Long before I set foot on Kilimanjaro the mountain lured me in like an out of reach seductress. She loomed over the horizon whilst we spun yarns around a campfire in Serengeti. Later that night, I watched a lightning storm completely illuminate the western face in a glorious display of mother nature’s power. It was strange to see such a mountain stand alone, devoid of the company of a range. She even created her own weather. That night I decided that I wanted to stand on the summit, and a month later I did.
Five years later I summited her again, only this time I had rushed my ascent on a harder route and felt the full wrath of altitude sickness bear down upon me. This, combined with some crippling blisters from untested footwear, taught me a valuable lesson about preparation and planning.
There is perhaps not a more important choice when trekking Kilimanjaro than the route you choose. A detailed breakdown of each route will help you make the right decision. Here’s a snapshot of each of the routes to help you along your way…
The Marangu Route
This option is considered to be the tourist route. Marangu is the only route that doesn’t involve camping, it offers small hut accommodation throughout the journey. It is from these huts that Marangu draws its nickname, the “Coca-Cola Route”, as the huts sell bottled Coke as well as a few other bits and pieces.
You begin your trek at the south-east Marangu Gate. This gate is close to the town of Moshi, a haven that sits underneath the mountain in the Kilimanjaro region. The proximity is one of the contributing factors that make it a popular choice for trekkers.
The huts themselves are by no means luxurious, they are basic with a dining hall and beds with mattresses and pillows. The ascent and descent follow the same trail which means you only see a limited section of the mountain whilst sharing the trail with returning trekkers, making the route seem busier. The climb is not a steep one and is the prefered choice for inexperienced trekkers. The route can be completed in 5 days but it is recommended to do it in 6 and acclimatise properly.
A few factors make it a cheaper climb: the proximity to Moshi, the short length of the climb and the lack of camping equipment needed. You would imagine that Marangu, being the oldest route on Kili, has a high success rate. This isn’t necessarily correct as this route can attract unprepared hikers who end up having to turn around. Summit night and the previous day see a large spike in elevation that brings mountain sickness with it *, this is especially true for 5-day climbers.
The route is also not as scenic as others, but you will still stand on the mighty summit ‘Uhuru Peak’ the same as everyone else. You will also grab some awesome views of one of Kilimanjaro’s three volcanic cones, Mawenzi. As you return the same way the sights are limited to what you have already experienced on the previous days, albeit with added elation and sense of achievement.
If you’re pushed for time, on a tight budget, hate tents and harder treks then Marangu is potentially the route for you.
The Machame Route
If Marangu is known as the “Coca-Cola route” then it’s no wonder that Machame is dubbed the “Whiskey Route”. It is a tougher climb that certainly isn’t for the unprepared. It is one of the busiest routes on the mountain but is very different from Marangu.
You begin your trek in the rainforest zone at the Machame gate to the south of the mountain. This is a beautiful route as it moves through many ecosystems and has a stunning view as you arrive into Shira Camp on the plateau of the Shira volcanic cone.
It’s a steeper, more undulating climb than some of the other routes, but this affords you the opportunity to trek high and sleep low which is an important part of acclimatisation.
This route can be attempted in 6 days (meaning you will attempt the summit in the early hours of the 5th day). However, there is a much higher success rate of those that stretch it out to 7 days as this gives you a short day before the summit push.
Machame is a camping route, there are no huts to sleep in. This is where good gear and guiding is essential. To attempt the summit you should be well rested and well fed. A perfectly placed hot chocolate, bowl of salty cucumber soup and warm sleeping bag are so welcome at the end of a long day. Camping is an incredible way to experience the mountain and the views from Shira camp will reinforce this beyond belief.
This route also takes you around the Lava Tower and over the Barranco Wall, an obstacle that looks much more difficult than it is. You’ll head onward to the summit base of Barafu (the Swahili word for ice) Camp. It’s cold here and there is 50% less oxygen than sea level.
Most summit attempts begin just before midnight so you can summit at sunrise. It is one of the most beautiful sunrises you will ever see as you pass Gilman’s Point, Stella Point and move onto Uhuru Peak.
Machame descends along a different route down to Mweka Camp, which sits back in the rainforest zone. The songs around the campfire are loud and spirits high.
