How do I prepare for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro? What equipment will I need?
No shortage of digital ink has been spilled on this topic. Even so, every article we’ve read seemed to be missing a little something.
Based on our Kilimanjaro climb experience, here are the nuts and bolts of what an average, ordinary hiker will need for a Kilimanjaro climb. We’ll address choosing a Kilimanjaro route, costs, equipment and hiking gear, ways to avoid and manage altitude sickness and other illnesses, and whether or not you really need to train for a Kilimanjaro climb.
- Choosing a Kilimanjaro Climbing Route
- When to Climb Kilimanjaro
- Cost to Climb Mount Kilimanjaro
- Key Gear and Equipment for Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
- Avoiding and Managing Altitude Sickness on Kilimanjaro
- Medication and Water Purification
- Advice on Summit Day
- Do I Need to Train for Kilimanjaro?
- Peeing on the Kilimanjaro Climb (a Woman’s Perspective)
Since all routes lead to the same place – Uhuru Peak, we recommend not to belabor this decision. Choose a route that you think best fits your timing, sleeping preferences, fitness level and budget.
We highly recommend booking a group tour instead of climbing alone. Going Kilimanjaro solo may be for some, but we found it more fun to trek, summit and share the experience with a group.
Marangu Route: This route is affectionately known as the “Coca Cola Route” because you sleep in huts (instead of in tents) along the way. Read all about our experience on the Marangu Route, Day by Day.
Note: Since our firsthand experience speaks only to the Marangu route, the remaining route information comes from our guide and conversations with other trekkers.
Machame Route: Known as the “Whiskey Route,” this route takes 6-7 days and is popular because you ascend and descend on different paths and experience a wider variety of scenery. Sleep in tents.
Rongai Route: This 6-7 day route begins close to the border with Kenya on the northern side of the mountain and then joins up with the Marangu Route at Kibo Huts. It features the same summit day and descent as the Marangu Route. Sleep in tents.
Umbwe Route: Another 6-7 day route in tents. Our chief guide described this as the most difficult of all Kilimanjaro routes.
Lemosho Route: Six-eight days, also in tents. This route begins in the west and meets up with the Machame route after a few days. It is said to have some of the best scenery of the Kilimanjaro routes.
Shira Route: Similar to the Lemosho Route, but features a higher trailhead starting point (3,800 meters).
Note: For any given route, differences in duration are due to optional acclimatization days where you spend an additional night in a location to better adjust to the altitude. If you are especially concerned about altitude sickness, you should consider taking an extra day on the ascent.
High season for Kilimanjaro treks runs from late June to September and December to February. Consider climbing during the shoulder seasons to get good weather while avoiding the crowds.
For us, late May to early June was just about perfect: weather was great, skies were clear, and it was not too hot. Huts, trails and bathrooms were not overrun with climbers.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is not cheap. Kilimanjaro entrance fees and permits to Kilimanjaro National Park are steep. The climb also requires A LOT of people to help you get up the mountain — porters, guides, assistant guides, and cooks.
Our five-day Marangu route trek was included in our Gap Adventures Tanzania Encompassed tour. If you book the Kilimanjaro Marangu route trek separately, it costs around $1,500 (including two nights at a hotel in Moshi). Machame and other camping treks are more expensive ($1,700+) because the trek is longer and requires additional porters to carry additional camping equipment.
Tipping for Mt. Kilimanjaro? Estimate about $100-$200 (depending upon which route you take and how satisfied you are with your experience) in tips for your entire entourage of guides, porters and cooks. Many of the local staff earn more in tips than in salary.
We were thankful for the extra support our Gap Adventures Kilimanjaro team provided. This included additional manpower and support on summit day, plentiful and well-planned meals, and the peace of mind that comes with an experienced team whose aim is to help you summit safely.
If you book a tour on the ground in Moshi or Arusha, you can probably negotiate a cheaper price. However, we do not recommend risking a tour that cuts corners and leaves you without proper food and support. Make sure you know exactly what you are getting for your money. If you have even the slightest doubt, trust your instinct and find an alternative provider.
Some questions to ask: What kind of food will you have? What specifically is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Are the porters members of the porter’s association so that they have some protection, insurance and benefits? Will you have summit porters or additional help on summit day? Will your chief guide carry oxygen in case you need it? If you are taking a route where you sleep in tents, in what condition is the equipment?
We can attest that there’s no need to go out and spend a fortune on special gear for the climb. We arrived with just the basic stuff we carry with us all the time. We rented the remainder of the clothes, gear and equipment needed when we arrived the day before the trek began. (Most Kilimanjaro hotels and tour companies offer this.)
To give you a sense of rental costs, we paid $126 total to rent two sleeping bags, two pairs of waterproof pants, one waterproof jacket, walking sticks, two pairs of gaiters, two big duffle bags (for porters to carry), two waterproof bags, and one day pack.
