When you ascend too quickly into the thin air near the top of a great mountain like Kilimanjaro, your body reacts by developing altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is an illness involving all sorts of nasties, like headaches, nausea and dizziness. At its meanest, altitude sickness can kill you. A massively important factor, therefore, to consider when choosing which of the seven Kilimanjaro routes to climb is its acclimatisation story. Acclimatisation is about letting your body adapt at a reasonable pace to thinner air before taking it any higher. A route with a good acclimatisation profile is thus one that doesn’t push you to climb too high, too quickly. So let’s dive into a discussion of the best acclimatisation for climbing Kilimanjaro. You should then feel you have the intel necessary to flex your decision-making powers and choose a Kilimanjaro route that’s right for you.
- What is acclimatisation?
- What is altitude sickness?
- Not all Kilimanjaro routes are created equal
- Kilimanjaro routes offering great acclimatisation
- Kilimanjaro routes offering decent acclimatisation
- Kilimanjaro routes offering poor acclimatisation
- Best Kilimanjaro routes for acclimatisation
What is acclimatisation?
If you think back to high school geography, you’ll remember that the higher into the atmosphere you climb, the thinner the air. And when we speak about thin air, we’re talking about how there’s less oxygen in it, which makes it harder for us to breathe. If you’ve ever tried to run at a high altitude, like say 4,000 m above sea level, you’ll remember how you huffed and puffed and felt unable to blow a dandelion over. Our muscles need oxygen, and the higher we go, the harder that oxygen is to get.
Acclimatisation is all to do with your body learning to cope with a reduced oxygen supply.
The best way to acclimatise to a new altitude is to take it slowly. This involves, increasing your elevation bit by bit, and giving your body ample time to adjust to each new elevation. Obviously with high-altitude trekking, like when climbing Kilimanjaro, you don’t have the luxury of taking too much time over it. There are other things to consider like cost and time away from home and work. So it’s about finding that happy balance between not pushing your body too hard, but also not waiting longer than is needed before pushing on.
Is acclimatisation important?
Yes. That’s one very big, and very loud, yes. Whenever you enter an area of high altitude – and let’s peg that at anything greater 3,000 m above sea level – you need to take precautions to ensure you don’t get the altitude bends. Because if you rush headlong into a higher altitude, sore ears will be the least of your problems.
The highest point on Kilimanjaro is Uhuru Peak. This is the goal of every Kilimanjaro trekker. You want your turn to stand on Uhuru Peak and shout some more modern, trendier version of “I’m the king of the castle!” over the clouds and plains of Africa. But Uhuru Peak is 5,895 m above sea level. That’s five or six kilometres higher up into the atmosphere than what most of us are used to. We need to ease our bodies into that sort of elevation so that they don’t panic and throw an altitude tantrum.
The dangers of inadequate acclimatisation
When we don’t acclimatise properly, we get altitude sickness. This can be mild and pose a level of discomfort at best, or it can be serious and life-threatening. On a Kilimanjaro climb your lead guide is your best friend, as he or she is highly trained in detecting the signs of altitude sickness. (At least, the lead guides of reputable travel operators are well trained in mountain first aid; read more about choosing a quality Kilimanjaro tour operator.)
When you don’t acclimatise properly, you develop altitude sickness.
If your guide decides your condition is dangerously bad, you’ll be escorted off the mountain. No discussions or bargaining. So not only does inadequate acclimatisation pose a danger to your health, and even life, but it also poses a danger to your precious trek. Too many people put in lots of money, training and effort to get to and climb Kilimanjaro, only to have to turn back before the summit because they ascended the mountain too quickly. Don’t become an acclimatisation victim!
What is altitude sickness?
Altitude sickness is when your body reacts badly to the lower oxygen associated with a higher altitude. It can strike from anywhere above 3,000 m above sea level. Given that the tippy-top point of Kilimanjaro, known as Uhuru Peak, is 5,895 m, it’s easy to understand why so many trekkers experience symptoms of altitude sickness during the expedition.
Altitude sickness is when your body reacts badly to the lower oxygen associated with a higher altitude.
As mentioned, altitude sickness can range from mild to severe. Not everyone who develops symptoms of altitude sickness has to abort their trek. Far from it. Some will just experience mild symptoms like interrupted sleep and a bit of a headache, which are nagging and uncomfortable but don’t derail your climb. Others, of course, are more unlucky. The standard symptoms of altitude sickness are nausea, headaches, dizziness, breathlessness and sleeplessness (or erratic sleep).
