The paths on Kilimanjaro
Deciding which trekking route to take to the summit of Kilimanjaro is best for you is very much a personal decision. But in this section we try to give you as much information as possible to help you make the best decision.
As we mention in the introduction, the park authorities have designated six official paths leading up the slopes of Kili to Uhuru Peak. We have provided a map of the routes that you can see here.
To see a map of the Kilimanjaro routes please click on the image below.
Just to recap, the routes are:
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. 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.
A description of each of the six main trails up Kilimanjaro can be found below and on the subsequent pages in this section. In the guide book we provide comprehensive, day-by-day descriptions of each of the Kilimanjaro routes up the mountain, including detailed sketch maps covering every stage of every path. Note, too, that while at the start of each route description we give you an idea of how long a trek should take on that trail, it’s always a good idea to add an acclimatisation day if possible to increase your chances of getting to the summit.
|Route||Duration (ascent and descent combined)||Distance (ascent only)*||Descent Route||Total distance (ascent & descent)*||Western Breach option available?||No. of people climbing each year**|
|Machame||6-7 days||40.16km||Mweka (20.6km)||60.76km||Yes||20,339|
|Marangu||5-7 days||36.75km||Marangu (36.75km)||73.5km||No||12,289|
|Lemosho & Shira Routes (including Alternative Lemosho)||6-9 days||46.26km||Mweka (20.6km)||66.86km||Yes||9927|
|Rongai||5-7 days||37.65km||Marangu (36.75km)||74.4km||No||4088|
|Umbwe||6-8 days||27.71km||Mweka (20.6km)||48.31km||Yes||589|
* Figures assume the Barafu Route is taken to the summit rather than the Western Breach
** Latest figures available
This is the oldest and second-most popular route up Kilimanjaro. It is perhaps most well known as the one route on Kilimanjaro where you sleep in huts rather than camping in tents. I think it’s a very pretty route but it does, it must be said, have at least TWO significant drawbacks.
1) The first disadvantage is that the Marangu Route is the only trail where you take the same path back down as you did on the way up. In other words, you see the same scenery twice. Now in the book we describe places where you can vary the descent route so that it is at least slightly different from the ascent route. But given that most of you will only be climbing Kilimanjaro once, it’s a shame that you won’t be seeing as much of the mountain as you would be on other routes.
2) The other disadvantage? Well, it also, statistically, has the lowest success rate for getting people to the summit. This could be due to various factors. Because it’s one of the shorter routes, so it allows people less time to acclimatise, and some people are daft enough to try to complete it in five days. We also think the altitude profile may hinder acclimatisation. And thirdly, because you sleep in huts on this trail, so perhaps it attracts the sort of person who is unused the outdoors, and wants to avoid it where possible – and they, perhaps, are the sort of person who may give up on the climb more readily than those who are more used to the outdoor life.
More on the Marangu Route >>
Like Umbwe, this starts on the southern side of Kilimanjaro. Unlike Umbwe, however, this is actually the most popular route on the mountain. Why? Well, essentially, it’s the nearest thing that Kilimanjaro has to a bog standard trail: if you want a good chance of getting to the summit, and want to do so relatively cheaply (well, at least compared to some of the other routes), and aren’t too bothered about the experience you have on the way, then this is the route for you. And, to be fair, it is a pretty route, and quite interesting.
But if you do care about what kind of experience you’re going to have on Kili, then I would look elsewhere. Why? Because, simply put, Machame is just too busy now. Around 20 years ago, this route was known as the Whiskey Route as, compared to Marangu (which was known as the Coca Cola Route), where the climbers sleep in dorms, here on the Machame Route people slept under canvas. As such, Machame was advertised as a tough route for tough people. Which, if you’ve climbed on it at any point over the past decade or so, you’ll know is a bit silly. But unfortunately, many companies, particularly lazy travel agencies in North America and Europe, continue to advertise it as such – and people continue to book a trek on it because they think they’re getting a true wilderness experience. It’s only when they start walking do they realise that, far from being a trek that’s only for the tough, you’re actually just joining a queue of people snaking up the mountain all the way to the summit.
Maybe I’m being a little harsh. But nowhere else on Kilimanjaro have I felt more like I’m on a conveyor belt of people just shuffling towards Uhuru Peak than on the Machame Route, particularly during the full moon. So by all means take the Machame Route – it’s cheaper than other trails (it’s close to Moshi, so the transport fees are less for the ground operators), it is pretty, and it does have a great success rate (the best for a six-day trek I reckon). Just ignore the hype about it being a quiet, tough trek – because it really isn’t!
