The Annapurna Circuit (AC) is one of the most famous treks in Nepal. It has changed during the last years as roads were built, from its orginal pure 3 weeks trek to one that is feasible in 10 days by using jeeps and/or flights. Still, during high season in October, November or April, it is overcrowded (besides the 2015 season due to the earthquake triggering less tourists). The highest point on the trek is the Thorung La Pass with about 5,400m altitude. It can be joined up with a trip to the Annapurna Base Camp at 4130m altitude. As the ABC trek can be done in a couple of days and is at much lower altitude, it is even in winter quite busy.
What can you expect from this trek? When to go? How should you prepare? Do you need a guide? I had too many questions when I planned my first trek in Nepal and want to answer some of them for you.
Map – Where does the trek start and end?
The Annapurna Circuit is from 160km – 230km long, depending on where you start and end. Due to the (bumpy) jeep road that has been built, you can make shortcuts in the beginning and the end of your treck.
I started my hike in Besisahar (the original start) and didn’t regret it. Jeeps go as far as Chame, but I really enjoyed the hike and it helps for getting used slowly to the altitude. The trail also doesn’t follow the jeep road in many parts, so it is stilly very enjoyable. You can organize jeeps on place in Besisahar easily if you prefer to not walk.
From Chame you hike all the way through Thorung La Pass and until Johmson. In Johmson you can take the plane to Pokhara. It can easily be organized on place but the flights are often cancelled due to the weather conditions. Alternatively you can take a bus or jeep, but be prepared for hours and days on bumpy roads (I believe it’s 2 days from Johmson until Pokhara). Otherwise, just like me, continue by foot on the trail and make sure you get to see the beautiful nature and towns on the way, have a dip into the hot springs at Tatopani and see the sunrise at Poon Hill. From Ghorepani you can also cross over to Chomrong and start the Annapurna Base Campa trek, or head back to Pokhara.
The below map is quite nice and detailed, otherwise check out this nice 3D animation to get an overview on the altitude and mountains: http://www.smh.com.au/interactive/2016/annapurna/home
Timing – When to hike the Annapurna Circuit
Due to my work, I wasn’t able to travel during the usual recommended months (October-November, April-May) and I thought initially that I wouldn’t be able to go to Nepal at all.That’s when a Facebook friend posted pictures of his Annapurna Base Camp trip in December / January. I started searching the internet and while there was only little information, yes it seems a bunch of hikers has already done even the AC during winter time. You just need to be prepared for snow and very cold temperatures.
My winter experience: I started the AC in Besisahar on December 14 and finished on January 1st in Siwar after hiking to the Annapurna Base Camp. I was encountering a very exceptional winter period without any snow, enabling me in addition to visit Tilicho Lake.
Trail condition: The trail was mostly easy to walk except for some very icy parts up in the higher altitude. These icy parts are usually in the northern facing parts of a mountain and can cover the trail entirely so that you have to be very careful while crossing. It is feasible though and no one I hiked with had any kind of accident. I also heard that there can also be icy parts at other times of the year so this is not necessarily related to a winter hike. I cannot share any own experience on snow conditions, but you can read a few blogs here:
Be careful if you want to do the side trip to Tilicho Lake, one of the highest lakes in the world at 4990m altitude. The trek is difficult for some parts and will not be accessible once it starts snowing as it is too dangerous. I was at Tiliche Base Camp on December 20 and one of the last ones for this season, as the managers closed it a couple of days later due to the cold temperatures and the water pipelines being completely frozen. Many Nepali don’t stay at these high altitudes but rather enjoy the warmer weather in Pokhara. The owner of the guesthouses around the Annapurna Circuit make (in Nepali standards) quite some money and can afford to close the guesthouses. On the trail, some guesthouses will be open though in every town. You should enquire in Manang and Brakhar though if you plan to do the Tilicho Lake side trip, as only the people living there know if the Tilicho Base Camp (and others on the way) are closed.
