Things You Need to Know Before Climbing Kilimanjaro
12 important things you need to know before booking your expedition.
Kilimanjaro is not a technical climb. It’s a hike.
When people think of climbing a mountain, they conjure up images of a brave soul clinging to a vertical rockface with their bare hands, with a harrowing fall to the earth below. Or an intrepid alpinist dressed from head to toe in a down suit, taking step after step in deep snow, ax in hand, while roped to their teammates. Neither of these apply to Mount Kilimanjaro despite its formidable height.
Mount Kilimanjaro does not require any technical skills. It is what is known as a “walk-up” mountain because, well, you just walk up to it. There is no need for mountaineering equipment like harnesses, ice axes or ropes because there is no danger of falling off a cliff or into a crevasse. Furthermore, there are no parts of the trail where one has to be particularly talented in rock climbing.
Kilimanjaro is known as “Everyman’s Everest” because it is a challenge that is completely doable by laymen. If you asked around, you would probably find that you have a few friends, or friends of friends, who are not the most outdoorsy people yet have successfully stood on Uhuru Peak. More than 30,000 people attempt the mountain every year and the demographics of those visitors show that people from all walks of life come here to test their mettle. Young and old, experienced backpackers and complete newbies, all have a place on this mountain.
Africa may be warm, but the mountain is cold.
Just because Kilimanjaro is located close to the equator does not mean it is scorching hot. It’s not. Almost immediately, as soon as you gain elevation, the temperature drops. That means everyone needs to have clothing that is designed to keep them warm in cold weather.
During the day, it often is warm as long as the sun is visible. So during day hikes, you will probably be pretty comfortable wearing a single base layer on top and trekking pants. Occasionally, a softshell jacket for when the clouds come or a hard shell if there is a strong breeze. At night, it’s a different story. As the sun sets, the cold comes too. It’s not uncommon to wear a down jacket and knit hat even on the very first night.
Almost certainly you will have nights where temperatures fall below freezing. This will be apparent when you find that ice formed in your tent while you slept overnight. As long as you have the right clothing and right gear, this is a non-issue (Ultimate Kilimanjaro® rents -30F rated Mountain Hardwear sleeping bags to clients, provides foam sleeping pads, and houses climbers in sturdy Mountain Hardwear Trango tents).
A support team handles all the heavy lifting.
Kilimanjaro expeditions are fully supported, meaning that a team of guides, cooks, and porters accompany climbers on the trek to do all the work. The porters set up the tents, take down the tents, cook the food, fetch the water, and clean the campsite. Clients do not have to use their precious energy doing any labor and instead can focus on acclimatizing to the altitude and enjoying the hike.
For every client, there are around three to four personnel. This may sound excessive until you realize what is actually brought on the mountain. First, there are the sleeping tents and dining tents. There are sleeping pads and sleeping bags. In the dining, tents are folding tables and plastic chairs, as well as lanterns, silverware, bowls, and dishes. The food is prepared in a kitchen tent, equipped with a stove, fuel, pots, and pans. And this food and equipment are required for not only the clients but for the staff serving them as well.
The staff will carry everything described above. In addition, they carry most of the clients’ gear too. Because of this, climbers do not have to carry heavy packs. With minimal gear, just enough to take care of any immediate food, water, or clothing needs, clients can focus on enjoying the hike. Typically, climbers’ packs weigh 15-20 lbs. at the beginning of the day, with three liters of water making up almost 7 lbs. of that.
You will eat well on the mountain.
Unlike western backpacking trips, where the bulk of the caloric requirements are met with dehydrated food, powdered mixes, and processed items, the meals on Mount Kilimanjaro are made with fresh ingredients. Our clients eat real meals consisting of fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, and grains, as well as an assortment of snacks.
The chef and his helpers prepare your meals in a kitchen tent using a kerosene stove (open fires are not permitted on the mountain. We can cater to vegetarian and vegan diets.
We believe that providing tasty food is an important element to successful climbing. At altitude, people often lose their appetite. And not eating is harmful to acclimatization and also inhibits recovery. So we serve food designed to keep people nourished while providing enough energy to continue hiking.
Ultimate Kilimanajro® crews carry enough food for every client and every staff person to last several days and have more rations brought into camp once or twice during the trek so the food is always fresh and plentiful. Our clients often say they eat better on the mountain than they do at home. We believe them.
Budget operators serve low-quality food choices with low nutritional value. That will hinder your success.
Acute Mountain Sickness is dangerous.
