starting out

Trekking Kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro is undoubtedly one of the world's greatest outdoor challenges. It is the highest trekkable mountain in the world, the largest freestanding mountain in the world, the highest mountain in Africa and has the only snowfields on the equator.

Climbing Kilimanjaro: Descending from the summit
Descending from the summit

Reaching the top of Kilimanjaro is a very significant undertaking, not to be taken lightly.

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is actually a good deal more difficult than most people think. This is not a straightforward walk in the park, it is a gruelling, arduous and potentially very dangerous trek. The vast majority of trekkers do not completely get their heads around this fact until their trek is underway. Kilimanjaro may well be the most physically demanding thing you ever do, but also one of the most rewarding.

Mount Kilimanjaro also just happens to be situated close to perhaps the greatest safari area in Africa, lying just 100km east of Ngorongoro and Serengeti. It is also within an hour hop by light aircraft of the tropical beaches and superb diving off the islands of Zanzibar. Which means that a trek on Kilimanjaro can be used as the backbone to an extremely cool longer adventure within East Africa.

So long as you are sufficiently fit, well prepared and well guided, then Mount Kilimanjaro should reward you with an experience of genuinely life-punctuating magnitude. It is the closest most of us will ever come to experiencing a genuine expedition, the deep and powerful camaraderie of a team working together in adverse circumstances to reach an extraordinary goal. People who know the mountain understand the level of achievement that it represents. People who have successfully climbed Kilimanjaro remain proud of the fact for the rest of their lives.

In this section we run through some of the trek basics ...

How climbing Kilimanjaro is done

You can only climb Kilimanjaro as part of an organised trek, with a properly licensed mountain operator.

Although this might imply an organised and well controlled environment, the reality on the ground is somewhat different. The general levels of service on offer from the hundreds of mountain operators is extremely low. Selecting a decent operator is crucial to maximising your chances of summit success and minimising the levels of risk.

We hope that over the course of the sections that follow we will be able to communicate to you quite why you might consider our mountain operation, The African Walking Company to be a suitable choice.

You have to climb Kilimanjaro by one of several pre-determined routes.

The usual trekking routes involve no technical climbing or specific mountain skills, although there is a limited amount of scrambling requiring the use of hands and there is the option to scree walk some of the decent.

Climbing Kilimanjaro: Well equipped trekkers making light work of the Barranco Wall
Well equipped trekkers making light work of the Barranco Wall

The duration of a trek can range from four to twelve or more nights. All of our treks involve either 5, 6, 7 or 8 nights on the mountain. Four night treks we consider to be too dangerous, longer treks tend to be more technical and beyond our remit.

You will need at least one night in country either side of the trek, making a usual seven to ten nights in country, before you have even considered adding safari, beach or other elements.

All of the routes that we use involve camping each night. One route, Marangu, has huts at each overnight location, but is generally regarded to be the poor relation, populated by wide-eyed, non-mountain folk and shambolic budget operators.

In common with most decent mountain operators, we run group departures on both the Kilimanjaro Rongai and Kilimanjaro Shira routes, where trekkers can join with others to make a larger group. Our groups are limited to 15 trekkers, which is quite typical. They depart once or twice per week during the main seasons, depending on the route.

You can also organise a private trek for your group, this being slightly more expensive for small groups, possibly even slightly cheaper for larger groups. Private groups can be of any size and depart any day, subject to availability of our mountain teams.

Trekkers are accompanied by a mountain team made up of a large number of local staff. Even with just 2 trekkers there is a huge amount of equipment that needs to be carried by the porters. You also need to have a head guide, assistant guide and cook, adding up to around 10 staff in total. On a trek with 15 climbers there should be around 38 staff.

You will need to book your trek in advance before leaving for Tanzania. In common with the majority of decent trek operators, we only offer pre-booked trips. It tends to be the lesser and more fly-by-night operators which offer treks locally, since properly planning a trek is a lot more complicated than just making a few last minute arrangements. Our usual lead time between booking and trekking is around 10 to 16 weeks, largely because most trekkers want to leave themselves a good length of time to get some training under their belts.

Almost all operators supply all of the communal and camp equipment needed on the mountain, although the quality and specification can vary enormously. We not only provide equipment of the highest quality, but also include items such as mess tents, tables, chairs and toilet tents as standard, since we consider them to be integral to summit success.

