Planning for a Trip to Kilimanjaro

Exactly one year ago, I completed the number-one item on my bucket list; traveling to Tanzania, and summiting Kilimanjaro.

Anyone preparing to climb Kilimanjaro (“Kili” as it’s called) can find an abundance of information on the Internet. In fact, there is so much information it’s overwhelming.

Add to that friends, family and strangers who’ve never climbed a hill offering their best intentioned “helpful suggestions” about what they’ve heard about what to pack, proper physical preparedness, and who knows what all and your eyes may very well cross.

I listened to it all because, frankly I was a little intimidated. I’ve hiked Nepal, Colorado, New Hampshire, the Inca Trail, etc. Still, I knew enough to know to take it seriously.

I was right.

Among the “challenging” vacations I’ve taken, Kili was by far the most physically demanding. Psychologically, it rates third, but this is not a trip to take on a whim.

Unless, of course, whim is the usual way you approach things. For others visiting Tanzania for the first time, I jotted down a few insights from my experience. I winnowed it down to the things and tips I found valuable.

But first, let me set the stage. To view Kili from the right perspective—consider it’s the same perspective as viewed out of a Boeing’s window.

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This is the view of Moshi and surrounding areas roughly half way up Kilimanjaro. Breathtaking (literally and figuratively)!

If it’s not the view out of an airplane window, sooner or later something about Kilimanjaro’s landscape will remind you of somewhere else you’ve been. Because climbing it means traveling through a little bit of everywhere, and a series of climates from sea level along the way up to 19,800 feet.

Beginning at the equator, ascending through lush rainforest, then on to grasslands, then alpine deserts, and finally arctic summit. Temperature variation ranges from hot and humid, to “I can’t feel my face or my legs…we have to go back down?”

With that in mind, the few things I found most important when climbing Kili are:

1.     Plan your trip at least six months in advance. As mentioned, this is not a “last minute” trip, unless you already have everything you need, and maintain a very active lifestyle. I started researching tour companies, gear, training, vaccinations, visa, medical documentation—those little things take big chunks of time. I maintain you need six months to get it everything done and train sufficiently (mentally and physically).

My favorite resource for training is the book Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro . It’s an easy read that is direct, and accurate. I customized my training based on what the authors did. Helpful Hint: Do cardio wearing your daypack to help your body adjust to this added weight, feel and wear before you climb. I also urge adding yoga, stretching and weight training.

2.     Bring used gear to the climb. Allow time to break in gear, and to get comfortable with it. Take time to organize and test all gear in as many types of weather as you can find. Pick the coldest day to walk in your Summit down jacket, wearing a properly weighted (35lbs) daypack. Or walks in rain gear, adding a rain poncho to keep everything dry. This also helps to mentally prepare for what’s ahead.

I believe there is a psychology behind packing (and over packing). The more gear is used before a climb, the more confidence there is in it, and the less one needs—or wants. Superfluous items are just added weight.

3.     Choose your travel companions wisely. Your success and safety directly relate to the tour company you select and your climbing guide.

Our guide estimated there are about 300 tour company’s operating in Tanzania. Anything over ten requires good old-fashioned “elbow grease.” The website Kili Adventures has lots of traveler reviews on the different outfitters, look at Trip Advisor and network your friends for recommendations.

Specifically examine: were travelers satisfied with their experience, the service and search for those intangible things especially important to you. I decided to travel with a company that provided jobs to Tanzanians. I also wanted a team that had worked together. Finally, I was interested in being exposed to local customs and culture.

Before booking, here are a few questions to ask the operator:

·      How large can I expect our group to be?

·      How many guides climb the Summit with travelers?

·      How many times has your guide summited?

·      If you have a specific a medical condition, asthma let’s say, ask if the operator has experience in and is comfortable dealing with that issue.

We had three different conference calls with our travel operator to review the above, and travel insurance. Don’t be bashful.

4.     Shyness will be overcome, or it will do you in. I’ll put it this way. Altitude sickness cannot be described. To experience it, as I did, is an entirely different perspective. You shift from livin’ the dream, to waking up in a nightmare. Symptoms can include sleeplessness, dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Of all of these, at 16,000 feet, the last symptom is the most miserable. I’m not saying that I experienced it (because that would be embarrassing) but modesty goes out the window and over the side. Not generally life threatening, altitude sickness is serious because it can mean not summiting. Listen to your guide, listen to your body, and then listen to your guide again.

