Ten Things You Should Know before Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro 

The roof of Africa and the easiest of the seven summits: Mount Kilimanjaro. I quickly realized that Kilimanjaro has a bit of a mixed reputation. Some people will assure you that it it’s no more than an easy hike – everyone’s mountain. Others stress that altitude is altitude and at 19,341 feet, nothing is easy. I guess I fall somewhere in the middle. The first few days were easy – almost too easy. But summit day was tough. Not so much because the hike itself was tough, but because after an hour of sleep, hiking at midnight when you can’t feel your extremities and you’re losing oxygen isn’t fun. Here are ten things I think you should know before climbing Kilimanjaro:

  1. You need a guide. It is a legal requirement to have a guide to climb Kilimanjaro. You don’t have a choice, so prepare to hire a guide. 
  2. Your guide choice matters. I’ve heard horror stories of guides rushing people with altitude sickness up the mountain. Then I saw it. I saw climbers who couldn’t stand on their own being pulled up the mountain by guides. I guess companies want their success rates to be higher. Remember that you lose good judgment when you have altitude sickness, so having a bad guide could literally be life or death. Find someone who you trust will take you down the mountain if you’re feeling sick. I would also recommend going in a private group. It’s a more personalized experience and I think everyone’s needs are catered to better. I went with three friends and we were all very glad we had a private group. 
  3. Slowly is better. Your body needs time to adjust to altitude, and the way you feel can change quickly. Don’t risk it. Climbing Kilimanjaro is expensive. If you’re paying the money, you want to summit. If you don’t know how your body typically reacts to altitude (disclaimer: no one knows what causes altitude sickness and even someone who has never gotten it before can go to altitudes they have previously been to and get it), then choose a longer route. I did the 7 day Machame route. I think that was a good amount of time. 
  4. Mental stamina is key. Climbing Kilimanjaro is a marathon, not a race. The guides will tell you “pole, pole” meaning “slowly, slowly”. Listen to them. Knowing that the trek was going to be 7 days was tough for me. I hate camping, so I started counting down the nights right away. I was very focused on the end goal and sometimes I just wanted it to be over with. Learn to love the process. That’s something I struggle with, but want to work on. 
  5. Pack appropriately. You’ll be trekking through quite a few different climates. At the bottom, you’ll be hot and sweaty in a t-shirt. On summit day, you’ll probably be freezing no matter what you’re wearing. Bring clothes for every environment and bring lots of layers. Weather changes quickly. 
  6. You’re going to smell. Horrible. You’re going to smell horrible. And so is everyone else. There are no showers. Do everyone a favor and bring some wipes. 
  7. It gets cold. Especially at night. Yeah, I learned this one the hard way. I wasn’t paying much attention when I packed my sleeping bag and accidentally packed my summer sleeping bag instead of my winter sleeping bag. Big mistake. By the third night, I was freezing and couldn’t sleep. Luckily I learned a few tricks that kept me warm later nights. If you find yourself cold at night, stuff your sleeping bag with clothes. Try to eliminate any air pockets. Bring hand warmers and toe warmers. If you’re really cold, throw a few in your sleeping bag. Ask your guide to fill up a water bottle with boiling water, wrap the bottle in your winter coat, and put it at the feet of your sleeping bag. If you’re really prone to getting cold, bring an emergency outdoor blanket (one of the thin foil ones) and wrap it around your sleeping bag. 
  8. Bringing Diamox doesn’t hurt. I don’t like taking medicine unnecessarily. But I also don’t like dropping $3,000 to not summit a mountain. I got Diamox from my travel doctor and brought it just in case. Someone at the hotel I stayed at before I left told me that people who take Diamox have a 30% better success rate. I felt fine and my oxygen levels were high. But then I thought about how quickly things can change with altitude. I didn’t want to risk not summitting, so I started taking Diamox on our third day. I’m not sure whether I needed it, but I didn’t have any issues with altitude. I’d like to test how I do without Diamox, but not when the success of a $3,000 trip is on the line. 
  9. Injuries and deaths do happen. Yes, deaths. They are relatively rare on Kilimanjaro, but they do happen. I saw a dead person being carried down in a stretcher the day before our summit. I didn’t know he was dead at the time because I was far enough away that I couldn’t tell there was a sleeping bag covering his face. I assumed it was an injury, but later learned it was a death. The man had gotten dizzy, fell, and hit his head on a rock. He died instantly. Remember the risks associated with what you’re doing and take precautions to minimize those risks when you can. Take injuries seriously. Don’t push through injuries that shouldn’t be pushed through – that can lead to more serious problems. You’re at the mercy of the mountain. Remember that. 
  10. Tips are nice. Your guides, cooks, and especially your porters work hard. If you’re satisfied, tip them. Especially your porters. Imagine carrying all of that crap up and down the mountain. It’s tough work. 

5 thoughts on “Ten Things You Should Know before Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro 

Leave a Reply