We’re often asked by those busy with their Kilimanjaro preparation to describe the climate of Mt Kilimanjaro, as well as the weather they can expect. Important questions! We all want to know what to expect, and what to pack. And while climate and weather are obviously related, they each require a separate discussion. So if you’d like to know about the weather on Kilimanjaro, please read Best time to climb Kilimanjaro. But if you’d like to know about Mount Kilimanjaro’s climate, then you’re in the right place!
The five climate zones of Kilimanjaro
Many people are surprised to learn that there are five distinct climate zones on Kilimanjaro! These are concentric zones that change with elevation. Yet when we tell you that Kilimanjaro is the world’s tallest free-standing mountain, it should make sense! The mountain rises so far above the plain at its base, that a changing climate is only logical!
Specifically, Kilimanjaro (which is 5,895 m above sea level) rises about 4,900 m above its plateau base!
Five different zones
The five climate zones of Kilimanjaro are, from lowest to highest:
- cultivated zone (800 m to 1,800 m)
- rainforest zone (1,800 m to 2,800 m)
- Afro-alpine moorland zone (2,800 m to 4,000 m)
- alpine desert zone (4,000 m to 5,000 m)
- arctic zone (above 5,000 m)
We describe each zone below to help you prepare both mentally and practically for what’s to come!
1. Cultivated zone (800 m to 1,800 m)
The lower climate zone of Kilimanjaro National Park is a bushland zone that has been given over to coffee and banana cultivation. Kilimanjaro is famous for its single-origin coffee, and plantation tours are a popular outing among visitors to the region. In fact, we suggest going on a coffee plantation tour as one of The 10 best things things to do in Kilimanjaro region.
The people living on the southern and eastern slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro are the Chaga, a prosperous, Bantu-speaking group. To the west and north are the famous Masai people. Also to the north are the Ongamo, a people group numbering in the single thousands. They speak mostly Machame, which is the name that’s been given to one of the Kilimanjaro routes.
The cultivated zone isn’t a section of the park that many trekkers walk when climbing Mt Kilimanjaro -– instead, the trailheads start higher up the mountain. Your tour operator will drive you to the start of your chosen trail, so you’ll see this zone from your vehicle.
2. Rainforest zone (1,800 m to 2,800 m)
The forest zone often comes as a surprise to many who don’t realise that the base of Mt Kilimanjaro is ringed by a beautiful rainforest. The forest is thicker and lusher on the south and east sides of the mountains, which experience more rain. You can expect large, gnarled trees that are covered in moss, as well as thick undergrowth, plenty of creepers and lively streams.
There are many flowers to enjoy at this elevation, but of particular note is the Kilimanjaro impatiens. This beautiful, red-and-yellow flower can be found nowhere else in the world – it lives only in the forest at the base of Mt Kilimanjaro!
During the day it can get pretty hot in the forest. Many trekkers top to walk this section of the trail in shorts and a shirt. If you trek in one of the rainy seasons (as Tunisian climber Arwa Mrad did, and describes in her Lemosho journal), the paths can of course get pretty muddy and slippery.
We discuss the many birds and other animals like duikers and Old World monkeys you should be on the lookout for in Animals on Kilimanjaro.
3. Afro-alpine moorland zone (2,800 m to 4,000 m)
The Afro-alpine moorland zone (also known as the heather zone) is a special zone. We say this because while it boasts less biodiversity than the forest, you find an assortment of truly unusual vegetation here. In this zone you’re above the trees of the forest, walking along rocky paths among beautiful grasses, giant heathers, red-hot pokers, and yellow proteas.
Notably, this is the elevation where you start to encounter top-heavy giant groundsels. Giant groundsels (also called tree senecios) can grow up to 5 m, and sprout small yellow flowers at the top. Then there’s also the giant lobelias, each of which has a strikingly large and fat infloresence (or ‘column’) growing out of a spiky rosette base.
Mist often covers this belt of the mountain in the mornings. The sun can be brutal during the day, while the nights can drop to freezing. And the wind is often very strong. This is when you start needing your outer layers like your fleece and down jacket. We discuss all the sorts of clothing and other gear you need for the trek in our Kilimanjaro packing list.
4. Alpine desert zone (4,000 m to 5,000 m)
The alpine (or highland) desert zone is very inhospitable, and you start to feel like a properly hardcore trekker up here. The plants living in this heart of this zone are tough cookies, as they have to put up with the blazing sun in the day and sub-zero temperatures at night. And almost no rain. You’ll find mostly hardy grasses, lichens and mosses.
The odd eland (a large antelope) might make its way up here on occasion, but basically don’t expect to see any wildlife up in this zone.
It’s a given that some climbers will start to experience at least mild symptoms of altitude sickness this high up on Kilimanjaro.
5. Arctic zone (above 5,000 m)
In the arctic zone at the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro, it’s all snow, ice and scree. The top of Mt Kilimanjaro contains three volcanic cones:
- Kibo – it’s highest point is called Uhuru Peak and is 5,895 m
- Mawenzi – it’s highest point is 5,149 m
- Shira – it’s highest point is 3,962 m
You also have the truly beautiful Furtwangler Glacier at the top of Kilimanjaro. The glacier is a remnant of the ice cap that covered the entire mountaintop a century ago. The summit of Kilimanjaro experiences nighttime temperatures of -7 to -29 °C. Arctic, indeed.
To stand on Uhuru Peak – the very tippy-top point of Kilimanjaro and gaze out over the mighty mountain you’ve just conquered … well, it’s hard to describe all the happy emotions! You’ll just have to experience them for yourself. 🙂