The air is thinner at high altitudes. This is the cause of a common illness experienced by climbers known as acute mountain sickness (AMS). AMS is the primary reason that people fail to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. And while mild forms of AMS are expected while climbing Kilimanjaro, severe forms of AMS are potentially fatal.
AMS arises when the human body is adapting to the lower oxygen levels at high elevation. This process, known as acclimatization, creates some biological responses to combat the oxygen deficiency. More oxygen-carrying red blood cells are produced. The respiration rate is increased. When these actions are not sufficient to compensate for the reduced oxygen in the environment, AMS symptoms begin to appear.
Symptoms usually start with a light headache, feelings of nausea and some fatigue. With time, these disappear as the body acclimatizes to the current elevation before the body is retested again at a higher elevation. As long as one is recovering in this manner, it is a sign that the body is overcoming the oxygen deficiency and there is no cause for concern. In fact, some people who acclimatize quickly will not feel symptoms at all.
If symptoms do not go away and become progressively worse, AMS becomes dangerous. Two types of severe AMS – high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) can lead to death. HAPE and HACE results in bleeding in the lungs and brain, respectively.
Our team conducts health checks twice daily to monitor the well being of our clients. The health checks consist of oxygen saturation readings, a review of pulse rates, and a survey of symptoms. The data is recorded to evaluate changes over time. If the guides determine that it is too risky to continue, you will be escorted down the mountain for your safety. We carry bottled oxygen and a portable stretcher on every climb and can coordinate an evacuation on foot or by helicopter in case of a medical emergency.
You don’t poop on the ground, but in a toilet.
One of the first questions people ask about Kilimanjaro is where do we poop? First, let us describe where other people poop. Then we will describe where our clients handle their business.
On the mountain, there are “long drop” toilets at every campsite, pictured above. They are simply holes dug into the ground with a wooden shelter constructed above it. A ceramic “launchpad” is where you stand or squat over the opening. As you might imagine, long drop toilets are disgusting and filthy and best avoided.
For Ultimate Kilimanjaro® clients, we provide private toilet tents, shown in the photo on the right. The toilet tent consists of a plastic commode covered by a phone booth sized and shaped tent for privacy. The commode is complete with a cover, toilet seat and water-based flushing system. You use it just like a regular toilet at home. A few hand pumps send water to rinse out the bowl.
What if you need to relieve yourself while on the trail? You go behind a rock or bush. And what about showers? There are none.
There is no wifi and no electricity, and that’s a good thing.
There is no wifi connection on the mountain. Cell service is very, very spotty. During each day, there may only be one or two possibilities to make a call, text or email. But you should not depend on it. Cloudy weather can sap the strength of the signal. If you would like to use your phone, ask the guides when and where you might be able to get a signal. Or simply observe when the local crews are on their phones.
Likewise, there is no electricity on Kilimanjaro. There is nowhere to charge camera batteries or smartphones, so plan accordingly. Bring enough camera batteries to last the entire climb. A portable external battery pack is great for recharging phones. In our experience, solar chargers are unreliable and generally do not work well.
We encourage you to use this opportunity to step away from busy city life and work life and to reconnect with nature. It is interesting that silence plus outdoors can spark deep thought and self-realization that otherwise would have laid dormant. Use this time to reflect on what is important in your life. Ponder if you should recommit to the path you are on or whether to make a change. This way, climbing Kilimanjaro just might be a life-changing experience for you like it was for others.
Expect to be on the mountain for at least seven days.
There are many different routes you can take up Kilimanjaro and they all take you to the same place – Uhuru Point, AKA the summit. But we strongly recommend booking routes that are between seven to nine days long. This goes for everyone, even if you are extremely fit, very experienced and in your physical prime.
So why would you intentionally prolong the climb when the primary goal is to reach the top? Please refer to point five (because AMS is dangerous). The slower you ascend, the easier it is for the body to acclimatize. Therefore a gradual ascent, enough to initiate the acclimatization process but not too much as to overtake the body’s ability to adjust, is key.
The shortest routes on the mountain are five days up and down. When you dig into the details, you will see that is just three and a half days to climb from 6,000 feet to 19,340 feet. If that sounds incredibly difficult, it is, which is why park authorities report that the success rate for five-day itineraries is a paltry 27%.
Don’t spend your hard-earned money, time, and effort only to become ill after a couple of days on the mountain. Though summiting Kilimanjaro may not be in the cards for everyone, the most practical thing you can do is increase your odds dramatically by adding more days to your climb. Chances are you will feel better, enjoy yourself more, and get to the top.
Summit night is tough, but you can do it.
The typical day hikes consist of walking short distances at a slow pace, with gentle elevation gains. Most people would not consider these days as strenuous, but light and enjoyable. Summit night is a different story. It will be difficult for almost everyone.
