HOW TO PREPARE FOR TREKKING THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT
So, have you made the decision to challenge yourself and take on this adventure of a lifetime? The next step is planning your annapurna circuit trek. I was nervous before taking the plunge, but found it was mostly the unknown that was holding me back. Allow me to answer some of the questions I had and ease the burden so you can PLAN YOUR ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT TREK get to the fun part. click on a question below to be taken to the information you need...
1. How long does it take to trek the Annapurna Circuit?
2. What Time of Year Should I travel to Nepal?
3. How do I get to the Annapurna Circuit?
4. Do I need a visa in Nepal?
5. Do I need any other paperwork before trekking the Annapurna circuit?
6. Do I need vaccinations for travel to Nepal?
7. Should I hire a porter or guide to trek the Annapurna Circuit? Can I Trek the Annapurna Circuit solo?
8. Should I train before I Trek the Annapurna Circuit?
9. What are the food and accommodation like? Do I need to book in advance on the Annapurna Circuit?
10. What are the risks and dangers on the Annapurna Circuit?
11. What should I include in my Travel Insurance for the Annapurna Circuit?
1. HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO TREK THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT?
How long it takes to trek the Annapurna Circuit really depends on your pace, and how much of the trail you would like to trek. In the last decade or so, the AC trail has been made more accessible to jeeps, meaning some trekkers choose to book a ride and start further in, or even fly out early. (There is a small airport in Jomson). I gave myself 15 days, but in hindsight, I really wish I would have had at least three to four extra.
If you plan on walking the entire 200 km, give yourself around 20 days. Should you finish earlier, you can reward yourself with some downtime in Pokhara at the end.
A day's rest can go a long way, and there are a few worthwhile side-trips you can make from some of the villages throughout the Annapurna region. You may also find that you need more time to acclimatise to high altitudes, which means spending an extra night somewhere, rather than pushing on. Altitude sickness on the Annapurna Circuit can quickly become a life or death situation, and shouldn't be taken lightly.
2. WHAT TIME OF YEAR SHOULD I TREK THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT?
There are two ideal times of year to trek the Annapurna Circuit. The first spanning from early October through mid-November; the second running from early March through April. The summer months starting in May bring about the monsoon season with a risk of flooding and landslides, whereas the winter months from late November are cold with chances of heavy snowfall blocking the Thorong-La pass.
I started my trek at the very end of September. It seemed to be perfect timing, as I beat the main rush for high season and had clear weather with great visibility most of the days. This trek has some of the most beautiful views I have ever encountered - it would be a real shame to miss them due to bad weather. I should also note my guide pointed out that climate change has had a heavy impact on Nepal, with a longer lasting monsoon season. It brings about heavy rains, humidity, and often high temperatures.
If you can, I would suggest aiming to begin at the end of September, leaving yourself a few days buffer in case the weather isn't cooperating on the day you would like to start the trek. My reasoning for this is that the later into the season you start, the more trekkers you will encounter along the way. I noticed that I saw many of the same people (some of which became friends) most evenings throughout the trek. If you happen to leave on the same day as a few big groups, it could mean more effort finding accommodation at the end of each day.
3. HOW DO I GET TO THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT?
Nepal's only international airport is in Tribhuvan International (KTM) in Kathmandu, so this will be the arrival point for booking international flights into Nepal. Allow yourself a day or two to explore the temples and sights of this beautiful city. I would recommend looking for accommodation in the Thamel district which has a variety of hotels, hostels, restaurants, bars and shops for your last minute trekking needs.
To get to the Annapurna Circuit, you will need to take a bus to Besisahar, where the trek starts. If you need advice on this, talk to the reception at your hostel/hotel. They will either have brochures for bus options, be able to sort you out with a ticket, or be able to point you in the right direction. The other option is to take a small flight to Pokhara and then bus into Besisahar from there, but you really won't be saving yourself any time getting to where the Annapurna circuit starts this way.
