You will also need particular gear – or “kit”.
Showing up in a pair of flip-flops and two pairs of shorts won’t cover it. We’ve got you covered with an in-depth guide to what you need to pack for Kilimanjaro here. From tropical heat to frozen tundra, you will pass through different climate zones as you make your ascent. Being adequately prepared is essential.
You also have to keep in mind that your porter will carry your gear and his own. For this reason, most operators require that you keep your kit to 30lb/15kg. Anything over and above this, you will need to carry in your daypack. Fitness & Physical Preparation Having climbed Kilimanjaro several times over the years, we know that a lot of people have questions about Fitness preparation for a climb of this sort. Whilst Kilimanjaro is described as “easy” , in comparison to other mountains of a similar size, this is because there is no technical skill required to reach the summit.
However, a long, often hard slog at altitude does require preparation, both physical and mental. You do not have to be a world-class athlete to successfully climb Kilimanjaro, but a suitable level of strength and fitness is a good idea. Fitness will not help with acclimatization, but it will help make your climb less arduous. A good level of fitness will give you the “fuel in the tank” for the last push to the summit, which is a long day over some difficult terrain. Read more about fitness for Kilimanjaro and the trekking summits here, and a guide to uphill hiking preparation here.
Altitude & Acclimatization Note: consult your healthcare professional before undertaking any hike or climb. Nothing in this article, or in any of the information it contains is designed to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any condition. Please consult your healthcare professional before making any changes to your current lifestyle. Standing at 19,340ft above sea-level, Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest peak and the highest free-standing mountain in the world. Actually comprising of three volcanic cones: Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira, Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano.
Anyone trekking to the Ash Pit (Reusch Crater), can smell the sulphur. The heat prevents ice from forming and occasionally fumaroles escape. It is possible to visit the Ash Pit, usually after a daytime summit attempt and a night spent in the Crater. Trekking at altitude brings with it a unique set of challenges. Acclimatization is unique to each individual and fitness level has nothing to do with it. The term “acclimatization” refers to the physiological changes that the body needs to go through in order to adapt to a low-oxygen environment.
Typically at sea level, the air we breathe consists of 20-21% Oxygen. The air at the summit of Kilimanjaro contains the same amount. What changes is the Barometric pressure – Air pressure – meaning that as the pressure of the air goes down as we climb higher, the available oxygen to breathe in becomes gradually less. At the summit of Kilimanjaro there is approximately 49% less oxygen available in each breath we take than at sea level(2). Oxygen fuels all our bodily processes. With a decrease in air pressure, resultant decrease in Oxygen, combined with dehydration and cold, getting ill at altitude is a very real problem.
Acclimatization is a progressive process, allowing time for the body to adapt to the changes. For this reason, a longer trekking route is the safest and most successful option. For the geeks amongst us, it can be fascinating to see the physiological changes taking place as the body adapts to the high altitude. The main reason why so many people fail to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro is being insufficiently acclimatized to the Kilimanjaro altitude. Standing at 19,341ft above sea-level, Kilimanjaro’s summit falls into the “extreme altitude” category. Owing to the lack of technical skill necessary to reach the summit, Kilimanjaro has become popular with inexperienced climbers. Coupled with cheap, fly-by-night operators and short treks this can be a deadly combination.
The main point to note is that in order to acclimatize, your body needs TIME. Otherwise you will get sick and have to turn back forfeiting your summit attempt. Or, even worse, you need to be evacuated to hospital. There is a good reason why the longer routes on Kilimanjaro have a better success rate. They build in enough time for you to rest and acclimatize, giving you the best chance of reaching the summit safely. And without having to suffer the horrible effects of altitude sickness.
People who have a high tolerance for discomfort can be at risk because they push themselves even when they don’t feel well. Of course, a slight headache at altitude can be quite normal. A result of dehydration, perhaps. You don’t need to be paranoid about it, but you do need to recognize it. And feel comfortable that the guide you are climbing with is keeping a watch on the whole team. The drug, Diamox, is often recommended by operators, as it can help with acclimatization.
The major advantage of using Diamox is that it won’t mask the symptoms of AMS. If you are ascending too rapidly, you’ll still get sick. But Diamox can assist the acclimatization process. It’s a matter of choice whether you decide to take it. Effects of Kilimanjaro Altitude Kilimanjaro’s slopes span three altitude categories: High Altitude 1500 – 3500m, 5000 – 11,500ft Very High Altitude 3500 – 5500m, 11,500 – 18,000ft Extreme Altitude 5500m, 18,000ft and above As we get higher up, the barometric pressure of the air around us decreases. The oxygen contained in the air is the same as at sea level (20.9%). Owing to the decreased air pressure, for any volume of air, there are less molecules of oxygen present. So with every breath, you inhale less oxygen molecules than at sea-level.
