Here, we're looking at how to climb Mount Kilimanjaro - the African jewel in the Seven Summits crown. The most obvious reason that so many people decide to climb Kilimanjaro is the fact that it's the highest mountain in Africa (5,895m), and the highest free-standing mountain in the world.
The lore of climbing Mt Kilimanjaro for many goes right back to Hans Meyer, who became the first European to reach the summit in 1889. While less have heard the story of Sheila McDonald, the first woman to summit Kilimanjaro (and drink champagne on the top), it's arguably even more inspiring. You may want to experience a mountain that has varying ecosystems and weather conditions, from rainforest and alpine desert zones all the way up to Arctic. Or it could just be the allure of an African adventure, like those read in John Henry Patterson’s diaries.
But the real beauty of a Mount Kilimanjaro climb lies in the subtleties. They begin before you even hit the base of the mountain, arriving into the rural sections of Tanzania. Here you become acquainted with the infectious smiles of the Swahili people, something you carry with you for a long time. Their positive attitude and relaxed pace only serve to enrich the journey that awaits you. The word ‘safari’ means a journey in Swahili, and in a literal and metaphorical sense, a journey is what Kilimanjaro provides.
Tanzania is a nation that has enjoyed relative peace, compared to other neighbouring countries. The people credit this peace to their first president, Julius Kambarage Nyerere whom they affectionately refer to as “Baba Wa Taifa” (the father of the nation). And Kilimanjaro mountain is iconic of Tanzania.
You don't just climb Mount Kilimanjaro to climb a mountain. You climb it for the experience and the people. From the campfire songs and soul-polishing laughs to the gentle evening farewells of “lala salama” (sleep peacefully) as you snuggle into your sleeping bag. Under the watch of the mountain, you will fall in love with Tanzania, before you even begin your climb.
For those who have never climbed Mount Kilimanjaro before, the process of organising a trek is somewhat daunting. Our beginner's guide to climbing Kilimanjaro will help simplify the process, and give you a helping hand in planning the trekking experience of a lifetime.
When is the best time to climb Kilimanjaro?
Mount Kilimanjaro sits in Kilimanjaro National Park. It's 300km south of the equator - and Tanzania is iconically tropical, with wet seasons and and dry season variations laid over a hot muggy climate. So when is the best time to climb Kilimanjaro? Let's take a look at the seasons and Kilimanjaro climbing season.
Tanzania experiences two rainy seasons: a short one in November to mid-December and the long rainy season from March to May. The routes on Mount Kilimanjaro can be wet and muddy underfoot during these seasons. If you care less about monsoonal weather and more about solitude, then you may prefer these times to climb as there are far fewer people. Although expect to get very damp.
July to October is peak time on the mountain, especially as it coincides with European summer holidays. This window of time is dry and cooler than the Christmas months, but prepare for some cold nights. If you want to enjoy similar weather, but with far fewer people, then Mid-May to June is an optimal time for you. It’s just before the holidays, but still peak climbing season.
December to February are much warmer and have good visibility. The short rainy season can run into December though so it may still be wet. These months also coincide with the Christmas holidays so it can still get busy.
How Long Does it Take to Climb Kilimanjaro?
There are seven routes up Kilimanjaro, each of which takes between five and nine days. However, it’s very important not to rush the ascent as it could lower your success rate! The reason for this is because you need to ensure time for your body to acclimate to high altitude.
A slow, steady ascent gives your body time to adjust to high altitudes - where there is less oxygen in the air - if you race to the summit, you’re in danger of getting altitude sickness and having to leave the mountain.
Can You Climb Kilimanjaro Without a Guide?
In 1991, the Tanzanian government and Kilimanjaro National Park passed a regulation that all trekkers must be accompanied by a registered and licensed guide. Trekkers need to register with the Parks Authority before setting out, and sign in at each camp - they are forbidden from wild camping or using caves for shelter. Rangers on the mountains will ensure that these rules are enforced.
You’ll also need to pay park entrance fees to climb Kilimanjaro. These might seem hefty, but they include a conservation fee - to help cover the cost of maintenance - campsite fees, and even a rescue fee (just in case). You can expect to pay around £600-£800 in park fees, depending on the duration of your trek. This needs to be provided to the park authorities in advance through your tour operator, rather than independently.
How Much Does it Cost to Climb Kilimanjaro?
Undeniably, Kilimanjaro treks can be expensive. Not only are there the national park fees, but you’ll also have to pay for your guide. Many tour operators use porters to help carry heavy camping equipment, as well as other support staff.
Climbing Kilimanjaro often costs between £1500 and £4500, depending on the length of your route and the tour operator you use. We wouldn’t recommend going for the cheapest option you can find when searching for trekking guides - you pay for experience and this means doing things properly. Decent guides will ensure proper equipment, experience in weather and trekking conditions, good food, and a good time frame to allow for rest and adjustment.
How to Prepare for Climbing Kilimanjaro
Before climbing Kilimanjaro, it’s important to ensure that you have a good level of fitness. You can prepare for the hike by, well, going on some other hikes…check out our list of the best hikes in the UK for some inspiration! If you live in a city, you can hit up the local gym - the stairmaster will help build endurance and strength. And there’s always the stairs in your house - we once worked out that Kilimanjaro is around 24,915 stairs high!
