There’s no getting around it: climbing Kilimanjaro involves preparation. It also involves an appropriate mindset and strategy during the trek itself. From training physically and breaking in your trekking boots to taking the trek at a slow and steady pace, here are our top 10 tips for successfully climbing and summiting Mount Kilimanjaro.
1. Prepare physically
If you’re going to climb Kilimanjaro, you’ll need to up the ante during your workouts. And you should do so in a focused way, concentrating on stamina and leg strength. In How should I train for Kilimanjaro? we discuss the ideal physical training schedule for climbing Kilimanjaro.
While you certainly don’t need to be a fitness guru to summit the mountain, we do find time and again that many folks rock up having not done any training beforehand. They then really struggle with the physical demands of the climb.
You can make your climb so much more enjoyable and doable by putting in the time and effort in the months beforehand. We want you to really enjoy this experience, and so really do encourage you to take this piece of advice to heart. Try to start your training at least two months prior to your climb. Even if you’re already very fit, put in some trekking time beforehand to get your body used to this specific form of exercise.
2. Take it pole, pole
When you start your Kilimanjaro climb, we advise that you don’t go blaring out of the gates. Instead, set a reasonable and sustainable pace for yourself. And don’t be worried if your pace doesn’t fit in with that of everyone else. Helpfully, the lead trek guides always set a relatively slow pace, as they want you to grow accustomed as gently as possible to the ever-higher altitude of the climb.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: climbing Kilimanjaro isn’t a race. Everyone tackling Kilimanjaro brings their own unique set of circumstances, mental world and physical history to the challenge. Never fuss yourself with what others are doing, or how fast they’re doing it. Focus on your own steps, and take it pole, pole (slowly, slowly), as the locals say.
Climbing Kilimanjaro is a rare opportunity to take time for yourself – time to take life a little pole, pole. We advise keeping a journal on your trek in which you jot down thoughts and reflect on what the trek and challenge mean to you. Kilimanjaro inevitably teaches you things about life, yourself, and what’s important to you.
3. Expect symptoms of altitude sickness
Altitude sickness can strike from anywhere around 3,000 m. On Kilimanjaro, this is when you’re trekking through the moorland zone, usually on day two or three of your trek. On Kilimanjaro you’re aiming to climb all the way up to 5,895 m above sea level to reach the summit at Uhuru Peak. So it’s very likely you’ll experience at least mild altitude symptoms at some point during your trek.
Taking medication for altitude sickness
The symptoms associated with altitude sickness include sleeplessness, interrupted sleep, nausea, dizziness and headaches. While you cannot prevent altitude sickness entirely (through medicine or otherwise), you can alleviate some of the symptoms through medication as well as proper nutrition and hydration. Diamox (acetazolamide), for instance, is a commonly used drug to help treat altitude sickness.
The best advice we can give for any medication that you may decide to take, is to visit your doctor before heading to Kilimanjaro to discuss the adventure ahead. Be sure to discuss the fact that you’ll be heading into an area of extreme altitude. Your doctor can then advise you as to the best precautions and possibly medicines for you.
Your team is there to look after you
It is important to remember that you will experience at least a mild symptom of altitude sickness. And thats okay! This is very normal, and to be expected. You will probably experience a headache, maybe some nausea, or being unable to sleep. Your team on the mountain are there to look after you. Climbing with a reputable operator means that they are highly experience and know how to spot the signs of severe altitude sickness.
4. Don’t skimp on the warm clothing
You can’t afford to be cold on Kilimanjaro. This means you need to pack sufficiently warm clothes. In our Kilimanjaro packing list we discuss in detail the various layers to pack, as well as the fabrics that serve trekkers best.
At the start of most of the Kilimanjaro routes you trek through rainforest, and so often all that’s needed during the day is shirts and shorts. At night, however, things can get damp and chilly. Next, when you enter the heath zone higher up the mountain, things become decidedly cold. The wind also picks up, and the low and sparse vegetation leaves you exposed to its full force. When you enter the next zone – the alpine desert zone – things are downright frosty, and the night-time temperatures often drop well below freezing. And then finally, on summit day, you enter an artic zone of snow and ice, and you’ll need to wrap yourself in some solidly warm gear to protect yourself from the elements.
