Sunset over Mt Meru taken from Shira Cave Camp on Machame

Machame vs Northern Circuit

Oct 20, 2021

The Machame and Northern Circuit are both excellent Kilimanjaro routes. But they're very different. We discuss the details of each, as well as their pros and cons, to help you decide which is the better option for you. We also offer our own recommendation.

Quick facts about each route

Here are some quick facts about each route, starting with the Machame route.

Machame route

  • Total distance: 62 km / 39 miles
  • Starting point: Machame Gate (1,640 m)
  • End point: Mweka Gate
  • Duration: 6 or 7 days
  • Summit success rate: Medium
  • Busyness: High

And now here are some basic Northern Circuit facts ...

Northern Circuit (or Grand Traverse)

  • Total distance: 98 km / 61 miles
  • Starting point: Lemosho Gate (2,100 m)
  • End point: Mweka Gate
  • Duration: 9 days
  • Summit success rate: Very high
  • Busyness: Low
Northern Circuit Route Kilimanjaro

On both routes you walk through high alpine desert

Maps of the Machame

Take a look at the map below which show the seven-day Machame route. Note that the Mweka descent route is used by climbers of both the Machame and Northern Circuit, so the way down is the same.

Machame-7-day-route-map

Map of the seven-day Machame route

Map of the Northern Circuit

Below is a map showing the Northern Circuit ascent route, also known as the Grand Traverse. Again, you can see it also the Mweka descent route.

Northern Circuit route map

Map showing the nine-day Northern Circuit route

Machame route overview

The Machame route is a very scenic and well-established Kilimanjaro ascent route. It's the most popular route and thus the busiest on the mountain. It makes use of the Mweka descent route which runs down the mountain's southern slope.

We feel very happy recommending this route, though only for the seven-day itinerary. The six-day itinerary is too short, in our opinion, and should only be tackled by the most seasoned high-altitude trekkers. The seven-day itinerary has a decent summit success rate, while the six-day itinerary has a less-than-stellar summit success rate.

Route description

The Machame route approaches the summit of Kilimanjaro from the southwest. As you can see in the map above, the trail starts by heading roughly north. Once you've reached the plateau known as The Saddle, you turn east and circumnavigate the southern slope of the summit. You then make your actual summit attempt by heading in a northwesterly direction from base camp.

To descend, you follow the Mweka route, which leads you down the mountain's southern slope.

It's worth noting that you must climb Barranco Wall during your ascent along the Machame route. This is a steep section on the mountain, and we discuss it more in just a moment.

Two climbers navigating down a hill on Mt Kilimanjaro on their way to Mweka Camp

The Mweka descent route is used by climbers of both the Machame and Northern Circuit

Northern Circuit overview

The Northern Circuit is the longest and therefore quietest Kilimanjaro ascent route. It takes nine days to complete, including your descent via the Mweka route.

Given its nine-day duration, the Northern Circuit is the most expensive route, as every day on the mountain costs a little bit more. But it also has the highest summit success rate! This is because the extra day or two that you take over the ascent reduces your chances of developing altitude sickness. The ascent also isn't as steep and tiring as it is on other routes.

The Northern Circuit is a fantastic route as it's very pretty and it has the highest summit success rate of all the Kilimanjaro routes!

The Northern Circuit's scenery is varied and incredibly beautiful. We love the Northern Circuit and are happy to recommend it to anyone. If you've never done a high-altitude trek, then we definitely suggest you choose this route.

Route description

On the Northern Circuit you approach the mountain from the west (similar to the Lemosho and Shira routes). In fact, you walk alongside Lemosho climbers on the first few days of the trek. But when they veer right to go south around the summit, you veer left and go round its northern side, hence the name Northern Circuit.

After a few days on the quiet northern slope, having passed the bulk of the summit cone, you turn south and then a little further on approach the summit from the east, with Kibo Hut as your base camp.

Uhuru Peak Michaela and Chris Kilimanjaro

Our hope is for every client to stand at Uhuru Peak and pose for a victory shot!

