Climb Kilimanjaro – Africa’s highest peak

Kilimanjaro. Africa’s highest mountain. The roof of Africa. Surrounded by African plains, the 5,895-meter-high Mount Kilimanjaro consists of three volcanic cones: Shira, Mawenzi and Kibo. To get to the summit of Kilimanjaro, you have to climb to the top of Uhuru peak, which is situated on the crater rim of Kibo, the highest of the three volcanic cones. Climbing Kilimanjaro is not easy. It requires commitment and above all mental stamina, but, the most accessible of the seven summits can be climbed by almost anyone in good health and with a reasonable fitness level.

With the right preparation, guidance, and support on the mountain, you too, can climb Kilimanjaro! And, when you stand on the summit on Uhuru Peak, you’ll understand why this magnificent mountain towering above the acacia covered East African plains, is special to so many people. My trekking company ‘Walk in Wild Places was created to help ordinary people with little mountaineering experience to get to the top of Kilimanjaro!

Sunset at Arrow Glacier camp - base camp for the ascent of the Western Breach climb on Kilimanjaro
Sunset at Arrow Glacier camp – base camp for the ascent of the Western Breach climb on Kilimanjaro

My preferred Kilimanjaro climbing routes

There are seven commonly used climbing routes on Kilimanjaro. The Shira, Lemosho and Northern Circuit routes all start on the western side of the mountain. Machame and Umbwe routes start in the south-west. Marangu starts on the south-eastern side. And, the Rongai route starts on the north-eastern side.

I won’t use the Marangu route. It’s too short to acclimatise properly. And, because it’s cheaper than the other routes, it’s more popular overcrowded. The reason it’s cheaper, btw, is because it’s a shorter route (i.e., fewer days), and you stay in huts so need fewer porters (i.e., reduced costs). But, with a summit-success-rate of well under 60%, I don’t think it’s worth spending your money on the Marangu route. Rather pay for an extra day or two and increase your chances of reaching the summit by as much as 30%! The Machame route is reported as being great. However, it, together with the Marangu route, carries more than 80% of all traffic on Kilimanjaro! And I want to avoid the crowds as much as possible, so I’ll give the Machame route a miss, too.

The Shira and Lemosho routes follow a very similar path. The Shira, however, starts at a much higher altitude than the Lemosho route, and therefore provides less opportunity to acclimatise.

The Rongai route comes in two flavours. A short direct route to Gilman’s Point and a longer route which diverts via Mawenzi Tarn. The shorter route has the same problems as Marangu – too short to acclimatise properly! With resultant lower success than the longer routes.

This narrows our preferences down to four options. Two nine-day-treks via either the Lemosho or the Northern Circuit routes or a slightly shorter route on the Rongai-Mawenzi trail. The fourth option, the Umbwe-Western Breach climb (my favourite route) is for experienced and well acclimatised mountaineers only.

The path climbers follow on the Lemosho and Shira routes across the Shira plateau on Kilimanjaro
The path climbers follow on the Lemosho and Shira routes across the Shira plateau on Kilimanjaro

Lemosho route

Often described as the most beautiful route to climb Kilimanjaro, the route starts at the Lemosho gate, pass through the enchanting rainforest, and the fascinating rock formations on the Shira plateau with spectacular views of Kibo, before you make your way to the top of Africa. The nine-day Lemosho route offers lots of time to acclimatise, which means the summit success rate is high (95%) compared to other routes starting on the southern side. Lemosho is a great option if you want to spend more time trekking on the mountain, see the mountain from more angles, and acclimatise properly.

Northern circuit route

The Northern circuit is the longest of the climbing routes on Kilimanjaro. It shares a start with the Lemosho route up to the Shira plateau. It then follows a trail around the Northern (quiet) side of the mountain, before joining the Rongai route on the summit ascent. Experiencing the best of the varied scenery offered by the Shira plateau and the Rongai approach. With maximum time to acclimatise, the Northern circuit offers the highest summit success rate. As an added bonus, it also has very low numbers of people on the route.

Western Breach via Umbwe route

The magnificent Western Breach climb on Kilimanjaro
The magnificent Western Breach climb on Kilimanjaro

If you want quiet, the Umbwe route and the Western Breach approach to the crater is the route for you. My favourite route. This one is for experienced climbers and mountaineers only. The final section to the crater rim is a grade I scramble. If there’s snow and ice around, you’ll end up using crampons and ice axes. The Western Breach route is shorter than the other routes, which means there is less time to acclimatise. It should only be attempted by experienced climbers who are very well-acclimatised, having either climbed, for example, Mount Kenya or Mount Meru before attempting the climb on Kilimanjaro.

