You will encounter lots of suggestions on how to pack clothing for Kilimanjaro. If this is your first expedition heading that high up, you won’t quite know what to expect and will likely rather overpack and overprepare. We were in the same boat. Having experienced the Swiss Alps, we expected Kili to be many times more scary environment and so packed heavily for every occasion. We stumbled upon some stories and blogs describing how unbelievably hostile the environment is and how even 8 layers of clothing (uhm…) were not enough to protect from it. Yes, we were skeptical as well and as it turns out, that level of (over)equipment is indeed not necessary. There is such a thing as overpacking and wearing more gear than necessary will make the climb more uncomfortable and drain you of energy and willpower. Let’s explore what to consider when dressing up for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
Clothing for the Varied Daily Conditions of Kilimanjaro
From very early days on the mountain, you will be faced with wildly differing temperatures between the day climbs and nights in the camp. During the day, especially when the sun peers out of the clouds, the weather will be hot and sweaty. You will need light, quickly drying clothes that transport the moisture away from your skin. You might be recommended by your guides to stick to short sleeves in the first days, but such articles won’t be usable at night or during the later days of the climb. For that reason, I would recommend using only long sleeve clothing and making sure the material is able to both cool you down and warm you up, depending on the moment-to-moment need. This will give you the freedom to utilize those pieces of clothing on any day of the expedition. A thin layer from Merino Wool or similar material will do the trick.
Most Universally Useful Article of Kilimanjaro Clothing
One essential piece of equipment throughout ALL days will be a buff or a scarf. On most hiking days, the ground you walk on will be made of fine dust which billows up in large clouds when disturbed by the steps of hikers in front of you. If you don’t protect your nose and mouth with a thin light layer of clothing, you will be breathing it in in quantities that will make the insides of your nose and throat black by the time you stop to camp in the evening. This may make your breathing more laborious, which is not helpful when you’re already struggling with limited oxygen availability at higher altitudes. You want a clear head, positive vibes, and making the task of acclimatizing as easy for your body as possible.
A thicker and warmer buff or a scarf will also quickly become essential during nights when the temperature drops to freezing (from mildly, to severely – around -15 degrees Celsius) and breathing in air that cold otherwise disrupts your sleep. Lastly, during the peak ascend day, as you leave the base camp at around midnight, you will encounter this same freezing cold during the actual hiking process. You need to protect yourself from breathing in the freezing air, especially as your breath becomes deep and laborious from the exertion of the final climb.
I would go as far as to say that the buff is one of the most important pieces of equipment and I was very thankful to have several ones with me. This allows exchanging when one of them becomes too dirty, sweaty, and stinky. It also gives you the possibility to carry buffs of varying thickness and warmth and have an appropriate answer to any kind of temperature.
Clothing for the Kilimanjaro Summit Night
Peak day will be the most challenging of the whole climb and must not be underestimated. None of the days leading up to it, as difficult as they may seem at the time, will prepare you for the challenge of hiking 14 hours and reaching the altitude at which you have only half as much available oxygen as at sea level. Peak day will be painful and will challenge you. For that reason, it is an often-heard piece of advice to have a separate set of clothing ready for it so that you can start it in as much comfort as possible. This is, in my eyes, not necessary, but it doesn’t hurt.
For goodness’ sake, do not listen to some of the insane advice out there on the internet or advice of inexperienced guides that tell you that you need 8 layers of clothing and should wear pants over pants over pants. This is pure insanity and the restrictive weight of so many layers will make you feel suffocated and thus challenge you mentally and take away your energy during the climb. They will also add weight and make you too hot, leading to you sweating, which you should see in any mountain expedition as an avoidable loss of water and waste of energy. Be aware that during the 7 hours of peak ascent and 3 hours of descent back into the base camp, you will have no opportunities to replenish your water supply. Your 3l CamelBak will have to last you this entire time. Don’t sabotage yourself by making yourself more dehydrated than you need to be.
The worst thing about the advice to overdress and be ready for catastrophic scenarios is that it shakes your own intuition and confidence. We have seen a team member break down on the summit night from the expectation of how horrible the climb will be. That is not helpful.
Upper Body Layering
The layers of clothing you need for Kilimanjaro are the same as the layers you would be expected to wear while mountaineering in the Alps. For the upper body, these include:
- (Base Layer) Thick thermal base layer from Merino Wool, Smartwool, or synthetic polyester which is able to take the moisture away and keep your body warm.
- (Middle, Insulation Layer) Fleece to create pockets of warm air that stays around your body. The material should be breathable but somewhat protective against wind and water. An alternative to a fleece is a soft-shell jacket.
- (Middle, Insulation Layer) Insulation layer with the same task of trapping pockets of warm air and providing a layer that doesn’t transfer the heat to the outside elements. The layer should be able to be bulky but light when worn and should be possible to be packed small when not used. Typically, this would be either a down jacket or a jacket made out of synthetic puffy material. Between the two options, the down jacket performs poorly when it gets wet, as the material clumps together and stops isolating as well. Synthetic materials may avoid that problem. Make sure you get this layer in a variety that offers a hood, to be able to have additional protection for your head in very windy and. cold conditions.
- (Top Layer) A hardshell jacket that protects you from outside elements such as rain, wind, or snow. Pay attention to how well the jacket treats all the seams, pockets, and other areas where materials meet and which could let wind or water through.
The two insulation layers in the middle should be of differing thickness and warmth, such that you may use the lighter fleece layer separately when the weather is warmer and the heavier down jacket layer when it is colder. This modularity will ensure you can deal with varying conditions.
