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Know Before You Go: Guide to The Annapurna Circuit
The Annapurna Circuit is the absolute classic Himalayan Trek and is by far the most popular trek in the world. The trek climbs through the subtropical jungle of the Marsygandi Valley, revealing itself gradually into Himalayan valleys with spectacular mountain views. The trail then climbs over the Thorung La Pass (5416m) and cascades down into a desert-like valley that served as an ancient Tibetan trade route. The trail offers all forms of landscape from rice paddies to jungles, deep gorges to plateaus and snow-capped peaks to shear rock walls. This guide will give you all the information you need to know before you set off on your Annapurna adventure.
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Also read: Annapurna Circuit Trek: Day by Day Guide
The Annapurna Circuit starts in Besisahar, roughly 100km east of Pokhara. The trail leads northwest up the Marsgyandi valley towards Menang, passing the Annapurna mountain range on the east. The circuit climbs over the Thorung La Pass north of the Annapurna range and drops into the Tibetan side of the Himalayas. It leads southwards back towards Pokhara to complete the circuit. You can split the trek into 3 sections: Pokhara to Menang, Menang to Thorung La Pass, Thorung La Pass onwards. The Thorung La is the crown jewel of the circuit so most decide to finish the trek just after in Jomsom. You can continue back to Pokhara, and it’s possible to verge off course to Poon Hill or Annapurna Base Camp. If you finish in Jomsom, the trek takes 9-18 days, depending on how far you trek per day and where you start trekking from.
When to Trek?
Trekking on the Annapurna Circuit is best from October to mid-December and from March to April. The conditions on the circuit are heavily dependent on when winter and spring decide to arrive! We completed the trek in November and had nothing but blue skies and sunshine the whole way aside from the day going over the pass, typical! The high trails aren’t snow covered at this time of year, but they are in March to April – this is when micro spikes may be useful. Despite this, weather will still be generally bright.
Pokhara to Menang
You’ll start by taking a bus from Pokhara to Besisahar, prepare for a squashed bumpy ride! You can book through hotels, hostels and trekking companies. It costs ~$5, & leaves at 6am every day in trekking seasons. Once in Besisahar there’s 3 options: trek straight away, take a local bus a short way up the valley, or a jeep as far as Menang. We took the local bus to its end point (Ngadi – 13km) and trekked from there. Lots of people took jeeps further up the valley, but you should get as much trekking in lower down as possible. It saves you a lot money, helps greatly with acclimatisation, and gets your legs moving on easier terrain. Once you start to trek, reaching Menang will take around 6-8 days depending on how far up the valley you start. You’ll need acclimatisation days in Menang (3500m); at least two nights, maybe three.
Menang to Thorung La Pass
There’s a great acclimatisation day trip from Menang up to the Ice Lake at 4600m. After Menang, you should limit elevation gain to 500m a day. The most common practice is to spend two further nights at high altitude before crossing the pass, we stayed in Yak Kharka and Thorung Phedi. From Phedi, the trail ascends steeply up and over the Thorung La gaining almost 1000m up to 5416m. It is common to alpine start your day, at around 5am, ensuring you have enough time to get over and back down the other side in good time. Most people stay in Mukintath the day after the pass and usually have a well-deserved beer to celebrate.
Thorung La Pass to Pokhara
From the Tibetan side of the pass there are multiple options to return to Pokhara. We decided on taking the bus which took some 12 hours on the bumpiest roads known to man (welcome to Nepal). You can fly from Jomsom to Pokhara, but it costs a lot and you have to book in advance. The final option is to continue trekking along the Annapurna Circuit route as far as you wish – you can even get all the way back to Pokhara on foot! Some people on our bus actually stayed a night in Tatopani – natural hot springs here make it a good overnight halt for anyone not wanting to leave the mountains but equally not wanting to trek anymore!
