This is Part II of my Ultimate Guide To Hiking The Annapurna Circuit. Read Part I.
Best Time To Hike The Annapurna Circuit
A bit of knowledge can go a long way when it comes to choosing the best time to visit Nepal and hiking the Annapurna Circuit. While getting to the start of the Circuit doesn’t require a stomach-churning and weather-dependent flight like it does to get to start the Everest Base Camp trek, heavy snow can close off the Thorong La Pass cutting off your access to the other half of the circuit. The dry season starts in October/November, making it one of the best time of year to do the trek amidst the landscapes that’s lush and green from the recent monsoons. Visibility is clear and you can get amazing views of the Himalayas throughout the hike. December and January offers similar visibility but a drop in temperature that can make the trek very cold or even closed at the pass. February to April reopens the window for a more comfortable trek before the monsoon and heat hits in May. It’s best to avoid the trek from June through early September where the humidity and monsoon arrives in full force. The trails are wet and muddy and waterfalls and floods can partially block the trails and roads to and on the Annapurna Circuit. Choose wisely.
Hiking Alone Vs. With A Guide
If you’ve met someone who’s trekked the Annapurna Circuit on their own, they’ll probably tell you that you don’t need a guide. If you walk into one of the tour offices in Thamel, they’ll probably tell you that not only should you do it with a hike, you should probably hire a porter to carry your pack as well. So which is it? Instead of giving you a convulated one-size-fits-all answer, I’ll highlight a few things.
Can You Find Your Own Way?
The circuit doesn’t require you carry a personal GPS system to find your way through unmarked trails. It’s pretty easy to follow. There are several times where the road splits, but you will generally be able to figure it out. You can get by communicating with basic English, simple gestures or just pointing to things. Maps and information are available so you can figure out where it’s recommended you stop each day and how long you should take to acclimate to each of the stages leading up to the pass.
How Much Does A Guide Cost?”
Guides generally run between 10-20 USD per day. If you are splitting the cost, it’s even more cost effective. If you’ve factored in the cost of getting to Nepal and taking the time to do this once in a lifetime trek, the added cost of having a guide is pretty reasonable. You also support the local economy and provide a job to one of the locals. The cost of their accommodation and food is included. As far as I know, there is an agreement that guides are provided food and accommodation when they are accompanied by hikers. It’s almost like a commission thing if you want to think about it like that.
Do You Like To Make Your Own Schedule?
While the guide will accommodate for your needs, they will generally stick to the schedule that you and the tour office decided on beforehand. If you came in and said I have 14 days, they will come up with an itinerary to make that work. If you said, you had 10, they will still find a way to make that work. But this is almost an arbitrary number since you really don’t know how you’ll feel after 5 days of hiking for 4-8 hours uphill. Doing it on your own means you can potentially stay an extra couple of nights in a village if you want to just relax and enjoy the mountain air or have another yak steak. It’s not that you can’t do this with a guide, it’s just easier when you only have to be considerate of your own schedule.
Will The Guide Carry My Stuff?
A guide generally will not. That’s the job of a porter who you can hire to carry your backpack. This may seems luxurious, but it may enable weaker hikers to do the trek without having to carry their 15-20 lb pack. For photographers, it may free you up to carry just your camera in a smaller pack. At the teahouses, the guide can add a measure of comfort by getting you extra blankets for the cold nights or pre-ordering your breakfast so it’s ready when you wake up, amongst other things. It’s almost like having a butler. You can also get a guide cum porter, a 2 in 1 solution, although I suspect it just means the tourist office is providing a regular guide and telling him that he has to carry your pack.
What Happens If I Get Hurt?
There’s always an inherent risk in hiking alone. I always prefer to hike at least in pairs in case you get hurt and require some assistance. Cuts and bruises are easy enough to deal with but can you identify the symptoms of high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) or high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and make the right decisions to descend or call for a helicopter evacuation? Unfortunately, altitude sickness is more common than people think and having someone experienced by your side can be useful.
Overall, I think there is something more fulfilling about tackling a challenge on your own (or with a friend). The independence of it is an intangible but significant consideration. If you prefer to have a more comfortable experience, hiring or sharing a guide won’t break the bank, but will put your mind at ease as far as not getting lost and not having to do the research to plan your own itinerary. One last thing to consider is that you will be spending the better part of 10-21 days with this person. You may enjoy the conversation and company or you may attempt a night time escape.
What To Pack
A backpack is a good start. A comfortable backpack would be a better start. Then there’s the trekking shoes, the trekking sticks, the trekking socks, the trekking beanie, a trekking shirt, a warmer trekking shirt, and you get my point. You’re going on a trek. You’ll need some trekking gear. You can also do the whole thing with just a pair of shorts, a tank top, and a toothbrush but it might be a little uncomfortable at times. Somewhere in between is probably the way to go, but that’s still a lot of gear to think about and bring with you to Nepal, especially if you are on a longer trip that isn’t centered around trekking. Lucky for you, Thamel and Pokhara is one stop shop where you can buy everything you need on the cheap (if you don’t mind buying some North Fake instead of North Face) even if you show up to Nepal with just a pair of shorts, a tank top and a toothbrush. Just remember to bargain for that windbreaker. Now here’s the packing list broken down between the essentials and others things you might need.
