Climbing Africa’s highest mountain unaided

Can you carry your own bags up Kilimanjaro? 

By coincidence, over the past few weeks we’ve received several emails on a very similar subject.

All of the correspondents want to climb Kilimanjaro. But none of them want all the fuss that goes with it.

In other words, they want a climb with no porters. Not only that, but they also want to bring – and cook – their own food, and one of the emails said their group wanted to bring and carry their own tents too.

So is it possible? After all, look at any website and blog and it would seem that, even if it were possible, it’s very rare that anybody actually does it.

But the truth is that there is no law saying that you can’t climb Kilimanjaro without porters. The park authorities only stipulate that you must sign up with an agency, and that they in turn must supply you with a licensed guide for every two trekkers. 

In other words, though you can’t climb Kilimanjaro completely unaided, there is nothing to stop you requesting a trek where the service is deliberately minimal, and where you have as smaller crew as possible. To do so, you will of course have to carry your own luggage, and food. You’ll also need to lug your own camping and cooking equipment up too.

Unfortunately, most companies are inflexible (or just plain lazy), and can’t be bothered to work out the logistics of such a climb. Instead, they prefer to sell off-the-peg treks rather than anything tailored to the particular needs of a group.

In short, most operators have their way of doing things, and are very reluctant to deviate from that. But there are a couple of companies that are willing to listen to your requirements.

Of course, I am obliged to begin with our own outfit, Kilimanjaro Experts, who are one such company. We love organising these sort of treks as it gives us a chance to do something a little different. (From a personal point of view, this sort of pared-down trek is also how I most like to trek, wherever I am in the world – and I know a couple of our guides like this style of trekking too.) Just write to us letting us know what sort of trek you want and what services you do want us to provide (eg would you like us to provide airport transfers, or accommodation in Arusha, or are these things you would rather organise yourself?) and we’ll build a trek that meets your requirements exactly.

Other companies include Team Kilimanjaro, who run a Lite series of climbs, where you agree to carry 12kg of their own luggage and forego the pleasures of a mess tent. They also offer the ascetic-style Superlite, where climbers have to provide and carry all their own food and equipment, make their own way to Arusha from the airport and book their own accommodation. (I’ve heard on the grapevine that they may be altering these categories soon, but this is the situation as it currently stands.)

If you prefer a KPAP company, then Nature Discovery (if you’re booking from the States you’ll need to book through their American agent, Thomson), who also run Lite and Superlite versions of their treks; though in this instance they agree to carry the first 8kg of your luggage, so you’ll be required to carry only any extra above this figure (for most people this will be about 7kg). 

On their Superlite version, you also miss out on a dining tent (present on their ‘Lite’ treks) – and you don’t even get pudding! But on all ND treks you do still get WFR-trained guides, a Gamow bag (though many companies will say this is unnecessary) and comprehensive medical kit.

Finally, there’s MEM Tours who offer a ‘Budget’ version of their already budget ‘Deluxe’ treks where you have to everything but the first 10kg of your own luggage, and no airport transfers or accommodation are included; though you save only about US$100 by doing so.

Before I go, there are three things to note:

1) Firstly, though you should save money adopting this approach, Kilimanjaro is still an expensive mountain to climb. The park fees, transport, airport transfers and hotels (if included) will all cost the same regardless of how you climb Kilimanjaro – and those costs will, of course, be passed on by the trekking company to you. (Please follow this link for details on tactics that you should adopt to make your trek cheaper – and ones that you shouldn’t adopt too!

If you’re bringing your own food and carrying your own stuff, then yes, you’ll save money. That’s obvious, because the agency won’t need to supply any porters or food for your trek. But porters and food are two of the cheapest costs on any trek.

So yes, you’ll save a few hundred dollars; but you’ll still probably be spending over US$1500 for your trek.

Furthermore, some of the items that aren’t included on these stripped-back treks are worth including. Sure, you’ll save around US$35 each way per group by not taking airport transfers; but a taxi from the airport is US$50 – so it would be better to take a lift with the trek operator rather than sorting this out yourself. 

So, in summary, we think that these pared down budget treks are more for those who just like the idea of challenging themselves by carrying their own luggage, rather than for those who want to save every last penny.

2) Though these treks are deliberately stripped back to the bare bones, some of the features of a company’s regular, pricier treks – the stuff that made their prices so expensive in the first place – are often present on their cheaper treks too.

For example, if a company has WFR-trained guides on their ‘normal’ treks, it’s highly likely they’ll also be present on their budget treks (see Nature Discovery, above). Similarly, if the company is a KPAP partner, that means that they must obey KPAP’s rigid standard on all of their treks, including their budget ones (though, of course, the number of porters the company has to pay may be very few or zero).

3) Finally, this style of trek is definitely not for everyone. Climbing Kilimanjaro is hard, as anyone who has already done so will admit. Climbing Kilimanjaro while carrying 15-20kg or more of luggage is much harder.

Then, after an exhausting day’s climbing, having to put your own tent up and cook your own food can be truly soul-shattering.

We should also point out that, from our observations on the mountain, it appears that those who carry their own luggage seem to have a poorer chance of acclimatising successfully and as such their chances of reaching the summit are diminished too. Though I admit I have little to back up this argument and the few statistics I’ve gathered on this subject suggest that clients are equally likely to get to the top whatever level of service they choose.