You require a permit for most treks in Nepal, which you purchase pre-trek in Pokhara or Kathmandu. Every trekker requires a TIMS permit (2000 NPR) and for Annapurna Treks you also need an ACAP permit (3000 NPR). You must carry them at all times on the circuit! There’s multiple checkpoints along the way, as well as when you enter and leave the Annapurna Conservation Area. When buying you need:
- 4 ID photos
- Your insurance policy number and provider
If you are trekking through a guide or porter company, they will sort this out as part of the agreed price. If you’re solo trekking then visit the TIMS permit office (found on google maps), it’s a super easy process! You can buy these at the first checkpoint but it’s about $20-$30 more expensive.
Guides, Porters & Navigation
Most people, including us, don’t use a guide/ porter – the circuit is super easy to navigate alone. You’ll find your way by following the white and red sign posts. You can pre-download the whole circuit on the maps.me app; it tells you distance and change in elevation from your current location to another (if you have 4G). Maps.me helped us loads in avoiding marked paths that made you climb steeply only to spit you back onto the road. We thought these trails weren’t worth the effort – no views and VERY tiring! You’ll get a trekking profile when you buy your permits. They show the rough time between settlements, the change in elevation/distance and facilities available (see our version below). They also make a nice souvenir! We don’t think you’ll need a guide/porter, especially if you’re in good physical health and can follow app based maps. If you know the signs of altitude sickness, and can push yourself to keep going even when you want to give up, you can do this alone!
You definitely need a base level of fitness to complete the Annapurna Circuit, but you certainly don’t have to be a fitness freak at all! You can change the length of your days to suit your fitness level/ how you’re feeling on the day. Anybody who is competent walking 4-5 hours a day everyday (we weren’t but we still did it) would be more than able to complete the circuit. Trekking over the Thorung La Pass is hard regardless of your fitness level and is somewhat of a mental battle rather than a physical one. If you can make it to the bottom of the pass fine – you can make it over!
This is a ‘teahouse’ trek! You don’t need camping or cooking gear which cuts down on weight and a lot of prior expense. Everywhere you stay will offer blankets so you don’t need a sleeping bag. However, the blankets aren’t always the freshest of things so a personal sleeping bag is nice to have! To cut down on space, a sleeping bag liner paired with the blankets is a good idea. We carried one sleeping bag between us and Jordan stole it.
* you can buy or cheaply hire (compared to UK) in Kathmandu/Pokhara – the only item we would definitely recommend bringing from home is WALKING BOOTS as the quality you will get from (mostly fake) shops can cause a lot of misery. Definitely wear them in properly before starting the trek! We bought all of our thermals in Pokhara as well as water bottles, socks, gloves, shorts etc. Don’t be afraid to haggle in the multitude of trekking shops you will find in both cities – the clothing is all fake and they’re all competing to sell their stuff!
If you’re already in Pokhara or Kathmandu and you have all the gear you need, the cost of trekking will depend on how many days you plan to trek for. Pre-costs include the base cost of 5000 NPR ($45) for permits and around $5 for the bus to Besisahar. Other costs are really only food and drink: 2000 NPR ($18-22) a day will easily feed a very hungry trekker.
The higher you go, the more costly food is (especially in Menang where there’re nicer restaurants). 2000 NPR a day each was enough, and we splashed out on a few beers. We also went to the ‘cinema’ in Menang. You get back to Pokhara by plane or bus Pokhara. You can book flights in advance online, and you can book buses from guesthouses after the pass.
There’s no cash machines from Besisahar until after the pass YOU MUST WITHDRAW ALL YOUR CASH BEFORE STARTING THE TREK! It’s easiest to withdraw in Pokhara/KTM and take out more than you expect to spend (~$350-400 should be plenty for 10 days). Some days you’ll spend less than others, but ensure you factor in extra days to your itinerary/ budget incase you get sick, there’s bad weather, you need more time to acclimatise etc.
TOP TIP: We saved loads of money using our Sawyer Mini Filter! We could fill up from streams free of charge and also had the peace of mind we weren’t going to get sick from water. They’re tiny filters, so perfect for travelling and the amount of filtered water you get from them is INSANE! Click here to buy yours.