But note that it’s not for you to worry about details of the illness and how to identify it. If you climb the mountain with a reputable Kilimanjaro tour operator, then your lead trek guide will check in on your health regularly and ensure you’re not placing yourself in any danger. They’re highly trained in detecting the signs of altitude sickness. They’ll also have the necessary equipment, like canisters of extra oxygen, to assist those who are struggling. And finally, they’ll be able to call in an evacuation team if the situation demands it.
Altitude sickness strikes at random
Altitude sickness is a villain that stalks and attacks at random. It’s victims cannot be identified or predicted based upon any one factor we know of. You can be uber fit and healthy, walking alongside someone twice your age whom you would demolish in any physical challenge, and yet it might still be you, not them, who is assailed. Accept the mystery of it all.
So you can’t, unfortunately, prevent altitude sickness altogether. And you likely won’t know till you’re on the mountain if you’re going to be among the lotto winners who get it. You can, however, lessen your chances of getting altitude symptoms by taking a route that has a good acclimatisation profile. Hence this blog post!
Can I prevent altitude sickness?
As we don’t know how exactly altitude sickness chooses its victims, there’s no surefire way to prevent it. That said, a visit to your GP before heading to Kilimanjaro is a good idea. In fact, a GP visit before any international travel is always a good idea. Speak to your GP about travelling to Tanzania, and also about engaging in high-altitude trekking. He or she might be able to prescribe you some meds that can at least lessen the severity of some of the symptoms.
By far the best way to prevent altitude sickness is to never leave the coast. But who wants that life. Adventure awaits, and you definitely should climb Kilimanjaro if you hear the mountain calling you. Just don’t do it in a rush. Don’t opt for a too-short Kilimanjaro route because it saves you the expense of an extra day. Remember, you’re investing in the trip of a lifetime, and trying to cut costs by cutting down on your days could mean you don’t end up summiting.
Also note that eating nutritious food and staying well hydrated on the trek can help to ward off the symptoms of altitude sickness. We’re not saying they’ll prevent or cure it, but they do help mitigate symptoms like headaches.
Not all Kilimanjaro routes are created equal
An important part of your Kilimanjaro preparation is deciding which of the seven routes leading up the mountain you should climb. Unless you’re a highly experienced high-altitude trekker who knows they can acclimatise quickly, we recommend that you always make acclimatisation your number one deciding factor in choosing a Kilimanjaro route. This is because, as discussed above, inadequate acclimatisation can lead to medical complications as well as having to turn back down the mountain. Getting all the way to Tanzania and starting up Kilimanjaro to only have to turn back before the summit … crushing.
There are seven different routes up Kilimanjaro, each with its own pros and cons.
So we mentioned the importance of a good acclimatisation strategy. You might be thinking that acclimatisation is simply about taking enough time over the ascent, so why be all fancy and talk about a strategy? Well, while the period of time you take to ascend in altitude is important, so too is the way in which you ascend. The primary strategy for good acclimatisation in high-altitude trekking is known as ‘hike high, sleep low’.
Hike high, sleep low
When you hike high and sleep low, all you’re doing is climbing to a new, higher altitude during the day, then dropping back down in altitude for the night. This strategy has proved very beneficial in helping your body to acclimatise to the thinner air. Put another way, you’re introducing your body to the strains of a higher altitude, but then giving it an overnight respite.
It’s very helpful to your body when you climb high and then sleep low.
Some of the trails on Kilimanjaro allow for one or two climb-high-sleep-low opportunities, while others don’t. So when we discuss each route in this blog post, we not only discuss how quickly you ascend in altitude, but also if there are occasions to climb high during the day and sleep lower at night.
Video of the seven Kilimanjaro routes
Check out the video below showcasing the different routes you can take up Mt Kilimanjaro …
Kilimanjaro routes offering great acclimatisation
What everyone climbing Kilimanjaro can agree on in this: reaching the top is important. It’s the universal goal, even if there are other, personal goals involved as well. Selecting a route that takes chances with your acclimatisation means jeopardises your attainment of the summiting goal. And that’s simply not worth it. The best routes for acclimatisation are therefore the best routes, full stop. We recommend the Lemosho and Northern Circuit routes as being the best acclimatisation routes, and therefore the best routes.
