Hiking Mt Kilimanjaro? Here’s how to do it responsibly

Topped with its iconic dome of ice and snow, Mt Kilimanjaro has beckoned hikers since its 5895m peak was first summited over a century ago. Last month, I made the journey myself. While ascending Kili alongside British-Australian explorer Tim Jarvis as part of the 25zero climate change project, a groundbreaking initiative designed to urge action on climate change (can you believe Kilimanjaro’s glaciers could be gone in 25 years?), I learned a few things about how to minimise my negative impact on the roof of Africa. Here’s how.

I still can’t believe I climbed that © Sarah Reid

Choose a responsible operator

It’s not possible to hike Kilimanjaro without a guide, and for good reason: thousands of local guides and porters rely on this work. Not all operators, however, were created equally, with many still underpaying and poorly outfitting their staff. Do your research before choosing a provider, keeping in mind that cheap rates can be indicative of cost-cutting in other areas, such as food quality or your guide’s wage. Visit the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP) website for an updated list of responsible operators, and check out my recent article for lonelylanet.com about how (and why) to choose a responsible travel operator anywhere in the world.

Consider opting for a female guide

A growing number of Kilimanjaro hiking companies now have women guides, providing a fantastic employment opportunity to local women who have traditionally struggled to gain employment in male-dominated industries such as guiding. I met three women guides while hiking the Lemosho Route, all of whom seemed incredibly capable.

The views along the Lemosho route live up to the hype © Sarah Reid

Pick our route wisely, and know your limits

Mt Kilimanjaro is a serious climb, and altitude sickness is common. While altitude sickness can strike even the fittest hikers, opting for one of the longer routes up the mountain (such as the Lemosho Route) will not only help to reduce the likelihood of getting it, it also increases your chances of summiting – my Intrepid Travel guide Vendelin estimated that two or three people in each hiking group don’t make it. Guides are well trained in identifying the symptoms, and ignoring their advice to slow down or otherwise turn around can be fatal. Do yourself a favour and trust them.

Hike in the low season

Hiker numbers swell considerably in the high season (June to October), with guides and porters making the climb up to three times per month. I hiked at the beginning of June, and the Lemosho Route was already getting busy – with up to 500 people at some of the camps along the way. If you’re comfortable hiking in cooler temps (and amid potential snowfalls), consider climbing between January and March, which is not only quieter, but also puts less pressure on the environment, and support services.

Nailed it! © Sarah Reid

Bring the right gear

Failing to pack correctly for Kilimanjaro can impact both your safety and that of others. Good quality waterproof hiking boots, rain gear and cold weather gear (including thermals, a beanie and ski gloves) are key essentials. I was lucky to have the opportunity to test-drive Kathmandu’s new XT Series range during my hike, which was a godsend on summit day when the temperature dropped to -15°C. Rehydration salts, paracetamol, and medication for both diarrhoea and constipation (yes, really) are first aid kit essentials. Cold and flu medication is also strongly recommended. Diamox is commonly prescribed for high altitude hiking, though be aware this medication can also mask the symptoms of altitude sickness.

Pack out your trash

While fires and dumping rubbish on Kili are now strictly banned (with porters’ loads weighed at each station to keep trekking companies accountable), you’ll still see some trash on the trail. Help to keep this litter to an absolute minimum by packing out all your rubbish, particularly toilet paper, which can take years to break down at high altitude – if you need to go along the trail, keep a sanitary bag in your pocket to store your loo paper in until you can dispose of it in a drop toilet at your next campsite.

Keep Kili beautiful by packing out all your rubbish – especially loo paper © Sarah Reid

Use reusable, rechargeable and biodegradable hiking accessories

Two things I spotted with some frequency on Kili were batteries and wet wipes. On summit day, I also spotted a lot of disposable hand-warmers. All of these products, of course, are a nightmare for the environment. Consider overhauling your gear to help minimise your impact on Kili and beyond: by investing in a rechargeable headlamp you won’t have to dispose of batteries anywhere in Africa, toilet paper breaks down faster than biodegradable wet wipes, and reusable hand-warmers last forever if you look after them.

Tip fairly

KPAP has helped to ensure porters don’t carry more than 20kg, and are paid a fair wage – 20,000 Tanzanian Shillings or about US$8.70 per day. While guides are generally paid more highly, their wages can fluctuate wildly between operators. Both parties rely on tips for the excellent service they provide, though just as important as tipping for good service is being sure not to over-tip – if guides start earning more than locals working in essential services like teaching and nursing, it can upset the social balance. Intrepid Travel recommends tipping US$70-120 per person for an eight-day Lemosho Route hike, with the total split between porters, cooks and guides.

Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife, such as blue monkeys, en route to the summit © Sarah Reid

Consider gifting your gear

Good hiking gear is both expensive and in short supply in Kili. Consider gifting some of your gear to your guides or porters, who will be incredibly grateful for anything you can spare at the end of your trip, from woollen hats to first aid items.

Thanks to Kathmandu and Intrepid Travel for supporting my trip to Mt Kilimanjaro.