Hire a down jacket from Follow Alice
At Follow Alice we offer trekkers the option to rent one of our high-quality down jackets that can withstand temperatures up to -20° C (-4° F). These can be rented for $40 each for the entirety of the trip. Not only are they warm, they are rather fashionable too!
But still remember the sun …
While the primary focus for summit night is understandably on keeping warm, remember that the solar rays are fierce at this altitude. You’ll need a good pair of sunglasses to avoid snow blindness as well as some sunscreen for the bits of your face that are exposed. Oh, and don’t forget some lip balm with SPF too!
5. Break in your boots beforehand
This shouldn’t need to be said, and yet every year people head to Kilimanjaro in swanky new boots that aren’t properly worn in, and blisters happen. A really bad blister can ruin your trek, so be sure to wear in the boots you intend to wear on the trek. A good rule of thumb for breaking in boots is to hike 100 km in them before heading to Kilimanjaro.
As noted in our Kilimanjaro packing list, we highly recommend that you wear or carry your trekking boots on the plane when you travel to Tanzania. That way if your luggage goes missing, you’re not without this most important item. Most other items can be borrowed or bought last minute if necessary, but worn-in boots are irreplaceable.
Also break in your socks
It’s a good idea to also wear the socks you intend to use when you trek Kilimanjaro beforehand. You want to ensure your socks are comfy and suitable for the hike. This means considering things like fabric (in terms of wicking and warmth), seams, sock liners and more. We discuss these matters in full in the Kilimanjaro packing list.
6. Learn a few Swahili phrases
Swahili is a centuries-old language that developed along the East African coast between 500 and 1,000 AD. Swahili came about through the mixing of Arabic (spoken by traders) and the Bantu languages of the region. Today, Swahili also includes words derived from English, German and Portuguese.
A great way to dive into your Kilimanjaro experience is to come to the mountain having learned a few Swahili phrases. Everyone appreciates it when someone else makes an effort to speak their language, even if it’s just a few greetings and pleasantries.
Basic Swahili phrases
So here are a few Swahili words and phrases you can learn now:
- Jambo – Hello
- Jina langu ni … – My name is …
- Nafurahi kukuona – Nice to meet you
- Habari yako? – How are you?
- Niko vizuri – I’m well
- Tafadhali – Please
- Asante – Thank you
- Choo – Toilet
- Nimechoka – I’m tired
- Kitamu! – Tasty!
- Lala salama – Goodnight
- Kwa heri – Goodbye (to one person)
- Kwa herini – Goodbye (to more than one person)
7. Bring wet wipes!
So yes, wet wipes. Glorious wet wipes. They are your friend. Because you aren’t going to be having any showers on Kilimanjaro. While you’ll be able to splash your face and wash your hands at camp with water carried by the porters, you won’t have a chance to get any other parts of you clean while on the mountain. A large pack of wet wipes will afford you some sense of cleanliness and decency after a long and sweaty day of hiking.
On this note, please be sure to dispose of your wet wipes carefully efficiently. Everyone on the mountain should be abiding by the no trace policy. This means that you will leave the mountain, including all trails and camps, exactly as you found it. Please dispose of your wet wipes, and any other litter you may have, in the bins provided to you by your team at each camp.
8. Pack a spare water bottle
Most people who climb Kilimanjaro bring along a hydration pack like a CamelBak. This allows you to take sips of water without twisting around to reach your bottle like a dog chasing its own tail. A hydration pack is a great idea, and we recommend in our Kilimanjaro packing list that you bring one too.
That said, you will need to bring a 1 litre water bottle as well. The reason for this is that your water hose can easily freeze over on summit night and you’ll then be left chomping thirstily at the end of the hose. We’ve seen it happen. What you want to do on summit night is also have a full water bottle snug in a sock, upside down, inside your backpack. And even if it does start to freeze, you should still be able to get some liquid from the bottle since water freezes from the top down.
