How to Pack for Kilimanjaro

Let me start with a few confessions.

Confession #1: I love a good capsule wardrobe for travel.

Confession #2: I admire people who can put 3 weeks of clothing into one carryon bag.

Confession #3: While I’m hardly “fashion forward” I do try to look my best at home and when I travel.

However, when I’m climbing a mountain, I’m all about comfort and safety so the above confessions are pretty much tossed out the window.

Whew, now that’s out of the way…Once you’ve committed to Kilimanjaro, you are going to get two things in abundance: advice and packing lists. Even the most well intentioned friends will have you over packed for this journey. Trust me when I say: Don’t. Do. It.

Before you run for the hills in tears, allow me to offer some advice. Do read the packing list from your trip organizer. Think about what you need, what you can borrow, etc. (Not so shameless plug: review my beg, buy or borrow post for ideas). Take a deep breath.

The best way, IMO, to tackle your packing list is to break it into two parts. The first is what your porter carries. While this is a godsend come day three, porters are only allowed to carry so much. Spend a few minutes deciding what you really need versus what’s a safety net.

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In case you thought I was joking. Our Porter and Guide doing the required gear “weigh-in” before we started climbing.

The second list is what you want in your own day pack. You don’t have a weight restriction for your own pack. But, you’ll enjoy your climb A LOT more if you don’t burden yourself with unnecessary items.

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All ready to be packed! A mix of Kilimanjaro items from pack list #1 and #2

Kilimanjaro Pack List #1. (Again, this is what your porter carries for you. Modify the quantity of items based on the duration of your climb. I did the Rongai Route, which is six days. Other routes are shorter so you’ll need less clothing.)

  • 6 pairs socks. Invest in heavy-duty running or hiking socks so your heels and toes have some “cushion.”
  • 3 dry weave type shirts, short sleeve
  • 2 dry weave type shirts, long sleeve
  • 1 pair of hiking pants (converter style that double as shorts are best—in a fabric that dries out fast)
  • 1 pair extra thick, wool socks*
  • 2-3 pairs long underwear/base layers (top and bottom)*
  • 1 pair of heavy duty down pants, ideally wind/water proof (think ski pants)*
  • 1 all weather down jacket*
  • Winter hat*
  • Gloves*
  • Neck warmer, scarf*
  • Hand/foot warmers*
  • Select toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, travel size deodorant, bug repellant, sunscreen. That’s all you need. This is a hike, not a beauty pageant.)
  • 1 Headlamp and one small flashlight—invest in a good, light LED headlamp, you’ll thank yourself later.
  • 1 Sleeping bag (Depending on how much your sleeping bag weighs, these may have to in your backpack)
  • 1 Sleeping bag insert/sheet

* items are for the final climb to Uhuru Peak. What’s odd about packing for Kilimanjaro is that half your gear is for the final 12 hours of the climb.

Kilimanjaro Personal Pack List #2. (What you carry up the mountain)

  • Water bottle—Insulated is best but a regular bottle will work
  • Camera
  • Book or journal if you use them
  • Rain jacket
  • Rain poncho
  • Warm fleece jacket or “outer layer”
  • Sunglasses
  • Sun screen and/or hat
  • Passport, ID and cash. (There is nothing to buy on Kilimanjaro so you really don’t “need” cash. But, if you bring cash on your climb its best to keep it on your person)
  • Hard candy (bring it, if you don’t use it the porters will HAPPILY accept it)
  • Starbucks Via packets (what can I say, I need my caffeine)

Put these items in a Ziploc or dry bag inside your own pack:

  • Band-Aids and moleskin
  • Sandwich bags (if you forget to water proof your boots, or the water proofing fails, put fresh socks on, add bags and get back on the trail. Thank MacGyver)
  • 1 pair of clean socks
  • Travel pack of kleenex
  • Any meds that you take regularly
  • Hand sanitzer, wet wipes

Not referenced: dry bags. Invest in some dry bags for your clothes. Don’t be a smarty and think your stuff won’t get wet. After getting soaked on the Inka Trail, I own several different try bags. My favorite were from a now closed local store, Hudson Trail Outfitters. REI, LLBean, etc., have decent ones. When purchasing dry bags, make sure the item has  a very tight seal, otherwise its worthless.

