Nepal is squashed between India and China (Tibet), and has a fascinating mix of both cultures. We did the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas without a guide, which took us 15 days. It was blooming tough and well gross at times (the toilets, the toilets!). It takes guts to do the Annapurna Circuit. But I am so proud of myself for doing it, and you can be this proud of yourself too!
The Annapurna Circuit is known for being one of the most impressive long distance treks on the planet. If you want an honest account of what it’s like (DEAD RAT IN THE TOILET!), read about my Annapurna Circuit adventures:
Exactly What You Need To Know
This blog answers all the main questions you have about doing the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas independently. Along with giving you a few little-known tips and tricks that worked for us!
I also talk about safety. My friend had a guy almost die on her.
On this blog, I have used affiliate links. This means we make a little pocket money if you buy anything through the links we have given. Don’t worry, we will never suggest buying pants products and only recommend products we’ve used.
The Annapurna Circuit: Without A Guide Or Porter
Yes, you can do the Annapurna Circuit without a guide or a porter. It was pretty hard, but for me there was a massive sense of achievement in doing it ourselves and carrying our own stuff the whole way.
But It’s Up To You
However, using a guide and/or a porter does give local people jobs and that’s a key positive, so I am glad some trekkers choose to do it this way.
There’s no wrong or right way to do the Annapurna Circuit, it’s up to you.
Don’t Be A D**k Though
If you do decide to use a porter, please still pack lightly. I saw so many porters struggling, exhausted and carrying way too many big bags.
How To Avoid Getting Lost
When it comes to guides, it does help to have someone who knows the way. However, we found that whenever we got lost, there usually was a helpful local who would point us in the right direction.
To stop us getting totally lost, we picked up a map in Kathmandu. Lots of book shops sell maps for various different trekking routes.
Get This Annapurna Circuit Map
The map we used was the Himalayan Map House: NEPA Maps NA504 – Around Annapurna, the most up to date edition. This cost us 600 rupees (which is around $5.50 USD).
Look out for maps that include the New Annapurna Trekking Trails (NATTS) which show alternative routes off the road.
Annapurna Maps: Little-Known Tip
However, please do be careful if you decide to do any of these NATTS routes, some of these require extra permits and a guide. Some of them are badly marked and quite dangerous.
Be Aware: The Weather
There are two main trekking seasons for the Annapurna Circuit, although you can go throughout the year with proper packing.
October through to November and mid-March to mid-April are best, outside of this time conditions are more dangerous with rockfalls, heavy snowfall and landslides more likely to occur.
Distance And Time
The Annapurna Circuit took us 15 days. Rest days weren’t that necessary for us, we just took it slow when we got to higher altitude.
We did a 160 mile route (I think, google seems to be unsure!).
Villages We Stopped At:
- Dhikur Pokhari
- Bhakra (stayed here 2 nights, headed up to the Ice Lake)
- Thorong Phedi (basecamp)
- High Camp (just before the Thorong La Pass)
- Jomsom (then took the 13 hour bus to Pokhara)
Equipment And Clothes For The Annapurna Circuit
OMG some nights on the Annapurna Circuit were bloody cold. At one point it got to minus 10 degrees. Warmth was a priority for us, as was safety. We brought the following equipment and clothes on the Annapurna Circuit:
- Zip off trousers (2 pairs)
- T-shirts (3)
- Long sleeve tops (2)
- Thermal pants (2 pairs)
- Thermal tops (2) (it gets really cold at night)
- Lightweight fleece (1)
- Down jacket (1)
- Decent raincoat (1)
- Light rain poncho that covers your bag (1)
- Long pajama bottoms (1 pair)
- Underwear (5 pairs)
- Warm hat (1)
- Gloves (1 pair)
- Sun hat (1)
- Light scarf (1)
- Good trekking boots (1) – I have this pair of Salomons, they are so comfortable and waterproof. Mine are low rise, so you might want a pair of high rise walking boots. Remember to go half a UK size up. Salomons are damn comfy and the best walking shoes I’ve ever owned, but funny sizes. James has Merrell Men’s Moab 2 GTX Hiking Boots.
