The Annapurna Circuit has been ranked one of the world’s best treks for countless years and for a good reason; it’s absolutely, 100%, jaw-droppingly amazing. And frankly, that’s putting it lightly. With 26,000-feet-plus peaks, the world’s deepest gorge, the world’s highest lake, and the world’s longest pass, the trail has it all and then some. At times you feel like every mountain range in the world has
been crammed here until you reach elevations high enough where you know you could only be in the Himalayas. Originally, when the area opened to tourists in the 70s, the circuit took 21 days, starting and ending in Pokhara. These days, with the abundance of roads (4×4, unpaved, single lane) being built over parts of the existing trail to accommodate trade amongst villages along the way, hikers are much more likely to take a bus for certain sections rather than walk and be passed by vehicles all day. This means the trail can be knocked out in a maximum of 16 days. We did it in 10 and added 3 more days halfway through for a highly recommended side-trip to Tilicho Lake, the highest lake in the world, for a total of 13 days on-trail.
Erin and I combined forces to write this, with inserts from our travel journal to never forget the magic we felt and saw each and every day, and partly as a practical guide for all intrepid travelers who may want to follow in our footsteps and may need honest, objective, budget-minded advice on how to plan for what will definitely become a highlight of any trip.
How to Use This Guide
This would only be applicable for those going from September through December.
If you’re the type who needs everything planned way in advance, go to your local REI, EMS, or equivalent outdoor store and buy a topography map of the Annapurna Circuit or Around Annapurna. Open it up and read this while comparing the map so you can visualize the plan. You’ll need it anyhow and the maps online are relatively crappy.
If you’re the type who can wing it a little more, print this form (or even better, download to your phone in PDF form to save a tree) and wait until you get in Nepal where you can buy a topo map for $1-2. Prep from there. Everything, and I mean everything, you need for the trek can be purchased in Kathmandu or Pokhara for a fraction of the cost of buying it in any western country.
How the Circuit Works
Trekkers circuit the Annapurna range in counter-clockwise fashion, following trails parallel to the Marsyangdi River on the eastern half, up to the city of Manang, over Thorung La Pass at 17,769 feet, the longest in the world, and then descending long and steadily along west-side trails parallel to the Kali Gandaki river back to Pokhara.
There are four ways to get started trekking:
1. If coming from Kathmandu, take a tourist bus to Dumre and transfer there on a local bus to Besi Sahar. Most trekkers begin here.
2. If coming from Pokhara, take a tourist bus to Besi Sahar.
3. From Besi Sahar, you can begin trekking along 4×4-style road until you reach Bhulbule. Or, you can take a local bus from Besi Sahar to Bhulbule or all the way up to Syange (where the road ends) to begin the trail.
4. From Pokhara, begin hiking East towards Besi Sahar and ask around town for directions.
What to Expect
The trail is speckled with villages along the way, each containing teahouses, full-service guesthouses complete with restaurants, stores, electricity, and solar-powered hot water for showers. You will pass a village — almost all of which will be on your map — worst-case scenario, every 2-3 hours. This serves two important purposes: 1. It acts as a pit-stop for lunch, rest-area from the sun, and/or your final stop for the evening. 2. It lets you know you haven’t somehow gotten off track. Most trekkers rise relatively early, partly from excitement to see more high-rising Himalayan peaks, which are typically less cloud-covered in the morning hours, and partly because of the higher elevations saying “I just wake up at 4 and I don’t know why.” When you arrive in a village and decide you’ll be spending the night there, most times you can negotiate the room rate down if you agree to eat both dinner and breakfast at their attached restaurant. Every guesthouse and every restaurant in their respective village offer exactly the same menu with exactly the same prices. These are established by the governing body of the trail, ACAP, and prices rise as you ascend into higher elevations. After you’ve checked in and had dinner, you will order your breakfast in advance for the next morning, setting a time as well. Most trekkers eat Dal Bhat, the Nepalese staple, for lunch and dinner, as it packs the highest caloric punch per rupee, and comes with free refills. Knowing this, splitting a Dal Bhat is highly looked down upon, and often leads to discontent within the restaurant. As always in travel, remember to follow cultural norms, and if on a tight budget, you shouldn’t be eating in a restaurant anyhow, opting instead for packing and carrying your food along with a cook-stove.
As for weather, it gets colder the higher you go but you’ll only wear your cold-weather gear in the evening and in the early morning. It warms up pretty quickly.