The Lemosho route makes its way up the western slope of Kilimanjaro. It’s arguably the most beautiful Kilimanjaro route, as it offers panoramic views to both the north and south of the mountain on the ascent. When descending the mountain, the route follows the Mweka trail, which runs down the southern slope of the mountain. Trekkers therefore get to enjoy new views to the west as well as views to the east on the homeward stretch. For those wanting to see as much of the mountain and surrounding scenery as possible, the Lemosho is a great option.
The Lemosho can be hiked over seven or eight days. Both options offer excellent acclimatisation, though of course the eight-day itinerary offers an even better acclimatisation profile. The extra day on the eight-day itinerary is used in the middle of the ascent: instead of hiking from Shira Camp (3,505 m) to Lava Tower (4,630 m) on Day 3 of the trek, you hike from Shira Camp to Moir Hut (4,206 m). That’s a 700 m altitude gain versus a 1,100 m altitude gain. You then hike to Lava Tower on Day 4, after which the eight-day itinerary is once again the same as the seven-day itinerary.
By allowing trekkers plenty of time to acclimatise, the Lemosho has one of the best summit success rates of all Kilimanjaro routes. Many also enjoy the relative isolation of the route’s first two or three days. It’s only just before Shira Camp that you meet up with trekkers following the Shira route. Until then, Lemosho trekkers have a portion of the mountain all to themselves.
An updated Shira route
The Lemosho is actually an updated and improved version of the Shira route. The Shira route, which also ascends the western slope of the mountain, has you start your hike from a substantially higher elevation. So on the Shira you’re driven further up the mountain before you start to hoof it. This means Shira trekkers stand a greater chance of experiencing altitude sickness symptoms. By starting at a lower elevation, the Lemosho route eases your body into the acclimatisation process. The Lemosho therefore offers a better acclimatisation profile than the Shira. This is why we say it’s an improved version of the Shira.
We love the Lemosho route at Follow Alice – it’s our favourite!
The Northern Circuit route
The Northern Circuit is the newest and longest Kilimanjaro route. It’s actually the same route as the Lemosho, except that near the summit it takes a detour round the north half of the mountain and so has you summit from the east. This detour makes the Northern Circuit an even longer route than the Lemosho, and increases your acclimatisation time. Consequently the Northern Circuit has the highest summit success rate of all the Kilimanjaro routes. The route also offers beautiful views towards the north, and Kenya, that no other route offers.
Another positive of the route is how quiet it is. Relatively few people tackle the Northern Circuit. Further, it takes you around the northern slope of the mountain, which is seldom visited. You therefore get to feel that the mountain is all yours for quite a few days. You’re also more likely to enjoy the sounds of nature and spot wildlife, as there’s less human traffic and noise.
The Northern Circuit is similar to the Lemosho
The Northern Circuit is very similar to the Lemosho. For the first handful of days the routes are the same. It’s only when you reach the immense Shira Plateau high up on the mountain that the routes diverge: the Lemosho goes round the south side of the summit, while the Northern Circuit goes – surprise, surprise – around the northern side. The southern trail taken by the Lemosho is the shorter route, and the northern trail is the longer. This is why the Northern Circuit takes nine days, the longest of any Kilimanjaro route. The Northern Circuit and Lemosho then become the same route again on the descent, following the Mweka trail to exit Kilimanjaro National Park at Mweka Gate.
The 360° views of Northern Circuit
When you understand the path of the Northern Circuit route, you understand why the scenery along this route is unique and enticing for trekkers. No other Kilimanjaro route snakes around the north of the mountain. And it does this at around 4,000 m above sea level, so the views are amazing. But the trail also offers views to the west, east and south at various points. This is why people say the Northern Circuit is the only trail offering 360° views of the peak and surrounding countryside. The Northern Circuit is a fantastic option therefore if you want to get a heady scenery fix on the trek.
Fantastic acclimatisation strategy
The Northern Circuit is wonderful from an acclimatisation point of view. First of all, it has the longest ascent of any Kilimanjaro route, taking eight days to reach the summit. Secondly, it gives you plenty of time around the 4,000 m mark – three nights to be exact – before it asks you to push your body to go higher. In fact, you sleep lower on Days 6 and 7 than you do on Day 5. So the Northern Circuit doesn’t actually offer any chances to climb high and sleep low; instead, it extends the opportunity to return to lower ground over a couple of days, not just one night.
