Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro: Tips for a Successful Summit

by Paul von Zielbauer

I’ve led 4 Roadmonkey expeditions to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa. It is a huge, and very difficult, accomplishment. Many people ask me how to best prepare for Kilimanjaro success. Read on for a succinct list of my personal recommendations for what to do before and during your Kili hike.

Roadmonkey 2009 expedition member Jolie Altman, at Uhuru Peak, Kilimanjaro

2009 Roadmonkey Jolie Altman, and her Kili summit shout-out

1. Mental conditioning is key. If summiting is important to you (and it should be) you need to put your body and your mind in a position to succeed. Many people don’t realize the mental challenge that Kili presents. Be mentally prepared for that challenge. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched young men from other groups near ours start out on Day 1 preening with bravado in their camouflage gear and smoking cigarettes, only to end up whining by Day 3 about the altitude, about the toilets, about their nausea, about their blisters – blah blah blah. They lacked mental toughness. And they don’t summit.

2. Respect the moutain’s power. Here’s the way I think of it: Disrespecting mother nature will eventually get your ass kicked, big time. In the old days, Tanzanian mothers feared for the lives of their sons who dared to climb Kilimanjaro; such was the respect given to the unforgiving weather and altitude near the cloud-wreathed summit where gods were said to live.  There are no gods at Uhuru Peak, but you’re wise to take the power of nature and altitude extremely seriously. Diamox (or generic version, acetazolamide) helps mitigate altitude sickness.

3. Gear up, the right way. Bring the essential equipment to succeed: comfortable hiking shoes, for obvious reasons; ear plugs, to tune out snorers and wind at night; wet wipes, for a restorative tent “bath” before dinner each night; and a pair of warm wool socks for only sleeping in. Avoid over-gearing yourself. Those who think fancy gear will help them summit are fooling themselves. Nothing beats preparation and a comfortable pair of boots.

4. Sleep with your batteries. Keep your camera and phone batteries in your sleeping bag at night, as they drain rapidly in cold. Or bring a solar charger, which is a great way to keep charged for good photos.

5. Bring non-sugar hard candy. In the dry air above 12,000 feet, your mouth gets dry on the trail. Hard candy or throat lozenges work well. Absent any, place a pebble on your tongue; it keeps your saliva glands active.

6. Prepare for a dusty downclimb. Bring a surgical mask or a bandana to avoid eating and breathing dust on the downclimb. And remember: going down is harder than going up. Your quadriceps muscles and knee joints are in for a test.

7. Have a plan for photo management. Prepare a way to keep your camera within easy reach as you’re hiking each day, so that you have no excuse for not taking a photo when the opportunity presents itself. Some of the best photos are the result of having a camera ready to shoot in an instant. Be ready!

8. Drink a lot (of water). Bring at least two 1-liter high-quality water bottles for your personal daily supply on the trail. Do not re-use spring-water bottles you bought at the store; it’s not a smart alternative. Your drinking water will be boiled each morning and then poured into the bottle you present to the porters after breakfast; you don’t want plastics chemicals leaching into your water supply. (Also: at night, ask your porter to fill your bottle with hot water. A great way to stay toasty in your sleeping bag.)

9. Save your knees. For those with knee or back issues, use hiking poles on the downclimb. Use them to use your upper body as much as possible to relieve the pounding on your lower body. Better to have sore shoulders and arms for a couple days than a wrecked back or throbbing knees for weeks.

10. For women, plan ahead if your cycle will coincide with your time on the mountain. If you experience great discomfort, absolutely do not be shy about telling your guide, who will probably be a man. The guides are incredibly supportive, experienced and dedicated to getting you to Uhuru Peak. And there’s absolutely nothing they haven’t heard before. Help them help you succeed.

The August 2010 Roadmonkey crew, with guides, at Uhuru Peak

11. Learn to love the outhouse. Be prepared for peeing and pooping in wooden outhouses for several days in a row. Sometimes they’re clean; a few may be nasty. There will not be sit-down toilets. Keep a roll of TP in your day pack. Pay attention to your body; you have to keep your GI tract healthy and moving along.

12. Dance. At least once during your Kili climb, you’ll arrive at your camp exhausted from hours of hiking, and the porters, who arrived an hour or more ahead of you, will break out into song and dance to greet you. Don’t be lame and just take photos. Dance with them, too. You only live once.

13. Hang out with your porters. Get to know a little bit about your unbelievable Tanzanian support team: Not just the guides but also the porters. Porters are the Ironmen of Kilimanjaro. They will outpace you, at altitude, while carrying 50 pounds of gear on their necks, treading in battered sneakers (aka trainers for our British friends) that have the soles falling apart. Few speak English, so ask your lead guide to translate your thoughts and questions into Swahili.

14. Avoid kid beggars. Reward kid entrepreneurs. On your final day, after summiting, you’ll walk 3 hours through a rain forest back to the gate where you’ll end your Kilimanjaro journey. Near the end, small boys may emerge from the forest to beg for “chocolate,” or your water bottle, or the carabiners dangling from your pack. Don’t do it. It’s not the kind of cultural exchange you want to perpetuate. Once at the gate, however, a legion of young entrepreneurs will offer to wash your very muddy boots while you wait for your guide to claim your summit certificates. I recommend paying $2 or $3 to get your boots scrubbed. It feels great, it helps the local economy and everybody wins. So keep some dollars, euros or Tanzanian shillings on hand.

15. Tip fairly and clearly. Show your guides and porters some love with a tip that rewards the infinite patience and energy that got you to Uhuru Peak. But make sure to present the tips openly & in front of porters and guides alike, so there is no dispute over who gets how much. A few guides at some outfitters have been known to demand a percentage from porter tips, as a kickback of sorts. That shouldn’t happen.

Hopefully, these tips will help you prepare and relax for a wonderful Kilimanjaro experience. Don’t forget to visualize standing on the roof of Africa. Keeping that visual will help you get there when you’re barfing up breakfast onto your shoes on summit day.


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2 comments on “Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro: Tips for a Successful Summit

  1. Emma Tameside on said:

    I’ve been looking for an article exactly like this! I setup a kilimanjaro trip with my brother recently and although I’m super excited, I’m really clueless as to the true level of fitness both mentally and physically I’m going to need for the climb. This article really helps with this. Fortunately I’m big on my out-doors, so I think I’ll be prepared mentally, it’s the physical fitness I really need to get sorted.

    Some really helpful tips here though, and I’ll be taking note of all of them! Much appreciated, and you may have just assisted my brother and I in actually getting to the top!

  2. thanks for the advise….wonderful and hits the nail on the head.i plan to summet this oct 8th full moon.much respect rob ireland

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