What I wish I knew before climbing Kilimanjaro

My trek to Kilimanjaro started a year before I even set foot on Tanzanian soil.

I was on a domestic flight in neighboring Kenya and the pilot announced that if we looked out the window to our right, we could see the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro – the highest peak in Africa. I decided then and there that I wanted to climb this iconic mountain – and I did.

Kilimanjaro is a popular peak, claimed by many who covet the title of climbing the highest mountain in Africa. We humans love superlatives – the biggest, the tallest, the oldest. But don’t be fooled into thinking that just because many have gone before you, it will be a walk in the park. Oh no – it’s the most challenging thing I have ever Done. But I couldn’t recommend it more.

Tanzania Kilimanjaro trek

The best feeling

I am convinced of that anyone can accomplish this truly life-changing feat—I still push my mom to get up there.

Here are my top tips to help you get up there.

Go slowly

Before going on this trip I read every blog that was on altitude sickness – what were the symptoms, what could I do to prevent it – so to save you from all that reading, here ya go: top tip – go slow . I would wait until everyone had moved on and join the line right behind, I saw knew that I could not go anyone more slowly.

The reason for walking slowly is that your body works harder at altitude. The air is thinner and there is less oxygen to breathe. The porters will tell you “pole, pole” which means “slow, slow”. Think of the Hare and the Tortoise. Be the turtle. Go slower than usual and your body will thank you.

Tanzania Kilimanjaro trek

Porters on the Kilimanjaro trek

Walks like these are not a race. This is actually one of my favorite things about hiking – it’s not a competitive sport. It’s actually the opposite, everyone wants everyone to succeed. So don’t be ashamed to be in the back like I was. I didn’t get altitude sickness, and I also became good friends with the porter whose job it was to bring up the rear end. His grandfather was one of the first porters to work on the mountain. I wouldn’t know that if I walked in the front.


Drink plenty

Hydration will also ward off possible altitude sickness. Make sure you have a CamelPak or Platypus instead of a bottle so that water is constantly available while you walk. When your hands are cold, you don’t want to take off your gloves to unscrew a bottle cap. Plus, you should drink three liters a day, and it’s a hassle to have to stop to take a bottle out of your bag every time you take a sip.

And more than just water – take hydration salts. I put a bag directly in my CamelPak every day just to make sure I was over hydrated. Diarrhea is common at altitude and in general if your body is getting used to being abroad then salts like Dioralyte are your best friend.

Tanzania Kilimanjaro trek

A hike you must be prepared for

Get the right gear

I recently met someone who climbed Kilimanjaro and hated the experience – I was devastated – but not surprised when she explained why. The reason she doesn’t swoon nostalgically about how life-changing and magical the top night was is because she was completely unprepared. She didn’t have enough or even the right type of clothes for the hike. And to top it off, she accidentally left her hiking boots at a gas station on the way to the starting point and had to crawl in trainers. I can’t imagine how horrible that must have been.

Even if you go to the mountain with all the physical training and mental preparation possible, without walking boots or warm clothes, you will hate every second. I wore thermal layers, two pairs of gloves, hat, scarf, down jacket and had a heavy sleeping bag and I still shivered at night.

So get quality thermal gear, enough layers (of suitable materials like fleece – not cotton that gets heavy with sweat), a down jacket is a must, a four season sleeping bag and hand warmers. Stuff your clothes to the bottom of your sleeping bag each night so it’s warm in the morning.

Tanzania Kilimanjaro trek

Hard but beautiful hiking conditions

Also remember a sun hat and sunscreen. I got sunburnt on day one and believe me, when cold winds blow against burnt skin, it’s no fun. Plus a headlamp with enough batteries – for your tent, for trips to the toilet and for the summit night.


Sing and laugh

These are scientifically proven ways to release endorphins and feel good, which is so important when you’re doing something so intense.

At the start of day four, with some of our group really suffering from the altitude, morale was low. It was bitterly cold when we woke up because we were shaded from the sun. Trips to the bathroom were, to put it mildly, brisk. But when we started walking, we started singing – it was either Lose Yourself by Eminem or Hakuna Matata from The Lion King, both appropriate for our situation – and morale rose instantly.

When you have enough lung capacity, sing.

Find allies

One thing is for sure – you cannot climb this mountain alone. If there was ever a time when you need other people, it’s climbing Kilimanjaro. You need them to look after you. And by looking after you, I mean literally standing guard while you pee behind a rock when there are no toilets nearby (which is anytime you’re not in a camp).

Tanzania Kilimanjaro trek

New friends

You also need allies to keep you motivated. By the end of day 4, the night before the summit, I was at a low point. The Machame route is popular because the route helps with acclimatization by climbing high and sleeping low, giving your body a chance to adjust. So although we had gained 4000 meters since leaving the town of Moshi, which is a mean feat in itself, we had actually climbed more than that to fall back to sleep.

As we sat in the mess tent eating dinner, I couldn’t stop crying. I wasn’t sad, I was completely exhausted. I couldn’t stop the tears from falling. And instead of making it awkward, my fellow climbers just laughed at me and took out their cameras – that’s the kind of attitude you need to keep walking on the mountain!


Prepare yourself physically

I don’t say this for every hike, but for Kilimanjaro it is necessary.

Altitude sickness strikes indiscriminately – it doesn’t matter if you’re an Olympian or reigning pie-eating champion, you can get it. But regardless, it is important to be fit for this hike. Be sure to take training rides up the hills at home before heading over to Africa.

Tanzania Kilimanjaro trekPrepare yourself mentally

Summit night is the hardest thing you will ever do. That’s why it’s also the most amazing thing you’ll ever do. But you have to prepare. It becomes much more about your mindset than your physical strength at that point. I literally fell asleep while walking, a porter supported me if I fell. Porters will help you as much as they possibly can – and they really are angels – but in the end it’s up to you.

Knowing this, I made myself a top playlist on my iPod Classic (may she rest in peace) full of motivational tunes. I tucked it under about eight layers of clothing to make sure the battery didn’t freeze (a legitimate concern) and pressed play. Rocket man by Elton John started me. All good. But when the song ended, it started again. I had left the “repeat” setting on and I either had to listen to Elton on repeat for the nine hour climb or listen to nothing. So I pulled out the headphones and instead listened to myself say “step by step, take it step by step”.

It sounds cliche, but when you make this ascent, crawling up loose scree in the dead of night, you discover a strength you didn’t know you had. Just take it step by step.

And be sure to stop to enjoy the sunrise – it’s phenomenal.

How long does it take to climb Mount Kilimanjaro?

It takes five to nine days to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and then descend to the end point. The more days you spend on Mount Kilimanjaro, the more likely you will make it to the top, as you will be more acclimatized to the altitude and will be less tired.

Tempted to go on the adventure of a lifetime? Trek Kilimanjaro with Intrepid Travel.

Looking for a beach holiday after Kilimanjaro? Zanzibar is paradise.

Image credits from top to bottom: Ian Jones, Jen Welch, Michelle Tennant, Intrepid Travel, Ian Jones, Jen Welch, Jen Welch

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