So you want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I don’t blame you. Having done it 12 times now, I can tell you that a Kilimanjaro trip is up there with the best experiences I’ve ever had.
But if you think you can just rock up and scale it, think again.
At just under 6000m in altitude, Kilimanjaro is the world’s highest “free-standing mountain”.
What does “free-standing” mean? Well, unlike Everest, Kilimanjaro isn’t part of a mountain range – it’s a standalone structure, which is actually a giant stratovolcano, with three separate cones – Shira, Marenzi and Kibo.
(Don’t panic though, both Shira and Marenzi are extinct from a volcanic perspective, and the last major eruption was 360,000 years ago!)
Where is Mount Kilimanjaro?
Kilimanjaro is located right in the middle of the imaginatively titled Kilimanjaro National Park in the United Republic of Tanzania.
And let me tell you, the scenery is absolutely stunning.
It’s home to multiple rare and protected animal species as well as plant life that you’ll find in precious few places in the world – it’d be worth a visit even if you weren’t climbing the mountain!
How far is it to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro?
The highest point of Kilimanjaro is Uhuru Peak, located on the edge of Kibo’s crater.
Generally the peak is known as “The Summit” – that’s what a lot of the guides will call it – and it’s 5,895m above sea level.
When should you climb Mount Kilimanjaro?
There’s no set time when you must attempt to scale Kilimanjaro, but some times of year certainly attract more climbers than others.
The two most popular trekking seasons are December to March and June to October, for the simple reason that the temperature at the mountain’s base is between 25°C and 30°C (far more comfortable than other months of the year).
Just bear one thing in mind though:
For every 200m you climb, the temperature will drop by roughly 1°C, so whatever time of year you go, the Summit will be pretty cold!
What should your Kili wardrobe look like?
Like I said, temperatures get pretty cold as you home in on the Summit, so it’s vital that you’ve got clothing to suit a big range of temperature – layers are lifesavers up there!
But first things first: walking boots.
They’re not optional. Whether you go for a lightweight synthetic boot or a more traditional leather one, the key is that they are sturdy and supportive.
Oh, and one more thing on the boots front: please don’t buy a pair and then turn up in Tanzania without wearing them in – that’s the fastest way to get blisters and ruin your trip!
Now, back to those layers I mentioned. They’re absolutely crucial and, generally, I recommend four separate layers (no, not including your pants – though do make sure you bring some comfy underwear!):
- Thermals (ideally Merino wool)
- Fleece and trekking trousers
- Soft-shell jacket
- Down-filled jacket and hard-shell waterproof trousers
And one last quick important piece of advice before we move on: buy cheap, buy twice. You might think you can save money by skimping on some items, but trust me, it won’t be worth it in the long run.
What else should you bring?
If you’re a seasoned climber you’ll have various extras that you always pack, and that’s absolutely fine – but I will just remind you that you’re trekking up one of the highest mountains in the world here, and you’ll have a weight limit to what the porters will carry for you.
It’s vital to maintain good hygiene practices throughout your trek – I seriously doubt there’s much worse than an episode of D&V halfway up a stratovolcano.
I know you’ve got very good at washing your hands during the coronavirus pandemic, but you won’t always have access to running water on Kili. So make sure you bring antibacterial gel along, as well as diarrhoea pills, water purification tablets and baby wipes.
You’ll also need your malaria medication, and must make sure you’ve had all the relevant vaccinations before you leave your country of origin.
What will you eat while you climb Kilimanjaro?
I’m not just saying this because I like food: eating frequently and properly will make a HUGE difference to your ability to successfully scale Kilimanjaro.
Eat poorly, or not often enough, and you won’t have the energy you need.
While you’re trekking, your porters will go on ahead to ensure you’re getting your three meals a day, so make the most of this privilege!
Start each day right by fuelling up on an energy-packed porridge, with eggs and sausages to follow.
The lunch you have will depend on your tour operator – some do a hot lunch, which’ll usually be a stew or soup with lots of bread, but other operators just do a cold option.
Dinner is generally three courses – something to look forward to during the day!
The best thing about the food is that you just don’t have to worry about it – the porters go on ahead, setting up the tent where they’ll cook and you’ll eat your meal, together with your fellow climbers.
What about sleep?
Sleep is a vastly underrated and extremely important element of a successful summit of Uhuru Peak – get a good night’s sleep each night and you’ll find it much easier to scale the Summit and enjoy the whole process.
The reverse is also true: fail to get enough sleep and everything becomes a lot harder.
With that in mind, ensure that you choose a sleeping bag and mat that have the highest ‘comfort rating’ possible – you don’t want to be cold in the middle of the night on Kili, trust me.
On most routes (apart from the Marangu route which has sleeping huts), you’ll be sleeping in high quality three-man tents. Don’t worry though, you won’t actually be forced to squeeze in with two others – you’ll share with just one other person.
How fit do you need to be?
Pretty fit. You can’t just rock up having never even done a ramble in your life. As with so many things: preparation is key.
Make sure you get out and about on walks closer to home where you can start to build up your fitness before the big trip. And there’s one important detail to note here: remember to wear the boots you’re going to be trekking Kili in – you’ll wear them in and get used to them at the same time.
Which routes can you take?
There are six potential routes and some are harder than others. Check out the article on which Kilimanjaro routes is the right one for you.
What about altitude sickness?
Good question. Altitude sickness has ruined many an attempt to scale Kilimanjaro, and it should never be underestimated. It can genuinely be fatal, so it’s not something to mess about with.
Here are my 4 rules when it comes to dealing with it:
- Pole, pole (that’s Swahili for “slowly, slowly”) – Nobody rushes in Tanzania, and not just on the mountain! Reaching Kili’s Summit isn’t a race; everyone gets the same certificate to prove they’ve done it. By taking your time and moving up the mountain slowly, you’ll arrive at your next camp feeling just as strong as you did when you left the last one, and you’ll definitely put yourself in the best position to conquer Uhuru Peak.
- Eat! Food is so important on Kili since you’re burning loads of calories which need to be replaced every day. Altitude does funny things to you, including causing a loss of appetite, so it’s crucial that you take care to refuel at every opportunity. I always advise my teams to take extra comfort food with them – flapjack, Clif Bars, Haribo and Wine Gums are some of the favourites! It’s also easier to eat a meal replacement bar than a full meal, if you do lose your appetite.
- Hydrate! – How many people drink the recommended 2 litres of water per day? Very few! But you should be taking on board 3-4 litres of water each day when you’re on Kilimanjaro. Staying hydrated is one of the best ways to prevent altitude sickness, so think about how you’re going to drink your fluids before you go. Will you take water bottles or use a hydration system? Are you going to drink water, isotonic drink or squash? Are you prepared to drink water containing chlorine tablets?
- Rest! – This one’s my personal favourite: take every opportunity to rest. That doesn’t necessarily always mean sleep, but it will be dark by 19.30 and, with little else to do once the sun’s gone to bed, you may as well do the same. Even if you’re not tired enough to sleep, sitting down to read a book by torchlight or watching a film on your phone will help your body get the rest it needs to recover and acclimatise.
The golden rules
So there you have it; my whistle-stop tour of the things you need to think about before you scale Mount Kilimanjaro. The golden rules are simply:
- You can’t over-prepare – make a list and get everything crossed off
- Get in good shape before attempting the climb
- Do your research, so you know what you’re in for
- Don’t skimp on resources
- Never underestimate altitude sickness
And enjoy! If you’ve got Uhuru Peak on your Bucket List, go for it! Stick to these pointers and you’ll have an amazing time. Only question is, which trip are you going to join us on!?