Advice for female trekkers on Kilimanjaro

A few tips for women planning to climb Africa’s Highest Mountain 

Currently just under a half of our climbers in 2020 are women, including over a dozen solo women climbers (ie women who have booked by themselves are joining one of our public treks). So, having already written posts for elderly climbers, solo climbers, LGBT trekkers and those bringing children to Kilimanjaro, it’s only right that this post looks at the experience of women on Kilimanjaro, and offers our own tips and advice for female climbers.

And yes, I do recognise that I have a distinct disadvantage in writing this, because I am not a woman. But I have been climbing Kili for almost 20 years, have led many climbs with women on them, and have also read a lot of books and blogs written by female climbers too – it is, after all, my job. So, hopefully, there is still something here that you’ll find useful!

How safe is it for women on Kilimanjaro and in Tanzania?

The first thing to point out is that, over the two decades or so that I’ve been trekking on Kilimanjaro, I have not heard of any cases of women being attacked on the mountain.

There has been the odd rumour. But they’ve always turned out to be nothing more than that: rumours.

But that’s not to say, of course, that bad things can’t happen in the future. So how can you make sure that, if anything horrific does happen, that it doesn’t happen to you?

Well the first thing to do is, of course, to choose your trekking company carefully. In addition to the generic advice we give if you follow that link, which applies equally to both men and women, there are some extra aspects to consider if you’re a solo woman booking a trek. 

One of the ways to choose between trekking companies, perhaps, is to ask them if their treks have any other solo women booked on their public climbs. If there is, and both you and her are travelling solo, then why not ask if you can contact her directly. That way, you can see if you get along and, if you do, you can request to share a tent (and maybe even a hotel room before/after the trek).

It might also be worth asking the trek operator if they have any solo women climbers who have completed their climb, and whom you can contact to find out what it was like. Any company worth its salt will be able to do that. If they can’t then maybe look elsewhere.

(As I said, I’ve never come across stories of women – or indeed men – being attacked on Kilimanjaro. But if it will make you feel more secure on the mountain, then ask! That way, you can stop worrying about your safety – and start to worry about getting to the summit.)

But even if there are no other climbers on your trek, don’t despair. Ask if your company can employ a female guide on the trek (either as chief guide or as an assistant). If they can’t, then at least see if there’s a female porter they can employ on your trek. Unlike a guide, a female porter probably won’t speak much English, but hopefully she’ll provide some sort of brake on the rampant machismo that exists on many treks.

And in the unlikely event that you are hassled by any member of your crew, do not hesitate to tell your guide or another senior member of your team. And if for some reason you don’t trust any of them (in which case, you really should have chosen your tour operator more carefully), then speak with one of the rangers based at the campsites along the way. Or if they’re not available, speak with a guide on another trek, or your fellow trekkers. Anybody, in fact – because your safety is paramount and you should be worrying about getting to the top, and nothing else.

As for your safety when you’re not on the mountain, the rules are the same for both men and women. During the day you can pretty much wander where you want. Watch out for pickpockets at busy places (eg markets) and maybe leave your valuables with your hotel reception. But, other than that, feel free to wander around Moshi, Arusha (and Dar) as you wish.

But after dark, don’t head out alone. Either go with a group (preferably) or take a taxi booked by your hotel/restaurant. These cities and towns turn into entirely different beasts after dark, and a few years ago we had a climber who was held up at knifepoint. The chance of being attacked may be small, but it’s just not worth the risk.

What should women bring for their Kilimanjaro climb? 

Click on this link to find our packing list for Kilimanjaro. In addition, the most useful item to bring is what is marketed as a ‘she-wee’ (or shewee, or she-pee, or miss-piss). As the manufacturer says, this is a device that allows you to wee into a bottle. I’m a huge fan of a pee bottle, ie something to wee into when you’re in your tent at night, so you don’t have to get dressed and brave the freezing cold every time you want to urinate. An on Kili you’ll want to urinate a lot, particularly if you’re acclimatising well, and even more so if you’re taking Diamox – which is a diuretic.

So it’s only fair that women can enjoy the same convenience and comfort as men. Which is where the she-wee comes in.

It does, apparently, take a bit of  practise to use a she-wee successfully, so try it in the shower at home before you head off to a big mountain in Tanzania. But the reviews are largely positive. Two women on the last trek I led had the following critiques of their she-wees. The first said it had ‘changed her life’. Which does at least convey her enthusiasm for the product. The second woman, however, was less enthusiastic, describing it as a ‘bit dribbly’.