Having hopefully successfully reached Uhuru Peak, you then descend along the Mweka route.

Trailhead altitudes

The Machame route starts at an elevation of just 1,640 m (5,380 ft), while the Northern Circuit starts at Lemosho Gate, which is 2,100 m (6,890 ft) above sea level.

The Machame has the second lowest starting point for a Kilimanjaro ascent route (the Umbwe starts a touch lower at 1,600 m). A low starting point is very good from an acclimatisation point of view. This is because youโ€™re forced to slowly ascend to each new altitude and thus give your body ample time to adjust to the thinner air. Those who drive up to a very high starting point (like that of the Shira route), risk having their bodies react negatively to the jump in altitude. 

Smiling couple by Lemosho Gate on Kilimanjaro in the rain

The Lemosho Gate is the starting point of the Northern Circuit

While the Northern Circuit's starting elevation is higher than that of the Machame, itโ€™s still not too high so as to be of concern. Altitude sickness generally strikes only around the 3,000 m mark, so 2,100 m is a perfectly good starting altitude.

You don't want to start your climb at a very high altitude as you're then more likely to develop altitude sickness.

Distance and duration

The Northern Circuit is a nine-day route. At 98 km (61 miles), it's markedly longer than the Lemosho. It's actually the longest ascent route on Kilimanjaro, which helps to explain why it has the highest summit success rate. But more on that in a bit.

The Machame route can be completed in six or seven days. At Follow Alice we offer the seven-day itinerary, as the six-day itinerary is too short in our opinion. At 62 km (39 miles), it sits somewhere in the middle of the routes in terms of overall distance.

Rainforest on the way from Machame Gate to Machame Camp

A section of the Machame route in the mountain's forest band

Steepness and trail difficulty

The Machame is a bit steeper than the Northern Circuit in places, as it ascends the mountain more quickly. That said, neither is problematically steep. Remember, Kilimanjaro is a non-technical mountain, meaning you don't need climbing equipment to get up it.

Climbing Kilimanjaro via Machame Route

The Machame is overall steeper than the Northern Circuit

The only place where steepness could be an issue for some is Barranco Wall ...

Barranco Wall

The Barranco Wall on the southern slope of Kilimanjaro is the steepest section up the mountain, requiring you to sometimes use your hands and knees. You climb Barranco Wall on the Machame, but not on the Northern Circuit.

Barranco Wall and porters

Here you can see climbers and porters tackling the Barranco Wall

This is a major distinction that could be a deciding factor for anyone who is anxious about heights. While the Barranco Wall is perfectly manageable, someone who's nervous of heights would do better to opt for the Northern Circuit. This route has no precipitous sections.

Crowds

The Machame route is the most popular and thus busiest ascent route on the mountain. The Northern Circuit, by contrast, is the quietest route up the mountain. So right there, you have a marked difference that might sway you one way or the other depending on the sort of climb you want. If you want to meet folks from all around the world and stay at bustling campsites, then choose the Machame. But if you want quiet hiking and campsites, with a better chance to spot birds and wildlife, then choose the Northern Circuit.

Moorland-vegetation-on-Kilimanjaro-1024x576.jpg

Kilimanjaro is really big, so even on the Machame you'll have times when it feels like you have the mountain to yourself

Campsites

The Northern Circuit and Machame route use completely different campsites, except on the descent. Climbers of the Machame route make for the summit from the Barafu Camp, while climbers of the Northern Circuit make for the summit from Kibo Hut.

The campsites along both routes are fantastic and many offer incredible views. The campsites along the middle section of Northern Circuit are very quiet, while the campsites along the middle section of the Machame are particularly large and busy, as they service climbers from other routes too. If you're particularly interested in knowing which camps offer the best views, please read Where to find the best sunrises and sunsets on Kilimanjaro.

 Night-time at Pofu Camp on Kilimanjaro

Pofu Camp services only Northern Circuit climbers and is very quiet

Scenery and animals

Both routes are among the most beautiful, with varied ecosystems and views. It's perhaps only the Lemosho that surpasses either in this regard.

