1. So how difficult is it to climb Mount Kilimanjaro?
The first and most important thing I need to say on this matter is as follows: All the main routes up the mountain are just walking routes.
I really need to emphasise this point: you do not need any technical climbing or mountaineering skills to get to the summit. So you don’t need to be a mountaineer. You just need to be able to walk.
Indeed, given the number of paraplegics and those in wheelchairs, even that skill is not essential. Blind climbers have felt their way to the top and amputee victims have hobbled and crawled up to the top.
Even the walking is not particularly exhausting. After all, just do the maths. For example, the most popular route is the Machame Route, which is 60.76km (37.75 miles) in length in total from gate to summit and back to gate. Do it in six days and that’s only a fraction over 10km per day (ie just over 6 miles); do it in seven days and it’s only around just 8.5km per day, ie a little under 5.5 miles per day.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that getting to the top is easy. You still have to battle against the cold and exhaustion. Most importantly, there’s the lack of oxygen that’s available to breathe at altitude and the complications (altitude sickness etc) that follow. This is what defeats most climbers. Which is why we go into detail on this site (and even more so in the book) about altitude sickness, its symptoms, how to prevent it – and what to do if you get it.
I would say that over 90% of people fail because of altitude sickness. The rest: well, injuries or other illnesses undoubtedly cause others to stop before they reach the top: upset stomachs can be common on Kilimanjaro. A lack of fitness counts for a few people, though not that many.
But I have to say that, after altitude sickness, the most common reason as to why people fail to get to the summit is attitude sickness. In other words, people just give up. Which is why it’s important to understand just how hard it can be to climb Kili, and to be aware of all the hardships and privations – the cold, the possible lack of sleep, the nausea and headaches etc – that you’ll suffer on the mountain.
If you’re aware of them, you’ll be prepared for them – and, as such, you’ll be less likely to give up on the mountain.
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2. So how do I improve my chances of making it to the summit?
It is only logical, therefore, that if you manage to avoid altitude sickness, you’ll stand a much better chance of getting to the top. (The actual summit of Kilimanjaro, by the way, is known as Uhuru Peak.)
So how do you do that? Well, reading our advice about altitude sickness on this site and in the book will help.
It also helps if you can go with a decent company, which is why we provide a lot of information on this site about how to choose a trekking company. It is also why, in the guide book, we provide reviews of over 80 of the most prominent companies working on the mountain (as well as the overseas agents that use them). Or if you can’t be bothered to read all that, then we do have our own trekking company, Kilimanjaro Experts, which we believe ticks every box when it comes to being a safe, fairly priced and ethical operator.
Other factors that will help you get to the top? Well, you should:
Take as many days as you can afford to climb to the summit, on a route with a high success rate. Treks typically last 5-8 days, though we consider five days to be too short – and dangerous! – and so should you. Remember: the longer you spend on the mountain, the greater your chances of getting to the summit.
Do all of the above and, with a bit of luck, you’ll be fine. But even if, after all our advice, you still fail to get to the top, well at least you’re in good company. Famous people we know who failed to reach the summit include tennis ace Martina Navratilova, tycoon Roman Abramovic and, so it has long been rumoured, mountaineer and conqueror of Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary!
3. Which is the best route up Kilimanjaro?
As you may know, there are six official paths leading up the slopes of Kilimanjaro to the summit (which is called Uhuru Peak).
To see a map of the Kilimanjaro routes please click on the image below.
In addition to these trails there are a few ‘unofficial’ routes up Kilimanjaro, such as the Alternative Lemosho (aka Northern Circuit Route) and the Full Circuit Umbwe (note both of these links will take you to the Kilimanjaro Experts website). These have been constructed by the more creative agencies by combining segments of the above trails make a new route. These can be some of the best hiking trails around, with high success rates and fewer crowds.
So which path should you choose?
It’s a question I get asked an awful lot. The first thing to say is that all routes on Kilimanjaro are beautiful. So if you have been booked on a trek, and had no say in what route you will be taking, then don’t despair: you should have a great time on a lovely route, whatever trail you end up taking.