Food and Accommodation
Food and accommodation is available in every village along the trek. In the lower sections of the trek (leading up to Menang), its best to stay in the larger villages as they offer more variety in guesthouses allowing you to shop around and find the warm showers! In most places if you ask (quietly) to have dinner and breakfast and have the room for free they will say yes with no questions asked. We only paid for a room in Menang (we had an en-suite room) and Thorung Phedi. Rooms are a mixture of triples, twins or doubles. You’ll have to share rooms if you’re trekking in a group; guesthouses want to fit as many customers as possible. If you haven’t brought a sleeping bag, ask the guesthouses for blankets, they have loads so don’t be afraid to ask for 2 if you’re cold!
Food on the trek is generally pretty damn good. The most common thing to eat by far is daal bhat (those t-shirts you saw in Thamel make sense now?) and is definitely the best value for money for the amount of food you can get. You’ll get top ups of rice, daal and curry until there is none left. Curry and rice is also a good option but no top ups unfortunately. If you are ordering in a large group of people, it I courteous to order the same meal, it will all come at the same time and saves the kitchen (normally 1-2 people) making several different dishes to order.
Bread and omelette for breakfast was our go to. Lunch was usually noodle soup, chow mein and momos with a hot cup of ginger, lemon & honey tea. Lots of stalls along the way sell crisps, energy bars, fruit (you’ve got to buy a Himalayan apple!) and fizzy drinks. You can’t miss the bakery in Chame! They sell freshly made apple pies, cinnamon rolls and and fresh Manang Apple Juice! Look out for the snickers rolls higher up as well, a bit like a deep fried mars bar but with Tibetan bread instead of greasy batter! You can get water from ACAP subsidised outlets and free from the streams (get a Sawyer Straw!).
Altitude Sickness and Acclimatisation
Altitude sickness is the main thing that stops people completing treks throughout Nepal. Being aware of symptoms and acclimatising properly is key to preventing serious injury or death from the high altitudes. Symptoms of altitude start to show at around 2800m, although initially the symptoms are minor (shortness of breath, longer recovery times, loss of appetite) at high altitudes symptoms worsen and can lead to AMS (acute mountain sickness), HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) and HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema). Signs of AMS include headaches, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, extreme tiredness, dizziness and disturbed sleep. You can combatted these symptoms by remaining at the same height for 1-2 days, with descent if symptoms do not improve, or by taking Diamox (250mg/12 hrs). More severe symptoms of HACE and HAPE are: loss of balance/coordination, blurred vison, slurred speech, resting breathlessness, pink/rusty spit, blue lips/nails/face, low fever, gurgling breath, drowsiness plus all of the above. If any signs of HACE or HAPE show, you should descend at least 1000m with a partner (even at night) IMMEDIATLEY. The Himalayan Rescue Team give free daily altitude lectures in Kathmandu and Menang if you need more info.
Acclimatisation happens naturally as altitude increases steadily! A steady 6/7 days to reach Menang (3500m) with a night in Ngwala (3680m) will provide the base acclimatisation. From 3000m only stay 500m than you did the previous night, NO HIGHER! You’ll need at least two nights in Menang for acclimatisation.
It’s a good idea to take a day trek from Menang up to the Ice Lake at 4600m. It gives you a good idea of how used to the altitude your body is, and whether you should spend another day in Menang.
You’ll need 2 more stops after Menang, before you cross the pass. Most people choose to stay at Thorung Phedi the night before crossing. It’s a lot easier to sleep at lower altitude! In Thorung Phedi, it’s a good idea to dump your bags at the guesthouse and walk up to high camp and maybe a little bit further and then descend. It helps with acclimatisation, and gives you an idea of the route as you’ll probably start trekking in the dark. Once you’re over the pass the next day you steeply drop in elevation to Mukintath, but remember you are still at 3800m here so keep taking Diamox if you have been taking it.
This trek is a once in a lifetime experience for many, and a huge achievement. Enjoy yourself, stay safe and get over that pass! We hope this has helped with some of your planning, you can read our day by day guide for more on what you can expect on the trek, and some personal feelings (Jordan had quite a few strong ones) we had a long the way. It’s a tough journey, but one you won’t regret!