Climbing Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, is a bucket list item for active adventurers the world over, and while its summit falls short of the 6,000-metre mark, that doesn’t mean it’s a cinch.
But as soon as you might add ‘Kili’ to your list of dream adventures, you’ll start wondering 'can I do it?'
If you’ve been to Nepal’s Everest region, you’ll know that Everest Base Camp is 5360m and a well-paced itinerary will take as long as 9 days to get there, including rest days. The height of Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in the European Alps, is 4,809m. Climbing Kili will be the toughest thing that many people who attempt it will ever do in the outdoors.
Climbing Kilimanjaro does require a certain level of fitness, but the average active person can achieve the summit if they’re prepared both physically and mentally.
If the following important points about climbing Kili doesn’t put you off taking on the challenge, then mentally you’re already halfway up the mountain:
• most of the ascent is between 2,500m and 5,895m (8,000 and 19,320 feet), so this is a genuinely high mountain trek at high altitudes – be prepared;
• the climbs are typically seven to eight days, and there are no ‘rest days’;
• while porters will carry most of your gear, you’ll still carry up to 8 kilos per day (water, snacks, personal items, etc.), mostly at altitude;
• if you get cannot complete the climb due to lack of fitness or feeling the effects of altitude there is no refund;
• you will be hiking as much as 1,000m in elevation on certain days, notably on summit days for most of these climbs; and
• summit day is very long, up to 15 hours. Climbing to 5,895m you’ll have half the oxygen you have at sea level as well as a grueling descent of more than 2,000m.
Is Kilimanjaro a Technical Mountain?
In mountaineering, ‘technical’ means using equipment like ropes. Kilimanjaro is a trekking peak, so there is no special mountaineering equipment or skills required other than an excellent level of fitness.
Training for Success on Kili: Increase Your Weekly Exercise
While our experienced guides and porters will take care of you on the mountain by preparing your camps and meals and showing you the beauty of the flora and fauna on the mountain, they can’t climb the mountain for you. Even if you’re in peak physical condition, you must train to really enjoy the trek.
Our most important suggestion for training for Kilimanjaro is to take any form of exercise you normally do (i.e., exercise you enjoy) and crank up the level of that exercise. If you’re a runner, run farther. If you’re a cyclist, cycle farther. At a bare minimum you should be doing at least 5 hours of training spread across several days per week. If you normally walk or run 5kms three mornings per week, try walking or running 7kms four mornings per week. And when that seems normal, push up the length or frequency of the walks/runs. We recommend you start training at least three months before your trip to Tanzania.
Train on Hills
Also, try to train on ground that is sloping. Whenever you can, train on hills. The difference between training on a slope and training on level ground is quite big, and the benefits of hillwalking and running are huge.
The five things you’re aiming to improve while you prepare for your Kilimnajaro climb are physical strength (especially in the legs), endurance, flexibility, balance, and mental preparedness.
Train for the Hardest Parts
Training in adverse conditions can help you prepare mentally. Rolling out of a sleeping bag in -20°C temperatures in the dark is not everyone’s idea of fun, so if you can get into a routine of getting up before the sun in a cold setting, try it. It will help you mentally.
Put Yourself in a ‘Kili Mindset’
Pretend you’re on the mountain while you train. Wear the boots you recently bought for the trip while you train. (That’ll help break them in, too, which is very important.) Wear a daypack and put as much weight as you can in it while training. Get used to your pack – it will become part of you. Picture yourself there. Wear the clothes you might wear on Kili and take off layers as you warm up.
Rest and Recover
Overtraining is not uncommon. If your physical exercise is too demanding, you risk injury, which certainly doesn’t help your ability to climb a mountain, especially if your departure date is getting closer.
Acclimatisation on Kili
As mentioned, there are no rest days on standard Kilimanjaro climbs. You may want to choose a longer route, or add one or two acclimatisation days to your trek up Kili. Talk to our experts if you’d like to tailor such an experience.
