At 19,341 feet/5,895 meters, snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is the highest peak in Africa and the world's tallest free-standing mountain. It's also the world's tallest walkable mountain—and what a walk it is. To reach the summit, one must pass through five distinct climate zones ranging from rainforest to alpine desert and eventually glacial Arctic. Although it is possible to climb Mount Kilimanjaro without any specific mountaineering training or equipment, summiting the Roof of Africa is not an easy task.
Find a Tour Operator
Experts estimate that only 65% of climbers reach the summit of Kilimanjaro, but your chances increase significantly if you choose the right operator. It is compulsory to climb Kilimanjaro with a guide, and although you can find independent guides for slightly cheaper rates, organized tours offer a better experience and better back-up in case of emergency. Operators vary from first-class to downright negligent, so it's important to be selective and to prioritize safety over cost. Thomson Treks is a respected operator with a 98%+ success rate.
Top Tip: Avoid low-end companies and make sure to check operator reviews and success rates carefully before deciding.
Time Your Trip
It is possible to climb Mount Kilimanjaro all year round, but some months are distinctly more comfortable than others. Tanzanian weather patterns mean that there are two optimum seasons for trekking Kilimanjaro—from January to March, and from June to October. Between January and March, the weather is cooler and the routes are less crowded. From June to October, the mountain is busier (due to the season coinciding with northern hemisphere summer holidays), but the days are warm and pleasant. It's best to avoid the wetter months of April, May, and November while warm clothing is required at the summit all year round.
Top Tip: Book well in advance for peak season trips with the safest climbing conditions.
Prepare for Success
Although mountaineering training isn't necessary, a reasonable level of fitness goes a long way on Kilimanjaro. If you're somewhat lacking in this department, you'll want to work on your stamina in the months leading up to your trek. Practice hikes also give you the opportunity to break in your new hiking boots, minimizing the chance of debilitating blisters. Exertion at altitude can affect the body in different ways, so it's a good idea to get a medical check-up before departure. Even the most basic ailments can make your life miserable at 18,000 feet.
Top Tip: Comprehensive travel insurance is essential. Make sure that your plan includes cover for medical treatment and emergency evacuation by helicopter.
Choose Your Route
There are seven main routes up Kilimanjaro. Each one varies in terms of difficulty, traffic, and scenic beauty; and choosing the right one for you is a key part of the planning process. Timings depend on which route you choose, with hikes taking anywhere from five to 10 days. The routes with the highest success rate are those that take longer and ascend at a gradual rate, allowing climbers to acclimatize to the change in altitude.
Also known as the Coca-Cola route, Marangu is the classic Kilimanjaro route. It is traditionally considered the easiest, with a gradual slope and communal sleeping huts located at strategic locations along the way. It takes a minimum of five days to climb, although success rates for this time frame are low. Despite its reputation, experts do not recommend Marangu because it is the most crowded and least scenic of the Kilimanjaro routes.
Machame, or the Whiskey route, was opened as a tougher alternative to Marangu and has now replaced Kili's oldest route as the most popular choice for adventurous climbers. It can also get crowded, especially at bottlenecks in the rainforest section. It is steeper and more scenic than Marangu and enjoys a better success rate. You'll need at least six days to climb Machame, although seven is preferable. It is the most affordable route offered by Thomson Treks.
As one of the mountain's newer routes, Lemosho comes highly recommended by trusted operators like Thomson and Ultimate Kilimanjaro. It sees far fewer crowds than Marangu and Machame, and stands out for its unparalleled scenery with panoramic views from all sides of the mountain. This route takes a minimum of six days, although eight to nine days is recommended. Plenty of time for acclimatization and a daytime summit bid explain Lemosho's high success rate.
Those with plenty of time to spare should consider the Northern Circuit. Kili's newest route takes nine days and virtually circumnavigates the mountain, making it the longest choice both in terms of time and distance traveled. The extra days spent at mid-altitude allow for plenty of acclimatization, which in turn leads to a very good summit success rate. This is also the most remote route, with magnificent scenery including elevated views into neighboring Kenya.
Rongai is the only route to approach Kilimanjaro from the north, near the Kenyan border. It sees relatively few climbers, and is a particularly good choice if you decide to travel during the rainy season as the mountain's northern face sees the least precipitation. Cons include the fact that the scenery is not as varied as some of the other routes, and the fact that the descent takes you down the crowded Marangu route. Rongai takes six to seven days to complete.
The Shira route approaches the mountain from the west and is nearly identical to the Lemosho route. The only difference is that instead of starting the trek at the Londorossi Gate, climbers are transported by vehicle to the Shira Gate at 11,800 feet/3,600 meters. This allows you to skip the initial section of the climb but also puts you at greater risk of altitude sickness due to the relatively high starting point. This route takes between seven and 10 days.
As the most challenging of the Kili routes, Umbwe is only recommended for experienced climbers who are confident in their ability to acclimatize quickly. It takes a minimum of six days and involves steep, difficult slopes with a rapid ascent profile. You'll also be making your summit bid under cover of darkness. Because of this, Umbwe has a low success rate. However, it is also one of the least crowded and most visually impressive routes.
Top Tip: Allow time for a longer trek in order to maximize your chances of reaching the summit.
It's important to find the balance between packing light and making sure that you have everything you need. Layers are crucial given the diversity of Kilimanjaro's climate. You'll need sun protection for the lower reaches, and warm clothes for the summit. A good quality sleeping bag is essential, as is a basic first aid kit (your operator should provide more extensive safety equipment, including oxygen and a defibrillator). It is possible to rent equipment on-site, although quality and fit vary greatly.
Remember to pack spare batteries for your camera, and photocopies of your passport/ insurance documents.
Top Tip: Make sure to carry cash for tipping your guide and your porter, who will carry up to 30 lbs/15 kg of your personal gear for you.
Altitude sickness is the single biggest reason for failed summit attempts on Kilimanjaro. The best way to acclimatize to the mountain's extreme altitude is to choose a route that ascends gradually, taking six days or longer. Certain medications (like Diamox and ibuprofen) may help to lessen the effects of altitude sickness, while hydration (preferably with purified water) is also important. Altitude sickness can affect anyone, regardless of your training or fitness, and as such it's vital that you are able to recognize the symptoms.
These include headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Read up on the effects in advance and be prepared to descend if necessary, remembering that the most serious form of altitude sickness can be fatal.
Top Tip: Learn your limits and don't attempt to push them. When it comes to Kilimanjaro, slow and steady really does win the race.
Budgeting for Your Trip
A Kilimanjaro trek can cost anywhere from $2,400-$8,000+ per person. This fee should include camping, food, guides, park fees, and transport to and from the mountain. You need to make sure that your food is decent, that your guides and porters are fairly treated and well trained and that you get a good night's sleep. While the shorter routes are cheaper, your chances of reaching the summit are significantly reduced as a result of poor acclimatization. If you opt for a "good deal" make absolutely sure that your guides and porters are well-equipped to handle emergencies.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on September 9 2019.