Planning an Annapurna Circuit trek

by Kshaunish Jaini

Nepal is the home of the Himalayas, the famous mountain range which spans the top of the country. The Himalayas contain some of the world’s tallest peaks including Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth. The Annapurna massif in the central north of Nepal makes up part of the range and is a very popular trekking destination, with world-renowned treks such as the annapurna circuit and the trek to annapurna base camp . With breathtaking mountain scenery and some of the world’s highest peaks, it’s little wonder that visitors come from around the world to enjoy multi-day treks in the Annapurnas. Sounds good, right? This article gives an overview about how to plan for an Annapurna trek. We also have articles going into more detail about preparing for your trek, you can find links to these at the end of this article.

Overview of the Annapurnas

The Annapurna massif is a collection of mountains 55km long, which is located north of the trekking town of Pokhara and northwest of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. They border the region of Mustang to the north, on the border of Tibet. The massif is an imposing sight - the Annapurnas contain 13 mountains over 7000m, 16 peaks over 6000m and also the 10th highest mountain in the world - Annapurna 1 Main - at 8000m. They make for spectacular views as they tower over their surroundings. The southern Annapurna region is a lush environment full of forests and green terraced farmland, whereas the northern climes are very different; a barren, rocky and dry landscape full of strange rock formations scattered with apple orchards.

The Annapurnas remain some of the most difficult and dangerous mountains in the world to actually climb, but trekking in and around the massif has become a thriving tourist industry and is quite safe. Thousands of international visitors come to the region every year to walk the many well-maintained trails, some of which can take a week or longer to complete. The tourism supports a teahouse trekking culture. Along the tracks are many mountain farming villages, which are now full of quaint rustic teahouses which offer food and accommodation for weary trekkers. Even in remote locations high in the Annapurnas, porters and mule trains carry supplies to villages to keep lodges and stores stocked. The trekking industry also supports hundreds of tour agencies and thousands of guides and porters who accompany tourists on their hikes.

Where to Trek in the Annapurnas

The diverse landscapes in and around the Annapurnas and the amazing views are the most appealing aspects of trekking in the region. Most trekking here is based around the two most famous routes: The Annapurna Circuit and the Annapurna Base Camp trek. Most trails begin near the trekking hub of Pokhara, a nice lakeside tourist town, around 6 hours drive from Kathmandu. The other trekking hub is the small settlement of Jomsom in the northern Mustang region, only accessible by trekking, light aircraft or a long and bumpy road trip.

Please see our Annapurna Routes Article for more detailed information on the different trails available in the region.

The Annapurna Circuit circles the entire massif

The Annapurna Circuit circles the entire massif

Annapurna Circuit

The Annapurna Circuit circles the entire massif, starting down near Pokhara and looping around the Annapurnas. It passes through the barren northern region of Mustang (and the trekking town of Jomsom), before descending on the other side. It also crosses the highest point of any of the Annapurna treks; the Thorong La Pass, at over 5000m elevation - a difficult crossing but with spectacular views. The Annapurna Circuit takes a long time to do completely, around two weeks duration on average. However it offers a diverse range of landscapes and fantastic Annapurna vistas as you view the massif from a distance. It’s also culturally rich, passing through many villages of varied tribal backgrounds and the interesting Tibetan culture and architecture of Mustang.

It’s common for people to also do shorter versions of the Annapurna Circuit, taking in parts of the route. These can be shorter in duration, although many trekkers and tours still take a week or two to explore more thoroughly in the section they visit. Jomsom Muktinath treks usually go up just one side of the Circuit and around the Mustang region to see the interesting scenery of the north. There is a rough road leading to the northern town of Jomsom from Pokhara and also an airfield, making it possible to start and end treks there. Some people just fly into Jomsom and walk the many trails in the area without doing much of the Circuit.

Another route variation is to divert from the north east of the Circuit to explore the Nar Phu valley, a very remote area only opened to trekkers in 2002 and home to some very traditional Tibetan villages and people. Some tours concentrate specifically on this valley.

