Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Guide to the Annapurna Circuit Trek: Tips of the Trail

Whether in preparation for or during our trek of the Annapurna Circuit, we found ourselves gaining numerous bits of wisdom (often the hard way) that we thought might be helpful for others to know before hitting the trail. Some of these tips are applicable to any trek and others are specific to the Annapurna Circuit. Readers specifically planning to trek the Circuit should be sure to check out our trekking play-by-play and insights/advice contained in other installments of this guide: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, and Part Seven.

Before You Depart
  • Months before the trek you should purchase hiking boots or some other shoe for the trail and break them in. The Annapurna Circuit trail includes some snow, but no technical footwear is necessary. I liked having sturdy hiking boots with ankle support, but I have known trekkers who did the Circuit in hiking shoes, tennis shoes/sneakers, and even shower sandals (although these are certainly not advised). Claudine also wore hiking boots that she had previously broken in during day hikes around the Kathmandu Valley, but she still developed a number of severe blisters. We are not sure if this could be remedied by a more flexible shoe or if her feet/toes just have some design flaw that inflicts unavoidable blisters after days of intense walking. Claudine's cautionary tale should be incentive to choose your footwear wisely and try it out at home to break it in and spot any problems before it's too late. To go about purchasing hiking boots, we tried on a variety of models at outdoor outfitters and made our decision based on comfort and some input from helpful salespeople. Again, don't be talked into someting extremely technical and expensive -- you should be able to get a very high-quality boot for under $150. We opted to buy a lifetime membership at REI for $20, entitling us to a 10% rebate on our purchases at REI annually. If you are buying lots of trekking gear, this membership may be something to consider.
  • We suggest buying a serious hiking backpack before arriving in Nepal because your selection and assurance of quality will be greater at home than here. You won't want or need a huge pack for this trek, especially if you are using a porter. We borrowed packs from a friend, but we suggest going to a store to make sure that your pack is the appropriate size for your frame. Try using your pack on some hikes at home while you are breaking in your shoes. This will help you gain some comfort with your pack and ensure it has no major flaws in lieu of encountering any surprises in the mountains.
  • Not only will some trial hikes help break in your boots, they will help you to be in proper physical shape for your trek. Claudine and I were glad we had done a number of peak climbs before setting off for the Circuit. The Annapurna Circuit is not physically demanding enough to be intimidating to those in decent shape, but we are sure that some of the longer days and steeper stretches were more manageable thanks to our previous experience.

Other Packing Advice
Other than boots and some clothing articles we had on hand, we procured much of our equipment by borrowing from friends and buying items in Kathmandu. Upon reflection, there are some things you should try to get at home before coming to Nepal:
  • Moleskin for blisters (cheaper at home)
  • Camelback drinking water system, especially bladders to fit in your pack (low-quality imitations of Camelback equipment abound in Nepal)
  • Invest in an e-reader for books and magazines (we love our Amazon Kindles). You can't buy these easily or cheaply here, and the ability to fit lots of reading material downloaded onto such a small, light device is invaluable, especially when carrying your belongings on your back.
  • On that note, consider photocopying the pages of the guidebook you will need while on the trek. No need to carry the whole book when a handful of pages will suffice.
  • While on the trail, we preferred the sounds of nature to music from iPods. Bus rides in Nepal, however, are bumpy affairs, and reading on them is nearly impossible. If you can pump your headphone volume louder than the bus's blaring Hindi music, you will be glad you brought your own distraction to pass the hours. Better yet, consider downloading audio books or podcasts. Download speeds in Nepal range from slow to molasses, so load up your playlists before departing.
  • The price of candy bars on the trail seems to rise in direct relation to your body's craving for the high-calorie treat as you reach more remote, high altitudes. We brought some of our own but were very happy to have some energy bars in addition to pure candy. The selection for energy bars is limited and expensive in Kathmandu, so if you have a favorite, stock up at home. We especially liked Clif Bars, in part because they did not have coatings or ingredients that could melt in the heat of our packs.
Whether to get most other goods and apparel at home or in Nepal is a matter of preference. Some things will be cheaper here, but they are fake imitation goods with corresponding lower quality: waterproof jackets aren't as waterproof as you might like, and zippers have a tendency to bust. On the other hand, if you buy carefully and are looking for one-trip, amateur gear, Thamel is a great place to buy what you will need for the trail at a discount. We bought from Shona's, a Thamel institution run by a helpful, experienced Brit and his Nepali wife, Shona. Everything we bought there was relatively high-quality and lasted us during the trek. They also rent more expensive things like down jackets if you don't want to make the one-trip investment or bring your own stylish coat from home. The prices seemed fair, and if they were higher than other places in Thamel, we were happy to pay a small premium for the convenience of one-stop shopping and the peace of mind that we were getting decent quality goods. On the other hand, if you are a stickler for high-quality, name-brand goods and you are into trekking enough to want to invest in serious, multiple-use garments and equipment, then it may be in your interest to load up on gear at home.

