Packing for an expedition up to the peaks of Kilimanjaro will make you juggle the equipment you need for varied conditions of the climb with the desire to stay light and comfortable. On the following lines, I’ll list all the necessary pieces of equipment and considerations you should make about each of them when choosing from various options.
To discuss clothing, we need the space of a dedicated blog post to dive deeper. You will find the topic of what clothes to pack and how to layer them explored in Kilimanjaro Clothing.
As you well know by now, the ascent to Stella Point and Uhuru Peak starts at midnight. But you will need a good head torch not only for the night ascent, but also for moving about your camp each night.
During the ascent night, take care in noticing how tight the band with the head torch sits on your head. It is very common to get mild headaches from the band’s pressure over many hours of the climb. As headaches are otherwise associated with symptoms of acute mountain sickness, you want to make sure to notice where they come from. If you feel a headache incoming on your summit day, loosen up the head torch strap. And as soon as the sun starts rising over the horizon, ditch the torch altogether.
Ideally pick a head torch that has multiple intensity settings. That way you can use an intense light while on the hike or moving around the camp at night and milder light when in your tent, talking face-to-face to your guide during the midnight ascent or sitting with your fellow climbers in a mess tent.
Walking poles are a piece of equipment that will make a huge difference. Regardless of the route you choose, you will be expected to hike for 6-9 hours a day, and double that during your summit day. Especially during the segments of the path where you descend for multiple hours at a time, you will feel your knees getting hurt. Walking poles will take some of the pressure of impacts of hiking down away from your knees and distribute them to your upper body. They will also give you a point to lean on as you climb your way up to the summit.
A properly set up walking pole should reach out to about 70% of your height. Put your arms down by your sides and stretch your forearms in front of your body, putting your elbows at 90 degree angle. If you hold your walking poles in your hands in this position, they should about reach the ground.
Drinking discipline is one habit that can make a huge difference in how your body responds to the stresses of long treks and high altitude. There are multiple reasons why you should pay extra attention to hydration during Kilimanjaro and other mountain treks. Firstly, you will be in constant movement and low-intensity exercise throughout your days. This will cause you to sweat and breathe more rapidly. The high altitude will increase your breathing rate and urinary output even more on top of that, making you lose more water than you would at sea level. We will explore the science of why this is in a dedicated post at a later time. For now simply keep in mind that hydrating more than at sea level is critical to your success. Good drinking regime may even help mitigate some of the symptoms of acute mountain sickness.
I highly recommend that you carry a big hydration pack in your day pack – 3 liters volume is ideal. This will allow you to have regular small sips of water as you trek along. You will realize that you drink more regularly when you don’t have to go through the motions of stopping and unbuckling your day pack to get to water bottles stowed on or inside of it. The 3L volume is also great measurement tool – you should expect yourself to drink your pack’s water fully during each day’s hike. Given that you will have some tea, soup and other drinks at your camp for breakfast and dinner, all of it together will likely land you in the range of 4-6L of liquids consumed every day. That’s roughly the range you will hear various sources recommend as your goal while at altitude.
Even though having a hydration pack is non-negotiable, there is a use case where it won’t be sufficient. Although you may encounter it earlier, it will be at the latest during the midnight ascent to Uhuru Peak that freezing temperatures will make the drinking tube of your hydration pack freeze solid. You will be able to delay it with a common trick of blowing back the water after taking a sip. This forces it back from the drinking tube exposed to the elements and into the warmer insides of your day pack. But even with this trick, your drinking tube will become frozen solid at some point during the 7-hour ascent.
It is for these cases that having some extra water bottles inside your backpack is going to pay dividends. Choose bottles that are insulated and allow you to carry with you some warm ginger tea or coffee from your morning camp. You will appreciate the comfort of a warm drink during the freezing summit night.
Size and volume
While on the trail, you will carry with you all the water supplies, clothing and equipment you may need on that given day’s journey. Meanwhile the big bulk of your overall expedition equipment will be left behind in the camp and transported by porters to your destination camp. This implies that focus of the day pack is not going to be size, but comfort, ergonomics and versatility.
