Everything you Need to Know About Hiking the Annapurna Circuit

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Everything you Need to Know About Hiking the Annapurna Circuit

June 30, 2020 No Comments »

We saw the first glimpse of them from the plane window. The famous, rigid, snowy Himalayan peaks were practically at eye level with our cruising altitude; I imagined reaching out and touching them.  They looked beautiful and scary at the same time. Cold, hard, and barren; as if they were saying “Leave us alone, you don’t belong here.” Yet at the same time, they were the fascinating peaks I had studied as a child, topped with snow that looked like an inviting dollop of Cool Whip.

It was a bit surreal; all of my Nepal planning was becoming a reality.

I arrived in Nepal for the 2nd time, ready to hike the Annapurna Circuit.  I learned about this challenging thru-hike on my first trip to Nepal as a volunteer.  Ever since then, the hike has occupied my brain – the part that loves epic trips and challenges.

But I wasn’t alone on this adventure, I brought my 73-year-old father with me who joined me on the trail for 21 days. This was his first time in Nepal and seeing the Himalayas, and I felt equally joyous for him as I saw him stare out the window at the peaks.

For a detailed day to day idea of the experience I had with my dad, be sure to check out my Tiger Balm Tales  – a narrative series about hiking the Annapurna Circuit with my dad.

What is the Annapurna Circuit?

The Annapurna Circuit is a thru-hike within the mountain ranges of central Nepal. Opened in 1977, the hike circles the world’s tenth-highest mountain! The hike crosses two different river valleys and encircles the Annapurna Massif. This means the views are incredible at all times.

The trail will take you through a variety of different landscapes, from humid, lush rice terraces, to the forests, and then into those beautiful high-altitude views. It really does have it all, but you have to work for it.

This is a serious thru-hike with altitudes not to be taken lightly. The path reaches its highest point at Thorung La Pass at 17,769 ft.

Annapurna circuit difficulty
Hiking to great heights!

As you hike, you’ll get exposed to the daily life of the Nepalese.  We came across many locals out harvesting carrying large bundles of hay for their animals. The basic rule was if you could walk, then you could carry hay. I saw so many kids carrying huge haystacks on their backs. We saw people cutting up lumber, thrashing millet, and plowing fields; everyone was working hard on the cold fall days.

If you want to immerse yourself in the majestic Himalayas and also be immersed in the small village culture and agriculture – this is the trek to do.

View my video from our trek. Keep in mind – this is 2009 video camera technology! Regardless of the quality – you’ll get an idea of what the trail is like!

Annapurna Circuit Map

How long does it take to hike the entire circuit?

The total length of the route varies between 100-145 mi, depending on where motor transportation is used and where the trek ends. The route is normally hiked counterclockwise because the daily altitude gain is slower and safer.

For most people, the Annapurna circuit will take about 16 to 18 days to complete; we knew we weren’t most people. None of us (including himself) were really sure how well dad would adapt to the hiking conditions, so we decided to not be in a hurry and practice the concept of slow travel. We’d take our time, enjoy the trek, and give ourselves 21 days to finish the circuit.

What about the Roads, do they ruin it?

Since I completed the circuit in 2009,  there have been roads built in some areas and sometimes that is off-putting to people. However, it is good overall for the villages for their health and prosperity. Quite frankly, I believe this area and culture is so incredible – a few roads are not going to hurt your overall experience.

And consider this – a mountain road in Nepal isn’t like a highway with fast food restaurants around it.  It’s still pretty rugged.  Since the roads have been built there have been new trails put in to keep the trekkers away from the road.

Watch the video I took in 2009 of the road to Machame being built

road building nepal

The best information I found on how much of the trail is on the road and how busy the road was in this blog post from a couple who did the entire route recently.

The Annapurna Trek is not just about the views – it’s just as much about being immersed in how locals live.

Planning your Annapurna Circuit – Go Local!

I had made a key contact with a trekking agency on my last trip to Nepal.  Giri was the brother of the family I lived with in Puma.  I stayed in contact with him for the last year so that he could help me arrange all of my Annapurna trekking, in addition to my journey back to Puma to see his sister and mother.

I had been working with Giri for the past couple of months over email putting together transportation and lodging for my father and me, as well as finding us an experienced guide and porter.  I needed to make sure that we had someone with experience, who knew about altitude sickness, was mature and responsible, and most importantly – a guide who was willing to take a 73-year-old over the Thorong La Pass.

local trekking company
Giri and I at Boudanath

Here was the 21-day plan we put together with Giri and Bishnu our guide.

