In 2011, when I was still in college, I was given the opportunity to volunteer in South Africa for the summer. A professor at the time, from Niger, encouraged me to travel around Africa after I finished teaching, as travel within the continent is inexpensive and exciting. I remember being in his class, plagued with senioritis, looking at a map and googling "things to do in Tanzania." The first thing that came up was Kilimanjaro. I turned to my friend next to me and whispered, "I'm going to hike Kilimanjaro this summer." And I did. If you're interested in hiking Mount Kili, the highest free-standing mountain in the world and the highest mountain in Africa, check out these tips!
Do I have to go in an organized tour to hike Kilimanjaro?
Yes. It is not possible to climb Kili on your own. You must use a tour operator
What tour company should I use to hike Kilimanjaro?
This can be a tricky question. At the end of the day, you get what you pay for. The cheapest operators are going to be bare bones and you will probably be a bit uncomfortable, just because of the natural elements of the hike.
I should also mention that there are some politics involved with Kili tour operators. Remember that your porters are not wealthy. They have to hike with all your gear and food on top of their heads. They have to hike faster than you to set up camp before you arrive. And hands to Jesus, they do it in sandals. And then once you get to the top, they run down the mountain to start another tour.
It was very important to me, while choosing a tour company, that the porters were treated fairly. I did not want my money to only go to the higher ups in the company, and not to the men who were helping me along the way (yes, often times porters get jipped on tips altogether).
I chose to go with a more expensive company, Tusker. Here's why:
-Tusker has a limit for how much weight each porter can carry. Most companies load as much as possible on each porter (two or three porters per person), but Tusker does not allow any porter to carry more than 30 lbs. Yes, that means more porters per person, but it is done so the porters stay safe and in good health.
-The porters actually get their tips. I was given a sheet explaining the division of tips by percentage, depending on the work load. My guide received the highest amount, followed by assistant guide, cook, assistant cook, and porters. I knew exactly how much was going to the people who helped me so generously. Tips were also given anonymously (I was hiking alone so it wasn't THAT anonymous).
-I was safe. Every morning and evening, my guide checked my oxygen levels, listened to my lungs, and asked me about my bathroom movements (kind of awkward, but necessary). I appreciated the monitoring. The guides are trained to spot altitude sickness and immediately descend, even just a few hundred feet, to help clear your symptoms.
-The food was awesome. Some people complained about eating the same thing every night with other tour companies. I was eating like royalty! Snacks were always prepared by the time I got to camp (the popcorn was unreal!) and dinner was always something different (and delicious). When you are hiking for so long, you really do need your energy. I was also encouraged to eat a LOT the first few days because once you get hit by the altitude, you don't feel like consuming so much. Thankfully, I had a healthy appetite the whole 9 days. This was the only time in my life when eating four sandwiches in one sitting was socially acceptable.
-No matter what, I was going to hike. Many tour operators will not hike unless a minimum number of participants have signed up. Because I was traveling alone, I did not want to fly to Tanzania only to be told I could not hike due to a shortage of people. Tusker would do a hike even if just one person signed up.
What route should I climb on Kilimanjaro?
The shorter hikes, the 4 day ones, will be cheaper than the 7 or 9 day hikes. That said, you are almost guaranteed to be sick on the 4 day hikes. The altitude of Kili is nearly 20,000ft (almost 6,000 meters). Altitude sickness symptoms include severe headaches and nausea, along with watery/dusty shits.. It's no joke and people have to quit before reaching the top all the time. The longer your hike, the more time you are giving your body to adjust to the altitude, the less sick you will be, and the more likely you are to reach the top.
I climbed the Lemosho route, which was 9 days total (7 days ascent, 2 days descent). I chose this route because it is regarded as one of the most beautiful and is less crowded. My guides told me that some of the other routes feel like you're just walking in one long line of people, especially in high season. Along the lemosho route, there are far fewer people and the terrain is quite stunning.
Pro tip: do take Diamox when hiking. This drug helps your body acclimate to altitude. I had absolutely no sickness on my trip whatsoever. I felt great the whole hike. Although I try to avoid prescription meds as much as possible, I felt that if I was going to spend so much money on a hike, I was going to reach the top and enjoy every second of it.
I'm a solo female traveler and I want to hike Kilimanjaro. Is it safe for me?
Yes. I was 22 when I hiked Kilimanjaro and was traveling alone. Although I went in high season (September) nobody else signed up for my tour. I was literally the only person hiking. It was me, and 11 porters and guides, all male. I was completely safe from start to end. Do not let being a woman, especially as a solo traveler, deter you from this incredible experience.
How fit do I have to be to hike Kilimanjaro?
Honestly, not that fit. Most of the hike consists of long walks. There is very little technical hiking. Some physical endurance is required, but more than anything patience and a strong will to keep going and listen to your body will get you to the top.
Some Do's and Don't's
DO take a book to read, and a light. Nights could be kind of lonely/quiet, and reading helped me pass time and get to sleep.
DON'T take alcohol with you. I understand the camaraderie you experience with your fellow hikers at camp, and also the need for a nightcap to help you sleep, but honestly, you'll feel like shit the next day. Save the boozing for the celebration on your first night back!
DO bring along some night time pain meds. I took Motrin PM. I recommend this for two reasons. First, it helps with the minor aches and pains you may get from the hike. Second, it helps you sleep. Thankfully, Diamox only has two side effects: it'll make you pee a ton, and it leaves your hands and feet a bit tingly. I was quite sensitive to the tingles and sometimes it would prevent me from getting to sleep, so the Motrin PM helped me quite a bit.
Don't forget to tip! I know this seems obvious, at least to Americans, but I cannot stress enough how little your porters get paid. They helped you reach the world's highest freestanding mountain. They braved the same elements you did with far crummier resources. Please budget your trip accordingly.
DO bring along some kind of MP3 and don't use it at all until the final day uphill. The last day of ascending, the hike up to Uhuru Peak, is not technically difficult. It feels difficult because of the altitude, though. I saved my iPod battery for that last push. Honestly, I owe Jill Scott and Beyonce a huge thank you for getting me up that mountain.
DON'T be afraid to talk to your guide when you're feeling sick. I saw so many people try to hide the beginnings of nausea, diarrhea, and headaches from their guides, thinking it would go away or not get any worse, only to get so sick the next day that they could not complete the trail and had to head back to Moshi. Tell your guide right when you start to feel off. This does not mean you have to end your hike or descend all the way down. What it does mean is that you may descend just a few hundred feet to relieve the discomfort, wait an hour, and then hike back up. Or it may mean that your guide goes a little bit slower with you to help your body acclimate. Telling your guide early on ensures you are being taken care of and increases your chances of making it to the top!
DO get some naked pictures at the top, if you want!