The Shira Route
This route is difficult, not because it is technically challenging but because the altitude at which you begin your climb is much higher. The Shira Gate sits at 3,500 metres, nearly 2,000 metres higher than the Machame Gate. This is a massive altitude spike if you are coming from the towns below. This is accentuated by the fact that you are driven up to the Shira Gate, giving you even less time to acclimatise to the altitude. The Shira Route then joins up with the Lemosho Route on the 2nd day and then with the Machame Route on day 3.
The western side of Kilimanjaro is further to reach and therefore is more remote and expensive. It has less climbers until it links up with Machame at the Lava Tower.
If you are a confident hiker who has trekked at altitude before then Shira shouldn’t present any significant problems. It can be done in 6 days but is usually stretched to 8 days.
The Lemosho Route
A route that was created as an alternative to the Shira Route. It was made as a lower set off point for those attempting Kilimanjaro from the west. The Londorossi Gate sits at 2,300 metres with a longer walk through the rainforest. This gives climbers more time to gradually adjust to the altitude.
As with the Shira Route, the western side is more remote making it a further drive and more expensive. This creates some great positives though as the first few days will have less traffic on the route. You are also more likely to see larger wildlife on this route, including the mighty tembo (elephant).
The Lemosho Route joins the Shira Route on day 2 and then the Machame Route the day after. It’s a longer trek that spans between 7 to 8 days. As with Machame and Shira, climbers need to be comfortable with camping.
The Rongai Route
The Rongai is the only route that approaches from the north. You register at the Marangu Gate and then head through to the start point on the Kenyan side of the mountain. As with other more remote set off points you get similar benefits. It is less busy and has higher chances of seeing wildlife.
This side of the mountain gets less rain than the southern section, so there is a higher potential to stay dry. It is also a milder ascension with flatter sections than other routes. This is great for exertion but not amazing for high trek/low camp acclimatisation.
The route can be attempted in 6, 7 or 8 days. As with any of the climbs, it’s important to give yourself enough time to acclimatise.
The descent goes down along the Marangu Route. It is a beautiful and gradual route. If budget isn’t a consideration then this route is a great contender.
The Northern Circuit
The newest route on Kilimanjaro begins at the Londorossi Gate in the west. The Northern Circuit follows the Lemosho Route and is the same all the way up to the Lava Tower.
This is where the trail differs from Lemosho, Shira and Machame. Instead of heading down to Barranco Camp, which is nestled under the Barranco Wall, the track moves in a different direction. Here the Northern Circuit earns its name, heading north to Moir Hut (shared by the Shira Route) before circling north-west around the northern slopes to join up with the Rongai Route variation at Third Cave.
Most summit via School Hut and descend along the Mweka Route, rejoining most other routes on their journey back. However, as with most routes, this can be customised to change the summit set off point and the descent along Marangu.
Checking the conditions of the route with your guide, especially during the rainy season is the best way to ensure you get the experience you want on the mountain.
The Umbwe Route
For the first couple of days, Umbwe is the least crowded route. There is good reason for this though, as it is also considered to be the hardest. After registering at the Machame Gate you begin in the rainforest and make a steep trail north.
It can be done in as little as 5 days (6 or 7 is recommended) and is a pretty steep climb on the first couple of days. There isn’t as much time to acclimatise on this route and it has a lower success rate. Climbers attempting Umbwe should be comfortable with altitude and steep trekking.
Most guides link the route to Machame on the evening of the second day, where traffic picks up. This means you’ll summit from Barafu camp. The route used to summit via the Western Breach and Arrow’s Glacier but changed when some climbers were killed by a rock fall in 2006. The Western Breach is open again and is the most challenging ascent to Uhuru Peak. This route is not for tourists and those considering should have a bit more technical knowledge of mountain climbing before seeking a guide who will accommodate you.
A quick note on altitude sickness
With altitude sickness it is important to seek advice from your own doctor before deciding to medicate as there are side effects. The risk of altitude sickness can greatly be reduced through proper acclimatisation methods and time frames. All of these can be planned beforehand. It is advisable to make this decision long before you step on the mountain as the medication has an adjustment period that can throw off your whole journey… trust me, it’s not a fun experience!