Annapurna Circuit vs Annapurna Base Camp

by Kshaunish Jaini

The Annapurna mountains in Nepal bring thousands of tourists every year to enjoy its excellent trekking. The massif is part of the Himalayan range and found in the central north of Nepal, bordering Tibet at its most northern point. The Annapurnas boast the 10th highest mountain in the world (Annapurna 1 Main) at 8000m, 13 mountains over 7000m and 16 over 6000m - making for spectacular scenery of these giants from around the region.

After Everest, the Annapurnas are Nepal’s next favourite trekking destination, with visitors flocking to the lakeside town of Pokhara, the western trekking hub, in peak season. Most tourists are there to enjoy multi-day mountain hikes in and around the Annapurnas, supported by a well-oiled trekking infrastructure with maintained trails and teahouse villages which offer food and accommodation along the routes. For people planning to trek in this region it’s difficult to know where to start. In this article we’re going to compare the two most popular Annapurna treks - the world famous Annapurna Circuit, and the Annapurna Base Camp trek to help you decide what’s best for you. Both are excellent treks so it is difficult to choose between them!

Annapurna Circuit

The Annapurna Circuit is a loop which circumnavigates the entire Annapurna massif in a horseshoe shape. It’s a long trek, taking up to two weeks or longer, but it’s also possible to do shorter sections of it if you have less time. It offers a very wide range of scenery through different landscapes and amazing views of the Annapurnas throughout - although you don’t visit the base of them. It’s also a good cultural experience, passing through many diverse villages. You get to trek through the barren north of Nepal as well - the impressive region of Mustang, on the Tibetan border, which has completely different scenery and culture to the area that the Annapurna Base Camp trek is in.

The Circuit can be hiked in either direction but is most commonly done anti-clockwise to aid a gradual ascent for acclimatization - as you reach over 5000m at Thorong La Pass. The start and finish points are usually the village of Nayapul (a few hours from the trekking town of Pokhara) and the town of Besisahar (only a few hours from Nayapul). Although it’s possible to start and end the Circuit in other locations - some trekkers even begin from Kathmandu - for the purposes of this article we are talking about the standard  Nayapul>Besisahar route.

Views from the Annapurna trail

Views from the Annapurna trail

Annapurna Base Camp

This is also known as the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek or ABC Trek. This is a shorter trek, possible in 4 or 5 days if you take a direct route, but many prefer to take longer. The trail usually begins at either Nayapul or the nearby village of Dhampus - and heads straight into the middle of the Annapurna mountains to reach Annapurna Sanctuary . This is a huge glacial basin surrounded by a number of massive Annapurnas. Situated in the basin, at the mountains’ feet, are Annapurna Base Camp and Machhapuchhre (the Fishtail) Base Camp. The views here are incredible, although the summits in the basin are only visible in the morning and when weather is clear.

The Annapurna Base Camp trek is so popular thanks to the diverse range of ecosystems you pass through in its short duration, whilst still offering great views along the trail - and of course the unforgettable Sanctuary. There are a number of route possibilities for the first and last parts of the trek, meaning you only have to backtrack on the short leg to the Base Camp. The trek can be extended by a few days with a side trip to Poon Hill , famous for its panoramic Himalayan views (Poon Hill can also be visited from the Annapurna Circuit).

Annapurna Trek Durations

The first thing to consider is how much time you have to trek.

Note that these are only average trip lengths. The minimum recommended durations only apply to trekkers who will walk all day for every day of the trip, and who have a good level of fitness. It’s important to note that most people add at least a day or two onto the minimum requirements, to allow for resting, bad weather, side trips, acclimatization and so on. If you don’t add extra days, you’ll be on a pretty tight schedule, with no room for error or mishap. Also remember to factor in travelling time to get to, and from, your trek start/end points. Fitness level is the biggest factor to consider when determining how long you’ll need - most tours err on the side of caution, allowing for 4-6 hours walking a day and usually include rest/exploration/acclimatization days.

Short Annapurna Circuit Treks

As we mentioned, it’s common for people to do shorter sections of the Annapurna Circuit if they have limited time. If there’s one particular part you want to experience, it’s worth considering. The part of the Circuit going through the northern region of Mustang is the most popular. Jomsom, a trekking town in Mustang, has a small airfield. It also has dirt roads leading down to Pokhara and up to the villages of Muktinath and Manang. This means you can start or end Circuit treks in Jomsom if you want to do a shorter version.

There is also a dirt road on the eastern side between Besisahar all the way up to Chame and Manang, although it is slow to travel by Jeep, has lots of sheer drops and is prone to closure. It can save a day or two of trekking though.