The Northern Circuit offers the best acclimatisation of any Kilimanjaro route. It consequently has the highest summit success rate.
Kilimanjaro routes offering decent acclimatisation
The two Kilimanjaro routes offering decent opportunities for acclimatisation are the Machame and Rongai.
The Machame route
The Machame is the most popular Kilimanjaro route. It approaches the summit of the mountain from the south, and runs parallel to the Umbwe route, which is a little further to the east. After summiting Uhuru Peak (hopefully!), trekkers then descend along the Mweka trail, which is also on the southern slope but quite a bit further to the east. The entire route can be hiked over six to eight days. We generally opt for the seven-day route as it offers a better acclimatisation profile.
A beautiful route
The Machame route starts at Machame Gate, which is 1,640 m above sea level and an excellent starting altitude. You trek steeply up through rainforest to reach Shira Ridge, then cross the immensity of the Shira Plateau. All of this is done in relative isolation, which is great. You only meet up with other trails (specifically the Lemosho and Shira) at Lava Tower. After hiking to Lava Tower, you descend a little in altitude to reach Barranco Camp, which sits under Kilimanjaro’s Southern Ice Fields. This is an excellent climb-high-sleep-low opportunity, which really aids in your acclimatisation.
The Machame is a beautiful route that offers excellent and varied scenery, and we’re happy to recommend it to both seasoned and novice trekkers.
The Machame is a beautiful and popular route. We recommend you take at least seven days to complete it.
The Rongai, which is a six or seven-day trail, is the only Kilimanjaro route that approaches the summit from the north. It’s a decent route option in our opinion, having quite a few positives.
Some of things we like about the Rongai are:
- It’s a very quiet route near the beginning, and you pass through some beautifully untouched wilderness. This also means you have a good chance of spotting wildlife.
- You can trek the Rongai during the wet season, as the northern slope of Kilimanjaro doesn’t receive as much rainfall as the other slopes.
- The Rongai offers some of the best, or clearest, views of the mountain.
- You descend the mountain via the Marangu route, so the scenery is varied.
- If you choose the seven-day itinerary, the trail should offer enough time to acclimatise properly.
Two of the cons of the trail are:
- The scenery isn’t quite as lovely as that of the routes approaching the summit from the west.
- The climb is steady and pretty flat, and as such doesn’t offer any climb-high-sleep-low opportunities, which really help with acclimatisation.
Two very different Rongai routes
The six- and seven-day Rongai itineraries offer markedly different routes. One might even argue that the six-day Rongai route should have a different name from the seven-day Rongai route. Both routes are the same on Day 1, seeing you head out from Rongai Gate in a southerly direction to reach Second Cave. On Day 2, the routes split, with the six-day route continuing in a southerly direction and taking you on a steep climb to reach Third Cave. The next day you climb to Kibo Hut.
With the seven-day itinerary, on the other hand, one heads southeast after Second Cave, and you tackle a gentle climb to Kikelewa Cave. The next day you continue your southeasterly trajectory towards Mawenzi Tarn Camp. Only then do you turn west and climb up to Kibo Hut, where the path meets up with that of the six-day Rongai route. It probably goes without saying that we would always recommend the seven-day itinerary over the six-day one!
Kilimanjaro routes offering poor acclimatisation
The three Kilimanjaro routes with the poorest acclimatisation profiles are the Marangu, Shira and Umbwe.
The Marangu is the OG of the Kilimanjaro routes. It’s also the only Kilimanjaro route to offer hut accommodation (on all other routes you camp). Trekkers sleep in dormitory-style huts and have access to a communal dining room and washrooms. It’s sometimes called the Coco-Cola route because you can buy a Coke en route.
For some, the option of staying in huts is appealing. We personally prefer camping. And while it may seem counterintuitive, camping is often the more hygienic option, as each tour operator’s facilities like cooking and toilet tents are servicing the needs of just a few clients.
Cons of the Marangu route
One of the factors making the Marangu route fairly popular among trekkers is that the trail offers a slow and steady climb. It’s therefore one of the easiest routes from a hiking point of view. That said, we feel the cons of this route outweigh the positives. The major negatives of the route are:
- It has a poor acclimatisation profile. This is because you ascend to the summit in only five days.
