Guide to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
Introduction: How to climb Mount Kilimanjaro
So, you’re thinking of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro? You’ve been lured in by all the tales of glory, wonder and the beauty of Tanzania and you want to get yourself a slice of that pie. That’s just marvellous, I think.
Kili is a romantic mountain; infamous and iconic and yet accessible, so really it’s a perfect first mountain to climb. Let’s start with the jaw dropping facts, shall we? Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest free standing mountain in the world, it’s also the highest mountain on the continent of Africa. So naturally this also makes it one of the 7 summits. The 7 summits are the highest mountains on each continent, a famous challenge to complete which includes Mount Everest and bragging rights for life- if you needed any more bragging rights…
Kilimanjaro is also a volcano, a dormant one of course, but it does house some pretty hot rock inside and could erupt in the future (though the last major eruption was over 360,000 years ago, so we doubt this is something to worry about).
What really makes Kilimanjaro so magical though, is the plethora of different ecosystems and wildlife that are found on the way up. There are jungles, alpine deserts and snow caps in succession, which is truly an experience to behold and made even more wonderful by the Swahili people of Tanzania, who you’ll meet and remember forever. The landscapes meld and form as you ascend, making each camp an entirely new wonder to enjoy, and giving you the opportunity to embrace nature fully as it comes along. Not bad for photos either… as you can guess.
If you’ve booked a Mount Kilimanjaro trek already, good on you! You can still use the Echio Expedition Planner to organise your expedition.
How to get there
Getting to Mt Kilimanjaro is fairly easy, compared with some other mountains. The most simple way is to catch a flight to Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO), and then grab a bus to the towns that your expedition will depart from, either Moshi in the South, or Arusha in the South West. But, and this is a big but… Make sure you get there with enough time to both prepare for your expedition departure, and enjoy some of the truly spectacular local delights.
The area holds some of the most wildlife dense reserves in the world, and a whole range of crazy things to see, like volcanic watering holes and forests teaming with apes and monkeys. Arriving a couple of days early is typically enough, but you could definitely tag on a short safari before or after your trip, if you can spare the time and funds.
Choosing a route
Ultimately when you decide to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, you’re deciding on a goal- to get to the top and to claim the mountain as your own. But, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a small selection of different routes that expose you to different environments, landscapes and challenges along the way… you know, to spice things up?
Well, luckily there is. Kilimanjaro has 7 routes to it’s summit, each unique in it’s own way and each with its own pros and cons. Choosing a route doesn’t matter all that much if you’re a hard-ass mountain climber who just wants to claim their prize, but for the typical first timer choosing the right kilimanjaro route can have a fairly big impact on your enjoyment and your success rate.
Note: what is acclimatisation?
Acclimatisation, when used in mountaineering refers to the time it takes for your body to adapt to the lower oxygen levels. The air gets thinner, the higher up your climb, meaning that your body gets less oxygen in each breath. This can be a serious concern at very high altitudes (above 5,000m) and especially if you don’t acclimatise. Acclimatising basically just means gradually exposing yourself to higher heights and giving yourself time to adjust.
The Umbwe Route
Let’s start with the hardest. Umbwe is considered the toughest route up Kilimanjaro due to the fact that it is the shortest and consequently the steepest route, especially in the first few days. The route links up with the Machame route after day 2. Due to its difficulty, Umbwe can be quieter than other routes, but you will not get as much time to acclimatise and this could worsen any altitude sickness… a trade-off you should definitely consider.
The Machame Route
If you want spectacular views and a multitude of different landscapes and terrains, then Machame is a good shout. It’s a little harder than Marangu and definitely not quiet (it can be quite “touristy”), but its a perfect route for photos and taking in some breathtaking scenery. It’s also a little more pleasant for acclimatisation, due to the facts it takes you way up high but camps you down lower.
The Marangu Route
The Marangu route is definitely the easiest and busiest routes. This makes it perfect for the less-fit trekker, or those of us who like the social aspects of climbing. It’s often referred to as the Coca-cola route due to the many small huts you’ll find on the way selling bottled drinks and snacks.
The Lemosho Route
You might see some elephants. Throwing that out there right away because wildlife is a high factor in the Lemosho Route, and a great reason to chose it. The route starts lower down, too, which is great for acclimatisation and gives climbers a more gradual exposure to the altitude.