There is also a reasonably long list of personal equipment that you will be required to bring with you, which if you do not already own, may cost a considerable amount of money. Some items can be rented from us, including mountain jackets, sleeping bags and sleeping mats.

Critically we are the only company able to provide you with an ALTOXTM Personal Oxygen System, which can significantly offset the effects of extreme altitude and increase your chances of summit success.

Restrictions on who can climb Kilimanjaro

Although the official lower age limit set by the Kilimanjaro National Park Authority for trekking to Uhuru Peak is 10 years old, we usually recommend a minimum age of 13 years. We request that you let us know at the time of making an enquiry if any member of your group will be under 16 at the time of the ascent, as we may need to make special arrangements, notably including extra summit guides.

Climbing Kilimanjaro: A younger trekker on the third morning of a trek on Rongai route
A younger trekker on the third morning of a trek on Rongai route

There is no upper age limit and people in their seventies and eighties regularly make the summit. Sixty years old is the threshold which we have set to get the alarm bells ringing and advise extra health checks, but any age is welcome. In fact we have found that older climbers are often have a lot of advantages over the younger generations ... they are generally better equipped to deal with adversity, more able to focus mentally, are more intent on achieving their goal and can pace themselves accordingly. These factors often outweigh the physical advantages of youth.

Trekkers considered to be in a high health risk category should have a full medical check-up before deciding whether or not to trek.

There is presently no limit to the total number of trekkers allowed on the mountain at any one time, which means that traffic avoidance is an issue that needs to be taken vary seriously if you are to have a sufficiently high quality wilderness experience.

The dangers of climbing Kilimanjaro

Climbing Kilimanjaro could be the most dangerous thing you will ever do. Certainly it is one of the most dangerous things that you will ever be able to pay to do. It is paramount that you recognise this fact during the early stages and plan accordingly.

To date our own mountain operation has guided more than 15000 people on Kilimanjaro and we have had only one death, which was a man of senior years who suffered a sudden heart attack near to the summit. But this high level of safety is well above the averages for the mountain.

We estimate that during times of bad weather, trekkers with cowboy operators run a risk of death higher than 1 in 300. During normal weather conditions, trekkers with cowboy operators run a risk of death higher than 1 in 3000. On the other hand, during normal weather conditions, climbers with reliable operators run a risk of death less than 1 in 10000.

For treks that take place during periods of decent weather, by far the dominant health issue on the mountain is altitude sickness. Kilimanjaro is seriously high. No amount of training and no amount of other trekking below 5000m altitude can prepare you fully for this. Almost 100% of trekkers suffer some form of mild to medium symptoms of altitude sickness. Approximately 15% of trekkers suffer symptoms severe enough to warrant their immediate removal to lower altitudes. Up to 1% of trekkers require emergency evacuation.

Altitude sickness need not be feared, but it does need to be respected. Following the advice provided by a decent mountain operator should minimise the chances of inconvenience and catastrophe to acceptable levels.

Much more on this subject in the section on altitude sickness, ALTOX personal oxygen systems, Diamox and emergency oxygen.

The best times of year to climb Mount Kilimanjaro

Selecting the right time of year for a trek is another very important consideration.

The primary issue is safety. As outlined in the previous section, we estimate that the risks involved in trekking the mountain vary by a factor of 10 between the best and worst weather conditions.

The secondary issue is that the chance of summit success on treks in good weather conditions are up to 25% higher.

Treks in bad weather can suffer from deep mud on the lower forested sections, rain, drizzle and fog at medium altitude, snow and ice at higher altitudes. It would probably be fair to say that a trek during poor weather is roughly twice as difficult as during fine conditions.

Climbing Kilimanjaro: View of Mawenzi from the rim of Kibo Crater during fine weather conditions in February
View of Mawenzi from the rim of Kibo Crater during fine weather conditions in February

Climbing Kilimanjaro: An extremely cold and snowy approach to Kibo Summit in June
An extremely cold and snowy approach to Kibo Summit in June

Seasons at a glance ...

16JAN to 28FEB : superb
01MAR to 31MAR : variable
01APR to 15JUN : difficult and dangerous
16JUN to 15JUL : variable
16JUL to 31AUG : good
01SEP to 15OCT : very good
16OCT to 31OCT : variable
01NOV to 15DEC : difficult and dangerous
16DEC to 15JAN : variable

Chances of Kilimanjaro summit success

So long as you are reasonably fit and sufficiently focussed, it should be possible for you to give yourself as high as a 90% chance of getting to the summit of Kilimanjaro before you even arrive in Tanzania.

