Climbing to 6 kilometres above sea level is vastly different than hiking or climbing at lower altitudes. You will have to change the way you look after yourself substantially, or you put yourself and your fellow trekkers at risk.
The biggest problem is avoiding AMS/altitude sickness and we have devoted a separate page to this here.
Beyond AMS, the six big risks are malaria, diarrhoea, dehydration, sunburn, proper diet and keeping a balanced temperature. We deal with each of those topics below.
The entire Kilimanjaro region is the home of malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and you are at risk of contracting malaria at least until you climb above 3000 metres. Above that, mosquitoes can’t survive. A bout of malaria can ruin your entire trip and end your climb early, so it is best to protect yourself.
Your doctor can prescribe anti-malarial medications, but we also recommend wearing long sleeves and trousers, as well as using a good mosquito repellent that contains DEET the entire time you are below 3000 metres.
Make sure that your hygiene is as good as possible to avoid picking up a stomach upset. Needless to say, a bout of diarrhoea can make a week-long strenuous ascent unpleasant or even impossible.
On the climb itself, we make sure that your food is pure and uncontaminated, and that all of your water is treated with WaterGuard purification tablets. Before your trek, though, you will have to protect yourself.
Make sure you follow these simple rules at all times:
Water from sealed bottles is generally fine, as are fizzy drinks, wine and beer. Hot tea and coffee are good, as they have just been boiled.
If you do get diarrhoea, the most important thing you can do is to stay hydrated. The best thing to drink is a rehydration solution like Dioralyte. Read more about dehydration below.
Over the counter medicines like Immodium (or anything containing loperamide) are only for short term, mild diarrhoea. Some doctors recommend taking a single, 500mg dose of Ciprofxin, or any ciprofloxacin antibiotic in an emergency situation. This is a prescription medicine, and you should discuss it with your doctor before your trip.
Even if you avoid diarrhoea, you can easily become dehydrated at high altitudes. The lower air pressure forces you to breathe more quickly and deeply, and you lose a lot of water through your lungs. You will also be exerting yourself, and sweating.
The upshot is, as you might expect, that you’ll have to drink more water. You need to drink at least 3 litres of fluids every day while climbing. Even when you don't feel thirsty you have to drink this amount as a minimum - preferably more. This is particularly important on the final day when you attempt the summit and could mean the difference between success or failure.
On summit night you should drink at least ½ litre (preferably a whole litre) before you set off. We will also supply you with 2 litres of water to fill your own water bottles or hydration bladder. Make sure it doesn’t freeze! Wrapping the bottles in thick socks or otherwise insulating them is usually enough.
Stay on the look-out for signs of dehydration in yourself and your fellow climbers. The most common symptoms include thirst, dry lips, nose or mouth, headache and feeling fatigued or lethargic. If you think you may be dehydrated, there are two ways to tell:
One last thing – remember to keep drinking on the way down the mountain, as well.
While a high climb is hardly a day at the seaside, you will be vulnerable to sunburn if not properly protected. The thin atmosphere at high altitudes blocks much less of the sun’s UV rays, even on cloudy days.
The three most important things you can do to avoid sunburn are:
At higher altitudes the sun's rays are intensified and even on a cloudy day they can penetrate through and still burn you. And don’t forget that the sun is at its strongest between 10:00-14:00 hours each day.
Many climbers experience loss of appetite at high altitudes. This is a real problem, as you will be burning an extra 2000 or more calories a day, and not replacing them can cause real problems, especially when you attempt the summit.
Just like staying hydrated, you have to eat heartily even if you aren’t hungry. Meals heavy in carbohydrates are best, because they are easier to digest at high altitudes and provide long-term energy.
The summit ascent is different. You won’t have a big, heavy meal which might slow you down on the most intensive part of the climb, but rather a light snack and a hot drink. It is important to keep plenty of small snacks with you on this leg, as you will have to keep your energy levels high. Also, make sure they don’t freeze – so keep them in pockets underneath your jacket, or in an insulated bag like your daypack.
Summit snacks should be chosen carefully. Take a favourite treat to make it easier to eat when you don’t feel hungry, but avoid anything with honey or syrup, or anything ‘chewy’ as they are likely to freeze tooth-crackingly solid above 5000 metres. Chocolate, nuts and seeds, biscuits, savoury snacks and boiled sweets are generally better choices.
Every mountain has its own climate, and Kilimanjaro has several different weather zones at different heights and on different faces of the mountain. Conditions change quickly, and you will be moving between zones as well. A hot and dry day can be followed immediately by snow or rain. Wearing a layered outfit is generally the wisest way to make sure you stay healthy and reasonably comfortable in all conditions.
Above all, make sure to wear warm, wind-and water-proof, breathable clothing on your climb. Get high quality gear too, as this is definitely ‘the real thing’. Storms, high winds and freezing temperatures must be expected, and poor quality equipment will fail.
We have more specific advice about equipment here.