The Common Myths
If you were to arrive in Kathmandu or Pokhara and visit any of the hundreds of tourist shops to chat about the ins-and-outs of the Annapurna circuit, you’d most likely leave with the impression that you were about to climb straight up the steepest mountain in the world then back down again, would need all of the newest (knock-off) gear, a porter to carry your bag because ‘you’re not fit enough’, and if you didn’t have a guide you’d get so lost you’d end up in Tibet and/or be robbed of everything but your socks by wild trail pirates. These are all myths and are simply fear-mongering sales strategies to coax your wallet in the spirit of “supporting the local economy.”
The trail is a steady climb and has steep ups-and-downs in parts scattered throughout but it’s nothing crazy and is certainly doable by any moderately fit person. We met a 78-year old man doing the circuit. Plus, if you’re under no time constraints, and the day was difficult for you, you can just rest another day in a comfy guesthouse, or cut out early one afternoon after your morning hike and just relax. You do not need all of the latest and greatest gear. Porters do the entire trail in flip-flops and while we’re not Sherpas, it puts things into perspective. See below for the pack list. Unless you really have a good excuse, you don’t need a porter. Using our pack list, your bag will weigh less than 10kg/22lbs and while you may have a spot of sore shoulders here and there, you’ll be fine. Plus, we’ve heard numerous stories about porters being more trouble than they’re worth; from getting drunk, complaining, gambling then demanding more money or the worst, rushing you along and putting you in much higher danger of high-altitude sickness. Same holds true for guides, who are mostly nothing more than glorified translators, often knowing nothing more than what we’ll teach you now: Kata Bata [fill in name of next village from map]? Which way to [name of village]? There will be signs to Manang on the eastern half, but at times you will come across forks in the road but even if you do take a wrong turn, it’s not that detrimental as either someone will correct you or you’ll come across another village and realize your mistake. And last but certainly not least, thieves on trail. Well, it’s happened, that’s for certain, but that was so 10 years ago. Plus, just like when traveling, take the following necessary precautions to minimize your risk: don’t walk alone in the dark, don’t be flashy with jewelry or electronics, and separate money into smaller stacks and place in different spots in your bag. Easy-peasy-Japanesey. Worst case, you get nicked of a few hundred rupees and can always file your World Nomads claim.
What You Need to Pack
- 30-35L Backpack (use a bigger one if it’s all you have) with raincover
- Pants – 1
- Shorts – 1
- T-shirts (wicking style best) – 2
- Long Sleeve Shirt – 1
- Swimwear – 1
- Hiking socks – 3
- Underwear – 3-5
- Hat or Bandana
- Beanie – 1
- Gloves – 1 pair
- Puffy Compressible Jacket or Fleece Jacket – 1
- Rain Shell – 1
- Hiking boots or sturdy Trail Shoes – 1 (I did it in something like these)
- Flip flops or thongs
- Hygiene/Health (everything in travel size):
- Small bug lotion or spray
- Nail clippers
- Necessary medications, contacts, solution, etc.
- Moleskin or Blister Plasters (mandatory and a hot commodity on trail)
- Soap – for your body and laundry
- Wet Wipes (when a cold shower in high elevations just isn’t gonna happen)
- Water purifier drops
- Electrolyte tablet
- Nalgene or Water Bottles – 2 liters worth
- Trekking Poles – 2 (like an extra set of legs!)
- Camera and charger
- Electricity Adapter
- Headlamp w/ one extra set of batteries
- Watch or Something with an Alarm
- Book (just bring 1, you can trade along the way when finished)
- Headphones and ipod/phone (only if necessary) with charger
- Topography Map (a small one)
- Trail-Mix/Dried Fruit/Nuts/GORP (You’ll need less than you think)
- ACAP and TIMS permits (must get them both in either Kathmandu or Pokhara beforehand. Give yourself ample time as it’s bureaucracy at its finest)
- Passport (sometimes the Checkposts ask for it)
- Cash (budget 1000 rupees per day per person, more if you’ll be drinking beer. Beer is 350 rupees each on-trail)
- ATM Card (there’s an ATM in Jomsom near the airport)
What You Don’t Need
Sleeping Bag – The guesthouses have blankets. Bring a sleep-liner if things are icky for you.
- Tons of clothes or jeans – They’re heavy and will only weigh you down. Jeans? It’s not a fashion show and they’re hot and heavy. You can do laundry but more likely than not, you’ll just accept your stankiness like everyone else.
- A razor or shaving cream. Be a man – Grow a beard.