This final ascent is different from the usual routine for a few reasons. It starts with being woken up around midnight. So you do not get a full night’s sleep beforehand. In other words, you begin at a disadvantage – sleep deprived. Secondly, because it is the middle of the night, it is dark. You won’t be able to really see what is around you and where you are going. Your guides lead the way and you follow. A headlamp illuminates the path just a few steps in front of you. In the distance, you can see other headlamps far above and become disheartened about the effort required.
Third, it is cold. The climb to the summit puts you into the arctic ecological zone, where no plants or animals live. As you might guess, the arctic region is cold. And because this final ascent is done in the early morning hours, well before sunrise, the temperature can easily be below zero degrees with the wind chill. This might sound terrifying but with the appropriate layers of clothing and accessories, you will be fine. Most people wear four layers on top and three layers on the bottom, along with hats, gloves, and gaiters. The wind and cold need to be endured for about 6-7 hours. It warms up quickly when the sun rises.
The elevation gain is around 4,000 feet, followed by a 9,000 feet descent. This can take between 10 to 14 hours, or for some, even longer. At the moment, you might wish you were at home, resting on your comfy sofa. Don’t fret. Step by step, inch by inch, you will make it. Many people say it is the hardest thing they’ve ever done. But the effort required is what makes it worthwhile. In the end, climbing Kilimanjaro is something to be proud of because you endured this hardship, pushed on, and ultimately succeeded.
It’s going to cost some money.
Sorry to break the news, but climbing Kilimanjaro is not cheap. Even though Tanzania is a third world country, the fees imposed on tourists who visit national parks are quite high. In fact, most of the expenses incurred by Kilimanjaro operators are made up of mandatory park fees. At this time, the park permits, other fees plus government taxes equal more than $120 per person per night. When you see considerable prices for Kilimanjaro climbs, understand that these numbers are a function of these costs that the operator has no control over.
Secondly, as we mentioned above in point three (climbs are fully supported), there is a lot of manpower involved in every Kilimanjaro expedition. For instance, a group climb of 15 people requires a crew of more than 60 staff members. Therefore, labor costs make up another large portion of total expenses.
Climbing the mountain day in and day out is a tough job. At Ultimate Kilimanjaro®, we reward our crew by paying them one of the highest wages on the mountain (only behind luxury operators who charge double our prices). Our staff consists of a great bunch of people trying to make an honest living and they deserve it.
As the #1 mid-range guide service on Mount Kilimanjaro, our group climbs are competitively priced. There are budget operators who charge less but climbing with them comes with its risks. There are also luxury operators who charge much more, which we feel is unnecessary. We are positioned where we can deliver great service, with a high standard of safety, at a fair price. This is why our clients rave about our operation and refer their friends and family to us for their own Kilimanjaro adventures.
Getting to Mount Kilimanjaro is fairly easy.
Kilimanjaro is quite accessible for such a faraway destination. Tanzania has an international airport known as Kilimanjaro International Airport (airport code JRO). The airport is located near the towns of Arusha and Moshi. These two cities serve as the gateways to Kilimanjaro expeditions. Nearly all climb and safari operators are stationed in one of these places and will use accommodations here for their guests before and after their trips. We launch our trips from Moshi for most of our clients. Arusha, which is closer to Tanzania’s northern wildlife parks, is used for those only going on a safari.
Arriving at Kilimanjaro airport, one can transfer to either Moshi or Arusha in about 40 minutes by vehicle. Taxis are readily available, perhaps too available, as you will be hounded by taxi drivers as soon as you exit the airport. But most operators offer pick up and drop off services for your convenience. If you have arranged for a transfer, just ignore the crowd and look for the driver holding up a sign with your name and Ultimate Kilimanjaro® on it.
There are a variety of choices to fly into the country – KLM, Turkish Airways, Kenya Airways, Air Kenya, Qatar Airways, Precision Air, Tanzania Air, Ethiopian Air and FastJet. We recommend KLM for the most dependable service. However, flights from the USA to Kilimanjaro airport are always time-consuming, The shortest flights have at least one stop in Amsterdam, with a total travel time of around 20 hours.
There’s always something exciting to experience on a safari in East Africa. If you can make the most of your East African safari by doing some pre-planning, you’ll have the adventure of your life!
Yes, a safari isn’t the most budget-friendly activity — but it is a once in a lifetime chance to see some of the most amazing wildlife and landscapes in the world. By following the tips and advice above you’ll be able to make the most out of your next safari in East African — all while saving some money too!