Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the Seven Summits, the highest mountains in each continent - taking the crown for Africa’s highest peak. It attracts thousands of visitors every year thanks to its fantastic scenery and adventurous trekking experience. Kilimanjaro is a huge and wide mountain with the main summit, Uhuru Peak sitting at 5888 meters above sea level. Due to its size there are a number of established routes going up and down the mountain and departing from all around it. But this gives trekkers a dilemma – “Which route should I take when climbing Kilimanjaro?” In this article, we want to give you some information about the Kilimanjaro routes to help you make a decision!
When picking a route for climbing Kilimanjaro, there’s a number of factors you should take into account:
There are seven main routes for climbing Kilimanjaro, many share parts of the same routes and each has its own scenery and pros and cons. Bear in mind that durations are just guidelines as different tour companies offer their own variations of length for each route.
Machame Route Kilimanjaro. The Machame Gate. Photo by Anwar
The Machame route, or the “Whiskey” route, is the most popular Kilimanjaro route, with an estimated 45% of visitors taking this trail for climbing Kilimanjaro. The scenery is excellent with four types of landscapes to pass through. This is a good route for dealing with altitude as many tours allow you to climb high and go back down to sleep low on the same days, allowing your body to better adjust to the elevation. Extra rest days are often available and if you have the time or money for this, it’s worth the investment to lower the risk of altitude sickness and also physically prepare yourself for the summit climb.
Camping on the Machame Route, Kilimanjaro. Photo by Nik
The Machame route is a busy, crowded route and is fully catered camping only. Like all the camping routes for Kili, porters will carry the tents. Walking days are longer on Machame than the other popular route, Marangu, and steeper, so it’s considered more challenging. This trail for Machame starts in the south before heading east under the southern ice field before the summit bid. You then descend on the Mweka route, which is used as a downhill only path for many of the routes from the summit. There are two particularly difficult sections on this trek - an area before the Shira ridge, and the Barranco Wall - both of these are physically challenging and also may affect those with a fear of heights. Overall though, this is a highly rated route with an excellent success rate, and has some of the best scenery of all the routes. Just be prepared for it to be busy!
Machame Route Kilimanjaro. Trekking on the Southern Ice Field. Photo by Nik
Trekking Kilimanjaro via the Marangu Route. Photo by Kevin
The oldest and the second most popular trail is the Marangu Route, or the Kilimanjaro “Coca-Cola” route - so called because porters used to bring Coca-Cola to the various huts along the trail. Around 40% of all visitors take this trail so it is one of the busiest. This is the preferred route for more casual and inexperienced trekkers, as it is considered the easiest of the Mount Kilimanjaro hiking options. However, this also contributes to it having the lowest success rates - which is usually attributed to people underestimating its difficulty and being underprepared, It also has more extreme altitude changes than many of the other routes which can cause more cases of altitude sickness. Many tours offer an extra day to do this route to combat this and it’s definitely worth investing in that to maximize your chances of resisting the effects of altitude.
Marangu Route huts on Kilimanjaro. Also known as the Coca Cola route. Photo by Kevin
The other reason this route is so popular is that the Marangu route is the only one to offer hut accommodation along Kilimanjaro for its entire length. Trekkers sleep in dorms with mattresses and other basic amenities, although there is no electricity. Usually, you can buy snacks and drinks at the huts as well. The Marangu route departs from the south-east of Kilimanjaro and reaches Uhuru Peak (the summit) via Gilman’s Point. It is also the only route to use the same trail on the descent, so in terms of scenery variation over time it’s probably the weakest option, however, the views that you do get are great, especially from the Saddle. This is a good route if you’re short on time or do not want to camp, and extending it to 6 days will make your chances of success much higher. Just remember, even though it is an easier Kilimanjaro hike than the others, you still need to be well-prepared for it!
Popular with more expensive tours and much quieter than the main routes, the Rongai route travels along a more isolated part of the mountain and starts off much more easily than the other treks. Accommodation is camping only, except for the last night which usually finishes in a hut. Rongai is unique in that it’s the only trail which approaches Kilimanjaro from the north, which as well as giving you a different perspective on the mountain, also allows for clearer views of the peak. The highlight aside from the summit are the first few days in which you’ll pass through unspoiled wilderness and alpine desert near the Kenyan border, with plenty of wildlife spotting opportunities, although after that, the scenery is less varied than other routes. Many trekkers coming in from Kenya prefer this route
The Rongai route to Kilimanjaro is very scenic. Photo by Steve
This is a quiet route with low foot traffic, passing through the Saddle after the wild northern slopes and reaching the summit via Gilman’s point. It then joins the Marangu route at Kibo camp, which it continues to follow for the descent, and this is when it will become busier. This is one of the easier trekking options for Mt. Kilimanjaro with flatter gradients than the other routes, however, there’s less opportunity for acclimatization and the northern approach summit day is one of the toughest. A good option for less experienced trekkers who want to get away from the busy Marangu route, and for those who want a slightly more sedate and chilled version of the trek!