Don't be fooled by the relatively short distances. The roads are narrow and often congested. The roughly 200km trip from Kathmandu to Pokhara took me roughly 8 hours on a tourist bus. The good news: it makes 3-4 stops along the way, where you can pick up some pretty decent Dhal Bhat (the local staple dish) or packaged snacks, chocolates and drinks and use the bathrooms. Give yourself an early start, and plan for delays.
I would advise against the unlicensed micro-busses for this stretch. While they are quicker, I can't say that I felt safe zipping along tall cliffs at high speeds in a little bus stuffed to the brim with people when I took one later on the trip. If you are on a really tight budget, try the local buses. They are slow, hot, and usually not direct but quite a bit cheaper.
Bus from Kathmandu to Besisahar
You will have some options when it comes to picking a bus from Kathmandu to Besisahar. I suggest taking the tourist buses which are air-conditioned and relatively comfortable, but are also more expensive than the local buses. They generally leave between 6:00 and 7:00AM from Kantipath and will take between 6-8 hours. Unfortunately, these don't go straight to Besisahar, but can drop you off in Dumre. From there, you can catch a local bus into Besisahar, or even Bhulbhule.
The best bet is to organise a taxi through your hotel to take you to the bus station in the morning. I did this through my hotel reception, and am sure it may have cost me a bit more than hailing one myself, but I was looking to simplify. Budget about 12-18 USD for the bus and taxi. I managed to get a bus ticket to Pokhara for 7 USD and a taxi for around 5 USD. Allow yourself extra time, because the bus situation can be a bit disorganised and you don't want to feel rushed. Most of these busses will also take you all the way to Pokhara, if you are planning on going there first.
Bus from Pokhara to Besisahar
I opted to spend a few nights in Pokhara before beginning the Annapurna Circuit. It's a beautiful town that has a less hectic vibe than Kathmandu and offers some time and atmosphere to decompress and tackle your jet lag before the trek. I would also suggest budgeting some time there to relax after your trek. Pokhara has a major bus "terminal", from which you can catch a tourist bus to Dumre. From there, you will need to take a local bus to Besisahar. The whole ordeal will cost your roughly 10-15 USD.
4. DO I NEED A VISA IN NEPAL?
Yes, you will need a visa to enter Nepal (unless you are Indian or Nepali).
Your options are 15, 30 or 90-day visas costing you US$ 25,40 or 100 respectively.
I picked one up on my arrival at the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. They have registration machines that take a photo of you and are easy enough to use. You could also speed things up by applying online: http://online.nepalimmigration.gov.np/tourist-visa
You can pay this in most currencies, but I suggest having US$ ready for this, as it will definitely be accepted. (In general, I suggest always carrying USD as a backup in Nepal)
It is possible to have your visa extended, but I strongly suggest buying a longer visa if you suspect you may stay longer than planned. It will save you the trouble and time of having to go through Nepali bureaucracy at the immigration offices in Kathmandu or Pokhara (trust me, the extra few dollars are worth spending to save you the hassle...)
5. DO I NEED ANY OTHER PAPERWORK BEFORE TREKKING THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT?
There are two documents you will need to acquire before you begin your trek: An ACAP Permit and the TIMS card. Make sure you bring a few passport photos with you as well as your passport, and a few photocopies of your passport. I recommend making sure you have these with you before you leave for Nepal, as it will speed things up. Also, make sure to bring a copy of your insurance documents. I picked both of my permits up at the Tourism Board offices in Pokhara, but it is also possible to obtain them from the office in Kathmandu. If you decide to go with a guide, they may be able to help you sort this out beforehand.
ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) Permit
The ACAP permit will cost you 2000 Nepali Rupees (roughly US$20) and acts as an entry pass the Annapurna region. Make sure you keep it within reach at all times, as there are checkpoints that require you to show it along the way. Ziplock bags all the way...
TIMS (Trekker's Information Management System) card.