Temperature & weather: While you are still at low altitude, the day temperatures can be quite warm and I even sweated hiking in a T-shirt. The higher you get the colder it gets but it is all fine during the day while you are hiking (around 5-10°C). Once the sun is gone it gets really cold though. The temperature in my room at night was usually around 0°C, but much colder the few nights in Manang and higher (around -5°C with frozen water bottles). I had a -6°C comfort zone rating sleeping bag and was perfectly fine and cozy at night (besides any toilet trips). My biggest pain point was the time between stopping to hike and getting into the sleeping bag. The guesthouses in higher altitude often have wood or yak poo fired fireplaces and that really helps at least for the time you sit close. Many water pipelines will be frozen at high altitude and often you can only get water in the kitchen where the only non-frozen pipeline is maintained. At Tilicho Base Camp we had to catch our drinking water from the river ourselves as even the kitchen pipeline was frozen.
Outside the temperatures are of course much lower. I only looked at my thermometer at night outside during the Thorung La Crossing where I measured around -15°C as lowest temperature. But then you only hike a couple of hours and it was feasible, once you get lower and the sun gets out it is much warmer again and the freezing temperatures soon forgotten.
During my 19 days of hiking, I had 17 days of clear blue sky and sunshine. 2 days were cloudy and I had about 3hours of rain (both at Annapurna Base Camp). Again, this can be very different and especially if you do the ABC you are very likely to get a couple of rainy days.
Gear – What to carry & wear
I have written a seperate post about my gear for the AC and ABC. For wintertime, the most important items might be a good sleeping bag and a down jacket to keep you warm. I would also strongly recommend a hand sanitizer. I usually don’t use them and prefer washing my hands with soap, but at high altitude it was a real challenge for me to wash my hands in frozen water … Especially at night I couldn’t cope washing my hands.
Througout the year, you should carry hiking sticks to keep the balance and mainly to protect your knees on the long stretches hiking downhill.
Cost – How much do you spend per day?
To start with, keep in mind that the higher you get, the more everything will cost. But compared to Europe, it is still cheap to travel in Nepal. And the good thing about wintertime is that you spend even less money on the trail.
Rooms at guesthouses cost usually from 200-500 NR. In wintertime, owners are happy if you stay anyway at their guesthouse and not another one (except for the base camps where there is no alternative!) so you can negotiate a lower price or even stay for free if you have dinner and breakfast. During season you have to pay for using wifi or power at higher altitude. In winter you can also negotiate the cost (or simply skip wifi anyway, after all there is no need to be connected every night!). There is no need at all to book anything in advance, you just show up in a town and look for a nice guesthouse. In winter there is never a problem to find a room, on the contrary there are plenty to choose from.
Dinner or lunch costs from 150 NR at lower altitude to up to 500-600NR at Tilicho Base Camp, Thorong Phedi or ABC. Tea can cost anything from 30 NR a cup to 600NR for a liter of Masala tea. I usually took water from the many water sources or taps and treated it with chlorine pills. Often, you can also buy filtered water in the guesthouses. The Safe Drinking Water stations are closed though in winter.
In towns like Manang or Muktinath you can easily buy any kind of bars or chocolate (50-200NR), toilet paper (100-150NR), tissues and even gear such as gloves, scarfs etc.
Overall, you can be perfectly fine with about 1500NR (or 15USD) per day. 20USD if you tend to eat or buy more or have other drinks than water and tea.
Make sure to take enough money with you as there are not many possibilities to get money on the trail. I got more money than I expected to need from Kathmandu’s ATMs (and easily spent the rest of the money I had left in Pokhara). I also carried 300USD as a back up with me (not needed – but good to have just in case). During the hike I was never worried about anyone stealing my money. You can close your room with a padlock and it is safe while hiking.
Food – What do you eat on the trail?
Both AC and ABC are very touristy and this is reflected on the menu. In many guesthouses, you will see certificates about their training in cooking or baking. It was really impressive to read long menus in very remote places. Food ranges from potatoes and noodles to rice, prepared with vegetables, cheese… There is Dhal Bat of course, the national dish, but also Momos (Tibetan dumplings) and burger (mainly veggie burger). Meat isn’t served very often (and you rather might want to skip on it anyway as I am not sure how well this is kept). Make sure to order dinner for the time you want once you arrive at the guesthouse. It sometimes can take quite a while to prepare.
