure, we were also working with Intrepid Travel on this hike), but we definitely encountered just as many keen hiker going it alone or with a friend. In short, both are absolutely viable options, and each comes with their own merits and disadvantages.
HIKING THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT WITH A GROUP
As two travellers used to independent/solo travel on our own terms, the thought of suddenly being bound by a group and its personalities, plus a set itinerary, and all that comes with these two things was a little daunting. But as it turns out, it absolutely needn't have been. See when you hike with a group, you hike with a ready-made cheer squad, a team of local guides and porters who a) know the way b) know the signs of altitude sickness (more on that below) and c) can share tidbits of info you'd otherwise miss out on.
Everything (including teahouse accommodation, permits, etc) is organised for you by the trekking company, you jut need to bring snacks and money for meals / tips.
Travelling with a reputable travel company (like Intrepid Travel) also means that your local guides and porters are exceptionally well-trained in local knowledge, first aid, emergency response, etc.
A local is always on-hand to share information about
Your team of porters also carry your heavy luggage, so you just need to keep putting one step in front of the other with your daypack on your back.
Other people to support and be supported by - which can go a long way when you're all exhausted and out of breath in the final days!
Can be more expensive than going it alone - but we actually felt it was worth it in this instance!
If you're used to independent travel, being bound to someone else's plan (and group personalities) might be a shock to begin with!
HIKING THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT SOLO
It's definitely not rare to see people self-navigating the Annapurna Circuit by themselves, or hiking together in small groups. Given that the Annapurna trek is also one of Nepal's more popular routes, you'll also bump into a whole lot of other trekkers following a similar path, so you can either buddy up and walk together, or walk amongst the wild solo and regroup for a game of cards later that night.
Having the freedom to go where you want, when you want, and without having to account for a group
Often a lot cheaper than booking through a tour company
You get the best of both worlds; solo trekking during the day and a group atmosphere at the teahouses at night
You're responsible for carrying all your gear, finding accommodation, and organising all your permits, itinerary, etc. You'll need to work out when you'll arrive at a teahouse, and during busy periods, have a back up plan if it's already full.
Not having a trained professional around to help you identify potentially dangerous areas, altitude sickness symptoms, or monitor the speed/distance of your hike (it's important to go slow to avoid altitude sickness!).
Safety: there are risks in going it alone. While Nepal is a notoriously friendly and welcoming country, there have been instances of solo-hikers disappearing on solo treks. While these incidents are few and far between, it's worth bearing in mind.
For female hikers, we'd also recommend travelling with a female guide and porter, to avoid any potential harassment incidents.
walk in our footsteps: book your own annapurna circuit group trek with intrepid travel here
#4 - You need to be fit, but not super fit TO HIKE THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT
While you don’t need to be marathon fit to complete the Annapurna circuit, it’s definitely worth putting in some hard yards at the gym, in the mountains or around the block before you leave.
For the most part the days are manageable; 5-6hrs and 10-15kms, with plenty of rest, long lunch breaks and a few rest days in between. BUT. Some days on your trek will be 16 hours at high altitude starting at 4am. Other days can be over 20kms through the "Nepalese flats" (aka rolling hills) or in the snow. And then there’s the final day from Muktinath to Jomsom (you can discover all about that yourself!).
Our advice is to build your general cardio (the fun stuff!) for at least a month prior to leaving as well as a few consecutive days of long distance walking. Get your feet used to being in boots day after day. If you want to, try altitude training before you leave. We didn't do this, but we've heard good reports. You’ll be grateful you made the effort when the time comes to lace up those boots up again for the 6th day in a row.
#5 - you'll need a trekking permit
No matter when or how you're hiking the Annapurna Circuit, you'll need to organise both a Trekking Information Management System (TIMS) permit, and an Annapurna National Park Permit (sometimes also known as the Annapurna Conservation Area Permit).
These will need to be checked at various checkpoints along the trek, and will set you back a total of around USD $40 total ($20 for each).
If you're hiking with an organised tour group, your guides will likely manage these for you. If you're hiking by yourself, you'll need to organise these at either the Nepal Tourism office based in Kathmandu, or the Pokhara tourist office before you begin the trek.
Make sure you bring a minimum of 4 passport photos for the trekking permit too!
#6 - It’s long, hard and tough
"It’s always further than it looks. It’s always taller than it looks. And it’s always harder than it looks."
That’s a quote about the ‘three rules of mountaineering’. We’re not really sure who came up with it, but they’re pretty spot on except for one detail: It’s also always completely worth it.
