Is it safe to climb Kilimanjaro?
We get asked this question a lot – and rightly so! Being serious about climbing Kilimanjaro means you have to be serious about Kilimanjaro safety. In this blog post we cover the best practice safety measures to ensure your climb is as safe and stress-free as possible.
Mt Kilimanjaro is a hard climb and should never be underestimated. Every year, around a thousand people are evacuated from the mountain. And approximately 10 deaths are reported. You’re putting yourself in danger if you don’t do the necessary research or fail to choose a qualified Kilimanjaro tour operator as your climbing partner.
Key factors in Kilimanjaro safety
Here are the key factors to consider when it comes to Kilimanjaro safety:
- Altitude sickness
- Experienced Kilimanjaro guides
- The right equipment for Kilimanjaro safety
- Choosing a qualified tour operator
- Nutritious food and safe drinking water
We cover each of these topics in depth below.
Please note that the purpose of this article is not to scare you, but to inform you. At Follow Alice your safety is our top priority. We want you to know how to climb Kilimanjaro in the safest way possible.
It is safe to climb Kilimanjaro, but only when you are educated on the risks and how to avoid them.
Watch instead of read …
For those who would prefer to watch a video to reading about Kilimanjaro safety, we’ve got your sorted! The video below details the key things to consider with regards to Kilimanjaro safety, and tells you how to stay safe on the mountain. For all the details on safety, however, we recommend a hot cuppa, a comfy foot rest, and a read through the entire post!
Why Kilimanjaro safety is such an important topic
Just before we discuss the four factors to consider to ensure you have a safe Kilimanjaro climb, we want to point out three reasons why your safety on the climb should be a primary concern for both you and your tour operator …
1. You’re in a remote location
It’s important to note that you’re in a remote location when hiking Kilimanjaro. So if anything happens and you become sick or injured, there’s no hospital just around the corner. Usually you’ll need to descend the mountain before being driven to hospital.
When you travel with a reputable tour operator, your mountain crew is trained to respond effectively and efficiently to accidents and illness (especially altitude sickness). They also carry a stretcher for any client unable to walk off the mountain themselves.
Note that climbers can’t be air lifted off the mountain in emergencies, as no helicopter service is currently available. But even if such a service was possible, there are only a few places where a helicopter could safely land. Quickly descending the mountain on foot or by stretcher remains the more reliable method for addressing illnesses or injuries that arise on Kilimanjaro.
2. There is extreme and unpredictable weather
Higher up on Kilimanjaro the temperature can (and often does) plummet to below freezing. Nighttimes can be icy, very windy, and snowfall is possible. Also, the weather can turn on a dime.
It’s vital that all climbers have the right equipment and clothing to combat the elements. We’ve put together a comprehensive Kilimanjaro packing list to help you know and plan for what’s needed.
3. You trek to a very high altitude
Kilimanjaro is nearly 6,000 m above sea level and the highest mountain in Africa. Some people don’t think of Africa in terms of tall mountains, but actually it has many very, very high mountains. In fact, plenty of its mountains are far taller than the highest mountains in Europe!
Did you know that Kilimanjaro is over a thousand metres taller than Mont Blanc?? Kilimanjaro is 5,895 m compared with Mont Blanc’s 4,696 m.
One of the dangers of trekking at high altitude is altitude sickness. This is an illness that develops when you don’t allow your body enough time to adjust to the diminished oxygen intake per breath. While mild altitude sickness isn’t a problem, moderate to severe altitude sickness is. You can die from altitude sickness, which is why it’s a serious topic, and we discuss it more in just a moment.
Altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness (AMS), is a negative health effect of high altitude. The percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere at sea level is about 21%. As you climb higher, the percentage remains the same but the number of oxygen molecules per breath is reduced. At 3,600 m (12,000 ft) there’s roughly 40% fewer oxygen molecules per breath. The body therefore finds it hard to adapt and function as normal with less oxygen.
Altitude sickness is caused by a failure of the body to acclimatise (adapt) quickly enough to these lower levels of oxygen. Often climbers make the mistake of going too high (altitude) too quickly (rate of ascent).
Don’t rush to the top
You will often hear the phrase “pole, pole” while on your Kilimanjaro climb. This is Swahili for “slowly, slowly”, and should be your motto for this incredible journey. There is no rush. Take your time and enjoy the beauty that surrounds you!