The decisions that you make during the planning stage will largely pre-determine your chances of summit success.

We know that selecting a good mountain operator delivers a greater than 20% improvement in the chance of summit success.

Other factors such as selecting the right time of year, the most appropriate route, being physically and mentally prepared and having the right equipment can add another 25%. Something as simple as an extra night's rest before the trek can add a further 8%.

Unfortunately, by making the wrong decisions whilst making a booking, the vast majority of trekkers have restricted their chances of getting to the summit to less than 50/50 even before they travel.

A full presentation of our summit success statistics can be found in the Kilimanjaro Specifications section.

Climbing Kilimanjaro: A successful summit despite adverse conditions in early July
A successful summit despite adverse conditions in early July

Recommended levels of fitness for climbing Kilimanjaro

Trekking Kilimanjaro is a seriously tough undertaking, one that is commonly cited as being "more painful than childbirth" ... and that's from women who have done both!

When people speak of this degree of difficulty, they are mainly referring to the six to eight hour summit approach, which is undeniably tough, mainly due to the extreme altitude.

The days that precede this ascent are generally not too physically demanding for anyone with a reasonable degree of fitness, although a combination of adverse factors such as bad weather, altitude sickness and general tiredness arising from being out on the mountain can make even these easier days rather more of a challenge.

Trekkers come in all shapes and sizes, from marathon runners to the exercise adverse.

Generally speaking, the fitter you are, the greater your chances of summit success, although this is far from being a hard and fast rule. Often it is the more determined people who get to the top, so mental fitness and focus is also a major component. The extent to which you will be affected by altitude sickness also seems not to be directly linked to absolute fitness.

The bottom line is that you should be looking to reach the highest level of fitness that you reasonably can in the time available and for this reason most trekkers undertake a significant programme of exercising, whether this be running great distances each week or simply walking up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Everything helps.

And don't forget that doing a few hours overtime at work in order to pay for the rental of a Personal Oxygen System could ultimately prove to be amongst the most effective use of your pre-trek preparation time.

Climbing Kilimanjaro: Crossing the saddle between Mawenzi and Kibo
Crossing the saddle between Mawenzi and Kibo

Arriving early for acclimatisation

You will need to stay at least one night in the greater Kilimanjaro area before departing for your trek. Our records show that extending this stay to two nights can improve your chances of summit success by up to 8%. It is more difficult to continue the statistical trend out to three or more nights, but generally speaking the longer the better.

We have included this quite detailed section at this early stage because we feel that it is absolutely essential to get prospective trekkers thinking about these issues sooner rather than later. You must get yourself out of the kind of mentality that leads people to say things like ..."well I only have seven days available" ... or ..."well it can't be that tough if so-and-so managed it". This is the kind of statement that can lead to ill-advised and potentially dangerous decision-making during the trip building process.

Recovery from life and flights : Most people live a hectic lifestyle back home and are forced to work like dogs right up to the moment that they get on the plane to fly to Africa. This is not conducive to a successful mountain attempt. Add to this the hassle and sleeplessness of the flights, along with delays, panics about freezing fogs at Amsterdam and London and the stress of lost luggage (which is a major issue in Tanzania). These people often collapse on arrival and need days to get the adrenaline out of their system, catch up on sleep and get themselves ready for a physical undertaking which will probably be as tough as anything they have ever taken on before.

Heat, light, food and Africa : On top of all this, when arriving in Africa, you need time to physically adjust to the new environment. Our bodies are good at concealing this from our conscious minds in order that we can just get on, but you should still be aware that you are asking demands of your physical system. Not least amongst these are the modifications that you dietary system has to make on arrival in a new location, with there being different balances of bacteria in the water and food which your system needs to cater for.

Low level altitude and exercise : Recovery and acclimatisation from all of the above should be done at the relatively low altitudes of Arusha, Moshi or Marangu. Here you should stay in the most comfortable surroundings that you can afford, minimising the risks and maximising the effects. Some of the lodges such as Moivaro Coffee Plantation Lodge in Arusha are like modern day spa hotels, they are so relaxing and beautiful. Here you can spend the days alternating between relaxation and exercise. There is excellent hiking around the villages in the foothills of Meru and Kilimanjaro, which are both scenic and fascinating. This is where you will see rural Africa, meet the people and learn a bit about the place. It is all good for the body and soul before the main event of the trek.