We’re going to get all tough love on you here: the Annapurna trek is long, tiring and physically and mentally tough. Depending on which route you take you’re going to be hiking for 13+ days - probably longer than your first high school romance.
Some days will be really physically tough. You’ll be living out of a backpack with a very limited supply of clothing, sleeping on some rock hard beds, eating only carbs (we didn’t say it was all bad!), drinking chlorinated or steri-pen filtered water, all while having no internet access to check your Facebook (again, not all bad).
Sound daunting? Well yeah, maybe it is. But trust us, when you’re standing in awe of the peaks around you, bonding with your group over a cup of hot chocolate, or celebrating crossing the Thorong La Pass these challenges become so insignificant you’ll wonder why they got you down in the first place.
#7 - The scenery ON THE ANNAPURNA TREK is incredible
You know that feeling you get when you spot a hottie across the dancefloor for the first time? The hairs stand up on the back of your neck, your heart pounds like a kick drum, and you have this existential crisis about being so freaking small in this universe and how could all this amazingness actually even exist.
Well, this happens Every. Single. Day. in the Annapurna region.
With every step the scenery in front of you changes and the mountains reveal something new; rolling clouds, the breathtaking terrain, the towering mountains or the smiling locals. Need convincing? Here are 30 photos that will inspire you to visit Nepal!
It’s literally the definition of awe-inspiring. Them feels are good for the soul and you’ll leave feeling all giddy about the world.
#8 - Altitude sickness is real
Run the London Marathon? Completed the Hawaiian Ironman? Smash out spin classes four times a week? We commend you for being so awesome in your active wear, but it won’t help you with altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness can affect anyone, including the fittest athletes alive (and Sir Edmund Hillary - the first summiteer of Everest!) so make sure you take all the necessary precautions after 3000m. That includes taking Diamox (if you wish, but consult with your doctor), staying hydrated, fuelling up and getting adequate rest. If you feel symptoms, let your guide know and take action.
This is serious shit; Miranda developed HAPE, high altitude pulmonary oedema (basically, your blood vessels constrict and leak blood into your lungs, and left untreated, you can drown.. gross, right?) while hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in Africa, and it was a horrific, long term recovery. We recommend reading up on altitude sickness before you leave.
#9 - The accommodation is MORE THAN decent
If you're expecting to stay at the Shangri-La, you'll be disappointed. If you apply a little common sense and realise the Annapurna circuit is pretty remote, you'll be satisfied with the basic accommodation options available.
Guesthouses and teahouses are dotted along the whole trek, starting from Besisahar all the way to Jomsom. They're pretty little things made from rock and wood and provide a welcome relief at the end of a long days trekking.
Rooms at each teahouse are generally twin share, with enough space to spread out. As the altitude increases the accommodation becomes more basic, however, the higher you go the happier you'll be with any form of bedding! Each teahouse has a common area which is usually stoked with a fire in the evening. This is where you'll spend most of your time, eating dinner and meeting fellow travellers.
Most teahouses make their money from food, so expect to pay slightly more than you would in Kathmandu. We do recommend buying food and drinks at teahouses. Firstly, it will lighten your load, and secondly it provides much-needed income to what are sometimes fairly poor communities. We have also heard of people bargaining for free accommodation in exchange for paying for food and drink. However, we'd encourage anyone travelling to these areas to be fair, pay for both your accommodation (not more than a few USD) and your food, and help to support communities that desperately rely on tourist dollars for their survival.
Most teahouses will have basic amenities, such as showers and toilets. Up until Manang, you'll be able to have hot, solar-powered showers, although be prepared to fight for first position, as they do run out quickly! You do have to pay for warm showers, but it's definitely worth it.
You are also able to charge your electronic devices, although this comes at a small cost. Alternatively, we always travel with our trusty solar charger to keep our devices charged throughout the day (trust us, the sun is out in full force, even when it's cold here!).
#10 - Bring only what you need
There are legends in Nepal; super strong guys who glide up and down mountains carrying all your stuff on their shoulders and neck. They’re called Porters, and they do this so you can concentrate on accomplishing your goal without extra baggage.
While their feats are super-human, they are in-fact quite human, with really human muscles and backs that are equally prone to injury. Help them out here by bringing only what you really need (10kgs or so), so ditch the hair straightener, the three pairs of jeans and the full make up bag as you won’t need it.
We've written a thoroughly in-depth Annapurna Circuit packing list to help you best prepare for this trek.
