Climbing the Roof of Africa: Mount Kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro
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Towering over the plains of Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. Climbing this incredible peak is an unforgettable adventure that tops many outdoor lovers’ bucket lists.

Compared to many of the world’s tallest peaks, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is relatively accessible. No technical expertise is required, and almost anyone in good health with some hiking experience can plan an ascent. Since you can only climb Mount Kilimanjaro with a licensed guide, you’ll be with an expert at all times. Most people also hire the help of porters and cooks, which makes the trek more manageable and enjoyable.

Despite its accessibility, Kilimanjaro is still a demanding climb that requires careful planning and preparation. This guide covers all the essential information you need to plan your trip up Mount Kilimanjaro, including the best times to go, popular routes, how to choose a tour operator, expected costs, potential risks and dangers, how to prepare for the demands of the trek, and recommended gear.

Sunrise on Mount Kilimanjaro

Key Facts About Mount Kilimanjaro

  • The elevation of Mount Kilimanjaro’s highest point, Uhuru Peak, is 19,340 feet (5,895 meters) above sea level – that’s nearly 3.7 miles or 6 kilometers!
  • The peak is located in northeastern Tanzania near the Kenyan border within Mount Kilimanjaro National Park.
  • Kilimanjaro is Africa’s tallest mountain and one of the world’s Seven Summits (the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents).
  • Around two-thirds of the people who attempt to climb the mountain are successful.
  • Mount Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano and has three volcanic cones – Kibo (home to Uhuru Peak), Mawenzi, and Shira. The Shira cone went extinct and collapsed 2.5 million years ago and is now referred to as the Shira Plateau. The Mawenzi cone is also extinct. The only cone that could theoretically erupt again is Kibo, but hikers don’t need to worry about this. Scientists have not observed any signs of a potential eruption in the foreseeable future.
  • The most recent volcanic activity on Kilimanjaro occurred around 200,000 years ago, with the last major eruption taking place 360,000 years ago.
  • Mount Kilimanjaro was formed about 750,000 years ago as magma, hot molten rock that flows beneath the earth’s surface, rose up through volcanic vents. Over time, the mountain grew as lava flows continued to pile up on one another.
  • The first recorded ascent of Kilimanjaro occurred in 1889. Austrian climber Ludwig Purtscheller and German geologist Hans Meyer reached the highest summit along the Kibo crater’s rim, now known as Uhuru Peak. They were assisted by local guide Yohani Kinyala Lauwo, cook Mwini Amani, and other local tribe leaders and porters. Their route is most similar to the Marangu Route.
  • Kilimanjaro lies 205 miles (330 km) south of the equator. As a result, many people are surprised to learn that there are glaciers at the top.
  • Each year, an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 people attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. The success rate is around 65% overall, but rates vary depending on the route.
  • The youngest person to climb Mount Kilimanjaro was Coaltan Tanner, at 6 years old. The oldest person to climb the mountain was Anne Lorimor, at 89 years old.
  • Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are melting quickly due to global warming. Some scientists have estimated that the glaciers and snow on Mount Kilimanjaro may disappear within the next 20 to 25 years.
  • Kilimanjaro is known for its incredibly diverse environments and ecosystems. There are five main climate zones: cultivated land, rainforest, heather and moorland, highland alpine desert, and an arctic summit.

When to Go

It’s possible to climb Mount Kilimanjaro throughout the year, but some months offer significantly better weather and conditions than others. The peak climbing season runs from June to October and mid-December to March, when the conditions are most likely to be dry and clear.

There are two rainy seasons in Tanzania: a longer one from late March to May and a shorter one from November to mid-December. Attempting the climb in November, April, and May is generally not recommended due to low visibility and wet, muddy, and slippery trails. Few tour operators run trips during this time, and many of the options that are available follow the Rongai Route on the drier, northern slopes.

