In October my wife and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. A friend is contemplating doing the same climb and asked me for some advice on the type of gear he should use while climbing the Mountain so I am writing this for both him and anyone else interested in the climb. I am a 50+ year old college professor, not a professional climber or guide. This means the below suggestions might not match the route or conditions that you will encounter. We did a six day-five night climb with the African Walking Company up the Rongai Route, which goes up the north side of the mountain.
Training: The more the better. I did between one and two hours of exercise every day for the four months before the trip, plus a few long day hikes. It was not enough. We had some very serious hikers on the trip; one man had just completed climbing every 14,000 foot mountain in Colorado and some relative neophytes who did relatively little preparation. Every person felt they could have been in better physical shape. That said, in our 13 person group, everyone made it to the rim (which earns you a certificate of completion from the Tanzanian Park Authority) and 10 out of 13 were able to walk the 2 to 3 more hours to the actual summit.
Boots: Almost everyone who reaches the top of the mountain was wearing hiking boots. I have found that the difference between cheap boots and more expensive boots is that expensive boots allow you to carry a heavy pack for long periods of time, without self-destructing. Cheap boots work fine as long as you are not carrying any weight. Almost everyone I saw climbing the mountain was doing it with porters, who were carrying all the heavy weight. My recommendation is to buy a comfortable boot but there is no need to spend top dollar since most climbers are not carrying very much weight.
Rain Gear: The weather conditions we encountered on Kilimanjaro changed every few hours. The climbing companies encourage clients to always carry rain jackets and pants. This makes a lot of sense since it was blazingly sunny at one moment and then it suddenly became quite rainy the next. It is actually quite amusing to be walking in the middle of rain clouds, instead of the rain clouds being always above your head. My advice is to carry small light weight rain jackets and pants. My rain jacket was a relatively inexpensive one that I carry in my back pocket when I am out for long bicycle rides back home. As long as the jacket and pants keep you from getting wet it is fine to use. Super high-tech materials or Gortex are nice but seemed to be over-kill for the conditions we encountered in October.
Warm Clothes: Almost all climbers who try to summit will start the final ascent in the middle of the night, when the ground is frozen, making climbing easier. The previous group who climbed the week before (early October) encountered a blizzard at the top of the mountain. The day my group summited the guides told us we had perfect weather conditions; no wind, no snow, and no rain. Nevertheless, the climb up the mountain was very cold. My guess is that most people get cold on the final ascent because the guides force everyone to go very slowly (pole; pole is the Swahili for slow; slow). You don’t generate any body heat when you are shuffling up a mountain. I typically generate a lot of body heat and I wore six layers above my waist and three layers below my waist and did not feel overdressed. I wore from inside out; a thermal underwear shirt (Nike Hyperwarm), a North Face long sleeve shirt, a thin fleece, a down vest, and an Eddie Bauer parka which had an inner liner and an outer shell. Below the waist I wore thermal underwear, a pair of nylon safari pants and a pair of rain/wind pants as the outer shell.
Food: During most of the climb the cook kept our group very well fed. While I didn’t carry a scale, the waist of my pants felt much tighter after eating the cook’s food for the first three days. However, the summit day was quite different. We were given a light breakfast at midnight (porridge and tea) and then set out. I am quite slow going down mountains so I spent 17 hours of walking on the summit day. The fastest person in our group did the round trip in about 13 hours. There are different routes up the mountain that take different amounts of time. Our route via Gilman’s Point is one of the longer routes. I brought along chocolate bars and peanut butter granola bars. However, this was not enough. Trying to conquer Africa’s tallest mountain with just a few chocolate and granola bars left me energy depleted by the end of the day. Take a variety of food to eat for the last day. You will likely be burning a tremendous amount of calories. The key point is that I didn’t eat any of the snacks we brought except for the summit day. I didn’t see any need to pack days’ worth of food, just enough food to get you to the top and back.