Anyone wishing to climb this route should also be aware that a rockfall zone, classed as dangerous, has to be crossed. Unlike the other routes, which ascends a ridge, the Western Breach climbs through a breach in the rock wall. Above this wall lies the remaining glaciers. As the glaciers retreat, they release rock. A rockfall in 2006, which killed 3 American climbers, saw the route closed for a couple of years while an alternative approach to the breach was investigated. The new path means less time in the path of the potential rockfall zone, and thus reduced risk.

Rongai route via Mawenzi Tarn

The Rongai route, also sometimes referred to as the Loitokitok or Nalemoru Route, is the only route approaching Kilimanjaro from the north. Starting close to the Kenyan border it does not have the same spectacular display of vegetation as the other Kilimanjaro climbing routes. This is because there is much less rainfall on this northern side. It does, however, offer relative quiet, and is a great option if you are visiting during the rainy season. Less steep than the other routes, it offers a great opportunity for climbers with less experience. Descent is via the Marangu route.

Wildlife on the Rongai route

There’s a greater chance of seeing wildlife on the Rongai route than on the other routes. At lower altitudes you may come across aardvark. They’re harmless. If, on the other hand, you should spot a honey badger, steer clear. They’re potentially dangerous! In the forest zone you are likely to come across both blue and colobus monkeys. The colobus monkey with its wise white face that looks like an ancient mask and long dangling white tail is always a pleasure to come across. Also look out for bushbabies with their big round eyes and tree hyrax. Elephant, buffalo and even lion have been spotted on the slopes. The chances of you seeing them are very slim, though. What you will see though are birds of all shapes and sizes.

Climbing routes map

Kilimanjaro climbing routes
Kilimanjaro climbing routes

Here’s where Walk in Wild Places, my new venture comes into play. After I climbed Mount Stanley, Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro in one epic month-long expedition in 2016, I decided to start a company where I can share my love of the mountains with others, and treat the porters who help to get me and you to the top of Kilimanjaro in fair and equitable manner. Porters are perhaps the most exploited and abused of all staff on Kilimanjaro(and on other mountains in East Africa).

There are even some trekking ‘companies’ who do not pay their porters any wages at all! The only money these porters earn are the tips the trekkers provide… I’ll repeat that. Some trekking ‘companies’ do not pay their porters any wages!!! On top of that, these ‘companies’ expect the porters to survive in their thin t-shirts, often tattered wind-breakers, and shoes that are so worn that toes are sticking out the front. And then they are also expected to provide their own food for the trip!

These are the companies who offer you a $1000 trek. Sixty percent of which is paid to the park for your permits and hut fees. Another fifty or sixty dollars is spent on transporting you to the start of the trek, and another seventy-five or so dollars is spent on food for you. The remaining couple of hundred goes into the pocket of the nice man, that stopped you in the street of Moshe or Arusha and sold you a cheap dream. At the expense of the people that will do the work to get you to the top of Kilimanjaro! And you, having bought that cheap trip, have just become complicit in this abuse of the porters!

This is what Walk in Wild Places stand for and offers:

We value our porters

On our preferred routes, each person will have a minimum of four porters supporting them. One carries your personal equipment. The others carry a share of tents, sleeping gear, food, cooking equipment, portable toilet tents, etc. Unlike some budget operators, who expect porters to provide their own food and equipment, we provide our porters with suitable equipment, sleeping space and food. This adds to our price tag. But when you stand on the summit, and realise how big a role they have played in your success, you’ll understand why we value our porters.

Unlike some budget operators where porters have been reported to badger trekkers for extra tips, and in one case held their luggage to ransom until they were paid a tip, our porters know that they will be paid above the minimum wage-level. They don’t have to worry about getting paid a decent wage. So, they concentrate on looking after you!

Walk in Wild Places pay staff more than the minimum amounts suggested by the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP). And, to stop you from having to double-guess how much to tip, we have included an appropriate amount as a ‘tip’ in the price you pay (approximately 10% of your payment to us). This means that you don’t have to worry about ‘how much should I tip?’. And you get to hand out the tip at the end of the trip, so that the people who supported you know it comes from you. We do this because we know how we battled mentally to try and figure out how much to tip…

We support Eco-friendly trekking principles

Walk in Wild Places have a carry-in/carry-out policy. What we mean by this is that we do not leave anything on the mountain, except our footprints. We provide guidance to our trekkers on how to be as eco-friendly as possible.