Pro tip: Put everything in your dry bags and weigh them before you depart. Bags often add unplanned weight to your items. Depending on the final weight or your gear, you may need to shuffle and repack so your porter isn’t breaking any park rules.

Two items I packed that, in hindsight, weren’t needed: mosquito spray and after bite (think: itch reliever). There are pretty much zero mosquitos on Kilimanjaro.

The final word goes to cameras. My preferred camera is a larger, multi-lens digital camera. Because of space and weight, I decided to bring the small “point and shoot” seen above. I was worried about the quality of photos but that was wasted energy.

Most camera battery’s (and iPhone’s) freeze half way to Uhuru Peak. Your best bet to capture those YOLO images is to bring an extra battery and keep it and your camera tucked inside your jacket. The warmth is usually enough to keep the battery from draining.

Happy packing (and climbing)!

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The start of the Rongai Route, Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa.

Facts (and Fictions) about Climbing Kilimanjaro

If climbing Kilimanjaro is on your “bucket list” you’ll find plenty of information about the climb. Complete strangers will transform into smiling, well-intentioned people who offer you counsel. Some of it is sage advice, some not so much.

Annually, about 25,000 people attempt to climb what is the highest free standing mountain in Africa. Of those visitors, estimated success rates according to Kilimanjaro National Park are less than thirty-percent for five-day routes.

Less than half reach Uhuru Peak (the Summit) doing the six-day route I climbed. An eight-day route promises the best chance for success. That’s because it provides the best amount of time to become acclimatized. Although I had horrible altitude sickness, I did summit Kilimanjaro, and offer a little “myth busting” for fellow travelers.

Fact. Your guide checks your oxygen and pulse rate each night.
It’s a painless process that tracks your overall health during the climb. Guides are monitoring your body’s ability to adjust to the thinning atmosphere. An oxygen rate below 60 will, however, will result in you being sent down to lower altitudes.

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My pre-Summit oxygen check. Why do I look distressed? Because my oxygen levels went from a stellar 99-97% to 88%. In retrospect, a sign of a long, tough night ahead.

Fiction. Guides will turn you back at the slightest hint of a problem.
Guides are there to help to ensure you reach Uhuru. Safely. Be open and honest about everything you are feeling. Got a headache? Feet hurt? Speak up.

I was very open that I have asthma, and cannot stress the importance of that to my ultimate success. Guides kept an extra close eye on my breathing and slowed my pace considerably at lower altitudes. While I H-A-T-E-D being stuck at the end of the line, I needed all that extra stored strength and energy.

Fact &Fiction. You are going to puke.
Not everyone will but it is not uncommon for even the fittest hikers to vomit on the way up to Uhuru Peak. Stomach upset is commonly brought on by a combination of fatigue and altitude sickness. Be prepared to set your jaw, and get right with it. Then keep climbing.

Fiction. Porters can carry everything you pack.
Not even close, because they’re lugging food, stoves and tents. Each person is allowed to pack a maximum of 30lbs of gear for your porter to carry. Anything else is on you. Literally. I try to Pack light, and pack smart. I carry rain gear, snacks, sunglasses, Cottonelle wipes, an extra layer, hat, camera and water, and personal medication/sunblock.

Fact. The most successful climbs to the Summit have a 1:1 or 2:1 guide-to traveler ratio on Summit day.
My tour had the same amount of guides as climbers for our climb to the Summit, allowing for personalized attention, motivation and medical care (if necessary). Worst-case scenario, a sick traveler can return to lower altitudes without disrupting other climbers. In this case, I was the sick traveler

Fiction. Summiting is all about physical preparation. Being physically prepared is critical, but only half the battle. You have to be emotionally ready and mentally resolved. While training, put yourself in situations that are mentally exhausting, boring and uncomfortable. Because come Summit night, you will be mentally exhausted on top of dealing with a host of potential discomforts. For me, getting to the top meant struggling through asthma, and overcoming altitude sickness. That  had everything to do with mental willpower and resolve.