Altitude sickness is common
Having said that, it is perfectly normal to get altitude sickness. In fact, at over 3,000 m, more than 75% of climbers experience at least some form of mild AMS. It’s therefore more than likely that you will experience some form of altitude sickness when climbing Kilimanjaro.
Note that it’s only when your altitude sickness becomes moderate to severe that you have to abort your climb and descend to a lower altitude. Those with only mild altitude sickness can continue their climb, though they’re closely monitored by the trek guide for any signs of a worsening condition.
We recommend visiting your GP before your Kilimanjaro climb to discuss the fact that you’ll be doing a high-altitude trek. Some people like to bring a medication like Diamox with them on the trek to help prevent and alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness.
It’s perfectly normal to get symptoms of mild altitude sickness when climbing Kilimanjaro, and these shouldn’t worry you.
Do fit people get altitude sickness?
It may surprise you, but age, sex and physical fitness have no effect on your likelihood of getting altitude sickness. And just because you haven’t had it before doesn’t mean you won’t develop it on another trip. So everyone should prepare for it.
It’s important to choose a good route
Not all Kilimanjaro routes are created equal. Some offer better acclimatisation then others.
Specifically, the Lemosho route, Northern Circuit and Machame route all offer great acclimatisation opportunities. This makes the summit success rates for these routes the highest. And that’s is a major reason why you climb the mountain, after all!
Other routes tend to lead to more altitude sickness than others given their poor (or inferior) acclimatisation profiles. The Umbwe route and Marangu route, for instance, have low summit success rates because they demand trekkers ascend the mountain very quickly. A relatively high percentage of trekkers climbing these routes don’t acclimatise adequately and develop AMS.
The Shira route is also a risky route from an acclimatisation perspective. This is because it has a very high starting point: 3,600 m. With most of the other routes, you start between about 1,600 m and 2,300 m. This makes a big difference. By starting so high, you risk developing altitude sickness right at the start of your trek.
It’s good to ‘climb high, sleep low’
At Follow Alice we follow the ‘climb high, sleep low‘ principle to best adjust to the high altitude. This means that you hike to a high altitude and then head back down the mountain to a lower altitude for the night to let your body adjust.
Certain routes allow you to do this, namely the Lemosho, Northern Circuit and Machame. This is a major reason why we prefer these routes over others: we love seeing our climbers standing and smiling at the summit!
The Rongai, Umbwe and Marangu routes don’t offer opportunities to climb high and sleep low. This is partly why they don’t enjoy as high summit success rates as some of the others.
Experienced Kilimanjaro guides
It’s absolutely crucial that you only climb Kilimanjaro with an experienced guide and mountain crew. Those you climb with are your support network on the mountain. If they don’t know how to act in an emergency, then your life is at risk.
At Follow Alice we ensure our guides have the training, experience and knowledge to keep you safe. All of our Kilimanjaro guides are highly experienced in preventing, detecting and treating altitude sickness. Follow Alice Kilimanjaro guides are also certified Wilderness First Responders (WFR). They therefore have the tools to make critical medical and evacuation decisions on location.
More specifically, our trek guides use the Lake Louise Scoring System (LLSS) in medical emergencies. LLSS was designed to evaluate adults for symptoms of acute mountain sickness. The system uses an assessment questionnaire and a scorecard to determine whether an individual has no AMS, mild AMS, or severe AMS.
All of our guides are highly experienced in preventing, detecting and treating altitude sickness.
Meet Follow Alice Tanzania local leader Chris
Follow Alice local leader Chris Sichalwe has been working on the mountain for over 17 years. He’s made it to the summit over 300 times and even climbed Kilimanjaro on New Year’s Eve. He’s ranked #6 out of 261 guides on Kilimanjaro by clients.
Chris is an incredibly knowledgeable and experienced leader who always puts safety first. Learn more about him in this interview.
The right equipment for Kilimanjaro safety
Once you embark on your climb, the only resources available to you are the ones that you and your team carry up with you. Your Kilimanjaro team are equipped with essential equipment to monitor you throughout the climb. They check you multiple times a day to ensure you’re acclimatising well.
Below we list and explain the various equipment your mountain crew brings on the mountain to look after your safety.
A pulse oximeter
The oximeter is placed on a climber’s fingertip. The oximeter uses two beams of light that shine into small blood vessels and capillaries in your finger. The sensor reflects the amount of oxygen in the blood. This simple piece of equipment gathers the required information within seconds of being applied to your finger.
Bottled oxygen is only for emergency situations. It’s never used to assist those who haven’t adequately acclimatised to the higher altitude.
