The proud snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro is known as the highest mountain peak in Africa. It is also considered to be the tallest free-standing mountain in the world! Summiting Kilimanjaro can be an experience of a lifetime, and this is why many adventurous travelers come to Tanzania and attempt to conquer the “roof of Africa”. While being truly impressive in itself, Mount Kilimanjaro is complimented by equally outstanding natural wonders that surround it: from the renowned national parks of Serengeti and Ngorongoro, full of African wildlife, to the tropic islands of Zanzibar with sandy beaches and bustling marine life. In fact, Mount Kilimanjaro is a giant dormant volcano, and being the tallest summit in Africa, it is included in the famous Seven Summits – the highest mountains of the 7 continents. Many mountaineers dream to accomplish the challenge and climb all of them.
What I wish I knew before climbing Kilimanjaro
While Mount Kilimanjaro peak is not as high as the towering Himalayas, summiting it is far from an easy weekend hike. So how should you prepare for hiking the tallest mountain in Africa? In this article, I will cover all you need to know about summiting Mount Kilimanjaro – how hard it is, how long it takes, what equipment and training are required, possible risks, and much more. It will be useful to everyone who considers climbing to the top of the great African mountain – from a complete beginner to an experienced mountaineer, so stay with me until the end to find out what I wish I knew before ascending the mountain of Kilimanjaro.
How hard summiting Mount Kilimanjaro actually is?
Let’s begin with answering the most commonly asked question about the difficulty of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. Climbing this picturesque volcano is challenging for most people. However, it is still accessible to travelers of all ages and those without previous trekking experience, given some training and preparation. In truth, almost anyone can summit this mountain. It isn’t jokingly called “every man’s Everest” for no reason!
Still in doubt? Let’s look at a few inspiring examples of successful attempts:
- In 2019, Anne Lorimor of Arizona, USA has successfully summited Uhuru Peak (the top of Mount Kilimanjaro) at age 89 to become the oldest person to do so. Dozens if not hundreds of other very senior people have the same achievement under their belt too!
- In 2012 Kyle Maynard became the first quadruple amputee to climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro (without prosthetics!)
- In 2018 Coltan Tanner, aged 6, completed the same feat becoming the youngest person ever to do it.
So, you are likely capable of conquering Mount Kilimanjaro unless you have serious cardiovascular diseases or are under 8 years old (At the moment, the minimum age for climbing Kilimanjaro set by Tanzanian law is 10 years. Children who set world records received special permission from the authorities after proving that they had an outstanding ability to hike in high-altitude mountain environments). Following your Tanzanian tour operator’s recommendation and preparing in advance are the keys to maximizing your chances of a successful summit attempt. Later in the article, I discuss the recommended training in more detail.
Another very crucial thing to consider if you decide to make the climb is the choice of the mountain company that will organize the expedition. There are many such companies in Tanzania, but not all of them are on the same level when it comes to thoroughness, professionalism, safety standards, and social responsibility. I have chosen a top-ranked company called Altezza Travel for my climb, and was fully satisfied with every element of their work from pre-arrival support and rented equipment to meals and accompanying guides. I’d say that choosing the right company makes a big difference in the chance of your successful ascent to the Kilimanjaro mountain summit, so choose wisely.
How long does it take to climb Mount Kilimanjaro?
Experienced mountain runners with outstanding endurance (and in-advance acclimatization) can make the ascent in under 10 hours! However, classic routes typically take between 5 and 8 days. A 7-day hike is generally recommended for people without previous experience of similar treks since such time allows for gradual acclimatization to the altitude and therefore promises a much higher rate of success. The routes of climbing Kilimanjaro differ in terms of busyness, length, requirements to the level of physical fitness of the expedition participants, and the acclimatization component. Make sure to research the available routes and ask your tour company about the routes they operate on the mountain. The two most popular routes leading to the summit are Marangu and Machame. I would personally recommend the Lemosho route, which is less busy but has high scenic value and would suit climbers of all levels.
