Can you climb up Kilimanjaro without a crew?

It’s a question I still get asked several times a year:  Is it possible to just turn up at the foot of Kilimanjaro with a rucksack full of camping gear, food and warm clothes, and head up the slopes to the top?

The people who ask this tend to fall into two camps: the first are those hardy,  adventurous types who don’t like the idea of being fussed over by a large team of porters, cooks and guides.

The second people who ask this sort of question are those who are looking to save money, and think that climbing without a crew would be a good way of doing so. After all, if you subtract the wages of the porters and guides, and their park fees, and the extra food and transport required to transport the crew to the mountain and feed them while they’re there, well that’s got to save a few hundred dollars at least, right?

And yes, you’re right, you would save quite a bit of money if you didn’t have to pay for a large teams of porters, cooks and guides.

So what’s to stop you climbing without them?

Well, for one thing, there’s the rules. In 1991 the park authorities made it compulsory for all trekkers to arrange their walk through a licensed agency or tour operator. Furthermore, they insist that all trekkers must be accompanied throughout their walk by a guide supplied by the operator. The operator is also the only body that has the facilities to pay the park fees. Gone are the days when you used to turn up at Marangu or Machame gates and pay the park fees in cash or travellers’ cheques. That’s simply no longer allowed.

So, legally, you can’t climb Kilimanjaro without signing up with an agency; and you can’t set foot on kilimanjaro without being accompanied by a a guide. And he in turn will insist on having at least one porter with him – and probably several – to carry all the food, as well as cooking and camping equipment.

I do recognise, however, that there will still be many of you wondering if you can somehow get round these rules. After all, Kilimanjaro is a big mountain, so would it really be so difficult to just turn up at the foot of it with your rucksack, and start to climb? Without any mountain crew, any support – and without paying the park fees too?

Well back in 1991, when the rules were first introduced, it was indeed still feasible to sneak in without paying – and many were the stories of trekkers who managed to climb Kilimanjaro independently, tales that were often embellished with episodes of encounters with wild animals and even wilder park rangers.

But these days, things are a lot tougher. For starters, there are many more rangers on the mountain now. Indeed, there are many more people on the mountain full stop; and many of them (guides, porters, rangers) have a vested interest in reporting any suspicions they have if they think somebody is climbing independently.

That said, in all honesty we do think it’s very possible to climb for the first few days on Kili without being spotted. For much of it you’ll be in the forest, after all, where there’s plenty of cover and little chance of being seen.

But once you climb above the tree-line, you’re very exposed and there are few places to hide.

So you either a) join one of the established paths and try to blend in – though you’ll doubtless be found out, especially at the campsites where there are rangers stationed to check on each trekking party.

Or b) you try to keep away from the paths altogether – but that just means you’d stick out like a sore thumb on the mountain, particularly as you clearly don’t have a guide with you.

So while in theory it may still be possible to do this, in reality it’s pretty much impossible.

Indeed, it’s been a few years since we last heard of someone trying to ascend without a guide. And the punishments for anyone who does are severe, ranging from hefty fines, being thrown out of the country, and often a night or two in a Tanzanian jail too.

And trust me, the last place you ever want to be in this world is a Tanzanian jail.

So our advice to anyone who is thinking of attempting to climb the mountain without a guide, and without paying the park fees, is simple: DON’T. It’s very unlikely you’ll succeed and all you’re doing is freeloading – indeed, stealing isn’t too strong a word – from one of the poorest countries in the world.

Yes, climbing Kilimanjaro is expensive. But the costs of maintaining a mountain that big are high.

Besides, whatever price you pay, trust us, it’s worth it.

What you can do

If you really loathe the idea of climbing with a crew, then our advice would be to compromise, and try to find a company that’s willing to negotiate. Befriend the agency, speak to them honestly about your wishes, and ask them what’s the minimum number of crew they are willing to use for your trek. Indeed, we’ve actually written an entire post about climbing Kilimanjaro with the minimal amount of porters.

It’s what I used to do when I was writing the first couple of editions of the book. I wanted to climb all the routes, to make the guide as comprehensive as possible, but unfortunately the fee I was being paid didn’t cover it.

So I negotiated with various companies, told them how much my budget was and what my plans were, and as a result on two occasions I climbed with just three people in my crew: a guide, one cook (who doubled as a porter) and one more porter. It meant carrying my own luggage, and helping with the food preparation and setting up camp every night.

By this method, I was able to climb relatively cheaply – and legally. And while there are many companies that won’t be flexible, and will try to steer you towards taking a ‘regular climb’, there are other companies who will listen to your requirements and try to satisfy them as best they can. Our own company, Kilimanjaro Experts, are happy to arrange these sort of minimum-service treks – indeed, we get a kick out of doing so.

Find one, and your trek will not only be cheaper – it will also feel more like the outdoor wilderness adventure that you were hoping for.