Everything you need to know about East Africa’s most incredible adventure.
Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, while certainly the adventure of the lifetime, is definitely not for the faint of heart. During the hike, you’ll experience a unique combination of joy, exhaustion, giddiness, wonder, and lunacy. The freezing winds and lack of toilet facilities are enough to drive anyone mad. Couple that with daunting physical strain, and Africa’s highest peak seems almost unreachable. Don’t be scared off though—this is one journey that shouldn’t be missed. Panoramic vistas, diverse terrain, stupendous sunrises, and the overarching feelings of accomplishment render this bucket-list hike worthy of an attempt. With proper planning, you too can summit Mount Kilimanjaro, hopefully with your sanity (and soul) still intact.
Don’t Just Go for Six Days
While booking your trip, it’s going to seem really easy to hike Kilimanjaro in less than a week. A lot of companies offer quick treks up the mountain that last six days and are cheaper than the seven and eight day treks. But don’t do it. The six-day hikes have low success rates, the trails will be crowded, and you’ll spend the entire time dealing with altitude sickness after not acclimatizing slowly enough. Instead of the short option, take an extra day and do the longer (and more scenic) Northern Circuit Route.
Go With the Right Company
Not all tour companies are created equal. There are plenty of organizations that unfortunately underpay their Tanzanian guides and porters, and those groups are not worth your money or support. Keep it ethical, and do your research to make sure that the organization you choose has a good reputation in Tanzania.
Follow the Packing List
Any tour operator worth its salt will send you a packing list prior to departure. Treat it like your bible, and follow it exactly. When they say you need six pairs of heavy socks and a balaclava, you need six pairs of heavy socks and a balaclava. Take it from me, the woman who spent the majority of her nights on Kilimanjaro shivering in the tent because her sweaters weren’t thick enough.
INSIDER TIPDon’t forget to break in your hiking boots! If purchasing new boots, spend those months leading up to Kilimanjaro hitting the pavement and trails whenever you can. Your hiking boots will be your best friend or worst enemy on the mountain, and, since this is something you actually have control over, do it right.
Go With People You Love
With ferocious winds and frequent snowstorms looming as a constant threat, Kilimanjaro is a place to contemplate mortality. When you’re tired, cold, and oh so delirious, you’ll want to have the comfort of friends and family, especially, if you’re like me, the dangerous conditions at the summit inspire you to record your last will and testament (“The Cubs tickets can go to Mom,” I rambled to my brother. “They’re having a crappy season, anyways” [the Chicago Cubs went on to win the World Series that year]). Make sure to take on Kilimanjaro with dear friends and family who laugh easily, and will love you regardless of how many times you get on their nerves (and vice versa).
Get Ready to Laugh at Yourself
Without laughing and joking around with your porters and companions, this mountain is far too daunting, and the task at hand far too great. Don’t forget to have fun, and embrace the absurdity of your situation. I spent most of my time on Mount Kilimanjaro laughing, and it wasn’t just because of oxygen deprivation. I laughed every time I tripped, realized I forgot to pack extra socks, and mispronounced yet another Swahili word.
Book a Hotel
Bring Advil and Take Diamox
Diamox, a medicine prescribed to all hikers attempting Kilimanjaro, will help curb altitude sickness. It’ll also make your hands tingle and probably give you diarrhea, but trust me when I say it’s going to be necessary on the mountain. Oxygen deprivation, regardless of how much they warn you and how many Diamox tablets you take, is real. Make sure to follow your doctor’s directions and take the Diamox before you exhibit altitude sickness symptoms. High as kites, and weak as kittens, I hoarded our Diamox and Advil pills like no other. I counted and recounted our Advil (necessary to cure the never-ending high altitude headaches), continually concerned about our dwindling supplies. So take heed from my mistakes, and bring more than enough (we’re talking Costco-sized bottles, here) to last the entire journey.
Drink an Unreasonable Amount of Water
Every time you think to yourself, “Nah, I’ve had enough water today, I’m good,” you’re wrong. Every single time. Water is one of the biggest keys to success on Kilimanjaro. Even on the last few days, when you’re shivering and your water is ice cold, drink it. It’ll stave away the headaches and the inevitable group arguments.
Listen to Your Guides
Your guides are heroes. Legitimate heroes. They drag all your gear up the mountain, and on particularly tough days drag you as well. All the guides on Kilimanjaro have done the hike dozens—if not hundreds— of times, and they know their stuff. Listen when they tell you to have one more sip of water or another bite of an apple. Your ability to follow their lead will undoubtedly influence your likelihood of success.
INSIDER TIPMake sure to bring enough cash to tip your guides properly, and contact your tour company for appropriate trip estimates in advance.
Expect Some Rough Bowel Movements
Ah, pooping; everyone’s favorite Kilimanjaro topic. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to confine your bowel movements to the nice little portable toilet set up at camp. If you’re not, and have to go on the go, expect to do your business all over the mountain. It’s not pleasant, but it’s certainly not the end of the world. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, bring some extra toilet paper (and bags to hold the used toilet paper), and get ready for some unexpected side effects of your malaria tablets, Diamox pills, altitude, and camp food.
INSIDER TIPBring an assortment of poop-related drugs like Imodium for when the goings get tough.
There are hundreds of opportunities on Kilimanjaro to turn back. When the snow starts to pile up, or the slope looks impossibly steep, you’re going to want to go home. Before you even attempt this journey, think about how tough it’s going to be and make sure you’re going into it as confidently as possible. This is a mental climb—not a physical one. I’m not in the world’s greatest shape, but before starting the hike, I was positive I was going to summit. Hold onto your positivity, have a good attitude, and you’ll make it to the top.