Annapurna Base Camp

This trek is also known by other names, including Annapurna Sanctuary and the ABC Trek. It begins a few hours drive northeast of Pokhara. A network of trails goes around the forested valleys and terraced farmland just south of the Annapurnas, before you turn off onto a single track leading you right into the heart of the massif. Annapurna Sanctuary, as it’s known, is a vast glacial basin at the base of a number of some huge Annapurnas. The scenery is mind-blowing here. The trek is also very popular as it passes through a number of different ecosystems providing different kinds of scenery from rhododendron and bamboo forest to the rocky and alpine-like Sanctuary itself. Nice little trekking villages pepper the routes and the trail has spectacular viewpoints along the way, with a number of Annapurnas looming down on you throughout. The most direct routes to Annapurna Base Camp (and back) take 4-7 days.

A common addition to Annapurna Base Camp is the excellent panoramic scenery of Poon Hill, a famous sunrise viewpoint. This diversion add a few days to the Annapurna Base Camp trek and can also be visited as part of the Annapurna Circuit, as that passes through here. People short on time (or fitness) can just do loops around the lower part of the Base Camp trek and Poon Hill, taking only a few days. Names for these treks include the Short Annapurna Trek, the ghorepani-poon hill trek and the Annapurna Panorama Trek.

When to do the Annapurna Trek

Peak season in the Annapurnas is September to November. The weather is consistently mild and skies are clear for good mountain views. However, trekkers flood the region making trails very busy, prices are higher and tours, flights and accommodation should be booked in advance.

The lesser peak season is in spring from April to May. Rhododendron forests are in bloom in the southern areas and the weather is cool. Haze and low cloud can hinder views and rainfall is higher than the main peak season. However it’s not as busy as September to November.

The winter months from December to March are quiet on the trails. It gets very cold especially at night, there’s some rain and there’s a fair amount of cloud obscuring views. However you still get some very clear days and weather improves towards spring. Winter weather can cause some trails to close such as high altitude paths like the Thorong La Pass on the Annapurna Circuit and the track to Annapurna Base Camp.

Theravada Monk looking at the Annapurna range

Theravada Monk looking at the Annapurna range

Monsoon season from June to September is usually not an advisable time to trek . Although it’s very quiet on the trails and teahouses remain open, 70% of the region’s rainfall comes during these months, meaning it’s very wet and trails are muddy and slippery. Some routes may be closed at points for safety or due to mudslides and avalanches. Clouds and rain frequently obstruct views. There are the odd good days though. However, in the north of the Annapurnas, around Jomsom, the region is protected from much of the rain and so it can still be worth trekking there during the monsoon.

For more information about weather and what Annapurna trekking is like in different months of the year, check out our what is the best time to do an annapurna trek article .

Tours, Guides, Porters, Accommodation

There’s a wealth of options available in how to go about doing an Annapurna trek. Firstly it is possible to do it solo or unguided, although we don’t really recommend it. Trails are fairly obvious and signs at villages point you in the right direction. Staff at teahouses, guides and other trekkers will speak English and can help with your questions. However you will have to carry everything with you, which is difficult unless you are doing a short trek. You also will miss out on local knowledge regarding safety and directions, particularly pacing for acclimatization, locating accommodation and dealing with fast changing weather conditions.

Tour agencies both international and Nepali organise group tours led by guides accompanied by groups of porters to carry your gear. Alternatively they can organise guides or porters for smaller groups. You can source your own guides or porters easily in Nepal although you will need to use your own judgement about their quality if they aren’t vetted by a company and their welfare will be your responsibility. If you don’t want to book a tour in advance, if it’s not peak season you can usually arrange this in Kathmandu or Pokhara at one of the many agencies there - a good option for backpackers for example.

Although it’s not required by law to have a guide (yet), it’s a good idea to have a porter or guide with you even just to carry some of your gear. Some guides will double up as a porter if required. Most Annapurna treks are quite long and require good fitness even without carrying a big backpack. Some of them go to high altitudes (both the Annapurna Circuit and the end of Annapurna Base Camp), making the going tough. This means getting a porter is a really good idea, saving you both time and pain in the long run. Hiring Nepali staff also helps to support their families in a country with a very poor economy.

Most trekkers stay in the many teahouses and lodges in the mountain villages, which are found frequently along the trails. Camping is possible on some routes and there are small dedicated campsites in some villages (basically just flat ground). Some group tours are camping only with porters carrying the camping gear for you. You can camp if you are travelling alone, although you’ll have the extra weight of all your camping gear - not great! Usually people pay to pitch their tent and then use teahouse facilities in the villages. Camping may be a good option in peak seasons when teahouses get booked out fast.

