Mount Kilimanjaro is the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. Sitting pretty at almost 6,000 meters high, climbing Kilimanjaro is one of those ‘Bucket List’ activities many of us dream of achieving. I had the opportunity to climb Kilimanjaro last year, and it was one of the most amazing, most challenging things I’ve ever done.
I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned climbing Kilimanjaro, so that you can benefit from what I learned (and from my numerous mistakes!). Here are my tips for climbing Kilimanjaro:
Find a reputable company
The first thing you’ll want to do is find a reputable company. There are a lot of considerations here, and while you’ll likely be sorting by price at first, here are a few questions you’ll want to ask:
· Are the porters paid a fair wage?
· Is tipping involved? If so, how much is expected?
· Do they ‘climb high, sleep low?’ (This helps combat altitude sickness. It just means that you will climb to X altitude each day but then descend a little before making camp.)
· What are their success rates for each route?
I had a bit of a poor experience at the end of my climb, so I want to make sure you work with a company that treats its porters AND climbers well. For more details on finding a reputable company, check out the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP).
Make sure your insurance covers you
Many insurance providers will have limits on the altitude of their coverage or the technicalities involved in climbing. For example, standard travel insurance usually won’t cover climbing with technical gear/ropes or treks up mountains such as Everest. Make sure you contact your insurance provider to see if Kilimanjaro is covered (though be prepared for them to jerk you around!)
Train in advance
Kilimanjaro, while no Everest, is also no walk in the park. You’re paying thousands of dollars and traveling thousands of miles to climb this mountain. Prepare for it. While physical fitness isn’t the most important factor in your success, it IS a big one. Go out on training hikes, get your legs in shape, and step up your cardio game. I did no training for this (or when I climbed Mount Fuji) and regretted that both times – so learn from my mistake!
Prepare for a mental battle
Kilimanjaro is just as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical one – and it is a huge physical challenge! The altitude, climate, and speed that you climb will test you, psychologically. Summit day can entail upwards of 15 hours of hiking, all at incredible slow speeds in freezing cold temperatures. If you aim for a sunrise summit, you’ll be hiking all through the night, inching forward in the dark with no sense of how far you’ve come. Brace yourself for the mental stress, and you’ll be much better positioned to succeed!
Take altitude medication
The two main reasons climbers fail to reach the summer are altitude sickness and the weather. You can’t change the weather, but you CAN prepare for the altitude. Medicines like Diamox will help keep the altitude headaches at bay, increasing your chances of a successful hike. Just be aware that Diamox is a diuretic, which means you’ll have to pee, like, every 5 minutes. But it’s worth it. Trust me.
Bring the right gear
Unless you’re an avid hiker and climber, you might not have all the gear you need to successfully climb Kili. Not only will you need hiking clothes, trekking poles, and solid footwear, but you’ll also need clothing for frigid temperatures.
We went with an outfitter that included all the necessary gear for free. We brought what we had and borrowed the rest from our tour company. This enabled us to not have to bring a lot of baggage to Tanzania, and to not have to buy a bunch of new equipment that we might not use afterward. If you’re like me and don’t own all that gear, make sure your tour company includes it (for free, no less!)
This seems like a silly addition, but it’s one of the most important. Kilimanjaro is a struggle, and nothing will give you a morale boost (and a sugar kick!) like some chocolate or candy. I brought a few bags and divided it up so I had a set amount each day for hiking, and then some for when I was at camp. Just make sure you save some for summit night, because that’s when you’ll need it most!
Make sure your dietary concerns are noted
If you have dietary concerns (vegan/vegetarian, celiac, etc.), make sure you inform your tour company before booking to confirm they can accommodate you. And then check again. And again. We asked three times if vegan food could be provided, and we were told every time that it could. However, our cook wasn’t actually told until we got on the mountain. Fortunately, we had a great cook so it wasn’t a huge problem…but it was a lesson learned!
Rent a toilet
This could be a whole other blog post, so I’ll try to be brief. During the day, you’ll be going to the bathroom outside. Just accept that now. At each camp there will usually be some outhouses…but they are….uh…not in the best condition. I used one once and, boy, was that an experience.
If you have the money, renting a camp toilet (and hiring a porter to carry it) is a worthwhile expense – especially for the ladies out there. It gives you more privacy and more convenience, rare things on the mountainside!
Once you’re on the mountain, there are two SUPER important things you can do to increase your chances of success. The first one of those: stay hydrated. You’re going to want 3-4L of water on your person during the day. You’ll definitely want to bring a water bladder (like a camelback), and having a bottle won’t hurt, either. Most days, I drank around 5L of water as this was one of the best ways to acclimatize and stave off altitude sickness.
Extra tip: On summit night, your water will freeze as you approach the summit. To help prevent this, blow air back into your water bladder. This will dislodge any ice in your hose, and bubble your water to prevent ice from forming in the bladder.
Slow down. And then slow down some more!
This is the most important thing you can do once you’re on the mountain. You’ll hear the guides reminding you about this all day with the phrase, “Pole pole” (pronounced pull-eh). Acclimatizing to the altitude takes time, and you’ll want to make sure you don’t overexert yourself. On summit night, our speed was half a foot per stride (compare that to my usual stride of around 3 feet). SUPER slow – and we STILL passed people at that “speed.” Think of it this way: the slower you go, the more likely you will succeed.
This is one thing I wish I did more on the hike. I was so focused on the summit that I would sometimes miss out on the journey. Don’t hesitate to ask your guide about the environment, the trail, their own history; anything that comes to mind! See a neat plant? Ask about it! Wondering how often your guides climb? Ask them! You’re paying them for a service – and they are experts at their job – so be sure to pick their brain as your hike! I learned a lot about the trail, my team, and life in Tanzania just from chatting to my guides. Make sure you do the same!
Accept that you may not make it to the top
Under what circumstances will you give up your summit attempt? Will you quit only if the weather turns? What if you start puking from the altitude? I saw folks turn around after getting SO close to the summit, and while I never had to deal with anything more than a pounding headache, I did think about this before my climb. Personally, I was prepared to make it to the top or get hospitalized trying – but that’s just me. I also know folks who puked upwards of a dozen times on their summit attempt and STILL made it to the top. If you get into a situation where you end up quitting, down the road you may regret not pushing on. Think about this in advance so you’re better mentally prepared and are mindful of your own limits.
Be aware of the tipping situation
If you chose a company that suggests/requires tipping your porters, make sure you know how much you’re expected to tip (and make sure you have access to that much). ATM’s will have limits and can be unreliable in Tanzania. Have the tips planned out and ready before your climb, so you can avoid the awkward situation that I experienced. Better yet, work with a reputable company that pays a living wage so tips aren’t needed!
This is the most important tip I can share. The physical and mental toll Kilimanjaro will take is mountainous – pun intended. Having a flexible, positive attitude is what will make your trip all the more enjoyable. Things will go wrong; you’ll be exhausted, hungry, tired, dirty. Don’t let discomfort or difficulty prevent you from enjoying this trip of a lifetime. Keep a smile on your face, relax, and accept what comes your way. You’ll be all the better for it!
With these tips in mind, you’ll be much better prepared for a trip up Kilimanjaro. That doesn’t mean it will be easy – not at all – but you’ll be much more prepared than I was!
If you have any questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll be sure to answer them. And if there is anything I’ve missed, let me know!
P.S. Did you know I wrote a book? Check it out on Amazon!!