Your 1 litre water bottle is also handy for when you are at camp each night. You can carry it around easily and drink from this, rather than having to reach for your hydration bladder each time. It is also useful for occasions like brushing your teeth!
9. Bring plenty of snacks
Your Kilimanjaro climb isn’t going to be easy. That’s a given. You’ll receive plenty of nutritious food and drinks from the cook for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but any snacks are on you. We recommend high-energy snacks like power bars, nuts, beef jerky and dried fruit. Don’t bring anything that will become a melted mess.
Nutrition is extra important in high-altitude trekking as it helps to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness like headaches. The same goes for water – you should drink plenty of water. This helps to prevent and alleviate symptoms of Kilimanjaro altitude sickness. While your porters will carry all the water needed for the trek up the mountain, what you need for each day must be carried by you. So ensure your hydration packs allows you to carry around three litres of water.
Snacks to share
Another interesting insight around snacks came from Joel Ott, our very own community manager:
“Bring a lot of stuff like power bars, nuts, snacks – you can share them with porters that pass you during the day, and they will reward you every time with a very honest smile! I wish I had brought more stuff! Also, if you have any hiking, rain or sports clothing at home that you don’t need anymore, bring it and give it to them in the end.”
10. Bring cash for tips
Our final tip has to do with tips. Everyone who completes a Kilimanjaro climb always raves about the invaluable help and support of their mountain crew, which consists of guides, porters and a cook. The lead guide not only literally leads you up the mountain, but he’s also there to encourage, advise and ensure your safety. Then there are the other guides who also encourage you, look after your health, and share their knowledge and stories of the mountain and Tanzania. And then there’s the cook, who prepares those all-important warm and hearty meals to fortify both body and spirit during the trek.
And finally, but not least, there’s the porters, who display astounding strength and endurance as they carry all of the team’s equipment (from water to tents, food and personal belongings) up and down the mountain. While we as trekkers huff and puff under the weight of a little slack pack, they shoulder 20 kg and take on the rocky terrain with smiles and good humour.
The tipping ceremony
At the end of every Kilimanjaro climb is a tipping ceremony. This is an important tradition that involves singing and dancing. It’s a wonderful moment of group togetherness that marks the end of the adventure before everyone heads their own way. During the ceremony trekkers tip the different crew members to show their thanks and appreciation. It’s not at all compulsory for you to tip, and yet we’ve never met any trekker who doesn’t very much want to tip the crew. As mentioned, the crew are bastions of strength during an expedition that is for most of us a great challenge and occasion.
Tips are an important source of income
It’s also useful for trekkers to understand that their tips go a long way in supporting the mountain crew. While all reputable tour operators offer their mountain crew good and fair wages, tips are an important supplementary income. And foreign currencies often go a long way indeed in Tanzania.
How much should I tip?
The amount that you tip is, of course, entirely up to you. And we certainly don’t wish to limit anyone who’s keen to tip over and above what others normally give. That said, we understand that many of you would like a ballpark figure to help guide you in the amount of cash to bring along on the trek.
In accordance with the guidelines set out by the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP), we advise bringing something in the area of $250 to $300 – this will cover tips for all of the mountain crew. But to know more, please read our post Tipping on Kilimanjaro. Here we explain how we arrived at this figure, who it goes to, and more.
Bring money with you to Tanzania
A final note. You’ll want to bring money with you to Tanzania. This is because there aren’t any opportunities just before the tipping ceremony to get your hands on cash. You will need to carry the money with you on the climb. Bring the money with you, in US dollars. You can draw cash in Arusha or Moshi at the ATMs, however unless you are visiting these towns you might not have time. It’s easier to just have the money with you ready. We recommend you bring along a little plastic bag, draw cash and seal it in there. You can then stow the dosh at the bottom of your backpack and forget about it till the necessary moment. You’ll be super grateful come the tipping ceremony that you were well organised and can show your appreciation to the crew for all of their hard work and support.
Ensure you have the correct currency
You can tip your mountain crew in US dollars or Tanzanian shillings.
Please note that your US dollar notes need to be untorn and unmarked, and also printed after 2006, otherwise the banks in Tanzania won’t accept them. So be sure to check every note before you get on that plane!