As for other female-specific items that you may consider, well I’ve looked at various blogs written by women on Kilimanjaro and most of the items they suggest bringing have to do with hygiene and cosmetics. Do remember, however, that on Kili you’ll probably get nothing but two hot bowls of water to wash with each day. And after the second day everybody reeks anyway, a situation that is mercifully ameliorated by the fact that everybody is wearing several layers, thus preventing body odours from escaping.

For clothing, the packing list we provide is as relevant for women as for men, though when it comes to underwear you’ll probably want to wear a bra: the best option here is a non-cotton sports bra that wicks the sweat away from your skin (and thus stops you from getting cold). 

I know of some women who brought lipstick and mascara with them, because, in their words, they’d feel naked without them. And I actually think that’s a good idea: if you’re used to wearing make-up every day, and you’d feel very uncomfortable without it, then bring some. I firmly believe that you should try, within reason, to make your trek as comfortable as possible for yourself. And if that means putting a bit of slap on in the morning, then so be it. Don’t expect to look like you’ve just stepped out of the salon, of course. And you should expect some of your make-up to be covered in dust and grit by the end of the trek.

As for your hair, well if it’s long then bring something to tie it back. There are dry shampoos that you can buy – but test them first to make sure they actually work, as some don’t.

On the subject of lipstick, do remember to bring some strong sun protection for your lips – you don’t want to look like you’ve got some sort of facial leprosy in all your summit photos.

Other stuff to bring. Well, in my experience women tend to feel the cold more than men, so some of those hand warmers may be a good idea, and not just for your hands either. Put them in your boots before you put them on, in your gloves and in your bra. And remember to keep some aside for the summit night – don’t use them all on the first evening or you’ll regret it.

Panty liners, min-pads, hand and vaginal wipes are all recommended by female climbers on Kili too.

If your period coincides with your climb then, firstly, my sympathies. Climbing Kilimanjaro is hard enough without all that going on too! Bring your usual sanitary stuff. One blogger recommends Diva Cups – whether they were sponsored for this I don’t know (she also recommended coco-butter vaseline, which sounds rather specific), but they may be worth investigating.

Note, too, that the high altitude may trigger your period earlier than you expected!

Do remember to bring paper bags with you to collect your used sanitary products and toilet roll in (Tanzania has banned plastic bags, of course, and you can no longer bring them into the country, so paper bags are the only option now). 

If you want to look your best – or, at least, you want to avoid looking too filthy, then trim your nails short before you arrive on the mountain. Everything gets grimy on Kili, including you, and dirt gets under the fingernails that can be difficult to shift. The alternative is to wear a very dark nail varnish.

Cut your toenails too – not only to avoid the build-up of toe-jam, but to stop them hurting when your feet jam into the front of your boots on the descent.

Though the chances are that there won’t be any female members of staff on the mountain with you (few companies are as enlightened as Kilimanjaro Experts!) please don’t feel shy of telling your guide about any problems you have. Remember that many have been climbing the mountain for several years and are used to dealing with everything both Kili, and their climbers, can throw at them. So don’t be timid – it’ll make your life more comfortable, and may just keep you safe too.

What’s it like for women on Kilimanjaro?

The experience of women on the mountain should be pretty similar to that enjoyed and endured by men. You’ll be walking the same trail, enjoying the same jokes and eating the same food. (And remember, you’ll be burning calories on the mountain – indeed, one of our climbers recently wrote to me to say that she’d lost 4kg on the trek! – so eat as much as you want and can and don’t worry about gaining weight – I can pretty much guarantee that won’t happen, no matter how delicious you happen to find the food.) you’ll also, hopefully, be feeling the same sense of euphoria as everyone else when you get to the summit. 

But there is one area where women are at a distinct disadvantage: going to toilet on the trail. Outside of the campsites, public toilets are few and far between on Kili, and many of them are in a fairly parlous state so it would be best to avoid them anyway. That means, unfortunately, finding a convenient boulder or bush to go behind.

Men, of course, being the disgusting pigs that we are, are quite happy to wee pretty much anywhere and everywhere. For most women, however,  a greater degree of privacy is usually preferred. If you have the gumption, you can always announce loudly to your group that you’re going for toilet behind a particular boulder/bush, and you would prefer not to be disturbed for the next few minutes. This should both ensure your privacy and give you time to wee, clean up (putting used toilet paper in a paper bag, of course; please don’t leave it decorating the mountain) and return to the group at your leisure.

If you haven’t got the bottle to do that, then at least tell your guide and he can keep the other trekkers away from your chosen boulder/bush. It also guarantees that he won’t forget about you and set off with the rest of the group, leaving you chasing them all with your trousers still wrapped around your ankles.