Our Day-by-Day Annapurna Hiking Plan:

Day 1 – Kathmandu to Puma (the village where I volunteered last year)
Day 2 – Puma to Bhahundada
Day 3 – Bhahundada to Jagat
Day 4 – Jagat to Dharapani
Day 5 – Dharapani to Chame
Day 6 – Chame to Pisang
Day 7 – Pisang to Manang
Day 8 – Manang rest/acclimation day
Day 9 – Manang to Yak Kharka
Day 10 – Yak Kharka to Phedi or High Camp
Day 11 – High Camp to Muktinath (cross the pass at 5417 meters/17, 781 feet)
Day 12 – Muktinath to Kagbeni
Day 13 – Kagbeni to Marpha
Day 14 – Marpha to Ghasa
Day 15 – Ghasa to Tatopani
Day 16 – Tatopani day of rest at Hot Springs
Day 17 – Tatopani to Shikha
Day 18 – Shikha to Gorepani
Day 19 – Gorepani to Tikhedunga
Day 20 – Tikhedunga to Birethandi
Day 21 – Birethandi to Pokhara

Obviously, there are many more ways to slice and dice this hike – especially with the new roads.  A road has been built all the way from Jagat to Manang, so you can even start up as high as  Manang now at an altitude of 3,500 meters.

The road on the other side has also reached all the way up to Muktinath, so you could even stop there making this a short 9-day trek including a couple of days of acclimatization.

However, the traditional route starts at Besisahar or Bhulbhule and finishes in the Kali Gandaki Gorge

Have a Local Company Help You Plan Your Annapurna Circuit Hike

Giri helped me plan my trek and I have referred him to a number of friends since 2009. He will take great care of you and it feels great to utilize a local company! Contact him here:
Nepal Tourism Travels
Kathmandu Office Nurshing Chowk, Thamel 17 +977-1-426-1114

What is the Hiking Difficulty?

Due to the rough trails, long distances, and high altitudes, this trek is quite difficult and requires good training and endurance. The trails are rugged and often steep and narrow with uneven footing. The Annapurna trek is long, tiring, and physically and mentally tough, so make sure you build some rest days into your plan. However, I did do the trek with my father who was 73 at the time…so if he can do it, so can you!

Annapurna Circuit difficulty

Is it crowded?

It’s hard to find exact numbers for the trail, but I was able to find that each year about 115,000 people visit the region and many do complete the 100-145 mile-long Annapurna hike. 

I can tell you from my experience, that you’d come across groups (or because we were slow, they’d come upon us), and then you’d go for a while not seeing anyone.  Keep in mind – the busy season is Oct/Nov – so you won’t be alone – but I don’t recall it being that crowded.  It’s not like the Camino de Santiago!

 Many of the people we saw on the trail were locals doing work in the fields. The higher you go up in altitude the more you tend to get bunched up a bit as there are fewer places for lodging as there are no real high-altitude villages to congregate at.

One of the things that personally bugged me about the other people on the trail was how it felt like they were on a speed mission!  As groups of people briskly walked by us I wondered…why?  Why are they in such a hurry?  We are in this beautiful scenery nestled among the Himalayas, and we traveled presumably long distances to get here, but I seldom saw many of these people look up from the trail.  They just kept maintaining their pace, not noticing the environment around them.  All so they could get to the next village and wait?  Granted, maybe I’m a bit too slow, and I take too many pictures, but I prescribe to slow travel I guess; I want to soak it all in.  If you are like me and like slower paces and getting sidetracked, then a group tour might not be for you.

In what direction do you hike the circuit?

The best way to go is counter-clockwise as you will then gradually acclimatize to the altitude.

Can you hike it independently?

Yes – you can do this hike completely on your own, but you’ll want to be an experienced hiker and have trained to do this type of hike.  You’ll be carrying a pack and your supplies into high altitude and that can be dangerous if you are on your own.

independent hiking annapurna circuit

However, if you want to hike semi-independently, I recommend hiring a porter or a guide or both to provide some assistance in carrying your gear and be there for your safety and education.  

If you’d rather hike with a group that has organized all of your lodging and food, there are lots of companies to choose from.  I’m a big fan of Intrepid Travel which offers a great Annapurna group trip with local guides.  I’ve used Intrepid Travel for a number of trips and loved every one!

