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Know Before You Go: Indispensable Tips for Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro
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Know Before You Go: Indispensable Tips for Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

“What’s your experience with high altitude climbing?”

Only at Rustic Pathways does an email with this subject line come into your inbox, and it doesn’t strike you as strange. Were all of the times I’ve bounced around high in the Andes leading Rustic programs, skiing the Rockies, and hiking and camping in the Sierras about to pay off?

Simply, the answer was yes.

Two months later, I was on a flight to Tanzania where I would be meeting twenty students and three teachers from an international school in Dubai, along with two other Rustic Program leaders. I began mentally preparing myself to learn 26 new names and faces. You can imagine my shock when I realized our 26 would be met with 71 local guides and porters to also get to know. This crew of 71 would be safely guiding us to the summit; carrying our bags, food, water, and sometimes it even felt like they were carrying us. It really does take a village.

The six-day trek that followed was nothing short of hilarious/frustrating/exhausting/enlightening/legendary—truly an unparalleled experience. As with most adventures, there were aspects of misadventure, too. Altitude is a real thing, as it turns out! There were laughs (so many laughs), reflection, tears, doubt, smiles, and new friendships forged—all culminating in the goal to safely make it to the roof of Africa, at 19,341 feet. To say it was a roller coaster of emotion would be an understatement.

Here are some hacks I discovered before climbing Kili, and a few I learned during the trip that I wish I’d known beforehand:

  • When you drink 7 liters of water a day, you have to pee—a lot. And there are some close calls. Especially when you can’t get your tent zipper open. International travel forces you out of your comfort zone, so mentally prepare yourself to pop a squat behind a rock with one the best “toilet” views you can imagine.
  • Eat everything. Not hungry? Eat. Really hungry? Eat. Tired? Eat. Cozy in your sleeping bag? Eat.
  • If you buy new gear for your trip, break it in. That includes more than one afternoon wearing your new boots. Get a few hikes in!
  • You can survive on candy on summit night. Finally, an excuse to only eat candy for ten hours. Snickers and Jolly Ranchers should be at the top of your packing list.
  • Porridge is delicious, so eat up!
  • Turns out I’m addicted to coffee. Instant coffee did not cut it because apparently, I’m a coffee snob. Headaches happened, and I promptly ordered an Aeropress online to use during my next excursion. I tested it with the Tanzanian coffee beans I brought home. Highly recommend one of these.
  • Tape an adhesive body warmer on your Nalgene on summit night so it doesn’t freeze.
  • You can wear the same base layers (just remember, no cotton) for six days. Merino wool base layers are my favorite, but most quick dry materials will work. Packable outer layers are perfect.  Layers are key to warmth!
  • Wet wipes = shower = life.

Once you get to Horombo Base, just above 12,000 feet, you’re above the clouds and the views are spectacular.

This IS doable. You’ll be tired and challenged both mentally and physically. Your guides will set a pace that is manageable and will get you to the summit and back happy and healthy. “Pole, pole” (English translation: slowly, slowly) is a phrase you will grow to love. You don’t have to be a marathon runner to get to the top, but you DO have to be ready to practice some serious mental strength.

Pole, pole is not just a phrase for the trail; it’s a state of being. That and hakuna matata. The Tanzanian pace of life is slow and should be enjoyed, so soak it all up.

Do you have any tips of your own about climbing Kili? Leave them in the comments below.


Learn more about our Climbing Kili program and how to connect it with other Rustic Pathways programs in Tanzania.

About the Author

Rachel Levin

Brand Engagement Manager

Rachel joined Rustic in 2013 and led programs for three summers in Costa Rica, Peru, and Ghana. She’s also led programs in Fiji and Tanzania. A graduate of the University of Vermont with degrees in sociology and Spanish, Rachel focuses her love for travel, writing, and her unquenchable curiosity of our natural world as Rustic’s Brand Engagement Manager. Based in Tahoe, CA, Rachel is a talented ceramicist and lover of the outdoors.