The period from July to October tends to bring the most crowds. The weather is generally clear and dry, with colder temperatures, especially during the night in July and August. September and October bring more moderate temperatures, but you should still prepare for some extremely cold nights. January and February are also ideal times to climb the mountain. The weather is a bit warmer this time of year, rain is rare, and visibility is typically excellent.

June offers a nice balance between pleasant weather and fewer crowds. The trails may still be waterlogged in early June following the rainy season, but things usually dry out as the month progresses. You can also expect more people towards the end of the month, but things don’t really pick up until July.

December and early March offer less stable conditions due to their proximity to the rainy season, but they are less crowded than the peak months. December is generally considered to be better than March, and more and more people are choosing to climb Kilimanjaro over the Christmas holidays.

Routes Up Mount Kilimanjaro

There are eight recognized routes up Kilimanjaro: Marangu, Machame, Shira, Lemosho, Rongai, the Northern Circuit, Umbwe, and the Western Breach.

The best route for you will depend on your personal preferences, budget, and time constraints. Generally speaking, the longer the route and itinerary you choose, the higher your chance of success. This is because your body has more time to acclimate to the altitude and reduces your chances of altitude sickness – the number one reason people fail to complete the climb.

To help you figure out which route is right for you, here is a breakdown of each of the eight options, including descriptions and key statistics.

Porters and Hikers on Mount Kilimanjaro trek

Machame Route

Days: 6-7

Difficulty: Challenging

Traffic: Heavy

Success rate: 85% for 7-day itinerary, 70-75% for 6-day itinerary

Length: 39 miles (62 km)

Also known as the Whiskey Route, the Machame Route is the most popular way up Kilimanjaro. In fact, the route attracts as many as 50% of all people who attempt to climb the mountain. Despite its relatively short length, Machame has a high success rate because of its good acclimatization opportunities. The route passes through all five of Kilimanjaro’s ecosystems and is known for its incredible scenery. From dense rainforests to enormous volcanic boulders, the trail covers diverse terrain. The route is considered challenging and requires a bit of rock scrambling, but it is accessible to most hikers with adequate preparation.

Marangu Route

Days: 5-7

Difficulty: Moderate

Traffic: High

Success rate: 50%

Length: 45 miles (72 km)

The Marangu Route, also called the Coca-Cola Route, is another popular and heavily trafficked route up Kilimanjaro. Although it slopes gradually and is less physically demanding than Machame and many other paths, the Marangu Route has one of the lowest success rates (around 50%). Many people attempt to climb it in 5-6 days, which gives them less time to acclimatize and puts them at greater risk of developing altitude sickness. The route has mountain huts where trekkers sleep, making it a good option for those who want to avoid camping.

Lemosho Route

Days: 6-8

Difficulty: Challenging

Traffic: Moderate

Success rate: 90-95% with 8-day itinerary, 85% with 7-day itinerary, 65% with 6-day itinerary

Length: 42 miles (70 km)

With one of the highest success rates on Kilimanjaro and less traffic than Marangu and Machame, the newer Lemosho Route is an excellent choice for trekkers looking for a manageable and uncrowded path up the mountain. Lemosho offers breathtaking views with diverse scenery, similar to that of the Machame Route. This route merges with Machame at the Shira Plateau. Since there are fewer people for the first couple of days, you’ll have a higher chance of seeing wildlife and enjoy the feeling of solitude that many seek when spending time outdoors.

Shira Route

Days: 6-8

Difficulty: Challenging

Traffic: Moderate

Success rate: estimates suggest up to 85% with an 8-day itinerary, but substantially less with a 6-day attempt

Length: 35 miles (56 km)

The Shira Route has a lot in common with the Lemosho Route, but it begins at a higher elevation and offers less thorough acclimatization. As a result, it is less recommended than Lemosho and is best for those with experience hiking at high elevations. The Shira Route requires a long drive to the starting point, Shira Gate, at 11,800 feet/3,600 meters. Many people on this route experience some issues with altitude sickness on the first day, but the acclimatization profile is better in the following days. The first day is extremely steep, so this route should only be attempted by experienced hikers who are comfortable with challenging terrain.

