Terry | Feb 10, 2017 | 0
Hiking the Annapurna Circuit – What You Need to Know
Hiking the Annapurna Circuit remains one of the most popular treks in Nepal. This is despite the controversial construction of a jeepable road around almost the entire route!
A little bit of research soon shows you why. Sweeping mountain vistas, fragrant pine forests and the challenge of crossing the Thorong La Pass all make hiking the Annapurna Circuit an enticing prospect. We hadn’t been in Nepal long before we decided to give it a go.
A newly bought map and our backpacks in tow, we bundled into a bus bound for Besi Shahar in early November.
It didn’t take us long to realise that buses in Nepal are not the most comfortable of rides! By the time we reached our destination, we’d spent five hours crammed into the nooks and crannies surrounding the driver’s seat. Sore and exhausted, we quickly decided that a jeep ride further up the trail would be beyond us.
Walking – even walking along a dusty road in the midday heat – would be infinitely preferable to more bone crunching pot holes and cramp beset limbs.
Packs strapped on and boot laces tightened, we set off.
As well as the more obvious need to knows, like what to bring and how to avoid acute mountain sickness, here are some of the things about hiking the Annapurna Circuit which surprised us, tested us, and occasionally made us stop still out of sheer wonder.
Avoiding the Road
If you’ve done any research into hiking the Annapurna Circuit, you’ll probably have heard about ‘the road’. This now runs most of the way around the route and poses somewhat of a conundrum for hikers. While it provides easy access deeper into the region, it means that those actually hiking are occasionally blasted by dust and fumes from passing vehicles.
Not necessarily what you’re after from a peaceful mountain trail!
If you’re going to hike the circuit, you have two main decisions to make:
Should you jeep or bus part of the road?
In reality, most people jeep or bus at least some of the trail, though more to save on time than to avoid vehicles.
This is because in the years since the road was first constructed, a large number of alternative trails have been created. There are actually relatively few stretches of the trail where you have to walk on the road. There are even fewer sections where the road hugely impacts the quality of the hike.
Investing in a guide book like this one will help you to find and stick to these alternative trails, although you can also just follow the red and white markers. Do a little research before following blue and white ones though, as these lead to side treks.
Of course, just because you can hike the whole trail, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll want to.
Hiking the Annapurna circuit takes around three weeks. Not everyone has the time or inclination for such a long trail!
You may choose to catch a jeep or a bus at the beginning of your hike to quickly reach highlights like the Ice Lake trek and the Thorong La Pass. You may equally plan on doing this at the tail end of your trek, especially if you’re tired after the high altitudes.
We decided to walk in from Nadi Bazar, a section many people choose to skip, and really enjoyed it. But once we were over the Thorong La Pass and past the beautiful Tibetan villages of Jhong and Kagbeni, we caught a shared jeep to Jomson. The altitude had taken a lot out of me and I just wasn’t enjoying the experience anymore.
If you do catch a jeep or bus, which sections are you going to skip?
This will be influenced by a number of factors, including your timeframe, your fitness level and your must see items.
If you don’t want to cross the Thorong La Pass but still want to have a go at hiking the Annapurna Circuit, you may choose to bus out of Manang. This will avoid the highest altitudes of the circuit. We met a woman in her seventies who did this and were so inspired by her ‘can do’ attitude! She didn’t care how long it took her to reach the next town; she’d get there in her own sweet time.
If you want to cross the Thorong La Pass but are short on time, you could drive into Chame or Manang and out of Jomson. Make sure to leave plenty of time to acclimatise though; climbing to over 5,000m isn’t something you can do in a rush.
Maybe, like us, you want to take a break after crossing Thorong La. If so you’ll want to catch a jeep out of Kagbeni to Jomson and either fly or bus from there. Bear in mind that the bus journey to Pokhara takes all day and that they only leave if enough people want to travel. Jeeps are slightly more comfortable than the bus, but much more expensive.
Tip: You may want to consider booking a plane straight to Pokhara for around $100, relatively cheap and much more comfortable!
Lastly, you may wish to jeep or bus from Jomson to Tatopani if you want to complete the Poon Hill trek before finishing your hike. This will give you a break from the trail without missing out one of the main highlights.
You shouldn’t let the road put you off hiking the Annapurna circuit. Instead, use it to make your hike work for you.
What to Bring
Rather than providing an exhaustive packing list, here are a few essentials that will make your trek safer and more enjoyable.
You should always carry a basic first aid kit when hitting the trail, but for hiking the Annapurna Circuit this should be updated slightly. It’s a good idea to carry acute mountain sickness tablets, antidiarrhoeals, rehydration salts and moleskin. You should also carry your own loo paper and plenty of antibacterial hand gel.
While not obvious ‘health’ items, a good pair of walking boots and some hiking poles will protect you from minor sprains and injuries. Don’t set out without them!
Make sure to double check your travel insurance before hiking the Annapurna Circuit. Ours didn’t cover us over 2,000m, so we bought extra cover from Global Nomads for those two weeks. We also paid extra for natural disaster evacuation and helicopter evacuation.
Some people might think that level of cover excessive, but it was good to know that we’d be rescued in the event of an earthquake.