- Pens or “sweets” for children along the way – whoever started this needs a proper slapping! The trail is littered with candy wrappers thanks to your “help.” Bring extra toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss and teach the kids proper dental hygiene instead.
What Would Be The Most Super Coolest Thing to Have
- Polaroid Camera with Extra Film – You will take so many photos of people and they love when you show it to them but it would be cooler if you could leave a photo with them.
How We Did It
Day 0 – Kathmandu to Dumre to Besi Sahar
Notes: Left Kathmandu for Besi Sahar at 7 am with chocolate, trail mix and peanut butter packed. Left half of our stuff at the hotel to pick up in a few weeks. Today we had a 10 hr bus ride including running out of gas and hitting another bus. How are we to trust the driver around these steep mountain curves?! We met Max and Marco and Max’s wife from NZ at our hotel and Marco played his Martin backpacker for us. Feels like the night before Christmas. Alarm is set for 6 am.
Day 1 – Bus to Bhulbule (2755′), Hike to Bahundanda (4297′)
Total Hike Time: 4:45
Distance: 5 miles / 8 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: 2,230′ Up
Notes: Even more breathtaking than we imagined with vivid green, terraced rice patties and a raging river, the Margyandi. Took the bus from Besi for 200 rp, after arguing we should pay the 60 rp local price and losing. Waited around for 30 minutes when the driver had promised we’d depart in 5. It was geting hotter and we were losing precious hiking time so we stepped up and in a joking manner called him a liar– he quickly got going! Very bumpy hour-long ride– surprised no flat tires. Even drove through a river! Had a 90-minute rain-induced break where we snacked on trail mix instead of ordering lunch – a decision we soon regretted when we ran out of fuel on the final uphill to Bahundanda. Trail was pretty flat until final rigorous climb to our gorgeous guesthouse where we scarfed curry and chapati. (We ordered before our hot shower so it would be ready!) Owner was in military in Iraq so speaks English like a US soldier, aka knows lots of curse words. Also met a Finnish couple and four Americans, three of which are Eagles fans! Only disappointment is the kids on the trail- only 2 English words they know are “sweets” and “pen.” They have been spoiled with these things instead of with books or tooth brushes or soaps, which they really could use. Wish we would have packed some extras. Already put in our order for eggs and porridge in the am. Getting up early to avoid heat and afternoon rain tomorrow.
Day 2 – Bahundanda (4297′) to Tal (5576′)
Total Hike Time: 7:30
Distance: 10.6 miles / 17 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: 3,500′ Up
Notes: Dreary day but perfect for a long day of trekking to Tal. Lots of mud and trails turned rivers- it’s early in the season. Passed a 700-foot waterfall and at one point, stopped, looked around and noticed we could see 9 waterfalls throughout the valley. Got held up by military for 30 minutes while they were blasting a road across the valley with dynamite. The explosions were deafening, even with our fingers in our ears! Cracked into our dark chocolate while waiting for rain to stop under a cave and polished off the entire bar. Farmer gave us the chile seed used in masala- not spicy but like a “cry baby” candy, sour and makes the salivary glands go crazy and we each spat for 30 minutes staight! Met a man carrying 200 lb. of materials even though he was only 125 lbs. Met Slesha and Pratik, Nepali cousins, who negotiated 100 rupees ($1.25) per room in exchange for agreeing to eat! None of the people from the 1st night’s hotel made it as far as we did, so ate dinner with our new friends. They laughed at Erin’s story of falling into a squatter toilet- ewww! Ordered pumpkin curry and corn bread and apple pie. Loving the food after trekking all day. Alarm set for 6:15 for another 7+ hours of hiking tomorrow.
Day 3 – Tal (5576′) to Koto (8528′)
Total Hike Time: 7:15
Distance: 10.6 miles / 17 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: 4,670′ Up
Notes: Tibetan bread and hard boiled egg to start the day off right. Hiked with Slesha and Pratik and got evening tea house lodging for free, justified by us paying their rising restaurant prices as we trek higher. Lots of locals at work on trails: chopping wood, herding animals, carrying building supplies. Challenging day felt like a game show. Crossed through a waterfall with a cliff edge on one side, got stampeded by cows on the hardest, steepest part of the trail, found our way through a mud pit, and darted for cover during pouring rain. During the wait, a Chinese hiker gave Jason some “real” green tea she has brought from China. Pushed on past an Arabic biking team and hiked a total of 7 hours and 15 min, not including breaks for snacks, meals and tourist check points. Lots of pine trees and cooler weather. Pulled out winter coats and beanies. Our tea house is made of wood and smells like the forest! Garlic soup and corn bread for dinner. Places are even trying to charge for hot water for tea and electricity for charging your phone now. (30 Rupees for a small hot water.)