The Shira Route
Shira is considered the original Lemosho- in fact Lemosho was created as an alternative to Shira, because Shira is pretty tough. The route starts at 3,600m, which if you drive to the start gate means you’ll get absolutely no time to adjust to the altitude and could risk some altitude sickness. Instead, if you can hike to the start gate, this is a much better and safer option.
The Rongai Route
An easier route than most others, but also sometimes the most expensive. This is because it takes some time to get to the start gate. However, if you’re not a fan of “wetness”, this could be a good route because it typically gets less rainfall than others on account that it comes at the mountain from the drier Northern region.
The Northern Circuit
Definitely the longest route, and certainly the one with the best views. The route will take you almost 360 around the mountain as you move upwards, starting on the Lemosho route and then around the Shira Plateau before entering the Northern Circuit proper. Due to the fact it’s new, it’s also quietest, and most isolated which is great as you’ll see more “uninterrupted” nature as it was intended to be.
Preparing to climb Mount Kilimanjaro
There are two major elements to preparing yourself for your Kilimanjaro summit bid. Equipment, and fitness.
What equipment do you need to climb Kilimanjaro?
We wrote an article on what kit you should need for mountaineering here. The beauty with mountains, is that by and large you need the same equipment. Admittedly, the harder the mountain, the better and more extreme the kit your need, but broadly speaking it comes down to clothing systems, and technical equipment.
For Kilimanjaro you will need a system that keeps you warm and dry in fairly broad swings in temperature, and which is lightweight enough not to burden you. Here’s a list
- Thermal base layers (2x tops, 2 x bottoms)
- Hiking socks x 5-7
- Hiking boots/shoes (make sure you wear them in!)
- Walking trousers x1-2
- Wind and waterproof hard shell jacket and trousers
- Fleece x1
- Down Jacket x1
- Warm clothes for camp
- Camp shoes (Crocs or Berkenstocks work well!)
- Beanie and gloves
- Basic toiletries
- Sun cream, sun glasses, sun hat
- Medical kit (small)
- Decent day pack (waterproof) big enough for your camera and personal items
Check with your expedition company too, as they may be able to rent or provide some of this kit.
How fit do you need to be to climb mount Kilimanjaro? Well, you need to have at least basic levels of fitness to ensure that the climb is both enjoyable and that you actually make it to the top. You should also consider overall core strength, as this helps to prevent injuries if you did take a tumble.
The first thing you should focus on is getting your bodyweight to a good level. How heavy you are has a direct correlation to how many calories you’ll use, the strain on your joints, how much oxygen you need and how much it will hurt if you fall down. If you’re naturally a big person (i.e. tall, or of stock build) then don’t worry too much, but if you’ve gained too many extra pounds then try to trim off as much as possible before the climb.
Regarding your fitness, you should mix long walks of increasing difficulty, with steady state cardio (i.e. running or cycling) and weight lifting. Lifting weights helps strengthen your stabilising muscles, legs and core so that you are able to carry your pack, and correct yourself easily if you slip or fall. You should be aiming to be able to walk continuously for 6+ hours, run 10km, and squat or deadlift your own bodyweight. If you can do all these things then you are likely to be fit enough. But remember, you can never be “too fit”.
Of course, don’t be a dummy- speak with your local gym or personal trainer and get a proper plan put in place. Never risk an injury!
When is the best time to climb Mount Kilimanjaro?
You can climb Kilimanjaro in two seasons- the wet season, or the dry. The wet seasons are from March-May and November-December and the dry from July- October in Tanzania. The wet season means that your climb up Kilimanjaro will be muddier, muggier and definitely more quiet. The weather will also add some more challenges to the route, and might make it feel a bit more “authentically wild” too.
Climbing in the dry season means departing between July and October when the mountain is drier and cooler but also much, much busier. This is the time when many climbers come from Europe to attempt their bid at the summit and so if you’re not a fan of crowds, then you should at least choose one of the more isolated routes.
Want to find out more?
There is tonnes of information about Kilimanjaro online, as you might expect. But, for some quality guide books and non-biased infor check out www.trailblazer-guides.com
Other great Kilimanjaro links
This cool live webcam (no, not that kind) on Kilimanjaro here where you can see images in real time from the mountain!
A live weather forecast for the mountain- here