For families with small children, Nepal is an unlikely destination to spend time in the outdoors, but after three weeks on the Annapurna Circuit, I’m happy to say that it has been one of the best family adventures we’ve tackled so far.
With superb mountain views, intriguing cultures to encounter, and enough teahouses and hotels dotted along its trails to make trekking a breeze, adventures in the world’s highest hiking wonderland are hard to beat. The Nepalese simply ADORE children too. But how do plan for and enjoy the experience as a family when you have one or more small children in tow?
If you scour the Internet in search of good advice and encouragement, don’t be surprised if the ‘experts’ turn you off the idea completely.
In preparing for our trip, I failed to read much that inspired me to take our child trekking, and successive online searches only inflamed my concerns about altitude sickness and whether our child could handle the walking, the basic guesthouse conditions, and most importantly, have fun.
Even the world’s leading guidebook to trekking in Nepal advises against exactly the sort of trip we’ve just done with our four-year-old daughter. But knowing our child, who absolutely thrives in the outdoors, and being prepared to take our time and move at her pace, we forged ahead.
On the trail, our little powerhouse Maya walked most of the way under her own steam, (with the occasional shoulder ride from Dad), and we managed the trip without a guide or porter simply by carrying less gear, relying on a good maps app and taking our time.
In Nepal, teahouse trekking frees you from the burden of hauling camping and cooking gear, with everything from warm bedding and hot showers to good meals and essential supplies readily available on major trekking routes. All you need is comfortable clothing and shoes, a great attitude and perhaps a pocketful of treats.
Our Annapurna Route
Our chosen route was a moderate one out of Pokhara up the very civilised western side of the famed Annapurna Circuit, from Tatopani to Jomsom to experience the Tibetan-style culture and dramatic moonscape of Lower Mustang.
The fact that a 4WD track now parallels the trekking route up the Kali Gandaki valley disappoints many travellers, but for parents with small kids it’s a godsend, providing an escape of sorts in the case of injury, accident or if things just don’t go according to plan. Although the road is a rugged ordeal, mini buses and 4WD vehicles travel the route, and when conditions permit, planes fly out of Jomsom, a week’s walk up the trail.
A bonus for us was that the little-travelled upper section of the road beyond Tatopani proved perfect for walking hand-in-hand with our child, who could easily tackle the gentle gradient. There was very little traffic on the road during the July-August monsoon (usually because landslides stalled all vehicles), and the scenery rivalled the sometimes tougher Annapurna Circuit foot trail just across the river. In the end, we switched back and forth between the two, moving slowly upriver.
Days on the trail provided so much to enjoy. We stood beneath thundering waterfalls and skipped through muddy puddles, dared each other across rickety suspension bridges, and spent sunny afternoons with our boots off sipping pots of milky marsala tea.
We picked apricots and daises, petted tiny donkeys and peered into ancient monasteries. In doing so, we got fit, ate good, local food and shared stories with hundreds of locals who marvelled at the presence of our bubbly blonde child on the trail and invariably gave her the ‘thumbs up’.
Slow down, see more
While our pace was slower than most 20-something trekkers on the trail, slowing down meant we spotted lizards and birds, admired more views and had time to play en route. This was something I particularly relished.
By carrying a minimum amount of gear we were able to carry our child when she tired of trekking uphill too. Freeing ourselves from a goal-oriented itinerary meant we could stop early if the rain made us miserable, or if we discovered a really great guesthouse and some lovely way to spend the afternoon.
While we set out thinking we would walk only for about 3-4 hours each morning, our days were so full of distractions and fun and leisurely tea breaks that we usually ended up spending a bit longer on our feet each day.
Perks of Monsoon Trekking
Trekking in the monsoonal off-season (June-July) meant we enjoyed discounted rates on our rooms, which were frequently offered for free on the proviso that we ate our nightly meal at the guesthouse. The trails were distinctly crowd-free, we never had to wait long for our meals and we only experienced about five wet or partially-wet days.
There is much talk about the lack of mountain views during the monsoon season, and with good reason. Trekkers who climb the impossibly steep and neverending stone staircases in the hope of thrilling panoramic views from the top of Poon Hill are frequently disappointed during monsoon when clouds close in and leave trekkers downhearted.
By contrast, the dry, desert-like landscape of Lower Mustang (from Jomsom to Muktinath) that we trekked on the western side of the Annapurna Circuit receives very little rain. Even the high peaks of towering Dhaulagiri (8167m) and Nilgiri (7060m) were frequently revealed to us. No doubt we just got lucky at Ghorepani when we awoke to clear skies and promptly high-tailed it up Poon Hill for sweeping views of the Annapurnas in clear, close view.
