A guide to hiking the Annapurna Circuit

Key Facts


Elevation: Starting 820m in the town of Besisahar you will climb to the highest point of 5416m at Thorung La Pass. You will cover total elevation gains and loss of over 11,000m each. Yup, that’s a lot!


Distance: The full track covers a distance of 260km


Popular side trek: Tilicho Lake (2-3 days) - Tilicho Lake is commonly and incorrectly referred to as the highest lake in the world sitting at 4919m.


Time: Trekkers usually complete the circuit anywhere between 14-18 days depending on speed and breaks and side treks.

Track: The track varies along the circuit from well-formed paths and roads to, much smaller, slipperier and dangerous paths. Due to the steep inclines and slippery gravel, you will find a lot of the pathways on steeper climbs zigzag up/down.


Difficulty: Moderate - difficult. I would put the overall difficulty of this trail as moderate, you will need a reasonable level of fitness but don’t need to be a super fit athlete to complete it. There are some tough days, the climb to Tilicho Lake and the climb over the pass are particularly difficult as you are dealing with high altitude and steep trails. On average you will trek between 5 - 7 hours per day so have plenty of downtimes to recover in the evenings. Some pre cardio training would be beneficial but not necessary if you are reasonably fit.


Permits


To hike the Annapurna Circuit the Nepali government requires that all hikers carry two permits at all times. Your permits will be required to enter the Annapurna Conversations Area and will be checked multiple times during the hike so take extra care of them.

You will be required to have the Annapurna Conservation Area Permit (ACAP) and the Trekkers Information Management System (TIMS) card. Together these will cost you approximately $45US. Passport-sized photos are included in the price and will be taken in the centre.


On the form, you will be asked to provide details of your travel insurance to secure the permits. This is not checked and although I advise having insurance you can fill it out with made-up details to get the permit if you don’t have insurance.


You can get your permits in the Nepal Tourism Office in Kathmandu or in the tourist information centre in Pokhara.


Self Guided


The Annapurna Circuit can be easily completed without the use of guides. The track is well marked and the villages easy to locate. Once you are on the track you will meet other hikers and locals who you can ask for tips from. There are several companies that offer tours if you don’t feel confident in hiking the route yourself.


Facilities/sleeping


Along the track, you will pass through many villages. Each village will provide places to sleep in the form of tea houses. Naturally the higher you are the more basic and expensive these tea houses are. Each tea house will have a restaurant or a kitchen for you to eat. Normally if you agree to buy both your breakfast and dinner in the tea house you can get a discount on the room price, sometimes even getting it for free if hiking outside of peak times.


Many of the tea houses will offer you hot showers, WIFI and electricity to charge your batteries. Depending on the tea house and the altitude these can be offered for free or you may have to pay for each one individually.


Most, unfortunately, the bedrooms in tea houses aren’t heated but you will be provided with lots of blankets and more than likely have a sleeping bag with you. You will, however, find a lit fire in the common area, normally the restaurant and normally and amusingly burning yak poop. Don’t worry it doesn’t smell!


How to make a reservation


Quite simply you don’t! Tea houses work on a first come first served basis which can be problematic during peak season. If travelling outside of peak season you will have no problems finding a bed but during peak season wake and start walking early to make sure you find a bed. Otherwise, you might find yourself selling on the floor in the common area of a tea house.


Food & Drink


You should know that most tea houses offer similar menus consisting of a mix of local and western food. The cheapest and most filling option is the Dal Bhat as refills are normally offered for free. You will find a range of fried potatoes, fried rice, chow mein, momos, different pasta and Indian dishes, heated frozen pizzas and burgers and chips. For breakfast, you can order pretty standard but basic western dishes like eggs and toast, muesli, oats, pancakes or fried potatoes. The quality of food can greatly vary from tea house to tea house.


Top tip - Order your food in advance. When you arrive you can order your food for a particular time and I highly recommend ordering your breakfast the night before so you’re not stuck waiting the next morning.


To drink most tea houses offer a range of teas, coffee, hot water, juices and many offer fizzy drinks and bottles of beer.


Some of the tea houses have small stores where you can but some western snacks like Pringles.