For breakfast you can have muesli (with powdered milk, apples), porridge (also with apples if you like and pay the additional cost), different kinds of bread (buckwheat bread, chapati or local ones) with jam or honey, eggs, cheese… You also get tea or (instant) coffee. In the evening, pre-order breakfast for the time you want.
I got much hungrier the longer I hiked, due to the effort and the cold and usually had once a day Dhal Bhat as you can get free refills. Although I never eat burger at home, my favourite dish soon got the Veggie Burger – but only if they made it with fresh Chapati bread. So delicious!
Guide & Guidebooks – How to find the trail?
I bought a guidebook on the Annapurna Circuit by Cicerone in Germany, but wasn’t happy at all about it. I also made a copy from a Lonely Planet guidebook, but this one I mainly used for the hiking hours needed from one town to the hours as it perfectly fitted my pace. The guidebook I can highly recommend though, is the one by Andrées de Ruiter and Prem Rai: Trekking the Annapurna Circuit with the new NATT Trails. It is extremely detailed and provides interesting information on things to see on the trail or sidetrails to do. Just their hiking times are slower than mine, otherwise it was perfect.
Guide: Initially I didn’t intend on taking a guide. In Kathmandu, the travel agency strongly recommended though that I shouldn’t hike on my own during winter time on the AC. I could do ABC on my own, but especially this year with much fewer tourists due to the earthquake, I shouldn’t be hiking all by myself the AC especially if there is snow. I eventually gave in, not knowing what to really expect. 15USD per day isn’t that much for providing me safety. As you can read in my trail stories, I wasn’t very happy with the guide. I like to walk long hours and enjoy all side trips – but not my guide. He chose the shortest roads and not the nicest trails even after explaining to him what I wanted. Hence I had to check my guidebook on every intersection and this created quite some tension on my side and his. I hated that I couldn’t trust him and he hated probably me checking everything. The first days would have been quite lonely without him though as I only had occasional contact with other hikers. I was very happy to have him with me on some parts where it was very icy and I wouldn’t have felt safe on my own. I also think that if there had been a lot of snow, I would have really needed a guide. A guide can also So there is no one good recommendation. If you are skilled hiker you can probably do it on your own, even in winter (you should at least carry an Perconal Locator Beacon or so for emergencies though). The Annapurna Base Camp can be done much more easily though without guide as even in winter there are plenty of tourists. Groups have their guides and even if there is plenty of snow, you can wait for a group / guides to break the snow and make a trail for you to follow.
What else should you know?
Permits: You need 2 permits, the ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Permit) for your access to the annapurna region (20$) plus the TIMS Card (Trekkers Information Management System, 20$) if you hike on your own, otherwise the agency will get a TAN Card for you. You need a couple of passport pictures for the permits and can get these either at the Tourist Service Center in Kathmandu or at Travel agencies (for a small fee).
Electricity: There are plenty of power outages or power load sharing so that you cannot count on having electricity anytime. Bring your own head torch and spare batteries for your camera. Plugs are often only available in the dining hall and sometimes they are so loose that you have to sit and hold the plug to ensure your device charges properly.
Altitude sickness: You need to ensure that you acclimatize properly for the altitude. Climb high, sleep low is the best rule to follow. Tilicho Lake and/or Ice Lake for acclimatization are very good to prepare yourself. Make sure to inform yourself on the symptoms and get down immediately if the severe symptoms show. In Tansania, I learned the words “pole, pole” which mean slowly, slowly – that should be your pace from 3,000m altitude and above.
Hot Water: The signs 24/7 hot shower doesn’t reflect the reality during winter season. Sometimes all you get is a bucket of warm water (which you will be using in a small shower room which has a temperature of around 5°C in the late afternoon!). Sometimes there is acutally some warm water dripping out of the shower head (you are still in a cold bathroom!). I didn’t mind as long as I could clean myself and wash my hair every 4-5days.
Enjoy! Make sure to have enough time and rather plan 2 buffer days in case you need to take a rest or there is heavy snow.