Fact. Your guide knows all.
Don’t second-guess your guide, Kilimanjaro is his office. Get input on your gear before you take off for Kilimanjaro National Park. Chances are you over-packed and they are an invaluable resource for sorting out what is useful vs. what is weight.

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Our second guide, “G-Man” who decided it was time for me to rest and have a snack. Who needs snacks when you can take selfies?

Fiction. Guides travel with Oxygen, to dispense if someone is having difficulty during the climb.
Yes, guides do travel with oxygen. No, oxygen is not prophylactic. That’s a combination red flag/white flag. Once you require oxygen, your climb is done, and your hike returning down to lower altitudes has begun.

Fact. Guides and porters liked to be thanked.
If you think your guide and porters did a great job getting you to Uhuru Peak, don’t be shy. Tell them. It’s a source of pride for them. Trinkets like high quality wool socks are also appreciated. But, pro-tip, if you really enjoyed your trip and want to do something unique, offer to get them a banana beer on the way back down the mountain. It’s an acquired taste but a not-to-be missed experience.

 

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

Kili National Park
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.

Moshi, Tanzania: First Impressions

It was only 9:00 pm local time when we landed at Kilimanjaro Airport in Moshi, Tanzania. But it felt more like a year’s air travel, and our exhausted expressions had that typical cloudy-eyed confusion that says “I just landed, where am I, which way to the luggage?”

Although it was dark, I could tell Moshi was larger than I’d expected it to be. The airport’s proximity to Moshi is similar to Regan National Airport’s distance to DC. Because we were climbing Kilimanjaro, I was expecting a smaller city, like Cusco, Peru, the gateway town for those hiking the Inca Trail. More importantly, I was anticipated landing in a place easy to navigate on foot (with shops, restaurants and a few sites to visit).

Moshi is not that. It’s spread out and visitors are encouraged not to walk around after dark. The hotels are happy to call you a taxi. Our guide confirmed it’s not safe, which is about where everyone left it. We didn’t contest that guidance. My number one, golden rule for Kilimanjaro is “on, or off the mountain, always listen to your guide.”

By day, we discovered Moshi hums like any large city: people walking to work, catching buses, people generally going about their lives. One thing you’ll notice about Moshi, is that westerners really stand out. Thus, be prepared for people to stare at you. It’s a welcoming and warm curiosity, but it can be intimidating if you aren’t used to it.

As a redhead, I’d experienced being stared at once before in India. It gives one a good idea of what a hassle celebrity must be.

Moshi is welcoming, but to get the most out of visiting make friends with your guide. A distant second recommendation is to keep on the lookout for ex-pats (who speak Swahili, the language of Tanzania). It appeared that most ex-pats lived in the “Shanty Town” neighborhood. Anyone familiar with that name knows it usually describes a poor area. In this case the name’s ironic.

Moshi is friendly, but staff in grocery stores, restaurants and banks don’t always speak English. Additionally, prices can mysteriously increase at grocery stores—if you argue, it’s nicely explained that you don’t understand. Now you understand.

Taxi’s can also be a source of frustration. The hotel will arrange transportation and provide a price. But it’s important to confirm things with your driver. What is called “Chaka-Chewa,” or funny business, is part of the experience.

For example, our first cab driver argued once we reached our destination that the price quoted was dollars, and the price in local currency is higher. I will grant this can become frustrating. But it’s also important to point out that—although you don’t want to be a sucker—ultimately you’re arguing over not a lot of money. We bickered because we didn’t carry a lot of cash—and you never use a debit card.