We suggest packing light, but here are some thoughts on things we were very glad to have with us and think should find their way into your pack:
  • "If I could offer you one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it." The sun is intense here, even in cold weather -- wear sunscreen or suffer the consequences! We used Coppertone 90 SPF Sport spray, which was great for easy application, sweatproof durability, and light weight and size compared to heavier lotions. Buy your sunscreen at home as the selection in Kathmandu is limited and the prices high.
  • A corollary to sunscreen: be sure to bring high-quality, comfortable sunglasses and invest in a brimmed sun hat (about 200 rupees/3 USD in Thamel). The hats are ugly, but the sun protection is worth it.
  • Hiking poles are ridiculously helpful, so be sure to have two and consider having an extra on hand in case one breaks mid-trek. You can buy replacement poles in certain towns on the trail, but the supply is sparse and prices are high.
  • A headlamp (flashlight you wear on your head) is handy for freeing up your hands. It is also a gem for a mid-night jaunt to your unattached, outdoor, poorly-lit teahouse toilet.
  • Among other things, your medical kit should include painkillers, Cipro, a stash of diamox/acetazolamide altitude sickness pills, and moleskin, athletic tape, and scissors for dealing with blisters. Do not wait for blisters to form before treating them! Once you feel a "hot spot" coming on, cover it with moleskin (and perhaps tape) to prevent the blister from blooming in the first place.
  • Ziplock bags are helpful lightweight organizers for loose items in your bag, especially ones that contain liquid and might leak.
  • A simple bandanna can act as a sun shield, sweat mop, napkin, and tissue...but unfortunately does not double as a juicer/potato slicer.
  • You will want a set of clean, comfy clothes to change into for teahouse evenings. Keep these in a dry bag in case of rain (ensuring no matter how soaked you are on the trail, your evenings can be dry). For a respite from their boots, many people bring slippers, but I suggest a pair of rubber/plastic Crocs which double as both protective shower shoes (some of the shower floors are pretty gross) and evening slippers because they dry fast and, unlike thong sandals, allow for warm socks in cold weather. Teva-style sandals achieve the same dual purpose. Fashion be damned.
  • It was a difficult decision, but in the end we are glad we brought our point-and-shoot digital camera rather than deal with our SLR. The SLR was just too bulky for our bags and we did not want to worry about theft/loss/damage on the trail. Also, having to pull the SLR out of our bag each time we wanted to snap a shot would have been time-consuming and annoying. We are quite pleased with our resulting pictures, but we may hunt for a new pack that allows better storage and use of an SLR for future treks.

Other Trekking Tips
  • We both used Ncell cell phone service, and neither of us got any reception along the trail. We have heard, though cannot confirm with certainty, that Nepal Telecom (NTC) gets better service on the trail, so if you value cell reception and will be getting a sim card in Nepal, go for NTC.
  • Speaking of being out of touch, the only places we saw along the eastern side of the Pass with internet connection were Chame, Lower Pisang, and Manang. The rate was 200 rupees (about 3 USD) for ten minutes and 350 rupees (about 5 USD) for half an hour.
  • Not all teahouses are created equal. In any given town we took the time to do a quick check of teahouses before committing for the night. We always asked to see a room first and -- more importantly -- the toilet and shower. The food at most teahouses is fairly indistinguishable, but when possible we chose places that had pleasant common dining rooms with nice views because that is where we spent the bulk of our evenings. Room rates are negotiable, as proprietors seem to make the bulk of their money on the set-price menu you will be ordering from for dinner and breakfast.
  • The shower's hot water "systems" at some teahouses can be a bit confusing. Consider having the proprietor show you how the hot water works before getting into your birthday suit and realizing you need help. Not that this happened to me... On a related note, don't complete your shower only to find you forgot to bring your towel. Not that this happened to me...
  • Do: meet other trekkers from around the world while on the trail and relaxing in teahouses. Don't: get romantically involved with these trekkers unless you are prepared to keep bumping into them daily for the duration of the trek (not that we had any issues at all in this realm, but we have heard stories and can just imagine).
With all of this information, you should be ready to tackle the trek. So why are you stalling? Just look what awaits you on the trail:

Day 10: Climbing to the Thorung Pass

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