Can you climb up Kilimanjaro without a crew?

It’s a question readers still ask me regularly each 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? In other words, can you climb Kilimanjaro independently? Without signing up to a company and having a mountain crew?

The people who ask this tend to fall into two camps.

Those who seek adventure

The first are those hardy,  adventurous types. They’re the sort who don’t like the idea of porters fussing over them, as well as the cooks and guides. Which is perfectly understandable in my opinion.

Those who want to save money

The second people who ask this sort of question are those who are looking to save money. They think that climbing without a crew would be a good way of doing just that. After all, the crew isn’t cheap. There’s their wages of the porters and guides, for a start. Then there’s their park fees. Nor should we forget the food and transport, necessary to both get them to Kili and feed them while they’re there.  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 employ all those porters, cooks and guides.

So what’s to stop you climbing Kilimanjaro without signing up with an agency?

Well, for one thing, there’s the rules. In 1991 the park authorities made it official: all trekkers must arrange their walk through a licensed agency. Furthermore, 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 could arrive at the gate and pay the park fees in cash or travellers’ cheques. That’s simply no longer allowed.

To be clear: you can’t climb Kilimanjaro without signing up with an agency

What’s more, you can’t set foot on Kilimanjaro without a guide. And he in turn may insist on having at least one porter with him. Indeed, her may want several – to carry all the food, cooking and camping equipment.

I do recognise, however, that many of you will still wonder 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 or 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.

Can you sneak onto the mountain and climb Kilimanjaro independently today?

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 anyone spotting you. For much of it you ‘re trekking in the forest, after all, where there’s plenty of cover and little chance of the authorities finding you.

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

So you either a) trek on one of the established paths and try to blend in. However, eventually I’m sure you’ll be spotted. This will probably happen 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.

Our advice? Don’t even try to climb Kilimanjaro independently

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.

Arrange a trek with minimal support

If you really loathe the idea of climbing with a crew, then our advice would be to compromise. Just try to find a company that’s willing to negotiate. Befriend the agency and speak to them honestly about your wishes. 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 without 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 book as comprehensive as possible. But unfortunately, I simply didn’t have the money to climb all the routes.

Find a company that’s willing to adapt to your requirements

So I negotiated with the companies. I was honest, and 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 did mean carrying my own luggage, and helping with the food preparation and setting up camp every night.

But by this method, I was able to climb relatively cheaply – and legally. And yes, most companies won’t be flexible, and will try to steer you towards taking a ‘regular climb’. But there are other companies who will listen to your requirements and try to satisfy them. Our own company, Kilimanjaro Experts, are happy to arrange these sort of minimum-service treks. Indeed, we get a kick out of doing so. And if you truly want to climb without porters, that’s what we can arrange. So it’s just you and a guide.

I recognise it’s a bit more hassle arranging this sort of trek. But trust us, it’s worth it. For not only will your trek be cheaper. It will also feel more like the outdoor wilderness adventure that you were hoping for.