Taking children on Kilimanjaro: some tips

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  • Coaltan Tanner, the youngest person to reach the summit, celebrating at the top of kilimanjaro

Taking children on Kilimanjaro: some tips

September 11th, 2019|Advice|

Should you take your child on Kilimanjaro?

Contemplating whether to take your family on Africa’s highest mountain? We’ll discuss whether you should – and how best to go about it? 

Last week we received an email from a British woman who was being frustrated in her attempts to take her six-year-old child with her up Kilimanjaro.

The main obstacle was, of course, that officially only people over ten years of age are allowed to the summit of Kilimanjaro.

The park authorities, KINAPA, do sometimes grant special permission for those under ten to climb – which is why the record for the youngest person to climb Kilimanjaro is held by a six-year-old boy from Albuquerque.

But it is impossible to predict whom they are going to grant this permission to, and whom they will refuse.

But perhaps the first question we should be asking is not how we should get this permission, but whether we should be taking our young children on the mountain in the first place.

Before I became a father myself, I always said that if I ever did have any offspring, I would try to encourage them to become the youngest person to climb Kilimanjaro.

Of course, this proclamation was born out of hubris and ignorance – because of my long association with the mountain, I naturally assumed that any son or daughter of mine would want to (literally) follow in my footsteps and climb Africa’s highest mountain too.

Now I am a dad, however, I can see just what a stupid thing to say that was. My son is four now, and he’s on the autistic spectrum, which perhaps clouds the issue still further.

He has also, quite rightly, shown no interest in climbing Kilimanjaro. But even if he did, would it be right to let him try? Because if any child says that they want to climb Kilimanjaro, you have to ask yourself where this desire comes from: are they saying it because they are genuinely interested in climbing mountains, and possibly already have some experience of exactly what getting to the top of a mountain  – any mountain – entails?

Or are they saying it just to please you?

Before I continue, you should note that this is not in any way a criticism of people who have taken their young children on a mountain, or are thinking of doing so. This is just my personal take, and is based almost entirely on my feelings surrounding my own son. Who is only four, is on the autistic spectrum – and who has shown no desire to climb it anyway!

Indeed, it would be hypocritical of me to criticise anyone who wants to take their children on an expedition, because in my time as the author of the Kilimanjaro guide I have advised plenty of people who want to do just that, and have arranged several treks for under tens too.

In fact, I was on the expedition that took a five-year-old to the top, as well as his seven-year-old sister and nine-year-old brother. They were the children of one of the directors of a trekking company, who wanted photos of them on top of the mountain in order to publicise their treks.

And a thoroughly miserable experience it was too, with the children clearly not wanting to be there and the parents screaming at each other most evenings (mainly because the mum, I imagine, didn’t want to be there, and rightly had misgivings about the children being there too; though I must confess, I’d put my earplugs in early every evening to try to block out their arguments so the exact details of their conflict remain uncertain).

I can safely say that it was my least enjoyable experience on Kilimanjaro – and given that I still occasionally suffer from altitude sickness, fellow AMS sufferers will have some idea of how miserable a climb it must have been.

But by not speaking out, I guess you could say I gave my tacit approval to the whole expedition. So it would be wrong of me to judge other people who want to attempt a similar thing.

(In case you’re wondering, the five-year-old in question did not merit a place in the record books as he and his siblings were carried for much of the way on the shoulders of porters.)

Only take your child up Kilimanjaro if you’re sure they want to climb it – and you’re sure they can climb it too!

But as unpleasant as this trek may have been, it does at least provide us with a timely reminder of perhaps the most important factor you should consider when contemplating climbing Kili with your sprog: one that should go without saying, but it’s so important that I’m going to say it anyway;

Please, only arrange for your child to join you on Kilimanjaro if you are sure that they want to. And that your motivations for taking them up are sound. Because Kilimanjaro is not the place to act out with your son or daughter your own thwarted ambitions of climbing Africa’s highest mountain as a child.

I personally think unless the child has said that he or she wants to climb Kilimanjaro – and repeated this desire on a regular basis – then you shouldn’t be taking them on the mountain. In other words, the desire has to come from them. If all you’ve done is ask them whether they’ve wanted to climb Kili, and they’ve assented, well in my opinion that’s not good enough.

But your questions should not stop there. Because you also need to make sure they know well in advance of the trip exactly what being on Kilimanjaro will be like. Tell them that they will have to sleep in a tent, that they’ll have to walk for hours each day, and that it’s going to get very, very cold. Tell them, too, that they are probably going to have to walk through the night, and that they will probably get a headache, and that it’s going to be so cold then that their water bottles will freeze. And they may not feel hungry, or even if they do they may not like the food they’re served. And that there’s a high chance of failure – and worse. 

If I know much about children’s psychology, many of them will probably dismiss all these concerns, and maybe even think that all these hardships are going to be ‘fun’. Which is why it’s important to take your child on a camping expedition first. And not to an organised facility-filled campsite, but to somewhere a bit wilder.

And preferably for a few days.

With some strenuous walking in between.

And, if possible, with a (little) bit of high altitude too.

And some cold.

Because only then can you truly see if they really don’t mind all the suffering and deprivation that comes with any expedition.

If none of the above has dissuaded you from climbing with your kid, and you’re still determined to see this through, and believe he or she is determined to go too, then I’ve compiled some essential advice for taking children on Kilimanjaro.

Note that some of these will apply to younger children only – though we think that anyone thinking of bringing someone under-16 with them to Kilimanjaro will find the following useful.

