Everything you need to know before climbing Mt Kinabalu

Mt Kinabalu is one of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia. It is a rugged, tectonic plateau, technically part of the Bornean Crocker Range, and looms over the surrounding Sabah jungle like something out of Lord of the Rings. Too much Malaysia travelers, this is the whole reason they visit: to get up at 2, drink several cups of strong coffee and watch the sun rise over Low’s Peak.

But like most mountains above 13,000 feet, you’ll need more than a sturdy pair of hiking boots and a sunny attitude. It pays to do your research beforehand. What equipment should you bring? How is accommodation on the mountain? If Kinabalu is on your itinerary, should you climb it at all? And what about altitude sickness?

Consider this your Mt Kinabalu survival guide. Everything you need to know before you take the plunge Mount Kinabalu.

So let’s start with the mountain.

Climbers climb Mt Kinabalu at sunsetMt Kinabalu sits on Borneo4,000 meters above sea level, making it the 20thTh most prominent mountain in the world. But it is not the most difficult hike. Most tour companies (including us) run two-day climbs, with one night spent in a dormitory on the mountain (we’ll get to that later). Kinabalu is a World Heritage Site and you will pass through several habitats and ecosystems on the way up: steamy Sabah rainforest, mountain grasslands, desolate rock landscapes and the famous alpine meadows. Also keep your eyes open – there are 5,000 types of plants, 326 different birds and over 100 species of mammals on the mountain.

Only 135 climbers are allowed on the mountain each day, so it tends to book early. For travel in high season, we recommend that you lock in your seat at least six months in advance.

WANT TO CLIMB MT KINABALU? SEE OUR 9 DAY HIKING, CYCLING AND KAYING ADVENTURE IN BORNEO HERE

What kind of things should I pack?

A woman wearing a blue hat on top of a mountainStart by checking out Intrepid’s Ultimate packing list. That’s your basics covered. But Mt Kinabalu will require some specialized trekking gear along with all the common sense (sunscreen, sunglasses, cap etc.). Here are a few other things you may need.

  • A small backpack for your jacket, drinking bottle, snacks, etc.
  • A waterproof jacket. It’s raining on Kinabalu. ONE Lot. Pack a light rain jacket and some waterproof bags for your gear.
  • A headlamp. For the morning summit hike (which starts in pitch darkness). You can easily pick these up in Kota Kinabalu.
  • Water bottles. For obvious reasons. Choose a sustainable, reusable drinking bottle.
  • Delicious snacks. Any good trail mix, chocolate or sugary treat will do.
  • Good hiking boots. Make sure you get a pair that supports your ankles and wear them at least two months before the trip.
  • Thick hiking socks. Dry socks will be your best friend. Pack 3-4 pairs.
  • Earplugs. Accommodation on the mountain is dorm style. It means snoring.
  • Shorts. At least on the first day when you hike through humid rainforests. Bring pants for the summit climb.
  • Money. It doesn’t take much, but it’s good for tipping porters and buying food.
  • Waterproof gloves. These will keep your fingers warm, but they are also practical for the Via Ferrata.
  • Layer. The big. Pack some thermal shoes, light sweaters and a jacket. Layer up or down, depending on the temperature.

What should I wear?

Three hikers on a jungle trail in MalaysiaWhat to wear on Kinabalu can change from hour to hour, never mind day to day. The mountain’s climate is known to be quite temperamental. Nights get freezing cold, afternoons are humid, and rainstorms can sweep in without warning. Generally, you want to wear several light layers so you can adjust on the fly. The first morning you must wear shorts. Trust me. It’s very steamy down in the Sabah jungle and everyone else will be sweating their hiking pants.

Once you’re up on the mountain, it can get cold, especially at night: change into trousers, thick socks and a polar fleece sweater. Don’t forget the waterproof jacket either. For the summit at dawn, the big things are a flashlight, a hat and warm gloves. Here is a good packing instructions to get started.

EXPLORE OUR SELECTION OF SMALL GROUP ADVENTURES IN BORNEO HERE

When is the best time to visit?

