10 Things to Know Before Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Aug 28, 2017

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Mount Kilimanjaro boasts an impressive resume: Africa’s highest point, one of the Seven Summits, the world’s highest freestanding mountain and in many ways the highest and most glamorous peak an amateur can summit without technical training.

Naturally, every amateur adventurer has at least considered the prospect of standing atop Uhuru, Kilimanjaro’s peak. The trek is grueling, but the views are spectacular and the physical and mental challenge and achievement will be a point of pride forever. But the journey takes plenty of planning; here are 10 tips you’re less likely to encounter as you gear up for the trek.

1. AMS Doesn’t Care How Fit You Are

If you’d like to tick Kilimanjaro off your bucket list without kicking the bucket, add Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) education to your preparation. With the rapid elevation gains involved in a Kilimanjaro trek, climbers are at a high risk of AMS, so make sure you know the warning signs. Dizziness, headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea and rapid heart rate are all early symptoms, so stop and rest if they arise. If your condition doesn’t improve, descend immediately.

A common misconception with AMS is the more fit you are, the less likely it’ll affect you. However, your fitness level, age, gender or previous climbing experience don’t seem to matter — anyone can get it. In fact, fit climbers often suffer more severely because they’re more likely to ascend quicker or try to power through symptoms, which will only make matters worse.

To be safe, talk to your doctor before making any solid plans for your expedition. If you get clearance for the climb, start a discussion on AMS and ask about a prescription for Acetazolamide (Diamox), which will help you acclimate to high altitudes more quickly. Also, stay very hydrated throughout your climb. Note that the water you’ll drink is boiled or filtered stream water, which makes it safe for drinking, but still tastes like gravel, so bring some flavored water packets to cover that up.

Sometimes AMS classes are given during a trek - like this on I attended on a recent Nepal trek. However, it's best to educate yourself beforehand.
Sometimes AMS classes are given during a climb — like this one I attended on a recent Nepal trek — but it’s best to educate yourself beforehand.

2. You Can Get There With Points and Miles

Flying to a small airport on the opposite side of the world using multiple airlines is often the best time to use those miles. The closest airport is Kilimanjaro International (JRO) — roughly an hour’s drive from Arusha or Moshi, where most tours launch. Round-trip economy flights into JRO normally start at about $1,500, but because we are The Points Guy, we want to get you there for free. Here’s what an award from the USA to JRO will run you using miles from each of the major US programs:

Mileage Program Miles Required for Economy Miles Required for Business Available Partner Airlines Availability
United MileagePlus 80,000 160,000 Turkish Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines Great
Delta SkyMiles 70,000 160,000 KLM, Kenya Airways Scarce
American AAdvantage 80,000 150,000 Qatar (not bookable online and a challenge over the phone) Scarce
ANA Mileage Club 65,000 104,000 Turkish Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines Great

As you can see, ANA gives you the best value for your miles — especially in business — and there’s plenty of availability for Star Alliance award tickets on Turkish Airlines. You can also transfer Amex Membership Rewards Points and SPG Starpoints to ANA Mileage Club.

3. Booking Local Can Save You a Lot of Money

If you have some time and flexibility, consider holding off on booking your climb until you arrive in Arusha. There are plenty of local tour operators all around town, climbs can be arranged with very little notice and you can negotiate a trip for much less than the prices you’ll see online. While it’s possible to do the trek for close to $1,000, ask to meet your guides or inspect the rental equipment before you fork over any money — this can be a dangerous climb so you want to make sure you’re in good hands. It’s also possible to do the trek for $5,000 and up, but in the end, you’re climbing the same mountain. Remember, paying more money for a luxury African experience in no way means it’ll run more smoothly.

Bring plenty of US dollars — large bills issued in 2006 or later. USD is preferred over Tanzanian Shilling in many circumstances, including tourist visa fees ($100), park fees and porter tips. If prices are listed in both USD and TZS, check the exchange rate to see if it’s better to pay with dollars or withdraw shillings from an ATM using a card that doesn’t charge international fees for withdrawals. Also note the highest banknote in circulation is 10,000 shillings — less than $5!

4. Porters Rely on Your Tips for Pay

The government fees alone for climbing Kilimanjaro run about $800 per person. By the time everyone else gets their hands on your expedition money, often only a few dollars per day remain for porters that carry 40 pounds of your gear up the mountain. Ask your tour operator directly how much the porters are being paid, then tip on top of that to ensure they get $10-$15 per day. This is the recommended amount according to Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project, a non-profit aimed at improving their working conditions. Cooks and guides should get double, or more. Porters are well aware of the tipping habits of folks from different countries, so Americans should expect a warm greeting. On the flip side, I’ve heard stories of porters refusing to join treks with hikers from countries where tipping is much less prevalent.

Make sure these guys get paid.
Make sure these guys get paid.