Essential Trekking Gear List
Trekking Shoes. Something comfortable, preferably broken in, with good grip and ankle support. The terrain will range from dirt roads to rocky snow-covered trails.
Socks. Moisture wicking socks will keep your feet dry and happy. Bring as many pairs as you feel you need, but you can also air out a pair while you wear another.
Shirts. Performance shirts are the way to go here, unless you really want to rock that favorite cotton t-shirt of yours. Temperatures will fluctuate quite a bit as you gain altitude. The daytime can get quite warm while you might be asking for a second blanket at night. Layers are the way to go. Short sleeves and long sleeves that you can add on or take off will save you space and keep you cool and warm when you need it.
Shorts/Pants. If there’s a time when it’s appropriate to wear those trekking pants with the zip-off shorts, this is it. Two pairs will be plenty.
Short/Long Underwear. Underwear is a given, but long underwear will keep you warm as you get higher up.
Puffy Jacket/Rain Shell. Your first line of protection against the element. Compressible puffy jackets are lightweight and keep you very warm. A rain shell is optional, but for how light it is, you might as well pack it in there in case it rains. A trash bag will also work, but it’s also a trashbag.
Backpack. Get one with a hip belt. It’ll save your shoulders across all those miles.
Beanie/Gloves. While it’s a myth that you lose most of your heat from your head, it’s still nice to keep that noggin of yours warm. The same goes for those fingers.
Flip Flops/Thongs. Give your feet a break at the end of the day.
Sunglasses. Protect your eyes. Remember that the snow will reflect the sunlight, which can be quite blinding during the hike to the pass.
Headlamp. Let there be light. Bring extra batteries. This will probably save you from spraining your ankles walking around those uneven pavement and trails at night. Or keep you from stepping into the squat toilet before, or even worse, after you take care of your business.
Snacks. There are little shops in villages selling you those Oreos and chips, but this can add up as you get closer and closer to the pass. Save that money to pay for that warm cup of tea or the Tibetan bread. Go for calorie-packed snacks with a small footprint to save space in your bag.
The “Don’t Forget” Trekking Gear List
TIMS card. You’ll need this before starting on the trek and to check in at all the security check points.
Passport. You’ll also need this to check in at the security check points.
Cash. There aren’t many ATMs along the way. Pretty much all the way until you get to Jomsom. I suggest around 1500-2000 rupees a day to cover all your accommodations and food and a bit more for those just in case moments. As in, just in case you want extra celebratory beers or you rip your pants and need to buy a new pair along the way.
Camera. Capture those special moments. I like to travel with light gear. Unless you’re a professional photographer, consider a point and shoot with a bigger sensor or one of the newer mirror-less cameras that offer DSLR image quality in a smaller package. A GoPro is also a great option. Check out some of my favorite cameras.
Extra Batteries/Charger. You’ll be on this circuit for quite a few days, so don’t forget the chargers.
International Adapter. Unfortunately Nepal doesn’t have a standard socket. You’ll find the two pronged and three pronged sockets seen in Europe and India, but also find North American sockets. Be prepared.
Compass. Not exactly required, but nice to make sure you are heading in the direction you think you’re heading in.
Water Bottles/Iodine Pills/Electrolyte Tablets. You can buy water along the way. This can add up. A bottle of water can get up to around 200 rupees near the pass. If you fill up along the way, treat your water with iodine pills. There are stations with safe drinking water as well, but it’s not available at everywhere. Electrolyte tablets will help to restore some of that salt you’re sweating away. It’ll also come in handy if you get some funky bowel movements and lose a lot of liquid out of that other end.
Trekking Poles. Extra stability and support. Might save you from a stumble or two.
Alarm. A phone or watch will work. You don’t want to accidentally oversleep and miss half a day’s hike. This is especially important the of the pass crossing when you’ll want to leave early enough to get across in time.
Book. You’ll probably want to take a nap or sleep after a hard day’s hike, but a book is a great way to pass the time when you’re not sharing stories with other trekkers at dinner.
Music. I loved the beautiful silence of hiking along the Annapurna Circuit, but sometimes it was nice to have a motivating song to get you through the tougher uphill climbs.
Moleskines. They’re little adhesive strips that will cover your blisters and keep it from being rubbed on.
Toiletries. Bring your toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant and anything else you might need like contact lens solutions. I’m not going to tell my female readers what to bring. You probably know better.
Last Bit Of Advice For Hiking The Annapurna Circuit
This is a once in a lifetime hike. I’m not exaggerating because most things change and the Circuit is no exception. With the construction of roads to provide better access between the villages, some of the old trails are disappearing. A hike that used to demand at least 3 weeks can now be done in a much shorter timeframe with a combination of buses, jeeps and plane rides. While this will enable more people to enjoy the Annapurna, it also means that those who’ve hiked it 10, 20 or 50 years ago will not get to do the same hike again. The is true even for those doing the hike this year. Take your time and enjoy it. But also take your time because it’s safer that way. Don’t ascend too fast. Listen to your body. If you are getting the symptoms of altitude sickness, descend immediately and take it from there. Turn back if you need to. It happens and while it’s disappointing, it’s better than leaving in a body bag. Stay hydrated and try to sleep at a lower altitude than you hike to during the day. This will give your body more time to acclimate. And of course, try the Tibetan bread.