We ask each of our trekkers to carry a waste bag with them. If you spot rubbish, please pick it up and bring it to the next campsite for disposal. Check that your campsite is clear before leaving. If you have to go to the toilet while on the trail, please do so away from campsites, lunch stops, rivers, etc., and take the paper you used with you in a plastic bag for the porters to burn at the next campsite. Bury your excreta (especially at higher altitudes where there is less UV to aid in the decay of waste).

Don’t use soap or detergent to wash in rivers or streams. And stay out of the water if you’ve just put sunscreen on. Don’t empty waste water into rivers or streams. Stay on paths. And don’t take shortcuts, especially on steep slopes.

We Climb Kilimanjaro in comfort

Our Kilimanjaro climbing expeditions fall into the semi-luxury category. We provide high-quality equipment, and extras like tent-lighting, and heating in our mess-tent to enable you to relax and socialise before crawling into your sleeping bags. We also provide a private toilet tent – so that you don’t have to queue at the long-drops, some of which are less than inviting… And warm water to wash your face and feet and other bits at the start and end of the day. And so on. If you’re travelling on your own, you’ll have a whole two-man-tent to yourself because we don’t like being cramped up to save a few dollars. Or if you wish to share with another person, we’ll put you up in a three-man-tent. Your own castle on the hill.

Some Common questions and answers

When is the best time to climb Kilimanjaro

The drier seasons on Kilimanjaro are between May and October, and December and March. That basically means that there is a lower probability of rain in these seasons. You may still get drenched. So don’t forget your rain and wet-weather gear. Outside these ‘dry seasons’ the possibility of rain is much greater.

One of the effects of the drier weather is that more trekkers will attempt the climb on Kilimanjaro. This means that the mountain is busier in these times… i.e. more people (for every one trekker there’s between 3 and 6 support staff on the mountain). If you want to climb in quieter periods opt for a climb in the wetter season. The Northern Circuit swings around the drier northern side of the mountain, before joining the Rongai route. Both the Northern Circuit as well as the Rongai routes will have a lower probability of rain than the southern routes.

PS! If you plan on combining your trip with a safari, then the best times are February and March, when the wildebeest are migrating in the Serengeti.

What is the weather like on Kilimanjaro?

The temperature on Kilimanjaro stays roughly the same throughout the year. On a warm sunny day at lower altitudes you could have temperatures as high as 40°C, while the temperature at the summit will be below zero! Early mornings and late afternoons are always cold. And if the wind is blowing, the temperature will drop dramatically. Never trek without your cold or wet weather gear. On any given day you can be treated to all four seasons.

Climate zones

There are five distinct climatic zones on Kilimanjaro. These zones are related to the altitude and the flow of air over the mountain. The south side tends to get the brunt of the wet weather, while the southern (or lee) side is much drier.

In the Cultivation zone which ranges up to about 1800m, we find villages and farms, where bananas, avocados, and other fruits are grown. You’ll also see huge coffee plantations. Many of the porters and guides come from the villages in this zone.

The rainforest zone (also known as ‘montane’ region) starts at 1800m and goes up to 2800m. This is a truly amazing forest. The verdant blanket, in all fifty shades of green, interspersed with huge old trees, hanging vines, mosses, and old man’s beard, all add to an aura of time and endlessness. Expect it to be either humid or wet in the forest. As you get to the top of the forest you will start catching glimpses of the majestic Kilimanjaro above you.

Giant groundsels dwarfing Gideon
Giant groundsels dwarfing Gideon

As you exit the forest you enter the heather and moorland zones, which continues up to 4000m. This is where you will see the giant groundsels (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari) which can grow up to 10m high, as well as all ‘sewejaartjies’ or ‘everlastings’ (Helichrysum species), and colourful wild grasses. Also, numerous birds of the grasslands. While daytime temperatures can easily be above 40°C, nighttime temperatures will drop well below zero. The views from here across the clouds below can be totally breathtaking!

From here up to 5000m you are in the Highland desert zone. Very little grows here. The land is covered in a fascinating array of rock and volcanic rubble. It’s also getting colder. And then you enter the Arctic zone. The top of the mountain, above 5000m. It is both inhospitable and energising. If the wind blows expect temperatures to drop to minus fifteen and below. Covered in scree, snow and ice, this is the final zone you’ll pass through on your way to the summit.