TIPS FOR TAKING CHILDREN ON KILIMANJARO

1) Be brutally judgmental about your child, and your relationship with them. In particular, do you and your child truly have an honest and open relationship, where he or she will always be truthful with you when it comes to telling you how they’re feeling? Or will they try to hide any symptoms they may have, either because they don’t want to let you down or don’t want to be the one who stopped the trek before the summit. 

You also need to examine whether your child really up for this challenge? Are they really made of the ‘right stuff’ for such a challenge? Or is it you who is, perhaps unconsciously, pushing them towards Kilimanjaro because you have your own agenda? 

2) Make sure you emphasise to your child the importance of listening to the guide and the necessity of telling him the truth too. Because if your child is not going to tell you honestly how he’s feeling, your guide could be the only hope you’ve got. And it’s important that when the guide tells your group to go slowly, that your child obeys, despite his or her natural inclination to hare off as fast as possible.

3) On the subject of guides, it can’t hurt to ask your company if they have a guide who has worked with children on Kilimanjaro before, or who, in the eyes of the agency, may have a particular empathy with children.

4) It’s vital that your child understands the importance of telling you or the guide of any symptoms he or she may have; that it’s essential that he or she informs you of when he has a headache, or feels nauseous, or dizzy, or is having difficulty breathing, or eating, or sleeping.

5) It may sound obvious, but please make sure that the child is sharing a tent with you. That way you can keep an eye on them both day and night.

6) On  related subject, I think it’s wise to take them on a private trek rather than join a public, group trek. This is sensible not only from a security viewpoint, but also so the guide will be concentrating on your family alone, and nobody else. A few companies, including our own Kilimanjaro Experts, offer to arrange private treks that cost exactly the same as if you had joined a public treks; just get in touch if you want to know more.

7) Emphasise to them that there is absolutely no shame in not getting to the top. If you think this may be difficult for them to comprehend, it may be worth telling them that it will be OK to use you as an excuse as to why they didn’t get to the top. In other words, if your child is worried about what they will say to their friends, tell your child that it’s OK if he or she says that they ‘failed’ because you fell ill with altitude sickness and so the entire family had to come down.

I know that some of you will be uncomfortable with giving your child permission to lie; but in a possible life-or-death situation, it’s important that the child is absolutely comfortable with the idea of descending without reaching the summit.

8) There is a lot of ‘down-time’ on Kilimanjaro so bring plenty of toys/books etc to occupy them. If you’re lucky, all they require is a puzzle book; if you have to bring mountains of lego or something that needs power, however, then obviously this is a more complex prospect that may require extra porters and a bank of battery chargers.

9) As mentioned above, if your children are under 10 you need special permission from KINAPA, the park authorities, before you’re even allowed to set foot on the mountain. Your trekking company that is organising your trip should make this application on your behalf, but make sure you understand what their terms are (ie how much they will charge for this service) and that they are 100% confident that they can secure the necessary permission.

If possible, try not to commit any more money than is absolutely necessary until they have this permission. You don’t want to pay a large deposit on your trip, only to then discover your youngest can’t join you on the mountain because he’s not allowed!

10) And if your child is six or under, prepare to be disappointed. At the present time that seems to be the cut off point that has been (arbitrarily) determined by KINAPA. It seems that it is doubly difficult for children aged below seven to get the necessary permission to climb. 

11) Remember, anyone under 16 is entitled to considerable reductions in the park fees so make sure your agency passes on these discounts in full. For example, if you’re taking a seven-day trek on a camping route, the discount you are entitled to amounts to US$590.

Plus 18% VAT.

Which pushes it to a rather impressive US$696.20!

I know it seems odd that on the one hand the park authorities seem to discourage young people from climbing the mountain, then on the other hand seem to be offering incentives to persuade them to do exactly the opposite – but that’s just the way it is.

If you are unsure how much you should be getting as a discount, or you’re suspicious that your agency is not passing on the full discount to you, just get in touch and I’ll let you know how much you should be getting deducted from the full price.

12)  The food on Kilimanjaro may not be – in fact, will almost definitely not be – what thy are used to at home. So to keep their sprits up on the mountain, bring with you their favourite sweet/candy (even if it is a sweet/candy that, at home, they are allowed only sparingly due to concerns about their dental welfare).

If your company is particularly accommodating, you may also like to ask them if it’s OK to bring a few of the child’s favourite ingredients so that they can use them in the meals they serve on the mountain. Maybe you can even contact your operator in advance and request your child’s favourite meal or even send them a recipe. It’s remarkable what the cooks can conjure up on Kili, so take advantage of their ingenuity.

13) Contemplate hiring an extra porter to help carry the child’s gear. You don’t want him carrying all his own water, sun cream, sweets, and waterproofs by himself.

14) Thinking of taking the child on safari afterwards? Great – what a fantastic experience for them, and what a fabulous opportunity for all of you to see for yourself Tanzania’s breathtaking national parks.

But do make them aware of the fact that they may see some shocking things. It’s great that you’re encouraging your child’s innate wonder about the natural world; but that wonder will be short-lived if they’re forced to watch Mrs Zebra and her two young foals being ripped apart by that greedy Mr Lion and his friends.

15) And do impress upon them the importance of staying in the vehicle too until the driver says it’s OK to leave. Young animals are particularly vulnerable in the Serengeti  – and young people are too. And nobody wants to see the limp carcass of little Johnny being hauled up the nearest tree by a hungry leopard, just because he saw Mr tortoise struggling to cross the road and wanted to get out to help him get to the other side.

16) Younger children may appreciate a chart where they can tick off the animals they see, like a more spectacular version of the sort of Nature Hunt that they may do at home. You may be able to find one on the internet. If not, it shouldn’t be too difficult to construct one.