The most immediate treatment for moderate and serious altitude sickness is descent. No matter which one of the seven Kilimanjaro routes you’re trekking, it’s always possible to descend the mountain, and descend it quickly.
A portable stretcher
A stretcher is brought on every climb so that there’s a means for evacuating any climber who may need to descend but is unable to walk on their own.
A first aid kit
This kit has what’s need to treat minor scrapes, cuts and blisters.
What if you feel sick on Kilimanjaro?
If you feel sick during your climb … speak up. Always! This is important. It might be something that can be easily fixed and you just need someone else to help identify the remedy for you. For instance, some hikers develop a headache because they forget to drink enough water. You sweat a lot on the trek, especially in the humid rainforest section.
Symptoms of altitude sickness
If you experience any symptoms of altitude sickness, tell your guide. Don’t feel silly or embarrassed. Symptoms include dizziness, nausea, headaches and loss of appetite. For a more thorough discussion of the symptoms, please read Kilimanjaro altitude sickness.
Some people are afraid to say they’re feeling unwell because they don’t want to hold up the rest of the group. Your mountain crew are there to support you on this journey and communication is the essential key to a successful summit. Trust your team!
Keep in mind that most likely every member of your group will experience some form of altitude sickness at some point in the climb. Take comfort in the fact that you’re a team and are there to support each other.
It’s also good to know that groups can be split to accommodate differing abilities. This is one of the reasons for trekking with a large mountain crew. So we repeat: tell your guide if you’re feeling unwell!
Hot tip: drinking water helps to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness.
What personal equipment is needed for safety on Kilimanjaro?
Your tour operator provides the camping equipment you need for a Kilimanjaro climb. We’re talking tents, tables, chairs, cooking equipment, and so on. At Follow Alice, we also provide you with comfortable sleeping mats and a four-season sleeping bag.
In terms of your clothing, this is naturally for you to organise. Please ensure you pack the essential climbing gear to ensure that you’re as warm and comfortable as possible. We discuss in detail every item of clothing and footwear needed for a comfortable and safe climb in our Kilimanjaro packing list. But below we highlight the most important items.
The footwear you bring to climb Kilimanjaro is very important. Your hiking boots should be the right fit, warm, water-repellent, and worn in.
The best way to break boots in is to wear them as often as possible before your hiking date. Ideally, you should do long hikes in them to see how your feet manage when they get hot, sweaty and tired. You know your boots are properly worn in when the inner soles of the boots start to contour to the bottom of your feet. You do not want to risk getting blisters, sore toenails or the like on a Kili hike!
You also want boots with deep lugs that allow for good traction. You don’t want to be slipping, especially when tackling the infamous Barranco Wall, which is arguably the most dangerous point on the trail. (That said, the Barranco Wall is not something to be afraid of – take it slowly and steadily and there’s really nothing to worry about! It looks worse from below than it actually is.)
The rainforest section on the mountain can also become a bit treacherous underfoot when it rains. Some people choose to wear crampons on their shoes on summit day when there’s snow and ice covering the top of the mountain. But we don’t consider them to be essential.
All that said, we want to stress that Kilimanjaro is a non-technical climb. The trails of all seven routes are no more dangerous than your usual hiking trail (with the one possible exception of the Barranco Wall, which you can avoid if you wish by choosing a route that doesn’t go that way).
IMPORTANT TO NOTE
We like to stress the importance of keeping your hiking boots in your hand luggage so that should your luggage not arrive, you are still able to climb. At Follow Alice we can assist in the rental of most of the gear you would need except for hiking boots which will need to be worn in by the time you get to Kilimanjaro.
Trekking poles are useful on a Kilimanjaro trek, and many climbers bring them along. Some people just bring along their ski poles. Firstly, trekking poles can offer you extra balance when the terrain is rocky or rough underfoot. And secondly, they can help to take the pressure off your knees during the descent.
It’s essential that you protect yourself against the sun on Kilimanjaro. You are trekking to high altitude where the sun’s intensity is very high. Visible light can also be intensified by snow. The UV rays at high altitude can be very damaging to your eyes if you don’t have adequate sunglasses.
We recommend wrap-around sunglasses to prevent glare getting at your eyes from the sides. A cord for your glasses could also be useful for moments when you want to take them off and keep your hands free.
As with everything you bring to Kilimanjaro, your sunglasses shouldn’t be brand new. You want to have hiked in them before to ensure they’re comfortable and not the kind that steam up easily.
