Conquering the tallest freestanding mountain on earth makes for a great travel story.
If, like us, you prefer your travel tales to fall in the ‘Inspirational adventure’ category rather than the ‘Unfortunate calamities’ there are some practicalities you need to note.
We are always saying it and the reason we keep repeating this fact is because:
i) you might travel from far away to visit Africa and
ii) a Safari might be a dream you have had for a long time.
iii) Africa is also certainly a place where things can and do go wrong… and when this happens the usual Western routes for solving the problem does not apply.
So, for all Safaris and certainly for one including Kilimanjaro it is very important to
evaluate your provider not only for the price point but also for quality and the peace of mind that comes with booking through an experienced, knowledgeable, reliable and licensed operator.
When you summit Kili your first concern should be safety and not the bottom line of a budget operator who has cut the cost by underpaying staff or using old equipment.
The mountain stands in the Kilimanjaro National Park of Tanzania to the north of Moshi in North-eastern Tanzania. It is 5,985 AMSL.
You will experience four seasons of the year and five different vegetation zones as you summit Kilimanjaro.
The realities of climbing Kili
It isn’t really a climb but more of a trek with no extreme, steep sides to conquer.
Temperatures can drop from 80°F (27°C) to -4°F (-26°C)
The hike is strenuous and continues over six or seven days, walking 20 km every day.
Altitude becomes an issue as you summit.
The weather can change rapidly.
The next steps
Our second tip is not to skimp on the quality of your gear. Be prepared for all eventualities.
Then you must pick your route.
And the best route for you will depend on your level of experience.
The Marangu Route
One of the oldest routes it starts on the south-eastern side of the mountain at Marangu Gate. Nicknamed the Coca-Cola route because it is possible to buy snacks and drinks on your climb. A seven-day tour four nights and five days spent on the hike.
It is short but brutal as it offers no time to acclimatize. To keep you occupied on something other than the climb on the way up the views are splendid.
Climb high and sleep low is not available on this direct, gradual and steady ascent. The Marangu Route has a poor acclimatization profile which affects its success rates.
Accommodation is shared in primitive cabins, sleeping on simple mattresses and you hike up and down on the same route.
The Marangu Route is the most popular and so it can get quite busy.
The Rongai Route
Completed over five nights and six days, this route starts on the north of the mountain close to the Kenyan border. This involves a long drive to reach your starting point. Once you reach the top you descend on the Marangu Route.
Low rainfall makes it a good choice during the rainy season but the lack of rain means you do not experience the rainforest during your ascent. Views are excellent and the area around Mawenzi Peak is very scenic.
A gradual climb without steep ascents it is more remote and less busy than other routes. At Kibo Huts, it merges with the Marangu
The Machame Route
Usually completed in five nights and six days it can also be done in six nights and seven days to allow for an additional acclimatization day. A beautiful climb (many consider it the most scenic)it involves challenges like the Barranco Wall but there is no need for any technical climbing skills. This route will test your stamina and this has earned it the nickname of Whisky route.
Climbing high and sleeping low increases the success rate of this route.
Starting on the South-Western side of the mountain at the Machame Gate the descent is via the Mweka Route.
Machame has a relatively high success rate due to its good acclimatization options along the way as you “climb high and sleep low”. The Machame route takes six days.
The Lemosho Route
This route starts on the west of the mountain (following a lengthy drive) at Lemosho Glades. It is remote and gorgeous and can be done in seven nights and eight days. The Lemosho Route is the most expensive and one of the newest routes (originally intended as an improved and more acclimatization-friendly version of the Shira).
This route is a good compromise between beautiful scenery and limited traffic.. and it has a high success rate.
Almost identical to the Lemosho it also begins on the western side of the mountain. However, you drive to Shira Gate and the start is more demanding than any of the other routes with your first night spent at 3,840 AMSL.
It is beautiful and has less traffic.
If you feel good after the first night you should be home free as far as acclimatization goes.
A seven-night, night-climb route.
It is possible to summit with the full moon.
How old must I be?
Children from 12 are allowed to climb the mountain… but it is a hard trek for adults and bringing young people onto the mountain should be very carefully considered.
When to make your ascent?
The rainy season is between March and May. During these months heavy clouds and rain occur at low altitudes and snow higher up. There are also fewer people on the mountain.
The weather is reliably warm year-round but the summit features very low temperatures as low as -15
What happens during the climb?
Porters set off ahead with your tents and equipment. A cook prepares your meals. You climb.
Sleeping on the mountain
If you are not on the Marangu Route you will sleep in 2-man tents with thin sleeping mats.
A foam pad for better insulation.
Extra snacks to keep your energy going along the way
Toilet paper and a bag for loo stops in the open
What will I have to eat?
The food is basic but good and filling.
Are there toilets?
There are primitive toilets in the camps. You can also buy a private toilet tent.
About altitude sickness
Most people now understand that Altitude Sickness is a fickle problem with a great sense of humor.
Symptoms include headaches, malaise, dizziness, insomnia, nausea, and loss of appetite.
This often goes away during the night or if you remain at the same altitude for an extra day (acclimatization day). If your symptoms deteriorate (e.g. with vomiting, difficulty walking, coordination difficulties and a dry cough), it is important to descend to a lower height.
If you need to descend a guide will accompany you.
Proper acclimatization is the key to avoiding altitude sickness. The general rule is to sleep only 984- 1640 ft (300-500 m) higher than the day before. On Kilimanjaro, the camps are vertically around 2624-3280 ft (800 -1000 m) apart.
- Pole pole, as you will hear the guides say. This means take it easy, and it is essential not to overdo it.
- Drink plenty of liquid – at least 3 liters per day. Dehydration increases the risk of altitude sickness.
- Where possible, you should “climb high, sleep low”, for example by having an acclimatization day, which is already standard on some of the routes.
What about my mobile signal?
There are no guarantees, but you should be able to text and call. You will have to bring a power bank and sleep with your batteries strapped to your body as they will discharge faster than usual in cold temperatures.
Do check that your operator belongs to Kilimanjaro Association of Tour Operators (KIATO) and instigator of the Mount Kilimanjaro Porters Society (MKPS), which constantly works to optimize working conditions for guides and porters.
Before you arrive
Discuss vaccination and malaria with your doctor.
We mentioned great equipment and four different climate zones. It is important that you are well prepared with the right equipment.
On the way to the top, you will trek through four different climate zones, so you should be prepared for average temperatures from 80°F (27°C) to-4°F (-26°C)!
Bring layers and a good, ergonomic bag for everything over 15 kg of luggage you bring.
Good, warm, waterproof hiking boots with great ankle support (that you have previously broken in).
Hiking socks for hot and cold weather.
It will be easier on you if you are in good basic shape.
Maybe most important of all is the mental preparation for an arduous but incredibly rewarding climb.