How to do the Annapurna Sanctuary (ABC) Trek Without a Guide

June 24, 2017

When I was researching my trip to Nepal, I found it difficult to find good info about the ABC Trek.

I only found trekking itineraries from commercial tour companies, which made me think that maybe you’re not supposed to do this trek on your own.

But as I discovered when I got to Pokhara, you can do the Annapurna trek independently… and it’s actually not difficult at all to do it without a guide.

Even though everyone wants to sell you pre-packaged trekking experiences, doing it independently is much cheaper and (I think in most cases) much better.

In this post I’ll share what I know based on my trek in May 2017.

Which Annapurna trek?

The trek leading up to the base camp at Annapurna is one of the most popular ones in Nepal. It is known by various names, which can be a little confusing.

To be clear, these:

  • Annapurna Basecamp Trek
  • ABC Trek
  • Annapurna Sanctuary Trek
  • Annapurna South Trek

…are all the same trek!

Most people just call it “the ABC trek”. I guess it was later rebranded to the Sanctuary Trek, but both names are still used interchangeably.

That said, the Annapurna Circuit is a totally different trek! It goes in a huge circle all around the Annapurna mountain range and typically lasts at least 2 or 3 weeks.

This is very different from the ABC/Sanctuary Trek, which goes straight to the Annapurna base camp at 4130m and then back again. It usually takes 7 to 10 days.

Do you need a guide?

It’s not a requirement from the national park to have a guide.

And, as long as you’re not entirely helpless, you can probably do this trek by yourself!

Local stores in Pokhara sell trekking maps; just pick one up and you should be able to easily figure out the route. The latter half of the trek (anywhere after Chomrong) is especially easy to follow as it really has just one path.

There are guesthouses all along the trek where you can eat, drink, or stay the night. Early on you’ll come across a guesthouse about every 30 minutes. In the final parts of the trek, they tend to be about 2 hours apart.

One of the little tea houses on the way up to Chomrong

Guesthouses at Jinhu (there is also a hot spring here!)

There are a few shops in Chomrong (about half-way up) where you can stock up on stuff, and basic supplies can also be purchased from all of the guesthouses. Nevertheless, be sure to check the packing lists ahead of time and bring everything you need, as it’s best to be prepared and it’s much cheaper to buy things in Pokhara as well.

Advantages of taking a guide:

  • Recommended if you are trekking alone
  • It could be more fun to be with a group (but you’ll meet other trekkers either way)
  • Your accommodation is pre-booked (which may be better at height of peak season)
  • Gives more support if you’re inexperienced

Advantages of going independently:

  • You don’t have to pay $400 to $800 for a trekking package!
  • You can set your own pace entirely
  • Free to choose when and where to eat and sleep
  • You can enjoy the epic views even after the groups have left

A Nepali hiker who’d done ABC several times told me that in the peak of high season, it’s sometimes more difficult to find a place to sleep when you’re trekking independently. This meant that on one occasion he had to sleep in the dining room. I trekked in the shoulder/off-season and there was always a bed for me.

How many days is the trek?

It depends. As you may have noticed, there isn’t a fixed number of days that everyone agrees on.

This is because, firstly, there are several different starting points—which can make your trek longer or shorter.

Early on, you can also take a detour to Poon Hill and other places (I did not do this). Some itineraries are very careful about the altitude changes, putting in loads of time for acclimatization, while others are designed for inexperienced trekkers. That’s why the number of days constantly varies.

I did the trek in 7 days, starting from Siwai, while having an average fitness level. I met some hardcore trekkers who did it in 6 days, though this is unusually fast and leaves little time for altitude acclimatization. To do it at a very leisurely pace, count on 8 or 9 days, but you could even spend up to 12 days by including side-routes early on or just taking it very slow.

So again, it all depends! Though from my experience it’s possible to do it in 7 days at a reasonable pace.

The route

The Annapurna base camp is the highest point you can reach in this mountain range via a walkable path, i.e. without needing to be an alpinist or mountaineer.

The entire trek is incredibly scenic, though at base camp you’ll have a phenomenal viewing point surrounded by a dozen Himalayan peaks, including several of the tallest in the world. It makes the endeavour totally worth it.

Whatever you do, try to stay the night at least once at either MBC or ABC (the final two stops) both for acclimatization and to properly enjoy the stunning views.

Costs

Here are some of your basic costs:

TIMS permit (trekker registration) $20 (~2000 rupees)
ACAP permit (national park entry) $20 (~2000 rupees)
Taxi to your starting point 1500~2000 rupees
Taxi back to Pokhara 1500~2000 rupees
Lodging and food About 2000 a day *

I trekked to ABC in 7 days and ended up spending about $200 in total, which is obviously way less than the $400 – $800 that’s charged by companies for guided treks.

This total includes a few hot showers, using WiFi once, a battery charge, a couple of beers, and other than that just lots of breakfast, lunch, dinner, lodging, and lots of tea/snack breaks and water refills along the way.

A frugal backpacker could maybe bring this down to about $130~140, for instance by taking the bus from Nayapul or Chimrung instead of taking a taxi, not buying any paid extras like hot showers, or eating mainly Dal Bhat (this is a pretty cheap meal that usually comes with free refills).

Cost of lodging & food

The guesthouses along the route charge a nominal fee for the beds (e.g. 200 rupees) though they expect you to buy your meals from them. Most meals are in the 500 to 700 rupees range, with menus and prices standardized by the national park.

Unlike what I’ve heard about other trekking routes, the guesthouses here do not just exclusively sell Dal Bhat (steamed rice with lentil soup). You can choose from a whole range of meals including pizza, pasta, noodles, pancakes, etc. Don’t expect anything fancy, but it should fill you up OK.