At the summit of Kilimanjaro there is 49% less oxygen available than at sea-level. Typically, your blood’s oxygen saturation is between 95-99%. This is known as SpO2 (Saturation point -Oxygen), as measured by a pulse oximeter (those things they clip on your finger when you are in hospital). As you climb higher, the lower available oxygen will cause your SpO2 to reduce. At the summit it can get as low as 70%, which would be an emergency at sea-level! Your body doesn’t like reduced oxygen saturation, so it will deploy various efforts to increase it. It is these compensatory changes that the body makes to adapt to the lower-oxygen – ”hypoxic” – environment that is known as “acclimatization” (or “acclimation”). Acclimatization Some of the main compensatory changes are as follows:
These you may notice from the first day: Deeper, more rapid breathing. Increased pulse rate, even at rest. Increased blood pressure. These go on behind the scenes, if your body is given enough time to make the necessary physiological changes (1): Increased production of hemoglobin (where oxygen is carried in the blood cell). Increased erythropoietin (hormone secreted by the kidneys to increase red blood cell production). Reduction of plasma volume making blood “thicker” and increasing the risk of dehydration. Increased kidney function to excrete excess bicarbonate ions as a result of pH (acid/alkali balance) of the blood changing. These changes cannot happen over night.
Your body needs time. This is why the best summit success rates are had on the longer routes. More importantly than a successful summit, taking a longer route decreases your chances of Acute Mountain Sickness. Quite simply, the longer it takes to get to the top, the more time your body has to make the changes necessary to operate optimally in the extreme altitude conditions. Altitude Sickness – Acute Mountain Sickness – can kill you. Most of the deaths on Kilimanjaro are from complications arising from altitude sickness. Continuing higher when your body has failed to adapt to a lower elevation is nothing short of suicidal. Some people seem to acclimatize very well. It has nothing to do with fitness levels, gender or age. Apart from taking Diamox – which is not a “magic bullet” – to aid acclimatization, there is nothing you can do to speed up the process.
In my opinion, it is important for everyone who attempts Kilimanjaro to do so with an operator who monitors your condition closely. Checking your SpO2 (blood oxygen saturation), your lung sounds (to identify problems early) and use a checklist of how you feel. This should be done once a day at least. Acute Mountain Sickness Acute Mountain Sickness is the result of climbing to a higher altitude quicker than your body is able to adapt to it.
Symptoms can start from around 8,000ft in some people, and in others at around 11,000 ft. Symptoms of AMS (2) Mild Acute Mountain Sickness: Symptoms mild altitude sickness can be like a hangover. Lethargy Nausea Mild headache Slight loss of appetite Mild dizziness Mild cough Provided you have no abnormal lung sounds and a good blood oxygen saturation level (SpO2), mild symptoms should normalize after some hours rest.
Communication is key – your guides need to be kept up to date with how you feel, and you should not go higher whilst you still have symptoms. Moderate AMS: Deterioration of all the above symptoms Headache worsening Nausea and vomiting Increased dizziness Shortness of breath Loss of appetite and inability to eat Very weak and lethargic Coughing At this point, you should descend immediately to the elevation where you last felt “well”. Remaining at this lower altitude until your symptoms normalize, only then should you even consider going higher.
If you continue to climb higher with Moderate AMS, you put yourself at risk of needing to be evacuated from the mountain – and worse – you risk your life. Traveling with a reputable operator, you will not be allowed to get to this point. If you do, then get down that mountain as fast as you are able! Spending some time in a Gamow bag (Portable Altitude Chamber) can be effective to reduce symptoms before making the descent. Under no circumstances should you climb higher after using the Gamow bag. Severe AMS:
If you somehow managed to ignore the symptoms of moderate AMS, and have deteriorated to the point where you have Severe AMS, then your only hope for your life is to descend as quickly as possible. Increased shortness of breath Decreased coordination (ataxia) Inability to walk Hallucination and inability to communicate properly Increased coughing and fluid on the lungs If you are suffering from severe AMS, it’s very possible that you will not be able to walk down the mountain and an evacuation will be necessary. You probably won’t even know how ill you actually are.
This is where you rely on your guides and team-mates. Keeping an eye on each other, noting if people have symptoms that they seem unaware of. Any reputable operator will have been monitoring your condition long before it gets to this point. There are two devastating results of severe mountain sickness, HAPE and HACE. High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) For many years, High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (3) was incorrectly diagnosed as “pneumonia” in various reports of healthy young men dying after a few days at high altitude.