What gear do I need to climb Kilimanjaro?

Please see my equipment list for full detail about the equipment I would use. Generally speaking, and starting from the feet up, here’s a summary. Get a good pair of well-worn comfortable boots (trainers are not okay). Proper hiking socks make a difference to your comfort. Multi-layers of clothing – both top and bottom, so that you can put on/take off as required. I’m not a fan of hats and gloves, but I’ve had no problem wearing mine on Africa’s highest mountains. You’ll also need a sleeping bag rated for at least -20°C, head torch, metal water bottle (porters boil water for you at night-time – stick your bottle in a thick sock and inside your sleeping bag like a warm-water bottle). Hiking sticks may be helpful for the descent.

What Training do I need to climb Kilimanjaro

Climbing Kilimanjaro is generally speaking no more difficult than the hike you did last weekend on your local mountain. Except! You will be trekking every day for seven or eight days. Four to seven hours. With no chance to recover between hikes. And, as you get higher, the amount of oxygen in the air gets less and less. At 5000m the oxygen level has dropped to nearly half of what’s available at sea level. That means every breath you take carries only about 50% of the oxygen that you would normally pull into your lungs. And less energy for your legs… Even taking a bite on an energy bar takes a huge effort (I mention this in my book From Platberg to Kilimanjaro). Regardless of how fit you are, once you get above the 4000m level you will feel the effects of altitude.

My advice is simple. Most of us who have been climbing mountains forever know that the best training for trekking is trekking. Do a multi-day hike (three-to-four days) in the final month before you join the Kilimanjaro climb. Sleep as high as possible. If you can sleep at 3000m, that’s great. If you can sleep even higher, like at 4000m, that’s even better. Being used to multi-day hikes and sleeping at altitude is the best training you can do for any mountain climb above 4000m.

Develop mental toughness

And while you’re at it, develop mental toughness. Be aware that the final day is not for sissies. Unless you’re on the Western Breach or the Northern Circuit/Rongai routes, you will be ascending more than 1500m on your summit day. And unless you’re sleeping in the crater, you’ll also be descending nearly 3000m the same day! Be mentally prepared for the toll this will take out of you.

Coping with the altitude – Acclimatisation

Most people who fail on Kilimanjaro, fail because they have not taken the time to acclimatise properly. For the best chance to get to the top, join one of our longer trips. Better still, join us on a trek on the much quieter Mount Kenya, or Mount Stanley, where you’ll trek to around the 5000m mark, before joining one of our Kilimanjaro trips. On the mountain, follow the guidance of your guide. He or she will be going ‘pole, pole’ for a reason. ‘Pole, pole’ is Kiswahili for slowly, slowly.

I remember steaming up to the 4985m high Point Lenana on Mount Kenya once, far too fast, and nearly wanting to die with headaches that evening in the top hut… If I had listened to my guide, I would have gone at less than half the speed I did and not have wanted to die later… Generally speaking, if you feel you’re out of breath when you’re walking, you’re going too fast. If you can’t have a conversation without stopping, you’re going too fast. Slow down. Pole, pole. Take your time. Stop and take pictures. Enjoy the scenery. You don’t have to be the fastest, or the first to get there!

Eating and drinking

On an average day you’ll be burning well in excess of 4000 calories per day. That’s about one-and-a-half times your normal daily calorie burn. And on summit night, unless you’re spending a night in the crater, you’ll be burning between 6000 and 8000 calories! Most people will suffer a loss of appetite as we get higher. Look past that and keep refueling your body. We’ll provide a nutritious diet to help you recover from your day’s walk and to stock up for the next day.

At altitude this is best achieved with eating foods rich in carbohydrates. Carbs require less oxygen to metabolise, replace glycogen, and help to prevent muscle depletion. A typical breakfast may consist of oats porridge, fruit, and pancakes with jam. Plus coffee and tea as much as you want. Lunch may be a packed lunch (depending on the day’s activity), or a sit-down meal with pasta, soup and bread, and fruit. Dinner is normally soup and bread, followed by a curry and rice, or a pasta dish, or a meat plus vegetables, and a desert. Take a supply of snacks to refuel along the way. Jelly babies also work well for me. Full of sugar, and easy to digest. Nuts, raisins, crystallised ginger and liquorice are all good energy-giving and nutritious snacks.

