Mount Kilimanjaro Climbing Preparation
Kilimanjaro preparation is a big topic. We discuss traveling to Tanzania, your physical training, vaccines, and medications, choosing a route, putting together a budget, choosing a good tour operator, and preparing yourself mentally for the challenge.
Kilimanjaro preparation is essential as if you’re reading this, you are probably in the process of making (or have already made) a decision that will change your life forever. Mount Kilimanjaro, or the Roof of Africa as it’s affectionately known, is located in Tanzania and is the highest mountain in Africa. It towers about 4,900 m (16,076 ft) above its base and 5,895 m (19,341 ft) above sea level. It’s also one of the Seven Summits, which are the tallest mountains from each continent. It’s actually the only one of the Seven Summits that you can climb without any mountaineering experience or equipment, which makes it a very popular ‘first climb’.
But what does it really take to climb the highest peak in Africa, and what is the best Kilimanjaro preparation (other than a solid pair of hiking boots and a positive mindset, of course)? There’s a great deal that goes into properly preparing for such a climb.
Come prepared and maximize your experience!
When it comes to preparing for Kilimanjaro, there are several factors to consider. And we know that many questions come to mind and the results spewed out by the internet to your questions have probably been a tad overwhelming. With this in mind, we’ve created this blog post as a one-stop guide for everything you need to know to get going with your Kilimanjaro preparation.
Kilimanjaro is a non-technical mountain
Firstly, Kilimanjaro is a non-technical mountain, which means that anybody with reasonable fitness can climb it. In other words, you don’t need to be a mountaineer with ropes and other such equipment to climb it. So in this sense, Kilimanjaro isn’t a difficult mountain to climb. As mentioned, it’s actually the only of the Seven Summits that one can climb without any mountaineering experience or equipment.
It’s a big climb
The climb up the mountain is, however, still challenging. You have to carry yourself up to nearly 6,000 m above sea level, after all! That requires a good deal of legwork and sweat, even for the very fit. You also have to hike for many hours on most days, including around 12 to 15 hours on summit day! That’s a lot of walking, so your fitness level needs to be reasonable to make such hours on the trail not too difficult to manage.
Some paths have sheer sections
At no point on any of the routes up Kilimanjaro do you need ropes and harnesses to successfully or safely follow the trail? There are, however, some sections on certain routes that can be daunting for those who don’t like heights or grow fearful standing near drop-offs. Barranco Wall, for instance, is known as one of the trickiest sections of the Kilimanjaro climb. And yet it’s perfectly manageable and often less scary when you’re busy doing it compared with standing below it and contemplating the climb ahead. If you suffer from severe vertigo or dizziness, it might be a better idea to tackle one of the gentler routes up the mountain like the Northern Circuit.
It gets very cold!
Apart from the obvious physical challenge involved, climbing Kilimanjaro can be challenging in other ways. For starters, it gets pretty icy near the top! Night-time temperatures regularly plunge below freezing. At Trekking Tanzania we provide our trekkers with thermal sleeping bags and fleece winter jackets at no further expense, so you’ll be able to keep warm even in the extreme cold. But the cold is certainly a factor that makes the Kilimanjaro climb harder than many low-altitude treks, so it’s worth considering if you really struggle with the cold.
You’ll probably be camping
Except for those following the Marangu route up the mountain, which has you stay in huts, all Kilimanjaro climbers stay in tented camps throughout the trek. For some, going days without a shower will be challenging (note that you do get a bucket of water each evening for some strategic splashing). And for some, the loss of other creature comforts like a steaming latte to help you start the day could prove difficult. So think about how flexible and relaxed you are when it comes to your living situation and hygiene. If the prospect of camp life is daunting, ask if it’s worth challenging yourself to overcome your qualms for the sake of the adventure in store?
You could get altitude sickness
We chat about altitude sickness further on in this post in more detail. But for now, we just want to mention it in terms of how hard it makes the Kilimanjaro climb.
Kilimanjaro is a high-altitude trek, which means it takes you up into rarified air where oxygen levels are lower than at sea level. Most of us live well below the starting altitudes of the various Kilimanjaro routes, which are roughly around 2,000 m (6,562 ft) above sea level. That means our bodies aren’t used to the lower oxygen levels on offer throughout the climb. And as you doubtless already know, the more you exert yourself, the more oxygen you need. So when putting in the effort to trek uphill, you need more oxygen than usual, but on Kilimanjaro, you have less!
Consequently, many Kilimanjaro trekkers experience symptoms of altitude sickness, which include headaches, nausea, and dizziness. These are uncomfortable at best, life-threatening at worst. Those with significant altitude symptoms have to descend to a lower altitude immediately, as the condition can turn deadly.
