Ladies in moorland zone of Kilimanjaro

Is Kilimanjaro hard to climb?

Nov 23, 2021

Kilimanjaro is a tough cookie. Nobody skips on up it. It requires preparation, fitness, endurance, teamwork and a good attitude. But when you have those, you can 100% manage it. We discuss how and why Kilimanjaro is hard to help you prepare for your climb.

Is climbing Kilimanjaro hard? Short answer: yes! But as we always add, it's also eminently doable provided you're fit, you climb with a good team, and you bring along a can-do attitude.

Below we address all the different aspects of the climb that make it 'hard', whether that be physically hard or mentally hard, since both need to be overcome for a successful climb. Understanding the challenges of the climb is an important part of your Kilimanjaro preparation.

1. Long trekking hours and distances

The number of hours and distance you trek each day on Kilimanjaro varies according to the route and itinerary you choose. The seven routes up and down the mountain differ in duration from five to nine days. They also differ in overall length, from 53 km (33 mi) to 98 km (61 mi).

Moreover, the different days on each route often vary greatly. On the eight-day Lemosho route, for example, you cover just 5 km on Day 5, which is about four to six hours of hiking. But you cover 17 km on Day 7 (summit day), which is about 10 hours of hiking.

Your climb group's overall fitness will also, of course, impact how many hours you spend trekking each day.

You need to be able to hike uneven and mostly ascending terrain for several hours each day for about a week to cope with a Kilimanjaro climb.

Remember that most of your days on the mountain require you to climb upwards. Also, there are no rest or acclimatisation days on a Kilimanjaro climb. So you need good strength and stamina to be able to tackle a long and arduous uphill hike every day for almost a week.

 

 

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2. A steep climb

Kilimanjaro is a mountain climb, so it goes without saying that you're going to have to do some serious uphill hiking! Remember, you're aiming to reach a summit that's 5,895 m above sea level!

That said, some of the seven Kilimanjaro routes are steeper than others. The Umbwe route is the shortest and steepest route, while the Northern Circuit is the longest route with the most gradual incline.

Chris Sichalwe, our lead Kilimanjaro expert, ranks the steepness of the seven routes as follows, starting with most steep and going in descending order:

  1. Umbwe
  2. Machame
  3. Lemosho
  4. Rongai
  5. Marangu
  6. Shira
  7. Northern Circuit

Barranco Wall is really steep

Perhaps the biggest point to mention in terms of steepness is Barranco Wall. This is the steepest section of any Kilimanjaro route by far, and requires some scrambling. You only tackle Barranco Wall on the Shira, Lemosho, Machame and Umbwe routes. If you're not keen for this steep climb, we recommend climbing the Northern Circuit, Rongai or Marangu route.

Climbing Barranco Wall in the mist

Climbers navigate Barranco Wall in the mist

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3. Altitude gain

As we discuss in Height and prominence of Kilimanjaro, and altitude gain when climbing it, each of the seven Kilimanjaro routes has a different starting elevation. On the Lemosho route and Northern Circuit, for instance, the trailhead is Lemosho Gate, which is 2,100 m (6,890 ft) above sea level. On the Marangu, by comparison, the trailhead, which is Marangu Gate, is notably lower at 1,843 m (6,047 ft). This means the vertical distance you must ascend to reach Uhuru Peak is further on the Marangu than on the Lemosho.

Here you have the seven different routes' altitude gains in ascending order (i.e. smallest altitude gain to greatest):

  1. Shira route: 2,481 m (8,231 ft)
  2. Lemosho route: 3,795 m (12,541 ft)
  3. Northern Circuit: 3,795 m (12,541 ft)
  4. Rongai route: 3,945 m (13,033 ft)
  5. Marangu route: 4,052 m (13,384 ft)
  6. Machame route: 4,255 m (14,051 ft)

As you can see, the Machame route requires the most altitude gain, while the Shira route requires the smallest altitude gain by far. This is because it starts above the rainforest band, whereas the other routes all require you to climb up and through the forest.

While a greater altitude gain generally indicates a slightly longer and harder climb, please be sure to read our very next point to understand why the Shira isn't actually an easier route, as it has a much greater chance of causing one to develop altitude sickness ...

Older client Kilimanjaro climb moorland

You're the best judge at the end of the day as to whether or not you'll cope with the rigours of a multiday, high-altitude climb

4. Climb to an extreme altitude

One of the things that make a Kilimanjaro climb really hard is the fact that you ascent to an extremely high altitude. The higher you climb, the harder it is to breathe, as our lungs can't access as much oxygen as usual. This makes exercise especially taxing.

Decreased oxygen intake can cause some unpleasant symptoms like poor sleep, dizziness, nausea and headaches. These symptoms don't necessarily mean you're sick – just that your body is having a tough time adapting. Most folks who climb Kilimanjaro experience one or more of these symptoms, and it's important to be mentally prepared for these battles. Such discomforts make a Kilimanjaro climb that much harder, as you're not at your best but must still engage with a really tough upwards climb.

The summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, Kibo cone

Don't underestimate Kilimanjaro - it's almost 6,000 m above sea level

Risk of altitude sickness

While the symptoms mentioned above are common to almost all Kilimanjaro climbers, they're not a serious concern unless they tip over into acute mountain sickness (AMS). Individuals who develop AMS must descend the mountain promptly, as it can otherwise prove fatal. If your lead guide says you must descend the mountain for your safety, you must descend, no quibbles.