This will cost you 2000 Nepali Rupees (roughly US$20) if you are trekking on your own, or 1000 NPR if you are travelling with a registered guide. When doing the paperwork for this one, you will need to know a rough entry/exit date for the trek. It acts as a checkpoint system to track hikers general whereabouts in case of emergencies. You will have to present it to various officials at checkpoints along the way.
6. DO I NEED VACCINATIONS FOR TRAVEL TO NEPAL?
I'm always one to play it safe, so I went to my doctor to check up on vaccinations before trekking the Annapurna circuit. She made sure I was up to date on the important jabs, which I suggest to any traveller in general:
- Hepatitis A&B
- Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR)
- Tetanus & Diphtheria
She advised against Malaria medication for the Annapurna circuit, as it is considered a low risk. There are parts in the south of the country where it is recommended, so double check with your doctor if you are planning on additional trips in Nepal.
7. Should I hire a porter or guide to trek the Annapurna Circuit? Can I Trek the Annapurna Circuit solo?
The difference between Guides and Porters on the Annapurna Circuit
Hiring a porter/guide on the Annapurna Circuit is, in my opinion, not necessary but a personal choice that you should seriously consider before going. Porters will carry your kit for you, but often speak little or no English. A guide will answer questions, act as a translator, warn you of potential danger and assist you with finding accommodation and transportation, but not be responsible for carrying your kit. Some agencies also offer the services of a guide/porter whose abilities and responsibilities will fall somewhere between the two.
How to Hire a guide or Porter
There are different ways to find guides and porters, but I would suggest going through a licensed agency. There are many in Pokhara and Kathmandu and prices will vary from around US$ 15-20/day for a porter and US$ 25-30/day for a guide. I used a porter/guide who works at the accommodation I used in Pokhara and am happy to recommend their service. Make sure to ask how you will be paying for the service. If at all possible, I would advise against paying the full price in service in advance, should you later decide your guide/porter is not compatible. I was able to negotiate paying mine at the end of each day, which seemed to be a fair compromise. It did mean having to carry extra cash on the trek though. Do not rely on being able to draw cash anywhere along the way, so budget your trip and carry the cash on you.
Below are a few factors you may want to consider in deciding whether or not to hire a guide or porter:
Do you have somebody else with you to rely on if you get sick or injured?
Trekking the Annapurna circuit certainly comes with some risks. If you are traveling with a group of people, a partner or a friend, you should be fine on this front. It is absolutely possible to trek the Annapurna circuit solo. Chances are you will make new friends along the way anyhow, but there are many remote stretches on cliff sides and hazards that could catch you out or lead to injury. For me, this was one of the main factors that made me opt to hire a guide. Trekking the Annapurna circuit was my first solo experience of this nature, and I personally felt safer knowing I had somebody who knew my whereabouts should anything go wrong.
Will you be able to carry all your gear for long periods of time while trekking / do you want to carry extra gear?
Have a look at my packing list for the Annapurna Circuit and decide whether or not you are able to carry your equipment on your own. The Annapurna circuit can be demanding at points, especially at higher altitudes. Having a porter can be extremely useful, as they will carry your kit for you, and are relatively inexpensive. Another benefit to taking along a porter is that you are contributing to the local economy in doing so. I pack relatively light, so this was not a concern for me. However, as a photographer, I opted for a guide/porter, which meant I was able to carry my tripod, extra camera batteries and different lenses. It was a last minute decision for me, and it paid off being able to shoot with that extra kit on my back, while my guide carried my sleeping bag and extra clothes. If you do go with this option, make sure to carry a daypack with a few essentials like layers, snacks/water, a headlamp and medkit, as porters will often travel separately to you. You may feel uncomfortable with the idea of paying somebody to carry your crap (I certainly did), but portering is a good source of income, and often a step for job seekers towards becoming guides.
Do you prefer to have somebody that can help plan your trek and provide additional information?