Basic hiking/trekking gear for Kilimanjaro:
Before we enumerate clothing and equipment you might need, you should prepare yourself to go without a shower during your Kilimanjaro trek. The basic items:
- Basic walking/trail pants (zip-offs if you like, or carry shorts, which we never used)
- Hiking socks
- Hats (one trail hat for sun, another wool hat for warmth)
- Long-sleeved trail shirt and t-shirts
- Silk long underwear or Capilene top/bottom
- Gloves (ideally, with liners that you can strip down to when it becomes too warm for gloves)
- Fleece jacket
- Underwear (of course)
- Pajamas, or something clean to sleep in at night
Your porter will carry 15 kilos for you; this includes the weight of your sleeping bag. This should be more than enough weight allowance for what you’ll need to carry.
At night and on summit day, it can get very cold, as in down to -25C/-13F. Be prepared for this with many layers.
Slightly more technical gear and clothes for Kilimanjaro:
Waterproof pants and jacket: At the beginning of the climb you may need this to protect against rain. On summit day, you’ll need it for wind protection and warmth. We found that a simple winter/shell jacket is usually sufficient if supported by good multiple layers underneath.
Bundled up at Uhuru Peak in our waterproof pants and jackets
Hiking shoes: Make sure your shoes/boots have some ankle support (for summit day ascent and descent). Dan wore his low hikers for the first two days and switched to a rented ($15) pair of leather hiking boots on summit day.
Walking sticks / walking poles: We would recommend renting at least one pole — you’ll find it useful if not essential for balance, stability and pacing, particularly on the descent. Dan and I split a set and used them only on the descent. However, after talking with other climbers, it’s worth carrying a pair and using them for pacing and planting on the ascent up the frozen sand and scree switchbacks on the way up to Gilman Point.
Gaiters: These clip on to your shoes and pants to protect your shoes from getting inundated with dirt, sand and snow, particularly on the descent. We wouldn’t consider these crucial, particularly when we trekked during the season of limited/no snow. Rent them if your guide says you expect to walk through snow, otherwise you can probably skip them.
Sleeping bag: The warmer, the better. Try to rent a sleeping bag that is comfort rated to -20 or -30 C. Do not skimp on your sleeping bag — better to be too warm than too cold.
Extra batteries/portable charger: There is no electricity for charging batteries on the way up the mountain. Bring your own solar charger, self-contained portable charger, or stock up on extra batteries.
Head lamp: A head lamp is so much better than a torch on summit day. The last thing you want to do going up the mountain is hold something in your hand. Even better, carry a headlamp with an infrared light option. When you’re sharing a hut with a group of people and need to take pee breaks in the middle of the night, the red light is less disturbing to your hut-mates than a regular light.
Ear plugs: As you know, we love ear plugs. Sleep is critical during the climb. Do yourself a favor and get some good ear plugs so you don’t hear the bathroom breaks or snorers in your hut/tent. Also useful when the people bunking next to you squeal like 13-year old girls all night.
Duct tape: Miracle tape for preventing blisters, taping up hot spots and preventing awful blisters from getting any worse. Especially useful when wearing new shoes (which we do not recommend, but I had to do).
Fortunately, this was not one of our feet.
Handywipes: Helps you to stay “fresh” when you haven’t had a shower in days. Not going to go into more details here.
Electrolyte powder packets: When you’re drinking so much water, it gets boring. Also, sugars and salts are useful to help the body absorb and retain water.
No, we do not have sponsorship from Skippy. We just like peanut butter.
Our assistant guide told me on the first day: “You will make it up to the top if you follow the rules.” Here they are:
1. Water: Drink it until you almost feel sick. This is perhaps the most important factor when dealing with high elevation. Drink at least three liters per day. If you can drink more, do so. Yes, you’ll be get up to pee during the night but this is a better alternative than succumbing to altitude sickness. Particularly as you climb, skip the diuretics (stuff that makes you pee like tea and coffee) in favor of hot water.
2. Pole Pole (Slowly, Slowly): Walking slowly allows you to conserve your energy and acclimatize as you go. Does your pace seems ridiculously slow? Then it must be the right one for Kilimanjaro.
3. Food: Your appetite declines as you gain elevation. This means you need to power eat on the first days of the trek and try to force yourself to eat at elevation. Not having enough energy reserves, particularly on summit day, isn’t good.
4. Sleep: Sleeping well becomes more difficult the higher you go in elevation – your heart races and your mind is wandering in and out of hallucination-like dreams. Go to bed early and sleep as best you can (see tip above for ear plugs). You’ll need all the rest you can get.
Having said all this, everyone reacts to altitude differently. Prepare yourself mentally for some discomfort. Even the fittest person can succumb to altitude sickness.
Other tools and tip to manage altitude sickness:
Acclimatization walks: At the end of each day, ask your guide to take you on an acclimatization walk. The idea is to walk/hike up to a point higher than where you’ll be sleeping for the night and then descend back down. This helps your body better adjust to the lack of oxygen.