Hikers walk along a foggy path in BorneoBorneo sits in the middle of a swirling tropical vortex, so it always rains somewhere. Really bad weather can sometimes close the Kinabalu summit (check Mt Kinabalu website for latest weather updates). It usually pays to book in the dry season. Temperatures are mild, skies are (mostly) clear, and you have a better chance of seeing that jam-packed sunrise. The best months are generally March and April, although June to September can also be fine (it just gets very hot). Check out ours Malaysia season guide for more info.

Do I need to be fit?

A young woman smiles for the camera in MalaysiaYou need a certain basic level of fitness: there are many, many, many steps on Mt Kinabalu, not to mention slippery, rain-soaked rocks, uneven terrain and high altitudes (making breathing difficult). The mountain climb takes two days. On the first day, you will climb about 6 kilometers of steps through lowland jungle to about 11,000 feet above sea level. The second day is more technical: you get up early and climb to the top. This stretch is stony and steep, about 15-20 degree incline. For some tips on getting ready for your trek, check out this practical guide.

LOVE TREKKING? EXPLORE OUR FULL RANGE OF WALKING ADVENTURES HERE

Via Ferrata: Explained!

Hikers at via ferrata on Mt KinabaluCHECK OUT VIA FERRATA ON OUR 9-DAY BORNEO: HIKING, CYCLING AND KAYING ADVENTURE

If you want to add some Tomb Raider-style adventure to your Kinabalu climb, check it out ‘Mountain Torq’ via ferrata (we have a comprehensive guide over here). It is one of two via ferratas on the mountain; basically a series of ropes, ladders and walkways that have been nailed into the rock face. This is an optional route so there is no pressure to participate. For those keen, descend via ferrata on Day 2 of Intrepid’s Borneo: hiking, biking and kayaking tours, carefully linked to a climbing line with multiple carabiners. You don’t need any climbing experience to give it a try (although there is a minimum height requirement of 1.3 meters and a weight limit of 100 kilos, it is important to attend an hour-long safety briefing and you must ensure your insurance provider will cover this activity). Mount Kinabalu has all the relevant information over here.

READ MORE: WHAT IT’S REALLY LIKE TO RIDGE THE VIA FERRATA ON MT KINABALU

How is the accommodation?

You don’t want to camp on Mt Kinabalu, but don’t expect 5-star accommodation either. Terrific stay in dormitories with bunk beds and all your sleeping bags, pillows and sheets are provided; it is clean, cozy and comfortable. There are also toilets and (very) cold communal showers. If you have difficulty sleeping in dormitories, we recommend packing a sleep mask and a pair of sturdy earplugs.

Do I really need a porter?

A group of hikers on top of Mt KinabaluYou don’t need to hire a porter when you climb Mt Kinabalu, but it helps. You’ll also get to meet some great local people and help stimulate the economy. If you would like a porter on the climb, let your Intrepid manager know and they can arrange everything. Porters are always paid directly and in cash. Prices vary depending on how much gear you have and the particular climbing route you take, but your guide can advise on how much you can expect to pay once you get there.

READ MORE ABOUT INTREPID’S PORTER POLICY HERE

What if I don’t want to climb?

It’s completely fine! Intrepid has three tours that offer non-climbing options: Sabah adventureSabah Discovery and Essential Borneo. Just let your agent know when you book that you don’t want to summit the mountain and they will help you organize an alternative. Some people prefer to stick to lower altitudes and there are still great views of Mt Kinabalu from the smaller ridges. You will find a good summary of day trips at low altitude here.

Mt Kinabalu Frequently Asked Questions

How high is Mount Kinabalu?

The summit of Mt Kinabalu is 4,095 meters (13,435 ft) high, above sea level.

How to book the Mount Kinabalu Climb?

We have tours covering Mount Kinabalu which you can book today

When is the best time to climb Mount Kinabalu?

The best time to climb Mount Kinabalu is March and April, although June to September can also be a good time.

Find out more about our small group adventure in Borneo now.

All photos by Melissa Findley.

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