That said, there’s no doubt that some routes seem better than others. Now I could go into a great detail about the relative advantages and disadvantages of each route. But to keep it simple, this is what I usually say:
Of all the trails in the park, my favourite route is possibly the 8-day Alternative Lemosho. (Note that some companies call this the Northern Circuit but be careful, as this name can refer to several quite different routes.) It is, in my opinion, the route with the best forest for the first day or so; the best views and scenery once you leave the forest; it takes you away from the crowds that are on some other trails, choosing instead to opt for quiet paths away from the crowds and the noise; and because it is the longest route, so it gives you more time to acclimatise – and thus it also has the highest success rate of any on the mountain. If you can’t find a company that deals with this route specifically, then the standard Lemosho Route is good too, though this does have more crowds on it and the success rate is slightly lower.
Just as great is the Full Circuit Umbwe, which is even quieter than the Alternative Lemosho, and more varied, but Kilimanjaro Experts are the only company that currently offers this route.
The big disadvantage with the Lemosho, Alternative Lemosho Route and Full Circuit Umbwe trails is that, because they are the longest routes, so they are best done over 8 days rather than seven – and as a result are a little more expensive than the other routes.
So if you can’t afford the time or money for an 8-day route, then my favourite seven-day route is Rongai. Again, this has some spectacular views, is quieter than many other routes – and again has a very high success rate of any seven-day trek. Finally, if even a seven-day route is too expensive, then the best six-day route is Machame – it’s overcrowded at times but it’s cheaper and has, for a six-day route, a good success rate for getting people to the summit (though not as good as the seven- or eight-day routes, of course).
Of course, this is just my personal opinion and there are advantages with all the routes. If you don’t want to sleep under canvas, for example, then the Marangu Route is the best choice, as it’s the only one where you sleep in dormitories. Or if you want a more adventurous route, I think the Umbwe Route is perfect – quiet, steep and spectacular.
You can read a whole lot more about the trails on Kilimanjaro, including detailed descriptions and itineraries of each trail, by following this link to our Kilimanjaro routes section. You can also get in touch if you having trouble deciding on a suitable route for your trek and I’ll do my best to help.
4. When should you go?
The mountain is open every day of the year. There are tworainy seasons, April-May (known as the ‘Long Rains’) and November-mid December (the ‘Short Rains’), and few people climb at this time. So the main trekking seasons coincide with the mountain’s two ‘dry’ seasons: January to mid-March and June to October.
Note that it will still probably rain on your trek during these months too – it’s rare to climb without getting rained on at least once.
So when is our favourite time to climb Kilimanjaro?
Personally, we like to trek in March and October. There are two main reasons for this:
1) The weather is usually good and the skies are often clear during these months.
2) Because they both fall just before the rainy seasons, they tend to be quieter than other months. People are probably afraid that the rains will come early, so opt to avoid these months. But in our experience, the rains are more likely to fail than arrive early. Thus the mountain is usually emptier, and quieter. And yet the weather is still lovely.
These are the reasons why March and October are our two favourite months and we think the best time of year to climb Kilimanjaro. Note that occasionally the rainy season does arrive early – such as in October 2019, when the weather was dreadful – but these are the exceptions.
Note that June and late December, though they also fall outside of the rainy seasons, but only just, are not such good times to be on Kilimanjaro in my experience. The clouds tend to linger after the rainy season, even if the rains have largely finished, so views are restricted.
5. How much does it cost to climb Kilimanjaro?
The cheapest way to organise a climb is to just turn up at the airport, get a taxi to Moshi or Arusha, and begin negotiating with the companies there. That said, you need to have confidence in your bargaining skills, and – at the risk of sounding like a salesman! – it’s a good idea to have a copy of our book so you know how to haggle, what to look out for, and what should be in the contract that you sign.
If you book in Moshi then you can, just possibly, get a Kilimanjaro trek starting at about US$1000 – though I cannot guarantee the reliability or honesty of any company charging so little; one thing I can guarantee is that their treatment of porters will be terrible, so please let your conscience be your guide when deciding whether to book with these companies.