A tip to all whiskey lovers! Take a bottle of your favourite whiskey with you. After dinner order, a cup of hot water and add a splash of your whiskey, some sugar and if you’re lucky a slice of lemon and have your very own well earned hot toddy after a long day in the cold!


Water


Please consider your options before starting the trail to avoid having to buy plastic water bottles along the trail. Not only does this get expensive but you will be adding to the already massive pollution and waste problems in the mountains and of course the world.


My suggestion would be to either invest in a good water purifier bottle or a good reusable water bottle and water purification tablets which can be easily bought in a pharmacy in Kathmandu but would be better pre-purchased to make sure you get a good brand that doesn't taste like chlorine.


I used water purification tablets which I purchased in Kathmandu. They worked well, you have to wait 30 minutes before drinking the water, which is the norm but the bottom of the water tasted like I was drinking from a swimming pool which wasn’t overly pleasant. I’m not advising you to do the same but at higher altitudes, I stopped using the tablets and filled my water bottle up with running stream water and didn’t get sick. It was a nice change from the swimming pool water!


Waste Management


Much like the rest of Asia, there is a massive plastic and waste problem in the mountains. Seeing plastic waste along the trail is a heartbreaking reality of the increasing popularity of the Annapurna Circuit. Before you start hiking try to make an eco plan to leave behind nothing but footprints.


As mentioned above having a plan in place for your drinking water will greatly reduce your plastic usage. Choose beer bottles over cans. Try and avoid snack foods that come in packaging and if you do buy it bring the waste with you. Bring along biodegradable wipes.


Ultimately try and take any non-biodegradable waste with you and dispose of it in Kathmandu or Pokhara. Even if you put your waste in the bins in the tea house the likelihood is that it is going to create a problem as there isn’t a waste management system in place.


When to go


Autumn and Spring are the best months for hiking in Nepal and thus the Annapurna Circuit. Warmer temperatures, little rain and clear skies make both seasons more popular with visitors. A downside to visiting or hiking at this time of the year is the trails are busier and guesthouses and tea houses are more expensive. If you want to avoid the crowds try visiting just before or after each season starts or ends.


The winter brings much colder temperatures, heavier snow and the possibility of closed tea houses and blocked trails.


The summer brings the monsoon, some of the Annapurna Circuit is in the rain shadow but skies will be cloudy and views not as good. Also, landslides may block routes to the trailhead.


I hiked the circuit in very late May and June. In general, we were quite lucky with the weather. We experienced some cloudy skies over the first couple of days and got caught up in a blizzard on the way to Tilicho Lake but had blue skies crossing the pass and all the way to Ghode Pani. When we arrived in Ghode Pani we were hoping to go on to Annapurna Base Camp but the skies opened and we had to call it off.

Overall hiking at this time was quite enjoyable. We enjoyed warmer temperatures at altitude managing to get by without having to use a sleeping bag in the tea houses, although we had one with us. That’s not to say it wasn’t cold, it definitely was but we managed to get by with the blankets that were provided with the room. The trail was pretty empty, we only bumped into a couple of hikers during our first three days of trekking. By the fourth or fifth day, we bumped into more but in general, the paths were pretty empty. We also had our choice of tea houses as they all had space.


Trail Start/End


The starting point for the Annapurna Circuit is Besisahar and follows the circuit anti-clockwise ending in Nayapul.


Getting there

From Kathmandu

Take the microbus from the Gongabu Bus Park, expect the journey to take 6 - 8 hours.

From Pokhara

Take the microbus from the microbus stand on Nayabazar Rd, expect the journey to take 4 -6 hours.


From either you can take a local bus to Dumre and take a connecting bus from here to Besisahar. These buses will be slower and more crowded, but cheaper. Local buses depart regularly and may also be a good option if you miss the morning buses.


What to pack


First and foremost, remember everything that you take with you you are going to have to carry for 2 or more weeks on your back, so back wisely, become a minimalist!


The essentials

40 - 50L backpack

Hiking boots

Trainers or a pair of comfy shoes to wear in the evenings

Socks - trekking socks, and evening socks

Long Trekking pants

A couple of base layers

Warm Fleece

Puffer Jacket (can be rented in Kathmandu or Nepal)

Rain Jacket/Windbreaker

Comfortable evening/nightwear, comfy pants and a jumper

Hat/Gloves - you will be freezing these are very necessary!!