Drink. Even when you don’t want to. Especially at altitude. Don’t wait until you’re dehydrated. People have turned around half-way to the summit, missing out on what is for some a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, only to discover that they were dehydrated. Check your urine. If it’s yellow, drink more.

How much does it cost to climb Kilimanjaro?

The comparison table below both illustrates the fixed costs for a solo traveller, and draws a comparison between a five-day Marangu (cheapest) and a nine-day Northern Circuit route trip. Only the costs of park fees and a fair day’s combined wage+tip amount is shown (this amount is based on KPAP proposed minimum fair wages for porters). Note! The costs below do not include your food, transport to and from the gates, or equipment hire. Nor any fees for the outfitter for his/her time to organise guides, porters, equipment, permits, etc, his/her office hire, or a profit margin to make the business sustainable. (Also note that when there is more than one person in a trekking party some costs are shared, which makes it considerably cheaper per person. See the figures below the table for groups of four and eight people.)

Illustration and comparison of costs between five-day Marangu and nine-day Northern Circuit routes
MaranguNorthern Circuit
Park fees
Fees / day$130.00$120.00
Sub-total (daily fees)$650.00$1,080.00
Rescue fee$20.00$20.00
Total fees$670.00$1,100.00
Staff wagesCost per dayNo.
Asst Guide2$24.001$24.00$24.00
Asst. Cook1$18.001$18.00$18.00
Toilet Engineer1$18.001$18.00$18.00
Personal Porter (Marangu)$15.002$30.00
Personal Porter (Northern Cct)$15.004$60.00
Crew Park fees$2.00$14.00$18.00
Staff costs per day$146.00$198.00
Note! Total staff for person travelling solo79
Total staff costs$730.00$1,782.00
Total fixed costs solo traveller$1,400.00$2,882.00
Total fixed costs group of four$1,153.00$2,085.50
Total fixed costs group of eight$1,081.25$1,973.00
1 These staff members are ‘shared’ by the party;
2 Asst. Guides are hired at a ratio of a minimum of 1 asst guide per 2 trekkers.

So, the next time someone offers you a five-day Marangu trip for a $1000 you can be sure that their staff will be paid next-to-nothing, or more likely nothing, and will be solely dependent on your tip as their income. Here’s my plea to you. Don’t use organisations that offer you trips for not much more than the cost of the park fees. They are exploiting the staff they use. And so, even if unknowingly, are you!

What vaccinations do I need?

The list below contain both mandatory and recommended vaccinations if you intend travelling in East Africa or Africa in general.

Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B – Even if you skip all the other vaccinations, and are happy take the risk, get these two vaccinations. Hep A and Typhoid is contracted via contaminated food and water; Hep B via mainly sexual intercourse (blood contact, and/or bodily fluids; similar to HIV/AIDS, but many times more infectuous).

Also, highly recommended for travel in Africa:
Yellow fever – if you will be travelling between Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania or other local regions in Africa, yellow fever vaccination is required. You will be checked at the border for this vaccination.

If you’re and adventure traveller, always keep your Tetanus and Rabies vaccinations up to date. Tetanus can be picked up from a cut by e.g. an old rusty nail or piece of broken glass contaminated with soil. Rabies is passed on via the saliva of infected animals. Rabies can be fatal if not treated, and according to the CDC there is limited or no treatment available in Tanzania. Tetanus vaccination is normally administered as part of the ‘Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis’ single shot vaccine.

Other routine vaccinations (you should already have these – make sure yours are up to date), include Chickenpox (Varicella), Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR), Polio, and Tuberculosis (TB).

Malaria – areas below 1800m a.s.l. are potentially Malaria infected. CDC recommendations for Malaria prophylaxis can be found here.

References mentioned in the text

Tanzania National Parks fees for Kilimanjaro.

See full recommendations for suggested and mandatary vaccinations from the CDC (Centre for Disease Control).

Walk in Wild Places – trekking company

Lemosho route map

4 Comments on “Climb Kilimanjaro – Africa’s highest peak”

  1. Decadence! Sheer decadence. Two people in a three-man tent. Huh! Next thing you’ll be taking up four-poster beds, like Annie Euthimious Sherpas had to do for her . .

  2. Pingback: Africa's highest mountains | mountain paths

  3. Pingback: What vaccinations do I need to climb mountains in Africa? | mountain paths

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