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. She contacted us as she was hoping to take her six-year-old child up Kilimanjaro.

The main obstacle was, of course, officialdom. For the rules clearly state that only children aged ten or over are allowed to the summit of Kilimanjaro.

The park authorities, KINAPA, do sometimes grant special permission for those under ten to climb. This 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 the authorities will grant this permission to.

But perhaps the first question we should be asking, is not how we should get this permission. Instead, perhaps we should begin by considering whether we should take young children on the mountain at all.

Who actually wants to climb the mountain: your child, or you?

Before I became a father myself, I always said that if I ever did have any children, I would want them to set a record as the youngest person to climb Kilimanjaro.

Of course, this was just my hubris and ignorance talking. Because of my long association with the mountain, I assumed that any child of mine would want to (literally) follow in my footsteps. And this would include climbing Africa’s highest mountain.

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.

Neverthelesss, 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? Indeed, do they have any experience, indeed any idea, of exactly what getting to the top of a mountain entails?

Or are they saying it just to please you?

Before I continue, note one thing. This is not in any way a criticism of people who have taken their young children on a mountain. This is just my personal take, and is based almost entirely on my feelings surrounding my own four-year-old autistic son, who has shown no desire to climb it anyway!

My own experience with taking children on Kilimanjaro

Indeed, it’s 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. Indeed, I have arranged several treks for families with children 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, I must say, what a thoroughly miserable experience it was too. The children clearly didn’t want to be there, and the parents were screaming at each other most evenings. (Mainly because the mum didn’t want to be there, and rightly had misgivings about the children being there too. Though as I 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’s 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 if you’re sure they can climb it too!

But as unpleasant as this trek may have been, it is a timely reminder of the most important factor to consider when contemplating climbing Kili with your child. 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.

Check, too, 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, independently, that he or she wants to climb Kilimanjaro, 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.

Make sure your child truly understands what it’s going to be like on the mountain

But your questions should not stop there. Because you also need to make sure they know exactly what being on Kilimanjaro is like.

Tell them that they will have to sleep in a tent, and that they’ll have to walk for hours each day. Explain to them, too, that it’s going to get very, very cold. Discuss with them, too, that they are probably going to have to walk through the night. That they will probably get a headache. And that it’s going to be so cold that their water bottles will freeze. And that they may not feel hungry, or, 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 anything about how children’s brains work, many of them will probably dismiss all these concerns. Indeed, they’ll probably 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.

Tips for taking children on Kilimanjaro

If none of the above has dissuaded you or your child from climbingand believe he or she is determined to go too, then below 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.

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? One where he or she is always truthful with you when it comes to telling you how they’re feeling? Or will they try to hide any symptoms they may have, because they don’t want to let you down or they don’t want to stop 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 is 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) 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.

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) Take them on a private trek rather than join a public, group trek.

This is sensible, and not only from a security viewpoint. By booking a private trek, the guide can concentrate on your family alone, and nobody else. What’s more, 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.

This may be difficult for them to comprehend and believe. So it might be worth telling them that it is OK to use you as an excuse as to why they didn’t get to the top. For example, your child may worry about what they will say to their friends. So tell them that it’s OK if he or she tells their that they ‘failed’ because you fell ill with altitude sickness. As a result, 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, let’s be sensible. Because it’s important that the child is absolutely comfortable with the idea of descending without reaching the summit.

8) Bring plenty of toys/books

There is a lot of ‘down-time’ on Kilimanjaro. 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) 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). Make surem, too, 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 or she is not allowed!

10) And if your child is six or under, prepare for disappointment.

At the present time it seems KINAPA have decided that children must be seven or over to climb Kilimanjaro. You still need to get special permission for them, of course. But in our experience it is impossible for children aged below seven to get the necessary permission to climb. 

11) Anyone under 16 is entitled to considerable reductions in the park fees.

But 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 amounts to US$590.

Plus 18% VAT.

Which pushes it to a rather impressive US$696.20!

Odd, isn’t it? On the one hand the park authorities are discouraging young people from climbing the mountain. Then they offer this significant financial incentive to persuade them to do exactly the opposite. But that’s just the way it is.

If you are unsure how much you should get as a discount, or you’re suspicious about your agency, just get in touch. I’ll let you know how much the full discount should be.

12)  The food on Kilimanjaro will almost definitely not be what they are used to at home.

So to help keep their sprits up on the mountain, bring 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/her own water, sun cream, sweets, and waterproofs all by him/herself.

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 greedy Mr Lion and his friends.

15) Impress upon your child the importance of staying in the vehicle until the driver says it’s OK to leave.

Young animals are particularly vulnerable in the Serengeti. Well, young people are too, and nobody wants to see the little Johnny being attacked by a hungry leopard.

16) Younger children may appreciate a chart where they can tick off the animals they see

In other words, a more spectacular version of a Nature Hunt that they may do at home. You should find one on the internet. If not, it shouldn’t be too difficult to construct one.