Lower Body Layering
For the lower body, you would typically require a little bit less, as you will not lose as much heat there. Be aware that you will be generating large amounts of heat through the blood flow to your constantly working massive quadriceps muscles. People that involve themselves in some kind of cold exposure practice, such as the Wim Hof Method, know that it is exactly the quadriceps muscles that are used to reliably warm oneself up after extreme exposure to cold.
From my perspective, that reduces the layers needed for the lower body to the following:
- Base layer long thermal underwear, from the same materials as your upper body garments.
- Softshell pants which might during warmer days become your topmost lower body layer – breathable and somewhat protective against elements.
- Heavy insulation and elements-resistant layer, such as ski pants or hardshell windbreakers. This layer for the lower body often combines the insulation and elements-protective properties of the two distinct layers you wear for your upper body. You may still use to wear two different layers for greater modularity – one fluffy one for collecting heat and the other being hardshell to protect you from elements.
This combination would protect you from any hostile elements on the climb. As we had good weather with a clear sky and a limited amount of wind, we ended up needing even fewer layers than this. I personally removed fleece and skipped insulation pants and still stayed very comfortable. My friend overdressed and then struggled for whole 10 hours with how much energy all the constrictive layers took away from her.
Other Layering Principles
When choosing which of the layers you start out with, especially for the midnight ascent to Uhuru Peak, you may feel like you don’t want to overdress. Perhaps you have additional redundancies beside your main 3 or 4 layers and you’re not sure if you should wear them from the very beginning of the ascent. A good principle to stick by here is that you may leave certain articles of clothing out, but you should be able to put them on without compromising your existing warmth and comfort.
Not sure if you need a third layer of pants? Leave out the top ski pants / hardshell and if you feel that the weather is getting through your first few layers, you can always stop and quickly put on the missing layer on top. Don’t however assume you can undress from half your layers to change the base layer. And at the same time, don’t overdress without purpose. This would make your climb that much more exhausting as well. Stay flexible and plan out how you can react if you find out the weather conditions are too rough during the climb.
Additional Useful Clothing Articles
Gaiters are recommended throughout many of the guides you find online, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. You may read that they provide protection from snake and insect bites. That won’t however be a use case you will be encountering on the mountain as the freezing night temperatures make the mountain too hostile an environment for such animals. Where gaiters will come in handy is as a protective layer that covers your pants and hiking shoes and prevents all of the omnipresent fine dust from getting in. This may sound like not a big deal at first until you realize that day after day, you will be crawling into your tent with your hiking pants and boots. Without gaiters, you will carry in a lot of fine dust that will make the rest time spent in the tent not so pleasant.
Sunhat is an essential part of your clothing setup as you will be exposed to very strong sun throughout your Kilimanjaro expedition. Keep in mind that not only will you find yourself nearby the Equator, but also at very high altitudes, where the UV rays grow in intensity. You may get burnt even when you do not see the sun through the clouds. Carry a sunhat and choose one that has a wider brim which provides shade to your neck as well.
A warm beanie or balaclava will protect the most temperature-sensitive part of your body – your head. You won’t be fully reliant on just this layer as your hardshell and insulation jacket will cover your head with a hoodie. Make sure your warm hat or balaclava is comfortable and not too tight. You will be wearing them for many hours at a time in an environment that is prone to giving you minor headaches. We’ve experienced tight headgear leading to a headache which is in other contexts of high altitude mountaineering a potentially dangerous symptom of Acute Mountain Sickness. Better save yourself the trouble of getting worried and unsure.
Gloves are another essential part of your clothing. You should consider two use cases in particular. First, many nights and early mornings when you walk around the camp or are starting to properly hike will be freezing cold. You will be holding walking poles, manipulating your camera or accessing your daypack while walking around in the unpleasant freezing temperature. You want to protect your hands and fingers with light gloves that are warm, but that offer you the dexterity required to manipulate all the finer devices, daypack buckles, etc.
Second, there may be parts of the trip where the weather conditions may simply be even more extreme. This may be due to bad weather, or simply due to starting to hike up to Uhuru Peak in the middle of the night. There, you won’t care as much about the dexterity of your fingers and your main priority will simply be to protect them from the cold. For that use case, you want thick heavily insulated mittens that keep the warmth inside and don’t expose your fingers.
Hiking Boots are probably the most critical part of your equipment and you should pay the most attention to them during your preparation. They deserve their own article and an in-depth look, which we will do in a later post.
Camp slippers are not obligatory, but they will make your stay in the camp more pleasant. At the end of each day, as you reach the comfort of your tent, you face the problem of having to put on and off your bulky hiking shoes whenever you want to go to the toilet, to the mess tent, or simply to walk around and talk to your team. Having separate shoes which are warm, easy to pull on, and comfortable (in comparison to the hard unyielding material of hiking boots) is simply nice.
When preparing your clothing for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, stick to the true and tested approach of dressing up in layers that all have their dedicated function, and avoid overdressing and adding more clothes just out of fear. Test out your chosen equipment in a few mountain hikes before you head out to Tanzania and see if they keep you dry and warm even in colder / night temperatures. And from there, simply trust your choices and the experience you’ve just made. Just because someone else might have more layers or a different set of equipment than you will not mean you’ve made a mistake. Remember, being comfortable and confident makes a huge difference during the climb, whereas second-guessing will cost you valuable energy.
And so, prepare well and from there on, live the Hakuna Matata. All is well.
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