7 Things to Know Before Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro

7 Min. Read
A group celebrates as they approach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

Expert Advice to Help You Prepare for a Kilimanjaro Hike

Known as the least difficult of the Seven Summits to climb, many are drawn to Mount Kilimanjaro (Kili) in Tanzania to experience a world-class hiking expedition that doesn’t require years of training or tens of thousands of dollars of equipment. It definitely doesn’t hurt that it’s logistically easy to tack on before or after an East African safari. But this does not make hiking Kilimanjaro a simple walk in the park. With an altitude of 19,340 feet and an ever-changing climate that can range from sweltering (think tropical with playful colobus monkeys scrambling about) to downright frigid with high winds and snow, Kilimanjaro hikers need to come prepared. Here’s what you need to know before attempting to summit the world’s largest free-standing mountain. 

A wooden sign on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, marking Africa's highest point

1) Altitude sickness is real on Kilimanjaro

While Kilimanjaro is a non-technical hike, the challenge lies in the altitude. At higher altitudes, your body works incredibly hard even if you are walking at a snail’s pace. And even though each day can be physically exhausting, the reduced oxygen at higher altitude can make it difficult to sleep well. It’s not uncommon to feel restless or to wake up multiple times during the night. The smartest way to ascend is slowly – don’t rush to the top in five days. Instead, choose a route that takes a couple of more days to allow your body adequate time to adjust. Hikers who go slow and steady generally have a better success rate of reaching the summit.

For a successful hike you will have to drink water constantly all day long even when you don’t feel thirsty. Staying hydrated helps with preventing altitude sickness and your guides will be on you at all times to get your fill. 

A group of tents and pit toilets near the summer for Mount Kilimanjaro

2) What goes in must come out

At the camps, there are public toilet facilities. Some outfitters also provide private toilet tents with portable flush toilets or have them available at an additional cost. But everyone at some point during the hike will likely have to stop along the trail and tuck behind a rock or bush to go to the bathroom. It’s a good idea to pack WAG bags (Waste Alleviation and Gelling bags), to help mitigate human waste on Kilimanjaro. Women may also want to consider packing a pee bottle or female urination device that lets you pee standing up so you don’t have to pull down your pants all the way on a public trail (which is also the last thing you want to have to do when the winds are whipping and the temperatures are downright arctic). 

3) Training is critical

Kilimanjaro is considered to be a “walk-up mountain,” which means you don’t have to be an expert mountain climber to make it to the summit of Kilimanjaro. But you definitely need to train for this expedition, as you will be trekking 5-10 hours a day (with some steep inclines and descents).  Whatever training you do at home should be done in the boots you plan on wearing on the mountain and also while carrying your daypack. So many hikers arrive having trained in tennis shoes and with no pack. They unfortunately end up struggling to carry their pack weight and suffer from blisters from boots that weren’t broken in well. 

Mental training is also important. There will be times on Kili when you are exhausted, achingly sore and nauseous. It’s up to you to actively decide to continue on anyway. Meditation can help your mind stay clear and calm and focused on your goal of summiting. The higher you get in altitude, it can be tricky to keep up the enthusiasm you had at the beginning of the climb. This is normal and your guides know this, so they may teach you simple support songs in Swahili to help keep up morale on the trail. 

A group of hikers set out on a barren trail that leads to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

4) Which Kilimanjaro trail should I take?

There are seven recognized trails on Kilimanjaro, some much more challenging than others. The popular Marangu, Machame, and Umbwe routes approach from the south (Mweka is used only for descending). The Lemosho, Shira and Northern Circuit routes approach from the west and the quiet Rongai route from the north.

The newer Lemosho route is considered the most scenic route in Kilimanjaro National Park as it offers panoramic views from multiple sides of the mountain and it crosses the entire Shira Plateau from west to east (this part comes with the bonus of being an enjoyable, relatively easy and flat part of the trail). Yet, less than 10% of climbers use it because it takes a couple of days longer than the more popular Marangu and Machame routes (also known as the “Coca-Cola” and “Whiskey” routes). It is a preferred trail for some hikers precisely because it goes at a slower pace. By choosing a longer route, you give your body more time to adjust to the altitude and ultimately have a better chance of summiting. It eventually joins the Machame route near Lava Tower, and there you will definitely see more tourists, but to have the first few days without crowds is an absolute luxury on any popular mountain. 

5) When’s the best time to hike Kilimanjaro?

The best time to climb Kilimanjaro is in the dry seasons from late June to October and from December to March. There’s a better likelihood of mild temps, clear skies and less rain. Although it’s technically possible to climb Kilimanjaro year-round, the trails can be incredibly wet, muddy and snowy during the rainy season, which is typically March through early June. 

Hikers traverse a snow-covered trail that leads to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

6) Having the appropriate gear is critical

No matter what time of year you go, Kilimanjaro always has five distinct climate zones: The Cultivation Zone, Forest Zone, Heather-Moorland Zone, Alpine Desert Zone and Arctic Summit climate zone. Basically you will experience everything from tropical forest to the arctic tundra in a matter of days – it has been compared to walking from the equator to the North Pole. 

The most ideal thing you can do is bring as many layers as possible, with inner layers being moisture-wicking and outer layers thermal and waterproof. Make sure your boots are well broken in and not too snug. Your feet will swell and on the descent you don’t want your toes crushing into the front of your boot. Many climbers have lost a toenail or two that way. A high SPF moisturizer and lip balm is important, as the wind and weather conditions on the mountain can quickly turn your skin extremely dry and your lips swollen and cracked.

A group of hikers poses with their mountain guides and porters

7) Tip your porters well

Tipping etiquette in any foreign country can be tricky to navigate. Just know that it’s an essential and expected part of any Kilimanjaro climb, so come prepared with cash and envelopes. Hiking Kilimanjaro as a tourist carrying a 10-pound daypack can be rough enough, but to get you to the summit, a crew works tirelessly for you to carry all of the food, cooking gear, your heavier pack, water, etc. Once you observe the mind-boggling effort that goes into orchestrating your expedition, you will definitely want to show your appreciation. You are obviously free to tip as you desire, but the Kilimanjaro Porter’s Assistance Project recommends $40-45 per day for your lead guide, $30-40 per day for your assistant guide, $20-30 per day for your cook, and $8-10 per day for porters and any other crew member you would like to thank. These daily tipping guidelines are generally split among all of the hikers in your group.

Some of your crew members will be climbing in old tennis shoes or a coat that could definitely use waterproofing or repair, but you will never once hear them complain. In addition to (not in replacement of) a monetary tip, perhaps consider leaving them any gear that you no longer need or don’t mind replacing at home. It’s a thoughtful, extra way to say thank you and one that is always very well-received. 

Cathy Brown

Cathy lives on a self-sustainable farm in the Andes of Patagonia with her three kids. She's an editor at Matador Network, writes for Fodor's and Lonely Planet, and works closely with the Adventure Travel Trade Association. She's an avid gardener, surfer, and loves to hike.

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