The size of the day pack is recommended to be in the range of 35 to 50 litres. From personal experience, the main requirement for the volume comes from needing to store layers of clothing you wear in the early mornings (or in bad weather) and put away when the sun rises and the temperatures get warm and comfortable. From that perspective, your day pack should be able to store your bulky down jacket and mid-layer fleece. It should fit the snacks you need for the day, as well as the hydration pack and water bottles. In my experience, smaller volume is very much sufficient for this. Make sure to try out filling your day pack on a trial hike before you commit it to Kilimanjaro trek.
When it comes to comfort, look for a pack with features such as adjustable straps, a sternum strap, and a waist belt. These features will help to distribute the weight of the pack more evenly and make it more comfortable to carry. A very useful feature is a suspended back mesh panel, which ensures there is airflow between your pack and your backpack and prevents a sweaty back, which can be unpleasant, especially in the cold windy conditions. Last notable feature are bands and sleeves dedicated for bringing the drinking tube of your hydration pack from inside of the backpack to the front of it.
You should make sure that whatever you will carry in your daypack stays dry even when the weather turns nasty. To ensure this, choose backpack made from water resistant materials, such as nylon or polyester. Regardless of material, most backpacks will not be completely water proof, as that would require special treatment of all the zips and seams. If you do find a fully waterproof bag, this will be compensated by its stiffness and decreased comfort of wear. Typically you would rather pick a merely water-resistant bag and just ensure that it comes with a waterproof cover that you may pull over it in case of bad weather conditions. That will suffice for any conditions short of crossing a deep river, which is not going to be a use case on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
How to pack
There is a science to how to organise the contents of your backpack for ideal ergonomics and healthy carrying experience. The basic tenet is that heavy items should be carried roughly in the middle of the backpack’s height and towards your back. This will reduce the strain the weight puts on your body. For a more detailed guide of how to organise the contents of your backpack and how to adjust all the straps to carry it properly, have a look at this external article.
Majority of your gear that you’ll need over the many days spent with the expedition will be stored and transported in a large duffle bag. This duffle will be with you at the camp, and will be carried by your team of porters between camps each day. There are a few considerations you should make about the duffle.
First of all, you need to protect your equipment within the duffle. As with the day pack, you should choose materials which are water-resistant or water-proof. North Face has a great line of base camp duffle bags, which you will see many people choose for the trip. Their material is water-proof and the seams are cleverly hidden and covered. That does not make the duffle water-proof (don’t try to submerge it in water, eh) but it gets close enough and will keep it dry in most conditions on the mountain. You may alternatively separate your gear that you carry inside into smaller waterproof dry bags. That way you keep your gear safe even if some water gets into the bag, or something liquid you carry inside spills.
Lastly, consider the size of the duffle bag. To protect the porters from being taken advantage of, the local rangers will weigh all the duffles porters are carrying. They will enforce a strict limit of the weight of duffles being at maximum 15 kilograms. Typically, to fit all of your gear while staying under the weight limit, a duffle size of between 70 and 90 litres would be appropriate. Make sure to do a practise run at home where you pack all your gear and weigh the resulting load.
Choosing the right sleeping bag can make a big difference in your comfort level and overall experience. Many trek organisers will provide adequate sleeping bags for all their clients. Verify if that is the case for your trek operator as well. If so, you may skip the following chapter.
If not, and you look for your own sleeping bag start by considering the season. Kilimanjaro is located near the equator, so the climate is generally mild and equal throughout the year. However, temperatures can vary significantly between day and night. A sleeping bag rated to withstand cold temperatures at night is important. You’ll encounter freezing night temperatures already in the first couple of nights on the mountain slopes. Next, consider the temperature rating. Down sleeping bags are lightweight but offer less warmth than synthetic bags, so they are best suited for milder temperatures. Synthetic bags are heavier and bulkier but offer more warmth, so they are ideal for colder temperatures. Given what I just told you about night temperatures on the mountain, you may need a bag rated for temperatures as low as -17°C or more conservative -29°C.