We'd argue that this 'uncertainty' makes a Kilimanjaro climb hard in the sense that you have to plan your climb while accepting that you might not be able to finish it, even though you have the requisite fitness and determination.

 

Experts can't predict who is liable to develop AMS in terms of age, sex or fitness. It seemingly strikes at random. The very best defence against AMS is a slow ascent, as this gives your body a better chance of adapting healthily to the increased elevation. This is why we don't usually recommend climbs under eight days, except to those who are experienced high-altitude trekkers and therefore know how their bodies cope with high altitude.

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5. Wet and slippery forest conditions

The infographic below shows the five different zones (or bands) of Kilimanjaro's climate.

Climate-Zones-Kilimanjaro--1024x900.jpg

The five climate zones of Kilimanjaro

While the top three climate zones usually receive the most attention in any discussion of Kilimanjaro (given their cold and harsh conditions can be dangerous if you're not properly prepared), it's worth pointing out that the rainforest zone also poses some challenges. (We don't discuss the cultivation zone, as all Kilimanjaro trailheads start above this zone.)

The rainforest zone does, as you'd expect, experience a lot of rain. (We discuss which seasons see the most rain in Best time to climb Kilimanjaro.) This can make the forest trails you hike muddy, slippery and treacherous. Trekking poles really do come handy when wet happens. You also really want to have good hiking boots, which means boots that are at least water-repellent and have deep lugs to allow for good traction.

Lemosho Gate Kilimanjaro group photo rain

One of our Kilimanjaro climb groups starting their adventure in the rain!

It's worth pointing out that at times the forest zone is also very hot and humid, which is why we encourage you to pack shorts and a shirt in our Kilimanjaro packing list.

6. Extreme cold near the summit

But let's move on to the most challenging aspect of Kilimanjaro's weather: the extreme cold near the summit. If you're not properly equipped with warm and waterproof clothing and camping equipment, then you're placing yourself in danger. This is one of the key reasons it's so important to travel with a reputable tour operator who provides you with appropriate camping equipment as well as good advice on the clothes and items that you're responsible for bringing along.

The top part of Kilimanjaro is barren and cold - an adventurer's playground!

It's bundle-up time when you head for the summit

Even when properly outfitted, however, the cold is taxing and part of what makes a Kilimanjaro climb hard. On summit night, especially, the iciness of the dead of night is a trial, and you need determination and focus to push through. Also the wind near the summit can be fierce, so it's good to be mentally prepared for this.

If you download our free packing list below, you'll find items listed there that you might not have thought of, like lip balm and moisturiser with a high SPF. The cold and wind are brutal to your skin and lips if you don't protect them.

 

 

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Or if you've had enough of reading, you can instead just watch the packing video below!

 

7. Night-time summit push

By far one of the hardest aspects of climbing Kilimanjaro is the night-time summit attempt. In fact, it's for this one reason alone that we tend to feel that Kilimanjaro is harder than the Everest Base Camp trek, as discussed in Kilimanjaro vs Everest Base Camp: which is harder?

Most Kilimanjaro summit attempts begin at around midnight. This means you're woken up by your team a little before that to get ready and have a hot drink and biscuits. Many tend to sleep in their summit clothes to make this moment a little easier.

Most folks find that they slept only a little (if at all) before this middle-of-the-night wake-up call, partly because high altitude makes it hard to sleep, and partly because nerves don't allow you to rest properly. So it's after only a few hours of rest that one has to get up in the dark and freezing cold to make a push for Uhuru Peak. Needless to say the wind is often strong at that elevation and an additional challenge that makes you want to bury deeper in your sleeping bag, not get out of it and exert yourself like never before!

head torch Kilimanjaro nighttime climb

The night-time summit push on Kilimanjaro is a true test of mettle

It really isn't overstatement to say that summit night is, for most, the single hardest aspect of a Kilimanjaro climb. It's dark, it's bitingly cold, the air is thin and makes exertion that much more exhausting, and you have to climb roughly a thousand metres in elevation! This is both a mental and physical challenge of noteworthy proportions. You really need to prepare physically and mentally to be able to manage it.

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8. Camping and basic hygiene

A final thing to consider is the fact that you'll be camping for over a week. (Unless you hike the Marangu route, in which case you'll stay in communal huts.) This is a decent bit of time to be ducking in and out of tents and tripping on guy ropes. But the main challenge for most is the sparing facilities for hygiene purposes.

Unless you travel with a luxury operator, you're not going to shower on Kilimanjaro. Instead, you're going to have a bucket of water you can use for some strategic 'washy washy'. We recommend that you also pack some wet wipes for further efforts inside of your tent. And don't, of course, forget to bring a hardworking deo.

The toilet situation

As to the toilet, many operators like Follow Alice provide their clients with a private toilet tent, which helps to keep that side of things hygienic and relatively pleasant. If you climb the Marangu route, you'll use the communal toilets installed at the different campsites.

Follow Alice toilet tent on Mt Kilimanjaro

A private toilet tent on Kilimanjaro

If you need the toilet during the day's hike, then you need to duck behind a bush or rock. But because Kilimanjaro National Park has a 'leave no trace' policy, you cannot leave toilet paper behind (not even buried), and must carry it to camp in a little baggie to be disposed of in the camp bin. So you'll want wet wipes and perhaps a urinating device if you're a woman, as we discuss in Advice for women climbing Mt Kilimanjaro. We also address getting your period on the mountain in the above blog post, and how high altitude can bring on your cycle unexpectedly.

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