What permits do you need?

USD $24 for a trekking permit to the Annapurna Conservation Area, known as ACAP.
USD $20 for a TIMS (Trekkers’ Informational Management System) card

These are normally obtained by your tour company that is organizing your trip.  Giri got ours.  However, if you are doing this independently, you can get them from the tourism office in Kathmandu or Pokhara.

What is the difference between a Guide and a Porter on the Annapurna Circuit?

A guide speaks English, knows the terrains and trails, and organizes your trek, but does not carry a load.  They generally teach you about the culture and the landscape and can answer questions for you.  They are responsible for ensuring you get a bed and food normally too.  We let our guide choose the teahouses we stayed in and he arranged them for us when we got into town.  I’m sure that he was probably getting a kickback, but I didn’t really care – all the teahouses are pretty basic.

Guides and porters annapurna circuit
My dad with our guide Bishnu and Porter Diehl

Do you need a guide?  Probably not.  However, it just depends on the kind of experience you are looking for.  It will likely be more pleasurable, safe, and educational if you have a guide – but it’s not necessary.  I wanted a guide on our trip because I was trekking with my Dad and if anything happened to him, I wanted a local to be able to help us quickly. We sat back and let Bishnu deal with all of the administration and we just enjoyed ourselves.

A porter carries your bags.  That sounds simple, but it’s not. I was so fascinated with the porters and their lives that I spent a lot of time learning about them and photographing them. See my Porters of the Annapurna Circuit documentary. They normally do not speak English or very little English.

porter in nepal
Our porter Diehl

You might be wondering if you really need a porter – and my personal opinion is yes, you do.  This is a long hike at very high altitudes.  If you have to carry everything with you on these steep, challenging trails, it will be really unpleasant.  Unless you have trained for this extensively in altitude, I wouldn’t recommend doing this on your own.

Then there is such a thing as a Guide/Porter.  They normally speak some English, offer you some trail guidance, and carry some of your gear. Good for when you don’t need the full-blown services of a dedicated porter and guide. You could expect a porter-guide to carry around 10kg for you on top of their own gear.  Make sure you ask questions about what they will do before you hire them.  

A guide obviously can be shared among a group of people trekking.  My father and I shared a guide and porter.  A porter can normally be hired to carry two trekkers’ overnight luggage but the overall weight cannot be more than 18kg (39 lbs).

Costs for Guide and Porter in Nepal

Guide – $25 USD per day (approximate)
Porter – $15 USD per day

Tips – you also normally tip anywhere from $75 to $150 per person from an average 15-day trek to each guide and porter.  Or you can just estimate about 10% of the overall trekking cost.

How well is the trail marked?

It’s quite easy to find your way since it’s a moderately trafficked trail.  However, in Oct/Nov you will run into a number of detours due to rock/mudslides in the monsoon season.  I’ll never forget this rickety bridge detour we had to take thanks to a mudslide!

detour along the annapurna circuit

What does a typical day look like on the Annapurna Circuit?

It’s amazing how fast you can adapt when you have to. It only took about 4 days of hiking and we were in a predictable routine.  Get up at 6:30 AM. Pack up everything by 7:00 AM. Eat breakfast. Begin to hike from 7:30 AM to 4 or 5 PM. Unpack and change out of sweaty clothes. Choose dinner from the same menu as the night before (even though it’s a different tea house in a different village). Have a big thermos of tea, put on all of the warm clothes I have with me, and go to bed at 9 PM. A simple and predictable life.

For a detailed day to day idea of the experience I had with my dad, be sure to check out my Tiger Balm Tales  – a narrative series about hiking the Annapurna Circuit with my dad.

What is the best time of year to hike the Annapurna Circuit?

The best times for thru-hiking the Annapurna Circuit are October to early December and late February to April. These are the best times to be able to cross the high-altitude pass. It can be really dicey and often closed at other times. Also, if you go before October you run the risk of monsoon season and muddier trails with mudslides.

Falls colors annapurna circuit

We hiked it in October and loved experiencing the fall colors at lower altitudes. We had very little rain during our hike and the weather on the Pass was good. The Thorung La Pass weather can obviously change daily – but it is less likely that a big storm will blow in during October

Can you have your luggage transported?