Rongai Route

Days: 6-7

Difficulty: Moderate

Traffic: Low

Success rate: 80% for a 7-day itinerary, 65% for a 6-day itinerary

Length: 45 miles (73 km)

Rongai is the only route beginning north of the mountain, and you’ll begin the journey near the Kenyan border. Since the north side of Kilimanjaro is in the rain shadow and receives less precipitation, it’s a good option for those who plan to do the trek during the rainy season. Thanks to its gradual ascent, Rongai is also an excellent choice for those with less experience who are seeking an easier route to the top. Although the terrain is easier to navigate, the acclimatization profile of Rongai is not as ideal as some of the other routes, like Lemosho or Machame. We therefore recommend taking an extra acclimatization day and opting for the 7-day itinerary.

Northern Circuit Route

Days: 8-11

Difficulty: Challenging

Traffic: Low

Success rate: 95%

Length: 61 miles (98 km)

This newer route is one of the most gorgeous treks on Kilimanjaro, with unforgettable panoramic views. The Northern Circuit begins along the Lemosho Route then veers off around the more remote northern slopes. Few people choose this route, making it an ideal choice for those who want to avoid crowds. As the longest route up Mount Kilimanjaro, the Northern Circuit is best for those with a large budget. The Northern Circuit has an excellent acclimatization profile and features the highest success rate of all Kilimanjaro routes.

Umbwe Route

Days: 5-7

Difficulty: Very Challenging

Traffic: Very low

Success rate: 60-70%

Length: 33 miles (53 km)

The Umbwe Route is extremely demanding and not recommended for most hikers. Umbwe’s short, steep ascent does not allow for adequate acclimatization, and failure due to altitude sickness is common. The trail requires some scrambling and the use of tree roots to pull yourself up the mountain. Those with previous mountain climbing experience who are familiar with the demands of high elevation hiking may wish to attempt this trail for the added challenge. However, they should only do so with a full understanding of the difficulty involved. Few tour operators offer Umbwe itineraries compared to other routes because of the challenging nature of this trek.

The Western Breach

Days: 6

Difficulty: Extremely Challenging

Traffic: Very low

Success rate: Unknown

Length: 32 miles (52 km)

Most trekkers should avoid the Western Breach since it is short, steep, and more dangerous than other paths up the mountain. The route was closed in 2006, when a rockfall tragically killed three climbers. Although it reopened in 2007, the Western Breach remains the most treacherous way up Mount Kilimanjaro. As a result, few tour companies offer trips up this route, and only experienced mountain climbers should attempt it. Crampons and a helmet are recommended.

Elephants at Mount Kilimanjaro

How Much Does Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro Cost?

Climbing Kilimanjaro requires hiring a registered guide. Costs range from about $1,500 to $6,000+ for the climb, depending on the accommodation quality, trip length, and included amenities. Reputable companies rarely offer tours for much less than $2,000. When planning your budget, you’ll also want to factor in transportation to and from Tanzania, transfers within the country, accommodation before and after your climb, any gear you need to purchase, fees for visas and vaccinations, and gratuities for your guides and support staff.

Tipping is not required, but general guidelines suggest allotting about $250 for gratuities. This includes $100 for the lead guide, $50 divided among the assistant guides, $50 divided among the porters, and $50 divided among the cooks.

How to Choose a Tour Operator

Choosing a reputable, high-quality tour operator is crucial for having a safe, successful, and enjoyable trip up Kilimanjaro. You can book your trip with a local tour operator in Tanzania or with an international guide company. Although most people plan and reserve their tours ahead of time, it’s also possible to book a tour once you arrive in Tanzania.

There are tons of options with substantial variation in cost, quality, and success rates. The company and route that are right for you will depend on your budget and personal preferences, but there are some key things you should look out for. Here are some of the main factors to consider when evaluating and selecting a tour provider.

