From Start to Summit: Everything you need to know to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro, affectionately nicknamed Kili within the climbing and mountaineering community, is the highest mountain peak in Africa and fourth highest in the world at 5 895m above sea level.

Forming part of the Seven Summits, the highest mountains in each of the world’s continents, Mount Kilimanjaro is a bucket-list item for many to experience.

Although roughly 50 000 hikers visit Mount Kilimanjaro yearly, a successful summit requires thorough planning and adequate training. That’s why we’ve gathered expert advice for this article to take you through everything you need to know when taking on this unique climbing experience. Ready? Let’s climb in!

The beauty of the climb revealed

Not only is Mount Kilimanjaro a renowned climbing site for many mountaineers, but the beauty of this hike is trekking through no less than five climatic zones. You’ll start in the warmer Bushveld zone, then move through the humid and wet Rainforest zone. Next up is the Heather-Moorland zone where it is typically less humid and the weather more temperate with sparse and hardy vegetation. The Alpine Desert zone is the harshest zone because of its scorching hot days that turn into very cold nights with little room for plants to thrive. The climb ends in the Arctic zone where you’ll be welcomed by a cold and icy ascent with the possibility of extremely bright sun exposure (So don’t forget sunscreen and sunglasses to protect your exposed skin and eyes!)


The physical and mental prep

The hike up Kilimanjaro is not particularly challenging or technical, but proper preparation is key to safely trek to a high altitude. As with any physical activity, having a basic level of fitness will assist in experiencing a more comfortable climb. By focusing on training your legs as well as going on regular, longer day hikes will get your body used to the hours of walking for a few days on end. Many tour operators will also provide a training plan with your booking and will require a medical examination before arrival to ensure you are physically fit for this endeavour.

It is important to take into account the mental aspect of climbing. When hiking for days at a time with limited luxuries and only basic necessities available, as well as taking on a slower pace to best combat the possibility of altitude sickness, it may become challenging to stay mentally strong. It is encouraged to take every day of this hike one step at a time, focussing on taking it slow and enjoying the journey to the summit as much as you would ticking off the summit once and if you can successfully reach it.


A is for Acclimatisation

The importance of taking it slowly on your hike up Kilimanjaro becomes apparent in the phrase you’ll continuously hear porters repeat along the route, ‘pole, pole’, which means ‘slowly, slowly’ in Swahili. The reason is that no matter how fit you are, altitude sickness is a serious medical condition that can affect anyone moving towards a higher altitude faster than their body can adapt to the thinning air. As oxygen saturation becomes lower due to the low atmospheric pressure in high altitudes, the human body needs to adapt to the lack of oxygen in the muscles, and this process cannot be sped up or reversed if pushed too far. It is therefore recommended to keep the hiking pace slower and if possible, to hike high and sleep low. But as everyone’s body will react differently to a change in altitude, it is vital to know and recognise the symptoms of altitude sickness to treat the affected immediately.

Picking the right route for you

There are seven routes to choose from and a few factors that can influence your decision, like cost, duration, popularity, and difficulty. Although it’s important to pick your route based on your overall objective for climbing Kilimanjaro, you’ll find that picking the route with the most opportunity for acclimatisation will ultimately result in a more comfortable and enjoyable experience as well as offer the best chance to successfully summit.

The Northern Circuit route is the longest, but with a mild ascent and plenty of time for acclimatisation it is considered to be the easiest route. Machame and Lemosho are also two popular routes for their beautiful scenery and high summit success rate, however, Machame can get very busy, so Lemosho would be your best bet for a less crowded trek. The Rongai route is also a great choice for a more remote hike, but it is recommended for the more experienced hiker as this is a moderately difficult hike. If you are looking for a little more comfort overnight, the only hutted route, Marangu, would be your top choice. The two most challenging routes are Shira and Umbwe for their poor acclimatisation profiles. Shira’s starting point is the highest above sea level from all of the routes and Umbwe is the shortest and steepest route up.


Get packing and snacking

Legally, every climbing group climbing Kilimanjaro can only do so with a licensed guide, and although there is no written rule to make use of porters, it is standard procedure for porters to accompany guides in carrying gear and food for the group per trip. The porters are also responsible for setting up camp and cooking meals, so you only need to carry a daypack with enough water and snacks for the day. Snacks are usually not included, so bring along high-energy options that can withstand the varying temperatures on the mountain.

When packing for your trek, check in with your tour operator about what items they provide and if you need to take any additional equipment, whether you can rent from them if you’re not looking to buy. Clothing will of course play a big part in ensuring a comfortable experience, so be sure to pack comfortable hiking shoes, thick socks, and three layers of clothing for summit day.


Planning complete

For more in-depth information on planning your trip, hop on over to our podcast to listen to our episode with Xplore This World’s Kilimanjaro expert and guide Erik over here. And don’t forget to download our Kilimanjaro checklist to ensure you have everything you need for this unforgettable adventure.