Day 4 – Koto (8528′) to Humde (10758′)
Total Hike Time: 7:30
Distance: 17.4 miles / 28 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: 3,238′ Up
Notes: Big day. Felt lazy after an early start to the morning. But at least we beat the rain this time! Woke to perfect, unobstructed views of Annapurna II (26,040′). Elevation is a factor but so are exhausted muscles. Nonetheless, we hiked from 7:30 am until 4:10 pm with minimal breaks and covered a lot of ground. Looking forward to tomorrow’s 3 Hr hike and a 1.5 day REST! Great views of snow capped peaks right outside of our window and the hottest shower we have had yet! Restaurant prices are basically in line with Western food prices now, so tea house owners let you stay in their rooms for only $1.25/ night if you promise to eat 2 meals with them.
Day 5 – Humde (10758′) to Manang (11611′)
Total Hike Time: 2:25
Distance: 5 miles / 8 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: 390′ Up
Notes: Hiked only 2 hrs to reach Manang and were reminded of the Badlands in S. Dakota. Also had the best views of surrounding white-cap peaks yet. Greeted in Manang by 3 or 4 bakeries showcasing chocolate rolls, croissants and cookies. Sugar overload washed down with fresh-brewed coffee and steamed milk followed. Watched 7 Yrs in Tibet at the town’s theater (a cave with yak hair cover benches) and chilled with a beautiful view of mountains from our corner 3rd floor room. ($2/ nt with agreement to eat at their restaurant.) Will rest again tomorrow to acclimatize.
Day 6 – Manang (11611′) Rest Day
Notes: Day of rest. Explored Manang & enjoyed town museum with photo exhibit comparing pictures from the 70s and pictures from 2008 from Czech father/ son traveling photographers. Watched Into Thin Air in the “theater.” Met Alison from Wellington who is outrunning her porter (the porter that complains about not liking hiking.) Ate yak burger and drank Seabuck Thorn juice, both local concoctions. Feeling back to normal and ready for the 8 Hr hike to the world’s highest lake: Tilicho. This is a side trip off the main Annapurna Circuit, but we will rejoin in 3 days.
Day 7 – Manang (11611′) to Tilicho Base Camp (13612′)
Total Hike Time: 6:30
Distance: 8 miles / 13 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: 3,116′ Up
Notes: Lost an hour in the morning due to getting a bit confused and lost. The maps are not 100% accurate but locals know best and got us back on track. Lots of up-hill trekking. Hiked past a 1000 yr old monastery and stopped for Dal Bhat for lunch, with it’s ever-rising price. Met Mike from Colorado. Hiked across landslides and rivers. Made it to Tilicho Lake Base Camp- VERY rustic. 1st place with no showers or electricity and we slept in mud huts. Felt the effects of the elevation with headaches but enjoyed the cozy wood fire and veg momo (dumplings) over dinner with two Israelis. Talked to owner who goes to Kathmandu in the snowy, off season. He wants to apply for an expensive visa to visit NYC. Feeling fortunate to be able to go to and from the USA as we please.
Day 8 – Tilicho Base Camp (13612′) to Tilicho Lake (16266′) to Sheree Kharka (12628′)
Total Hike Time: 6:45
Distance: 7 miles / 11.5 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: 3,792 Up / 3,910 Down
Notes: Craziest hiking yet. Ascended 1156 meters and descended 1192. Thank goodness for our hiking poles. Lots of switch backs up to the world’s highest lake: Tilicho. The views down the valley below were incredible with Annapurna II and Gangapurna Peaks in view. The lake is a gorgeous aqua color surrounded by mountains and glaciers. Lucked out on the weather- so much sunshine in a place where rain, wind and snow are common. Enjoyed peanut butter-covered chocolate cookies smuggled from Manang, a chocolate bar, and a cup of tea with the spectacular view. On the descent, witnessed an incredible avalanche on Tilicho Peak that looked like a waterfall flowing for 45 seconds! Practically crawled into our tea house 8 hours later for hot veg curry. No such luck with a shower. We will have to wait until we rejoin the main circuit tomorrow for this luxury. This village (Sheree Kharka) doesn’t even show up on our map!