- Travel water filter to save buying plastic bottles. We’ve done a comprehensive review of the best travel water filters, and our travel water filter is a Survivor Filter PRO.
- 2 – 4 litre camelbak / hydration bladder
- Water purification tablets in case our water filter broke (Oasis and LifeSystems). Lifesystems can be used where the water is more suspect as they are stronger than Oasis purification pills.
- Lightweight minus 20 sleeping bag
- Sleeping sheet
Emergency / Health Provisions:
- A survival shelter (remember bad weather can happen, 43 people died on the Annapurna Circuit in 2014)
- First aid kit including: bandages, plasters, compeeds, sterile needle set (we didn’t use ours, but someone we know did), medical gloves, wound cleaning wipes, sterile sodium chloride wound eye wash pods (e.g. little sterile bottles for cleaning wounds), scissors, tweezers and sterile butterfly closure bandages
- Medication including diamox (altitude sickness pills), ibuprofen, water treatment tablets, Imodium and re-hydration salts
- 30 – 40 litre backpack. I used the older and no longer available version of this Osprey backpack. This backpack has good reviews too though.
- Shampoo and shower gel
- Hand sanitiser
- Toilet roll
- Sun cream (including lip balm with SPF)
- Mosquito repellent for the lowlands
- Baby wipes (very important, there aren’t many showers once you get near the pass)
- Small packet of laundry detergent to hand wash clothes
- Few energy bars and snacks (you won’t need much, there are plenty of tea houses serving food on the way)
- Proper head torch (not just your phone, which is difficult to use in stinky dark squat toilets)
- A lightweight towel
I used everything I brought with me. Apart from anything I brought for an emergency situation (the survival shelter and sterile needle set) as I didn’t get into any difficulties. Emergency situations on the Annapurna Circuit are not that uncommon, so it is best to be prepared.
Hasn’t The Annapurna Circuit Been Ruined By The Road?
A lot of people we met who were trekking the Annapurna Circuit and complained about the road which has been newly built along much (but not all) of the route.
To manage expectations, this road isn’t a big road! It’s basically just a dirt track and can get very dusty. It might make the Annapurna Circuit less beautiful (it’s still gorgeous though don’t worry!), but it does mean that local people along this road are less cut off from the outside world.
The road gives locals greater access to healthcare and supplies. Before the road if granddad got sick he probably would have died, now he might not.
A Slight Issue With The Road
A key issue I think when it comes to the road is that many trekkers (who are often on limited time-frames) jeep it up to too high altitudes to start the trek and they are not acclimatised.
My friend, a trainee doctor, almost had a guy die on her due to altitude sickness. He had to be emergency helicoptered out. He had jeeped it up to Manang (3,519 metres).
The Annapurna Circuit Crowds: Isn’t It Really Busy?
It can be. Early on in the lowlands it’s really not very busy, but as said above many people jeep it up so it can get busier nearer the pass (particularly from Manang). This does mean it can be hard to get spaces at the guesthouses, particularly as often the tour groups have called ahead to book them up.
We often saw trekkers sleeping on the floor in guesthouses.
Little-Known Tips To Avoid The Crowds
To ensure everyone in our group (all independent trekkers) got a bed, we’d send our strongest out early to book up the guesthouse at the next destination for us.
We also stayed at the smaller, less popular villages along the route.
Annapurna Circuit Permits
The easiest place to go to get your permits for the Annapurna Circuit is the Nepal Tourism Board Office in Kathmandu.
You need 2 different permits:
- The Trekkers Information Management System (TIMS)
- The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP)
You will need 4 passport photos altogether (2 for the 2 permits and 2 for the Tourism Board Office to keep).
Each permit costs 2260 rupees (around $20 USD), so for both permits its around $40 USD. You can pay in USD, but it’s better to pay in Nepalese rupees as it works out cheaper.
