The trek up Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa is a once in a lifetime trip, a popular destination for trekkers and adventurers of all ages. As one of the Seven Summits (the highest mountains in each of the 7 continents) it offers amazing views and the long hike takes you through many types of interesting landscapes. The Kilimanjaro climb usually begins near the town of Moshi, Tanzania and passes through rainforest, alpine and glacial terrain. On the shortest routes, it takes around 5 days and the longest up to 10 days return. With such a long trip ascending to high altitudes, many travellers find themselves underprepared for the challenge and ask the question how fit do I need to be to climb Kilimanjaro?- so here we have some Kilimanjaro training tips for you! And to help you out, there’s even a bullet point list of training tips for Kilimanjaro at the bottom of the article which you can print out and put on your wall, fridge or door to keep you motivated!
The Mount Kilimanjaro climb will typically see you hiking for around 5 to 7 hours each day, with a much longer trek on the day when you climb to the summit. It’s worth noting that this is regular mountain hiking and you don’t need any special technical skills or climbing experience. Paths are well made and you, of course, have your guides and porters on hand to assist too.
Train for Kilimanjaro. You will be hiking 5 to 7 hours daily. Photo by Bradley
For most of the trek, you’re going uphill and you will reach high altitudes from Day 2 or 3. You can expect to travel around 50-60 km in total on the shorter routes, and up to 90 km on the longer expeditions. But bear in mind, half of this distance is going up! The Kilimanjaro hike’s highlight is summit day, where you’ll probably be scaling Uhuru Peak on the Kubu crater - sitting at a whopping height of 5888 meters above sea level! Then you’ll make a steep descent back down the summit before the gradients smooth out again for your return down the mountain.
You do need to have a certain level of fitness in order to maximize your chances of success when climbing Kilimanjaro. Although some people manage it without any training, they often have a good base level of fitness, or are luckily enough to suffer no altitude problems. For most people, Kilimanjaro training in some form is highly recommended! First of all, if you suffer from any medical conditions which you think the hike, or the high altitudes could affect, please seek professional medical advice before you undertake this trek. Your doctor is the best source of information that will be personally tailored for you and will determine whether you can climb Kilimanjaro.
Likewise, if you are chronically unfit then you may need a much longer and structured regime to get in shape for this trek. However, don’t be put off - people of all ages and abilities manage to climb Kilimanjaro with tens of thousands every year making the summit. If you do some research, you’ll find a host of intensive, structured workouts and exercise regimes specifically designed for conditioning your body for Kilimanjaro. If that suits you, go right ahead - it will do the job and you will be more than prepared. Here’s a handy calendar. However, the reality is that there are more simple ways to train for the Kilimanjaro trek.
Train for Kilimanjaro by hiking. Photo by Loren
The best thing you can do is train under similar conditions that you’ll be facing on the hike. That means, yes, hiking! What you should be aiming for, is to do plenty of long duration hikes, ideally on hills or mountains. If you can’t get to hills (maybe you’re from the Netherlands!), then that’s fine, do any kind of walking, but to make up for the lack of climbing you should look at building some extra strength to prepare you for those inclines, which we’ll look at shortly. Any other kind of aerobic or cardio exercise is going to be good training for the trek (such as swimming or cycling), but walking is probably the most simple and effective, and better than running as it will condition your body for the same circumstances as Kilimanjaro. It will also strengthen your joints and your core which will come under strain during the climb. It’s important on your walks to carry a backpack with similar weight to what you’ll be taking up Kilimanjaro (at least 10 kg is the general advice), and wear the boots you will be using for the hike to get used to them, or wear them in if they’re new. This blog has a nice section on optimal carrying weight if you want to know more. Also, don’t forget to take plenty of water, you’ll be carrying liters of it in Africa!
Whatever cardio exercise you decide to do, make sure that you aim for length over intensity. Fast and hard workouts are not going to prepare your body for the special kind of strain it will be under at high altitude. The Kilimanjaro hike often defeats very sporty people like marathon runners (again highlighting that walking, not running is better training for Kilimanjaro), and the demographic with the highest failure rate is males aged 20-30. The main reason for this is because they go too fast! Your guides and porters will tell you “Pole, pole!” which means “slowly and steady”. You will be walking slowly when climbing Kilimanjaro, probably slower than you would normally. There’s a good reason for this - it reduces the likelihood of altitude sickness by allowing your body time to adjust, and deal with the lack of oxygen. It's very easy to over-do it at these altitudes and burn yourself out or suffer from altitude sickness by going up too fast. This is a slow endurance test and so try to recreate that in your training. Longer periods of exercise are better Kilimanjaro training, full stop.