Jomsom to Muktinath is a popular leg of the Circuit which takes 3-5 days to trek, longer if you extend to Manang or the Thorong La Pass. Allow a day or two to reach Jomsom from Pokhara by road. Flights from Pokhara to Jomsom take just 20 minutes!

Combining treks

Because the Annapurna Circuit connects to the Annapurna Base Camp trails, if you have lots of time and have the stamina for it, you could do both! Allow an extra 5 days to add the Base Camp trek to your Circuit route (you can switch routes at Nayapul or Ghorepani, the village by Poon Hill). This article gives a more detailed explanation of the Annapurna Routes.

The Annapurna trek has fantastic views

The Annapurna trek has fantastic views

Annapurna Trek Difficulty

Both the Annapurna Circuit and Annapurna Base Camp are moderate to difficult.

A decent fitness level is essential for both treks - more so if your time scale is short. It’s best to prepare your body in advance by doing long and high altitude treks at home before you go. Be prepared for knee strain as well on the steep descents, especially on the Base Camp trek - walking sticks are strongly advised and knee supports are a good idea if you have issues.

The Annapurna Base Camp trek has lots of steep valleys with many stone steps that you will have to go up and down. The Circuit also has ups and downs, but less steep sections and overall is more of a gentle climb then descent.  

If you are doing the whole Annapurna Circuit it is significantly longer than the ABC trek and requires more stamina. The northern part is particularly taxing as you move above 3500 meters around Manang and the mighty Thorong La Pass at over 5400m. The altitude here makes the going difficult and altitude sickness can be a problem - do your research into preventing it and ensure acclimatization time before the Pass. Be aware that taking road transport from Jomsom up to Muktinath or Manang can also cause altitude problems - as you climb quickly in a vehicle without time to acclimatize.

Add extra days to your Annapurna Circuit trek time if you haven’t done much multi-day trekking before. Extra days allow you to walk for shorter distances each day and take rest days when you need them.

Altitude is not usually an issue on the Annapurna Base Camp trek as it sits at just over 4000m and you gradually climb to it over the duration of the journey. Many trekkers do not stay overnight at the Base Camp anyway (it doesn’t have much accommodation) and descend to a lower altitude in the same day that they arrive. It's still important to be aware of the risks of altitude sickness but it’s much less of an issue than on the Circuit.

Annapurna Weather

Weather conditions are seasonal and vary on both treks thanks to their mountain proximity. For both routes pack warm clothing for the high altitude segments of the treks - where at night and early morning it gets very cold. Thorong La Pass on the Circuit can have snow and ice at any time of year so make sure you pack appropriate footwear .

In good weather (peak seasons) trail conditions are usually fine and well-maintained on both treks. Most of the Annapurna Base Camp trek is stone paved and a good chunk of the Annapurna Circuit is too. Especially during monsoon season and after bad weather at other times, trails on both treks can be closed for safety reasons (usually due to rockslides). In places with no alternate paths, this could stop your progress completely. Thorong La Pass on the Circuit, and the final leg leading to Annapurna Base Camp are often shut down as a result of bad weather. This article covers Annapurna weather in detail.

Annapurna Trek Cost

The daily costs of Annapurna Circuit and Base Camp treks are broadly similar but vary depending on your current location. Of course the Annapurna Circuit will be more expensive overall - whether by tour or self-organised - simply because it takes more days to complete (assuming you do the whole Circuit). Both treks require you to buy the same Annapurna trekking permit (around $20).

In terms of comfort, tea houses provide good accommodation on both treks and hearty meals. Menu variety is generally better on the Base Camp trek. Beds are not especially comfortable by Western standards but you will usually be too tired to care! It’s also possible to camp in some locations on both routes and some tours offer camping only, although personally I would always prefer a bed after a long day of trekking.

Larger villages on both routes sell basic trekking supplies, snacks and drinks. Slow internet is even available in some locations, although don’t count on it. Mobile phone reception is surprisingly good during many parts of the treks. Many villages have electricity even in the remote places although it’s often turned off at night. Some places offer charging for devices like cameras, phones and tablets overnight for a fee.

Hot water for showers usually comes at a premium away from civilization (usually on a paid meter and heated by gas) but is available in many teahouses on both routes. Toilets come in either the “squatter” Asian variety or the Western variety. Western toilets are easier to find on the Base Camp trek.

Prices of accommodation, food and drink rise the further from roads that you are on both treks, because supplies must be carried in by porter, mule or yak. As an example, the villages close to Annapurna Base Camp prices are nearly double that of the start of the trek. Prices of food and accommodation are still cheap by Western standards on the trail though. During quieter periods its often possible to get a room for free if you agree to buy dinner at breakfast from a teahouse. It’s easier to haggle for deals like this on the quieter Circuit and food tends to be a bit cheaper than the Base Camp trek.