For the permit applications, you will need to know:
- Approximate dates for starting and finishing the Annapurna Circuit
- Where you plan to start and finish the Annapurna Circuit
- Your trekking itinerary
- Emergency contact information in Nepal (you can use your Kathmandu hotel’s contact info) and an emergency contact in your home country
- Your insurance policy number, their phone number and what your insurance covers (you need insurance for high altitude trekking)
Insurance For The Annapurna Circuit
My husband, who has worked in insurance for 10 years (snore, but useful) did some comprehensive research on which was the best insurance provider for the Annapurna Circuit.
Big Cat Insurance
We found that Big Cat was best for us, as it was one of the only reasonably priced insurers that provided cover for the whole of our trip (for a year) and specifically covered trekking above 4,500 metres.
Our package was the Extreme Activity Pack. Trekking without a guide was permitted, unlike some of the other insurers out there.
Non-medical mountain rescue (for bad weather etc.) was covered. But most importantly so was airlifting out in medical emergencies (called “Medical Emergency Repatriation”).
If You Get Airlifted Out: It Costs $10,000
For Nepal airlifting out had an excess of £500. This may seem high, but more and more insurers are not covering this or are charging an extortionate premium.
When you consider that getting airlifted out will cost you at least $10,000 per person and the high numbers of helicopters you see flying over most days on the Annapurna Circuit trek, airlifting people out, we felt justified in getting proper cover.
All Good Things Come To An End: New Nepal Packages For Big Cat
Things have changed since we bought our cover (in September 2018). You now have to purchase the specific Nepal Trekking Activity Pack.
This provides cover up to 7,000 metres as all other activity packs only cover trekking outside of Nepal. The Extreme pack (which we have) still covers you above 4,500m with no limit, but only outside of Nepal. Additionally the excess has gone up to £1,500.
Other Good Insurers
We used Big Cat because they were good for our entire year away, however many trekkers who are just doing the Annapurna Circuit use World Nomads.
Trailfinders are also a good option if you want to use a guide. So you need to make a choice which fits your requirements.
Whatever you do, don’t get caught out and make sure you read all the terms and conditions!
Budget For The Annapurna Circuit
Our spend was around £16 per person per day for accommodation and food. We didn’t really drink alcohol and ate pretty cheaply. As a couple it was also a little cheaper for us because we could share a room.
If you are trekking as a person on your own it will be slightly more expensive. Also guesthouses are sometimes so busy they might make you share your room (not your bed, don’t worry!).
It gets more expensive as you get to higher altitude. You end up having to pay for wifi and showers whereas lower down they are free.
Besisahar: Starting Point Of The Annapurna Circuit
We started off at Besisahar.
The local bus from Kathmandu took about 8 hours. It cost 600 rupees, and we bought the ticket the day before from the bus station. The buses go from the Gongabu New Bus Station and leave at around 7am.
We had heard horror stories about this bus journey, but really it was fine.
The End And Getting To Pokhara
Our Annapurna journey finished in Jomsom, and we took the local bus from Jomsom to Pokhara.
My Bus Almost Tipped Off A Mountain
I can honestly say it was the bus journey from hell. The first 25 miles took us 9 hours, and the whole journey took us 13 hours.
It was so bumpy, often there wasn’t even a road to drive along and the bus drove along river beds. I had blisters on my hands from holding on so tight and my head bashed the top of the bus regularly. We witnessed a big landslide and the bus almost flipped off the road multiple times.
I was blooming glad to be alive afterwards.
To get a bus ticket to Pokhara, visit one of the multiple bus desks spread across Jomsom. You might have to go to a few as sometimes during public holidays tickets can get sold out. We paid 1100 rupees (just under $10 USD) for our ticket.
There aren’t that many other ways to get to Pokhara from Jomsom. You can take a jeep but it’s still the same road, you can carry on walking if your feet don’t hurt too much and you have the time, or you can fly which is pretty dangerous too and there are luggage restrictions. It’s up to you!
Annapurna Circuit: The Altitude
The highest point of the Annapurna Circuit is 5416m.
I found the altitude extremely hard. We took it really slow, but when we were nearing the top, every bit of physical exertion (even going to the toilet or getting into bed) got me out of breath.