In most cases, some symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness have preceded the onset of HAPE. Though in some cases it can appear without prior symptoms. Pulmonary Edema is where fluid builds up in and around the lungs, preventing oxygen from being absorbed and making breathing difficult. Symptoms of HAPE include: Productive cough, with blood or mucus Gurgling lung sounds Blue lips from lack of oxygen Extreme fatigue Tight chest, difficulty breathing Confusion, lack of coordination If you are at altitude and have the feeling that you may have a chest infection, assume it is HAPE until proved otherwise. Symptoms can go from bad to worse very rapidly. Blood oxygen levels will drop, causing the brain to be starved of oxygen. This can lead to the onset of HACE.
If oxygen is available it should be given, and descent should be immediate. Waiting around to “see if he/she feels better” will almost certainly result in death. Descent is the only option, which is further made difficult as exertion can exacerbate HAPE. The shortness of breath and lack of oxygen can make the person unable to walk. For this condition, an evacuation is essential. It is important to get off the mountain and get medical attention immediately.
High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) High Altitude Cerebral Edema(4), characterised by a crashing headache that will not go away is the result of a buildup of fluid on and around the brain. The onset can be rapid, and once again, immediate descent is essential. Symptoms of HACE include: Confusion and disorientation Hallucinations Lack of coordination Inability to walk Irrational behaviour (as though the person is drunk) Severe headache Coma Because HACE affects the brain, the person suffering may not know how ill they really are. Treatment with oxygen and a Portable Altitude Chamber whilst preparations are made for immediate descent can help.
Nothing will treat the onset of HACE whilst remaining at altitude.
The only option is to go down and seek medical attention immediately. MOST, IF NOT ALL SYMPTOMS OF ALTITUDE SICKNESS ARE AS A RESULT OF ASCENDING TOO QUICKLY TO A HIGH ALTITUDE.(5) Tips to Stay Safe & Comfortable: Opt for a longer route, the longer the better. Do not use cigarettes, sleeping pills or alcohol on the mountain. If you have a headache and need to take a pain-killer, tell your guide. Choose an operator with robust safety procedures, well trained guides that know how to monitor you and recognize the signs of developing altitude sickness Communicate with your guides and fellow team-mates, do not “tough it out” if you are feeling unwell.
Keep well hydrated, drinking 3-4 liters of water per day. Go slowly! This is not a race, and the slower you go, the more your body is able to acclimatize. For extra safety, choose an operator that carries oxygen canisters and a Portable Altitude Chamber. If your chosen operator does not carry a pulse oximeter, take one with you – and learn how to use it to monitor your blood oxygen levels. Consider using Diamox, as recommended by many operators. Altitude and Pre-Existing Conditions Most companies will require a medical form to be filled in prior to being accepted on a trek.
This gives them the opportunity to review any current medical conditions you may have and refer you back to your doctor for final acceptance. If you do suffer from any medical conditions, even if they are well-controlled, it’s worth going to see your doctor or healthcare professional to inquire whether or not it is safe to go to altitude.
A common one is asthma. Many people who have no current symptoms of asthma, but have suffered with it in the past can find it rears it’s head on the mountain. The combination of the dry, cold, dusty air and lack of oxygen can cause attacks. If you rely on any medications, you should be sure to check with your doctor before attempting the climb.
Also check for any interactions with your current medication if you decide to take Diamox. Weather We all want to know what the weather will be like, don’t we? First up, it’ll be cold. Very cold. On your first day hiking through the tropical forest, sweating it out, you’ll be forgiven for cursing me. By day 2-3, you’ll be happy you heeded the advice to buy that nice warm sleeping bag! One thing that can make a trek pretty miserable is a lot of rain.
You can pretty much guarantee you’ll get at least some rain on the trail, though mostly in the lower elevations. Being a mountain, and a big one, Kilimanjaro has it’s own micro-climate. The best times to climb are usually January to March and June to October as there is usually the least rain during these times. However, it is possible to climb at other times of the year but April, May and November have the most rainfall. It should be noted that the June to October climbing season is often the busiest, and the January to March season is the coldest.
There is a good chance if you are climbing in January that you will have snow on your summit day/night! What to Expect What’s the food like? What’s it like sleeping in a tent? What does an average day comprise? How much walking do I actually do each day? Where do I go to the bathroom? Questions? Post them below. For any medical issues, please seek advice from your Doctor or other healthcare professi