How long to spend on Mount Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro has to be scaled slowly in order to allow your body to acclimatise to the extreme altitudes.

All of the main routes are designed to take you quickly up to about half way, then spend a few days "walking high and sleeping low", getting your system as ready as possible for the extreme altitude of the summit day. Throughout these preparatory days there are emergency evacuation routes for people encountering serious symptoms of sickness.

The treks that we offer are generally 5, 6, 7 or 8 nights on the mountain. These are the optimum number of nights for each route, as determined by our own summit success percentages.

A common misconceptions surrounding Kilimanjaro is that the longer you spend on the mountain, the better your acclimatisation to altitude and therefore the greater chance that you have of getting to the summit. It is clearly in the interests of operators to perpetuate this belief as longer treks are obviously more expensive.

Our experience indicates that there are also factors which cause summit success to reduce as treks get longer. This we attribute to the increasing effects of mountain fatigue which is the deterioration that occurs to your physical strength due to prolonged exposure to daily hiking, lack of sleep, unusual eating patterns accentuated by a loss of appetite, boredom from the monotony of the daily routine and a build up of little injuries such as blisters and muscle tears.

People who are less fit and less outdoorsy therefore tend to be best advised to stick to a 5 or 6 night trek.

People who are more fit and more outdoorsy are often best advised to go for a 7 night trek.

The only people who should consider treks longer than 7 nights are those who are extremely fit and accustomed to sleeping out in extreme weather conditions for many consecutive nights and/or people who can afford to climb Kilimanjaro with luxury mountain operators who take everything but the kitchen sink up to the summit.

Climbing Kilimanjaro: Mawenzi Tarn Camp at first light
Mawenzi Tarn Camp at first light

How much to pay for a Kilimanjaro trek

It is possible to pay anything from US$1200 to US$4000 per person to climb Kilimanjaro, including park fees and return transport between your hotel and the mountain.

The treks at the upper end of the spectrum tend to be very long, 10 to 12 nights, include specialist technical elements such as camping in the crater itself, are serviced to extremely high standards and may be personally fronted by well known mountain leaders. There are very few operators offering climbs of this nature to a very small and niche of specialist customers. There are also a few mountain operators who offer climbs in this elevated price band, but who are actually selling much more regular treks at highly inflated prices.

At the lower end of this range lie some really disgraceful budget operators. Despite the clear need for safe and responsible operation in this high risk environment, Kilimanjaro is engulfed by a ridiculously cut-throat price war. When you consider that park fees alone are around US$685 per person, then you can see just how little remains for a budget operator to spend on the rest of the trek package. Not enough to run a reliable and safe operation, that is clear. As a result corners get cut and a whole host of tricks are deployed to suck punters in.

Our mountain operator, The African Walking Company, has always aimed to provide treks which represent the best value on the mountain, rather than the best price, pitched at a level which enables us to get all of our guests up and down the mountain safely, with a very high proportion of them reaching the summit, supported by the best possible staff and serviced to levels of comfort in excess of that which most people would expect on an expedition such as this.

This we manage to do from around US$1800 per person for a five night trek, about one third of the way up the price.

By the time you have included a night in a decent hotel either side and transport to and from the airport, we recommend that you budget between US$2000 and US$2750 per person, plus your international flights. Correspondingly more for longer treks.

You also need to consider around US$225 for the rental of an ALTOX Personal Oxygen System.

Here are some notes from the founder of The African Walking Company, Jim Foster, on this subject ...

"It astounds us that trekkers who live a life of relative affluence back home, at least by African standards ... driving decent cars, having nice clothes, drinking and eating well etc. ... that so many of them suddenly choose to go "bargain basement" when it comes to trekking Kilimanjaro.

Much of the blame for this, it must be said, lies with the publishers of the main guidebooks for Kilimanjaro. Without naming names ... you know who they are ... some of these guidebooks make recommendations for trek operators that are, quite frankly, amongst the worst abusers of staff and customers alike. Some of these publications pride themselves in being environmentally and culturally responsible and yet the advice given to prospective trekkers on Kilimanjaro fulfils neither of these criteria. Sorry if that sounds bitter, but these are matters we care about deeply and work with daily.