You also need to pack sweat-resistant and high SPF sunscreen. We recommend an SPF factor of at least 30. And we highly recommend a lip balm that offers SPF protection. The skin and collagen in your lips can easily become damaged from too much sun exposure (and wind).
And finally, a good hat is also important for protecting your face from sunburn.
Temperatures will fluctuate throughout your entire Kilimanjaro climb. You will be trekking through four climatic zones. Weather can range from warm and tropical at the base of the mountain to freezing on the summit.
It’s therefore very important you have the right clothing to be able to layer up and down. A down jacket is particularly important for your summit. To assist in your safety and overall experience, we rent out suitable down jackets for your climb.
Your Kilimanjaro wardrobe should also include the right base layers, insulation layers and waterproof layers. We list and explain all the clothing you need for a safe and comfortable trek in our Kilimanjaro packing list.
All of your food, drinks and water on Kilimanjaro are provided by your tour operator. At least that’s how we roll at Follow Alice! But one thing we don’t provide is electrolyte tablets or sport drink sachets.
Electrolytes in the form of electrolyte tablets or sport drink sachets that you can add to your personal water supply are a good addition to your Kilimanjaro packing list. They help to replenish electrolytes lost through sweating.
When we sweat excessively, the level of sodium in our blood drops, and needs replenishing. In fact, drinking lots of plain water after intense exercise without replenishing your electrolytes as well can be dangerous.
You don’t need to drink electrolyte-enhanced water all day when trekking on Kilimanjaro. A good idea is to keep your hydration pack full of plain water, and then occasionally drink from a water bottle that has had electrolytes added to the mix.
You might also like to consider adding a few oral rehydration salts to your toiletry bag so they’re there just if you end up needing them.
Choosing a qualified tour operator
All the points that we’ve covered in this article are extremely important for Kilimanjaro safety. Above all, you need to be sure to choose the right Kilimanjaro tour operator. This decision can make or break your climb. Seriously.
At Follow Alice we prioritise your Kilimanjaro safety above everything else. We aim to treat the initial causes of any sickness rather than waiting for the symptoms to appear. Prevention is key.
We like to think of ourselves as a value-for-money operator. At Follow Alice we focus on keeping the Kilimanjaro climb costs to a minimum without compromising on safety, quality equipment and nutrition. (Learn more about why prices differ so much between Kilimanjaro tour operators.)
By choosing to climb Kilimanjaro with Follow Alice, you are choosing:
- an operator that understands Kilimanjaro
- guides who know how to deal with altitude sickness
- an operator with the necessary safety and medical equipment
- a safe climb!
Nutritious food and safe drinking water
It’s imperative to the success of your climb that you regularly eat nutritious meals. It’s also vital that you have safe drinking water and stay well hydrated throughout your trek.
Eating sufficient and nutritious food
It’s vital that you get adequate, good-quality and nutritious food for a successful Kilimanjaro climb. You’re putting your body through intense exercise and so need sufficient fuel or it will start to break down.
Your Kilimanjaro cook provides you with breakfast, lunch and dinner on the mountain, as well as hot drinks and snacks. Some people also like to bring some of their favourite snacks form home for during the trek as well.
At Follow Alice, our awesome cook Raja ensures you’re getting plenty of fresh fruit and veg every day, as well as ample protein and carbs to fill you up. Every day includes a cooked breakfast and dinner, and sometimes a cooked lunch as well. On other days, you’re given a packed lunch to carry with you. If you’d like to know more, please read Meals on Kilimanjaro.
We advise that try to eat all three meals provided, even when you’re not hungry. Loss of appetite is common high up on the mountain. This is because you’re feeling the effects of the high altitude. But just because you don’t feel hungry, doesn’t mean your body doesn’t need the fuel. You’re going on long treks each day, and your body really needs the sustenance to stay strong and healthy.
Safe drinking water
Your mountain crew provides you with all the water you need on the mountain, both for drinking and cleaning. They fetch it from the streams lower down on the mountain, and carry it up to the higher camps. The water that is for drinking is purified using purification tablets. You don’t therefore need to worry about bringing your own water purification tablets on the trek.
Each day before starting off on the hike, we recommend having a good long drink at camp. At this point you’ll also fill your hydration pack and water bottle. Note that you’re responsible for carrying your own drinking water during each day’s trek, which is why we suggest in our Kilimanjaro packing list that you bring along a three-litre hydration pack as well as a water bottle.
