A Mount Kilimanjaro trek is a great adventure and a once in a lifetime opportunity for many visitors. It’s a challenging trek and the mountain has almost no tourist facilities except for a few basic huts. So to make the dream a reality for trekkers, a support network of Kilimanjaro porters, guides and cooks are needed to help people get up the mountain. We want to help you understand their job and give you some background to better improve your trip and cultural knowledge. In this article we’re going to look at the vital roles played by these people, some insight into their lifestyle, guidelines on how many support staff you need, and tipping etiquette for Kilimanjaro, so that rewarding these hard working individuals isn’t a shot in the dark for you.
First of all, let’s talk about the practicalities for your Kilimanjaro trek. Usually, your tour operator will assign the correct number of staff for each trekker, but it’s important to know if you are arranging a tour by yourself, or to check that good standards are being met by your company.
The average ratio of trekkers to support staff is that 1 trekker needs 3 or 4 staff, consisting of a guide and 2 or 3 porters, one of whom will be a cook (if the guide isn’t). This ratio goes down as more trekkers are added to a group, but there will still usually be 2 or 3 support staff per trekker. Sounds like a lot, right? But it’s not, when you consider what each trekker needs.
Kilimanjaro porters carry equipment and supplies to support everyone. Photo by Mitch
Usually, one guide will support a small number of trekkers, catering to their needs, leading them, organizing porters, equipment, meals and so on. For each trekker and guide, porters are needed to carry equipment and supplies to support everyone (including themselves!). This ranges from camping gear and trekking equipment to food and water, and also includes the client’s (your) extra possessions. They carry this on their heads and backs, often in big duffel bags. Some porters will usually travel ahead of the group and set up camp in advance. Cooks may doubly act as porters (although officially they are not supposed to). In addition, your staff will be making/breaking camp, preparing food, boiling water and dealing with trekker’s problems. The only exception to the staff ratio recommendations is on the Marangu Route, which uses huts for sleeping, so requires a few lesser porters as some camping equipment is not needed.
Cheaper trekking companies for Kilimanjaro use fewer support staff to lower their costs. However, this comes at the price of overworked or overloaded staff and a poorer support network for you. Always check how many staff your group is being assigned and make sure there are enough to fairly cover the group’s needs. Mount Kilimanjaro guides should be registered with the Kilimanjaro National Parks board.
It’s worth noting that due to Tanzanian law, climbing Kilimanjaro without a guide is not possible. You also can’t ascend Kilimanjaro without a porter. You need at least one guide and one porter to legally do the trek. Kilimanjaro is not a mountain to be taken lightly, the trek takes many days in changing and challenging weather conditions, so attempting it completely solo is not only foolhardy but also illegal! We also have an article detailing how you can Climb Kilimanjaro solo, regardless, you still need support staff with you.
The vast majority of Mt Kilimanjaro porters and guides are local Tanzanian men between the ages of 18 and 40. Many guides work for years as porters on Kilimanjaro before being promoted. They come to the mountain from the local region and even further, seeking a relatively high wage in a very poor country, and often to support their families. Due to the thousands of trekkers who come to the mountain every year, in turn, there are thousands of workers needed to support this. Unfortunately, this has created a kind of “gold rush” mentality attracting far more workers than there are jobs, and a cut-throat and exploitative competitive industry has emerged where porter working conditions can be very poor and wages awful.
Tipping is the primary income for porters on Kilimanjaro. Photo by Mitch
Most porters for Kilimanjaro are not employed on a permanent basis and freelance for different companies. Responsible tour operators use the same team of support staff but the majority of Kili porters must find work themselves, and the stiff competition allows many companies to hire staff well below the national minimum wage. Some companies do not even pay their staff, with tipping from clients being their only income!
Although regulations state that porters should carry a maximum of 20 kg for their company, plus their own gear, many cheap tour operators still ignore these guidelines as enforcement of these rules is poor. Porters on Kilimanjaro often work 6 days a week in arduous conditions carrying heavy loads up the mountain three or four times every month. Some porters on guided Kilimanjaro treks have inadequate footwear, clothing and trekking equipment for the harsh Kilimanjaro conditions. Sleeping arrangements may be cramped and in poor quality old tents. Porter fatalities on the mountain are not officially reported but rumored to happen annually, often due to exposure or altitude sickness.
Kilimanjaro guides giving a breifing. Photo by Brad
Fortunately, in recent years, staff conditions on Kilimanjaro are slowly improving, with new regulations and support groups working to create a fairer life for the workers on the mountain. More tour companies are signing up to regulated staff practices and responsible tourists are becoming more educated and aware of the worker’s plight. However, there are still many cases where porters and other staff are mistreated, underpaid and overworked. So it is important to understand the hardships that they can face and support them in any way that you can.
See this great documentary highlighting the working conditions of Kilimanjaro porters.
There are a number of things you can do to help ensure that Kilimanjaro guides, porters and staff are receiving fair treatment.
Tipping Kilimanjaro guides, porters and cooks is essentially mandatory. Although there is no legal obligation to tip, it’s expected and for many staff is their main source of income. Therefore tips are higher than you may anticipate so it’s important to factor this into your trek cost in advance. As well as this section, please read the KPAP’s tipping recommendations.
A rough guideline is that for a group paying as a whole, Mt Kilimanjaro guides should receive US $20-25 per day, cooks US $15 per day, and each porter US $10 per day. Some people look at the cost of their trek overall and pay 10-15 percent of that cost per person to add to the tip kitty. Use your conscience as a guide, if you feel someone did a great job or you faced difficult circumstances, give them a bigger tip!
You can also give gifts or donate trekking equipment to the Porters on Kilimanjaro. Photo by Brad
Some people like to give gifts or donate trekking equipment as a way of tipping porters. Kilimanjaro trekking companies do sometimes give poor quality or old gear to their staff so this is a nice thing to do, although money should also be included unless your equipment is especially valuable.
Remember to bring enough cash in US dollars or Tanzanian Shillings to cover the Kilimanjaro tips.
Pay tips in separate envelopes and give them to each person individually on the last day or end of your trek (some companies have a tip-giving ceremony on the last day). Make sure at the start of your trek that you know who your support staff are, so you can ensure they get a tip. Remember that some of them may be going off ahead of your expedition to set up camp and you may rarely see them through the trek!
Some Porters on Kilimanjaro go ahead of your expedition to set up camp. Photo by Mitch
By giving tips out individually you can ensure that the person directly gets your tip, rather than a guide or organization taking a cut of it. Only pay tips for porters and cooks to organizations or guides if you are 100 percent certain that the staff actually receive the full amount of it. Some companies and guides just keep the tips for themselves or only pay a small share of it to the recipient.
There can be a bit of fun role-play involved in giving tips to staff. Don’t expect them to always take it with a smile, there can be some good natured theatrical refusals, but just insist with a smile that they take it and force it on them if need be! After they go through the polite/comical refusals they will happily accept your tip and rest assured that they really do appreciate it!
We hope this has given you some insight into the support staff on your Kilimanjaro trek and what to expect. These hard working people are the unsung heroes of the mountain and deserve your respect and gratitude. They’re a friendly, loyal and fun crew who are there to help you achieve your goal, and you get to share a great experience with them!