The Lemosho Route on Kilimanjaro. The harsh climb gives way to a completely flat plain of soft sand. Photo by Mouser
The Lemosho route is an exceedingly scenic route that starts to the west of Mount Kilimanjaro before joining the Southern Circuit, and then varies depending on the tour, with some joining the Machame route and others going onto the Northern Circuit. Typically it descends via the Mweka trail. It is another very quiet trail and has camping only, making it a great way to get away from the crowds, however, it is one of the tougher routes of Kilimanjaro. The rewards are excellent though, with amazing scenery, including a nice heath section. Lemosho is also one of the best routes for acclimatization with high summit success rates.
The Furtwangler Glacier on Lemosho Route, Kilimanjaro. Photo by Mouser
Like the Rongai route, the start is in a scenic, remote area giving the opportunity to see wildlife and it also offers great views of the dramatic gorges which lie on Kilimanjaro’s western side. Another bonus is the chance to hike over the Shira Plateau, one of the highest in the world. It’s also a peaceful route which only gets busier when it joins the more popular trails. This is rated as one of the best routes thanks to its amazing scenery, good success rates and quiet trail - however like Rongai, it is generally a bit more expensive than the more popular routes. It’s also worth noting that Lemosho is not usually recommended during the rainy season as the start point can become inaccessible.
The Lemosho Route on Kilimanjaro. A few hundred feet below the crater rim. Photo by Mouser
Climbing Kilimanjaro Shira route. Photo by Mouser
The Shira route is actually a slight variation of Lemosho route - Shira being the original version. It starts at a much higher altitude with travellers transported to 3,600 meters at Shira Gate and on day two merging with the Lemosho route. For this reason, it’s usually only offered to trekkers who have already acclimatized to high altitudes and can be dangerous to those who haven’t. The advantages are that it’s a day quicker than the Lemosho route, and the drive up is spectacular.
The newest route on Mount Kilimanjaro, the Northern Circuit is another very quiet trail and the longest hike available. It has very high success rates as the length of the trip gives lots of opportunity for acclimatization. This trek starts on the Lemosho route but after a few day strikes out on its own, traversing the deserted northern slopes of Kilimanjaro with spectacular scenery - and offering views that you won’t get on the other routes. The final summit approach and descent route taken depends on the tour, with some using the Lemosho or Mweka trails.
Pofu Camp on the Northern Circuit trail to Kilimanjaro. Photo by Gopal
Thanks to its length the Northern Circuit has very varied scenery and goes nearly all the way around Kilimanjaro. So, this is one of the best, however, it’s also generally the most expensive tour as it’s so long. You’ll also need to be prepared for the endurance required for the extra days hiking and camping, so some additional training is a good idea if you want to do this one.
Umbwe Route to Kilimanjaro. Climbing the Barranco wall. Photo by Kessy
Probably having the least foot traffic of all the routes, the Umbwe route is perfect for those wanting to get away from it all. This is a fast and direct route for experienced trekkers, being the hardest of the main trails with the steepest climbs. Its sharp altitude changes are reflected by its lower success rates. You should only consider the Umbwe route if you are confident at high altitudes or have pre-acclimatized. In return, you’ll get the quietest trip of all, with stunning ridges and some of the best views of any route. This route starts to the southwest of Kilimanjaro and climbs steeply, before usually connecting to the Southern Circuit before summitting. Umbwe is also well known for its many caves which can be visited during the trek. This route could be a good option for experienced hikers who don’t have much time, and want a real challenge with great rewards.
Although it’s no longer a main Kilimanjaro route, it would be remiss not to mention the Western Breach. This is considered to be a dangerous route and is not offered by most tour operators for this reason. In 2006 the route was temporarily closed when a rockfall killed 3 unfortunate trekkers. This is a steep route with poor acclimatization and despite changes to the trail and route since re-opening, it still has hazards which make it too unsafe for most. This is a route for very experienced trekkers and climbers and technically difficult. It is still possible to do this route through some operators, who generally make you agree that it is at your own risk. Obviously, this should only be considered by the very experienced! It’s also possible to add a Western Breach section to some other routes.
As you can see, your Kilimanjaro climb can be achieved by many different routes, each with their own plus points! Hopefully this article has given you a good starting point to steer your decision about which route might be right for you. Whether you’re an experienced trekker, prefer the peace and quiet, or just want spectacular views and a bed in a hut, Kilimanjaro has it all! Enjoy!