THE BARE ESSENTIALS
A pair of good quality waterproof hiking boots
spare pair of inside shoes
6 pairs of underwear and four pairs of socks (you can wash them as you go!).
One pair of shorts
Two jumpers (fleece or woollen)
One Gore Tex jacket
1 pair of thick gloves
Personal hygiene essentials
Medical essentials (like this first aid kit)
Your porters (and their spines) will thank you later.
Everything you need for the Annapurna Circuit - Our Annapurna Circuit packing list
#11 - HAVE A WELL-STOCKED MEDICAL KIT FOR THOSE UNEXPECTED MOMENTS
Picture this: you're enjoying a tasty dinner in a cute little teahouse with your group after a long day's trekking. The mood is jovial as you wolf down your plate of Dal Baht, and once you're done you play a few rounds of cards before retiring to your cosy room for the evening.
Then, at 2am, disaster - in the form of an urgent toilet trip - strikes. Ten minutes later, it strikes again. And again, and again, and again.. Until 7am rolls around and it's almost time to start hiking again, but you basically haven't moved from the toilet floor all night.
That's pretty much exactly what happened to Mim in the early days of our Annapurna trek - though we honestly can't work out how on earth she became so ill considering all but one other person escaped without illness, and many people ate Dal Baht that night too!
Had it not been for our trusty medical kit full of goodies (aka immodium, rehydration salts, and water purification tablets to treat water for said rehydration drinks), the chances of her actually being able to leave her bed, let alone walk, would have been pretty slim.
Be prepare with a well-stocked medical kit for the unexpected moments, little emergencies, or bloody great big blisters, and you'll never miss a step!
Antibacterial cream for scratches or cuts
Anti-histamine tablets - because the last thing you want is an allergic reaction or severe hayfever on the trail!
Motion sickness / anti-nausea tablets
Anti-inflammatory gel - if you're like Mark and have a super bad back or other injury, pack some decent anti-inflammatory cream to combat any potential flare ups
A spare roll of loo paper - toilet paper can sometimes be a mythical unicorn on the Annapurna circuit, so you'll be grateful you packed this!
pack for the planet: our eco-friendly packing guide
#12 - Prepare for 4 seasons in one trek
Trekking through the balmy temperatures in those early first days you’ll probably be asking yourself what the heck you brought all these warm clothes for. You’ll realise why when you get to 3,000m.
The Annapurna trek covers everything from tropical to alpine climatic zones. Some days you’ll be hiking in shorts and t-shirt consuming your fourth litre of water on yet another water break. Other days you’ll be wearing all of your clothes as the brutally cold -15c wind freezes your water solid in its flask.
The range of climatic zones you pass through is awesome, and sure makes for some epic views. Just be prepared everyday and ask your guide what temperatures to expect and which essentials to throw in your daypack and you’ll be ready to face it all.
#13 - THE Food is damn good
As your mind wanders while trudging through the snow on your way to Thorong La pass, you’ll probably be dreaming of your favourite meal; a chicken parma, killer veggie curry, or Fro-Yo with all the toppings you like.
You don’t need to fear for your taste buds; the food in the Annapurna region isreally freaking good, and pretty varied. Expect a lot of carbs - our group was even treated to a Yak Burger over 3,000m altitude in Manang! - and seasonal veggies, soups, momos and the most famous mountain meal of all, Dal Bhat.
Dal Bhat is a traditional Nepalese meal consisting of rice, a lentil-based soup and other condiments, and it’s generally all you can eat so you’ll never go hungry. As they say on the mountain: ‘Dal Bhat Power!’
You'll be surprised by the amount of bakeries, stocking everything from strudel to doughnuts. We recommend stopping at each of these as they're amazing!
Learn more about the delicious food you can eat with this Nepal food guide.
CLIMB THAT MOUNTAIN: HOW TO CONQUER THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT TREK
#14 - It's pretty affordable, but be prepared
While the hike may break your leg muscles, it certainly shouldn't break your bank balance. As we've mentioned, we hiked the Annapurna Circuit on a group tour, which meant that everything except our daily meals and tipping was covered in the overall fee and had been paid before we arrived.
If you're hiking the circuit solo, expect to pay anywhere between USD $700-1000, which will cover your lodgings, food, and permits.
On the topic of food, budget for about $20 USD per person a day and you’ll be able to grab all the goodies including your meals, drinks and some snacks. We'd also recommend stocking up on a heap of hiking snacks (trail mix, chocolate bars, granola bars, etc) to keep in your daypack for long walking days. Plus we can assure you of one thing: there is nothing quite like a celebratory mars bar at the summit of your hike!
