Standing 5,895 meters (or 19,341 feet) about sea level, Kilimanjaro is one of the sevens summits of the world. It is the tallest mountain in Africa and claims the title of the highest freestanding mountain in the world.
While climbing Kilimanjaro is no easy feat, it is something that can be accomplished by many people – if you have the physical strength, endurance, and mental willpower required to spend anywhere from 5-8 days on the mountain, depending on the route you choose.
This past summer, my mom and I traveled to Tanzania with Discover Outdoors, a New York City based outdoor adventure company, to accomplish my decade-long goal of reaching Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro. We decided to book a trip that offered the opportunity to climb Kilimanjaro via an 8-day Lemosho Route because this option has a success rate of nearly 90%. The longer route you take, the more time your body will have to acclimatize to the altitude allowing your chances of reaching the summit to increase substantially. This guide will give you a comprehensive overview on Mt. Kilimanjaro and what climbing this iconic mountain truly entails!
Kilimanjaro National Park
Kilimanjaro National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to Mt. Kilimanjaro, the continent’s highest mountain. Located in Tanzania, just 300 km south of the Equator, the snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro stands in isolation above the surrounding plains.
The park which officially opened in 1977 is one of the most visited national parks in the world with approximately 25,000 climbers attempting to reach the summit each year, using various routes. Although the success rate of the Lemosho Route is nearly 90%, the overall success rate of reaching Uhuru Peak is closer to 66%, due to shorter routes causing altitude issues, along with very cold summit days.
What to Expect if You Want to Climb Kilimanjaro
If climbing Kili is something you are thinking about, please note you must expect the following (along with the unexpected):
You must love the outdoors
…. (or at least be able to tolerate the outdoors for one week). You will be sleeping in a tent and will most likely be off the grid with no cell phone or internet service – I found cell service at a few random locations along the climb although my signal disappeared within minutes and calling rates were about $4 USD a minute.
Your porter (similar to a Sherpa) will carry all of your gear
… duffel bag, tent, food, etc. You will only be required to carry your day pack of water, snacks, and any personal items you want with you for the day.
You will eat well on Kilimanjaro
Each group of climbers travels with their own personal chef. Breakfast and dinner will be hot meals while lunch will likely be a boxed meal on longer days or hot meals on shorter-hike days. Chefs are able to accommodate all sorts of dietary restrictions and you are more than welcome to pack snacks too!
The group you go with will be your family for the next week!
They will laugh with you, cry with you, encourage you when you are ready to give up and probably see you in a way that most people never will (no showers, dirty clothes, etc).
Oh yeah… you must be okay with not showering for the duration of the trip
I brought dry shampoo but my desire to use it or any make-up products disappeared on the 3rd morning when I realized everything was already dirty.
Your bathroom will consist of a portable toilet tent
….that will be cleaned and carried by a porter from one camp to the next. That means that bathroom breaks along each day’s hike are whatever good rock you can find. Another thing – tip your porters well… Really well!
Tipping your porters is not just a nice thing to do, it’s essential
Your porters and Tanzanian guides depend on tips for their livelihood. Depending on the size of your group, the amount you are required to tip will vary but plan on $400 – $500 USD for tipping.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
It is so important to drink lots of fluids throughout the climb. You will likely lose your appetite and thirst so it’s important to force yourself to eat and drink as much as possible.
“Pole, pole” means slow in Swahili
….and anyone who has climbed Kilimanjaro will understand why this mantra is not just recommended but essential to achieving your goal. On the earlier days especially, you will be tempted to push yourself and hike quickly, but because of the altitude, it is especially important to take your time and go slow. On summit night you will climb so slow (one step per breath) but you will feel as if you are sprinting a marathon!
What to Pack for Climbing Kilimanjaro
With temperatures ranging from 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit at the gate, to temps between 20 – minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit at the summit, it’s important to bring the right gear with you to ensure a successful (and comfortable) climb. When you climb Kilimanjaro you will travel through five major ecological zones so it’s essential to pack accordingly for each one, while keeping in mind that each climber is limited to the weight of items he/she can bring. That means packing smart by bringing items that you can wear multiple times as well as items that layer well. While I probably overpacked on some items and underpacked on others, if I were to climb Kili again this is what I would bring (with recommendations on preferred brands):
- 1 x thermal base-layer shirt
- 2 x dry-fit t-shirts
- 2 x long sleeve dry-fit shirts
- 1 x warm moisture-wicking hoodie
- 1 x pair of thermal base-layer pants
- 1 x pair of capri athletic pants or shorts
- 2 x pairs of long hiking pants
- 1 x Puffy outer layer jacket (down-fill or synthetic down)
- 1 x Waterproof/wind resistant shell jacket
- 1 x Wool hat
- 1 x Light gloves
- 1 x Warm gloves/mittens designed for mountaineering
- 1 x Waterproof/snow pants
- 1 x Waterproof hiking boots
- 1 x Running shoes or trekking shoes to wear at camp
- 1 x Day pack
- 1 x Waterbottle
- 1 x Headlamp
- Solar battery charger
As mentioned earlier, there are several routes up Mt. Kilimanjaro and whichever you choose is entirely up to you. Longer routes such as the Lemosho route increase your chance of summiting due to the fact that they allow for acclimatization and break up the climb into shorter days, giving your body more opportunity to rest.
