It’s one of the world’s classic long-distance hiking trails, and still one of Nepal’s most popular treks.
The Annapurna Circuit, a 12 to 21-day route that begins in the lush green villages of the Himalayan foothills. Taking trekkers over the 5,416m Thorong La Pass and down to the Tibetan-influenced temples and communities of the Mustang Valley.
If you want to experience a little bit of everything Nepal has to offer, this is perhaps the best trek to set off on, but it’s certainly no easy feat. The circuit is very tough at times, and the high altitude and unpredictable weather of the Annapurna mountain range can make crossing the Thorong La Pass a dangerous task – particularly if you’re not prepared.
Thankfully, I’ve got your back! So, here are ten things you should really know in order to complete the amazing Annapurna Circuit safely and with a smile on your face.
1. Plan the time of year right
Like with many of the treks in Nepal, there are certain times of year when the weather conditions are ideal. For the Annapurna Circuit, October and November or April and May are widely considered to be the best times for trekking. The weather during these two seasons is generally clear and dry, and so it’s not too cold when heading into high altitudes. These two seasons are also the busiest times to be on the trail, with many other trekkers from across the world heading into the Himalayas.
You can also trek at other times of the year, but you will need to be a little more prepared for adverse weather conditions. The winter season, December to March, can also have clear skies and spectacular views. But it can be incredibly cold at higher altitudes, with thick snow on the ground that can often cause the Thorong La Pass to close at short notice. If you decide to trek during the winter season, make sure you have extra layers, a thick sleeping bag suited to temperatures of at least -20°C and crampons, which can be bought in Kathmandu and Pokhara.
2. Bring only what you need, leave the rest behind
When trekking on the Annapurna Circuit with Intrepid, Nepalese porters will carry 10kg of your gear. Anything extra will need to be carried on your own back, so packing as lightly as possible is essential. There are some things you need, such as a good quality sleeping bag, warm jackets, medicines, thermal layers and a head torch. But leave your jeans, laptop and makeup back in Kathmandu. You really don’t need them on the trail, and your back will thank you for it!
3. The altitude should not be underestimated
Altitude sickness can happen anytime above 2,500m. It doesn’t matter how fit you are, it can affect anyone and does so randomly. You can stay prepared by taking Diamox, an altitude medication, but aside from that just take it slow, drink lots of water and listen to your body. Before you set off on the trail, read up on the symptoms of altitude sickness so you’re aware of them if you start to feel the effects. Your guides will also be very knowledgeable about altitude and can be an essential source of help if you aren’t feeling well. The Annapurna Circuit reaches over 5,000m, that’s seriously high, and almost everyone will experience some mild symptoms like headaches or difficulty sleeping.
4. Be prepared for all weathers, whatever the time of year
While certain times of the year have much more suitable trekking weather (see point one), it is vital to be prepared for all possible conditions, no matter when you decide to go. High in the Himalayas, the weather is unpredictable, and snow, rain or storms can happen at any time. Climate change also means that weather patterns have become even more erratic over the last few years. Even if you’re trekking in October, be prepared for snow or storms on the trail. Pack enough warm clothing, make sure your boots are waterproof and don’t forget your sun cream or a sunhat.
5. Eat well and look after your body
One of the best things about the Annapurna Circuit is the food and hospitality you will receive in the teahouses. Each evening, after a long day of trekking, you will be delighted to sit down in front of a roaring fire and tuck into a plate of dal bhat (a traditional Nepali meal of rice, lentils, vegetable curry and pickle). The food is delicious and very filling, and your body will be grateful for it the next day when you feel revived and ready to head out on the trail again. Other common offerings in guesthouses include garlic soup, a local remedy for altitude sickness and much better than it sounds. As well as, fried potatoes, spaghetti with local vegetables and of course apple pie – which is the Annapurna Circuit’s desert of choice due to the apple orchards growing in many of the villages along the trail. For snacking, I recommend stocking up in Kathmandu, as the cost of items like chocolate bars can get very high on the circuit.
6. It’s good to have a way to purify water
Plastic is a big problem on trekking routes across Nepal, as most of these small villages have no waste disposal system. This is leaving mountainsides cluttered with discarded plastic bottles, which is really not how we want to be treating these areas of striking natural beauty! You can’t drink the tap water in Nepal, and you really do need to be drinking a lot on the trail as you are walking long distances at high altitudes.
I recommend getting a steel reusable water bottle in Kathmandu. Along the trail, there are many villages with purified drinking water stations. Here you can refill your bottle and it actually works out much cheaper than buying bottled water. You can also use water purification tablets or buy a steripen. During the evenings, we would often order pots of hot water or tea and drink that, you can also fill up your bottle with any remaining in the pot and it’ll still be good to drink the next day.
7. Learn some cultural respect
For many people, trekking in Nepal is about mountain views and hiking. But this is also a cultural trail, and it’s important to respect the people that call these villages their home. I recommend learning a little more about the cultures you are passing through. Speak to the families running the teahouses and go visit local gompas or temples. Opening your eyes to the cultures, religions and heritage of the trail will make it a much more enjoyable and meaningful experience, and it also means a lot to the local people when trekkers take an interest in their lives.
8. Don’t run out of cash
Once you leave Besisahar, there are no cash machines on the Annapurna Trail until you reach Jomsom after the Thorong La Pass. So, you need to be prepared and carry all the money you will need for the journey. While food and drinks in the teahouses can be cheap in the lowlands, they increase significantly as you increase in altitude and the road disappears. In Kathmandu, dal bhat is likely to cost you around 200 rupees, but this can grow to around 800 when you get above 3,500m. Western food such as burgers, pasta and burritos (yes, all food you can get on the trail), also tends to be very expensive as you get higher. I would recommend taking at least $20 per day for the trek, and if you’re a big eater or want to drink alcohol, $30-$40 per day is better.
9. Prepare yourself for the Thorong La Pass
Crossing the Thorong La Pass was probably the hardest day of my life! Waking up before sunrise and heading over narrow ridges in thick snow. Then climbing continuously for hours before finally reaching the prayer flags on the pass, breathless and completely relieved. Ok, maybe I’m not selling it so well. But it is essential to be prepared for this day, which will really push even the fittest hiker to the limits.
As long as you’re prepared, wearing enough warm clothes and have acclimatised enough to ensure your body comfortably makes the journey, then reaching the Thorong La Pass is going to be one of the most joyous moments of your trekking trip! Plus, once you’ve reached the top, you get to descend 1,600m to Muktinath, where the air is thick in oxygen and there are even hot showers to look forward to.
10. Be positive, take it slow and enjoy the journey!
Travelling is meant to push you and challenge you in so many ways and trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal will certainly do just that. While this is a difficult trek at times, it is also an incredibly enjoyable journey and one that can be completed by people of all ages and all fitness levels. The most important thing throughout the trek is to stay positive. Even when your body aches and you’re craving a hot shower, positivity will drive you on and it won’t be long before a breath-taking Himalayan panorama makes you remember why you’re here pushing yourself to the limit. It’s these incredible views, the wonderful hospitality of the local people and the company of your trekking buddies, which really make this a journey you will remember for the rest of your life!
Think you’re ready to take on the Annapurna Circuit? Take a look at our selection of trekking tours that’ll take you there. Already tackled it and looking for a new challenge? Check out our range of walking and trekking holidays from around the world.