Emphasis on Safety

Safety should be a top priority among all reputable tour operators and the staff they hire. Look into what the company requires of its guides and staff to make sure they are highly experienced and properly trained. Guides should have mountain rescue and wilderness first aid certifications and at least two years of experience, but the more, the better.

Good Reviews and Reputation

Check reviews on a provider’s website and third-party websites like TripAdvisor and TourRadar to see what others’ experiences were like. You can also ask the online community questions about a tour operator you have in mind and explore various companies’ success rates.

Meals

Since climbing the Roof of Africa is a demanding physical endeavor, it’s important to stay properly fueled and nourished. Check to see what kinds of meals the company provides clients. You’ll want plenty of carbohydrates, but you should also look for well-balanced meals with some proteins, fats, fruits, and vegetables. If you have any allergies or dietary restrictions, you’ll also want to make sure the tour provider can accommodate this.

Privacy and Group Size

Privacy options and group size are important factors to consider when evaluating a tour operator. Some people don’t mind joining other climbers as part of a group, while others prefer a more private experience with only their friends or family. If you’re a solo traveler, some companies may have you share a tent with another member of the group, while others may provide you with your own tent (usually at an additional cost).

Equipment

Having high-quality gear is essential to stay safe and feel more comfortable on the mountain. Check to see what kind of equipment the company provides and make sure it covers all the essentials. This may include sleeping tents, sleeping pads, camp tables, chairs, cutlery, dining tent, medical kits, GPS-tracking services, and medical kits.

Accommodation and Amenities

Most accommodation on the mountain is in tents, but there are also some mountain huts with dormitory-style bunks on the Marangu Route. Budget tour operators will provide basic (often cheap) tents, while mid-range packages will include high-quality winter mountaineering tents from reputable outdoor brands. VIP packages offer large walk-in tents with beds, private bathrooms with tubs and warm water, and private toilets.

There are public pit toilets at every camp, but keep in mind that they are extremely basic. These toilets are usually wooden shacks with a hole in the ground. Privacy is a challenge since they sometimes lack doors, and they are often very smelly. Some tour operators provide private chemical toilets used only by you and your group and include these in the cost of the tour, while other companies will provide these toilets for an additional fee.

What to Expect

Hikers on Mount Kilimanjaro

Weather and Climate

Since Kilimanjaro lies in a tropical region, there are no real winters or summers on the mountain – only wet and dry seasons. There is enormous variation in the weather and climate as you hike up Mount Kilimanjaro. You’ll begin the journey in a tropical climate and end it in arctic conditions at the summit. At the base of the mountain, temperatures usually range from 70°F to 80°F (21°C to 27°C). On the summit, the temperatures drop to anywhere between -20°F and 20°F (-29°C and -7°C).

As is the case with any high elevation area, the weather conditions can change quickly, and cold rainy weather can strike any time of year. No matter when you visit, you’ll need to plan for these substantial temperature swings, extremely cold conditions, and variable weather.

Dangers and Risks to Consider

Given its size, many people wonder if climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is safe. Compared to other high peaks, Mount Kilimanjaro is very safe to climb. Still, there are various risks and dangers you should be aware of when planning your ascent.

Having a strong understanding of the potential hazards involved and being well prepared can help reduce your chances of running into problems on the mountain. Here are the main risks involved in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness is the most significant danger when climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and the number one reason hikers are unable to reach the summit. Anyone can develop altitude sickness – even highly trained athletes in incredible physical condition. The risk of developing altitude sickness typically begins when a person ascends above an elevation of 8,000 feet (2,440 meters). However, this varies significantly from one individual to the next and often depends on what elevations you’re used to.

The mildest form of altitude sickness is known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Symptoms include dizziness, headaches, nausea, poor sleep, loss of appetite, and shortness of breath. Medications like acetazolamide (Diamox) and ibuprofen can help lessen symptoms. Most cases are mild and resolve quickly as a person acclimates, but rarely altitude sickness can become more dangerous. Do not ascend any further if you begin to experience symptoms of altitude sickness. Instead, consult your guide and try to stay at the same elevation until your symptoms improve. If your symptoms worsen even while remaining at the same attitude, you should descend and seek medical attention.

Severe forms of altitude sickness include High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). These are less common but can have severe consequences. Symptoms of these more serious conditions include shortness of breath (even while at rest), confusion, inability to walk, coughing up a pink or white frothy substance, and coma.

Since it’s hard to predict a person’s risk of developing altitude sickness, all hikers should prepare to potentially experience this illness and take efforts to mitigate the risks.

Tips to reduce your risk of altitude sickness:

  • Take it slow: Avoid ascending more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) per day when you’re above 10,000 feet (3,048) and take a rest day for every 3,000 feet (915 meters) you ascend.
  • Abide by the “climb high sleep low” rule: Gradually expose your body to higher altitudes while climbing during the day, then descend to sleep at a lower altitude. Tour companies with high success rates will factor this rule into their trip planning.
  • Stay hydrated and properly fueled: Drink at least a gallon (about 4 liters) of water every day and ensure you are consuming plenty of carbohydrates. Experts recommend getting about 70% of your total calories from foods rich in carbohydrates.
  • Learn to recognize the early signs of AMS and check yourself often: Experienced guides should check in with you frequently, but do a self-check as well to ensure you’re aware of any new symptoms.
  • Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and medications like sleeping pills: These substances can affect your body’s ability to adjust to high altitude.

Hypothermia and Frostbite

When you start your hike in the tropics, it’s hard to imagine getting hypothermia and frostbite, but these are real risks when climbing Kilimanjaro. These issues often stem from cold temperatures and improper clothing. Rainy weather, dehydration, malnutrition, fatigue, exhaustion, and alcohol intake can also increase your risk of hypothermia.

With five different climate zones on the mountain, dressing in layers is crucial. Bring clothing that is breathable, warm, and weather-resistant, and prepare for frigid temperatures at the summit. Since damp conditions put you at greater risk of developing hypothermia, you’ll want to be especially mindful of this risk if you plan to climb Kilimanjaro during the rainy season. You can read more about these conditions in our posts about preparing for the challenges of mountain hiking and winter hiking.

Mount Kilimanjaro Summit

Dehydration

It’s easy to become dehydrated when hiking at high altitudes, and dehydration has been linked to several deaths among those who’ve attempted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Make sure to drink a minimum of 1 gallon (about 4 liters) of water every day when you’re on the mountain. It’s also a good idea to prehydrate on your summit day or night by drinking between a half quart and one quart (about a half liter to one liter) of water before you set off.

Signs of dehydration include headache, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, dry mouth. Many of these symptoms overlap with AMS. Keep an eye out for these symptoms and monitor your urine to check for dehydration. It should be clear or a light straw color. If it’s dark yellow or orange, you are likely dehydrated and need to increase your fluid intake.

Other Health Issues

Some pre-existing conditions, including cardiac diseases and other heart problems, make it risky to spend time in high elevation areas. If you have known health issues or cardiovascular problems, talk to your doctor to learn more about whether climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is feasible for you.

Rarely, hikers have discovered they had a pre-existing heart condition only after experiencing problems while mountain climbing. Even if you have no known health issues, you should still get a medical check-up prior to your trip. Before your hike, it’s wise to make an appointment with a doctor, inform them of your plans, and have them check for cardiovascular and respiratory issues that could increase your risk of health problems on the mountain.

Storms, Strong Winds, and Extreme Cold

Like most soaring mountain peaks, Kilimanjaro experiences freezing temperatures, strong winds, and sudden storms. Bring high-quality gear that can withstand these extreme weather conditions and help protect you from the elements.

Falling and Rockfall

Hiking in a rocky, mountainous area like Kilimanjaro means there is always a risk of tripping and falling, as well as rockfall. Rockfall tends to be the most common on the Western Breach, so you should avoid this route to reduce your risk. Avoiding tripping, slipping, and falling is a matter of wearing sturdy footwear with good grip, stepping carefully, and making sure you’re in good physical shape to improve your balance.

Diarrhea

A bout of diarrhea can make the trek up Kilimanjaro significantly more challenging or even impossible. To prevent diarrhea before your trek and while on the mountain, only drink water that you know is pure, avoid consuming raw vegetables, avoid drinking beverages with ice, and practice good backpacking hygiene, including washing your hands before eating and after using the toilet.

Preparing for Your Climb

To improve your chances of a successful trip up Mount Kilimanjaro, you’ll need to prepare physically and mentally for the challenge and take steps to make your journey to and from the mountain smoother.

When planning to climb a mountain like Kilimanjaro, experts recommend training for at least six months ahead of your trip. For training tips and advice about improving your physical preparedness, you can view our posts about hiking exercises and mountain hiking.

About six months ahead of your departure, check to see if there are any vaccinations, medications like malaria tablets, or visas that are required or recommended to enter Tanzania. You’ll also want to make an effort to prevent traveler’s diarrhea upon your arrival in Tanzania. Ask your doctor about medication to treat diarrhea, get a prescription if possible, and bring it with you in case you fall ill.

Recommended Gear

You don’t need any technical mountain climbing equipment to summit Kilimanjaro, which is part of what makes it such an appealing trek. Ahead of your trip, you should check with your tour operator for a comprehensive gear list and make sure to get any items you don’t already have or make arrangements to rent them. We’ve already covered the essentials of packing for multi-day hikes in our backpacking checklist. Therefore, we won’t get into too many details about what to pack for your Kilimanjaro trek in this post.

Here’s a general idea of what you’ll need:

  • High-quality, breathable, fast-drying clothing, including base layers, hiking socks, underwear, short-sleeve t-shirts, long-sleeve shirts, hiking pants, and shorts
  • Sun protection: lip balm, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, buff or bandana, sunglasses
  • Hiking boots and extra laces
  • Warm layers for the higher elevations, including a down jacket, warm socks, warm hat, thin gloves, fleece or other insulating layers, thick gloves or mittens, and fleece pants
  • Waterproof layers, including a jacket, rain pants, and gaiters
  • Comfortable footwear for hanging out at camp, such as sandals or lightweight trail running shoes
  • Daypack with water-resistant cover (25-35L is sufficient for most people)
  • Personal hygiene products (toilet paper, pee cloth, wet wipes, sanitary products, etc.)
  • Toiletries and medications
  • A couple of small quick-dry towels
  • Hydration system, such as reusable water bottles or a hydration reservoir
  • Earplugs and an eye mask if you’re a light sleeper
  • Insect repellant
  • First aid kit
  • Headlamp and extra batteries
  • Preferred snacks, supplements, and electrolyte packets
  • Water purification tablets (most tour operators provide clean water, but it’s a good idea to have these with you)
  • Four-season sleeping bag rated to about 15°F (-9°C). You can bring your own, or you may be able to rent one from your tour operator.
  • Sleeping bag liner
  • Durable, waterproof duffel bag with your gear, typically carried by a porter. Most companies require this to weigh no more than 33 lbs (15kg)
  • Stuff sacks or packing cubes to organize your gear
  • Trekking poles if you prefer using them when you hike
  • Camera, phone, solar chargers, etc.

The items above are general guidelines and not intended to be a final packing list. As mentioned, make sure to consult your tour provider for specific gear recommendations based on your chosen route and the season you’ll be doing the trek.

Conclusion

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is the adventure of a lifetime. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or total novice when it comes to high elevation hiking, Kilimanjaro is a challenging yet accessible trek. Solid planning and preparation, combined with choosing a high-quality tour operator, make you significantly more likely to reach the summit. If you do your research, train for the climb, and take it slow up the mountain, you’ll have a good chance of enjoying an unforgettable view from the top of the world’s highest free-standing mountain.


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