Most decent companies will charge at least double the price above – ie around US$2000 for a standard trek on the Machame Route. That said, many of the better – or at least more expensive – companies can charge US$3000 or more, and some go up to US$5000 per person or more for a trek.
Included in this price should be the following:
Airport transfers at the start and end of your trip
A couple of nights in a hotel, usually one either side of the trek
Transport to and from the mountain at the start/end of the trek
All park fees, rescue fees, conservation fees and camping fees
Food and drink on the mountain, as well as camping equipment
Wages of your guides, assistant guides, cook and porters
Other items to look out for? Well there may be some sort of financial failure insurance (so, if the company goes bankrupt, your money is safe; all UK companies – indeed, I believe all European companies – have to have this.) Oxygen on the mountain should also be issued as standard though some charge extra for it; you’ll need it so make sure that it is included. And some foreign agencies may also include flights.
Which begs the question: what isn’t usually included in a trek package? Well, the big ones are
Tanzanian visas (US$50 for most people, US$100 for American passport holders)
Meals when you’re not on the mountain (other than breakfast).
While it is always good to get fit, there’s no need to go overboard with fitness preparations for climbing Kilimanjaro. Some guidebooks and websites go into extraordinary detail about fitness regimes. I, however, along with most of the guides and, indeed, the majority of trekkers who have climbed Kili all think that most of these regimes are unnecessary. Why? Simply because the main reason why people fail to reach the summit is due to altitude sickness rather than lack of necessary strength or stamina.
So just remember: you don’t need to be very fit to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s more that you need to be ‘not unfit’ (if that makes sense). If you’re out of shape on the mountain, then you’ll find it a struggle tackling the gradients each day, may fall behind your friends (even though you should all be going very slowly), and will generally have a fairly unpleasant time – which is not what any of us want.
Besides, in all probability on the final push to the summit, and back down again, you’ll be walking for around 16 hours, at night, and it’s too cold to take many breaks. So try to get into some sort of shape before your climb – it may increase your chances of reaching the summit only slightly, but at least you’ll enjoy the trip much more.
So what sort of training should you do? Well, there is no substitute for following a structured anaerobic and aerobic training regime for at least 12 weeks in the run up to your trek. Running, jogging, swimming, cycling – all of these are good exercises to follow.
The best thing you can do, however, to prepare for your walk – is to go for a walk! If that walk can include some uphill stretches, so much the better. If you can actually go for a multi-day walk, and camp out overnight on the way, then that’s really useful, for it mimics the experience you’ll have on Kilimanjaro, of course. And if you have any mountains near you, and you can get to altitude (above 2000-3000m), then that’s pretty much the best preparation you can have. (It is for this reason that several savvy climbers book a trek up Mount Meru, Kili’s neighbour, immediately before climbing Kilimanjaro. It’s a great idea, and and wonderful trek, and not just because it provides ideal preparation for Kili.)
Don’t forget to prepare yourself mentally, as well as physically. A lot of the challenge of climbing Kilimanjaro is mental. It’s cold up there, and you may at times feel terrible too (headaches, nausea and loss of appetite are just three of the symptoms most climbers will suffer at some point during their trek).
Being in good physical shape will help you feel better and more confident about the challenges you face, but do prepare yourself, too, for some tough hours when you may want to give up; overcome those and, as long as you’ve acclimatised properly, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get to the top of Africa’s Highest Mountain.
By booking early you give yourself more time to prepare and train for your trek. It also increases your chances of getting exactly the trek you want, with the route you want, the dates you want and your preferred choice of hotel too. That said, when we were booking climbs we often had people who booked their trek just a few days before it was due to start. If you are fit enough and have the right gear, there is nothing wrong with this approach, as long as you are fully aware of the challenge that awaits you and know about the dangers too.