Luxuries like alcohol increase in costs as you ascend—after all, someone has to carry those cans up the mountain! Expect to pay a few hundred rupees extra for other luxuries like hot showers, WiFi, battery charging, or gas heaters in winter.

I recommend staying totally offline so you’re only focused on the trekking experience. That said, at guesthouses you can pay for WiFi access, and some of restaurants and cafes in the larger settlement of Chomrong have free WiFi.

Difficulty

While the trail is very well supported, the trek isn’t super easy.

Sure, you’re never too far from another guesthouse or resting area, and the paths are very well sign-posted and easy to follow… but you should expect to have to grit your teeth a few times!

Trekking to ABC was honestly one of the more exhausting things I’ve done. It gets particularly fierce mid-way through when you quickly ascend 500m, then descend 500m, and ascend 500m again. The climb becomes more gradual after that, though the air gets thinner at this point as well.

I did the trek along with a friend who didn’t have the super ultimate fitness level, but he made it anyway. Even though you can make the trek without needing the greatest fitness level of all time, I’d say you do need some strength of character to pull through. It really is a bit of work!

Winter vs summer

I trekked to ABC late May / early June, which is well in the off-season, just before the start of monsoon. To be honest this timing may not have been ideal and I got very lucky with the weather. Even though I had a fantastic experience, others had to deal with a lot of rain and views obscured by the clouds. If you’re thinking of going this time of year I recommend going a bit earlier.

Trekking in the off-season is awesome though! I met other trekkers only every 20 to 30 min or so, which meant I could enjoy the trek without constant interruptions or delays.

A local expat told me that in the peak season (e.g. October/November) it’s pretty much a single conga line of people going up the mountain, which I imagine will detract from the experience somewhat.

Sunset over Annapurna South

On my summer trek I took a fleece, hoodie, and wind breaker with me, but realistically needed only one or two of those (specifically during the colder night and early morning, and only at the top). I brought a sleeping bag with me to Nepal but was advised to leave it behind in Pokhara. This was the right call as it was completely unnecessary. Unless you have misgivings about the duvets provided in the guesthouses, I wouldn’t bring a sleeping bag in summer or spring.

But the situation is very different in winter…

I read a guide to trekking Annapurna at my hostel which mentioned temperatures falling as low as -19 degrees C, and spilled coffee turning to ice within seconds. Wowza! This guide strongly advised bringing a down jacket in winter and not just fleece layers. With freezing temperatures, I’d be more inclined to bring my own sleeping bag as well.

5 pro tips for trekking ABC

Finally, let me leave you with a few essential tips for trekking to ABC:

1. Get your permits!

You won’t get in the park without it. Get this at the Tourism Office in Pokhara [location]. You need four passport photos, which they can make for you on-site. Getting the permits is super easy.

2. Bring a refillable water bottle

It was very heartening to see almost no discarded plastic water bottles anywhere on the trek. You can get water refills (filtered) at most guesthouses. Help reduce waste by bringing your own bottle!

3. Bring water purification tablets

You can get these from shops in Pokhara. There are often black pipes delivering fresh water from the top of the mountains—pop in a tablet and you have safe drinking water.

Between MBC and Deurali

4. Get a map

A map costs like $2 in Pokhara and even though the route is not complicated, a map can still be pretty handy. You can also download MAPS.ME on your phone, which lets you see where you are even when you don’t have a data connection.

5. Get a walking stick (seriously!)

I used to think these were only for old people—but I was wrong! I’m not usually a walking stick kinda guy, but I’m glad I took some on this trek. It particularly relieves a ton of pressure on your calves and knees on the way down. I rented some from my guesthouse in Pokhara for $3. Very highly recommended.


It also doesn’t hurt to bring a good supply of sweets and energy or granola bars! You’re gonna be walking a lot.

Oh yeah, and bring imodium (loperamide) pills. Trekking with a bad stomach isn’t fun. Some toilet paper and baby wipes can come in handy too.

If you trek anywhere in or near the monsoon, you might have to deal with… gasp… leeches! I already encountered a few small ones in early June. Bring some kitchen salt as pouring some on them will make them curl up and die within seconds. Harsh but effective.

While the ABC trek has a lot of conveniences in place and is easy to do independently (at least as I experienced during a quieter month), be sure to pack everything you need in Pokhara. There are many shops in Pokhara where you can buy everything you need.

All I’m left to say is that this trek was one of the best things I’ve done in my travels. Depending on how long you’re in Nepal it might take a considerable chunk of your available time, but it’s absolutely worth it.

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3 comments

  1. John Reply September 21, 2017 at 8:55 pm

    Hi Marek, thanks very much for the response! That’s really helpful, clear views of the mountains would certainly be a must, and leeches, yeah, I’d certainly like to avoid them!

  2. John Reply September 21, 2017 at 11:15 am

    Great piece. I’ve read a few on the ABC and this is both really informative and well written. Can I ask a question please?

    You mention that you were lucky with the weather. My partner and I are both teachers (one uni, one secondary school). As such the only decent window for visiting Nepal and doing the ABC is July – September – slap bang in the middle of the monsoon season! Do you think it is really impracticable to have a crack at the ABC at this time then?

    Again, great post and blog, keep it up!

    Best,

    John

    • Marek Reply September 21, 2017 at 12:10 pm

      Hey John. Oof, very hard to say as I haven’t done it in the monsoon! All I can say is that with still a few weeks to go until the proper start of monsoon, half the guesthouses had already closed, so things do seem to really wind down. Hiking through the rain wasn’t so pleasant (leeches etc.) and we met people who were disappointed to only see clouds at the top. It could still be worth it just for the adventure, though I must admit having clear views of the mountains was definitely a huge part of the enjoyment for me. I guess you’ve just got to be lucky to get some dry and clear days!

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