5.     Be thorough and thoughtful about what you pack. You’ll receive packing lists from your tour provider in addition to opinions about what to bring.

The onus is yours to determine what you need. I prefer traveling light so I have room to pick up souvenirs. Of all the things we were told to bring, the five I most appreciated were:

·      Wet Wipes. If you are staying at a hut, you have access to a shower of numbingly cold water. Wipes are a great way to clean up and for emergencies (I’ve been told), so consider wipes appropriate for private parts. A few ten packs are better than a family-sized container.

·      Tent lights. These small, light-weight lights can be found at any outdoor or recreational store. If you are sharing a tent, these help because you don’t have to use your headlamp, and can avoid blinding your tent mate. Also useful for late-night nature visits.

·      (Extra) Camera battery. Cold drains camera batteries. Bring an extra one, or a portable iPhone battery. You don’t want your device to die before Summit night.

·      Electrolyte tablets. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this last-minute addition to my bag. Be it Gatorade tablets, goop or generic electrolytes, helps avoid dehydration and provides extra energy for Summit night. My tablets were climb saving, and helped prevent even more serious issues of altitude sickness.

Kilimanjaro is truly the adventure of a lifetime. Despite my “extremely mild, nothing to see here, don’t worry about me, I’ll catch up” altitude sickness, summiting was a very proud moment. I’m so glad I did it and recognize my next journey has a tough act to follow.

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Kibo Hut: Base Camp before you start the final climb.

If you plan to climb Kili, I wish you tenacity, perseverance and happiness as you reach Uhuru. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions. I’m not an expert, but I love to talk travel, and collect stamps on my passport.

Kilimanjaro: A Mystic Welcome

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No matter what route you decide take when climbing Kilimanjaro, your trek starts here. You (or your guide) have to register and obtain park permits at the Kilimanjaro National Park’s main gate. The fog when we arrived created a bit of a mystic pre-trek feeling. Photo circa: March 2015.

Beg, Borrow or Buy

If you aren’t a hiker this is quite likely the most boring thing to read, and you may want to skip this entry. But, if Kilimanjaro is anywhere on your bucket list, I recommend you factor the above into your travel budget and planning. Sure some of these items—like hiking poles and sleeping bags—can be rented in Tanzania before you start climbing, but rental options can’t help you think through your weather personality and how best to prepare.

Anyone who’s been to summer camp is no doubt familiar with the “packing lists” of recommended items. If you’ve hiked or climbed in another country, or traveled with a tour company, you know their overwhelming versions of packing lists are like summer camp on steroids. And that’s before all the necessary inoculations, medical clearance and Visa ordeals (more on my horrible Visa ordeal in another blog/rant).

As I prepare to ascend “Kili”, I realized the tour company’s recommended list of items is enough to dismay and intimidate even the most enthusiastic aspiring climber. Thirty-three clothing and toiletry items, including multiple shirts (long sleeve and short sleeve), rain jackets, ponchos, jumpers (aka sweaters), etc. That’s before the gear like walking polls, headlamp, and on and on. And “hiking gear” I’ve learned is expensive. When a pair of pants is more expensive than a pair of Prada’s, that’s saying something.

Facing this list, and it facing me, I asked myself a few questions. Firstly, what from all this stuff is necessary? Second, what do I have (that I don’t need to replace) as well as what might I borrow? For example, I’ll probably not use “walking polls” again, but heard they’re recommended. Third and final question, is there anything missing from the list?

The first question is worth noting because it translates to weight. Humping up a trail with a sixty-pound pack, and you’ll quickly identify what’s superfluous. The trick is to identify what’s important. Schlepping stuff across the globe that was never used is not only infuriating, it can be expensive.

Packaging lists are good ‘guidelines’ but other things also come into play. Checking the weather ahead of time can guide in knowing what you need to be comfortable. If you hate being cold, layers are important. If not, that’s a perfect place to economize. No matter where I go, and what the season, I always bring a scarf and/or sweater.

Kilimanjaro is a different trip. Sure, I’m somewhat familiar with long day hikes and what I need. This is the third time I’ll traverse multiple ecosystems, which requires more careful packing. What’s different is the length of the trip (LENGTH) and that this is an extreme variation in climates. From rainforest to what was guaranteed to be temps below freezing at least once during our climb.