Also, think of a warm-up climb before Kili. Mount Meru, Kili’s little sister, is within a few miles of our base in Arusha, and the summit lies at 4,566m. An ascent takes four days, but it will vastly improve your experience on Kili.
The best acclimatisation strategy is to just climb the mountain slowly and keep sipping water to avoid being dehydrated. When you get on a trail, our Kili porters will constantly urge, ‘pole pole’ (‘polay-polay’), which means slow in Swahili. Take their advice. The slower you go, the better your chances of reaching Uhuru Peak.
Fuel & Hydration
Climbing a mountain for eight days requires a lot of personal fuel. Our East Africa staff serve fresh veggies and proteins three times a day on the mountain, and between meals it’s important to snack.
Our guides also stop during the morning and afternoon for tea. Tea breaks, as any afficionado knows, aren’t really about the liquid (although that doesn’t hurt). They’re about taking a half hour to check on yourself. Are you keeping up with the group? Are you hurting anywhere? Do you have a blister?
Avoiding dehydration is critical. According to our medical advisor, Dr Ross Anderson, mild dehydration is common in those who are active in the mountains and is a result of more water leaving the body than is taken on board. On average, 1.5 litres to 3 litres of water is required per day in an adult at sea level. However, more water is required when acclimatising to high altitudes. Read his full article, The Importance of Hydration at Altitude.
What to Bring
The most important things you’ll want to bring in your daypack are water bottles, layers of clothing, a sun hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, snacks, and a camera. You don’t need to worry about finding water on the mountain – your guide will take care of that. But you need to bring containers for as much water as you’ll consume while hiking, whether that’s one 1-litre bottle or four. Again, we can’t reiterate enough how important water is.
Remember to get what you need for the day out of the bags carried by the porters. In the mornings, they will pack whatever you give them in their big bags then start up the mountain. While the guide stays with you, the porters are often soon several kilometers ahead of the group and you might not see them until everyone stops for lunch. So, if you might want your camera during the morning’s hiking, make sure it’s in your day pack.
Also, the air gets 6.5°C colder with every 1,000 meters of elevation gain, so having clothing that you can layer is extremely important. We recommend a thick base layer plus two thermal layers and a shell jacket at a minimum. A big down jacket is especially nice when taking sunrise and sunset photos. You don’t need to have all these layers in your daypack, but a couple are welcome as you get higher. Learn more about layering.
When to Climb Kilimanjaro
East Africa has two wet seasons and two dry seasons every year.
Our Kili climbs take place during the dry seasons, December to mid-March and mid-June to the end of October. Most days during the dry season are sunny and clear, so a broad-brimmed hat and appropriate sunscreen are strongly recommended. It’s important to remember that because the air is thinner at altitude, there is a 6 to 10 percent increase in UV exposure for every 300m of elevation. Climbing high mountains puts you at greater risk for skin cancer.
Guides & Staff
Our East Africa guides and staff have spent many years working on Kilimanjaro and know the mountain like the backs of their hands. Some of them have climbed the mountain more than 200 times! World Expeditions employs and trains local experts in order to contribute to the local economy, which helps both visitors and local residents. These friendly folks will become close friends, especially on the final day as you descend back to the forests and farmland on the lower stretches of the mountain.
So, Can I Climb Kilimanjaro?
Yes, the average active person can climb Kilimanjaro, but you obviously need to be prepared. The more you train physically, the more you prepare mentally, the more you stay positive and the more you make your ascent a fun project rather than a chore, the greater your chances of making the summit. Work on your strength and stamina, prepare for the cold mornings and evenings, and you can start, as they say, dreaming of Africa.
Ready to climb Kili? See which route is right for you.
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Cam Burns is the author of Kilimanjaro & Mount Kenya: A Climbing and Trekking Guide and its subsequent edition Kilimanjaro & East Africa: A Climbing and Trekking Guide. He has climbed nine routes on Kilimanjaro and circumnavigated the peak. He works for World Expeditions in our Sydney office.