Climbing Kilimanjaro is an epic challenge that will most likely be one of the hardest things you ever do in your life, if not the hardest. To conquer this mighty mountain which rises to 5,895 m above sea level, you need grit and determination, as well as good physical fitness and stamina. In this blog post we discuss how best to train for Kilimanjaro to improve your chances of successfully summiting the mountain (and also enjoying the experience!).
How fit do I need to be to climb Kilimanjaro?
You need to be reasonably fit to successfully climb Kilimanjaro. Each day you hike anywhere between two and 10 hours. And on summit day you’re on your feet for at least 10 hours! That’s gruelling stuff, and not for the faint-hearted (or weak-legged).
Most of your trekking is uphill. On all of the standard Kilimanjaro routes, which range from five to nine days, only the last two days are for the descent. That means you have three to seven days of steady climbing. And some routes, like the Umbwe, are pretty steep.
The good news is that you don’t carry the bulk of your belongings – this is the job of your porters. But you do carry your own drinking water and whatever else you need for the day in a daypack, so there will be a little extra weight each day on your back
Note too that all of the routes are rocky and uneven. Near the summit, you’re also walking on scree, and (in some seasons) across snow. You want strong ankles and sure footing to tackle this terrain confidently.
Add high altitude to the mix
Finally, everything about climbing Kilimanjaro is markedly harder because you have to contend with high altitude. Trekking at altitude is tough because your lungs are operating on reduced oxygen. At worst, this can lead to altitude sickness. At best, you feel somewhat breathless and every task requires more effort than usual.
Take your physical prep seriously
Every year hundreds of people who attempt to climb Kilimanjaro don’t make it to the summit. Some turn back because of altitude sickness, others because the physical demands of the trek are just too much. We see it all the time.
While altitude sickness (a big topic) is somewhat random and mostly out of your control, failing to make it to the summit because of a lack of fitness is totally within your hands. We’d hate to see you put in all that time, money and effort and then not make it the top because you simply didn’t train enough.
So we cannot stress enough the importance of taking your Kilimanjaro physical training seriously. It’s one of the most important aspects of your Kilimanjaro preparation.
We advise starting to train at least three months before your climb. If you can start earlier than that – awesome! Ideally you should start six or more months prior to your climb.
Remember that the more effort you put in, the greater the chances of you reaching the summit. And the more likely you are to enjoy the climb as well!
How do I train for Kilimanjaro?
The primary and most important way to train for a Kilimanjaro trek is to go on hikes. Lots and lots of hikes. These offer the perfect all-round exercise and preparation for a multiday trek. We discuss training hikes in detail in just a moment.
But given that most of us cannot manage multiple hikes a week, we suggest you implement a weekly training schedule that includes strength, aerobic and cardiovascular workouts.
Strong, conditioned legs are an invaluable asset when climbing Kilimanjaro! You’re climbing (and then descending) roughly three vertical kilometres, after all! You also want a strong core to prevent any injuries.
Some of the most effective leg-conditioning exercises which you can do with just your body weight (i.e. you can do them anywhere!) are:
- Side lunges
- Toe ups
- Wall sitting*
* This is where you lean your back against a wall and slide down into a chair-like sitting position. You then hold the position for as long as you can. Feel the burn!!
Try to do exercises that engage the entire body, rather than using gym equipment that isolates individual muscles. The latter can lead to disproportionate muscle development (and is also not time efficient).
As a general rule of thumb, do three rounds of 8 to 12 reps for each exercise. Take a short break in between rounds to rest the muscles.
Aerobic training is about getting your heart rate up. This is a really good aspect to include in your training for Kilimanjaro as it helps your body to function well on less oxygen.
Some highly effective aerobic exercises (which cost nothing) are:
- Stair running
- High-knee, on-the-spot running
- Box jumps
- Jumping jacks
- Jumping squats
Alternatively, you could do a regular Zumba, spinning, aerobics or similar class at your local gym. You know you’re doing it well if you get really, really sweaty and out breath!
Cardiovascular training is exercise that trains the heart and lungs. Some of the most common (and popular) forms of cardio training are running, swimming, cycling and rowing.
We recommend doing cardio training at least three times a week.
Your weekday cardio workouts should last for at least an hour, while your weekend workouts should last for multiple hours, especially the closer you get to your climb date. Remember, you’re going to be hiking for hours each day on Kilimanjaro!