5. Take the “Whiskey” Route

There are actually seven routes up Kilimanjaro, but almost everyone goes up either Marangu, known as the “Coca-Cola” route, or Macheme, the “Whiskey” route. Coca-Cola is a straight up and back five-day hike with tea houses to sleep in along the way. Macheme, on the other hand, is a six- or seven-day tent camping trek that follows the rim of the volcano for spectacular views and descends down a different route. Live a little (more) and take the Macheme route, or if you want to avoid crowds, try one of the other five less frequented trails.

Views on the Macheme route make the tent camping worth it.
Views on the Macheme route make tent camping worthwhile.

6. You’ll See Very Little Wildlife on the Trek

Don’t expect your hike up Kilimanjaro to double as a wildlife safari. The elevation, cold temperatures and lack of plant life are enough to keep all but the craziest animal species — hey, that’s you! — off this mountain. Small rodents and birds are fairly common, and you may catch some distant monkeys in the forest zone on the first and last day, but you won’t see the big animals that make Africa famous.

Because you’ve come this far, pair your Kilimanjaro trek with a real African Safari. To the west is the Ngorongoro Crater, which may have soared higher than Kilimanjaro if it hadn’t collapsed into a caldera a few million years ago. Nowadays, it’s home to one of the greatest concentrations of wildlife in Africa and the crater is normally the highlight of a Serengeti Desert safari.

Spot the Water Buffalo and the rest of the Big Five in the Ngorogoro Crater after you finish your climb
Spot the Cape Buffalo and the rest of the “Big Five” in Ngorongoro Crater after your climb.

7. Prepare Yourself for Squat Toilets

This is Africa, which means a normal bathroom — labeled “WC” — is a hole in the ground, not a throne to sit on. As a Westerner, you may not realize this because most places that cater to tourists will have Western-style toilets, but Kilimanjaro National Park is not one of them and you should expect to encounter an unkempt, long drop hole in a rickety outhouse. Get to yoga class now and work on your malasana prayer squat pose to loosen those hips that a lifetime of seated toilets have tightened up. If you can’t handle a squat toilet, talk to your tour operator about taking a portable private toilet along on the hike. It’ll add several hundred dollars to the cost — it’s included in many mid-range and all high-end outfits — but may be worth it if you need the seat.

The lovely restroom facilities of Kilimanjaro National Park
The lovely restroom facilities of Kilimanjaro National Park.

8. Summit Day is Brutal

Summit day may be the most physically challenging day of your life. Up until this point, the hike has been slow, steady and tough — but it’s nothing compared to summit day. Mornings start around midnight (yes, midnight!). After you put on every layer you have and packs loads and loads of water, you start the crawl up to the summit. What follows is eight hours of steep switchbacks where all you see is your feet shuffling alongside each other under the lighting of your headlamp.

The effort is worth it when you reach the rim of the crater at sunrise. After a break to watch the oranges and yellows and reds infiltrate the sky, you have less than an hour’s hike around the rim to the summit. When you reach it, don’t waste any time — take your pictures and film your reflections. You’ve gone from 15,500 feet to 19,300 feet in a morning — a big no-no for AMS. That gives you about 20 minutes at the peak before your body realizes what you’ve done.

But you’re not finished — you still have to get off this mountain. Be careful: Most mountain climbing accidents happen on the descent. Don’t allow gravity to let you get lazy with your footing.

With friends Aaron and Joe at the summit. Don't worry - they've since added another sign that identifies the peak also as Mt. Kilimanjaro - so you won't miss out on any Facebook likes.
From left, Aaron, Joe and me at the summit.

9. Learn Some Swahili

It doesn’t take much, but a few key phrases go a long way to get some smiles from the locals.

“Jambo! Mambo?” = Hey! How are ya?

“Mambo Poa.” = I’m cool.

“Mzungu” = Foreigner / European / White person.

“Pole Pole” (prounounced “pulley”) = Slowly, slowly. You’ll be hearing this a lot on the climb.

If you go in knowing this much, your guides can start right away with more advanced phrases — profanity comes in handy on this trek. I also learned how to say “cheers” and “I’m crazy cool like bananas” — both of which sound even more fun in Swahili.

You’ll hear your guides say “Pole, Pole” often, especially on sketchy passes like this one.

10. End Your Trip on the Beaches of Zanzibar

There are few times in your life you’ve earned a few days on the beach more than you have by now. Zanzibar, an island just off Tanzania’s coast in the idyllic Indian Ocean, is a short plane or ferry ride away. Head north to Kendwa for powder white sands and sea so turquoise it looks like it’s been through an Instagram filter. You’ve earned every right to not move from your lounge chair, but if you decide to, take a snorkel trip to nearby Mnemba Island or venture way down south to swim with wild dolphins in Kizimkazi.

The turquoise waters and white sand beaches of Zanzibar are the perfect remedy for your aching body.
The turquoise waters and white sand beaches of Zanzibar are the perfect remedy for your aching body.

Is climbing Mount Kilimanjaro on your travel bucket list? Have you done it already? Tell us about it, below.

All photos by the author.

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