How long should I train before my Kilimanjaro trip? Good question. It really comes down to your beginning level of fitness. Some programs recommend 6 months but this is excessive, with most people suggesting two months in advance is a sensible training period, if the person has an average fitness level. Some people do a more intensive 3 to 4 week training period. If you go for that short a time, you should be trying to fit in plenty of long periods of exercise. The longer you train in advance, the better prepared you’re going to be. Start off slowly and build up your endurance. You should be aiming to be able to do long periods of exercise on multiple days in a row comfortably, or at least a few times a week - remember that you will be hiking for at least five days in a row every day and as you get higher, it’s going to get harder. In the final week before you depart, cut back your training. You want your body to be ready and as rested as possible for the big hike!
If you aren’t able to make it to hills or mountains to train, consider doing some training on gym equipment like step machines or treadmills on a steady or variable upward incline. Getting that extra leg strength really helps, and if you can, wear your backpack to get used to working with that extra weight. Other leg strength exercises can also be useful as those legs are going to get a real workout! If you aren’t doing much walking with a pack then strengthening your core and upper body is also a good idea. Exercises like sit-ups and shoulder presses are good starting points. Have a look online for recommended workouts, or speak to a fitness professional and get a set you can do each day. Carrying a heavy backpack all day climbing a mountain is quite a strain on your body, so make sure it’s ready!
Trekking Kilimanjaro brings with it an additional challenge on top of a regular hike - altitude. As you ascend quickly at thousands of meters, the changing oxygen pressure in the body and low oxygen presence in the air can cause health problems - altitude sickness. This has many symptoms and can be severe. It can strike even the most fit of trekkers and force people to descend early. Although you can’t prevent the chance of suffering altitude sickness entirely, there are things you can do to increase your resilience to it. First of all is just to be adequately physically trained - congratulations, that’s the section you just read! Hiking slowly and steadily and being physically capable for the trek is the best defence - maximizing your body’s ability to acclimatize as you slowly ascend. Your fitness will help with your breathing in the low oxygen air. If you can train in mountains or have the opportunity to do other high altitude experiences, and can do it just before your Kilimanjaro trip, this will also help your body to acclimatize too.
Another option for experienced trekkers is to do an acclimatization trek in Africa beforehand, such as the fairly demanding Mount Kenya or Mount Meru. Breathing exercises can also help - you’ll probably be using them under the instruction of guides to help your climb as the oxygen levels get lower. But if you do them a few days in advance, standing or lying down, you’ll be even better prepared. Altitude sickness medication can be a big help and some tours offer it during the hike, if you’re concerned about the altitude then enquire about it, and buy some up beforehand for yourself if you need to. Finally, alcohol and smoking are both very dangerous when combined with high altitude, so consider cutting down your cigarettes beforehand to help with cravings and don’t plan on any epic drinking sessions at the top!
It is important to prepare yourself mentally when training for Kilimanjaro. Photo by Blhphotography
How difficult you find climbing Kilimanjaro is going to be entirely personal. Sometimes people look on in bewilderment as others really struggle. Some people find the long, tiring days and lack of oxygen get to them. Like any physical challenge, it's down to you how you react to it. The best way to be prepared and boost your confidence is to feel like you are ready for the challenge, so do some training and that will be a big boost. If you’re properly prepared, you will probably breeze through it! Also, challenge yourself beforehand. For example, you could do a multiple-day hike in the mountains for training. Facing a challenge head on and succeeding will give you the knowledge that if you did it once, you can do it again. If you do struggle during the trek, remember that the guides and your companions are there to support you, and the majority of people make it!
We hope that this article has given you some inspiration on where to start with training for Kilimanjaro. Get those boots on and get walking, and before you know it you’ll be ready to climb to the top of the world! And don’t forget - Pole, Pole!