Of course, the ideal cardiovascular training for Kilimanjaro, as mentioned, is hiking! Hikes should form a core part of your cardio workouts. With this in mind, let’s talk training hikes …
Ideally, your training hikes should mirror the challenges of climbing Kilimanjaro as much as possible. Think:
- long duration
- steep inclines
- uneven footpaths and scree
- very cold conditions
- high altitude
Of course, start off simply and increase the various aspects of difficulty listed above as your fitness grows. This is another reason why it’s important to start training early: you have enough time to build up your hiking fitness.
By doing training hikes, you’ll also become more familiar with the sort of kit that you find comfortable and works for you.
Ideally, we recommend that you make hiking your regular cardio workout. So that would mean one or two short hikes during the week, and one or two longer ones on the weekend.
A couple of overnight preparatory hikes will also get you used to sleeping in tents, if that’s something that’s new to you.
Of course not everyone will be able to do manage regular hikes. Don’t worry. The next best option is to walk stairs – lots and lots of stairs. Stair master machines also work well.
We recommend only using a treadmill as a last resort. Do, of course, ensure you have a good incline going if you use a treadmill. This is to get you used to all the uphill that you’ll face on the mountain.
Remember that Kilimanjaro is not a race – it’s a marathon. In your cardio training, try to do long stints that teach your body (and mind) to cope with sustained effort.
A Kilimanjaro climb is all about endurance, so ensure your cardio training reflects this.
Hiking at altitude
One key factor mentioned above is doing high-altitude training hikes. If you’re in a position to do some high-altitude hikes to help you train for Kilimanjaro, that’s absolutely fantastic!
Altitude affects different people differently (as discussed in Kilimanjaro altitude sickness), and age and fitness are no indicators of how it will impact you. Spending some time hiking at altitude will acquaint you with the possible side effects and prepare you mentally for them.
That said, don’t stress if such training hikes aren’t possible. One of the attractions of climbing Kilimanjaro is just how out of the ordinary the experience is! Just do what you can, and you should be totally fine.
Wear your daypack
During your training hikes, carry the daypack you intend to bring to Kilimanjaro to ensure it’s comfortable. Also carry the sorts of items you’ll bring along, and three litres of liquid. This will help you get used to the extra weight.
For ideas of suitable daypacks, please read our Kilimanjaro packing list.
Wear your boots and socks
Also wear the socks and hiking boots you intend to wear on the trek. This is very important. You need to break in your boots properly. Your training hikes will help you to determine if there are any issues or niggles with them or your socks.
We recommend reading The best hiking boots for Kilimanjaro to learn all about the sorts of shoes that work well on a high-altitude trek.
Please only head to Tanzania with hiking boots that you’ve worn on multiple hikes, for hours at a time. A pair of boots that’s comfortable for a one-hour hike might not be right for a 10-hour hike. Again, the more you can mirror the conditions of Kilimanjaro during your training hikes, the more likely you are to have a comfortable trek.
Wear your Kilimanjaro clothes
We also recommend hiking in the clothes you intend to bring along to Kilimanjaro. Your undergarments are especially important – from your sports underwear to your thermal inner layers. You want to check there are no annoying seams, and that nothing chafes, itches, rides up … you get the picture!
Try to mirror the conditions of a Kilimanjaro climb as much as possible during your training hikes.
Keep up the motivation
It can be hard to stay motivated and consistent with a tough training programme for many months. We recommend booking your spot for a climb, as this commitment can help to keep you focused on your goal.
We also recommend training alongside the people you’re climbing Kilimanjaro with. If they live in the same area, then meet up for your training sessions and hikes! Perfect.
If they live elsewhere, sync your workouts in other ways, or at least stay accountable to one another about your workouts. Just as climbing Kilimanjaro is a team effort, make your training a team effort too!
And finally, visualise your goal. Struggling to get out of bed in the winter to go on a hike? Picture yourself standing atop Kilimanjaro, grinning at the camera, arms around your compatriots, victorious!
Want someone to talk to?
We’re more than happy to talk with you and discuss your planned training schedule with you. Perhaps we can share some of our experiences of climbing to the roof of Africa with you if you wish? Please just hit that pink button below and we can start chatting!