Yes – luggage transfer is available in the form of a Nepalese porter. These men and women are experts at carrying your gear on the trail, it’s amazing to see them carry your bags strapped around their foreheads. I’m pretty sure they have the strongest necks on the planet!

Nepalese porters carry loads with their necks

Since they are strapping this to their back – you cannot bring a suitcase, it needs to be soft-sided luggage or backpack and it helps if it’s waterproof or has a rain cover.

We hired a guide and a porter to go with us on our trek and it was a great way to do the trek sort of independently. Our porter carried our heavier gear and we just took our daypacks filled with water, rain gear, snacks, and first aid. We were normally able to stop in a village for lunch.

Porter weights are regulated for their protection. Nepalese porters will carry 15 to 20kg of your gear. Plus, they have to carry their own ‘kit’ too that gets added into that.  Granted – they take VERY little but make sure you pack light.

Where do you stay?

Welcome to the world of ‘Tea Houses’.  Tea houses are basic mountain lodges operating the bedding and eating facilities for trekkers.  It is a quintessential Nepal experience that I suggest you embrace.  Do know that it is very basic, but it’s also very similar to how the Nepalese live; it’s an authentic experience!

Tea houses are the way to travel on the Annapurna Circuit.  They are simple homes with a shared area where you can dine and socialize.  The rooms are often very simple with shared toilets.  They can also be quite drafty, and with no heating available (besides perhaps a wood or coal bucket fire burning in the dining hall), be prepared for cold nights the higher up in the mountains you go. Similarly, the walls are quite thin so if you are a light sleeper you may want to consider bringing earplugs.

annapurna high camp teahouse
annapurna circuit teahouse lodging

Read about my favorite tea house on the trail!

You can find places with ensuite toilets – but it is super basic.  Most places have shared bathrooms and Asian toilets (How to use a squatty potty). Toilets can sometimes be located outside of the teahouse so bring a headlamp!

One of the first places we stayed was really basic.  The lodging resembled a loft in a barn; small room, thin boards with gaps plugged up by ‘newspaper wallpaper’, small wooden beds, no plumbing, no electricity.

Showers also varied.  However, before you get grandiose visions of shower heads and curtains…think again. A shower normally consisted of a faucet head situated about a foot above my head; you literally stood underneath a faucet. I normally found it easier to simply fill the bucket with water and take bucket showers. If you were lucky, you’d get some lukewarm water to dispense from that faucet. The hottest water that would come out was still rather chilly by my standards thereby necessitating us to hone our abilities at taking very fast showers!

One day we didn’t make it as far as we planned and we had to stay in a tea house that we hadn’t anticipated – it was really basic.  There was no plumbing or electricity and this is where I had one of the most challenging showers of my life, showering in the cold, dark, sewage-smelling outhouse.

Be aware that proprietors make most of their money on food and beverages, as the cost of the room is pretty cheap. Therefore, you are always expected to eat all your meals where you sleep.

Tea House Trekking Cost

It is normally $16 – $20 per person per night for three basic meals + accommodation. The prices are cheaper in lower sections and expensive in higher sections.

What do you eat?

We never went hungry on the Annapurna Circuit. I was really surprised with the variety of food choices on the circuit; there’s really no reason why you’d have to bring your own snacks along as the guesthouses along the circuit have plenty to keep you energized. Save space in your pack, and support the local guesthouses and bakeries along the way. They exist there for you, the trekkers; the locals certainly aren’t eating at these establishments!

dahl bhat
Dahl Bhat

The staple food of Nepal is the traditional local dish, Dahl Bhat.  This vegetarian dish is full of energy for your hiking needs.  And it’s bottomless! A plate of Dal Bhat includes steamed rice, lentil soup, vegetable curry, and sautéed spinach.

Other Nepalese favorites include Momos (dumplings) and soup.  You’ll have many different kinds of soup to choose from on the trail.  What you won’t find a ton of is meat.

However, you can get all kinds of other high-carb foods there too. Spaghetti, pizza, sandwiches,

Don’t skip the Cinnamon rolls! From the village of Manang, all along the trail, there would be places selling big cinnamon rolls –a complete guilt-free snack for energetic long-term trekkers. When else would I ever be able to eat a cinnamon roll a day – only when you are trekking day after day expending the energy to negate them?

What gear do you need?