On both the Northern Circuit and the Machame you pass through the four upper ecosystems of Kilimanjaro. These are, in order, rainforest, moorland, alpine desert, and the artic summit. The rainforest and moorland (or heath) zones are incredibly pretty, having rare and unusual vegetation like the Kilimanjaro impatiens (it grows nowhere else in the world) and giant lobelias and groundsels, which are icons of Kilimanjaro.

lobelia-1.jpeg

Giant lobelias can be found in the moorland section of Kilimanjaro

On the Northern Circuit you're a little more likely to see wildlife. This is because there's less foot traffic. You're also more likely once above the tree line to see large game like elephants and giraffes from a distance, as you look north over the plains of Kenya.

The best time for animal spotting on both routes, however, is during the rainforest hike. Look out for black-and-white colobus monkeys and blue monkeys, as well as various duikers and dainty klipspringers, the second smallest antelope. You can learn more about what wildlife to look for in Kilimanjaro animals.

Acclimatisation and success rate

Acclimatisation is one of the most important topics when it comes to Kilimanjaro. This is because it's crucial to not only your climb's success, but also your health and safety.

Acclimatisation refers to the process by which your body grows accustomed to the thinner air experienced at a higher altitude. If you ask your body to adjust too quickly, it will develop altitude sickness. Common symptoms of altitude sickness are headaches, nausea, sleeplessness and vertigo. At its worst, altitude sickness can be fatal.

If you'd like a more thorough discussion of altitude sickness, please take a look at the video below. 

 

Please don't underestimate Kilimanjaro by trying to charge up the mountain too quickly. We recommend you allow yourself at least seven days for the ascent. Only do a shorter climb if you know from experience that your body can cope with it. Remember that giving yourself enough days to climb Kilimanjaro is the number one way to avoid altitude sickness.

There is, however, another strategy that really helps with acclimatisation ...

Climb high and sleep low

Both the Machame and Northern Circuit include a point where you descend during the ascent. This means you climb to a fresh new altitude before dipping back down again for a stretch. And it's great for acclimatisation, so both routes get a big fat tick for this.

On the Machame, you climb to Lava Tower (4,630 m) for lunch on Day 3 and then descend to Barranco Camp (3,976 m) for the night. On the Northern Circuit, you sleep at Moir Hut (4,206 m) on Day 4, and then sleep lower than that not only on Day 5 at Pofu Camp (4,033 m) but also on Day 6 at Third Cave (3,870 m). Again, this is great for good acclimatisation.

Both routes allow for good acclimatisation by having you climb high and then drop back down for a night or two.

The route with the higher success rate

The Northern Circuit has a far higher summit success rate than the Machame. As we discuss in 10 interesting facts about Mount Kilimanjaro, on average only 44% of six-day climbers reach the summit, while only 64% of seven-day climbers reach the summit. On the Northern Circuit, however, which is the only nine-day route, over 90% of climbers reach Uhuru Peak!

Couple smiling and hugging in front of Uhuru Peak sign on Kilimanjaro

Many more Northern Circuit climbers reach Uhuru Peak than Machame climbers

Our opinion

As a general rule, we recommend the nine-day Northern Circuit over the seven-day Machame. We do this because while both have wonderful scenery, the Northern Circuit has a higher summit success rate, and we want everyone to eventually stand at Uhuru Peak and gaze out over the swathe of Africa below and feel like kings and queens of the world!

If you feel that the Northern Circuit is just a little too long or expensive for you, then perhaps try the eight-day Lemosho route rather than the seven-day Machame. We compare this route in our posts Lemosho vs Machame and Lemosho vs Northern Circuit, which you might find helpful.

That said, if you've already done some high-altitude trekking and are pretty confident that your body can handle the shorter climb, then we're happy to recommend the seven-day Machame. As mentioned before, we don't recommend the six-day Machame, as it's success rate is just too low.

We hope you now feel equipped to choose between the Northern Circuit and Machame. If you still have some questions, that's what we're here for! Please feel free to contact us and we'll be happy to help. ๐Ÿ™‚

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