Climbing Kilimanjaro, therefore, means preparing yourself for two things: firstly, that you may have to keep hiking even when feeling unwell, and secondly that you may have to abort your climb if your guide assesses your symptoms as posing a danger to your health. (Further on we discuss how to avoid altitude sickness.)
The inestimable value of a positive attitude!
As should be clear by now, there may be various points in your Kilimanjaro climb that you feel are hard, for whatever reason. The best advice we have to give is to remain positive and take it very slowly. Stop. Take a deep breath. Look up and take in the beautiful backdrop of this new and exciting experience. Remember that you’re stronger than you think you are.
Also, always remember that you are part of a Kilimanjaro climbing team. You’re not alone. When feeling discouraged or low, look to your fellow trekkers and especially your mountain crew and team leader for help. The Kilimanjaro guides have been doing this trek for a long time and are there to support you and offer invaluable advice and encouragement.
Set yourself some goals
We find it helps to take a moment to reflect on why you want to climb Kilimanjaro. We suggest you do this regularly, both when in the thick of Kilimanjaro preparation and when in the thick of the climb. The reasons to climb the mountain are often vastly different from one person to the next. For some, it’s a goal that motivates them in their journey towards being fitter and healthier. For others, the climb is a time to reflect and reassess. Perhaps the climb appeals to you as it offers the chance to break out of routine or your comfort zone? Meet like-minded people and make new friends? Recover your zest for life? As we said, the reasons are myriad, and often quite personal. What’s your reason? Is there more than one reason? Why not write it – or them – down for future reference?
How fit must you be to climb Kilimanjaro?
To climb Kilimanjaro without feeling that the world is coming to an end requires reasonable fitness. You need to be able to hike for a few hours each day. And you need to be sure-footed enough to walk over rock-strewn paths and scree. (Trekking poles help keep balance, as discussed in our Kilimanjaro packing list.)
You also need to have relatively healthy knees to deal with the hike down the mountain. The descent usually takes place over just two days and has you drop down by around four vertical kilometers.
Did you know that there’s no age limit on this life-changing adventure? The youngest person to ever undertake the climb was seven years old, and the oldest was 85 years old!
Physical Kilimanjaro preparation
So how do you physically prepare for Kilimanjaro? Well, to state the obvious, the more you exercise and train in the lead-up to the climb, the easier the climb will be. A fit body is more likely to withstand the stress of consecutive days of hiking and camping. This will mean you’ll enjoy your trip more and have a higher chance of successfully summiting the mountain.
You’re probably only going to climb Kilimanjaro once in your life, so if you decide to take the adventure on, be sure to give it your all – not just on the mountain, but also in preparing for it. You might like to use this opportunity to propel yourself into a healthier lifestyle. This is one of the many reasons that people commit to climbing Africa’s highest peak.
We recommend that you create a training schedule in the lead-up to your climb (and stick to it, of course!). Your workouts should focus on strength, aerobic and cardio training.
Ideally, include some uphill hikes in your training, and wear the boots and socks that you intend to bring to Kilimanjaro. You must climb Kilimanjaro wearing properly worn-in boots and comfortable socks, otherwise, your trip could become a sad story of blisters. For those who don’t have any hiking trails nearby, hop on a stair master machine, climb steps, or get on a treadmill and up the incline!
We go into more detail about how to prepare physically in How should I train for Kilimanjaro?
What is altitude sickness?
Acute mountain sickness (AMS) arises from being exposed too rapidly to reduced oxygen at high altitudes. As already mentioned, altitude sickness is the mildest form of AMS. Altitude sickness is more irksome than troubling. When it comes to trekking Kilimanjaro, over 75% of climbers experience altitude sickness symptoms when they ascend above 3,000 m. And the peak of Kilimanjaro is near twice that high!
The most common symptoms of altitude sickness are headaches, nausea, difficulty sleeping, and general fatigue. Such symptoms are nothing to panic about, but they can make certain parts of your climb quite challenging. It’s important during these times of the trek that you keep it pole, pole, as the locals say, which means ‘slowly, slowly. Also, be sure to always communicate with your guide about how you’re feeling. Remember that altitude sickness can happen to anybody, and it’s absolutely nothing to feel embarrassed about.
When altitude sickness becomes serious
Most trekkers who experience altitude sickness quickly recover and that’s the end of the story. For an unfortunate few, however, the symptoms become severe and this indicates they’ve developed a more intense form of AMS. These individuals will be advised by their mountain guide to abort the trek and descend the mountain. AMS can be deadly and your health has to be put above all other considerations.