I am a strong walker at lower altitudes so I found this very frustrating. Some people are absolutely fine (like my husband) so it’s very much down to the individual person and how your body responds.
The main thing is to take it slow, stay put or go to lower altitudes if you need and don’t be a hero, it could cost you your life. And when I say this, I am NOT pissing about.
Altitude Sickness: It Really Could Cost You Your Life
My friend, a trainee doctor, saved a guys life who was sick from the altitude. His door in the guesthouse had to be broken down, he was non responsive, pale as a sheet and 30 minutes from death. My friend administered medication and he had to be helicoptered out.
Just so you know, there are actually three types of altitude sickness:
1. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
2. High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACE)
3. High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPE)
These can affect people from 2,500 metres up. HACE is when there is fluid in the brain and HAPE is when there is fluid in the lungs. Both HACE and HAPE are life threatening.
The guy my friend treated had HACE and almost died. He was lucky a trainee doctor was around to save his life.
Acute Mountain Sickness
AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) is common and is similar to a hangover. It causes headache, nausea, and fatigue. However getting AMS puts you at higher risk of getting High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPE) and Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACE).
To prevent AMS, diamox (acetazolamide) can be taken. This can cause a few mild side effects such as needing to pee a bit more and tingly fingers/toes. My friend took it and he peed 8 times in one night. I took it and didn’t pee once. Go figure.
High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema
High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPE) symptoms include breathlessness, usually with the symptoms for AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) also occurring. Often a cough will develop, and this might produce white or pink frothy sputum. Heart rate may speed up, body temperature may elevate and lips can turn blue.
HAPE may look like a chest infection, but if you or a friend get these symptoms you need to get medical help and get to lower altitude.
Altitude Cerebral Oedema
Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACE) affects the brain, so the first signs are a change in behaviour such as laziness, confusion, excessive emotion or violence. Drowsiness and a loss of consciousness occur before death.
Someone suffering from HACE needs medical treatment immediately and to be taken to lower altitude.
This Mistake Could Kill Someone: Altitude Sickness
The guy my friend treated had been left behind by his friends at a guesthouse and he’d become unconscious in his room. Do not leave people who are suffering from altitude sickness symptoms alone and make sure they get medical treatment.
Warning: Myths About Taking Diamox
Some people are concerned about taking diamox for the milder AMS, as they fear it will mask the symptoms of the more dangerous HACE and HAPE.
This is a myth, diamox does not hide anything. If you are sick, you will feel sick.
At Manang (on the Annapurna Circuit) an altitude expert runs sessions on altitude sickness. In these sessions, the expert explained that diamox is the drug that works the best for AMS and there is no issue taking in (bar a few mild side affects). Again, she reiterated that it does not mask any symptoms, it just accelerates acclimatization.
You should still take it slow and keep an eye on your body for the more dangerous symptoms of HAPE and HACE, but if the altitude is bothering you (like it did me, despite taking it ridiculously slow) there is no harm in taking diamox and making the experience a little more comfortable.
Further, for diamox to be most effective, it should be taken 24-48 hours before getting to a high altitude (more than 3000m).
For more information on altitude sickness, please see check out altitude.org. At Manang (on the Annapurna Circuit) free educational sessions on altitude sickness are also run. Pop into one of those and keep yourself safe (and alive!).
Annapurna Circuit: Mind-Blowing Views Not To Miss
I don’t mean to scare you with all the stuff about altitude sickness!
Despite the altitude, the Annapurna Circuit is a beautiful trek. It’s worth climbing up to the Ice Lake near Bhakra (it’s good altitude training too!) and when you get to High Camp head up the little hill behind the Guesthouse (overlooking Thorong Phedi) for some absolutely mind-blowing views.
Read More: The Annapurna Circuit Without A Guide
I found the Annapurna Circuit trek difficult whilst also incredible and endlessly astonishing, read about how I got chased by a yak, met the spiders from hell and all the other adventures I had in the Himalayas: