Mount Kinabalu – Climbing Borneo’s Highest Peak

Mount Kinabalu

Located on the island of Borneo, Mount Kinabalu is Malaysia’s highest mountain at 13,435 feet (4,095 m) above sea level. Climbing this soaring peak is an epic adventure accessible to any hiker in good physical condition. While no mountaineering or high-altitude hiking experience is necessary, you’ll need to plan ahead and prepare for your summit attempt.

If climbing Mount Kinabalu is on your bucket list, we’ve got you covered with the essential information you’ll need to plan your trip. From the best time of year to summit the mountain to recommended gear, here is everything you need to know to get started planning your Mount Kinabalu hike.

Facts About Mount Kinabalu

  • Mount Kinabalu is the third-highest island peak in the world and the highest peak in Southeast Asia.
  • The first recorded ascent of Mount Kinabalu occurred in 1851. British colonial administrator Hugh Low and local Dusun guide Lemaing of Kampung Kiau reached the summit plateau in March 1851. However, they did not get to the top of the mountain’s highest peak (now known as Low’s Peak). Low made several other attempts to reach the peak later that decade but did not succeed.
  • English explorer and zoologist John Whitehead finally reached the mountain’s highest point in 1888.
  • In February 1910, British botanist Lilian Gibbs became the first woman to summit Kinabalu.
  • Most climbers today require two days for their ascent. It’s possible to summit the mountain in a single day, but Sabah Parks, the organization that oversees and regulates Kinabalu activities, has suspended one-day permits.
  • The mountain and its surrounding area boast incredible biodiversity, with 5,000-6,000 species of plants, 326 species of birds, and 100+ species of mammals identified. Famous species include the Rafflesia (a type of parasitic flowering plant), pitcher plants, and orangutans.
  • Many of the plant species are endemic to the Kinabalu region and are not found anywhere else on earth.
  • Mount Kinabalu is part of the Bornean Crocker Range and towers above the Sabah jungle.
  • The Malay name for the mountain is Gunung Kinabalu, and the Dusun name is Gayo Ngaran or Nulu Nabalu. The name comes from the indigenous Kadazan people who called it “Akinabalu,” meaning “Revered Place of the Dead.”
  • The mountain is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was the first UNESCO site in Malaysia.
  • The area is home to diverse ecosystems. On your way to the summit, you’ll pass through lowland rainforests, Montane grasslands, desolate rocky slopes, and alpine meadows with alpine scrub vegetation.
  • The park experiences significant annual rainfall, which averages around 110 inches (2,700 mm) a year at park headquarters.
  • Geologically speaking, Kinabalu is a very young mountain. The granodiorite formation began as molten rock. It was pushed up from the earth’s surface and then hardened around 10 million years ago. It continues to push upwards at a rate of 0.20 inches (5 mm) per year.
  • Tragically, an earthquake struck Kinabalu on June 5, 2015. Eighteen hikers and mountain guides were killed in the earthquake and subsequent landslides.
  • The mountain is home to the world’s highest via ferrata climbing route: Low’s Peak Circuit at an elevation of 12,355 feet (3,766 meters) above sea level.

Best Time to Go

February to September is widely considered the best time to climb Mount Kinabalu. This period overlaps with the region’s drier seasons and offers the best conditions. However, summiting the mountain is allowed throughout the year. October to January is also a great time to plan your hike if you don’t mind a slightly higher chance of rain and potentially slippery terrain.

If you want to hike during Sabah’s driest months of the year, plan your trip in February, March, or April. Temperatures during these months are generally mild, and skies are more likely to be clear. Anytime between February and September is considered the high season, so we recommend reserving your spot a minimum of six months ahead of time if you want to go during this period.

June to September sees higher temperatures, so avoid this period if you don’t like the heat. Sabah’s location just below the Southeast Asian typhoon belt means that rainfall is more consistent throughout the year than in many other parts of Malaysia. Still, the area technically has two monsoon seasons: the drier Southwest Monsoon from May to September and the wetter Northeast Monsoon from October to March. The Southwest Monsoon mainly affects Sabah’s southwestern coast, while the Northeast Monsoon impacts the state’s northeastern coast. This leaves Mount Kinabalu relatively unaffected by the seasonal monsoons compared to coastal areas and peninsular Malaysia.

Keep in mind that in the event of severe weather, the Sabah Parks may close the gate to the Kinabalu summit in the interest of hiker safety. Data from 2016 to 2019 show that October experienced the most summit closures, followed by August, November, January, and December. Even so, Sabah Parks only closes the summit around 10 to 15 times a year. The chance of a closure falling directly on your chosen dates is unlikely no matter what time of year you plan your hike.

Mount Kinabalu

What to Expect

Weather and Climate

Mount Kinabalu is surrounded by rainforest, and the weather in this tropical climate tends to be warm and humid year-round. Temperatures on Kinabalu vary substantially with elevation change. You can expect temperatures of around 59°F to 79°F (15°C to 26°C) in Kinabalu Park and Kundasang at the base of the mountain, with the Timpohon to Panalaban area ranging from 43°F to 61°F (6°C to 16°C). The Kinabalu summit is often cold (around 32 to 37°F or 0 to 3°C) with strong winds, so climbers should not plan to spend much time there.

Annual rainfall is around 157 inches (400 cm), and rain should be expected no matter what time of year you plan your trip. This could be just a passing shower or a heavy rainstorm, with heavy rainfall more likely during the rainy season.

The Route

From Timpohon Gate:

  • Distance: 10 miles / 16.2 km
  • Elevation gain: 7,313 feet / 2,229 meters

From Park Entrance:

  • Distance: 14 miles / 22.5 km
  • Elevation gain: 8,419 feet / 2,566 meters

The official starting point for the Kinabalu climb is located at the Timpohon Gate within Kinabalu National Park. For hikers tackling the mountain over two days, day one consists of hiking for about five to seven hours on a 3.7-mile (6-km) trail from Timpohon Gate (6,122 ft / 1,866 m above sea level) to Panalaban Basecamp, formerly known as Laban Rata (10,730 ft / 3,270 m). The trail features mossy forests filled with interesting vegetation, including bamboo, tree ferns, rhododendrons, begonias, and pitcher plants. Upon reaching Panalaban Basecamp, you will find the Laban Rata Resthouse and other huts where you can spend the night.

Day two involves summiting Kinabalu and descending all the way back to Timpohon Gate. Hikers typically begin their ascent around 2 a.m. Around 5:30 a.m., you can watch the sunrise at the summit of Low’s Peak before beginning your descent.

From Panalaban Basecamp, there are two main hiking trails: the standard Ranau Trail (0.79 miles / 1.27 km long) and the less common Kota Belud Trail (0.68 miles / 1.1 km long). The Kota Belud Trail requires a special permit from Sabah Parks, is steeper and more challenging, and has more exposure. The two trails reconnect at the Sayat-Sayat Checkpoint, located 1.06 miles (1.7 km) from the summit. On the descent, most climbers require about two hours to reach Panalaban and then another four to five hours to reach Timpohon Gate.

If you want an added challenge on your Kinabalu climb, there are two optional via ferratas on the mountain’s Panalaban rock face. Accessible from the Kota Belud Trail, the routes are collectively referred to as Mountain Torq. Mountain Torq is the first via ferrata in Asia and the highest via ferrata in the world! The routes start at 10,500 feet (3,200 meters) and end at 12,355 feet (3,766 meters) above sea level.

Both routes (Walk the Torq and Low’s Peak Circuit) are suitable for beginners and don’t require any professional mountaineering skills or experience. However, Low’s Peak Circuit is more advanced, longer, and requires a higher level of physical fitness. Various tour operators include the via ferrata routes in their itineraries, as well as an overnight stay at an eco-friendly alpine lodge called Pendant Hut.

Accommodations

Most hikers plan to stay a night in the Kinabalu National Park area for acclimatization purposes before beginning their ascent. Accommodation is available both inside and outside of the park’s boundaries. Sutera Sanctuary Lodges manages the accommodation inside the park, which tends to be pricier than lodging just outside the park borders. If you’re traveling on a budget, consider booking lodging outside of Kinabalu Park, such as a highland resort at Kundasang, before your trek.

On the trail to the summit, you have a series of huts, including Laban Rata Resthouse, Pendant Hut, Lemaing, Kinotoki, and Mokodou Huts. Most of the huts have basic dormitory-style accommodations with no hot water. Bedding is typically provided, so you don’t need to bring a sleeping bag.

Laban Rata Resthouse offers private rooms, hot meals, and cold showers. Since there are no roads up Kinabalu, all of the supplies at the huts are carried by porters. Most of the rooms are not heated, so plan your attire accordingly.

Kinabalu Park

Dangers and Risks

Climbing Mount Kinabalu is very safe if you stay on the marked trail and follow your guide’s instructions. Still, you should be aware of certain risks and dangers described below.

Altitude Sickness, Dehydration, and Hyponatremia

As with any high elevation hike, altitude sickness is a risk when climbing Kinabalu. Altitude sickness affects individuals differently and varies in its onset, but the risk generally begins at elevations above 8,000 feet (2,440 m). ​​Symptoms of mild altitude sickness (also called Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS) can include dizziness, headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, and poor sleep.

You can reduce your risk of experiencing altitude sickness while climbing Mount Kinabalu by taking it slow and giving your body time to adjust. It’s best to spread your ascent out over a couple of days with an overnight at Laban Rata Resthouse (located at 3,270 m / 10,730 ft) or another hut. It’s also recommended to stay in a highland resort at Kundasang or in Kinabalu National Park before your climb to let your body acclimatize.

Staying properly hydrated and fueled is another crucial part of reducing your risk of issues like AMS, dehydration, and hyponatremia (a condition marked by low sodium in the blood). Drink plenty of water, eat salty energy-rich snacks, and use electrolyte powders to replace salts and nutrients lost while sweating in Kinabalu’s humid environments.

If you do develop symptoms of altitude sickness, medications such as acetazolamide (Diamox) and ibuprofen can help lessen them. To learn more about reducing your risk of altitude sickness and managing symptoms, you can view our detailed post about Preparing for the Challenges of Mountain Hiking.

Injury

All outdoor activities, including hiking and mountain climbing, come with an inherent risk of injury. You can reduce your risk by staying on the trail, following your guide’s instructions, wearing proper footwear and clothing, and improving your strength and balance with training exercises before your trip.

Earthquakes and Landslides

A 6.0-magnitude earthquake struck Kinabalu on June 5, 2015, resulting in deadly landslides. These events killed 18 hikers and guides and injured 11 more. After this tragedy, many hikers may wonder whether climbing Kinabalu is safe. Hikers should rest assured that the region has very low historical seismic activity, and this event was a rare occurrence. As a result, the risk of experiencing an earthquake while climbing Kinabalu is extremely low.

Obtaining a Permit

All climbers on Mount Kinabalu must have a permit, and the best way to obtain it is through the Sabah Parks official website. As of October 23, 2021, Sabah Parks only issues 150 permits per day. It’s a good idea to reserve your spot before booking your flights and lodging, especially if you are traveling during the high season.

While we recommend planning ahead and booking your spot in advance, it is possible to obtain a permit for the next day if you go to the park headquarters in person and tell the staff you would like to climb Kinabalu. Getting a permit and lodging is certainly not guaranteed, but impromptu trips are manageable depending on the season.

If you are booking a multi-day guided tour through a travel agency, the tour operator should secure a permit for you. Check with the agency before booking if you are unsure whether the permit is included in the trip cost.

Choosing a Guide or Tour Operator

Sabah Parks requires all hikers to employ a licensed mountain guide when climbing Mount Kinabalu, and hikers must be accompanied by the guide at all times. You can choose between booking a guide only or a package deal that includes accommodation, meals, transportation, porters, and additional services.

The cost of mountain guide service starts around RM230 or US$55, while the rate of optional porter service starts at about RM65 or $15 per day. Multi-day tour packages can easily cost over $1,000 depending on what services are included.

Make sure to book directly with Sabah Parks or with a reputable, internationally-recognized agency, as there are, unfortunately, a number of scams and fake trips for sale. If you are unsure about a particular tour operator, consult Sabah Parks to confirm the agency is legitimate.

How to Get to Mount Kinabalu

The closest airport to Mount Kinabalu is Kota Kinabalu International Airport, located about 62 miles (100 km) away from the park entrance. From there, you can rent a car, take a shared or private shuttle, or take a taxi or minivan. Shuttle transfers are available between Kinabalu Park, Kota Kinabalu Airport, and Kota Kinabalu City. Costs start around RM90 or $21.

Preparing for Your Mount Kinabalu Climb

Physical and Mental Preparation

Since Mount Kinabalu is a much shorter climb than mountains like Kilimanjaro, it doesn’t require intense preparation. Still, it’s a good idea to train physically and mentally for the challenges you’ll face on your ascent. We’ve covered detailed exercises and training tips in our posts about How to Get in Shape for Hiking and Preparing for the Challenges of Mountain Hiking, so we recommend checking out those articles if you want help with your training.

In regards to mental training, positive affirmations and visualization are excellent strategies to use. It’s a good idea to start employing these during your training hikes so that they become second nature during your climb. You can read more about these techniques in our post about hiking the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea.

Visas, Vaccinations, COVID Tests, etc.

Depending on where you’re traveling from and your medical history, you may require additional documentation, visas, or vaccinations to travel to Malaysia. Check with the Malaysian government and your country’s embassy to make sure you’re aware of and can meet the latest entry requirements. You’ll also want to plan ahead and potentially schedule an appointment with your doctor to ensure you are healthy enough for the climb and obtain medications for your trip, such as pills to prevent altitude sickness and traveler’s diarrhea.

Cultural Considerations

Mount Kinabalu is a sacred place for local Kadazan and Dusun people, and it’s important to travel with respect and awareness. A conflict between local hikers and indigenous groups emerged in the aftermath of the earthquake and landslides in 2015. This dispute resulted in outrage in the local community and prison time for some of the tourists involved. While this is an extreme example, it’s crucial to travel with respect for local customs, cultures, and communities.

If you’re planning your climb with a reputable tour operator, they should provide you with some background information and tips to ensure you’re respecting the local customs and people. If you’re planning your trip on your own, do your research ahead of time and listen to your local mountain guide once you arrive.

Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu Gear List

Climbing Mount Kinabalu doesn’t require any advanced or technical equipment. Still, you’ll want to come prepared with the right gear for the most comfortable and enjoyable experience on the mountain. Weather conditions can change rapidly in this high elevation environment, so hikers should pack for a range of conditions and potentially heavy rainfall. Additionally, since the climate is very humid, you should pack lightweight clothing that breathes well and dries quickly.

Here are some essential items to add to your Mount Kinabalu gear list:

  • High-performance, breathable, fast-drying clothing, including underwear, a sports bra, short-sleeve t-shirts, one long-sleeved shirt or baselayer, hiking pants, and shorts (convertible hiking pants are a great option that saves space)
  • Spandex shorts or bike shorts to prevent chafing
  • 3-4 pairs of high-quality hiking socks
  • Rain gear, including a lightweight rain shell, rain pants, gaiters, and waterproof bags for your gear
  • Fleece, lightweight down jacket, or another mid-layer
  • Warm hat
  • Backpack to carry all your gear and a rain cover (recommended capacity of up to 35-40 liters and recommended weight of under 13 pounds / 6 kg)
  • Optional smaller daypack for the summit hike
  • Sleeping bag liner (bedding is provided in Laban Rata Resthouse, but some hikers prefer to bring their own liner)
  • Sturdy sandals for hiking through the jungle and potential stream crossings
  • Lightweight hiking boots or trail running shoes with good grip and ankle support
  • Two reusable water bottles or a large water reservoir (around 2 liters)
  • Sun protection, including sunscreen, lip balm with SPF, a wide-brimmed hat (this also works great for the rain), buff or bandana, sunglasses
  • Waterproof gloves (especially if you’re doing a via ferrata route)
  • Personal first aid kit, blister prevention kit, and medications
  • Insect repellent
  • Small, quick-dry towel
  • Earplugs if you’re a light sleeper
  • Headlamp and extra batteries
  • Trekking poles if you like to use them
  • Cash, credit cards, ID, passport, etc. in a waterproof pouch
  • Your favorite hiking snacks and hydration powders
  • Solar charger or external battery pack for your electronics
  • Cell phone and camera

For more gear tips and advice, you can take a look at our Backpacking Checklist, Day Hiking Checklist, and Hiking in the Rain posts.

Conclusion

Mount Kinabalu makes an incredible addition to any hiker’s bucket list. Since this high peak does not require any previous mountaineering or high altitude experience, Mount Kinabalu is accessible to anyone in reasonably good physical condition.

However, preparing for this unforgettable adventure takes some planning and preparation. By following the tips in this guide, reserving your trip ahead of time, and training before you leave, you’ll set yourself up to enjoy a breathtaking sunrise over Borneo from Kinabalu’s highest point.


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