UV sunglasses - it will very sunny during the day at times

Head torch - vital if you need to use the loo in the night!!

First Aid Kit

Hand sanitiser/ disposable wipes

Water purification tablets & water bottle or purifier bottle

Sunscreen

Toothbrush and paste

Shampoo, conditioner and soap

Travel towel

Smartphone with MAPS.ME installed and Annapurna offline maps downloaded

A winter rated sleeping bag (can be rented in Kathmandu or Nepal)

The non-essentials

Pack some light evening entertainment

A book or a kindle

A notepad or journal

A deck of cards

Other small and light boardgames


Your camera equipment

There will be many great photo opportunities along the way and if you’re a keen photographer you’ll want to capture these moments on more than your smartphone.


A GoPro is light and easy to carry.


Bring along a DSLR or mirrorless and your favourite lens. Carrying more than one lens can get heavy, choose your most versatile lens.


What to do with the rest of your belongings


If like me you hadn’t planned on trekking in Nepal when your journey began or if you’re on a long backpacking trip, or even if you are planning on spending some time in Nepal after the likelihood is that you are going to have more luggage with you then you want to take with you on your hike. You can store your extra gear in most hostels and guesthouses for a cheap daily rate.


Cash


There’s no tap and go, no iPhone or google pay, not even an ATM in the mountains, well that’s not entirely true, there are one or two temperamental ones but I wouldn’t rely on them. You’ll be taking it back to the old school and paying for everything in hard cash.


This can get a bit tricky as you need to budget all the cash you need for the entire hike. I would recommend working out a daily budget, $20 - $25US a day would be realistic, although it can be done cheaper, especially outside of peak season. Multiply your daily budget by the number of days you plan on hiking and also bring an extra $100-$200 for an emergency or if you overspend. The chances are if you don’t spend your emergency money you’ll use it after in Pokhara or Kathmandu and although it costs you can always exchange it for other currency when leaving Nepal. Best to be safe than sorry.


Safety


Speaking of being safe, your safety should be considered when hiking the Annapurna circuit.


Different seasons bring different potential dangers. During the winter heavy snow can become a danger cutting off trails and making it difficult to follow the track.


During the summer as the snow melts landslides can become a danger as loose rock falls from above.


Avalanches are a risk at higher altitudes.


With the ease of access and the popularity of the Annapurna Circuit, trekkers may not pay enough attention to their safety or the real dangers of this hike. You will be hiking in high terrain and real dangers exist. Unfortunately, hikers have and do die on this trail. The weather at higher altitudes is unpredictable and changes fast.


To ensure your safety make sure you bring the right equipment with you.


Always check the weather reports before leaving the tea house. Talk with the locals and if they advise you not to trek that day or to wait a few hours take their advice and wait until it is safe.


Altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness (AMS) can be a real danger, AMS can affect hikers once they pass 2500-3000m height. It is advised that you only climb 500m per day and to also take acclimatisation days. Common symptoms include headache, nausea, shortness of breath, or vomiting. If you are feeling any symptoms of altitude sickness descend and take time to acclimatise before ascending again.

It is also advised to bring along Diamox. Diamox is a medication used to treat AMS. Always speak to your doctor before taking any medication.


A common tip for hikers to avoid AMS is to climb an extra couple of hundred meters in elevation in the evening after checking in to their teahouse. Spend 20-30 minutes at the raised elevation before descending back to your teahouse.


Altitude sickness doesn’t affect everyone and there’s no way of knowing until you are affected by it. Your fitness also doesn’t play any part in whether or not it is going to affect you. For this reason, it is always best to be prepared for the worst, bring along a packet of Diamox, take acclimatisation days and if you are feeling any of the symptoms to go back and allow your body to rest.