Altitude sickness can affect anyone
Note that who gets struck by altitude sickness is essentially random – it has nothing to do with fitness nor age. That said, anyone who lives at a very high altitude is obviously less likely to develop altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro.
How to avoid altitude sickness
Ultimately there’s no real way to avoid altitude sickness, as it has nothing to do with fitness nor age, and can strike anyone. That said, there are a couple of things you can do to minimize your chances of falling prey to it. If you’re able, try to climb high mountains as often as possible to give your body an idea of what to expect. Secondly, you could train with an altitude mask. This is basically a mask that emulates the decrease in oxygen that you will experience on your climb, allowing you to experience it beforehand. Whether or not this is effective in avoiding AMS entirely is still unclear, but if you have the option, why not give it a go?
Why do we climb high and sleep low
Altitude sickness symptoms can be minimized by engaging in the correct acclimatization process. We call this process ‘climb high, sleep low. This basically involves climbing to a new altitude during the day and then dropping back down in elevation in the afternoon so that you can sleep at a lower altitude at night.
Certain Kilimanjaro trails like the Lemosho route and Northern Circuit route have more (or better) opportunities to climb high and sleep low than others worked into them, which is a key part of why we like and recommend them.
Is it safe to climb Kilimanjaro?
Kilimanjaro safety is always top of the list of questions and concerns. It goes without saying that the more you focus on physical and practical Kilimanjaro preparation, the safer your climb will be. We do, however, need to be realistic in that sometimes even with extensive Kilimanjaro preparation, emergencies can arise while on your journey up the highest mountain in Africa. So what happens when there’s an emergency?
First and foremost, we cannot stress enough how important it is that you choose the right Kilimanjaro operator. Ensure that the company you settle on prioritizes your health and safety over everything else. Be sure to confirm with them that the guides they’ve placed you with are Wilderness First Responders. This means that they’re trained on how to respond to emergencies in remote areas. They are there to guide you through your entire experience and their professionalism will give you peace of mind and make your Kilimanjaro preparation easier.
Tipping on Kilimanjaro
When preparing your Kilimanjaro budget, it’s important to know that tipping your mountain crew is a universal custom on Kilimanjaro. In fact, Kilimanjaro tipping, which is regulated by the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP), is an essential part of each crew member’s income. It recognizes their hard work in helping you to summit the mountain. There’s even a special tipping ceremony at the end of every Kilimanjaro trek. So while tipping is not compulsory, it’s expected, and it’s an important way in which trekkers say thank you and goodbye to the Tanzanians who have helped them achieve a truly great feat in their lives.
Every mountain crew consists of the following hardworking people:
Porters – they carry all of your food and gear
Guides – they guide you safely and efficiently up the mountain
Cook – he or she prepares all of your meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner)
How long does it take to climb Kilimanjaro?
Climbing the highest mountain in Africa is no overnight mission and can take between five and nine days. This really does depend on the route that you decide to trek. Each route is unique in its own way in that they can range from five days at high difficulty and a lower success rate, to six to eight days at medium to low difficulty with a higher success rate. The scenery is also vastly different from one route to the next.
As mentioned earlier, the main thing that stops people from reaching the summit is the altitude. You can be as fit as anything, but if you don’t take the time to acclimatize properly, the chances of you getting acute mountain sickness (AMS) and needing to head back down the mountain are much higher. This is the main reason we like to suggest clients opt for a longer route.
Remember that climbing Kilimanjaro isn’t a race. Take the advice of the experts and always go pole, which is Swahili for ‘slowly, slowly. If you’re struggling in any way, speak to your guide and ask for help.
The seven Kilimanjaro routes
All of the Kilimanjaro routes lead to the summit! Having said that, trying to figure out which route to take should not be an afterthought, but rather a core component of your Kilimanjaro preparation. Choosing the right route can, in fact, make or break your climb. Each route has its own pros and considerations. You must weigh these carefully before making your decision.
Here’s a quick introduction to the seven routes, which may help you whittle down your options so that you only need to research some of them in detail:
Lemosho Route – We love this route. It is 70 km in length and is the most beautiful Kilimanjaro route. It has a high success rate and is medium in difficulty. The entire route takes seven or eight days to complete. We highly recommend this route.
Machame Route – The Machame is 62 km long and the busiest Kilimanjaro route. It’s one of our favorite routes. The success rate is high, the difficulty is medium, and it takes between six and eight days.
Marangu Route – The Marangu route offers hut accommodation. It’s a relatively easy trail, which gives it a high summit success rate. The route’s 72 km are covered in five or six days, though we’d always recommend opting for six days.