More on the Machame Route >>
Is the Machame Route too busy? >>
Also known as the Loitokitok Route, this route is the only one running from the north-east side of the mountain, and starts right by the border with Kenya. It’s a lovely route, and again, pretty peaceful, at least when compared to Machame and Marangu. If I had to pick holes in it, well it doesn’t have a great stretch of forest – you walk through it in about half an hour. This is mainly due to the depredations of the locals who forest the lower slopes of Kili (this is the only route where you actually start off by walking past farms, rather than in forest). The northern side of Kilimanjaro is also the driest side, which is why the forest is less impressive on this side. but other than that, it’s a great route, particularly if you opt for the diversion up to Mawenzi Tarn, which adds a day or two to the itinerary but is worth it for both the views and for the acclimatisation.
More on the Rongai Route >>
I love the Umbwe Route. I think it’s just beautiful, and so, so peaceful. That makes it really special. But there’s a reason why it’s quiet. The first couple of days are steep, and thus not ideal for acclimatising (the best way to acclimatise and thus avoid altitude sickness is to gain height slowly, whereas on Umbwe, you can gain around a thousand metres in altitude every day all the way to the top).
But Umbwe is, like all the other trails, just a walking route – there’s no actual climbing involved. So how can you enjoy the beauty and serenity of Umbwe without ending up with altitude sickness? Well there are several solutions. 1) Climb Mount Meru beforehand, so you are already acclimatised before you even reach Kilimanjaro; 2) take an acclimatisation day at Barranco (which you reach at the end of the second day), so you spend two nights there, and spend that rest day climbing to Lava Tower and back. By doing this, you’ll be mimicking very closely the altitude profile of the Machame Route, the most popular route on the mountain. 3) If you have the time and money, take our Full Circuit Umbwe Route which allows you to enjoy Umbwe before moving to the almost-as-tranquil northern side of Kibo. Not only does this give you a much better chance of acclimatising, but you get to see more of Mt Kilimanjaro than you do on any other route – perfect!
More on the Umbwe Route >>
Is the Umbwe Route the mountain’s best-kept secret? >>
The longest route on the mountain is also one of the best. The forest is at its lushest on Kilimanjaro’s western side, where the Lemosho Route starts, the scenery is great, the views across the Shira Plateau to the snowy Kibo summit are wonderful, and the success rate for getting people to the top is good – largely because it is usually done over eight days rather than six or seven. If you’re looking for disadvantages, then it is getting busier, and parts of the trail are crowded now, particularly when you join up with the crowds on the Machame Route from the fourth day onwards. (It is for this reason that we prefer the Alternative Lemosho Route, which is quieter and, in our experience, has an even higher success rate. However, this is not an official route, so we haven’t provided a summary of it in this section – though you can read about it by visiting the Alternative Lemosho page on the Kilimanjaro Experts website.) It is also more expensive than other routes, because it takes longer and because the transport costs to take you to the start of the trail are higher. But if you can afford the time and money to take a trek on the Lemosho Route (or Alternative Lemosho Route), you’ll be glad you did!
More on the Lemosho Route >>
This is largely a four-wheel-drive trek for emergency vehicles coming down from Shira II Campsite and few people take this trail now. However, I mention it here as some agencies (usually foreign, with little knowledge about the mountain) mix up the Lemosho and Shira Routes. To make sure you’re on the Lemosho Route (which you want to be) and not the Shira Route (which you don’ want to be), check where you’re camping on the first night. If it’s Mti Mkubwa, or Big Tree Camp, then you’re on the Lemosho Route. If it’s not, then you could be on the Shira Route.
There is one large tour operator that still takes clients on the Shira Route, and claims to have a very good success rate for getting people to the summit on that route. That may be, but they begin each trek by driving all the way up to the Shira Plateau, thus denying their climbers the chance to experience some of the best forest on the mountain. Which just makes me shake my head in despair.
More on the Shira Route >>
Unofficial trails up Kilimanjaro
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. These ‘unofficial’ routes essentially combine parts of the above trails, all joined together to make a new route. These can be some of the best hiking trails around, with high success rates and fewer crowds.
The rules regarding which path you take to descend are as follows:
Those on the Machame, Umbwe, Lemosho or Shira routes must take as their descent trail the Mweka Route
Those who ascended on the Marangu or Rongai/Loitokitok trails must descend by the Marangu Route.
Kilimanjaro’s Northern and Southern Circuit
I keep on hearing about the Northern and Southern Circuits – where are these routes?
Encircling the Kibo cone is a path known as either the Northern Circuit or the Southern Circuit depending on which side of the mountain you are. You can walk right around Kibo on this path. However, few climbers ever do. But all the paths either meet this circular path at some point and many follow it for a while. The ‘unofficial’ routes such as the Alternative Lemosho Trail also utilise large sections of these paths.
Want to know more about the Kilimanjaro routes?
The following pages take each of the routes, individually, and go through a day-by-day description of them. So if you want an authentic, first-hand account of the routes – read on! While for pictures of each of the routes, visit our pinterest page!