Not any more. In 1991 the park authorities made it compulsory for all climbers to sign up with an agency. They in turn will provide you with a crew (consisting of a guide and his assistants, a cook and several porters). You can thus no longer turn up at the foot of Africa’s highest mountain with a rucksack of food and clothes and hope to climb all by yourself. The choice of which agency to sign up with is thus the most important decision you’ll have to make. Which is why we provide a lot of advice on this website about finding the right company for your trek – and an extensive review of all the major ones in the guide book.
It’s a good question, particularly if you want to reach the summit on an important day such as your birthday. The easy way to work it out is this: you will normally reach the summit at dawn on the penultimate morning of your trek. So, for example, for a seven-day trek you would reach, after a very testing summit night, the Uhuru Peak at dawn on the sixth day. The rest of that day – and the morning of the last day – will be spent descending back down the mountain to the exit gate.
Here’s an example. Your birthday is on the 10 March and you want to do a seven-day trek on the standard Machame Route. So you need to book a trek running 5-11 March. That way, you’ll spend five days (5, 6, 7, 8, 9 March) walking to Barafu. You will then walk through the night (beginning at about midnight), reaching the summit at dawn on the 10 March. You then spend the rest of the 10th March walking down to Millennium or Mweka Campsite. The final day is then spent walking to Mweka Gate, from where you’ll be transported back to your hotel.
The policy on this varies from company to company and on the severity of the injury/illness. However, usually the injured/unwell party will be accompanied down the mountain by an assistant guide while the rest of the party continue their ascent.
Usually, if you’ve had to descend, you will return to the previous campsite before deciding on a suitable rendezvous point to meet up with your fellow trekkers on their descent. However, the guide may decide that the most appropriate action would be to evacuate you off the mountain altogether. If this is the case, you will accompanied on your descent either by one of the assistant guides, a summit porter or, if he deems it necessary, by the guide himself. In order to ensure your safety, the guide will probably want you to descend as quickly as possible without risking injury.
As extra insurance, any decent company will also provide every trek with a couple of oxygen bottles. Do note, however, that once you’ve been administered oxygen it is no longer safe for you to continue to ascend as the 99% oxygen inspiration de-activates the body’s triggers which accelerate its Haemoglobin production. In other words, oxygen is there to help you get off the mountain safely – it should never be used as a means of assisting a climber to the summit.
While you are descending, the guide will contact the base in Moshi or Arusha to update them on the situation. As such, by the time you reach the exit gate there should be a car waiting for you to take you back to your hotel. Usually your transfer back from the mountain to the hotel will be included in your package, even if you have come off the mountain early. However, you will still need to pay for any extra nights accommodation you require.
There is no law that says you must buy insurance for climbing the mountain. But some companies will certainly insist that you have some of insurance for your trek. And even if they don’t, it’s certainly a good idea to have some, and not just for the mountain either. North Tanzania isn’t particularly crime-ridden, but thefts, pickpocketings and muggings do happen. But even if you don’t have anything worth nicking, you’ll still want medical cover: there are several diseases you can catch when you’re not on the mountain, and plenty of ways to injure yourself when you are.
For more information on what insurance is suitable, including links to several UK and US companies that offer cover for the mountain, please visit our What insurance do I need for my trek?
The latest figures that have been released by the park authorities show that there were 47,232 people who tried to climb Africa’s Highest Mountain. The table below summarises how the visitor numbers have changed since we wrote the first edition of the Kilimanjaro guide back in 2001:
Kilimanjaro visitor numbers
No of climbers on Kilimanjaro
Number of people visiting Kilimanjaro per annum over the past 20 years
As a rough estimate, about 75% of people make it to the summit. The percentage of people getting to the summit varies according to the route, the duration of the climb and the trekking company that they used. Some companies boast of having success rates over 90%.
Unfortunately, yes, they are still pretty terrible. Time was when many toilets were so full they started to develop their own geological formation. Neither stalagmite nor stalactite, but stalagshite. Then, when researching for the last edition of the book, we noticed that the park authorities were starting to tackle the problem. They built some state-of-the-art eco-toilets at the major campsites, and improved the state of many others.