For those who don’t like the taste of tablet-purified water, we recommend bringing a few flavour sachets that you can add to your own water supply.
Hydration is key to staying healthy throughout your trek. Here are a few notes about staying hydrated during your trek …
Don’t wait till you’re thirsty to drink liquids, as you’re already dehydrated when the thirst response kicks in. Sip on your water throughout the day.
It’s a good idea to drink a cup or two of water before you leave camp in the mornings. Firstly, this helps you to keep all the water in your hydration pack for the trail. And secondly, it’ll help prevent you from getting dehydrated on the trail, and so keep you functioning at your best.
Note that you shouldn’t stop drinking fluids when the day’s hiking is over. You should keep drinking to help replenish your body’s fluids. Also, always drink a bit more than you feel you need, as our body’s thirst response actually calls for less water than we need.
And remember, drinking water has the added bonus of helping to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. So sip on!
Most of Tanzania is within a recognised malaria zone, with Kilimanjaro National Park sitting pretty much on the border of that zone. (As shown in the map below.) This means Kilimanjaro climbers need to take precautions against contracting malaria.
Map showing malaria distribution in Africa
How can I protect myself from malaria?
Most foreigners visiting a malaria region adopt a two-pronged approach to malaria prevention:
- They take anti-malaria meds.
- They try to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes by wearing long garments, using insect repellent, and sleeping under a mozzie net.
The good news is that most of Kilimanjaro is too high and cold for mosquitoes, so it’s only travelling to and from the mountain, and when sleeping the rainforest section, that mosquitoes are a concern.
We always advice visiting your local GP to discuss travelling to a malaria zone and following his or her advice.
Covid-19 has us all worried, and it makes us far more cautious about travel. Hygiene has become a top priority with everyone.
As mentioned, your safety is our top priority when you climb Kilimanjaro with us, so this means we take protecting you from the pandemic very seriously. While we all anxiously await universal vaccinations, here’s what safety measures we’ve put in place for Kilimanjaro climbs …
Kilimanjaro safety measures for Covid-19
Our Kilimanjaro team follows all of the new standard operating procedures set out by the Tanzanian authorities in terms of Covid-19 prevention. More specifically, we can offer all our climbers the following assurances with regards to our handling of the pandemic:
- Our Tanzania lead staff have undergone specialised Covid-19 prevention training.
- We conduct regular temperature checks of staff and climbers.
- We wear masks at all times (except on the mountain, as breathing is already too difficult at high altitude).
- We engage in social distancing (especially on the mountain when face masks can’t be worn).
- Our cook wears a protective face mask when preparing your food.
- We engage in regular hand sanitising, and provide our staff and climbers with hand sanitiser.
We’re also happy to arrange and take you to the nearest hospital for a Covid-19 test should you wish to have one while in Tanzania with us. We’ll organise to get your results for you too.
For more information on our Covid-19 procedures and safety measures, please read Can I climb Kilimanjaro during the coronavirus pandemic? (Update).
Our health and safety form
At Follow Alice we ask all our climbers to fill in a health and safety form before they start the trek. This asks you to provide details on things like dietary requirements, allergies, and pre-existing medical conditions. It’s just another way by which we can ensure we’re looking after you and keeping you safe! 😀
And, finally, don’t forget…
Before heading off to Tanzania for you Kilimanjaro climb, you need to look into:
- travel insurance
It’s a very important to note that we don’t allow anyone to climb Kilimanjaro with us without travel insurance. This is the case with any reputable Kilimanjaro tour operator.
If you have any pre-existing medical conditions, it’s best to discuss these with your doctor before booking your climb. Discuss the potential risks of climbing Kilimanjaro with him or her and ask for advice on how best to train, what medications you could take, and so on.
Be sure to bring enough of any prescribed medication with you to Tanzania. We also recommend that you keep these on your person at all times while on the mountain (versus in your luggage being carried by a porter).
Lastly, be sure to have any necessary vaccinations done before your trip to Tanzania. In terms of vaccinations – there are no specific vaccine requirements needed to enter Tanzania. However, be aware that the Government of Tanzania requires proof of yellow fever vaccination upon arrival if you are traveling from a country with risk of yellow fever.
We suggest you talk to your doctor about getting the following vaccinations if you don’t already have them:
- Hepatitis A&B
- yellow fever
- MMR (measles, mumps, rubella)
- meningococcal meningitis (Africa and Asia).
Please check the Fit For Travel website for more up-to-date information.