One thing you do need to note is that you won't encounter an ATM until you finish in Jomsom. So stock up on Nepalese Rupees before you start the hike. To keep that amount of money safe, stash it in your daypack, and always keep it on you.
#15 - tipping is not compulsory (but kind of expected)
Throughout Nepal generally, tipping isn't compulsory (particularly when it comes to restaurants and drivers), but it is kind of expected when it comes to guides and porters. Many of the locals involved in the hiking industry here actually rely upon the tips they receive from leading groups, or carrying your gear.
As a guide, for your leader you should normally set aside USD$3-4 per person, per day. For your porters, a recommended amount would be USD$4 per traveller per day, which is split amongst all the porters on your trek. Basically, factor in about USD$150 in cash to your budgeting, and make sure you have it separate to the rest of your cash (in case you forget and use it on all the noms!).
#16 - you absolutely, unequivocally, 100% need travel insurance
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll already know that we never, ever, leave for our travels without travel insurance (here's why!) - especially when undertaking a hike at altitude like the Annapurna Circuit. Whether it's a sprained ankle, severe altitude sickness, or a natural disaster (let's not forget the 2015 Nepal earthquake), the unexpected can, and does, happen and it's always better to be prepared. Our personal choice is World Nomads, with added coverage for high-altitude trekking.
#17 - you need to respect the local culture
For many people, long treks are all about mountains and self-accomplishment, and that's totally ok.
But the Annapurna Circuit is upheld as a significant cultural and sacred trail by the Nepalese, so it's important that you also a) behave accordingly, b) show respect for various sites along the way (dressing appropriately, not littering, etc), and c) chatting with the locals and trying to understanding their way of life and beliefs up here.
After all, one of the best parts of travel is the total immersion in another culture, right?
#18 - TAKE YOUR RUBBISH OUT WITH YOU
Due to their altitude and remoteness, many of the villages on the trail don't have adequate waste disposal methods. Instead, they either have to burn the rubbish off (not ideal), or carry it off the mountain themselves (also not ideal).
In peak season, thousands of hikers traverse the paths of the Annapurna Circuit. When you stop to think about the impact that many people are likely to have on the surrounding environment and the disposable products (in the form of plastic bottles, food wrappers, sunscreen bottles, etc) that they're undoubtedly bringing with them, you quickly realise that a lot of waste is either being burnt, or left, behind on the mountains.
Be a responsible traveller on the Annapurna Circuit: pack a tote bag or two and carry all your trash out of the national park with you.
#19 - YOU'LL HAVE A DECENT AMOUNT OF DOWNTIME IN THE EVENINGS
Once you've reached your teahouse for the evening and got settled in, you'll find yourself with plenty of time to chill out, socialise, eat (Mim's fave!), and get yourself prepared for the next day. Evenings were some of our favourite times on the trek, as without all our devices and a wifi connection at hand, we had plenty of time to play cards (hint: always travel with a pack of playing cards!) with our group, or lose ourselves in a good book.
Speaking of books, we're also huge fans of reading books based in/around the places we're currently travelling through, as it really brings the landscapes around us to life. Here are some of our all-time faves:
LONELY PLANET GUIDE BOOKS
We never travel without our trusty, dogeared second-hand copies of a Lonely Planet guide. They're full of interesting facts and historical content and make for great bus reading. While some information can change rapidly in this online world, ours really haven't let us down yet. Pick up your Nepal Lonely Planet travel guide now.
MORE BOOKS ABOUT NEPAL
We read Michael Palin's Himalaya while high up in the mountains of the Annapurna Circuit, and it really gave the book (and the place!) a whole new meaning. Whether you're into tales of traversing mountains, captivating love stories, or insights into Nepal's rich cultural heritage or politics, these books about Nepal absolutely have you covered!
#20 - you always need a celebratory summit chocolate
Every day, our group dedicated at least 5-10 minutes each day to pondering how good the summit chocolate would be at the top.
Not sure what this mysterious, albeit delicious-sounding, treat could be?!
This is the ultimate celebration at the highest peak of your trail (in this case, Thorong La Pass); your favourite chocolate bar, carefully stashed in your bag for the whole trip, and gloriously savoured at the summit.
It may seem like a small thing, but we kid you not: when mixed with the sheer elation and satisfaction of having completed the hardest part of your trek, that chocolate will taste like sheer heaven.
Have you completed the Annapurna trek yourself? Share your stories and tips with other readers in the comments below!