Most accommodation can be secured on arrival in a village, allowing good flexibility to stop for the night when you like. However, in peak season teahouses can be booked well in advance so it’s wise to do this too if you’re trekking then, or you may find yourself without a bed for the night. It’s common for tour groups to send staff ahead of the main group to secure accommodation further along the trail for the night. If you are travelling independently with a guide they will usually find accommodation for you when you arrive in a village, they often get a small commission for doing so.

Costs, Food and Drink

Costs are very variable depending on how long your trek is and what is included. This article gives a more detailed explanation of Annapurna prices. Trekking tours are expensive but bear in mind that you are usually paying for experienced guides, porters, guaranteed accommodation, meals and all the organisation done for you. Camping tours are not necessarily that much cheaper, as you are still paying for all the extra porters and equipment needed. Nepal is very cheap but mountain prices are more expensive than the lowlands and shouldn’t be comparable.

Sunrise in the Annapurna range

Sunrise in the Annapurna range

If travelling independently, allow $20-30 per day including food and accommodation for most of the Annapurna region. Accommodation is usually very cheap if you agree to buy dinner and breakfast at the same teahouse. A trekking permit for the region costs around $20. Guides and porters are paid on a daily wage - costs vary but on average expect to pay around $15-20 for a porter and $20-30 for a guide per day.

Teahouses double as restaurants, cafes and bars and serve basic menus of different cuisines including Nepali, Italian and Chinese. Larger villages also have small stores selling snacks, drinks, trekking supplies and basic equipment. Payment is in cash only (except a for few higher-end places in towns like Jomsom) so you’ll need to bring plenty with you. Costs of food and drink rise dramatically the further you get from civilization as it all needs to be carried up there (this is taken into account with the daily budget listed above).

Factor in extra costs for things like transportation to and from trek starting points, extra spending money and tips for guides and porters. You will also need to buy or hire the appropriate clothing and equipment for your trek . Don’t forget to acquire travel insurance covering you for mountain trekking and a policy that will cover you if you are entering a high altitude location.

Trek Difficulty and Fitness

The Annapurna Base Camp trek and Annapurna Circuit are moderate to difficult hikes. They are multi-day treks where you will be trekking for 4-8 hours a day depending on your schedule. Trail conditions are good and well maintained. The Annapurna Base Camp trek has many stairs and goes up and down steep valleys - it can be a killer on your knees and walking poles are advised. The Annapurna Circuit is more of a gradual climb and descent, but also has the gruelling ascent of the 5000m Thorong La Pass.

Both treks, if you do the full versions, have high altitude areas. You need to be aware of the dangers of altitude sickness and know how to acclimatize properly. The Thorong La Pass causes the most problems. Annapurna Base Camp usually doesn’t see much altitude sickness due to the gradual ascent that you make to the highest point. Beware of entering high altitudes around the Mustang region, particularly Jomsom to Muktinath as it’s not obvious how high you actually are. It’s important to do your research and make sure you are properly acclimatized before entering these zones, you could also bring anti-altitude sickness medication. Always listen to the advice of guides on the subject and if you feel unwell, go back to a lower altitude immediately.

Before doing a longer Annapurna trek make sure you do sufficient training and get vaccinated . Doing plenty of long treks carrying a backpack in advance is a good idea, even better if you can do multiple-day treks. If you can, try to find high altitude locations such as nearby mountains to practice on. Trekking is by far the best training for trekking!

Shorter and lower Annapurna treks are still moderately difficult but much less so than the longer ones which go higher and require more stamina. There are some easy treks available, the Royal Trek near Pokhara doesn’t go into the mountains at all but has great views of the Annapurnas - and the Poon Hill treks aren’t too taxing if you take your time. There’s plenty of amazing views and villages in the region you can explore in the region even if you just trek for a day or two.

Other Trekking Information

We have helpful articles covering other aspects of Annapurna trekking to help you plan. Check out these links: 

Plan Your Annapurna Trek

Now you have plenty of information to start thinking about planning your Annapurna trek. We hope you found this useful and do have a read of our other articles to help you with the details. The Annapurnas are a fantastic trekking choice and the views and teahouse trekking culture are truly an unforgettable experience. Best of luck with planning your trek!

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