Acclimatization walks also provide some nice views, too.
Altitude Medicine (Diamox) – Yay or Nay? Although we carry Diamox, we have always avoided taking it. Our guides in Nepal and Peru instilled in us that Diamox should be taken only as a last resort. The Kilimanjaro guides were a little more forgiving regarding their opinion of Diamox. It is heavy chemistry; it does very strange things to the acidity level of your blood and it requires that you drink even more water on the day you begin using it (4-5 liters if you can imagine that).
Garlic pills: In Nepal, the traditional wisdom says that garlic thins the blood. So on the Annapurna Circuit and Everest Base Camp hikes, all the tea houses offer garlic soup. We ate a bowl almost daily on our way around the Annapurna Circuit.
Knowing that garlic soup wouldn’t be available on Kilimanjaro, we carried garlic pills and took a double dose twice daily.
Did it help? Who knows?
Did we stink. Hells yes. But we stank anyway. (No showers, you know.)
A few other medical items to consider.
- Tylenol or Paracetamol for head and body aches: Light headaches and body aches are rather normal as you gain serious elevation. Our guide suggested that Tylenol/paracetemol is better than taking aspirin. It’s also easier on your kidneys than ibuprofen. If you choose to take Ibuprofen, be sure to drink even more water.
- Anti-nausea or diarrhea medicine: Stomachs also tend to suffer from elevation gain. For diarrhea, you can take immodium or lomotil, but they simply mask the symptoms. For nausea, controlling your breathing is the best if you’d like to avoid vomiting.
- Purified Water: We were provided boiled Kilimanjaro stream water at each stop. The higher the elevation, the less water actually boils at high heat. We drank the water without any purification tablets or drops and were fine. If you are nervous about water, bring water purification pills, drops, or a sterilization pen (Note: Our SteriPen stopped working – don’t know if it had something to do with elevation or cold weather killing batteries.)
(Note: No matter how tough you think your stomach is, don’t drink the tap water in Moshi or Arusha before you begin your trek. We’ve heard horror stories, as in someone being carried down the mountain on a stretcher due to amoebic dysentery. There’s no sense tempting fate.)
- Take many breaks on summit day: Don’t be afraid to ask your guide to take a break as often as you need. If our stomachs began to feel queasy, all we’d need is a short rest with concentrated breathing to re-center. Very deep breathing — vocal exhales and yoga-style breathing, as bizarre as it sounds –can also help with oxygen intake and nausea management.
- Play games or sing songs to take your mind off the climb: When you’re plodding up volcanic scree for hour upon hour in the black of night, boredom can weigh on you. Try to come up with mind games or sing songs in your head to distract you from obsessing about the time. This is where “99 bottles of beer on the wall” comes in handy.
- Go easy at the top: When you get to Uhuru Peak, you’ll feel exhilarated. You may want to jump for joy. Go for it once, but not twice. Control your excitement and movement. Otherwise, you may find yourself wanting to vomit on the way back down.
If your lifestyle is 100% sedentary, you have some work to do. If, on the other hand, you’re accustomed to regular exercise and being active, including hikes and activities that get your heart rate up, you’re probably in the league of people who can summit Kilimanjaro.
Although we did nothing specific in preparation for climbing Kilimanjaro, we’re inclined to think that some regular exercise would have been useful. There were others on our trek who prepared with regular training sessions. I suspect this preparation helped them as much mentally as it did physically.
After all, Kilimanjaro is a mental exercise, one about fortitude and confidence as much as anything else.
When you’re drinking at least three liters of water per day, you’re doing a lot of peeing — both during the day and at night. Basically, you’re going to need to get used to peeing in the great outdoors.
When hiking during the day, the easiest thing is to pop behind a bush, rock, tree along the way. We usually had group water and pee breaks at the same time. When the landscape becomes more barren at higher elevation, it’s a bit more difficult to find cover but you can usually find a small mound of dirt or rock. At night, the goal is to find a spot near your hut or tent that is somewhat protected, but easy to get to in your half-asleep slumber. Your inhibitions about peeing outside go away pretty quickly.
I didn’t use the She Wee or other urine funnels that allow women to pee standing up without making a mess, but might consider it for next time. Sounds like it would make things easier, faster and more efficient during the day and at night. If you use one of these on your Kilimanjaro Climb, let me know in comments how it worked out.
(Note: this section added on July 21, 2011 after receiving questions about this topic in the comments section and by email.)
One of the great things about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is that it does not require a lot of technical skills or climbing gear. However, being prepared for the trek allows you to focus on the task at hand – getting to Uhuru Peak – instead of worrying about what you’re missing in your pack or how to handle altitude sickness.
What are we missing here?
If you are contemplating a Kilimanjaro climb and have other questions, please post them below in the comments. If you’ve climbed Kilimanjaro and have your own tips or secrets, please share them below.
Disclosure: Our tour in Tanzania was provided by G Adventures in connection with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.
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