Having a guide on the Annapurna circuit can be useful in that they are able to answer some of your questions about local traditions, history, geography and help you communicate with locals along the way. I'm a naturally curious person and loved having somebody around to tell me about what I was seeing. Do consider that if you are hiring a guide, you will be spending the next two weeks together, and seeing a lot of them. Due to their obligations, you may have to stick to a pre-planned schedule. My guide happened to be relatively flexible and was able to change plans as needed, but this may not always be the case. We also had days where I wanted to be on my own. I think he enjoyed that just as much as I did, and we would plan to meet in a certain village for lunch or dinner and lodging. This gave me the security of having somebody that knows my approximate whereabouts but still allowed me to be able to do things in my own time and space.
Another benefit of having a guide was that I had to worry less about getting lost along the way, and could focus more on the beauty of my surroundings and enjoying the trek. In hindsight, I don't think you would need to worry about getting lost. The trail is pretty straightforward, and if you have a rough itinerary for your trek, you can always ask a local to point you in the direction of your desired village. My guide knew a couple of worthwhile and scenic side paths, that took us away from the more well-travelled jeep-paths that have been emerging along the circuit. While this wasn't a necessity, I was glad I had the option presented to me.
Are there any drawbacks to hiring a guide/porter on the Annapurna Circuit?
Besides the obvious question of cost, there may a few drawbacks to consider before hiring a porter or guide. In my understanding porters/guides are often provided with a free meal (usually Dhal Bhat, a local rice and lentil dish) at the guesthouses you use. They will likely have preferred lodges that they will want to stay at and may urge you to go with their suggestions. I presume this has to do with knowing the owners, having friends that are staying there or knowing they can get a better meal and bed. Their preferred lodging may be in conflict with yours. If you are comfortable letting them make a decision like that, this should be fine. In most cases, my guide suggested places I was happy to stay at. On a few occasions, I decided against them because I wanted to have dinner with friends I made along the way in a different place. It meant having to disagree with and go make the executive decision of going against my guide's suggestions. It is not the end of the world, but keep in mind you want to maintain a positive relationship with your guide because you have a lot of time to spend together. In my case, everything went smoothly, but I could imagine that in the case of repeated conflicts of interest, your enjoyment of the trek could be impacted. I suppose one of the benefits of being without a porter/guide is having the freedom to make spontaneous choices without having to negotiate.
8. SHOULD I TRAIN BEFORE I TREK THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT?
The Annapurna circuit is roughly 220km (137 miles) long, with many days of steep climbs and descents. Add a decent size pack to your burden, and you are looking at a solid physical challenge.
Try and plan for a few medium to long distance (15-25km) hikes before you leave. Get a feel for what you can handle in a day and make sure you always listen to your body. On the trail, you will want to pace yourself. Take breaks where needed, drink lots of water, and don't underestimate how many calories you are burning. Bringing a few snacks to last you the journey will provide some much-needed energy and morale. If you've bought new hiking boots, break them in before you leave! Wear them for a few hours at a time for the first few days, then take them out on some day trips. You do not want blisters torturing your feet along the way.
For me, living with relatively low laying geography in London, the best training I could do was hiking some of the national parks surrounding London and the southeastern UK. Nothing too intense.
9. WHAT ARE THE FOOD AND ACCOMMODATION LIKE? DO I NEED TO BOOK ACCOMODATION ON THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT?
You will find traditional teahouses all along the Annapurna circuit; a single room will cost you between 300-500 (3-5 USD) rupees per night. Beds are pretty basic frames with a thin mattress, pillow and blankets if you ask nicely. I would highly recommend bringing your own sleeping bag liner to act as your personal clean sheet at lower altitudes, and a sleeping bag for the colder nights up high.
