Male doctor in office consulting with a man in glasses, both seated

Climbing Kilimanjaro? Get a medical checkup first!

Mar 22, 2024
Reading time: 5 minutes

You need to be fit and healthy to climb Kilimanjaro safely. We strongly encourage anyone keen to climb Africa's highest peak to visit a doctor beforehand to discuss their health as well as the inherent dangers of high-altitude trekking.

We really want to highlight two things.

Firstly, Kilimanjaro is much harder than most people think. That doesn't mean it isn't eminently doable, because it is. But you do need to have really good hiking fitness or train in earnest for it.

Secondly, altitude sickness can be dangerous, even fatal.

Every year, hundreds of Kilimanjaro climbers have to turn back down the mountain before reaching the summit because they've developed altitude sickness, or the high altitude has exacerbated or combined with another health condition to make them too ill to continue. What's more, every year a handful of people die on Kilimanjaro. The causes are almost always connected to the high altitude.

While you can capably assess your own fitness (if you understand how hard Kilimanjaro is to climb), it's a really good idea to have your doctor weigh in on your health and overall viability to tackle a challenging high-altitude climb.

Snow and trekkers on Kilimanjaro summit

Climbers near the summit of Kilimanjaro

Discuss these 3 things with your doctor

The main thing to tell your doctor at your checkup appointment is that you wish to do a multiday high-altitude trek that will take you nearly as high as 6,000 m (20,000 ft) above sea level.

Doctors know all about altitude sickness, of course, from how to avoid it to how to treat it.

Your doctor will likely lead the conversation, but be sure that the two of you discuss the following during your consultation:

1. The dangers posed by high altitude

Most people unused to high altitude can start to feel the ill side effects of elevation gain from around 3,000 (9,800 ft) m above sea level (asl). Remember that Kilimanjaro is a whopping 5,895 m (19,341 ft) asl, so you're heading into seriously rarified air on the climb.

Mild altitude sickness isn't a serious health concern, and you can keep hiking provided you personally feel able to push through the shortness of breath and other unpleasant symptoms (which often include headaches, nausea and poor sleep).

Should your altitude sickness become serious, however, then you must descend rapidly or you could develop high-altitude cerebral oedema (HACE), which can be fatal.

2. How to prevent or mitigate altitude sickness

The single best way to avoid developing serious altitude sickness is to only ascend in altitude in a very gradual manner. Your doctor will undoubtedly explain this to you.

The important thing that you can bring to the discussion is explaining that there are seven different Kilimanjaro routes, and they each vary in their rate of ascent. More specifically, one can choose to tackle the upwards climb over six, seven or eight days depending on the chosen route and itinerary. Knowing this, the two of you can discuss how many days you personally should choose for the ascent.

Beste. Moorland zone, trekkers, Kilimanjaro

Our client Beste took this snap while in the moorland zone of Kilimanjaro

Your doctor will most likely want to prescribe you an altitude medication (such as Diamox) to help prevent and reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness.

They might also raise the question of having spare oxygen with you should your breathing become too laboured. This is an important topic, and provided you choose a reliable Kilimanjaro tour operator, you can assure them that you'll be trekking with guides trained in wilderness first response who always carry spare oxygen and monitor your health closely.

Your doctor might also like to prescribe you the following medications:

  • Painkillers for headaches (a common symptom of mild altitude sickness).
  • Strong anti-nausea tablets (another common symptom of mild altitude sickness).
  • Cortisone (should you start coughing and spluttering).



3. Any potential concerns based on your personal medical history

This is, of course, an invaluable part of the consult. Does your doctor believe you are in good enough health to tackle this challenge? Be sure to know enough of the climb before the meeting to be able to describe the challenges of the trek.

Further to this, if you have a particular health concern, perhaps you should also schedule an appointment with the relevant specialist?

No matter which Inca Trail tour operator you choose, you're going to be asked to sign a health and safety form vouching that you're healthy enough to tackle the trek.

Finally, please note that getting a medical checkup before the trip is especially important if you want to climb Kilimanjaro over the age of 50.

Group pic at Barafu camp sign, Kilimanjaro, in August 2022

Our client Oscar shared this snap taken at Barafu Camp in the alpine desert zone

Have this appointment before booking your climb

Please book your doctor's visit before paying anything towards your Kilimanjaro climb. We say this so that you're better positioned to be as objective as possible if given disappointing advice about the advisability of you undertaking such a trek.

Chatting with a doctor early on also means that if you're given a qualified thumbs up for the trek, then you're then in a position to take the time necessary to get your health in line before heading to Tanzania.

Please take your doctor's advice seriously and do everything possible to ensure you're fit and healthy enough before embarking on a Kilimanjaro climb. You want to ensure it's a truly memorable trip for all of the right reasons!