Bear in mind if you aren’t on a tour you may be also paying daily rates for a guide or porter if you want one. A guide is not compulsory - trails are easy to follow and generally well signposted, and the trails and villages are full of people who speak English. A good guide can be useful though for proper pacing and information. Hiring a porter is recommended, and cheap, but again not compulsory (a guide can also be a porter). Carrying a big backpack on steep trails and at high altitudes makes the going much slower and harder. People are more likely to want a porter on the Annapurna Circuit due to its length. Remember to factor tips into your overall cost.

Annapurna has incredible scenery and mountain views

Annapurna has incredible scenery and mountain views

Scenery, Atmosphere and Culture

First things first - both of these treks have incredible scenery and mountain views making it almost impossible to pick a winner in the looks department.

Annapurna Circuit

Annapurna Circuit passes through more varied terrain and landscapes than Base Camp. Highlights include the striking Mustang region in the north, a barren but impressive landscape of strange cliff rock formations scattered with apple orchards. The Kali Gandaki gorge, one of the deepest in the world is another highlight as is the climb over the Thorong Las Pass at over 5000m high. On the Circuit the Annapurna mountains are further away than on the Base Camp trek, but this means you get better panoramas of the massif.

Much of the Annapurna Circuit is now connected via dirt/gravel roads and some of the trekking is done on these. However in recent years efforts have been made on the Circuit to build new trails away from the roads, so although you still walk on roads in a few places, it’s much less than it used to be.

Culturally the Circuit is more interesting than the Base Camp trek. You pass through many more villages from different ethnic backgrounds such as the Thakali and Gurung people. More of these villages remain traditional, rather than the villages which are now entirely devoted to trekkers on the Base Camp trek. In the north the people have a Tibetan heritage and customs and architecture are very different to the south.

The Circuit is much quieter than Annapurna Base Camp in terms of trekker concentration thanks to its longer length and wider trails. It also offers many interesting side trips along its length like Kagbeni village, Tilicho lake and the Nar Phu valley.

Annapurna Base Camp

The Annapurna Base Camp trek is more green in general, passing through a large variety of ecosystems as you work your way up and down the many valleys to reach Annapurna Sanctuary. After attractive terraced farmland you pass through multiple types of forest including rhododendron and even bamboo. As the trail progresses it eventually becomes more barren and rocky before reaching the long grassland of the Sanctuary strewn with boulders. Viewpoints throughout have superb mountain views and for most of the trek the massive peak of Machapuchare and its neighbours tower above your surroundings. The side trip to Ghorepani and Poon Hill has spectacular panoramic views of the Annapurnas and is famous to see at sunrise.

The trek highlight is at the top at the Annapurna Sanctuary where the Base Camps are located. Trekkers leave very early in the morning to reach the beautiful grassy Sanctuary before clouds rise to obscure the summits in mid-morning (or stay overnight up there). The views here are astonishing and have an incredible sense of scale as you stand at the base of some of the tallest mountains in the world. A huge glacier runs along past Annapurna Base Camp as well. It’s a truly memorable place. This close-up mountain experience is quite different to what you will experience on the Circuit which offers more distant panoramas.

The narrow Base Camp trails are much busier than the Circuit and in peak season accommodation gets scarce as teahouses fill up in the small villages. Most villages are dedicated to trekkers being less traditional than the Circuit, but you will still get some cultural experience especially if you head down the Dhampus part of the trails.

Annapurna Circuit vs Annapurna Base Camp

Choosing between the two

If you have enough time for either of these treks, it’s almost an impossible choice. The majority of trekkers who have done both have trouble choosing between them as they’re both so good.

If you have a shorter amount of time, we would suggest doing Annapurna Base Camp (with Poon Hill if you can fit it in) rather than just part of the Annapurna Circuit. Although Mustang is great, if you haven’t been to the Himalayas before, then Annapurna Base Camp has a bit of almost everything, with a fantastic climax at the Sanctuary. Be prepared for all of those steps though!

If you want a longer, more varied and more cultural experience with great Annapurna Panoramas then go for the Circuit. You don’t get the epic scale of being right at the mountain base but you get a bigger variety of landscapes - and the chance to see the impressive Mustang region as well. Make extra time, once you get to Nepal , for side trips if you can. It’s a more gradual ascent  in general but remember to be prepared for the higher altitudes and tough climbs around the Thorong La Pass. If you have lots of time, add the Base Camp trek to the start (or end) of your journey as well!

We hope this article has made the differences of Annapurna Circuit vs Annapurna Base Camp a bit clearer. Which one sounds best for you? Check out our other Annapurna trekking articles for more tips and advice and enjoy your trek.

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