In all, our Mustang/Annapurna experience was a great adventure enjoyed by every member of our family. The road that has hijacked the isolation of the west’s Kali Gandaki valley conversely means that villages are well stocked and the standard of accommodation is generally good.
Trekking families will appreciate the comfortable rooms with ensuite bathrooms, the readily available (gas) hot-water showers, and menus varied enough to excite tired mini-trekkers. The cold beers and delicious locally-brewed apple cider will help to ease your weary muscles, and if you run out or forget some essentials, you won’t be stung by sky-high prices.
While I only have the experience of trekking with my child, who graduated from her backpack carrier aged 3 1/2 years and has been on her feet ever since, I wholehearted recommend this trek for all parents who believe instinctively that their kids will enjoy themselves.
These flexible, energetic little bundles frequently surprise us with their ability to adapt and enjoy their worlds; quite honestly, if you love trekking, then your enjoyment and happiness will ensure that your kids do too.
What did we pack?
Rain jackets and a small folding umbrella were indispensible for our monsoonal trek, and a tube of deet-infused Aussie insect repellent that we rubbed onto our socks may well have been the reason that I was the only one to score a leech bite!
We each had one trekking outfit (shorts/leggings, a shirt, socks and lightweight trekking boots), a spare set of long pants and shirt for nighttimes, PJs, hats, sunglasses, a fleece jumper and shower thongs. Add to this a slender assortment of toiletries, a quick-dry towel, a first aid kit, water purification tablets, a torch, water bottles and an assortment of snacks.
To keep Maya entertained we carried some small reading books, colouring-in pencils, an activity book, a few tiny dolls and a miniature tea set – all of which managed to fill the time while we waited for our teahouse meals to be served. While I carried most of our personal gear, which I managed to roll and squeeze into my trusty 25L daypack, David hauled a heavier load of work gear – camera and lens, a laptop, hard drives, cables, adapter plugs and the tripod.
Don’t forget to apply and pay for your TIMS card (Trekkers’ Information Management System card, www.timsnepal.com and ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Entry Permit) before leaving Kathmandu or Pokhara, or you’ll be forced to buy them at double the price once you reach the first checking booth on the trail. Each costs 2000 Nepali rupees (about USD$20) per adult, kids under 10 years are free
Our Trek Itinerary
Distance covered is rarely discussed when trekking in the Himalaya because it’s the gradient that makes all the difference. Guidebooks generally only provide trekking times and the ascent or descent tackled between towns to help you plan your days.
We took it easy the first three-four days, tackling shorter days up the valley, and spending free afternoons climbing unencumbered by packs to higher altitudes to aid our acclimatisation. On the return journey down the valley, we doubled the distance we covered, but we were much fitter by then and it was mostly downhill.
I was especially impressed that Maya tackled the 1000+ metre climb from Tatopani to Ghorepani – the steepest and hardest section of the entire Annapurna Circuit – completely under her own steam. Similarly, she breezed down the other side of the hill, skipping and singing all the way to Naya Pul.
Our Daily Log:
For those keen to walk this way, here’s a list of where we stopped and started each day. Grab a map of the Annapurna Circuit to make sense of the distances and place names:
Travel Day: Pokhara to Beni (by bus), Beni to Ghaleshar on foot
Day 1: Ghaleshar to Tatopani (by bus), Tatopani to Dana on foot
Day 2: Trek from Dana to Ghasa
Day 3: Trek from Ghasa to Kalopani
Day 4: Trek from Kalopani to Tukuche
Day 5: Trek from Tukuche to Marpha via Tibetan Refugee Camp
Day 6: Day trip: trek from Marpha to Old Marpha
Day 7: Trek from Marpha to Old Jomsom; side trip to Thini
Day 8: Trek from Old Jomsom to Kagbeni
Day 9: Trek from Kagbeni to Ranipauwa
Day 10: Trek from Ranipauwa to Muktinath to Kagbeni
Day 11: Rest day Kagbeni
Day 12: Trek from Kagbeni to Marpha
Day 13: Trek from Marpha to Kalopani
Day 14: Trek from Kalopani to Dana
Day 15: Trek from Dana to Shikha
Day 16: Trek from Shikha to Ghorepani
Day 17: Rest day: Ghorepani to Poon Hill
Day 18: Trek from Ghorepani to Hille
Day 19: Trek from Hille to Naya Pul (then taxi to Pokhara)