Day 9 – Sheree Kharka (12628′) to Thorung La High Camp (16154′)
Total Hike Time: 7:15
Distance: 10 miles / 16 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: 4,215′ Up / 1,820′ Down
Notes: Hiked up out of valley to rejoin the circuit. Noticed many more people there and much better food on the beaten path. Made a final push after a Mars, Twix, and Cinnamon Bun at Thorung Phedi (Base Camp) at the 9th hour of trekking to get to high camp. This cut out one hour from our hike over the main pass tomorrow. Great lodge & met up with Finnish couple we had met on day 1. Dinner table involved speaking English, German, and Spanish due to the mix of company. Tired but trouble falling asleep due to thin air at this elevation. I had to get up to pee 3 times in the middle of the night!
Day 10 – Thorung La High Camp (16154′)to Thorung La Pass (17764′) to Muktinath (12333′)
Total Hike Time: 5:00
Distance: 9.3 miles / 15 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: 1,571′ Up / 5,367′ Down
Notes: Woke at 4 and ate porridge before setting off for the pass with headlights and rain gear. Elevation made the hike up seem slow but we arrived at 7 to a foggy setting. But we were at the pass! 17,769′! Snow covered prayer flags and a tea house exist at the top. Warmed up with a Twix and a cup of tea before a horrendous descent for 3 hours.
Tried to catch a bus to next village but got annoyed with them charging tourists 8x the local rate, so decided to walk tomorrow, based on the principle of it. Stayed at a great teahouse and dined with Al and Leo from London, playing cards and laughing.
Day 11 – Muktinath (12333′) to Jomson (8922′) (bus to Ghasa)
Total Hike Time: 4:15
Distance: 12 miles / 19 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: 629′ Up / 3,303′ Down
Notes: Walked to Jomsom through dried, rocky riverbeds and over dusty, windy passes. Passed several herds of sheeps and enjoyed views over the river into the Upper Mustang area. Good to be back down to normal elevation and cheap Dal Baht! Took a rickety, cliff-hugging bus from Jomson to Ghasa (300 Rupees each) & plan to relax in the hot springs after our walk tomorrow! Found out our visa to Bhutan wasn’t accepted, because our sponsor hasn’t lived there for over a year. Excited to stay in Nepal longer and practice yoga at an ashram in Pokhara instead.
Day 12 – Ghasa (6839′) to Tatopani (3903′)
Total Hike Time: 4:20
Distance: 8 miles / 13 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: 173′ Up / 2,886′ Down
Notes: Met a German fam visiting the Nepali in-laws whom they had just met. Cool international mix but must be difficult with the language barrier. Tried to catch bus out of Ghasa to the hot springs but had to walk 4 hrs (blisters ablaze) due to landslide road closure. Spent 4 hours soaking in the hot springs, fully clothed for Erin since its inappropriate to wear bathing suits as a woman! Hot springs were not as natural as expected but while there we saw almost everyone we had met on the trail by coincidence. Called it a reunion and had a big dinner together. We plan on leaving tomorrow at 7:30 am to do one final walk and then catch a bus to Pokhara where we will have a celebratory drink as a group!
Day 13 – Tatopani (3903′) to Beni (2722′) (Bus to Pokhara)
Total Hike Time: 5:30
Distance: 9.3 miles / 15 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: 475′ Up / 1,532′ Down
Notes: Walked 6 hours in intense heat and sun to reach our lunch spot. Crossing the finish line was a joyous occasion! After Dal Bhat and celebratory beers, loaded a private van with 3 others — the Nepali cousins and Alejandro from Colombia — to ride 3 hours to Pokhara. Found a great hotel on the strip (HOT WATER, ahh!) for only $10.00/ night called Hotel MONAL. Everything seemed cheap after paying for food in the mountains. A meal here costs as much as extra condiments do on the trail. Ate at a steak house, drank happy hour cocktails and even found our favorite candy: Nutrageous. Famous words repeated throughout evening were, “We earned this.” Finished at jazz bar and slept til 11 am. What an adventure!
Total Hike Time: 70 hours
Distance: 106 miles / 170.5 km
Elevation Gain/Loss: 28,000′ Up /18,818 ‘ Down (I didn’t keep track of descent numbers on our first 6 days so this number would ultimately be higher)
A big thanks goes out to the following people for making this trek possible. THANK YOU FOR AN AMAZING GIFT!
Dale and Sharon Mackovjiak
Dennis and Donna Payne
Robert and Mary van den Brand
Chris Piro and Claire Fabricante