While the physical accommodation is relatively cheap, most teahouses will expect you to buy breakfast and dinner from them if you spend the night. Some even require that you do. The food ranges from the traditional Dhal Bhat (rice, lentil soup and vegetables) to more western dishes (with a local spin) like tuna pasta, Tibetan-Bread-Pizzas, Swiss Röstis, and even pancakes. As you climb higher, the prices rise to account for the distance the food must travel up the mountain. This is why I personally recommend bringing some light snacks to eat along the way. It is possible to buy beer in most of the teahouses, but as you can imagine, it gets rather expensive. My advice is to save the drinking for when you finish the trek. Alcohol dehydrates, which can exacerbate any of the effects high altitude can have on you. Budget to spend an average of 3000 (30 USD) a day for accommodation and three meals. You will come out a bit cheaper at lower altitudes, and a bit more expensive as you reach higher locations. I came out with a little bit to spare on that budget. Keep in mind, you cannot rely on cashpoints along the way, so it is safer to bring a little extra.
Chances are during busier periods, you will have to share a double room with another guest if you are travelling solo (although I only had to do this once at High Camp during my two-week trip). Thankfully my guide was very good about negotiating a private room for me along the way. At lower altitudes, most places will have showers (often even warm if you are lucky) and shared toilets. Some will advertise having 'luxurious' western toilets, but in most cases, you are looking at Asian squat style facilities. That reminds me - toilet paper is not always included, and gets more expensive as you climb. I bought a few rolls in Kathmandu, and stuck each one in a small ziplock bag and chucked them in my backpack. Not necessary, but it saves you a few dollars. Do not rely on it, but some guest houses will have electrical sockets for you to charge your gadgets and even slow wifi (you may be charged a small sum for both).
As with the food, bottled water is available in most tea-houses. However, you should be aware that there are no recycling facilities in the mountains, nor is there an adequate way for locals to dispose of trash. Whatever you don't take out of the park will probably be burned or end up buried. Please consider bringing in a form of water purification and stick to the tap water. Not only are you helping protect the park, but getting in the habit of doing this on your travels will massively cut down on your plastic consumption. I managed on filtered water for the duration of the trip and avoided getting sick. There are many various options for water filtration in the field. Make sure you get something that also filters out viruses, as not all systems do.
10. WHAT ARE THE RISKS AND DANGERS ON THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT?
While the Annapurna Circuit is often considered an entry-level Trek, make no mistake that there are many potentially life-threatening hazards you could face.
Weather on the Annapurna Circuit
Mountain weather is notoriously hard to predict and can turn with little to no warning. Especially at higher altitudes, stay informed, keep an eye on weather reports and talk to guides. Make sure you are carrying appropriate warm gear with you, and are equipped for potential sudden and extreme weather shifts and heavy snowfall. Sudden changes in weather have lead to mass tragedy on the Annapurna circuit. Don't let this put you off, but remember never to take the weather lightly.
Please be aware, this guide does not serve as medical advice. I am only relaying what I learned along the way. If you begin to find yourself suffering from any severe symptoms, descend and seek medical advice immediately.
Altitude sickness should never be taken lightly. It can affect anybody, regardless of age or fitness levels. Pay attention to how you are feeling and be aware of the signs and symptoms.
Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS:
AMS usually causes mild to more severe forms of headache, nausea, loss of appetite and fatigue. While it may seem possible to "push on", it is important to take these warning signs seriously. The majority of people will experience a mild form of the above symptoms along the way but be aware of worsening and persistent symptoms as AMS can quickly develop into HACE or HAPE which can both be fatal if not immediately treated. If you are particularly concerned about AMS, speak to your doctor about Diamox (a drug that can help reduce the effects of altitude).
Pay attention to your body. If you begin to experience any of the above symptoms, make sure you are drinking plenty of water, avoiding alcohol and caffeine (they dehydrate you). If the symptoms continue or worsen, descend and take 1-3 days rest to acclimatise. As a rule of thumb, do not ascend more than 500m a day. I started to notice the altitude myself at around 3000m and made sure to take it slowly.