- The route, which approaches the summit from the east, is arguably the least scenic of all the Kilimanjaro routes.
- You descend the mountain along the same route as the ascent, so you don’t enjoy different views on the homeward trek.
- The Marangu is a relatively crowded route.
Like the Lemosho route, the Shira route approaches the summit of Kilimanjaro from the west. The entire trek takes seven days. The stopover for the first night is Simba Camp, which services Shira route trekkers only. On Day 2 the route joins the Lemosho trail, and from there the two routes are the same, including the descent along Mweka trail. In fact, the Shira is the original route, and the Lemosho is the newer, improved version of the trail.
A very high starting elevation
The Shira route starts at Shira Gate on the western flank of the mountain. Shira Gate is 3,600 m above sea level. That’s the same elevation as La Paz, Bolivia, the highest administrative capital in the world. Those who start hiking at Shira Gate begin their trek at an elevation of almost two vertical kilometres higher than on the other routes. This places you at a disadvantage, as your body is immediately placed under strain from the lower oxygen at this great height. The couple of days of hiking spent reaching this altitude on the other routes is an important part of the body’s acclimatisation process.
We don’t recommend opting for the Shira route unless you’re a highly experienced high-altitude climber or someone who lives at a similar altitude.
The Umbwe is the shortest, steepest and hardest Kilimanjaro route. It approaches the summit from the south. The route heads in a direct line up the mountain for the first two days, then turns east to skirt the base of the peak and take on summit day from an easterly direction. Given its short and pretty direct route, the Umbwe doesn’t offer as varied scenery as the other Kilimanjaro routes. The Umbwe also runs more or less parallel to the Mweka route, which is the descent trail used by this route. So the scenery on the ascent and descent, while stunning, is pretty similar, which is a pity. We prefer routes that offer differing viewpoints on the ascent and descent.
A very taxing ascent
The entire Umbwe route takes place over just six days. On four of the five ascent days, you climb at least one kilometre in elevation. Your body therefore has very little time to adapt to the lower oxygen levels associated with each altitude gain.
The Umbwe is very steep and offers very poor acclimatisation – we don’t recommend it.
Best Kilimanjaro routes for acclimatisation
So let’s recap the pros and cons of each route, with the focus being on which route offers the best acclimatisation for climbing Kilimanjaro. The table below shows the routes in descending order, from best to worst in terms of acclimatisation. Note that the column showing the number of climb days refers to the number of days taken over the ascent to Uhuru Peak.
|Route||Climb days||Acclimatisation strategy||Acclimatisation details||Other considerations|
|1.||Northern Circuit||8 days||Excellent||The number of days spent acclimatising around the 4,000 m mark gives this route the highest summit success rate||– Costs more as you spend more days on the mountain|
– A very quiet route
– Incredibly beautiful and varied scenery
|2.||Lemosho||6 or 7 days||Very good||One excellent opportunity to climb high and sleep low||– Very beautiful route|
|3.||Machame||5 or 6 days||Good||The 6-day ascent is preferable for acclimatisation||– Beautiful and varied scenery|
– Quite crowded
– Some parts of the trail are somewhat difficult
|4.||Rongai||5 or 6 days||Good||The 6-day ascent is preferable for acclimatisation||– Possible in the wet season|
– Quiet route
– Great wildlife viewing
|5.||Marangu||5 days||Not great||The big jumps in elevation give this route a low summit success rate||– Offers hut accommodation, so don’t need camping equipment|
– You ascend and descend the mountain along the same path
|6.||Shira||6 days||Not great||The route starts from a very high elevation, so some trekkers get altitude sickness symptoms right out of the gate||– Awesome scenery|
– A quiet route
|7.||Umbwe||5 days||Very poor||A very low success rate as high chance of getting altitude sickness||– It’s a hard climb|
– Not as scenic as certain other routes
Further reading on how to prepare for Kilimanjaro
If you’d like to know more about climbing Kilimanjaro, please check out the following posts:
- Kilimanjaro preparation
- What is it like to climb Kilimanjaro?
- Kilimanjaro documentary – what is it really like?
- Why do prices differ so much between Kilimanjaro operators?
- Kilimanjaro safety
- Tipping on Kilimanjaro
- Kilimanjaro packing list