After taking stock of my current hiking gear from Peru, I realized I was going to need to gear up. Once I got past the overwhelming length of the Kilimanjaro packing list (its nearly two pages), I identified the things I absolutely needed. I decided against rain pants after being in Peru for the rains. When it rains, you’re gonna get wet. I also nixed a few items that I knew I wouldn’t appreciate (binoculars—I have my camera) and travel pillow (folded sweater).

After ticking the “non-essential items” from the list, it was time to separate the remaining items into three categories: begging, borrowing and buying.

Begging

My family celebrates Christmas and exchanges gifts. Somewhere along the way we adopted the idea of exchanging “wish lists” so that gifts would be something the recipient actually wants. This year, I begged Santa to help me get ready for my trip.

And Christmas delivered this great Marmot jacket. I have an old ski jacket but it’s bulky (I also question the warmth, since it’s about 15 years old.) The Pertex Quantaum model I got is lightweight and lined with goose down for warmth. The shell is nylon and will be enough to resist moisture, or light rain.

Gear

Mr. Os went all out and treated me to Trail Tech Quarter-Zip from LL Bean. This was on my list because my hiking gear overall is lacking when it comes to long-sleeve items. I liked this shirt because it’s a wicking fabric (aka, it keeps sweat off your skin which in turn keeps you warmer). I also think it’s important to have one outfit to change into after a day of hiking, and this shirt is a good choice for that. I also got a Polartec Windbloc fleece jacket. With the above Marmot jacket, it might be overkill but a fleece jacket at camp is worth it to me, and the pair will be my go-to items after each day’s climb.

In terms of warmth, few things help more than long underwear. As a skier, I advocate for the Hot Chili brand. It’s a little more expensive, but they wear well and keep you warm. I recommend a pair with stirrups at the bottom (to prevent your long underwear from running up your calf).

Borrowing

I don’t usually borrow things from people. It’s partly because I’m a borderline germaphobe but also because I worry items will get stolen. I don’t want to have to explain to someone that his or her gorgeous, expensive backpack was ripped or ripped off. That said, unless I begin to focus on these adventurous climbs, I won’t need a backpack with a frame moving forward. Luckily, if you talk to people about climbing, sooner or later you will stumble across someone who has gear they will push on you because “it never gets used.”

Buying

With all of the above, it’s crazy that I’m not done acquiring gear for this trip. And yet…

Salomon hiking boots that have already gotten some decent mileage.
Salomon hiking boots that have already gotten some decent mileage.

My old hiking boots would not make the trip. Of any single piece of gear, these are probably the most critical piece of gear to get right. I finally settled on a pair of Salomon’s, but I tried on about five different brands and several styles in each brand. Simply put, buy the most comfortable—your feet are worth the investment.

Tip: Go to an REI or other outdoor store. Spend a ridiculous amount of time talking to the staff about where you’re going. Earlier I mentioned the expense of hiking pants. One associate was insistent that I needed wind pants AND rain paints. But in passing I asked another sales associate. An avid hiker, turns out she leads tours throughout Southeast Asia. I explained my concern over the expense of dropping a small fortune on pants I might not wear much after my return. Without batting an eyelash she asked me to think about what makes me more miserable/cold – rain or wind. Oooo, good question! She pulled out two recommendations from a pile of pants and I walked about with this crazy expensive black diamond water resistant, wind-stopper pants.

It’s important once you buy your outfits that you begin wearing them immediately. First, you want to make sure there are no problems with the items. Second, you want to get used to them. We’ve been “blessed” with some crappy weather in the past month so I’ve given the pants and boots test runs while walking dogs. I’m pretty happy with my purchases and will keep the pants in my daypack for sure.

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One thing I will never go hiking without: the Nike wicking running shirt

My final purchase was a Nike wicking long sleeve running shirt. I’m not a runner but these shirts made a quality-of-life difference when climbing Macchu Picchu. They’re lightweight and pack easily and keep one warm in damp, humid climates.

I will leave you with one final travel tip. This applies to both hiking as well as traveling with a guided tour. You’ll notice a fair amount of color among my jackets and fleece. In fact, the gear I already own ranges from blue, to orange to purple. Especially climbing Kilimanjaro at the time of year that I’m going, colored jackets are strongly recommended. Many people gravitate to subdued colors, if not all black. But color makes it easier for your guides to spot you. This is important for your safety especially in potential situations where the weather quickly changes.

*Authors note: the above items were all purchased, given or loaned to me. No company or brand provided these items in exchange for a “review.” The thoughts and opinions reflected are my own and should not be considered a professional endorsement.

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