An early central question of planning a Kilimanjaro trip is which of the existing routes to choose for the ascent up the mountain. While various operators combine the existing routes in slightly differing combinations, there are seven typically accepted expedition paths to choose from – Lemosho, Machame, Marangu, Rongai, Shira, Umbwe, and Northern Circuit. Many of these routes start independently but then merge together closer to the peak, which makes it challenging to cleanly segregate them.
Word of Caution about Western Breach
In addition to these seven, there is a Western Breach route, which offers a difficult and dangerous shortcut close to the peak from the east but doesn’t really exist as its own path on the lower/earlier slopes of the ascent. It is important to mention that Western Breach has had occasional casualties that eventually made the Tanzanian authorities close the path. Aside from being a challenging path, it leads across a slope often hit by rockfalls. Regardless of your experience, if 19 tons of earth come tumbling your way, you may well die. The Tanzanian government has since reopened the path after making it mandatory to wear a helmet (so that your skull doesn’t crack too much after the said 19 tons of stone decapitate you, I suppose) and to sign a waiver saying you’re ok with dying and won’t make anyone liable. I mentioned earlier that our tour operator didn’t even offer that route, as won’t any other reputable and trustworthy company. If you see a company offering it as an option, be very wary of why they do so and what their understanding of the dangers of the climb and of the security of their clients are.
Kilimanjaro Descent Routes
But back to the actual routes. In addition to the ascent paths, the Mweka route exists as purely a descent path, due to it being the fastest and shortest way down from Uhuru peak to the exit gate of Kilimanjaro National Park. As such, it is too steep, short, and fast and doesn’t offer enough time for proper acclimatization (although trained local porters do use it to fetch necessary supplies to the base camp under the summit).
With all the names out of the way, the question remains of how it all fits together and which path it makes sense to choose. The most common paths chosen by two-thirds of the hikers visiting Kilimanjaro are Machame and Marangu routes.
Kilimanjaro Ascent Routes
Marangu, also nicknamed ‘the Coca-Cola route’, is as the name suggests the most developed route with infrastructure along the whole path. Hikers on this path will spend their nights in basic cottages every night of the journey and will sometimes be able to buy a can of coke on the way. It has the reputation of being the easiest route in terms of the terrain traversed and the mild constant steepness of the climb. But that in itself is misleading. Because the route is short and very direct and because it’s heading constantly up, without any chance to ‘hike high, sleep low’, acclimatization is a major difficulty and the overall success rate of the trek reflects this (we have heard success rate around 50% mentioned). At the end of the day, you simply need more time on the mountain than Marangu offers, and I can guarantee you that if Kilimanjaro breaks you, it won’t be through steep climbs and physical demands of other routes, but through your body suffering from the many smaller or bigger symptoms of altitude sickness. That all aside, even if everything goes smoothly for you on Marangu, it will be the path that’s more crowded than others and forces you to take the identical path down from the mountain as you took up during the ascent. Not exactly stimulating, eh.
Machame is possibly the most commonly chosen route for the majority of hikers on Kilimanjaro. The entire path takes seven days to conquer the mountain and descend back down, which gives good time to acclimatize along the way. It offers an opportunity to ‘hike high, sleep low’ due to leading high up to Shira camp and Lava tower (which rests at 4 630 meters above sea level), then descending low under the Barranco wall, and then slowly rising again over a couple of days to arrive at the base camp of Barafu, from which the final summit ascent is attempted. This exposes the body to the high altitude and gives it some time to adapt to it before reencountering the same altitude. There are some physically challenging ‘climbs’ on the route (in the sense of steep hikes, not any actual climbing requiring technical skills) and one of the downsides encountered will be crowds sharing the route with you, given its great popularity. It does offer quite varied and interesting scenery from dense rainforest through the Shira steppe and dramatic Barranco wall to the alpine desert around the final stretches of the climb.
Lemosho is one of the longer and more beautiful routes, taking 5-6 days to reach the summit and another two to descend, which gives ample time for acclimatization, which, anecdotally, allows 90-95% of hikers attempting the hike to succeed. The scenery along the way is also pretty varied and stimulating – you start in a dense rainforest, so starkly green in contrast to the surrounding Tanzanian savanna. You will have a good chance to spot one of the local colobus monkey groups from fairly up close and will enjoy the refreshing climate during the hike.
Continuing forward, you will encounter moorlands, the Shira plateau steppe, the alpine desert, and the desolate and empty summit landscape.
Lemosho also boasts a very advantageous acclimatization profile, shared largely with the Machame route and allowing for climbing to the Lava tower, and spending the following few days adapting to the height in lower altitudes before the final summit push.
We have chosen Lemosho ourselves and were happy with the experience and the choice in the end. If you find operators who offer it with a detour to the Moir Hut, you would do well choosing that option. It will divert you from the most common path for a couple days. This will allow you to avoid crowds and enjoy a peaceful extra opportunity to acclimatize with additional exposure to heights around Moir Hut itself.
Umbwe is the most direct and toughest route to the Kilimanjaro summit. It takes the least amount of time while leading through a less spectacular environment than the other paths. Because of how direct it is, it poses an extreme challenge both due to the physical requirements of scaling the altitude at that pace and also due to the pace giving no possibility to acclimatize properly. It is not commonly chosen, and so it is said to be quieter than others, which may be one of its few benefits. Of course, if you’re an experienced climber, you may still attempt this path, but I would wonder what the benefit of it in comparison to all the other alternatives would be other than record-setting and challenging yourself in the most extreme (and not fun) way possible.
Shira is another of the longer routes, which in fact shares most of its path with Lemosho and differs only in the first two days. Compared to Lemosho, it starts higher and doesn’t pass through the rainforest landscape, which trekkers on Lemosho would spend the first two days of the trip in. It is somewhat more challenging in the beginning, as it starts higher than all other paths and the altitude might therefore challenge the less experienced hikers from day 1. Still, it shares much of the route after the first two days with Lemosho and so gets most of the same benefits.
Northern Circuit Route
Northern Circuit is the longest ascend route (8-9 days minimum) available at Kilimanjaro, which translates into granting the most time to the hikers to acclimatize and get their bodies prepared for the climb to the peak, resulting in the best success rates. It allows for daily stages which are less steep than those on other routes. As it represents quite a bit of commitment, is more expensive than other routes, and traverses the northern slopes of Kilimanjaro (whereas most other routes approach the mountain from the south), it is a significantly less crowded path and will allow you to connect to the nature and enjoy the peace of the surroundings.
Rongai is the only route approaching the mountain from the north, along the borders of Tanzania and Kenya. It is the most remote route and will offer you the most chances to be at peace and enjoy the nature around you without crowds of other hikers around. This may even allow you to see some wildlife, which is rare on the other paths (at least past the lower-altitude rainforest). The profile of the path is steadily rising and doesn’t give you the opportunity to hike high and then progress lower to recover and adapt, making it more challenging for acclimatization than some alternatives.
Conclusion about Kilimanjaro Routes
There are no wrong choices (outside of Western Breach) when it comes to choosing a route to take on your way up the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro. You will however get different experiences on different routes and so it pays off to spend extra time in your planning phase consciously choosing which of these fit your dreams and goals the best.
You will find many descriptions and maps of the routes on the internet and in the guidebooks and they will all vary slightly. Follow Alice, our operator for the trip, has a very nice video visualizing the paths and their height profiles in an easy-to-understand way.