The Lemosho route is a favorite among many companies due to its low traffic and beautiful scenery. Many people are hesitant to choose the longest route due to an increase in price along with the need to use more vacation days. In my personal opinion, Kilimanjaro is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure so I wanted to make sure I did it right – and whatever option gave me the highest chance of success was that.
The Lemosho Route starts at the Londorossi Gate at an elevation of 7,742 ft. You will spend the first two days climbing through rainforest. You will trek across the Shira Plateau and on Day 3 the Lemosho Route joins the popular Machame Route at Lava Tower. You will head down into the valley to Baranco Camp and the following morning climb the Barranco Wall (this was definitely a highlight of the trip)! From there it’s on to Karanga Camp and then finally to Barafu (the base camp and final camp before summit)!
It may be true that it is not so much the destination but the journey that counts. But anyone who has ever climbed Kilimanjaro has most likely dreamed of reaching the mountain’s summit and standing proudly next to the infamous “Congratulations, You Are Now at Uhuru Peak” wooden sign. From my personal experience on the mountain I will say that while the first several days are important for acclimatizing and making your way up the mountain, nothing can quite prepare you for summit night.
You will reach the base camp named “Barafu Camp” (meaning Ice in Swahili) at about 1 pm the afternoon the day before the summit attempt. You will most likely be exhausted and feeling the effects of the altitude despite the fact that the morning’s climb was just a short 5 km. You will have a hot lunch and then have several hours to rest. Our group tried to get some sleep at around 4 pm and then woke at 10:30 pm to prepare for summit night. We put on all our layers of gear, had a hot drink and snack in the dining tent, strapped on our headlamps and by 11:30 pm we were on our way! During the first few hours we climbed over boulders and rocks which was fine as the altitude wasn’t hitting us quite yet and we still had a decent amount of energy. As the hours went on, the trail to Uhuru was that of loose stones called scree and hundreds of switch-backs. The only thing to focus on was the headlamps of the many climbers who had gotten an earlier start, up the mountain in the distance. At times it was hard to distinguish whether we were looking at headlamps so far in the distance or stars in the early morning sky.
There will most likely be a moment (or several) on summit night when you hit a wall and think you can’t go any further. That is the time when you have to power through the negative self-talk and remember why you came here in the first place.
For me, my altitude sickness came in the form of fatigue, headaches, and decreased coordination. Fortunately, my fantastic guides were there to help me and I was confident that if there was any real danger to my health, they would have led me back down to base camp. After a few more hours of putting one foot in front of the other, very, very slowly, I was told the summit wasn’t far.
I knew our guides must be right as one of our beloved guides had summited Kilimanjaro nearly 100 times. After what felt like a lifetime I saw the sign for Stella Point, the official marking of Kili’s crater rim. From here it was another 45 minute trek to Uhuru Peak, although fortunately the hike from here is relatively flat. At this point the sun was beginning to rise and a whole new world was appearing before us.
Kili’s summit is one of the most beautiful places in the world, with stunning glaciers that are unfortunately shrinking each year. Meteorologists are predicting that the glaciers will be gone within the next 20-30 years. Finally, a wooden sign came into view and it was only a few minutes more until we reached Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro. There are no words to describe the feelings of joy and excitement when we reached the peak. The fact that all the climbers in our group made it to the summit was even more incredible! There were hugs and tears all around, we snapped a few photos, took in the incredible views!
It was then time to say goodbye to Uhuru Peak, hike down 3 hours to Barafu where a hot lunch was waiting and onward to our final camp on the mountain!
Ready to Book Your Trip?
Hopefully, you are inspired and convinced that Kilimanjaro is a bucket-list-worthy adventure! Here’s what to do next!
Research adventure travel companies to see which option best suits your needs
I traveled with Discover Outdoors and highly recommend this company! The only downside is that trips are only offered twice a year so you will need to plan in advance and make sure the dates line up with your own availability.
G-Adventures is another reputable company and offers many more trips at various times throughout the year.
Put in your request for vacation time now and start saving! Many adventure companies offer payment plans so you can put a deposit down and pay off the rest of the trip in monthly installments.
It is important to be in the best shape possible. Put on your hiking boots and break them in – try to hike as often as possible. If you live somewhere flat, go for long endurance walks (10 km +) in your boots while carrying a 20 lb backpack. You can also improve your cardio by training for a long distance run such as a half marathon.
Just Do It!
My final advice for anyone thinking that this may be the adventure of a lifetime is just go! Climbing Kilimanjaro was my decade-long dream and I finally gave myself a deadline to accomplish it! I reached the summit 3 months and 4 days before my 30th birthday. Don’t wait an entire decade to do it if you can make it happen now!