Alas, things have once more declined, and the last time we trekked – earlier this year – there were smashed windows, broken doors and, well, crap everywhere. The stench, moreover, was overpowering in many of them. I don’t consider myself particularly squeamish – the opposite, in fact – but for the first time I really understood why people made such a big issue of this.
Thankfully, many of the better trekking companies now provide their clients with their own private toilets. I’m not a fan of these either: I always find it strange sitting on what is essentially a box with my trousers round my ankles in the middle of a busy campsite, separated from the outside world by nothing more than a flimsy bit of canvas that flaps furiously in even the slightest breeze. But at least it gives you an option if the public toilets are simply too disgusting to contemplate. While I condemn strongly those people who think it’s OK to crouch behind a bush and crap there, given these other options I can see why they do it.
The national language of Tanzania is Swahili. But in addition to Swahili, which just about everyone in Tanzania speaks, the local language around the mountain is Kichagga, spoken by the Chagga people, which has several dialects. English is widely spoken, at least amongst the guides and more educated members of the mountain crews. Click on this link to find out more about the Chagga people>>
There’s very little science to suggest that smokers actually perform better than non-smokers on Kili, and I certainly don’t recommend you take up the tobacco habit to increase your chances of getting to the summit. But this rumour has been hanging around for years now. And I have to say that, in my experience, there could be something to it. Around five years ago I led a party of 12 Scottish guys up the Machame Route. All of them made it, but my distinct memory is that the two smokers in the group merrily skipped their way to the summit. The others all suffered from the altitude to some degree. Is it because their bodies are used to less oxygen? Or was it just a coincidence? Who knows? I’d love to find out if it’s true – and why!
Yes. But I would say that, overall, reception on the mountain remains patchy. There are several variables that can affect your ability to get a phone signal, including the network you’re with and the quality of the phone you’re carrying. But we do think it’s improving. The last time we were round the northern side of Kibo, on the Alternative Lemosho Route, the group we were leading were, on the whole, able to get reception pretty much all the way. This is certainly an improvement from the situation a few years ago. That said, it’s highly possible that you may have to go for a day or two without being able to communicate with the outside world, whatever route you take.
In the book we provide details of where we’ve found reception on the mountain for each of the routes.
You need to be at least ten years old to climb. (And there are huge discounts on the park fees for under 16s – thought some unscrupulous companies don’t pass on all of the discount. If you want to know how much your discount should be, just contact us.)
Understandably, the authorities are reluctant to release figures on the number of people who die on Kilimanjaro every year, for fear of the bad publicity they will generate. But extrapolating from the only academic study done on this subject, we estimate that there are approximately 6-7 deaths every year. Follow this link for an extensive article on the number of deaths on Kilimanjaro each year.
WHAT TO DO NOW
Read through the above? Still want to climb Africa’s Highest Mountain? Don’t know where to go from here? Then read on..
If you’re looking to organise your own African Adventure, then the next thing to read is our Countdown; this is our step-by-step guide to planning for your trip. This tells you exactly what to do when planning your own expedition – and when.
After that, you may want to go through our site in greater detail. You’ll find that it’s divided into four main sections, which together provide you with all the basics you need to know to plan and prepare properly for your Mount Kilimanjaro trek:
Information for those looking to explore the country in greater depth, with plenty of useful info for Kili trekkers too.
In addition, you’ll also find details of our own climbing outfit, Kilimanjaro Experts, where all my favourite guides, cooks and other mountain crew staff that I’ve climbed with over the past two decades have been gathered into one great value, ethically-minded company.
Still want more info? Well you can’t beat our bestselling guide book, which provides comprehensive advice on climbing, including REVIEWS OF ALL THE MAJOR TREKKING COMPANIES. You’ll also find guides to the towns and cities that will act as the base for your trek, plus, of course, detailed descriptions of all the routes on both Kili and Meru, written by somebody who has climbed them all. Many times. The book has now been published since 2001 and is currently in its fifth edition.
Oh, and I don’t think we’ve mentioned our news blog yet, which has all the latest news from the mountain.