My last tip is for hikers to allow themselves an extra few days in case anything goes wrong. You may get snowed in, bad weather may set you back a couple of days or you may have to spend more time acclimatising than you had planned for. Rushing to get back to catch a flight may encourage you to make a bad decision which may potentially put your life at risk. Having an extra few days takes away some of the stress and pressure to finish by a certain time. Also, remember that from Jomsom there are many transport options. No need to rush, no need to put yourself in danger, listen to the advice of the locals and stay safe!


Navigation


Navigating you’re though the Annapurna Circuit is pretty straightforward and doesn’t require any special skills. You will pass through many villages where locals live and meet many other hikers on your journey. Everyone will be willing to help you out and give you tips as you need them.


As a second line of defence, a good idea is to download some offline maps. I used MAPS.ME and flagged every town that we had planned on staying in before going. While the paths were normally pretty easy to navigate and we didn’t require the use of the maps to find our way it was sometimes nice to know how far we had walked and how far we had to go. Just a side note that MAPS.ME doesn’t take into account the elevation or altitude and walking times will normally be longer than the estimate.


Itineraries


Okay, so there are many ways in which one can complete the Annapurna Circuit. There are several different transport options at either end. If you are stuck on time or just don’t fancy walking the entire circuit you can take a range of transport from jeeps, buses and flights.

From Besisahar you can get a jeep to Chame. This will save you 2 days walking as it takes the best part of a day to drive there.


From Muktinath, you can take a jeep to Jomsom. From Jomsom, you can either take a bus or flight to Pokhara. This will save you up to 4 days walking.


My advice is to do as much of the circuit as possible! All of the hikers that we met and hiked with had left the circuit by the time we got to Marpha. The trail from Marpha to Nayapul was particularly enjoyable, as you descend from barren rocky lands you pass through lush greenery, roaring rivers and more established villages. I would highly recommend finishing the circuit if you have the time.


The traditional and full circuit will see you start at Besisahar and finish at Nayapul.


As you’ll see on the google map you will pass through and stay at many different villages. You can chop and change a little and there are other villages which I haven’t added but in general, this is the route you will follow. I have added two side treks, one to Tilicho Lake and one to Poon Hill.


Here is a pretty full-on 17-day itinerary, only stopping once to rest and acclimatise. There are some long days on this itinerary which can be broken up if you have more time.


Day 1


Besisahar (760m) to Ghermu (1130m)


Distance 27.6km

Time 7hrs & 30 minutes


Day 2

Ghermu (1130m) to Tal (1665m)

Distance 15km

Time 4hrs & 30 minutes

Day 3

Tal (1665m) to Chame (2684m)

Distance 25.4km

Time 7hrs & 30 minutes

Day 4

Chame (2684m) to Upper Pisang (3250m)

Distance 13.8km

Time 3hrs & 40 minutes

Day 5


Upper Pisang (3250m) to Manang (3537m)

Distance 26.6km


Time 6hrs & 20 minutes


Day 6


Rest day & acclimatisation day, optional side trek to Ice Lake


Day 7


Manang (3537m) to Tilicho base camp (4200m)


Distance 14.5km


Time 6hrs


Day 8


Tilicho base camp (4200m) to Tilicho Lake (4919m) to Tilicho base camp (4200m)


Distance 7.6km

Time 5hrs

Day 9

Tilicho base camp (4200m) to Ledar (4200m)


Distance 15.7km


Time 7hrs and 30 minutes

Day 10


Ledar (4200m) to Thorung high camp (4925m)


Distance 6km


Time 3hrs and 30 minutes


Day 11

Rest day & acclimatisation day


Day 12


Thorung high camp (4925m) to Thorung La Pass (5416m) to Muktinath (3798m)


Distance 14km

Time 7hrs

Day 13


Muktinath (3798m) to Kagbeni (2804m) to (2711m)


Distance 29.9km


Time 8hrs


Day 14


Marpha (2711m) to Kalopani (2300m)


Distance 21.2km


Time 5hrs and 30 minutes


Day 15


Kalapani (2300m) to Tatopani (1190m)

Distance 27.8km


Time 7hrs and 30 minutes

Day 16


Tatopani (1190m) to Ghode Pani (2874m)


Distance 22.2km


Time 8hrs


Day 17


Ghode Pani (2874m) to Poon Hill (3210m) to Naypul (1100m)


Distance 21km


Time 8hrs