The natural environment of Kilimanjaro is very different from that of most other mountains. On most routes, the first day of your trip will be spent in dense rainforests. The forests will give way to heather meadows and high mountain wasteland in the following days. As you climb above the clouds, you’ll notice how much the surrounding landscape will change – few animals and plants are able to live at such altitudes. At the same time, you will discover stunning panoramic views of the Kilimanjaro foothills. On the final day of the ascent, you will walk in the so-called “Arctic” zone, where you can see melting glaciers and, of course, make a memorable photo with a sign at the summit. In this way, you will have a unique chance to go through 5(!) climate zones as you ascend the great mountain: Cultivation Zone, Forest Zone, Heather-Moorland Zone, Alpine Desert Zone, and Arctic Summit climate zones.
Mount Kilimanjaro summiting tips from my mountaineering experience
Below I will give some more tips on how to prepare for your summit of Mount Kilimanjaro: the necessary training, equipment, safety concerns, the role of guides and porters, what time is the best for summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, and what to see after your hike.
Does one need training for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro?
The simple answer would be Yes. While summiting Mount Kilimanjaro does not require special mountaineering skills, being in good physical shape will allow you to enjoy the experience much more and minimize the chance of turning back halfway. This is not to say that you need to be an athlete. In fact, if you can comfortably walk about 15 kilometers in a day or more, you wouldn’t need an awful lot of training to be able to ascend the African mountain. But some training would certainly make you more prepared for this adventure.
I would highly recommend three types of training to optimize your physical condition for this mountain hike:
- Aerobic training (cardio). This is an essential type of exercise for any hiker. “Cardio” exercises can include trail running, jogging, cycling, swimming, or even aerobic dance classes and sports like soccer.
- Strength training. To prepare for the Mount Kilimanjaro climb, it is a good idea to combine cardio with some strength training at a gym – with a particular focus on the legs.
- Altitude training. Since altitude is one of the biggest challenges on the mountain, hiking in high altitudes might be the best way to prepare, if you are fortunate to have some high mountains in your area. Alternatively, it is possible to simulate high altitude with special masks to wear while exercising or even use altitude simulator tents.
From my experience, at least 8 weeks of training several times a week will make you well-prepared to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I recommend taking a look at specialized training plans and instructions designed to prepare you for summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. Of course, the earlier you start the better.
What equipment would I need?
High-quality mountain equipment is absolutely essential to ensure a safe and enjoyable hike. If you don’t have your own gear, it’s possible to rent everything you need from your tour operator when you arrive in Tanzania, but double-check before the arrival that this option is available. The company that organized my expedition – Altezza Travel had an extensive inventory of all necessary summit gear and clothing from the world’s top brands like The North Face, Red Fox, and Marmot. The option of renting will be significantly cheaper than buying your own things. However, if you decide to buy your own mountain gear, my main recommendation would be to avoid purchasing the cheapest equipment since in the mountains quality and durability are of paramount importance. One item of gear that might be worth purchasing is a pair of good mountain boots, and it’s great if you’ll have a chance to break them in before the climb. Other things that you might consider bringing with you are as follows: a fleece jacket; trekking pants, a warm mountain jacket (down jacket) and pants; a hard shell rain jacket and pants (Gore-Tex or similar); hiking underwear (thermals) and shirts; a daypack; a duffle bag; a dry bag; a water flask and a camel bag; hiking sneakers; hiking socks and thermal socks; gaiters (optional); a sun hat; a beanie; mountain summit sunglasses; a good headlamp; trekking poles; light gloves + warm gloves/mittens; and a warm mountain sleeping bag. If you are a novice trekker you’re unlikely to have most of that gear, but as I said above, it’s possible to rent everything you’ll need for a few hundred bucks.
Here’s a great detailed list of all required gear for ascending Kilimanjaro peak, in case you’d like to take a look and start preparing for your mountain adventure in advance.
What are the possible risks and challenges?
While safety standards and procedures on the climbs have developed significantly in the last decades, summiting Mount Kilimanjaro is not a walk in the park, and it does involve some risks. The death rate is very low – around 10 tourists a year (out of around 30.000 people who climb the mountain), and most of those are due to avoidable altitude sickness.
So let’s try to understand the main risk of trekking in higher altitudes – Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). At high altitudes, the air becomes “thinner,” that is, it is less saturated with oxygen. Lack of oxygen makes us feel tired and short of breath. We need more air to inhale the usual amount of oxygen. The condition is especially aggravated by physical exertion. Failure to adapt to the reduced oxygen is called AMS and can attack travelers of all ages and levels of fitness as they attempt to summit high-altitude mountains.
