Trekking on Kilimanjaro - What does it take?

The trek up Kilimanjaro is probably the most popular high altitude trek in the world.

The reason for Kilimanjaro's popularity is obvious:
It is the highest mountain in the world that you can simply walk up. You need no ropes, no special climbing equipment, no previous experience.

But that doesn't mean it's a walk in the park!

(Here you can get an overview of what it takes to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.)

On this page I want to talk a bit more about the experience aspect.

Everybody says that you need no experience to climb Kilimanjaro.

That is correct as in that you need no climbing experience. There is no technical skill required at all. It really is nothing more than an uphill walk. (With possibly a bit of scrambling on the "Barranco Wall", depending on the route you choose.)

Trekking up Mt. KilimanjaroFourth day of trekking up Mt. Kilimanjaro, not far from Kibo Peak now...

But trekking on Mt. Kilimanjaro is still a very demanding adventure. Even if it takes no special mountaineering skills, I believe that previous trekking experience makes a huge difference to your chances to reach the summit.

I also think that people who have climbed mountains before will find trekking on Kilimanjaro easier than people who have never climbed a mountain in their lives.

Trekking experience DOES make a difference

The main problem when trekking up Kilimanjaro is the altitude: the fact that it takes many days to get to the top and the low oxygen levels at height.

People who have climbed mountains before have the advantage that they learned to pace themselves. They learned to judge the demands of such a trek and adjust their pace so that it allows them to walk for many, many hours.

And they have learned to find a steady rhythm, slowly putting one foot in front of the other, without stopping. If the path gets steeper, your steps get smaller, the rhythm stays the same. That pace and rhythm lets you cover amazing distances and heights, without even noticing.

Trekkers have also learned that even if the path looks endless, even when you feel you have no energy left, as long as keep putting one foot in front of the other, you ALWAYS get to the top. And you ALWAYS have enough left to make just one more little step.

If you have never done anything like this then you will not understand how big a difference the steady pace and the right mindset makes. And you probably can not imagine that it can be difficult to just walk slowly.

Trekking on Mount KilimanjaroTrekkers on Mount Kilimanjaro, on the third day of their ascent

But I always notice this when walking behind other people. It's easy to tell who hase climbed mountains before and who hasn't. It's impossible to walk behind novices and find a steady rhythm, because they break theirs every five to ten steps, as they are talking, as they are looking around...

I you are used to trekking in the mountains you will talk and look around, but all the while your legs will maintain that steady - and slow! - rhythm.

Before you know an hour or two have passed, you stop for a real break, and you look down, and...
It never ceases to amaze me how fast you can gain altitude, without even noticing and without exerting yourself.

Find that rhythm, a comfortable rhythm where your body switches to autopilot and the brain into neutral. It is the most efficient way for your body to cope and it requires the least energy and the least oxygen.

If you take more breaks but walk faster in between, or if you constantly vary your speed, stopping here and there, catching up again, you may cover the same distance in the same time, but it will feel longer and it will take more energy.

You will also use more oxygen while you are catching up, your blood oxygen level drops further than it would otherwise, and that can mean the difference between developing altitude sickness symptoms or not.

Your Kilimanjaro trekking guides will try to teach you this from day one: "pole pole" is the Kishuaheli word for slow and steady. You will hear it all day, every day...

Camping on Mt. Kilimanjaro

The other aspect on Kilimanjaro where trekking experience comes in very handy is the camping.

People who are used to it, used to sleeping in tents, used to making do with minimal facilities, they won't mind it. Most of us love it. I sleep better on hard ground in a tent on an uneven mountain slope than I do at home in my bedroom. Much better.

The last camp of a Kilimanjaro trekFourth night of camping on a Kilimanjaro trek

If you are NOT used to it, you may not sleep so well. Trekking on Kilimanjaro is physically demanding and you need to get that sleep. Not getting enough for four nights in a row is not going to help you during your summit attempt.

If you want to go trekking on Mount Kilimanjaro, and you have no previous mountain, trekking and camping experience at all, don't despair.

Thousands of people tackle their Kilimanjaro trek with no experience whatsoever, and many of them still reach the summit. But there is no doubt that you will be at a disadvantage compared to people who are used to trekking.

If you don't like that idea, go camping :-). At least go hiking as much as possible in the time leading up to your Kilimanjaro trek.

Don't worry about the gym workouts and acquiring some iron man fitness levels. That's nonsense. Just get used to walking uphill, for hours at a time, at that steady pace where you don't even notice you're actually exercising.

As I said on the Kilimanjaro training page:

If you can walk in hilly country for 6-8 hours, and get up and do it again the next day, and return to the office on Monday feeling fine, then you are more than fit enough to go trekking on Kilimanjaro.

More about What it takes to climb Kilimanjaro

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