Discarded plastic bottles are a huge problem on the circuit and blight much of the landscape. The local villages simply don’t have the resources to remove or dispose of them. Don’t add to the problem by taking a water purification device, such as a SteriPEN or iodine tablets. If you’re worried about the taste, take some Vitamin C tablets along too.
We love our Nalgene and SteriPEN combination because it’s instant and the Nalgene doubles up as a hot water bottle for cold nights.
Keeping warm when camping is a balancing act between taking enough kit and not overloading your pack. We always carry several lightweight layers rather than bulky jumpers or jackets. They are more versatile and can be stripped off easily as the day gets warmer.
While hiking the Annapurna Circuit I wore a base layer, a lightweight fleece and a down jacket. The down jacket was really warm but could be stuffed into a tiny carry sack; I got mine from Uniqlo and love it! I also wore thermal leggings under my hiking trousers for the cold morning going over the Thorong La Pass.
We make sure to keep clean and dry clothes for sleeping in – it makes you feel so much nicer! Sleeping in damp hiking clothes can also make you sick, so try and keep them separate. Some thick socks and a sleeping bag liner made my 25F sleeping bag more than warm enough.
Don’t forget to carry a waterproof; getting wet is a surefire way to get cold and miserable.
What Not to Bring
One of the best things about hiking the Annapurna Circuit is that you can do it without a tent. There are plenty of teahouses providing accommodation and food along the way, so all you really need is your sleeping bag. You can arguably do it without even that, although I’m not sure it’s recommended!
There are regular water sources along the route. As long as you carry a purification device you shouldn’t need to carry more than a couple of litres at a time.
Other than what we’ve covered above, the one thing you will need to carry plenty of is cash. You won’t be able to access an ATM along most of the route. We carried roughly $20 each a day which covered food, accommodation and occasional transport.
If you plan on catching several jeeps, especially over long distances, you’ll need to budget extra.
Hiking the Annapurna Circuit with a Guide or Porter
Choosing whether to hike the Annapurna Circuit with a guide or porter largely comes down to your hiking style and experience.
- Do you like to hike with an experienced professional or are you comfortable striking out without local support?
- Are you travelling alone or with a friend who you know and trust?
- Have you hiked at altitude before and are you familiar with preventing AMS?
- Are you strong enough to carry your own things or would you prefer some help?
- Do you see hiking the Annapurna Circuit with a guide as a way to give back to the community? Or will you do this by paying for food and accommodation along the trail?
These are just some of the questions you’ll need to consider.
With over a year of hiking experience, including at altitude and in back country, we chose to hike without a guide.
Hiking is a way for us to spend quiet time in the great outdoors with just each other for company. We didn’t feel like we’d have that experience if we hiked with a guide.
Plus, we know what our essential hiking items are and have appropriate insurance.
Should you choose to hire a guide and/or a porter, please do some research beforehand. If you go with a company, make sure it’s reputable. If you hire independently, don’t overload your porter and pay both your porter and your guide appropriate wages.
Organising Your Permits
Managing Acute Mountain Sickness
I say managing, because Acute Mountain Sickness is something that everyone hiking at altitude should take active precautions to avoid.
The easiest way to avoid AMS is to ascend slowly; the general rule of thumb is to sleep no more than 300m higher each night once you get above 3,500m. It’s also a great idea to take a couple of acclimatisation hikes, hiking high and sleeping low, to give your body time to adjust. Most people hiking the Annapurna Circuit will do this around Manang, where there are a couple of side hikes which will take you above 4,000m.
We chose to spend an extra day hiking up to the Ice Lake, which was about 4,300m high. We then came back down into the valley to sleep almost 1,000m lower than that. Although the initial struggle up to the lake was tough, our bodies recovered overnight and we were much better prepared to continue towards the pass.
Most people will experience some mild symptoms of AMS during this kind of hike. I felt a little queasy for a couple of days and lost some of my appetite. What’s important is to pay attention to your body and not to ignore what it’s telling you. If you suddenly experience worsening or severe symptoms, you need to descend.
No hike is worth your health and AMS can be deadly. Make sure to do proper research into the signs and symptoms of AMS and how to prevent it before beginning your hike.
Small is Beautiful
The one thing that really surprised us about hiking the Annapurna Circuit was the lack of snow. In November and December the Thorong La Pass can be closed by wintry weather. So we were surprised to find it almost desert like as we traipsed over the edge and into the arid, dusty landscape below.
Obviously I know that mountains don’t need snow on them to be mountains. And the hike offered truly spectacular views of the Annapurna Range. But it was hard to feel really immersed in the landscape without so much of a scrap of sleet on our boots.
Instead, the beauty of this hike was in the small moments of beauty which cropped up when we weren’t even looking for them.
A preying mantis, motionless in the middle of the road. The flickering hearth in the heart of a wooden tea house. Rows of yellow golden corn, drying in the eaves and on rooftops.
One of my favourite moments came when stumbling back from the outhouse after dark. It was a full moon, and as I looked upwards it shone back at me from the mountain tops with a startlingly cold beauty. I watched it, shivering, for a full minute before retreating to my sleeping bag and peering through the window instead.
Little things. They don’t tend to be a huge draw for big destination hiking, but nevertheless, they make up the heart of any trip. They certainly made Annapurna for me.
Have you hiked the Annapurna Circuit? Tell us about your experience in the comments!