- October 28, 2013
- 6 comments
- Posted by EdGraham
- Adventures, Annapurna Circuit, Asia Travel, Destinations, Featured Posts, Nepal
Planning the Annapurna Circuit
It’s daunting at first glance. And then you look closer and you realize it’s not just daunting; it’s also ridiculous and crazy and a downright rough way to spend a month long holiday. After all, aren’t holidays meant to be spent on the beach, stiff drink in hand and with no worries to think of? They aren’t nearly so relaxing when you’re drenched in sweat, mentally having to will your aching body to take just one more step, and then another, and then another.
Yet maybe the difficulty IS the attraction. Or, at least it’s a big part of it. there are other reasons too: The scenery is jaw-on-the-floor gorgeous, the people are welcoming and kind, and the daily sense of accomplishment is uncommon in our easy western world of iPhones, flavored lattes, and cable TV. I knew I wanted to go, and once I got past the shock of “I’m actually going to do this?” I began to take a more practical approach to preparing for 140 miles of hiking through the Himalayas.
What follows is a change from the majority of my writing about this trip. This article is less of a narrative and more of a how-to guide with intent to help anyone who might also plan to walk the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.
A Matter of Time
The best way to do the Annapurna Circuit is to simply do it without getting bogged down in the intricacies of planning each individual day. This flexibility is gained only with time. The people I met who budgeted the minimum 16-18 days were always moving, unable to take more time when desired or needed.
We allowed 5 weeks for the entire trip including travel time to and from Chicago. This left about a month to actually do the Circuit, ample time even when we included our additional 3 day side trek to Tilicho Lake. We ended up finishing the circuit in 20 days including the lake, having felt like we took our time along the way.
Some days were tough, like the day we hiked 9 hrs from Tilicho Base Camp to Ledar. Other days were easier, like when we walked just 4 hours from Bratong to Upper Pisang. We took a total of 3 rest days, and we took a jeep towards the end of our trip from the town of Marpha to Tatopani. The jeep might have been sacrilegious as we had originally planned to walk the entire circuit, but it saved us 3 days of walking at a time when walking was getting old (and I have no qualms admitting to that.) It also happened to be the day after I was bedridden with a fever, shivering from chills inside my sleeping bag while wearing everything I owned. So, there’s that.
You can trek this area during any part of the year, although it’s universally agreed that the best weather is found between mid October to mid November, with a close second from mid February to mid March. The good weather attracts crowds and if that’s not your thing, you might consider doing as we did and travel during the shoulder season of September through October. The weather will be more of a gamble, but chances are at least some days will be clear.
Our weather was disappointingly bad, worse than all the travel blogs I read prior to our trip. Nearly every night was overcast, removing most opportunities for the dramatic sunrise photos I had hoped to capture. It rained a lot, mostly at night but sometimes during our trekking. Daytime clouds obscured most of the peaks. Mornings were generally nice until midday, when the clouds would gather again in advance of evening rain. At the higher altitudes we endured cold, fog, snow, and sleet. Locals commented on the strange weather, noting that it’s often clear by late September and certainly by October.
Despite our bad luck with the weather, we still found the shoulder season to be a nice time to visit. The circuit was not terribly crowded, temperatures were generally pleasant aside from the altitude extremes, and we were still able glimpse much of the terrain that makes this part of the world famous.
Which Way to Walk
Nearly everyone does the circuit counter clockwise because of the extremely steep grade and lack of accommodation on the immediate west side of Thorong La Pass. Descending westbound through this area involved a very difficult 4 hours of hiking. Trying to climb eastbound through this area would be an extreme challenge that might invite serious altitude problems because there’s nowhere to stop and acclimate along the way.
Porter, Guide, or Independent?
You’ll want to think about whether to hire a porter or guide. Each will help you carry things, with guides being more knowledgeable, more experienced, and more expensive. Porters cost roughly $20 to 30 USD per day, guides are 30 and up, and tips of 15% are standard and expected. The majority of trekkers we met had at least one porter or guide with them.
We chose to travel entirely on our own for several reasons: we had full control over the trip, we gained a bit more privacy, and there was no potential for personality issues. It was definitely a trade off. I’d have been far more comfortable with less weight on my back, and we took a few wrong turns due to poor signage along the way. The resulting wasted hours might have been saved with the help of a knowledgeable guide.
Being a porter is very much an “in demand” job in Nepal. It’s good money and it offers them the chance to practice English. Many locals will jump at the chance. Because the job attracts all kinds, you’ll want to shop around a bit before hiring someone. Having a porter might greatly enhance the experience, but I imagine it might also be a major stressor if things go south. Make sure it’s going to be a workable relationship for the duration of the trek.