Altox: Our climbing company offered people the ability to use Altox, a canister of oxygen during the final day. There were 13 people in our party and 5 rented an Altox canister for an extra $250 a person. Both my wife and I rented the system. It seemed everyone over age 40 rented Altox and no one under age 40 did. I didn’t see anyone else at or near the summit with an Altox system except people in our group and there were hundreds of people either going up or down on my summit day. The interesting thing was the person who had the most problems with the altitude was a 26 year old very fit man in our group. Watching him struggle showed me that oxygen and altitude issues did not seem related to age or physical condition. After summiting I polled the other users. Half thought it was very useful and half thought it was a waste. My advice is if your climbing company offers it and you are climbing with a few friends or relatives then at least one or two of you should rent the tank(s). There is nothing preventing you from either passing the tank over to someone who is having a problem or asking the guides to break out the tank at lower altitudes if someone is having a problem adjusting to the thinner atmosphere. If you are going to fly thousands of miles and spend lots of money to climb the mountain, isn’t it worth $250 or $500 for a little extra insurance?
Mats and Sleeping Bags: Our climbing company offered to rent us sleeping mats. We rented the foam mats and also brought along two Themarest pads. We slept quite well since we had a double layer of insulation between the earth and our bodies. I think the Themarest was a bit of over-kill and if I was to climb the mountain again, I would leave the Thermarest’s home since they took up a lot of space in our luggage. The company also rented sleeping bags. We brought two North Face bags from home called the Cat’s Meow, instead of renting. Our bags were rated to 20 degrees. I thought the bags were warm enough but my wife thought the bags were too thin and she would have preferred a warmer sleeping bag. You spend a lot of time in your bag. There is no television after dinner is over. You eat and then turn in for the night. Going to sleep at 8pm means you want a bag that is comfortable and fits you. I believe I spent almost as much time in my sleeping bag as actually hiking, so make sure you buy or rent something good.
Water: Some people brought along Nalgene water bottles. Others like me brought along water bottles with an integrated water filter. Others brought Camelback systems which provide a hose for you to suck water while climbing. Every type of system failed on the summit day. The water gets cold and it freezes. Even the insulated Camelbacks froze. I was worried but the one thing that no one explained to me is that all the systems freeze a couple of hours before the sun rises. Then after the sun comes up the ice melts and you can drink again. Also, our guide gave each of us a cup of hot tea at sunrise, which made the frozen water issue less of a problem for me. Frozen water is not a huge deal as long as you are not desperate for water for the hour before and after sunrise. Most people can make it for two hours without a drink. If you cannot, get a tiny water bottle or flask and keep it next to your body.
Tipping: You don’t need cash on the mountain. At the beginning and end of the climb at most of the gates there is often a place to buy a beer or soda. After that opportunities to spend money stop except on the last day when many companies run tipping ceremonies. You need cash (either US dollars or Tanzanian Shillings) to tip the porters, guides and cooks. We gave about $150 each or a total of about $2,000 to the roughly 40 people who helped us up the mountain. The tips basically double the workers’ wages. The company we used pay their help well by local standards. However, not all companies pay their help well. Make sure the tips go directly to the porters and cooks. Don’t assume the head guide or the company will give the money to low level workers. Even in honest companies that pay well, there is a lot of competition for work. This means your team of guides and porters might only ascend the mountain around 15 times a year. A great paying job that is only available 15 times a year means many of the workers on the mountain have very low annual pay, so be generous.
Final Thoughts: The most important thing to take up the mountain is a positive attitude. The air is thin. The ground you are sleeping on is hard. While we were very lucky and had a great group of people climbing, sometimes groups don’t gel. For most people the food is very different than what they normally eat (we got some type of vegetable soup at every lunch and dinner as a method of keeping people hydrated). Don’t whine, complain or sulk. Just say to yourself during the rough patches “I will try my best to make it to the top.” If you are really sick, don’t hurt yourself, go down. Otherwise just repeat over and over again “I must keep going.” Completing the hike gives you a wonderful sense of accomplishment, which is likely one reason thousands of people attempt the climb each year.