It helps not to look at Chaka-Chewa as dishonest, as much as opportunistic. Wealthy people take taxis—people who can afford that extra couple bucks that can make a big difference for the individual. It helps keep things in perspective, and maintaining that outlook prevents premature aging.

With that, here is a Travelers Tip: Before getting in a taxi, confirm your destination, number of passengers, repeat the agreed upon price and currency. Make certain the driver agrees to this before you get depart your hotel. That said, if the bill is 9,000 Tsh (Tanzanian Shillings), be a sport and let the person keep the change. Tipping is not part of the culture, but it is very appreciated and there is a growing expectation that westerners will tip.

I’ve focused on this point more than I’d expected to, so let me sum it up as follows. Consider it not so much as “buyer beware” as a “buyer be aware” thing, and plan accordingly so that you can enjoy your time prior to climbing Kilimanjaro or heading off on a Safari.

These frustrations are by no means unique to Tanzania. Do not get overly frustrated or allow it to ruin your holiday. Instead, write it off as local customs and ways of doing things.

Author’s note: My personal travel philosophy is never to write while I’m away. I do keep notes in a journal. Observations help me to remember my impressions and experiences for your enjoyment. To me, travel is about being in the moment, not documenting it on a computer.

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Finally, Officially… Heading to Kilimanjaro

Question: How many conference calls with your BFF does it take to book a trip to Tanzania, Africa and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro (especially when your family and friends are worried about the risk of Ebola and suggesting you not go)?

Answer: Four. One for us to discuss pro’s and con’s of the trip. The second to learn about travel insurance from the travel agency. The third to go over follow-up questions about travel insurance. The final, fourth call to finally book the trip, and begin preparing for “wheels up” go time.


If nothing else is true about me, let it be known that when I commit to something I am ALL IN. And let me tell you, I am ALL IN when it comes to my Missing Stamps list.

The number one item on that list is to visit Tanzania and climb Kilimanjaro, or “Kili” as it’s affectionately referred to. While it’s been stuck in the number one spot for a while, it is not for lacking of planning. I have been reading up on gear, training, and had long-standing plans to make the trip several times—the latest being this year. But, life happens, and the trip had to be postponed.

A month ago, in the midst of the Ebola outbreak (but before all the media hypochondria) the Yooner (for new readers, this is my BFF and travel buddy), decided it was a now-of-never kind of moment. We officially booked the trip for early 2015.

Of course after we told friends and family that we’d finally decided to pull the trigger, reactions ranged from, the more casual “What?” to the more direct “Are you <expletive deleted> nuts!?” The common question about why involved one question. What about Ebola?”

As of this publication, Mr Os has gone the way of New York and New Jersey, and declared that I will have to quarantine myself for 21 days upon my return. Where is yet unclear. And, mind you, Tanzania is nowhere near Nigeria or Sierra Leone.

Also, consider that Tanzania has not had a single case of the virus. Certainly, things could change between now and March regarding the crisis. But as of now, I don’t buy into the fear mongering and think this succinctly sums up my risk of catching Ebola.

Instead, I’m focusing my energy on the things that actually matter: gear and training. I’m starting an inventory this week to assess what equipment and clothing I already have from previous treks, and what I will need. It’s better to accumulate equipment and clothing over time. Not only can you watch for sales, it helps avoid the last-minute crunch of buying crap you don’t need. And importantly, if you collect gear over a few months, you have plenty of time to break it in and get used to it—that’s especially important with hiking boots. It’s even more important for longer-term hikes.

Candidly what I am a bit worried about is physically preparing. I injured my knee riding in the Trek Across Maine this summer; who knew you could over train? I’ve been sidelined from any cardio workouts beyond a simple walk for two months. It’s driving me a bit nuts. I’m still hitting weights at the gym and physical therapy is starting to have an impact. But, having asthma, I know reaching the summit (and, heck yeah, I WILL summit Kilimanjaro) will come down to training. So, I’m anxious for clearance to start doing more strenuous exercise. Wish me luck! And if you have suggestions, I’m all ears!

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