Material and features
When it comes to fill material, down sleeping bags are filled with down feathers These offer excellent heat retention, but are more expensive than synthetic bags. Synthetic bags are filled with polyester fibers, which are cheaper and still offer good insulation, but they are heavier and bulkier. Additionally, you’ll need to consider the shape, size, and features of the sleeping bag. Mummy sleeping bags are the most compact and lightweight, but they may be too restrictive for some. Rectangular sleeping bags are roomier, but they are heavier and bulkier.
Look for a bag with features like built-in draft collars, waterproof shell fabrics, and adjustable hoods. These features will help keep you warm and comfortable during your climb. With the right sleeping bag, you can rest easy knowing you’ll stay warm and comfortable on your Mount Kilimanjaro adventure. Consider all of the factors above, and choose the sleeping bag that best meets your needs.
Insulation sleeping pad
If your tour operator provides you with a sleeping bag, they most certainly will add an insulation mat as well.
First, consider the type of insulation. There are three types of insulation: open-cell foam, closed-cell foam and inflatable air chambers. Open-cell foam is lightweight and compressible, making it ideal for light backpacking in warm conditions. Closed-cell foam is heavier and more durable, making it better for camping. Inflatable air chambers are perhaps the most comfortable and the most compact when packed of all the options. Next, consider the R-value. This is a measure of insulation’s ability to resist heat transfer from your body. The higher the R-value, the better the insulation. For summer conditions in lower altitudes, you would typically find value between 1.0 and 2.0 sufficient. However, to counter the cold temperatures of the mountain, look for a mat with an R-value of at least 4.5, as this will provide enough insulation for the winter-like conditions on the higher slopes.
Finally, consider the size and weight. Choose a mat that is lightweight and compact enough to fit into your pack. Look for a mat that is light enough to carry, but large enough to provide enough insulation and comfort.
You will want to keep your phone and camera charged throughout your multi-day trip. As you’ll be camping the whole expedition, you will need to organise whatever means of recharging your devices yourself. Consider taking a power bank with sufficient capacity. Look for a powerbank with enough capacity to charge all of your devices multiple times throughout your trip. A power bank with a capacity of at least 20,000 mAh should be sufficient for most trips. Do keep in mind that your phone will have no signal most of the days and so will have limited uses and limited power drain.
The cold temperatures will impact the capacity and charging efficiency of the power bank. Aim to keep it and your phone/camera in warmer parts of your backpack. For the peak ascent day, this might even mean keeping your phone in between the layers of your clothes. Although the biohacker in me would say that exposing your body to that much EMF is not worth the extra charge.
As a side note, keep in mind that during your days of staying in Arusha or Moshi before and after the trip, you will be dealing with Tanzanian power plug sockets of type G and D. The type G is by far dominant across Tanzania (we have personally only encountered G in the weeks on Kilimanjaro and safari trips). Do bring an adapter for your devices that can deal with these socket types.
During your trek on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, you will be hiking typically between 5 and 8 hours a day. The peak ascent day will then challenge you with about 14 hours of combined ascent and descent. If you don’t take care of the health and comfort of your feet, you will end up with painful blisters.
Use the right protective gear. Wear thick, moisture-wicking socks to keep your feet dry. A good tip is to have two layers of socks – thick ones to keep you warm and dry and thin sock liners underneath them. These should be very tight fit and they will protect your foot from any friction. In our experience, this is sufficient protection even for the longest treks.
If you still want additional tools to give you ease of mind, you can also use anti-friction creams or moleskin to help cushion your feet and reduce friction. Additionally, you can use adhesive blister plasters to provide extra protection against blisters.
Certainly do not forget to pack in medication for various emergencies you may encounter on the mountain. Probably the most common medicine used on the mountain is one of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug), such as ibuprofen. These medicines help to mitigate some of the mild altitude sickness symptoms, such as altitude headaches. They are universally useful in dealing with variety of illnesses you may encounter. As a non-negotiable rule, if you feel a need to take any medicines on the mountain, talk to your mountain guide first. Let them know what you’re feeling. They need to know your symptoms and what you are trying to mitigate with the medication. That way they can evaluate if the symptoms signal any potentially dangerous problem.