Equipment, Medicine, Clothes, and Money
You’ll need to think about what equipment to bring. Sleeping bags aren’t required, but they’ll lend needed warmth on cold nights in the mountains. They’ll also add an extra layer between you and the well used, never washed beds which are common along the circuit. I was glad to carry mine despite the small amount of extra weight. Other useful items included a Swiss army knife, a lighter, a flashlight, nail clippers, baby powder (worked wonders when I needed to keep my shoes dry), hand sanitizer, soap, and toilet paper.
Then there’s medicine. You’ll want some bacitracin zinc to head off infections from small scrapes and cuts, Ciprofloxacin (antibiotic) for bacterial infections including stomach problems, Imodium, and altitude pills. The altitude pills are Diamox which help your body acclimate faster and can prevent more serious problems. For emergency use only, you’ll also want to bring Dexamethasone and Nifedipine. These can save your life if HAPE or HACE occurs. Please read more about these medications before buying or using any of them. This medicine would cost hundreds of dollars in the USA, with prescriptions needed for most of them. Thankfully they can all be purchased over the counter in Nepal for just a few dollars.
You’ll need to pack clothing for all climates, from the hot and humid lower altitudes to the frozen wastelands of barren rock and ice at high elevation. Down jackets are a perfect solution, offering plenty of warmth despite their light weight. They are also easy to stuff into your bag. Pack light and pack smart, and don’t forget to bring a pair of sandals – you’ll need these for walking around town while your hiking shoes dry out.
Laundry can be easily done on the circuit, and thus it’s not necessary to bring more than about 3-5 days worth of clothes depending on how comfortable you are rewearing things. Single use tide packs come in handy for doing your own laundry. You can find these and other items like contact solution, toothpaste, and more medicine along the way in the bigger towns. Keep in mind that you might go a week before staying in a big town.
For money, plan $30 USD (about 3000 Nepalese rupees) per day if you like to indulge as I do with large meals and beer. For more frugal travelers 20 a day is plenty enough. These numbers include all meals and accommodation. This budget is conservative enough to last you through the end of the trip (I was under budget nearly every day), but you’ll want to add an extra 100-200 US dollar buffer in case you need extra supplies. I needed another jacket and Danielle needed to buy new shoes – both unexpected purchases we were able to make thanks to a small cash buffer. Keep in mind that all food and drink items increase drastically in price as you go deeper into the mountains. The local Nepalese meal Dal Bhat can cost as much as 5 dollars near Base Camp, while the same meal will set you back less than 2 dollars in Pokhara. Prices drop again quickly on the other side of Thorong La Pass. ATMs generally don’t exist along the circuit, and the very few that do might not work with your home bank. It’s therefore best to bring enough cash for the entire circuit.
Electricity, Internet, Pack Weight, and One Big Suggestion
Electricity for charging your phone and camera is available in most towns but not all, although outlets are frequently only found in the hotel’s kitchen or common areas. Often a small charge of 50-100 rupees (50 cents to $1 US dollar) is paid for a full battery charge. Some teahouses/hotels charge a far more expensive 50-100 rupees per hour. This is very expensive when you consider that most rooms cost between 200-400 rupees for the night. You might want to check this before agreeing to stay in a particular place.
Internet is expensive, slow, and uncommon on the eastern side of Thorong La. I know for certain it can be found in Jagat, Chame, and Manang. Don’t count on it working though. Internet is far more common on the west side of the circuit although it still might not work reliably.
At 50lbs, my pack was far too heavy. It was loaded with photography gear which I decided I’d rather bring even if it meant some suffering along the way. While I was personally glad to have brought all that gear, keep in mind I’m also running a travel photography website and a self admitted fanatic about taking good pictures. Without all that extra gear, my pack would have weighed somewhere in the high 20 pound range. This would have made the trip far more comfortable and enjoyable.
You should be in good shape before leaving for this trip. Endurance training and weight lifting are equally important to prevent injury along the circuit. The terrain is a continued challenge throughout the hike’s duration, easing in difficulty only slightly beginning the day after you pass Thorong La.
My last big suggestion (and I can’t emphasize this enough!) is to buy a pair of trekking poles. These can be purchased in Nepal for not much money. I was skeptical at first – they look kind of dorky, and who needs help walking anyway? But I honestly don’t think I’d have finished without them; my knees might very well have succumbed to the harsh terrain under my heavy pack.
I liked the way we went about preparing for the Annapurna Circuit. We had a rough idea of how long it might take, but we weren’t beholden to any set schedule because we had plenty of time to spare. Some days we started walking without anything more than a vague idea of where we might spend the night. Other days we knew we wanted to make it to a certain town, and we had to push ourselves to get there. I was glad to have 4 full weeks allotted to the circuit even though we only used 20 days. Any unused buffer days can be spent relaxing in the beautiful city of Pokhara after your trek is over.