Dangerous Symptoms - HACE and HAPE
High altitude cerebral oedema (HACE) is a buildup of fluid in the brain and high altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE) is a buildup of excess fluids in the lungs. Both are advanced forms of altitude sickness and can lead to death within a matter of hours. If you or somebody in your group are experiencing any of the following symptoms, seek help and descend immediately until symptoms begin to stabilise: severe persistent headaches; loss of balance/coordination & irregular behaviour; difficulty thinking and completing basic tasks; coughing up blood or frothy mucous/spittle; feeling of suffocation; shortness of breath while resting; hearty chesty cough; blue lips and nails
Animals on the Annapurna Circuit
Generally speaking, the Annapurna circuit is pretty safe as far as animals go. Avoid petting the very cute dogs along the way. Rabies does exist. The yaks seem very harmless too but can get territorial at times. Be wary of them, especially when they are uphill and you are cliffside. I never saw any of them show aggressive behaviour, but play it safe and stay aware.
General Injuries On the Annapurna Circuit
As on any trail, injuries do happen. Being prepared could mean the difference between ending your adventure early, or being able to carry on.
I always carry a medkit. I keep basic meds in it for general bugs and illnesses, as well as anything needed for scrapes, cuts, burns and insect bites.
I was happy I decided last minute to carry an ankle brace. I know I am prone to rolling my ankles (old sports injuries) and was very glad I brought it. Be reasonable and keep your bag light, but think about what you wouldn't want to be caught without.
11. WHAT SHOULD I INCLUDE IN MY TRAVEL INSURANCE FOR THE ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT TREK?
Travel insurance is an absolute must for trekking the Annapurna circuit. I personally decided to go with World Nomads, who made it easy to book the right insurance for my specific needs on this trip. Keep in mind, an injury or illness could lead to a costly evacuation, including (but not limited to) transportation by: horse/donkey, Jeep or even helicopter. I met a guy that had to be dragged out on the first day by donkey with acute appendicitis. Shit happens... You do not want to be left paying those fees especially as you get further into the trek, so be careful in selecting your insurer and double check the fine print. Even if you have an existing travel insurance, check your policy and what kind of activities it covers. Many will have extra "action/activity" packs you can add to your standard policy. Insurance can be tricky. My philosophy has always been to pay a little more and avoid anybody whose policies get very specific. These, to me, are usually a flag that they will look for a way to get out of paying in an emergency. Know your policy and avoid any policies where what you are doing can be considered a grey area of coverage.
Some things to look out for when picking a travel insurance for trekking the Annapurna circuit:
Most standard insurance policies will have a clause about activities up to a certain altitude. Chances are, 5416m above sea level are not in most standard policies. Make sure you have one that covers you up to 6000m in this case. If you are planning on any other treks during your trip, double check the altitude, and make sure your policy covers whatever your max altitude will be. Even if you are only above 5000 for one day, you will probably have to have your entire trip covered for that altitude, as you can't usually specify on which day you need higher altitude cover.
Double check the period your insurer is covering, and consider somebody that will allow you to extend your coverage during a trip if needed. Some insurers will only cover up to a very limited time for unique trips. In this case, find somebody else.
This one is tricky. Yes, the Annapurna circuit is recognised, and this should be fine. However, it is what I call a "grey area". I can't answer for you specifically, but these kinds of clauses offer "an out" or at the very least could hold up a payout when you need it until further evidence of your exact whereabouts at the time of an incident are provided.
Organised Trekking/Group Trekking
If you have chosen to do this trip without a guide, make sure solo trekking is covered in your policy. Even if you have hired a guide, things can get tricky if the guide is not officially recognised as such by the insurer. This is another "grey area", as "recognised" can mean different things to different parties, and one I would try to avoid.
Make sure you are covered for helicopter rescues. These can cost between 3000-6000 US$. Often these will need to be verified upfront, either be calling your insurer or by paying it on your credit card, and getting it refunded later. Either way, you don't want to be caught out with an air-evac bill to put a bitter end to a sweet holiday.
Enjoy your Trek on the Annapurna Circuit
That's all for now folks. Please let me know in the comments if you have any more questions regarding the Annapurna Circuit. Some things are bound to change, so if you notice anything that no longer holds true in this post, please let me know and I will do my best to be quick about updating the information here. Stay safe, and use common sense. I'd love to hear about your adventure on the Annapurna Circuit!