A critical medication to have with you is any anti-diarrheal one. You may manage to get lucky and disciplined enough not to upset your microbiome by eating and drinking things your body is not accustomed to. Even then however, you will likely encounter mild diarrhoea as one of common symptoms of altitude sickness which can bother you for days. It’s important to be able to manage it.
Any trip to Tanzania does come with a danger of encountering malaria. One of the topics you should discuss with your doctor is malaria prevention and prophylactic medication to take with you on the trip. However, while on the mountain itself, you will be in an environment where nights are freezing cold, which makes mosquitos nearly non-existent. You may as a result hear some of your mountain guides suggesting to skip on your malaria prevention while high up.
General first aid supplies
While your guides will have first aid kits with them, it’s always a good idea to have one of your own. That way you have bandages, medical tape, gauze available throughout your trip to Tanzania and don’t rely on others. In addition to what is already in a typical first aid kit, an extra bottle of disinfectant that may be used on your wounds as well as for hygiene in general daily life on the mountain is very useful.
Chapter all for itself is Diamox (acetazolamide) to help prevent some of the acute mountain sickness symptoms and to ease acclimatisation. We will dive into how it is used and through which mechanism it works in dedicated blog post. What is relevant for us here when packing for Kilimanjaro is to consider packing some Diamox with us. In my part of the world, Diamox is only given against prescription and so visiting your GP or a doctor at a travel clinic will be necessary. Be sure to discuss with them how Diamox is used, its dosage and possible side-effects.
Problem your doctor will bring up is that Diamox commonly has side-effects which may be quite strong and mimic many symptoms of acute mountain sickness. It is therefore recommended that you test taking the appropriate dose for couple of days while you’re safe home some time before embarking on the expedition. This way you will experience how your body reacts to the medication. If the side-effects are too severe, you would know to adjust the dose or avoid taking Diamox altogether. We have encountered people who had serious side-effects on their appetite, digestion and muscles cramping from using too high doses of Diamox on the mountain. It has sabotaged their hiking progress.
We prefer hiking without Diamox and listening to the signals our bodies give us about acclimatisation. Masking your body’s response by prophylactic use of Diamox is in my limited experience counterproductive. That said, it is good to have options while you are on the mountain.
Don’t forget that all your days trekking Kilimanjaro will be spend very close to the equator AND at high altitudes. Both of which make it absolute necessity to bring plenty of sunscreen and apply it liberally to prevent sunburns. While preparing for the expedition, you may want to take the strongest protection a sunscreen may offer. If you ask at your local pharmacy, you will basically be given two choices – sunscreen with SPF 50 or 100. It may be tempting to take the stronger SPF for more complete protection, but the difference in added protection is not dramatic. Meanwhile there are some arguments made about the extra protection (against UVB rays) coming at the cost of decreased protection in other areas (UVA rays). With this argumentation, we’ve chosen SPF 50 and found it sufficient for Tanzania. Make sure that the sunscreen is somewhat water-resistant.
While your tour operator will certainly provide three full meals a day and even some snacks in between, you should bring along some of your favourite treats as well. One of common problems predicting a failure to climb to the summit is a loss of appetite. Many hikers at Kilimanjaro will eat progressivelly worse as they near the summit night. And latest then will the energy level difference between them and those of their colleagues who kept on eating well show very clearly.
As you climb higher, it is your body’s natural reaction to slow down your digestion. It stops being able to efficiently break down more complex foods. It stops releasing same amounts of the hormone ghrelin which is responsible for the feelings of hunger, making you lose your appetite.
In order to be able to fight this, pack snacks you enjoy and pack sources of energy that are easy to digest. Energy gels, energy bars, simple carbohydrate snacks like popcorn, butter crackers or gummy bears. Snacks aside, make sure to eat plenty during the main meals at the campsite each day.
You’ve made it all the way through the list. That means there won’t be a situation on the mountain that you’re not equipped to handle. If your experience on the mountain shows that there are optional articles that improve your experience, please do share. But simply following the list above, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy the hikes knowing that come what may, you have a solution.