During one of our trekking breaks today our guide, Bishnu, said “Ohhhhh, I’m smelling like a donkey! I can’t wait for a shower.” Not only did the donkey reference make me laugh, but it also made me realize that I’ve now been wearing the same pants for 10 days, the same shirt for 9 days, the same jog bra for 9 days, and the same socks for 4 days; this is beyond donkey filth! On top of the filth, everything smells like Tiger Balm!  However, it’s a part of trekking for 21 days. I do wonder at times if these clothes will ever be clean again, or should I burn them for warmth at high camp? I guess the good news is that everyone smells equally bad; like a pack of donkeys.

annapurna trek gear
Packing before we started the hike

Most days my muscles were screaming out in pain each night and morning thanks to overuse and under-training. This is where the Tiger Balm came in. We’d get out our little container of Tiger Balm and put it in one of our pockets for about an hour so that the balm would warm up and be easy to spread on our sore muscles. Then my dad and I would take turns putting the balm on all of our aches and pains, and there were many. After a few days, my whole sleeping bag smelled like Tiger Balm. We’d get in our little balm sleeping bag cocoons, put on our headlamps, and read up on the next day’s trekking; trying to prepare ourselves mentally for what we had to accomplish next.

Check out my hiking packing list – essential gear for any hike

Duffle/big pack for the porter and Daypack for you.

Don’t Leave Without This Essential Hiking Gear

I’ve hiked all around the world and have found some key gear that I take on every hike for every kind of weather. From backpacks to socks, check out my list of the best hiking gear out there!

What should you put in your daypack?

hiking annapurna circuit

Assuming you’ve hired a porter, you might want to know then why you need to carry anything with you. Keep in mind that you need your daypack because many times your porter will take off and be on his/her own schedule and you likely won’t see them until you get to your ending point for the day.  So you give them the stuff you need overnight.

Your daypack should include light snacks, water, rain gear, layers, valuables, a first aid kit, camera/batteries, sunscreen, and a hat.

Can you do laundry on the trail?

Since you are moving nearly every day – it’s hard to do laundry.  However, if you have quick dry clothes then you can wash them out and hang them and hope they are dry the next day.  You can also hang them off your backpack and let them dry as you hike!

One obvious place to do laundry is Manang.  This is where most people take an extra rest day in order to acclimate to the altitude before continuing to trek up to the pass.

Is there Internet connectivity?

Yes, there is internet connectivity – and that was back in 2009!!  There should be connectivity pretty much the entire way at the guesthouses and villages.  However, the connectivity at Thorong Phedi and High Camp is pretty poor, so I wouldn’t depend on it.

annapurna internet connectivity

Is there medical help nearby?

There is a medical center in Manang and luckily this was where I got really sick (https://www.ottsworld.com/blogs/paralyzed-on-the-annapurna-circuit/).  Other than that, there aren’t really medical centers in the villages on the trail.  If you had an issue and needed medical help that wasn’t an emergency, in 2009 you were put on a donkey and taken down as quickly as possible.  However, now since they have roads, there are other ways to get down. 

Keep in mind though, that once you are above Manang there aren’t roads, so the donkeys likely come into play again.

Of course, any severe emergencies and you could be airlifted out.  This is another reason to make sure you have proper travel insurance for your adventures!

Do you need to know Nepalese?

No, even when I did it in 2009 we could always communicate effectively in English along the trail. 

Are there ATMs available?

Sort of.  There are ATMs in Jomsom and Chame, however, they aren’t reliable.  Some are only for locals too.  I would make sure you leave Kathmandu with all of the cash you think you are going to need rather than rely on the ATMs on the trail.

How much does it cost?

I would budget around $30 per day and you should be pretty comfortable. However, that doesn’t include the cost of a guide or porter – those would be separate.

thorung La pass annapurna circuit
The experience is PRICELESS!!

Take an extra day trip and start in Puma!

I highly suggest visiting the high mountain village of Puma.  I volunteered there for a few weeks teaching English.  This remote mountain village high above Besisahar is the real deal.  See how a village that isn’t on a popular hiking trail survives and operates.  They get very few tourists in Puma – which is also what makes it so special.

Giri, who organized my Annapurna Circuit trek, grew up in the village and still has family there.  He can arrange for you to get to Besisahar and then take a jeep up to the village and spend the first night there as a guest.  You will then hike out of Puma and catch up with the Annapurna circuit the next day and be on your way!

Nepal annapurna circuit hiker
Woman hiking Annapurna Circuit Nepal


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