Rongai Route – The Rongai is the only Kilimanjaro route that approaches the summit from the north. It has a gentle gradient but a medium summit success rate because its acclimatization profile isn’t that great. The route is 73 km in length and takes six or seven days to complete.
Shira Route – The Shira is 56 km long and approaches the summit of the mountain from the west. This route takes seven or eight days and has a high summit success rate.
Northern Circuit – The Northern Circuit is the newest and longest Kilimanjaro route. It has a high success rate and takes nine or 10 days. We really, really like this route as it’s one of the least crowded routes, offers great scenery, and has a really good acclimatization profile.
Umbwe Route – The Umbwe is the shortest, steepest, and hardest Kilimanjaro route. It, therefore, has a low success rate. Its 53 km can be covered in six or seven days.
Why choose the longer itinerary on any Kilimanjaro route?
The longer route itineraries offer a more relaxed pace. This allows you more time to take in your surroundings. Almost every day on a Kilimanjaro trek takes you into a new ecosystem, with new flora, fauna, and scenery to appreciate. We particularly love the Lemosho route for this reason. The vegetation and scenery are so beautiful, even humbling.
Spending a decent amount of time at a comfortable pace also gives you the time to really get to know your fellow climbers and mountain crew. Tanzania is a wonderful country with a wealth of cultural history. we encourage clients to take the time to connect with their local crew members as this gives you a window into the lives of Tanzanians. You’ll soon see that they’re full of joy and their company is a treat.
Which is the best Kilimanjaro route?
At the end of the day, choosing a route is a personal choice, so really there is no ‘best’ route overall. Rather, you could say there’s the best route for you and what you want to achieve. There are five essential questions to answer to help you choose your Kilimanjaro route:
How diverse are the route’s vegetation, terrain, and scenery?
How many days are spent on the mountain?
What is the acclimatization profile and success rate of the route?
How much does the climb cost?
How crowded does the route get?
That said, in our opinion the best routes are:
The eight-day Lemosho
The nine-day Northern Circuit
The seven-day Machame
What should I pack for Kilimanjaro?
When preparing for your Kilimanjaro climb, gear is key! With a climate that changes daily, having the right clothing is essential for a successful and comfortable summit. Given that your trek takes you from the humidity of the rainforest to a world of snow and glaciers, you’ll need a variety of gear to complete this journey. As an overview, we suggest having these items at the top of your Kilimanjaro packing list:
Do I need a visa to climb Kilimanjaro?
Practical Kilimanjaro preparation is an important part of getting ready for the climb. That means getting a Tanzanian visa to travel within the country. US, Canadian, British, and most European citizens can simply obtain their visas upon arrival at any of Tanzania’s international airports. The cost is $100 for US passport holders and $50 for others. If you’re a citizen of a different country, please check with your embassy whether or not you can obtain a visa upon arrival.
You will of course also need a valid passport to enter Tanzania. Be sure you have a passport that’s valid for at least six months from your arrival date.
Do I need a medical checkup before climbing Kilimanjaro?
You don’t have to have a medical checkup before coming to Kilimanjaro. If you know that you’re healthy and fit, then you’re good. That said, it’s never a bad idea to check in with your doc, especially if you’re harboring any concerns (perhaps concerning an old injury or an existing medical condition). A consult might be good for your peace of mind.
When chatting with the doctor you might also like to discuss the upcoming trip and ask for advice regarding altitude sickness and its symptoms.
Please note that medical insurance is a requirement for climbing Kilimanjaro. Every reputable tour operator will ask after your insurance policy before leading you on the climb. We discuss insurance in detail in How much does it cost to climb Kilimanjaro?
Vaccinations for Tanzania
No specific vaccinations are required for you to travel to Tanzania. That said, be aware that the Government of Tanzania requires proof of yellow fever vaccination upon arrival if you’re traveling in from a country with a known risk of yellow fever. Further, while no vaccinations are required, some might still be a good idea. We suggest you talk to your doctor about getting the following vaccinations: Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, typhoid, yellow fever, tetanus, polio, and MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella). Please go to the Fit For Travel website for more up-to-date information.
What can I do right now to start preparing?
Now that you’ve read through the various aspects of a proper Kilimanjaro preparation, let’s look at some of the actions you can take right now to get going with your planning:
Write down your reasons for wanting to climb Kilimanjaro, and set any goals.
Reach out to friends or family you think might like to join you on this adventure.
Research which of the seven Kilimanjaro routes you wish to trek.
When you’ve determined the time of year you wish to trek, plan your physical training leading up to the climb.
If you have any lingering questions, contact us.
We can chat via email WhatsApp, or even set up a webinar – whatever floats your boat!