If you’re going to be carrying most of your own gear, then practice hiking while carrying a weighted backpack - it really does make it much more difficult!
What clothing and equipment do you need?
Although Kilimanjaro is considered a walk up mountain, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s easy. Preparation is key, especially if you are on a shorter time frame or harder route. Porters can carry the food and cooking implements as well as your sleep system. Most trekking companies have plenty of spare equipment if you are in need, but as always, tried and tested personal gear is priceless. Pack as you would for any long multi-day treks at altitude, including the following:
- Good waterproof and breathable hiking boots and plenty of thick socks. These should be tried and tested before the hike begins as finding out they are unsuitable and uncomfortable two days in is the last thing you want.
- A good waterproof backpack and hydration sack – one big enough to hold your personal items (camera, head torch, clothes and the food you are given for the day).
- Thermals for the cold nights (and some days) hiking.
- Waterproof/windproof pants and shell, even if you are hiking in the dryer seasons – the weather can become cold very quickly.
- Quick-dry hiking clothes and trousers. Zip-off trousers are great for the first and last days of the treks.
- Fleece/down jackets are needed for when the temperature drops. It’s easy to forget these items whilst sweating at the base of the mountain in a tropical country. The summit can be as cold as -30 degrees Celsius.
- Beanie and gloves.
- Sunscreen and sunglasses is one most people forget. You can be very exposed some days and you don’t want to be burnt for your time on the mountain.
- A warm change of clothes for the nights is a great idea. They help you stay cosy and break up the amount of time you need to spend in your trekking clothes.
- As with any trek, bring basic toiletries like toothbrush and toothpaste, but not so much that you struggle to carry the weight you’ve packed.
- A head torch for the evenings and summit night.
- Hiking snacks - and lots of them! Energy bars are a lightweight, high-calorie option.
- A small medical kit with essentials like plasters and second skin can be very handy. Blisters are the last thing you need!
What’s the best way to climb Kilimanjaro?
There are many Kilimanjaro hikes to choose from. The particular route you choose will largely depend on your level of experience, fitness, budget and time frame - as well as your personal wants. It's well worth looking at each of them to pick the best way to climb Kilimanjaro for you.
The number of trekking days are adjustable on most routes as well as food and comfort options on the hike. Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro is no small undertaking. It may be considered one of the easiest of the Seven Summits, but it's still a 5895m mountain. It's tempting to think you can jog up and down in half the listed time if you're in a rush. It is possible. You can skip acclimatisation days and make very quick ascents on Kilimanjaro. But this is definitely not recommended. Altitude sickness is no joke on the mountain.
This is a multi-day trek, and there are plenty of sites on the way depending on your route, not least the the Lava Tower - a 300ft rock formation that was formed from lava when Kilimanjaro was still an active volcano - if you travel along the Lemosho or Machame routes. There are seven routes to choose from when you climb Kilimanjaro. Let's take a look at each one in turn, to help you have the best Kilimanjaro hike.
Marangu is known as the Coca-Cola route. It is considered to be a very touristy route and draws its name from the small huts you sleep in that sell bottled Coke. The Marangu route is the only route that offers sleeping huts. The track is a gradual climb that most consider to be the easiest way of climbing Kilimanjaro.
Machame is known as the whiskey route. It is a harder hike than Marangu and also quite busy. The route offers spectacular views as you move through the different ecosystems of the mountain. Hike Kilimanjaro this way for good acclimatisation options: there are higher altitude days that settle into lower altitude camps at night.
Rongai is also considered a milder route. This Kilimanjaro climb approaches the summit from the remote north with less rainfall, meaning you are more likely to stay dry. It takes longer to reach the starting gate than the other treks which can make it more expensive, but is also more isolated with higher chances of observing wildlife.
Shira starts at 3,600 metres. This is much higher than the other gates and is a massive factor in altitude sickness, especially if you drive up to the gate and do not spend the time walking and acclimatising. Hiking Kilimanjaro this way joins the Lemosho route on day two, before joining Machame on the third day.
Lemosho was created as an alternative Mt. Kilimanjaro hike to the Shira route. It has a lower gate that allows climbers more time to acclimatise to the altitude. Hike Kilimanjaro this way for a wilder route with there are opportunities to see wildlife on the trek, including tembo (elephant). It also joins up with Machame on the third day.
The Northern Circuit is a newer route than the others. It begins along the Lemosho route, crosses the Shira plateau and then circles around the northern slopes rather than the busier eastern approach. It's a more unusual way of hiking Kilimanjaro.
Umbwe is considered the shortest, steepest and most difficult route by many. This is a serious Kilimanjaro mountain climb. The first day involves some very steep hiking. Most operators join the Machame route on the second night at Barranco camp.
How do you get to Kilimanjaro?
A Mount Kilimanjaro hike will typically set off from one of two towns. Arusha lies to the south west of the mountain and Moshi directly south. There is so much to explore around these areas, from giant waterfalls, monkey forests and volcanic waterholes… not to mention some of the most amazing and wildlife-rich national parks in the world!
You can fly into Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO) and get to both towns easily. If you are coming from Dar es Salaam then there are plenty of buses, as well as flights from the paradise island of Zanzibar and neighbouring Kenya.
Most trekkers spend a few nights in town preparing for the trek and acquaint themselves with their surroundings, but beware in doing this as it may make you wish you’d booked a longer trip so you can stick around.