We know that the treks that we operate are amongst the very best on the mountain for both quality and value. Kilimanjaro is one of the most difficult and dangerous things you will ever do in your life. We wholeheartedly recommend that you spend what is a relatively modest amount of extra cash and do it properly.

Selecting a Mount Kilimanjaro Operator

Obviously over the course of the following sections we would very much like to convince you to choose The African Walking Company as your mountain operator.

Over the years we have talked to tens of thousands of people looking to climb Kilimanjaro and in doing so have learned a fair bit about the pitfalls that are out there for you to fall into. Here is a quick heads up on some of the most common issues ...

Do not ... be suckered into booking a trip with a cowboy or budget operator. Better quality operations, such as our own, are not milking their guests for excess profit, nor are they providing unnecessarily high trek specifications. On the whole the difference between a low and a medium priced climb simply represents the compromises that will be made to your experience, your safety and the welfare of your team.

Do not ... simply take recommendations from guidebooks which are not Kilimanjaro specific. We know some of the operators recommended in the leading guidebooks to be amongst the very worst of the cowboys. A group of responsible operators is in dialogue with the guidebook writers, trying to get them to encourage good practise on the mountain, but this is proving to be an incredibly uphill battle. The writers of the guidebooks simply do not have a decent understanding of the complex issues that surround trekking this mountain, nor do they seem to have the time or inclination to learn. If you do need to refer to a guidebook, then please make sure it is a specialist trekking guide, recommended by your national climb association

Do not ... simply take a recommendation from someone you know who has trekked Kilimanjaro unless you really do trust their mountain knowledge, feel that during their trek they gained a decent perspective of the range of different operators on the mountain and that they were able to witness how their team performed during adverse and emergency situations. You need to look into the different operators for yourself, do some background reading and then get on the phone and test them out. Genuine expertise should be relatively easy to detect once you know which questions to ask.

Do not ... rely on feedback from the major trip advisory websites. Many of the so-called visitor reviews are not as genuine as they may appear. The only feedback forums that we know to come 100% from legitimate past customers are those provided on our own website!

Do ... only consider climbing Kilimanjaro with reputable companies who are registered in countries where their duty of care to you is legally enforceable. They cannot afford to be negligent. Booking with a company registered in Tanzania may make it very difficult to obtain legal recourse in the event of a tragedy.

Do ... consider carefully that we are the only company able to offer ALTOXTM Personal Oxygen Systems on Kilimanjaro.

Climbing Kilimanjaro: The sign at Kibo Hut stating how much further you have to go to reach the Crater Rim
The sign at Kibo Hut stating how much further you have to go to reach the Crater Rim

Will you enjoy the experience of climbing Kilimanjaro?

Kilimanjaro does not promise to be a laugh a minute, but it does promise an experience of life-punctuating magnitude, on which you really will be able to look back on and be proud.

There will be aspects that you enjoy at the time. You should get a buzz from the physical workout. You should love the comradery between both trekkers and the local staff. You should, on occasion, thrill at the scenery.

But much of the time will be filled with the simple hard slog of a week long expedition ... of a lack of sleep, showers and sofas; of periods of fog, rain, snow and freezing temperatures; of blisters and aching limbs; of vast lengths of time passed reading a book whilst listening to the wind whip around your tent.

Climbing Kilimanjaro can be tough, but that is part of the deal.

One of the primary aims of The African Walking Company has always been to try to make its treks more enjoyable than those of many other mountain operators. The main way it does this is simply by being a good, reliable, honest and professional operation. Trekkers need to be able to concentrate on the physical challenge ahead, rather than be worrying about logistics, safety, security and reliability. Our mountain operations may not be perfect, but they are extremely good. One of the most common feedbacks we get from guests is that they were undoubtedly the best looked after of any teams they encountered on the mountain.

The removal of doubt and the provision of excellent service makes the whole experience a great deal more enjoyable.

Another major issue is the trek team itself. You need them to be a cheery, healthy, honest and conscientious group. We pay amongst the highest rates in the business in order to attract and retain the best staff. We also provide exceptional levels of training to the 500 or so trek team members that are on our books. Our mountain teams are amongst the very best in the business, almost certainly the best at this price level.

A great mountain crew serves to lift trekkers when times get tough and make the whole experience one of shared enjoyment.

The bottom line is that whilst most people love the experience of climbing Kilimanjaro, a few do end up finding it rather too tough. But we can't remember ever encountering someone who wished that hadn't given it a good shot.