Simply speaking, the main cause of AMS is climbing too high too fast. This is why it is important to acclimatize to the higher altitude as you hike up the mountain, and most routes include gradual acclimatization. Moreover, symptoms of AMS can be detected early and thus serious trouble can be prevented. Altezza Travel guides took safety very seriously – there were regular health checks throughout the hike and special attention was given to every member of our climbing team. You’ll be surprised at how slow the pace set by the guide might be, but you’ll thank him later.
So if you prepare in advance and choose a reliable tour operator with high safety standards, climbing Kilimanjaro need not be dangerous.
In my experience, the most challenging part of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro is maintaining your determination – there is no huge physical exertion during the climb since you walk very slowly, but every step feels heavier as you ascend the mountain’s higher regions. So maintaining a positive mood and cheering up your friends is what can make a big difference in your great African adventure, as well as in your chances of reaching the summit.
What is the best time to summit Mount Kilimanjaro?
In short, unlike climbing other mountains (for example, Everest typically can only be ascended only in late April or early May), expeditions to Mount Kilimanjaro are undertaken all year round. Climbing in the dry season (July-September/January-February) is more comfortable because there is less rain in the mountains. At the same time, expeditions in the rainy season are not without advantages: this is the only opportunity to see the snow-covered peak of Kilimanjaro and enjoy a real winter so near to the equator as you approach the summit. In addition, the number of other tourists on the routes at this time is much lower.
Can you summit Mount Kilimanjaro without a guide?
It is not possible to climb Mount Kilimanjaro without a registered and licensed mountain guide. The Tanzanian government has changed its policy towards independent ascents and now every aspect of the summiting expedition is tightly regulated. Things like woodfires are prohibited, just as going off the official routes or using caves for shelter. The regulations make it necessary to have proper camping and cooking gear. This is why a standard expedition to the summit of the “roof of Africa” includes a guide and porters who will carry the gear. On average, there are four people in the support crew for each mountain trekker. This might seem a little excessive to some, but this work will not only allow the local porters to feed their families but will also ensure a comfortable, safe, and memorable experience for you. For this reason, I recommend avoiding tour operators that offer the cheapest packages – this usually means that they are seriously underpaying their local staff or even forcing them to rely solely on tips.
Also read: Top Mountain Captions For Instagram Posts
What to do after the summit?
So you’ve ascended to the very summit of the “Roof of Africa”, congratulations! Is there anything else to do nearby after the expedition? Of course! You’re in Tanzania, which is full of incredible places of natural beauty. Now that you have done your best at summiting Mount Kilimanjaro there are many options for what to explore next or where to relax.
Here’s my list of top-3 things to do in Tanzania (apart from climbing Kili, of course):
- Serengeti National Park. This is one of the most spectacular safari destinations in the world – you’ve most likely seen pictures and videos from Serengeti on National Geographic, Discovery Channel, or on Instagram. The park is a vast plain populated by millions of wild animals. It is most popular for the annual Great Animal Migration when 1.5 million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of gazelle and antelope travel north from their southern breeding grounds and follow the rain and the fresh pastures it brings. This enormous national reserve is also home to the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and African buffalo), nearly 500 species of bird, and many other animals thriving in their natural habitats untouched by civilization. Being in Serengeti reminds you of the beloved Disney cartoon “The Lion King”, and I think it is not an overestimation.
- Ngorongoro Conservation Area. This is another magnificent national park recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site located not far from Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s the largest volcanic caldera in the world, teeming with wildlife, including the Big Five. Ngorongoro looks like a “natural zoo” where the animals are enclosed by the walls of the enormous caldera. It is a truly unique site that is 100% worth a visit.
- The islands of Zanzibar. Long sandy beaches, crystal-blue water, teeming marine life, and top-class services – this is what the popular tourist destination of Zanzibar is famous for. At the heart of Zanzibar, you will find the historic city of Stone Town – known for its unique architecture influenced by Arab, Persian, European, and Indian elements. The town itself was designated as a UNESCO site in 2000. So the Zanzibar Archipelago might be the perfect place to end your Tanzanian vacation – relax after the challenging Kilimanjaro climb and explore another beautiful side of Tanzania.
Of course, this short list is far from exhaustive. There are many more sites of outstanding natural beauty and historic significance in the country, and I encourage you to do some research about the other popular attractions in Tanzania.