What I Wish I Knew Before Climbing Kilimanjaro

Before climbing Kilimanjaro, I did ALL the research.   Read every article out there, researched guides extensively, painstakingly took notes, but there was still a lot I wish I knew, so here it is.  Everything I wish I knew before climbing Kilimanjaro that the guide books didn’t tell me.

Climbing Kilimanjaro

The trek is not technically difficult, but it is hard.

If I had a dime for every person who told me that “it’s just a long walk”… Well, it’s not.  It’s a long walk, uphill, at elevation.  Depending on the route, it could be, essentially, a few hours of stair climbing.  Yes, if you are of moderate fitness, you can do it, but it will be hard.  (seriously, though…you CAN do it).

You don’t have to bring that much food.  

We all brought a LOT of snacks with us, thinking we’d want the reward once we got to camp.  We barely touched them.  Of course, this will vary by guide company, but largely, they feed you a LOT of food, and it’s carb loading at every meal.  Between that, how much water you need to drink, the altitude, and your sheer exhaustion at the end of the day, you’re not going to want to eat much more.  

The least successful people on the mountain aren’t who you think.

Nope – it’s not older folks, or even people with preexisting medical conditions. It’s men in their 20s. Why? They charge up the mountain fast, because they’re young and strong, and “why go slow when they feel great?” Altitude really doesn’t care about that, though. That brings me to my next point.

Go slow. Like, REALLY slow.

You want to make it up that mountain? Go slower than you think you need to. Even at lower elevations. The guides do a great job pacing you, and when they say “pole, pole”, damnit, you go pole. Altitude is indiscriminate in who it messes with. Fitness levels have very little to do with who’s going to feel the effects. The only surefire(ish) way to get up to the summit safely is to go slow, and let your body acclimatize.

Approaching Shira Camp

The greatest danger on the mountain isn’t the altitude, it’s lying.

Your guides have done this hundreds of times.  They have gone through extensive training to do what they do.  If you’re not feeling great, do NOT lie and say you feel great.  Saying you don’t feel great isn’t going to get you taken down the mountain immediately, so be honest with them about how you’re feeling.  The last thing you want to do is to lie and let them think that you’re feeling fine until it’s too late.  If you let them know, they can keep an eye on you and take action if needed. 

You will lose your dignity a little bit

Listen, you’re going to be with a group of people, not showering for several days.  You’re going to be going to the bathroom along the side of the trail.  You’re going to get CLOSE to these people.  Everyone starts out timid about things at first, but that all quickly drops away.  Just let go.  It’s more fun when you have these things to look back on and laugh.

You’ll learn to love the “sponge bath”. 

Nobody’s bathing, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t clean yourself up a little.  Grab some body wipes – we liked the Goodwipes Lavender Body Wipes, and arrange for you and your tent-mate to have 10-15 minutes each in the tent alone to do a full-body wipedown.  You’ll feel so much better going into dinner.

Sunrise over Mawenzi Peak, approaching Stella Point

Nobody talks about the descent. 

Everyone talks about how hard summit night is.  Nobody talks about the 14-15000 feet of descent that you do inside of 24 hours immediately after that. It’s hard.  Learn how to tight-lace your boots (take that from me, who’s still suffering from toe slam-induced nerve damage), and be sure to train going downhill as well to condition those muscles.  

You will be cold and possibly wet

Summit night is freezing cold.  The winds are high, the path is exposed, you will not want to take your gloves off.   If you catch rain in the rainforest, you will be wet.  Your gear will be wet.  Be prepared with good rain gear, and know what to do when things do get wet.  Protect your belongings that can get destroyed by water.  

The guides are super interesting.

It’s a long road to become a guide on Kilimanjaro, requiring them to start as porters, and go through extensive training and schooling on the flora and fauna on the mountain. Talk to them, listen to their stories.  Ask them about their families, their tribe, their upbringing.  It’s one of the best parts of the trek. Bring pictures of your family and pets, as well. They love learning about all of the people they guide up the mountain!

The water is going to taste bad.

The water you drink, and you will be drinking a LOT of it, is generally gathered from the mountain.  While your guides will make this water safe to drink, it’s still going to have a faint taste of, well, dirt.   Bring some flavoring, or better yet, some double-duty flavoring and electrolyte tabs like these, since you’ll likely need the electrolytes anyway.  It’ll make that 3 liters of water much easier to get down.  

You’re going to need to pee.  A lot.

You’re drinking a TON of water, so you’re going to need to go frequently.  You’ll only have bathrooms at camp, so you’ll be spending lots of time on the side of the trail going to the bathroom (remember that whole dignity thing?).  Add in Diamox (which acts as a diuretic), if you’re taking it, and you’ll be going many times per day and night.  Be sure to map your route to the bathroom in camps, as you will likely be making a trip or two there in the dark of the night. 

You might feel weird at high elevations.

It’s totally normal.  If you feel anything other than a light brain fog, tell your guides, but prepare to feel strange on that summit night.  If there’s anything you want to do on the summit, make a list so you remember…because once you get there, all you’re going to want to do is get back down and sleep. 

These all might sound like warnings, but I can guarantee it will still be one of the best experiences in your life.  It will uncover your grit.  You’ll make great friends, you’ll have absolutely unbelievable memories..and who knows, you just might learn a thing or two about yourself along the way. If you’re ready to get started, check out our Ultimate Guide to Climbing Kilimanjaro and our Packing List for Kilimanjaro, and get your adventure underway!

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